In Part I:
Squeak Jablowski dropped in to see Hooter for the first time in better than a decade. Hooter had gotten to know him when Squeak was a bull rider and then a bull fighter until his nerves shattered and he dropped out of sight.
“…Squeak plucked a business card from his shirt pocket and handed it to Hooter. ‘Squeaky the Clown—Tomorrow's
Stars' Preeminent Entertainer.'
‘You're a clown?' grinned Hooter. ‘A real honest-to goodness clown?'
‘Well, I always liked magic tricks,' said Squeak. ‘I always liked kids,
and I always liked a crowd.'”
In the years since Hooter last saw Squeak, his acquaintance had built up one of the most successful and lucrative kid's entertainment businesses in the Southwest. But he aspired to become a true-blue magician. He needed Hooter's help.
“‘I've got the show put together, but I need to construct some of the tricks, and I need to practice. I need to present it to some audiences to get the bugs worked out,' explained Squeak. ‘I remembered you mentioning one time that the folks around here were always interested in having some kind of entertainment pass through. And I got to thinking this might be the perfect spot to try it out. It would all be free, of course. I just need some audience feedback…You
know everybody around and what facilities are available. I need a manager
to help me pull it together. And I'll pay.'”
story, short, Hooter secured one of Delmar Jacob's sheds for a workshop,
then he got down to the hard stuff.
First off, Hooter had decided the old Thayer place would be perfect for the intimate parlor performances Squeak had in mind. It was one of those rambling three-story affairs with peeling paint, overgrown trees and shrubs and the look of eternal vacancy.
Broken shutters rode the breeze, clacking and scratching against the house. The silhouette of dead branches grew from the roof like a bad haircut. The gate was rusted and dangling by a single hinge.
In short, the old home was already the source of legend and spook stories, and Hooter figured it couldn't be that hard or costly to refurbish the entrance and massive dining room, construct a temporary stage and build the necessary seats.
Problem was he had to find the owner first. It was one thing to use the vacant old home briefly and unannounced to scare the bejeebers out of Eunice Nickelcock as Hooter had done a couple of years ago. It was another to renovate part of the interior for Squeak's performance.
After too many phone calls to count and too much time scouring records at city hall and the title office, it was finally a cousin of a cousin of a current Apache Flats resident that led Hooter to Thackeray Thayer, Jr., proving once again that you can run, but you'll never outrun a small town.
Apparently Thackeray or his family had done well. It was only after visiting with three different assistants that Hooter was finally connected to the man himself.
Thackeray didn't realize, nor did he sound excited to learn that he was apparently the only known heir to a spot of ground a couple of thousand miles from his native New England.
“Does it have a pool, a stable, servant's quarters, any minerals of value…” came the rapid fire questions with a thick Yankee accent. After giving a verbal shake of the head to each wonderment, Thackeray abruptly announced: “I'm not interested, nor am I liable. Do what you want with it and don't ever contact me again.” He hung up before Hooter had a chance to give him an Irish lesson in manners.
After he cooled down, one thing Thackeray had said stuck with Hooter: no liability. With no owner, yet with the permission of the only known heir, Hooter realized he had carte blanche to do whatever he wanted with the place, with no responsibility whatsoever.
As such, Hooter also knew he had the makings for some promotion that could reach far beyond Rio Rojo County and help send the Great Squeakdini on his way to the big time. When the shows were over, Hooter reckoned Squeak could donate the new Thayer Mansion Theatre to the town. Somewhere Phineas Taylor Barnum had to be smiling.
Suffice it to say, the next couple of weeks were a blur of helping Squeak construct his illusions, while directing a ragtag bunch of friends who were helping out nights to get the Thayer place in order for the first show. So far, no one had been hurt or traumatized enough to throw in the towel.
“Ever here of a level, Lightening Rod?” asked Lonnie Johnson as he surveyed the framework for the stage floor.
“Why?” grumped Cousin Charlie.
Lonnie pulled a cat's eye marble from his pocket and set it on a plank. The marble was picking up speed when it skittered off the end.
“It can't be off that much,” said Charlie. “Who carries marbles in their pockets, anyway?”
Turned out the floor joist on the east end of the room had begun to give way with the recent construction activity. That added another week to the process.
Then, Squeak—who had become enamored with the notion of turning the old place into a theatre that he would give the town—got plumb persnickety about the interior decorating. There were black velvet drapes he had in mind and brocade chairs of a certain type. The final touches didn't arrive until a month after the construction was finished.
In the meantime, Hooter was plastering hand bills in sale barns and cafes as far away as Mule Shoe: The Great Squeakdini—Magic Masterpieces! No date was given.
“That will come later,” said Squeak, “Once we know everything is ready and I'm ready, we'll put out some more handbills. There's just one more thing left to do…”
What Squeak had in mind was a spectacular illusion based on the storied Vanishing Elephant act made famous by Harry Houdini.
Squeak and Hooter constructed a special stage platform for the illusion in the backyard of the Thayer mansion. The notion was to unveil it as the grand finale to the fifth and final of Squeak's weekly shows.
“But I don't know as I can come up with an elephant on such short notice,” said Hooter.
“It doesn't have to be an elephant,” said Squeak. “Just something alive, easy for the audience to recognize, and big. As my manager, I'm sure you'll think of something.”
The Big Time
When opening night finally rolled around, Hooter had more butterflies in his gut than a Peruvian rain forest. He knew there would be a crowd. He knew the theatre had surpassed even Squeak's highest hopes. He was confident Squeak was up to the task, too. But, still.
He shouldn't have worried. Each performance drew a larger crowd and more post-show buzz than the previous one. Squeak proved to be a master showman, equally adept at presenting his stage illusions as well as baffling demonstration of sleight of hand. He varied the performances, too. You could have sat through the four previous shows and sworn you'd never seen the same trick twice. There was no telling what other magicians would say about the show, but as far as Hooter could tell, the performances were next to phenomenal if not beyond it.
Consequently, it wasn't any surprise that folks started showing up as early as 3 p.m. for Squeak's 7 p.m. final performance. It would prove to be the most elegant and startling of them all.
Squeak entered from the “silent maid” a small serving room right off the old kitchen. He was decked out in a tuxedo tailored for the late 1800's. He explained to the audience that he appreciated them coming to witness some of magic's most classic examples of sleight and illusion.
“As an example, how many of you like to go fishing?” asked Squeak, knowing that in this crowd dipping a line ranked right up there with breathing. “When you have magic at your disposal, you can fish any time, anywhere you like, and always be assured of catching something.”
With that Squeak picked up a fishing pole, dipped his hand into a bait bucket, attached a worm and flipped the line out over the audience. When he reeled it back in the folks were amazed to see a goldfish at the end of the line, which Squeak deftly unhooked and placed into a large clear bowl. By the time he was done, there were at least 10 of the critters swimming merrily in the tank.
Next, he reached back into the silent maid for what appeared to be the roof for a wood structure of some sort. He carried it over to a corner of the stage where other wooden pieces were laying around. “Though magic makes some things easier, even magicians need some assistance,” explained Squeak. He picked up a side and front of what appeared to be a junior sized outhouse, showed it to the audience front and back. Then he picked up a section that was the back and other side. He hooked the two together, then lifted up the roof and showed both sides before placing it on the structure.
“As most of you likely know, I've had tremendous help in preparing and managing this show from a long-time friend who is one of your own. However, as most of you also know, when it comes to Hooter, you never know exactly when or where you might find him.” With that, Squeak tapped the roof three times with his knuckles. The roof exploded backwards and out popped Hooter.
The crowd went bonkers! It wasn't just the fact that Hooter had magically appeared from thin air and the recently assembled structure; no one had ever seen Hooter decked out in a tuxedo before. His hair was slicked back; even his usually bushy beard was held in check by enough beeswax to slow a small horse.
“Young man, if you can show me how to do that with my husband, I'll pay large,” shouted Mrs. Womack, and she meant it. Her husband, Peetie, countered, “And I'll double that if you can give me a mute button for her.” He meant it, too.
…To be continued