Harry Wise remembers Schenectady.
Ten seconds into a telephone conversation, the retired magician conjures up memories of the city.
“I played the State Theater there, some time in 1964,” Wise said, speaking from his home in Sanford, central Florida.
Tuesday, July 21, 1964, to be exact. Wise brought his “Dr. Jekyl and his Weird Show” to the former playhouse at State Street and Erie Boulevard. The spook fest featured guys dressed as monsters, magic tricks and three shock-and-scream blackouts.
A newspaper advertisement made it sound even worse. “Girls sacrificed to inhuman ghouls,” read one line. “Makes Frankenstein look like a sissy,” read another. “Girls! Come with your boyfriends. Learn if he’s man enough to take it!’ warned another.
“They were better in the summer, simply because the kids were out of school,” Wise, 73, said of his fright nights and days. “But we played year-round. We took January off.”
He started the terror gig during the mid-1960s. The routine was easy to follow.
Show’s a scream
A quick series of magic tricks started each show. Then, kids would be invited to sit on stage and lucky ones would be hypnotized. There would always be a girl sitting on an end chair, and Harry would find her for a brief stage whisper: A guy dressed as a “monster” would be coming in from the wings to carry her off. Wise assured his cooperative assistant the “monster” was really a nice guy. “If I didn’t tell them, they would just jump off the stage and run off.”
The monster appeared, dragged off the girl and lights went out. Cue the screams.
Harry had more fun with snakes. His assistant, Lynn Ashe, would tell “Dr. Jekyl” the Weird Show’s snakes were loose in the theater. A panic-stricken Ashe would run off, return with a large snake in his hands and begin to swing it toward the audience. Stage hands doused the lights just as Ashe prepared to let go of the wiggler, and actors listened to more wails of fear.
When the lights returned, Wise would “find” the snake, usually around a bunch of girls sitting near the stage. “Those girls would jump on the back of the seats every time,” Wise said. “It was a good bit.”
“Mercy, no,” Wise said. “I ain’t going to touch no real snake. I’ve still got him, I bought that snake in the summer of ’63 in an Atlanta novelty shop. We used him for seven years, in all those blackouts, looked just like a real Florida water moccasin. I’ve got him coiled up in my kitchen, I look at him every morning.”
Wise’s big finish involved another blackout. Luminous skeletons, bats, giant spider, ghost, groping hands and blinking eyes made their moves toward hapless, horrified teens. The show received good reviews in Schenectady, where adults paid a buck and kids forked over 50 cents for their goose bumps.
But time was running out for the live ghost shows. For old theaters, too. After a show, Wise and company would learn a theater was going to be converted into a bank, or demolished for a parking lot.
“This was happening three or four times a week,” Wise said. “I’d say, ‘Lynn, we haven’t got a thing to worry about, we’ll always have a place to play, the ghost shows aren’t totally out.’ I didn’t know how wrong I was.”
Wise booked independent shows into the 1980s, and also found work as a ringleader for traveling circuses. A permanent exhibit on his work is displayed at the Sanford Historical Society; a book, “The True Story of Magician Harry Wise: A Wizard’s Tux and Tales,” details the man’s professional life.
Harry doesn’t raise the dead any more. “I take it easy,” he said. “I write stories, I go fishing and I eat out every chance I get,” he said.