A New Orleans Story
Kogel's Magic and Novelty Company in Uptown New Orleans
Cellini hands out the Cups and Balls for inspection on Jackson Square during the Easter holiday, 1980.
The streetcar screeched to a halt at
First Street and St. Charles Avenue,
we hopped off, and walked across to
Kogel's Magic and Novelty Company.
The air outside was as stifling as the inside of the streetcar, one of those humid, hot days in February where it hit ninety degrees. The magic shop was in a house, a pale green Greek Revival with iron filigree railings on the upper balcony. No shop sign advertised its name. Shadows from oaks, palms, and banana trees formed speckled patterns that rippled across the beveled glass in tall windows. The swollen wood on the steps to Kogel's front porch creaked underneath our feet, soft sighs escaping from the slanting floorboards. I shivered in spite of the heat. Parts of this area were haunted by vampires and other nefarious creatures of the spirit world, some buried in the above-ground Lafayette Cemetery No.1 just blocks away.
The hinges of the wrought iron front door grated. Kogel stood there, a short and pale butterball in his signature Hawaiian shirt and checkered pants, one hand on his heart.
"Cellini! My main man! Come on in, y'all. I got all kinds of new stuff." He had that weird New Orleans Yat accent, like someone hailing from Brooklyn in New York City.
Kogel, better known as the Professor, ushered
us into the main living room, to the right of the staircase, that served as his shop. It was dark and cool inside, a relief from the sultriness outside.
A faint odor of mildew tainted the room. With ceilings at least twenty feet high, the interior appeared like a cavernous storehouse. Giant
floor-to-ceiling mirrors with gilt frames on the opposite wall reflected the jumble of furniture and magic paraphernalia. An enormous hand-carved dining table held magic books, posters, wonder boxes, sponge balls, blooming flower tricks, and assortments of conjuring effects. A sawing-a-woman-in-half box big enough for a stage illusion, and garishly painted in reds and greens, sat by the table. Unlike any other magic store, we had to call ahead to make an appointment.
The place suited The Professor's personality—I wasn't sure if Kogel was called The Professor because that was his name as a practicing magician or whether he'd actually been a professor. But he'd been involved in magic for more than forty years. I glanced over at Jim and Kogel, engrossed in conversation. Magicians were like a species apart, an odd group of people who had so much to talk about. As always, I felt like an outsider looking in. What a strange life I'm leading, I thought. I ran a hand over a set of five volumes of the Tarbell Course in Magic that sat on top of the table, shrink-wrapped and waiting to be opened. Jim said the Tarbell Course consisted of more lessons in every aspect of magic than anything else available—from sleight-of-hand to mentalism to stage illusions. I wandered over to a set of vintage cabinets and peeked in drawers full of prestidigitation and shtick bundled in plastic bags.
In one of the mirrors, I saw the reflection of Kogel's wife Doddy taking a seat on the bench in front of an upright organ. I hadn't noticed the organ by the entranceway near the hall. She held a hand over her head and waved. Two mangy mutts jumped up and sat on each side of her. I whirled around when I saw the dogs tapping on the organ keys. The two practiced the tune Do-Re-Mi from the Sound of Music. I crossed the room in disbelief, They immediately stopped playing. The coal black male turned his body toward me and yawned wide, working his jaw from side to side.
"She taught us another song," he said in a distinct husky tone.
He yawned again, all teeth and a quivering pink tongue. I tiptoed past as he swiveled around, watching me with a half-lidded sleepy look. I leaned against the organ, gaping at Doddy Dressed in a black sheath dress, the crepey skin that hung off her stick-thin frame shook like jello as she laughed.
"Hello, deary, I've taught my lovelies a brand new tune," Doddy said, her voice gruff and masculine. After she winked at me, then winked again, the pieces tumbled into place. I dropped to my knees and rocked onto my haunches.
Pressing a hand to my chest, I said, "Swear to God, Doddy, I almost had heart failure. Totally forgot you were a ventriloquist."
"Had you fooled, didn't I?" she said in her regular voice, sweet and melodious. Bits of red lipstick spotted her toothy smile. The mutts rested against her, smiling down at me.
Red-faced, I clutched at the side of the organ and climbed to my feet. "Good Lord, way more than that. You made me believe the dog was actually talking to me, even if just for a minute."
I looked at Jim and Kogel, both in stitches over the performance, and I had to laugh at myself. People were always playing tricks on me because I was such a sucker, even after working on the street for three years, I rarely saw it coming but learned to roll with it.
I fed the mongrels doggy treats from a bowl on top of the console, scratched them on the head, and they thumped their tails against the bench. At Doddy's signal, the sweet-faced female started the Do-Re-Mi tune over again, one paw hitting each key, and the male continued the duet with So, La, Te, Do. As Doddy bent forward and finished the song with So, Do, I could patches of eczema on her scalp and her perfume couldn't hide the old=person smell.
The three of us clapped when they finished. The dogs jumped off the bench as she got up and bowed. After brushing stray hairs off her dress, she floated across the room toward the kitchen, the two mutts dancing beside her on their hind legs.
In a daze, I walked over to the dining table. Jim, bent over in a fit of giggles. "The Professor said she needed the practice," Jim gasped, holding onto the edge of the table with both hands. "For some sort of charity event."
Shaking my head, I said, "So I got fooled. She's really good at what she does."
"She is indeed," Jim agreed, catching his breath. "The dog act is a nice touch."
Kogel beamed. "She's very talented. You should've seen the two of back in the day. Picture this, I used to be the dummy in her act."
We burst out laughing again. Questions about their act were better left unspoken.
True eccentrics, Gottleib Kogel and his wife Doddy were practicing nudists. They owned the Indian Hills Nudist Camp outside of New Orleans near Slidell. He told us he'd put on some quirky, comedy magic shows at the nudist camp, wearing only a top hat as his costume. Once he featured the levitation of an infamous stripper, renowned for crashing the career of a prominent U.S. congressman.
I looked at the Professor and then back again at the swinging kitchen doorway through which Doddy had disappeared. I tried to shut out the image of him sitting on her lap as they performed a ventriloquist act in the buff.