Monday, 1 April 2013

Baffling Bill Letts' Magic Billets

(C) Baffling Bill Letts' Magic Billets

‘Baffling’ Bill Letts was an average stage magician and illusionist. His best tricks and performing years were now well behind him. Constant touring around country shows and fairs, not to mention an above average consumption of grog, had taken its toll over the years. His long suffering partner and wife – ‘Fay the Fair’ had endured his taunts above and beyond the call of sanity. Bill’s once mysterious charm had now vanished in the smoke that accompanied some of his more elaborate illusions; now, sadly, a dim memory also. Bill nowadays relied upon ‘sleight of hand’ tricks that were the magician’s stock in trade. His prowess in this area was also in the decline.

            Fay, (who was simply known as Fay Johnson when she first met Bill), was a crack shot, lasso artist and trick rider in her father’s small-time bush circus. Bill had joined the circus briefly and the gormless Fay was instantly captivated by Bill’s oily charm and his dark, hypnotic eyes. When Bill suggested they should join forces, run away and leave the circus; Fay promptly agreed. The only life she had known was with her father and the chances of finding a handsome, sophisticated partner like the swarthy magician were slim. Indeed, young Bill had looked remarkably like a young Bela Lugosi and affected the same dark, mysterious, manner. Bill moreover was of Eastern European origins, immigrating to Australia in 1948 from Latvia with the name Vilhelms Krūmiņš, aka ‘Wilhelm the Wizard’.  This name proved to be ‘baffling’ to Australian audiences and so in a rare moment of inspiration, with a nostalgic reminder of his origins, Young Vilhelms became ‘Baffling’ Bill Letts.  

            Bill had lost his family during the war and never got over it. Consequently, he came to rely upon alcohol, especially vodka, as the only means of escape. When Bill was drunk, he became particularly nasty and belligerent and the hapless Fay soon became the target of his scorn. As the years passed and Fay’s girth widened, she played less and less a part in Bill’s performances. Her once trim figure, from years of horse riding, had ensured that she was able to contort her body so as to perform the magician’s more elaborate illusions; such as ‘disappearing’ from locked cabinets or folding over double so as to appear being sawn in half or avoid swords pushed into her sequinned torso. Highly strung as she was, Fay resented the decline in her physical stature and paranoia gradually increased. 
            ‘You iz not so fair now Fay; your rump is as vide as ze horses you once rode,’ Bill told her bluntly. ‘But you could still be ze plant ven I appear to read the minds.’ Bill justified Fay’s demotion. ‘It also means I do not need to pay some oaf whose billet I know in good, no?’ ‘You just keep your dumpy frame out of sight ‘til Showtime and zen no-one vill suspect you are part of ze act.’ Fay protested loudly that the other skills she brought to the act; like shooting a hole through an ace of spades or the bullet catch that would appear ‘magically’ in the magician’s fingers or mouth, brought excitement to the performance. ‘Zat time is now past,’ Bill declared, ‘Anyvay your aim iz now not so good!’ Bill, who had a couple of close calls during the war, had a healthy aversion to firearms anyway. Fay snorted in contempt. ‘He knows damn well that we use wax bullets.’ But did not voice this out loud; instead she said simply, ‘Alright Bill, I’ll be the plant – what would you like as the message on the billet?’  
            The deception used in billet reading is known as the one-ahead method. The performer relies on knowing what is inside one of the envelopes ahead of time, and using that knowledge to stay (hopefully) one step ahead of the audience. The performer does this by having a plant in the audience insert a predetermined message as one of the billets, or by secretly opening one envelope. The performer subsequently pretends to read the contents of the first sealed envelope. Actually, the plant's message is being recited and the performer must simultaneously commit the new message to memory.  Bill now performed this trick as the end of his show. Alas, his memory was failing and he was having difficulty in recalling each message from one envelope to the next. His excessive vodka intake did not help.

            Bill tried to cover up his mistakes by emulating one of his ‘magical’ heroes – Tommy Cooper, by appearing to be drunk when he performed. Indeed like TC, Bill frequently was drunk. Regrettably, Bill lacked Tommy’s panache and the refined comic timing to carry it off and consequently just seemed inept and pathetic. When Fay had suggested that perhaps they should just retire, Bill flew into a rage. ‘Never!’ he bellowed. ‘Ven my time comes, I vill die on stage just like Tommy!’ Fay, in a vain attempt to remain a more visible part of the act, had suggested that a billet could be secreted inside a cartridge with a wax bullet that she would fire from the rear of the audience. Bill actually considered this momentarily but then declared that the logistics were now more than he could handle. He turned her down again. Fay seethed.

            Fay endured the humiliation (as she saw it) of being the plant in the audience for a few months. Then they had a miraculous change of luck and Bill secured a booking in one of the bigger RSL clubs in Sydney. ‘My luck is changing at last,’ declared Bill. ‘Zay are oafs but ze money is good! I need a big finale!’ Fay again suggested that she fire a wax bullet from the side of the auditorium. ‘Come on Bill, it’s your signature, your name – Baffling Bill’s Magic Billets. You just do a substitution and place the real bullet with the message – This is the end of the show! in your mouth when you pretend to fall down’ Bill’s vanity got the better of him and so agreed; thinking that it might impress other clubs and he could always get a newer and more attractive assistant at a later time!

            At the Sydney RSL club the performance was going well and Bill, eschewing his customary vodka pick-me-up, was in fine form. He called on a few random people to write down various messages on pieces of paper...the billets. Fay as usual was one of the random people and wrote her standard message – I really love horses on the billet. This she placed into the discreetly marked envelope that Bill would recognise as hers and place it on the bottom of the stack. She then walked to the side of the auditorium, near the stage, and waited quietly with her hand in her hand bag grasping her pistol. Having collected all the various envelopes, Bill placed Fay’s envelope on the bottom by sleight of hand. He placed the top envelope against his forehead and after a dramatic pause called out, ‘Our first person says that he or she really loves horses – iz this the right message?’ Fay acknowledged that it was and added ‘That’s amazing – how did you now?’ Bill replied, ‘Vell you look ze horsy type!’ There was general laughter: Fay seethed.

            Bill dutifully went through the same routine with each envelope and read each billet in advance before solemnly declaring each message, feigning a little difficulty and basking in the applause when each person acknowledged that he had ‘divined’ their particular message. Having arrived at the bottom envelope, Bill intoned ‘My dog has fleas’ as the last message, adding, ‘Dis person must have an unfortunate doggie... or play ze ukulele!’ There was laughter and the usual expressed amazement. Bill tore open the envelope expecting to see Fay’s usual message - I really love horses.

            Bill looked up from the billet with a look of puzzlement. He turned in Fay’s direction but was unable to see as a spotlight was in his eyes. ‘Fay, wha...’ A single shot rang out.

            A neat, red, black hole appeared on the magician’s forehead and he dropped to the floor; the billet fluttering from his hand. There was much confusion, people screamed, some said it was just part of the act. Afterwards the police recovered the billet from the stage. It read: The horse has bolted. Your last billet is a bullet. No wax this time, Wilhelm! Fay demonstrated conclusively that she had, in fact, lost none of her prowess as a crack shot. When asked by police why she had shot her husband, Fay answered with a vacant stare. When pressed again she replied, ‘He got his wish, he died on stage – just like Tommy.’

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