Harry and the Left-handed League

Magician turned sit-come star Harry Anderson

returns to Austin's Palmer Auditorium


Turk Pipkin

(Originally appeared in the Austin Chronicle)

Twenty-five years ago, when Austin was one of the best places on earth to experience a cosmic collision of fates, I drove my '59 International Harvester bread truck/hippie-mobile down to Armadillo World Headquarters and told the folks in charge I should be their opening act that very night. But wouldn't you know it, they already had an opener, some street magician named Harry Anderson with whom I soon stuck up a conversation, a joint, and a lifelong friendship (well, at least so far).

In some ways, it was inevitable. We were two of only a few successful street performers in the country; our acts complimented rather than conflicted — I was a lousy magician and Harry couldn't juggle to save his life — which meant we didn't have to compete with each other.

A few months after that first encounter, Harry asked me one night, "You want to be partners?"

I didn't know exactly what he meant by that, but I knew a good deal when I heard one. So for twenty-five years we've been partners, and I'm still not sure what it means.

For the first few years, despite the fact that both of us spent most of the year on the road, we always ran into each other in Austin, though we’d uncannily bump into each other almost anywhere in our respective driving and performing pilgrimages from New Orleans to the Northwest.

A magician since his early childhood with a mother Harry readily admitted was known to turn a trick or two to pay for her drinking, Harry hit the streets early himself, fleecing San Francisco tourists with the three shell game with a, “Lookee, lookee, lookee, It’s the one in the middle... which one is it now.". Game enough to pull off this classic scam, Harry still wasn’t wise enough to realize that no one with any brains runs a shell game or three card monte without an accompanying gang of look-outs, shills paid to juice up the action and some muscle to chill out any serious beefs.

Going solo, of course, eventually ended the only way it could, with a guy so pissed off that he’d lost a couple of twenties and looked like a fool to boot, that he sucker-punched Harry, breaking his jaw which remained wired shut for months afterward. An extended liquid diet consisting mostly of Southern Comfort led Harry to the conclusion that accepting donations might be healthier than simply taking them.

By the time we met, I’d survived my own travails, including a three year encounter with an unlucky draft number and the U.S. Navy by going AWOL whenever an unmissable opportunity arose to pass the hat. If the Grateful Dead (or nearly anyone great) was in town, I'd beg or buy my way off ship for a chance to work the lines waiting to get into the concert. One night in L.A., after talking my way into an opening spot at an Emmylou Harris-Leon Redbone concert, Emmylou suggested that I come down to Dodger Stadium the next two days and juggle somewhere between her set, the Eagles and Elton John - the first ever rock concerts at the stadium.

With no more credentials than her tip, I made my way past a dozen security checkpoints, got myself introduced to 70,000 fans and finished my torch juggling act before getting the boot, all of it without too much concern over the fact that a long-unresolved dispute over my Conscientious Objector claim had left me permanently AWOL and prominent in the files of every law enforcement agency in the country. Evicted from the stage, I waded into the 70,000 plus crowd and performed first on the pitcher’s mound, then on both team dugouts and on the warning track at all three corners of the field. The crowd was so jam-packed that it took longer to pass the hat each time than it did to actually do the show. At some point I met one of those beautiful prototypical California beach chicks who offered to help me pass the hat, which, since I was performing a piece of clowning about a guy rolling and smoking a fifteen foot doobie, always came back almost as filled with drugs as it was money.

Parked at the beach that Sunday evening with my very temporary new surfer girlfriend, we counted out a thousand bucks in small bills and change, a couple of hundred multi-colored joints and enough questionable acid and mysterious pharmaceuticals to light up Santa Monica.

The only thing all that has to do with Harry is that I used the dough to hire a lawyer who got convinced the Navy I'd been right along so that I soon found myself in Austin where Harry and I met and soon became partners, probably because it was destiny, but possibly because I still had a lot of mystery joints hidden beneath the floor of my van.

For a time, the money we made was mostly dropped in our hats, but it doesn’t take long to get tired of that routine and start looking for some real clubs or theaters or college union shows that would actually tell you how much you were going to make BEFORE the show.

Soon Harry took residence in the old Alamo Hotel, living for months next door to LBJ's neer-do-well brother, Sam Houston Johnson, who frequently greeted us in his smoking jacket as he let Zip the elevator man bring a bottle to his room.

Having sold my step van to pay for an extended trip to Europe, where the street gigs were lucrative but the European girls less susceptible to my bullshit, I was living in west campus with the Art & Sausages gonzo political gang and could be found nearly every midnight eating pie and drinking coffee with Harry at the old Steak & Eggs on 19th St. (before the name was changed to MLK) where we talked about comedy and magic, movies and theater.

Harry had taken a happy hour gig doing close-up magic at Mike and Charlie’s Bar so his hands and mind were constantly working, stacking cards and loading dice, and generally dreaming up new ways to put on the shuck on the same overflow crowd of regulars who came by every night to see what he'd dreamed up.

At some point, Harry decided he’d created or learned 24 hours of card magic so Michelle Jarouschy (bless his soul) booked him into the Gaslight Theater (later the Capital City Playhouse, now Fadó) where Harry did just that, 24 hours of card magic without repeating a trick. I spent the whole 24 hours gathering the huge piles of spent decks and sorting into blues and red, bicycles and ??, marking or stacking them for whatever tricks I thought might be next.

Harry made a quick trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras where he spent three days in the drunk tank for passing the hat, an experience he must not have minded much since he soon moved back to New Orleans where I temporarily lost track of him. No problem, I drove down, walked into the first bar that caught my eye - the Alpenhof just off Jackson Square – and found Harry drinking a Dixie beer and demonstrating the shell game.

In the meantime, I’d become the semi-regular opening act at the Armadillo, working with Spyro Gya, Talking Heads and Commander Cody, and eventually inheriting the New Year’s Eve gig after manager Bobby Hederman put Harry on at five minutes till midnight in front of a riotous partying crowd, then later had the gall to tell Harry that he, “didn’t go over too well.”

Months would pass without our seeing each other — I'd be in Italy or Harry in Ashland at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival – then we'd hook back up and trade notes on what we'd learned. When you're inventing a path that no one's been down before, it is very little about money and almost completely about what you can learn. The trick was to book a gig - say a two hour one man show at Capital City Playhouse - that forced you to create new material. I figured if Harry could pull it off, then so could I. It wasn't until years later that I realized he was thinking the same thing about me.

After an extended trip to Great Britain, Harry returned to Austin with his new partner and wife, Leslie, and told me that they were moving to Hollywood where he was going to become a television star. I thought he was nuts and wished him luck.

Within months I was camped out on the futon sofa of their one room apartment, ideally situated in a drug infested neighborhood just a block off Hollywood Boulevard. Every weekday began with the three of us gathering around Harry and Leslie's tiny television with a 4" screen watching David Letterman's short-lived but brilliant morning show. Harry quickly introduced me to his clubhouse, the nearby Magic Castle where some of the greatest magical minds of our century were happy to spend their waning years passing on the secrets of their trade.

Soon I was living in L.A. myself, performing at comedy clubs, learning what I could and chipping in my two cents worth as Harry created a smart-ass stage persona named Harry the Hat who took no prisoners and became infamous for acts like shoving needles through his arm, swearing all the while that it was an illusion — "Like economic recovery," he'd ad— but, oh what an illusion when that bright red blood came trickling down his arm!

One day we drove out to Azusa, California to do a little shopping at an old-fashioned illusion factory called Owen Magic and the owner Les Smith showed us a vintage gambler's hold-out – an piece of intricate brass machining with which a card player could surreptitiously hook a hidden wire from one knee to the other and mechanically switch an ace from his sleeve to his hand.

"They took that one off a body that washed up years ago on Santa Monica beach," Les told us. Harry didn't know why but he had to have it. Driving back to home, we hustled to think of how he'd explain to his wife that he'd just spent their entire savings of $800 on a useless gambling prop. By the time we reached Hollywood, Harry had written an entire new act in which the hold-out was the absurdly impossible explanation for how he'd performed a torn and restored bill trick, taking off his jacket and pants to show how'd he'd hooked his knee together and done the trick. The point, of course, was that his pants were down and his boxer shorts ridiculous. Audiences loved it, and the next time I turned on a tv, Harry was in Vegas, on Saturday Night Live and just about anywhere else you turned the dial (because there weren't yet all that many choices).

As one might expect, as Harry's 'partner' I didn't share in all his success, but the truth is, I didn't do too bad. When Harry the Hat was made a semi-regular cast member in a new NBC sit-com called "Cheers," he managed to sneak me in the door as the warm-up act for the tapings. We co-wrote a Harry the Hat book that sold better than any of the six I've since published, and magic specials for Showtime, CBS and NBC

The day following Harry's debut on Cheers, the sitcom pilot scripts came pouring in, and I took it upon myself to wade through all the shit (and most were shit) in search of something worthwhile. One day I pulled a script called "NightCourt" out of the trash, read about twenty pages and told Harry, "I think you better take a look at this."

Harry took a hard look, got the part and was soon living in a Michael Landon's former manse, which Harry renamed "Casa Residuales."

Sometimes we took our partnership a little too seriously. When Christy and I got married in Austin, Harry was our best man. Then two days later, Harry and I embarked on a nationwide club and concert tour, including a Honeymoon stop at Niagara Falls where we had our picture taken together on the Maid of the Mist. While we were touring, I was his opening act, road manager and called the lights and sound for his set. In our spare time, we pieced together a one-hour special for Showtime called "Hello, Sucker." At Harry's insistence, I was a co-starring second banana, and though the show turned out great, it was obvious I wasn't going to repeat Harry's successes on TV.

No matter, I'd assimilated enough television knowledge from being around my partner to start getting network writing gigs, a long string which thankfully continues to this day. Through it all, one of our most gloriously ridiculous endeavors was a company of wiseguys which Harry assembled and called The Left Handed League.

For a couple of years in the early 80s we were Harry the Hat's gang, consisting of mentalist Leslie Anderson, ventriloquist and star of the sitcom Soap Jay Johnson, magician and aspiring publisher Mike Caveney, second generation British magician Martin Lewis, and an exceedingly beautiful exotic dancer/witch/magician named Katlyn Miller. Though everyone was indeed left-handed except for me (who was explained as either ambidextrous or left-brained) our name was based more on our left-handed methods of getting things done. Truthfully, no one knew what to think of us, and that, of course, was our greatest strength.

Occasionally we all gathered to put on a weird and wonderful Halloween or New Year's show, but our chief celebrity rested in our claim to have never failed to solve any problem, or create any deception required.

(Certainly our problem-solving skills were unique. Martin Lewis's self-described motto in the league was "The British Cheat." But when his business cards came back from the printer reading "The British Chest," Martin solved the problem by declaring the typo an improvement.)

"Mental and Physical Phenomena, Psychic and Mystic manifestations, Locks and Pockets Picked," read a pitch sheet I wrote to describe our collective talents. "Sophists and Pharisees undone. The Boundaries of Reality Godlessly Gerrymandered." The phrases just kept coming, I couldn't stop.

The amazing thing was that Hollywood actually fell this incredible load of bull. HBO optioned a movie based on a play written by Harry; Bud Shrake and Dan Jenkins sold us to a studio to create a third act sting for a con movie they were writing.

"We told them the truth and they fell for it," became one of Harry's favorite sayings.

The pinnacle of our gall, if I can be so bold, probably occurred in 1982 when the League decided that the world of magic was ripe for parody, especially those often fatuous magic magazines, only a couple of paragraphs of which would put anyone but a stone cold magic geek into a life-long coma. Since the most widely read of these was Genie Magazine, it was only a small leap of logic to write and publish "Wenii" a nicely executed lampoon of Genie in which a large amount of the humor was derived from dick jokes. In Wenii the father of modern magic was not Harry Houdini, but Harry Hujuini, the illustrations of the tricks featured hands with six fingers, and the reviewed magic tricks were rated with magician's wands ranging from stiff to limp. If it sounds Sophmoric, it was meant to be (or so we claimed). If we had properly skewered the dicks of the magic world (as nearly everyone seemed to believe), the we figured the world of magic was better off for it.

To this day, my favorite all-time piece of comedy writing is Mike Caveney's fictitious (but all to real) review of the Southern California Unified Magican's (S.C.U.M.) Conference in Monrovia, California. The hit of the show, according to Mike, was a mentalist named Eddie Nomber who covered his eyes with two metal washers, scotch tape, glazed donuts, 45 rpm records and wrapped his whole head in Saran Wrap.

"Am I holding a pair of glasses," asked his assistant who was wandering through the audience testing his skills.

"Yes," replied Mr. Nomber.

Item after item was held aloft and Eddie never failed with the correct response. Even when she tried to stump him: "A lawnmower?" "No." "A cattle prod?" "No." "A comb?" Yes."

Finally she asked, "Am I holding up a S.C.U.M. bag?" and Eddie responded, "You are surrounded by S.C.U.M. bags!" The audience roared its approval.

I tell you this and all the rest as one of the longest invitations cum recommendations on record. Labor Day weekend, Harry Anderson and The Left-Handed League will be performing our 20th Anniversary reunion show at Palmer Auditorium as part of the statewide convention of the Texas Association of Magicians.

No word yet on whether any S.CU.M. bags will be in attendance, and I don't know whether Harry will be dropping trou, "eating the pig," or shoving a needle through his arm for your entertainment, but I do know that it's Harry's first show in Austin in over a decade (and his first visit since we both had vasectomies by local urologist Dick Chop, which I wrote about for Playboy and which I can assure you was taking the partnership thing a bit too far).

Palmer Auditorium is hardly the same as the Armadillo where Harry and I met, but I'm taking comfort in the fact that it's right across the street from the spot where my life took a left-handed turn for the better. Hey, what more can you ask?

All materials copyright, Turk Pipkin, unless otherwise noted.