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Recollections of Neil Foster

by John Sherwood - 1988 New Tops Magazine

The year before I entered my teens I coerced my mother to drive me the 35 miles that separated me from a fabulous place -- a place a friend had described in terms usually reserved for heaven or hell.

The place was Abbott's and, as the car pulled up to the skeleton-adorned black blockhouse, I could only imagine what might lie within: Strange initiation rites? Ethereal hiding places? Fog shrouded and shadowy sorcerers?

Instead, I was both disappointed and consoled by the fact that inside it looked like a hardware store. Still, the friendly man behind the counter had an unmistakeable demeanor: a movie-star face, the unstooped bearing of an actor, the easy familiarity with strange and wonderful things that lay on the shelves. He sold me a few gimcracks and a catalog, which I took home and memorized from one cover to the other.

On one of the first pages was a picture of the salesman. I read that he was a professional magician -- a star. His name was Neil Foster.

That August I pleaded with my family to attend one of the Get-together shows. We missed Blackstone Sr. (to my eternal regret), but I did get to see Neil Foster perform the Zombie. It was the first time I had seen that little miracle performed, but still I had no idea that he was doing the same trick that was being sold for a few dollars in the magic catalog. The gasps of the audience were electrifying. It was magic, pure and simple.

I got to see my own dad once a month and my grandfather was at home in Marshall, Mich., but I still went shopping for father-figures where I might. Tom "Silky" Sullivan had been my first mentor in magic, and Neil was to tell me (eventually) that any extra attentions I received in the magic showroom were the result of a little sympathetic conspiracy between them. Thus, I grew up, in part, with the occasional advice of Neil shepherding me, in magic and in life.

By the age of 16, I had published some of my scribblings, most prominently for "Top Hat," the magazine of the old International Club of Magic. Neil took me the next step by offering me the "Just For Us Young Guys" column in The New TOPS magazine. I was floored and flattered by the challenge which, he assured me, he expected I would meet.

I continued to meet his expectations for 14 years with that columns and for more than seven with this current one. Occasionally I overstepped myself and Neil firmly pushed me along proper lines. I realized now that even though he was the gentlest editor I've ever worked for, I may have learned the best lessons from his quiet diplomacy.

Now and then I wanted to quite writing the column. "I'm not a professional magician," I would argue. "You know more about magic than a lot of pros," he would counter. "Besides, I need someone I can rely on. And you're one of the best writers I've got." You see, he could work wonders with words, too.

I kept writing. My odd prolixity on the subject of magic oozed into other fields and it is because of Neil that I've never suffered from writer's block.

Neil's interests were wide-ranging. He read novels which we discussed. He enjoyed gardening, painting and the theater. He always had an open ear for my current fascination. I often suspect that he enjoyed a getaway from magic. But magic entered into it, too. He urged me to take the mail-order Chavez course. I'd studied the first lesson and couldn't fathom it. My hands were too small, I thought. Neil insisted that, someday, I had better complete the course.

College came and went. I itched to travel and I asked his views. It was one of his favorite subjects. He loved England, especially, and I enjoyed hearing his reminiscences. In 1974, when I visited the Magic Circle, I was asked frequently about Neil. His named opened doors in London, where he was well remembered. When I told him about this afterwards, only a small smile revealed that I had repaid his flattery.

I married Marti, moved to a larger town, went into journalism full-time, had a son named Nathan. In 1981, while I was enmeshed in a series of events which a Tarot reader would call reverses, Neil finally convinced me to take the Chavez course, which he was teaching in the basement of his home on Goodell Avenue in Colon.

It was like a life-preserver in the middle of an ocean, and I clung to it. After just a week of practice, I marveled at how much magic I'd learned and how much time I'd wasted. I'd known Neil Foster 19 years and had enver bothered to learn his kind of magic. I tried to make up for lost time. I learned to do the Zombie, studying it at his elbow. I felt like Plato at the feet of Socrates.

That was a wonderful year. Marti and I, occasionally with Nathan in tow, went to Colon practically ever chance we got, learning routines that would suit a couple, watching his videos and slides, gabbing about his days on the school assembly circuit. I'd drive Neil up to Battle Creek for dinner parties, discussing our travels, and chit-chat.

It was on one of these occasions in the Colon basement when Neil gestured around at the equipment lining the room.

"If there's anything you'd like to learn here, just ask," he told Marti and me. "Is there anything you'd like to see?"

It was a profoundly selfish thing to ask, but I asked it anyway. "Would you do the Zombie? Just for us? That's all."

That little smile again. He rose, set up the equipment, put on the familiar music. For the next few minutes, Marti and I were the only people in the world watching Neil Foster perform his most magical illusion.

That is how I remember him now, and I shake my head in disbelief at my own incredible good fortune.

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