Southern Mind Reading

Doctor Jacqueline Boles, professor of sociology emeritus at Georgia State University in Atlanta, told this story recently to as many devoted friends, colleagues, and former students as could fit into her Druid Hills ranch house for her “SURPRISE!” birthday party, planned, executed, catered and served by her children, spouses of children, and children of children:

A guy walks into a bar. He is dirty and smells terrible. Another guy at the bar says to him, “I know it’s none of my business, but, buddy, you smell really bad. Isn’t there anything you can do about that?” The first guy says, “I know I stink. I can’t help it. It’s my job.” The second man says, “What kind of a job do you have?” The first man says, “I clean out elephant poop in the circus.” The second man says, “Well, why don’t you get another job?” The first guy replies, “What, and quit show business?”

Dr. Boles also includes the story among others in her book LIFE UPON THE WICKED STAGE, a study of the lives of entertainers, singers, dancers, comics, actors, celebrities and small timers. She spices her social science methodology with personal experiences and wit. In the 1950’s, she performed as the lovely young female assistant in the stage and sideshow act of Rex Dane, magician and master mind reader, a.k.a. Don Boles, her beloved husband. She knows first hand the persistence required of entertainers, reporting that she and Don sometimes solicited 25 venues to obtain three bookings, a good result in show business. They performed in Tennessee and Georgia towns like McMinnville, Tullahoma, Murfreesboro, Shelbyville, Calhoun, Rome, and Dalton at small movie theaters with names such as Hickory, Capri, Bijou, Roxy, Towne, Ritz, State, and Strand.

Don Boles ran away from home in Andalusia, Alabama, and joined the carnival when he was 13. Jackie says, “After we married, he decided that we would go on the road with a mind reading act and spook show. Spook or ghost shows had peaked in the 1940’s, but we were young and enthusiastic. I was on his side, and he was on my side.” They scheduled the mind reading act Tuesdays through Fridays, before the movie feature. Rex Dane, Master Mentalist, dressed in a tuxedo. His assistant, Jackie, wore a strapless formal gown.

In the theater lobby, a fish bowl sat on a table under a sign encouraging patrons to write a question and sign their initials. Slips of paper and pencils were provided. The customer deposited the written question in the fish bowl. Before an usher carried the fish bowl to the stage, Jackie grabbed a handful of the written questions, which made their way into Rex Dane’s pocket.

“Ladies and gentlemen, tonight, I am going to prove to you the power of the human mind,” Rex Dane opened the show. “I am going to read your questions and answer them. But I need your help; you must concentrate your thoughts so that I can pick them up. My success, our success, depends on all of us working together.”

Rex Dane pulls a folded slip of paper from the fish bowl and holds it to his forehead. Palmed in his other hand is one of the questions previously stolen from the bowl by his assistant.  “I have the first initial J,” Rex Dane announces. “The second one is P. There’s another, L. The initials are JPL. Is there a JPL in the audience? Raise your hand and call out.” JPL raises his hand. Dane says, “Now, JPL, concentrate on your question.” Dane, hesitating, for effect, eventually speaks the question, “Does Mary really love me?” Dane answers to JPL, “Yes, she does, but she is shy, very shy. She needs time and encouragement. You must be patient and loving, and you and she will find great happiness.”

Rex Dane heeded the advice of Box Office Sensation Raja Raboid, Jackie quotes: “The money is in telling people they’re going to live happily ever after.” Before selecting a new question, Rex Dane set fire to the previous slip of paper. “Of course when he opened the slip, he was reading it. So he was always working one ahead,” Jackie reveals.

A rented hearse parked in front of the theater for the spook show Saturday night. At 11:00 P.M., Rex Dane followed double-feature horror movies. According to Jackie, “We used a variety of effects that were mystical or eerie, such as a spirit cabinet that let out steam and smoke. We also had the dancing handkerchief. The handkerchief moved when Don raised his hands. A simple thread ran through a knot in the handkerchief. Another assistant and I were on either end of the stage moving the thread up and down.”

“My favorite was the escape. I was chained and locked inside a wooden crate,” Jackie recalls. “Dane told the audience that I would escape from this box in no more than five minutes. I was tied up with ropes and chains and placed in the box which was then securely padlocked. Dane compared my ability to escape with none other than Houdini. I had saws and hammers and made a lot of noise. I would poke my head out of the crate and say, ‘Is it time?’ Don would say, ‘no,’ and I would stick my head back inside and saw some more. This effect was played strictly for laughs. We stole that bit from somebody; I don’t remember who.”

For the grand finale, all the lights were turned off and the ghosts and spooks ran thru the theater. “Big time spook shows carried elaborate costumes. Rex Dane and company used long poles with strips of cloth dipped in phosphorescent paint. We ran through the aisles brushing people with the cloth. We used small bottles filled with ice water to spray the cold breath on the backs of necks. The girls screamed and threw their arms around the boyfriends.  Of course, that was the point of the whole thing. The blackout was hot stuff back in the 1950’s,” Jackie said.

Before she became a southerner, Jackie was from Idaho, where the skies are not cloudy all day. However, she heard discouraging words when she enrolled in a doctoral program in graduate school. “You will be 45 by the time you get your PhD.” But she said, “I’ll be 45 whether I get my PhD or not.” A longtime favorite with students at GeorgiaStateUniversity, Dr. Boles was honored with The Jacqueline Boles Teaching Fellowship in Sociology, established upon her retirement. She continues to be an engaging guest speaker at campuses around the Atlanta area.

Studied in Life Upon the Wicked Stage are entertainers from tribal societies through modern Hollywood, shamans who employed the skills of ventriloquism and magic, dancing girls who doubled as prostitutes, court jesters and television stand-up comics. At the core of her research, Dr. Boles has sampled information in 117 biographies and autobiographies of entertainers, and she asks two central questions about the occupation: “why do people choose entertainment and why do they persist?”

You will recognize many of your favorites. Red Skelton, Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, the Marx Brothers, Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Sammy Davis, Jr., Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Gunther-Gebel Williams. 117 Stars 117. Plus some whose names you may not recognize but are nonetheless fascinating. Dr. Boles points out common traits, backgrounds, experiences, dreams. What’s best, she does so with great insight and humor. Still, there are serious drawbacks that make working in show business no laughing matter: persistent periods of unemployment, because there are never enough jobs to go around, the tragic deaths of talented people like Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Lenny Bruce, Hank Williams.

Life Upon the Wicked Stage by Jacqueline Boles can be ordered on-line at Amazon.com. So can Don’s Pinchpenny Press catalog, The Compleat Pitchman, Midway Magic, The Midway Showman, Independent Piano Technician, and Log Cabin Manual.

Here’s a riddle, a trick question, maybe a magic stunt: If you counted among your dearest friends a writer, a symphony violinist, a Russian folk musician, a magician, a raconteur, another author, a wit, a scholar, and a college professor, how many people would that be? Only two, if they were Jackie and Don Boles.

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Illustrations are from private collection property of Dr. Jacqueline Boles and are used by her permission.
William Cotter

William Cotter

I actually remember when THE ATLANTA JOURNAL claimed it "Covers Dixie Like the Dew," because 50 years ago, when I graduated from high school, I landed my first full-time job there as a copy boy. Thanks to city editor Harold E. Davis, I was promoted to city desk clerk, then later became the youngest of his young reporters, when they were still located at 10 Forsyth St., next to the train station (have I preceded your memory yet?). Before I left journalism in the 1970's to try and earn a living, I also had worked for THE DAILY JOURNAL of Elizabeth, N.J., had been a stringer for NEWSWEEK, and had written articles for Atlanta weeklies CREATIVE LOAFING and THE ATLANTA GAZETTE. In 2006, I was hospitalized with meningitis, three weeks in a coma, waking up with 100 percent hearing loss in both ears. I received a cochlear implant, which provides me a miraculous electronic approximation of hearing, although everybody sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks announcing the subway stops at the Atlanta Airport. After I was discharged from the hospital, I began to write a blog to see if anything about my brain still worked and if I could still type. In addition to my own blog COTTER PEN, I have been a contributor to the arts blog SOUTHERN CREATIVITY and helped design and launch other blogs about writers and artists.