Did I ever tell you about the first dollar I ever made as an actress? Well, it wasn’t exactly a dollar… I made a nickel, just 5 cents, for every performance at the Poka-Ma-Hontas Prairie Palace Of Pleasantries and Perfidy, and I wasn’t exactly acting. You see, a well-known magician on the Pawnee Bill Circuit named Bizmo the Baffling asked my parents if he could borrow me for a new gimmick he wanted to try out on a Wednesday matinée. The trick involved an old trunk that he rigged up with an ingenious trap door and hidden shelf system. He’d turn the trunk around on a small turntable in front of the audience, then open the trunk and tip it on its side to show that it was completely empty. He’d close the trunk back up again and, with a great flourish, run it through with a dozen different swords, rapiers, and scimitars that he’d picked up from junk shops in his travels. He’d open the trunk again, tip it on its side again, for the audiences to see that it was still completely empty but thoroughly skewered with blades from one side to the other. Finally, he’d tip the box back upright, close the lid, and then as he slowly withdrew all the blades, he’d tell the audience that he’d discovered the ghost of a little girl named Sybil who haunted the box, perhaps because of some long forgotten tragedy.
This caused a hush to fall over the crowd. The thought of anything tragic befalling a child, either an accident or even a crime, was unexpected in the broad and bawdy theatrics of Vaudeville, and Bizmo deliberately left a vague, uneasy impression about what might have befallen his little “Sybil-Ghost”. As the lights dimmed, strange music wafted from backstage provided by the Philpott sisters on oboe, bassoon and a bongo. Bizmo, who had donned a somewhat threadbare turban in turquoise satin with a chipped cameo and some tassels, would begin to chant magic incantationss while waving a magic wand. He then would exhort the audience to summon little Sybil! “Call to her! Call out to her!” he would say. No one would, of course… they were too embarrassed to fall for such an obvious piece of tom-foolery.
So, Bizmo would pull out a small brass bell with a quaintly carved and turned wooden handle. He’d show it to the audience and say that the bell had been the very one that summoned Sybil from the playground into the schoolroom where her favorite teacher, Mrs. Edelin sat. But the bell would no longer ring now that little Sybil was dead. (In truth, he had removed the tiny clapper, but didn’t show that to the crowd.) With another flourish and a great deal of gravitas, Bizmo placed the bell on the trunk’s closed lid and told the audience that he always knew when Sybil was close by. Whenever she had wandered back from “the other side” and was near… the bell, untouched, would ring, sitting right where he had placed it. That would make the audience lean forward, their giggling at calling her name forgotten now, and the more credulous looking one to the other, unsure suddenly about what was happening. The darkened room, the haunting music, and the expectant stillness… as they waited.
Bizmo in a hushed voice now, husky with emotion, would again ask the crowd to call to Sybil… even a whispered entreaty might work… just whispered. And that’s when the first tremulous “Sybil” would come from some back row seat. The another… and another. People who had been too embarrassed to do so only a few minutes before, now began to murmur the name again and again… eyes wet with excitement, anticipation, even fear and elation… “Sybil. Sybil.. SYBIL!”… and then! The bell would tinkle… faintly. Sitting perfectly still on the old gnarled trunk, it’s sweet, silvery voice would tinkle faintly…as if from a great distance… or another dimension.
And the audience! Oh, the audience would gasp, and maybe even let out small shouts of terror… or joy… or both. And then! The knock! Oh yes. Small, but clear… from INSIDE the trunk, perhaps on the side… or near the back… then another, and another, moving around the inside the trunk to the front! The FRONT! Facing the audience. Right in front of the audience… something was inside the trunk now and it was separated from the audience by a battered old wooden wall and nothing else! The ghost of a little girl named Sybil was inside the room, inside that trunk, and in front of the crowd where even the skeptics now sat transfixed, as the bell tinkled louder and closer and the knocks began to pick up speed and fury. The electricity grew and grew as the music reached a crescendo! And then… silence. No bell. No knocking. Silence.
Bizmo with a great show of trepidation and caution slowly turned the trunk around on the turntable one last time and went to lift the lid! But at that moment, the lid would fly open with a huge boom sending the bell crashing across the room. Bizmo and the crowd would scream in terror as he flew backwards to the floor pointing in horror at the open trunk… and out would pop… a bunny!.. The crowd would roar! The bunny was followed by a squirrel, a dove, an owl, a ferret, a monkey, a puppy, all to greater and greater peels of hysterical laughter… until, after a long loaded pause… and in gathering silence, it peeked over the splintery edge, the “ghost” of little Sybil. Her curly auburn hair and green eyes shining, sparkling really in the twilight of a small pin-spot carefully tinted a pale blue to hint at her otherworldliness… her “ghostliness”.
As young as I was, I understood enough to know how to follow all of Bizmo’s instructions carefully, how to keep all the animals calm and ready, how to make all the sound effects from inside the trunk and in complete pitch blackness, to knock on the walls, to ring the little matching bell, all of it. But as professional as he delightedly claimed I was, I remained the still thunderstruck child every time I peeked over the edge at those staring audiences out in the dark. I couldn’t see much past the first few rows beyond the footlights, but I could see enough… eyes and mouths wide open, handkerchiefs clutched in tight fists. And the sounds… yes, the chuckled relief when the first animals had climbed or jumped out of the trunk… but then, the tumble of gasps, ohs and ahs, and even words as I, Sybil the Ghost, showed herself to a stunned crowd. From that very first Wednesday matinée, I was hooked… a pathetically overjoyed addict to the magic, not of Bizmo’s trunk with its rickety trap-door and trick shelf, but to Bizmo’s real magic… the magic of making people, any people, even strangers, or your own parents, stare in wonder at you. Oh God, even at four, I would have sold my very soul to have done so. But I was lucky. A second-string magician with begged, borrowed, and perhaps even stolen Vaudeville props and a wonderful menagerie of patient little animals delivered me, soul intact and so very blessed into the arms of all those staring strangers.
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