Thursday, 7 July 2016

Blacke’s Magic 01x07: Address Unknown

Magicians make great TV, everybody loves a good mystery, and the creators of Columbo and Murder, She Wrote clearly knew how to construct a winning series. That’s why it’s such a surprise that 1986’s Blacke’s Magic doesn’t really work.

Loveable Hal Linden is Alexander Blacke, a retired magician who teams up with his conman father, played by Harry Morgan, to solve crimes. Most of their solutions involve big illusions and set-ups that instantly call to mind The Sting – and that’s where the problem comes in. Swindles, disguises, and splashy big con finales replace the more interesting aspects of putting someone who thinks like a magician into high stake logic puzzles. (Something much more capably accomplished with the BBC’s 1997 series Jonathan Creek, if you’re interested.)

Today’s episode opens with two men meeting in a shadowy parking garage. One of them, Dale Richmond, is a nervous-but-stalwart businessman type. The other is the worst things about the 1980’s congealed into human form. He starts the conversation – which appears to be about gathering information about military corruption – with “Yo!” and calls his contact “guy.”

His name is Billy, and he’s driven a red sport scar to a clandestine meeting. He’s here to tell Dale that he wasn’t able to get “the letters,” but he’ll definitely have them tomorrow.

Billy is terrible at whistle-blowing, just the worst ever.

Billy’s boss, a man named Hilliard – or possibly Yaryard, but I chose the one that’s an actual name – has a senate hearing tomorrow afternoon, giving anybody with a key easy access to an empty office. Billy will be in and out of Hilliard’s drawers without him knowing a thing.

Dale stresses that he just needs correspondence between Hilliard and “the General.” He doesn’t want anyone taking extra chances.

Aw, come on, Dale! Does Billy seem like the kind of guy who’s cocky enough to take extra chances?
Billy shoots a finger gun, winks, and jumps into his sports car. They’ll get this corruption scandal outed in no time.

I’m sure this is going to go perfectly. Billy seems like he’s really on the ball.

The next time we see Dale, he’s hurrying out of some sort of government building as the press hounds him about his testimony and coming forward. Supporting him is his wife, Louise. Louise is being played by Lynda Day George, who you might recognize from Mission: Impossible or her many episodes of Fantasy Island. (She did like ten, and they’re all pretty good.)

It’s awkward to tell exactly what’s going on with all the reporters shouting over the dialogue, but you can catch some snippets that imply Dale worked for Hilliard for twenty years, and is now snitchin’ in court about something to do with a defense contract? Somehow, according to Dale, Hilliard has being betraying the United States of America.

Both this sequence and the one before it happen very quickly, and are extremely vague about the nuts and bolts of what’s going down with this Hilliard thing. Instead of giving us a glimpse of the impending victim’s life and a motive for who might want to kill him, it just feels like noise and misdirection.

You might be thinking that misdirection is a good choice for a show about a crime solving magician, and it would be if it was thematic or something. But it’s a pacing issue rather than an intentional choice. Today’s episode was written by Lee Sheldon, who also wrote one of the worst episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation; the one where Dr. Crusher starts hallucinating that the crew is disappearing.

Our next stop is the Biltmore Theater where Alexander Blacke will be performing tonight.

Alex is, supposedly, a retired magician, but he seems to take the tux out of mothballs a lot. You can’t really blame him, though. What’s a retired magician going to do, stand around pulling doves out of his pocket for the amusement of the other golfers in Boca Raton?

He’s in his dressing room, fiddling around with his bowtie, and watching the much-discussed Mr. Hilliard on a small television. Hilliard is explaining that he never publicly suggested Dale Richmond had any sort of mental illness, but he should be checked for one in light of recent statements. Hilliard is just concerned for Dale’s health. I mean, just because a person doesn’t seem to be an obsessive schizophrenic doesn’t mean we should rule it out, not that Hilliard is suggesting Dale is one. That’s for the professional psychologists – who Dale so far has refused to see – to decide.

Hilliard, for you soap opera fans, is played by John McCook. Eric Forrester on The Bold and the Beautiful since 1987, if you’re a non-soap fan wondering what that means.

And I finally have a quick second to mention that Dale Richmond is being played by Sam Groom, who has a soap opera connection of his own from his early days on Another World, and a Recap Retro connection from that episode of Mrs. Columbo we watched! He’s much more convincing as a whistleblower than a gigolo.

In Alex’s dressing room with him is Louise, but don’t worry, it’s nothing untoward. Before she was married to one half of the Abbott and Costello version of the Watergate scandal, she was Alex’s lovely assistant. But now her husband’s idealism and patriotic truth-telling has wrecked up their lives and she needs her old boss’s help.

So, how exactly is a stage magician supposed to help with all of this?

That’s not totally clear right now. But Alex is still listening, and Louise assures him that Dale has the company billing slips and “the army authorizations to increase the costs.” Looks like it’s some backdoor wheeling and dealing to do with weapons development, then.

Unfortunately, with everything they do have, what they don’t have is the direct correspondence between Hilliard and General Wersching. A contact was supposed to bring it to Dale today but failed.
(Huh. So we’re taking the time to rehash all of this in exposition, but we also had to watch the scene anyway? There must be some reason we needed to become familiar with Billy’s face…)

Turns out what Louise wants Alex to do is conjure up some evidence of Hilliard having direct involvement in the scandal.

Alex tucks a white carnation in his buttonhole just as his new assistant, Joanie, taps on the door to give him his one minute warning. He turns to Louise and says:

“Tell Dale he’s booked himself an act.”

Louise is so happy, she gives Alex a great big hug and crushes his carnation. It’s okay, though, he wasn’t really in the mood for a white flower. With some quick sleight of hand, he produces a red replacement carnation and puts it in place.

Less with the curiosity of a former employee, and more with the wistfulness of a former wife, Louise asks if Joanie is pretty. Alex replies that she’s not nearly as pretty as his favourite assistant had been. He tells her that after the show, he has to do a benefit performance for the diplomatic corps, so it’ll be quite late before he can give her and Dale a call.

Later, at the fancy Washington party full of fancy Washington guests, Alex is wowing the crowd with a mentalist bit.

In real life, magic has a lot of disciplines, kind of like medicine. The big ones are illusion, manipulation, escape, close-up magic, and the mentalism Alex is doing right now. Modern magicians tend to be specialists, honing one specific type of magic to a very high degree. Back in the vaudeville days, most magicians were sort of like general practitioners, having to be able to master whatever style was best for their ever-changing venues.

Alex is based on the vaudevillian GPs of the arcane, but because he’s a television hero, all of his skills are at the level of a specialist.

He holds a wealthy older woman’s hand to his forehead, and says he senses a dog.

That’s uncalled for, Alex.

Oh! He’s guessing that she has a French poodle named Faedo! He’s right and she’s delighted, and everyone standing around claps politely despite holding champagne glasses.

After that bit of fun, a fellow named Senator Garrity calls Alex over for a quick word. The two apparently know each other, but it’s been a while since they last met. The Senator thanks Alex for making an appearance at the party, and asks if he might have time to hang out with a few fans. Like General Wersching.

Wersching? Alex’s eyebrows go up. That was the name Louise gave him. Something this convenient could never be overlooked by a magician. Alex says he’d be delighted to meet anybody the senator would care to introduce him to.

General Wersching is sitting with a lovely redheaded woman in dress blues. She turns out to be Major Crawford, and she’s clawed her way out of the grease of the motor pool to make it to the elegant parties of the capital. The senator leaves Alex with the two officers, because at parties it’s fun to rearrange the groups so that nobody knows each other and then abandon them.

General Wersching starts the conversation by announcing that he doesn’t like magic acts.

So… why did he want to meet this famous magician?

Well, it turns out that somehow Wersching has managed to connect Dale Richmond to Alex, and he asked the senator to bring Alex over so he could give him a friendly warning. Keep Dale Richmond’s nose out of Hilliard’s business, or have a nice time at Dale Richmond’s funeral.

Wersching then says he doesn’t know how Alex fits into all of this – so, wait, how does he know Alex fits in at all? Because even if there were people following Louise, her going to see her old boss doesn’t mean her old boss is now deeply invested in the problems of her current husband. They could be having an affair or something. I mean, it seemed pretty affairy, just on the face of it.

Anyway, Alex and Wersching have one of those dinner party threat downs, neither of them getting too loud or saying anything too direct. The gist is that they’re enemies now and both of them know it.
And’s that the first six minutes of this episode. Seriously. Settle in for a cluttered tale of intrigue and vanishing buildings. I’ll gloss over what I can so that this recap doesn’t balloon wildly out of control.

“You’re in for short walk in a very large minefield,” Wersching tells Alex ominously, then makes his exit with an order to Crawford to bring the car around.

Crawford lags behind a minute so that Alex can ask her how Wersching knew about his friendship with Dale. After all, Alex hasn’t seen Dale in years.

But, Crawford reminds him, he saw Mrs. Richmond, earlier that night. (Why on earth would you think a whistleblower was recruiting a stage magician to help him bring down an arms dealing conspiracy? That’s the least obvious conclusion.)

Alex makes a date with Crawford to meet her at the Washington Barrack’s Riding Club, so that he can ask her some questions. It’s for 5:30 the next morning. As in before dawn. Alex doesn’t like that detail, and who can blame him? It means he barely has time to change out of his tux, shower, and dig out his jodhpurs before he has to be at the stable. Why can’t they have a subterfuge filled late lunch instead?

Crawford holds firm on the 5:30 thing. Goodbye, Alexander Blacke’s circadian rhythm. You meant so much to him, he’ll miss you.

By the time Alex escapes the party and gets over to Louise’s house, it’s 3:00. A scant two hours until he has to go pretend like he can ride a horse without throwing up from fatigue. It’s going to be an awesome morning, followed by one of those days where Wheel of Fortune becomes breakfast television.

Parked across the street is a noticeably non-descript car, where a man in a hat that makes you think of cheap wannabe detectives is recording the comings and goings of the Richmond household. He makes a record of Alex’s name, car, and hour of arrival, then slumps down as though he thinks he’s being subtle.

Dale sees him as soon as he opens the front door for Alex.

“He’s still out there!” Dale shouts, instead of hello, “That damn Delgado never lets up!”

Alex kind of scooches by as Dale stares angrily across the street.

Louise explains that Delgado is a federal marshal, and he used to park down the block, but now he parks right in front of the house and it’s making Dale edgy.

Everyone gets caught up on what’s happened so far, in terms of Louise being followed to the theater and Wersching making veiled threats at the party. It’s like every scene in this episode includes a summary of the scene before it.

The phone rings. Dale answers, and after a brief conversation excitedly announces that he’ll “be there.”

It was Billy, who claims he finally has the goods on Hilliard. Good old trustworthy Billy, getting that info in the afternoon like he promised then sitting on it until three in the morning for some reason. Everything seems on the level there. All Dale has to do is go meet him in twenty minutes, and sew this thing up. Yay!

But setting up all those Delgado-car-placement dominos wasn’t just for fun, it was setting up Dale’s next problem. How is he going to get out of the house and arrive at his super-secret meeting without being followed by a Fed?

Thank god a magician is here.

So here’s how it goes:

Delgado is waiting at his usual post outside when the Richmonds’ car pulls out of the driveway and stalls halfway, the engine struggling to turn over. Driving it is not Dale, but Louise.

Delgado hops out of his own car to go and investigate. As he asks Louise why she’s heading out so late, Alex runs from a side door as Dale’s voice calls out: “Is she gone yet?”

“I caught her!” Alex replies, then tells Louise that Dale needs buffered aspirin instead of regular.
Louise reports that the car has stalled, and Alex opens the hood to take a look but pretends to be clueless about engines. Delgado goes to the front of the car to help, and while his head’s buried in the hood, Alex opens the rear door of the car, letting Dale quickly slide in onto the backseat.

Alex carefully times it, so that when Delgado slams the hood down, he shuts the door. Thus avoiding any sounds that might tip their hand.

Louise tries to start the car again, and this time it works! Only just as she’s about to pull out, Dale’s voice calls down from the house that he’s found the aspirin, no need to hit the 24hr pharmacy after all. Louise smiles as she gets out of the car, and invites Delgado inside for a cup of coffee.

Delgado says yes, and Alex tells Louise to put the car away.

So, Alex and Delgado go inside the kitchen, where Alex turns off the tape player that created the illusion of Dale calling out, and when Delgado hears the car start again, he thinks it’s just Louise pulling it back into the garage. But it’s not. It’s Dale on his way to meet Billy, with nobody the wiser.


Off-screen, Dale meets up with Billy and follows his car to a second location. On-screen, when they arrive there, Billy tells Dale to hang tight while he gets “the stuff.”

Sheesh. Make this look more like a drug deal, you guys.

Billy disappears into a nearby building for just a shade too long, so Dale decides to get out of his car and go looking for him. He notices that the street sign reads “Republic Lane” and takes note of the overflowing garbage cans and the sign supporting a random candidate for the upcoming mayoral election. Suspenseful music plays as Billy appears in a shadowed alleyway and ushers Dale over.

Dale follows him into a seemingly abandoned storefront, full of empty shelves and stained walls. Billy pops up from behind the counter like a puppet in a theater and waves a manila envelope proudly. It’s everything they need to take down Hilliard.

Behind Billy, the barrel of a shiny black gun appears from a doorway. We can’t see anything of the shooter, not even a pair of gloves.

“Billy, look out!” Dale shouts.

Billy doesn’t flinch or even stop smiling his go-go 80’s guy smile as he turns around to face the gun and get a bullet in the chest. The staging here opens up a lot of questions that we’ll get answers to later on.

Meanwhile, Billy crumples onto the floor like a snot-soaked tissue, and Dale rushes to his side. For some reason, he decides that the thing to do is cradle Billy’s head and not grab the envelope that Billy died for, but it can be hard to think clearly in these kinds of situations.

Unsurprisingly, the shooter takes aim at Dale next, but hits only a few glass bottles placed strategically around the empty room. Dale decides to run for it.

As soon as he’s back out in the alley, he’s greeted by the headlights of a waiting van. He tries to get back into his car, but the van corrals him away and down side streets, until he has no choice but to jump a fence and keep moving onward and away from the site of Billy’s murder.

Desperate and frightened, Dale decides it’s not safe to return to his car, and he runs until he finds a 24hr café called The Donut Hole. Naturally, he finds a couple of cops there.

He explains that someone’s been shot and he needs their help, and they quickly make for the scene. But when he tells them the shooting happened on Republic Lane, they seem confused. He tells them it was off Crane Avenue, and that seems to be enough for them to get over there.

It’s a baffling drive for Dale, but eventually they find his car. There’s no longer any sign of Billy’s car, though.

And no longer any sign of Republic Lane.

The garbage cans are still there, and the campaign sign is in the same spot, but Republic Lane itself… has disappeared!

“It’s gone,” Dale murmurs, “the whole damn street is gone.”

The next morning, or rather, a couple of hours later, Alex is horseback riding with Major Crawford. Both of them look as fresh as daisies, which isn’t very believable. I mean, okay, a whole street disappearing, that’s fine, but not being tired at 5:30 after a late night of Washington elbow rubbing? Unlikely.

Major Crawford has also changed her sensible up-do of the evening before into a feathered blowout, and Alex is actually wearing jodhpurs. You thought it was a joke before, but it wasn’t.

Crawford compliments him on his seat, which is horse terminology that they make into an innuendo and it’s weird. Turns out, too, that he’s riding General Wersching’s horse, and that is also weird.
Thankfully, though, we’re quickly talking about Dale and Hilliard instead. (Alex doesn’t know about Billy’s death on the Street That Never Was.)

Wersching has a report that Dale was seeing a psychiatrist to treat insomnia, and he’s making it look like Dale is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs by omitting key details, including the fact that it was all about insomnia. If Wersching gets hit by the shrapnel of this Hilliard thing, he’s going to make certain Dale never works in this town again.

“You have friendship,” Crawford says, as she bounces along on a fake horse in front of a rolling backdrop, “I have loyalty. That doesn’t mean we can’t level with each other and try to cut some of the losses.”

Her speech about betraying your ideals for quick solutions is cut short by a jeep honking its horn. It’s one of the guys who work at the stables, and he says that there was an urgent phone call for Alexander Blacke. He’s to call Mrs. Dale Richmond right away.

Alex turns his horse and gallops towards the nearest phone.

Meanwhile, we’re introduced to a new police officer character played by Ken Swofford. He and Dale are looking at a map on the hood of his car, parked on Crane Avenue, where there is no alley leading to Republic Lane. The cop is trying to explain that the street has always been like this, with no magic Harry Potter passageways that lead to derelict appliance stores. Dale has decided the best approach to this situation is to get increasingly insistent and wave his arms around while he shouts.

Alex soon arrives, and the cop – named Cpt. Perry, we learn – isn’t very happy to see him.

(Isn’t that always the way? When you’re standing around thinking: “We could really use a magician in this situation,” they’re never around, but when you don’t need them, they turn right up. I guess magicians are a lot like scissors.)

“You call your wife and your wife calls a magician?” Perry asks Dale, like maybe Dale needs to rethink a lot of his life’s details. I like Perry. He’s keeping it real.

Dale explains to Alex the whole dead-Billy-disappearing-street deal, and Alex asks Cpt. Perry if he checked the story out. Instead of saying something extremely rude, Perry commendably and calmly tells Alex that yes, they checked it out. The imaginary street remains imaginary, and if Billy’s body is in there, it’s the Twilight Zone’s problem now.

Perry tells everyone to go home and stop reporting fake crimes or there’ll be trouble, then he makes his exit.

Alex decides that the best thing to do is ask a few of the people who live on Crane Avenue if they’ve ever heard of Republic Lane. This involves faking an Irish accent, which is foreshadowing for the fake accent scene that’s coming up in a little while. You’ll see when we get there.

Up next, it’s time to go get Pop Blacke from the airport. As mentioned before, reformed conman Leonard Blacke is being played by Harry Morgan. It actually reminds me a lot of a carnival swindler Morgan played in the 1945 film adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair.

On the drive into Washington, Pop explains his theory that the disappearing street is some kind of switcheroo.

“If it looks like a duck, quacks like a ducks, swims, but it isn’t a duck, it’s a con job,” He nods sagely.

Alex changes the subject to our lighthearted B-plot, which we need like a hole in the head, because have you seen how cluttered and pinched the A-plot is? But we’re doing this.

The building manager wants Alex to give him a call, so Alex asks if everything was okay at home when Pop left. Pop insists that he “took care of everything,” and there was only a minimum of water damage. Before Alex can get any more information out of his dad, Pop points out that they’ve arrived at Dale and Louise’s house! We’ll talk about this later or never, probably never, definitely never, it’s been so long since Pop saw Louise!

Waiting across the street, in the spot once occupied by Delgado, are two very thuggish federal marshals in matching trench coats. They look like they probably go home and read Jane Austen novels in the tub. The one in the driver’s seat kind of sneers at Alex with a face like a block of concrete, and the other one just sits there waiting to punch things.

Almost makes you feel bad about Alex doubtlessly getting Delgado demoted in a hailstorm of shame and blame-shifting. Delgado was not so bad.

Alex rings the bell, and Louise answers and gives Leonard a great big hug and ushers everyone in for tea and coffee.

Once seated in the living room armchair and provided with a warm beverage, Pop begins to reminisce:

“Puts me in mind of a con I heard about back during the depression. A couple of the boys knew about this bootlegger who was tryin’ to launder booze money. everything was gone. Tellers, furniture, especially the money! Oh, it was a sweet little operation!”

These boys set up a fake bank in an old building. Rented furniture, printed cheques, the whole shebang. The bootlegger went for it. Deposited a huge chunk of money into the operation and when he went to withdraw it,

(There’s a good chance Pop fell asleep watching The Sting again.)

Dale looks unimpressed.

“It wasn’t a bank building I lost, it was a whole city block!”

It’s not a contest, Dale.

And anyway, the point of the anecdote was that big things can be made to disappear. Or not be as they initially appear. A bank can be made to vanish, but you also have to consider if there was ever a bank in the first place.

Alex tells Dale to cheer up. Obviously their enemies are scared, otherwise why would they go to such elaborate lengths to discredit him? And anyway, there’s a new plan now. A stupid plan. With fake accents.

See, Billy said that the papers he swiped were copies, and that means the originals could only be in one of two places. So all we have to do is search both places at the same time!

Makes perfect sense!

When next we see Pop, he’s wearing a giant fake moustache, a bowler hat, and a grey tweed suit. He’s masquerading as Sir Alfred, complete with a terrible British accent. The bad accent is supposed to be part of the humour here, but it’s just cringe-inducing and not funny, unless you’re one of those people who likes to watch comedy scenes through your fingers and with your ears bleeding.

He’s in the waiting room at Hilliard’s office, and Hilliard’s secretary tells him that Mr. Hilliard isn’t available today, would he care to make an appointment for the near future?

No, he’s got to get back to London ASAP, but first a quick stop at the old loo, if the secretary would be good enough to direct him.

The trip to the loo is a ruse. Pop is really sneaking into Hilliard’s office with a skeleton key – in full view of the secretary who notices right away. Awesome conman skills, Pop. A+. The secretary goes to fetch Hilliard while Pop snoops around, comes up dry, and calls Louise on the office phone to tell her.

Hilliard arrives just as he’s hanging up, and Pop hastily comes up with a terrible excuse that Hilliard sees right through. But, somehow, Pop manages to make his exit without being arrested.

Meanwhile, Alex is at Billy’s apartment trying to pass himself off as an inspector from the Fish and Game Commission checking for rare birds. I don’t know why he didn’t go with something more believable, but he does pull a dove out from behind the TV, so I guess he’s just getting his kicks where he can.

The landlady leaves him alone among Billy’s things, and it isn’t long before he finds a document proving that Billy had been given a very cushy promotion. He’s in the middle of reading it when Billy comes home.

Billy's not dead?! What?!

Commercial Break!

Just for fun, here’s an actual commercial from 1986:

If that doesn’t make you want a fruit chew, nothing will.

Back at Billy’s apartment, Alex is punching holes in Billy’s stupid alibi about being at Hilton Head all week and not even being in town to be bribed into faking his own death in a derelict appliance store on a street that isn’t real. I mean, clearly the second one is what any reasonable investigator will see as the truth.

When Alex points out that Billy’s new job came at the recommendation of General Wersching, Billy reminds Alex that it’s illegal to enter someone’s home until false pretenses and rifle through their stuff. Alex seems undeterred by the threat of legal action.

Billy’s next tactic is to repeat the company line about how Dale’s steadily losing his mind. Disgusted, Alex takes the ill-gotten evidence of the Wersching letter and leaves Billy to drink and beer and worry over his future, or lack thereof.

Sometime later, Alex and his father are headed into the next round of senate hearings on this Hilliard/Wersching thing. Alex has a handful of phone messages from the hotel operator, and they’re all about calling various plumbers and building managers and repairmen back in New York. It’s all to do with Pop’s subplot, so Pop grabs them and shoves them in his pocket and says it’s no big deal.

Hey, you remember that senator from the dinner party? The one who introduced Alex to Wersching and Crawford? He just got out of the elevator! Alex asks the senator if he can talk to him in private about some informal evidence, and the senator blows him off.

Which is when Louise runs in calling for help. Something’s going on with Dale!

Oh, awesome, it turns out that Dale has discovered Billy is alive and well and now they’re taking turns punching each other’s faces in! Right in the senate parking lot!

Except this might not be the best thing for Dale’s deteriorating reputation, so Alex steps in and stops it right when Billy starts whirling his arms like a monkey windmill.

The senator looks on in disgust as news cameras catch the whole thing and Alex orders Louise to take Dale home.

After the hubbub’s died down, Alex hurries back inside and he and Pop catch an elevator up to the senator’s office. It’s on the third floor, but the elevator stops on the second and Alex absentmindedly goes to leave before Pop stops him.

“Fascinating,” Alex chuckles a little embarrassedly as he gets back on the elevator. “When your mind’s on something else, all the floors look alike.”

He pauses, and makes that face amateur detectives make when the lightbulb goes off and they’ve stumbled onto the key to solving everything. The mundane cypher clue.

(“Darn slurpee machine won’t slurp! All I’m getting is the syrup and none of the ice!” Jack complains at the 7Eleven. Amateur Sleuth Ginger slowly lowers the copy of Vanity Fair she’s been skimming as she makes The Face, “All syrup and no ice! Jack, you’re brilliant!” She cries happily, running out of the store and towards the upcoming scene where she solves the crime in a parlour full of suspects.)

Meanwhile, down in the parking lot, Hilliard approaches the newly bruised Billy to scold him for making an idiotic public display. It’s actually a very interesting shot, we’re looking over Billy’s shoulder as he sits in the driver’s seat of his car and checks out his bruised cheek in the rear view mirror. Then Hilliard steps into the negative space of the mirror, but because he’s standing on the pavement behind the car, we get almost a full view of him. It gives a real sense that Hilliard is the major power player in all of this.

“Don’t do anything embarrassing,” Hilliard warns Billy, then stalks out of the view of the mirror.
Billy watches him bitterly.

Upstairs, the senator’s office is mahogany panelled and full of many decorative ferns. A sizeable bronze statue of an eagle killing a fish sits behind his desk, next to a limp American flag. The senator seems angry about how the day is shaking out as he leads Alex and Pop inside. Dale was supposed to provide concrete evidence of corruption, and now it looks like Dale can’t even provide concrete evidence of his own sanity.

Alex suggests that he can offer evidence of Republic Lane, which would imply a larger conspiracy to cover up any collusion, and thus enable a more thorough investigation.

We’re just going with it. Don’t ask questions, we’ve got a lot to cram into the final act.

All Alex needs to prove the existence of Republic Lane and confirm Dale’s sanity once and for all is a one day adjournment. And also a charter bus and driver, but he forgets to mention the last part.

The senator agrees.

Okay! Time to sort out the business of Pop and the repair bills!

Back at the hotel, Alex gets another bill from a tradesman, and finally gets Pop to explain what happened. He was running an illegal bingo ring out of the apartment, and the police came and knocked on the door, so he and the fellas flushed all the daubers. It was a simple misunderstanding that destroyed the building’s entire plumbing system and cost Alex a lot of scratch. And, even though he’s a magician, he can’t just make money appear. So he’s annoyed.

Wackiness quotient met.

After that, Louise calls sounding frantic. We only get Alex’s half of the conversation, but it turns out that Dale’s on his way over to Billy’s apartment to, I don’t know, punch Billy in the face some more and destroy his Rolex collection with a rusty axe. Something crazy. People are always saying Dale is totally sane, but then he does really bananas things.

Alex hurries to Billy’s apartment where he finds Dale standing over Billy’s corpse, a gun on the carpet nearby.

“There was somebody here first,” Dale says, very concerned, as Alex looks at him with deep disappointment.

Apart from one rather dubious entry in the Star Trek canon, Lee Sheldon was also head writer on legal soap opera The Edge of Night. I have noticed that when soap writers contribute scripts to mystery shows, it always takes forever to get to the actual murder. A soap writer usually has the actual death, like here, around the forty minute mark. A traditional mystery episode usually has it at the twenty minute mark.

Anyway, the bell now tolls for 80’s guy Billy.

Dale says he caught a glimpse of someone heading out the window, and doesn’t tell us why he didn’t chase them or something, but Alex decides to go for it. He hurries down the fire escape, sees the van from that weird night on Republic Lane drive off, and goes to get in his car to pursue. Only someone has popped his hood and ripped out a whole bunch of car guts. It looks like a fast, capable disabling of the engine.

That thing’s a rental, so I hope Alex bought the insurance.

When next we see our heroes, Dale is being arrested by Captain Perry.

Perry tells Dale that they have to take him in for questioning and looks annoyed when Alex brings up Republic Lane again.

Dale somberly ducks into the police car.

Then it’s a sudden shift of gears, as we see General Wersching’s limo pull up alongside Alex and Major Crawford, standing at what looks like a park curb. Wersching puts his window down and says he’s sorry to hear about Dale murdering Billy in cold blood, but it wasn’t a surprise. Everybody knew Dale was cray-cray. (Psst, General, he’s not actually nuts, your PR people made that up.)

The upshot of this conversation is that Wersching is agreeing to participate in Alex’s charter bus field trip at the hearing tomorrow.

Of course, the next scene tells us that our senator friend is not too keen on the bus field trip. Senators do not get packed onto buses like sardines and driven around by magicians.

Helping Alex convince the senator is Major Crawford, who explains that Wersching is in full cooperation. Upon hearing that, the senator concedes.

Next stop is to pick up Hilliard at his fancy office, and he’s bemusedly reluctant to uncover the secrets of Republic Lane, but as the last holdout, he has little choice in the matter.

So now everyone involved is rounded up and on a bus.

Stop one is Crane Avenue, where Alex makes a big show of having everyone get off the bus and observe the campaign posters, the trashcans, all the little things that the camera lovingly lingered on during Dale’s first visit.

“Republic Lane still appears to be missing, Mr. Blacke,” the senator drawls, wearing enormous sunglasses that imply a hangover or the early stages of cataracts.

“Not for long, senator. Not for long.”

Alex leads the group away for a brief walkthrough of what happened to Dale that night, and while he does, Pop rounds up the garbage cans.

Alex loops the crowd around to the Donut Hole and goes over everything that happened with the cops, then has them board a second bus that’s going to take them, according to Alex, back to Republic Lane.

And it does! It drives them to what appears to be the same block of Crane Avenue, with the same trash cans, courtesy of Pop, and the same campaign poster. But this time, there’s the alleyway that leads to Republic Lane. Right where Dale left it.

“Can’t be! There is no such street!” The senator shakes his head.

“You’re absolutely right. There is no such street. This is actually Constellation Court,” Alex smiles, “Let me explain the illusion.”

Ordinarily, Alex, I would be happy to, but you ramble a lot and explain parts we don’t need explained, so I’m going to speed things up.

Billy’s co-conspirator killed him twice, the first time was the staged killing on Republic Lane, and the second time was for real. On the first night, Billy’s partner fired the blank, ensured that Dale’s car locks were jammed to keep him on foot, and corralled him with the van until he was disoriented and far from the scene.

While this was happening, Billy popped right up from his non-death and went about making Republic Lane disappear. He pulled down the street sign, and replaced it with the real one for Constellation Court. Then he moved the poster and trash cans back down Crane Avenue; he’d taken them from several blocks away and moved them down to the curb to help construct the illusion.

Dale’s car was hotwired, so all Billy had to do was drive it back down to where he got the cans and poster, to make it seem like Dale had lost a street that never existed.


Alex leads the group back outside, where Perry and his cops are waiting to make an arrest.

“The big finish,” Alex explains. “Every good act has one.”

“Who the devil was Maddox’s partner?” The senator demands crankily.

Partners. In the plural.

First there was Hilliard, calling the shots and arranging the whole thing. No surprise there with how he’s been looming in mirrors. He gave the orders to his military contact.

Wersching starts sputtering objections, but Alex quickly assures him that we all know it wasn’t General Wersching. He doesn’t have the knowledge of mechanics that keeps coming up, like how to jam a lock, or hotwire a car so it doesn’t show, or pull the distributor cap out of a rented El Dorado in order to flee the scene of a murder. Somebody with motor pool experience could do all of that, though.

Someone like Major Crawford.

“Wait a minute,” Hilliard pipes up, “when I told Madeline to take care of it, I meant to take care of Dale as a witness. I didn’t want anybody killed.”

“Push a military button, Mr. Hilliard, you get a military response,” Alex says judgmentally.

That’s not very nice, Alex. The people in the military are people, with personalities and responses as varied as—oh! Crawford’s got a gun!

She stole it from Perry while everyone was grandstanding!

She flees into the appliance store, and Alex follows. She takes aim at him, and fires right at his head.
He flinches a little, then stands upright, with a golden bullet glimmering between his teeth.

It’s the magician’s bullet catch.

Crawford stares at him in horror.

Of course, it’s all an illusion. For starters, the bullet catch is not something you can do on a whim. And also, even with years of practice, it’s super dangerous, so no bullet catches in the backyard. Ever.

“Oh, I wish I could’ve seen that!” Louise laughs, as Alex and Pop get ready to leave the next day.
Pop, forgetting that she used to be Alex’s assistant and magician’s assistants seriously do 90% of most tricks, starts to explain to her that Alex removed the bullets from Perry’s gun. Louise stops him, and tells him she knows all about it.

“I used to work for the best magician in the world.”

She and Dale wave as Alex and Pop head off for the airport.

Just one more argument about the flushed bingo daubers, and that’s it for this episode. Ending on a humorous squabble about plumbing.

So there you have an episode of the much mourned Blacke’s Magic. People were seriously bummed that there wasn’t more when the series was abruptly cancelled after thirteen episodes. And you can make a pretty compelling case that, given time to find its feet, it could’ve been a good show. Also, admittedly, this wasn’t the best episode from its brief run, but it does highlight a lot of what was going wrong with the core concept.

Great casting, though.


  1. Fun Fact:

    When ABC discontinued Edge Of Night in 1984, Lee Sheldon was its headwriter.

    Procter & Gamble, which owned Edge, wanted to keep the show going, perhaps with a sale to another network or a cable outlet.
    P&G assigned Lee Sheldon to come up with an "impossible crime" scenario for the final episode; the plan was to stir up the few remaining fans to demand Edge's pickup.

    Sheldon came up with the "disappearing street" gimmick, which took up most of the final show.
    The groundswell, alas, never happened, and Edge went off, to the disappointment of its remaining fans (including me).

    Comes 1986, and Lee Sheldon is engaged to come up with "impossible crimes" for Blacke's Magic.
    A good mystery writer never lets a good twist go to waste, and so Sheldon takes his "disappearing street" from Edge, changing the plot details around but leaving the gimmick intact, and voila! - an all-new (sorta) Blacke's Magic!

    This happened a lot more than you might think.

    Indeed, the Blacke's pilot, airing earlier in the season, lifted its murder gimmick from a twenty-year-old episode of Burke's Law.
    Levinson & Link wrote the Burke's episode back in '64; Peter Fischer used the gimmick with L&L's full cooperation (and credit).
    Thusly, the use of Sheldon's "disappearing street" (which hadn't gotten on the air anyway) presented no problem whatsoever for Levinson, Link, Fischer, or Sheldon.
    It's Just TV!.

    1. I think my favourite example of recycled stories was when the writer's strike in the 50's forced Bourbon Street Beat to file off the serial numbers from the previous season of 77 Sunset Strip. All the writers had officially sold the scripts to Warner Bros the year before, so they couldn't complain about WB retooling them.

      What I always remember about the story was one of the stable of regular directors wound up filming the same script twice, once for 77 and once for Bourbon Street, and the legend goes he didn't even notice until somebody pointed it out to him afterwards.

      I've haven't seen much of Edge of Night, just a few clips mostly, it can be tough to track down serials and soaps. But I'd be interested to see if Sheldon was a stronger writer with long arcs to let him get more character development in. And also, I'm a Perry Mason fan and like to see all its weird incarnations.

      Anyway, thanks for the additional insight, Mike! Very interesting stuff!

  2. Long "arcs" (or storylines, as they used to be called) were a necessity for a show that ran five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year.

    Lee Sheldon came on to Edge Of Night in early 1984, replacing the show's long-tenured headwriter, Henry Slesar (who'd just won an Edgar from the Mystery Writers Of America for his twenty year stint).
    Sheldon started off by killing off a popular leading lady, to the distress of long-time EON fans (who never forgave him). The murder keyed into a larger mystery, which in its turned interlocked into several smaller mysteries, culminating in an elaborate locked-room whodunit which took up most of the summer and fall of '84.
    The wrap-up took two half-hours to explain completely.
    - and you know what? It was GOOD!
    Over the year he was there, Lee Sheldon did a very good job with Edge Of Night.
    So when I saw his name on Blacke's Magic - well, I was home.