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Magicians keep alive the legacy of Forks Hotel

Once a year, as close to the April Fool's eve anniversary of Eddie Fechter's death as they can get, four professional magicians from two generations come together in Mount Calvary Cemetery.

They meet as they did last week, to scrape away dirt and grass that has crowded Fechter's flat gravestone and conjure memories of an old friend who taught the powerful magic of humor, charm and disappearing cards at his bygone Forks Hotel.

"You learned how to perform That's the real secret of magic," said Harrison Carroll, one of the older magicians, of the craft that became his profession at the Forks.

The Cheektowaga place, with the giant papier mache rabbit pulling a magician out of a hat in the front, was a bar and a kind of magicians' clubhouse and training ground. Most traces of its existence have vanished. A plain brick credit union across from Cheektowaga Town Hall replaced the hotel after it burned down in 1998. Fechter, who died in 1976 at 60, has been gone even longer.

But the men who stood talking by the grave's clumps of artificial flowers said they owe a debt to the world-class sleight of hand artist, who showed Carroll and others how to make a full-time living enchanting people with comedy and illusions.

By making this annual trip to Fechter's gravestone by the cemetery chapel, Carroll, 62, and his old friend, Rob Allen, 60, pay tribute and pass on Forks magic and camaraderie. About six years ago, they invited two younger magicians, who never knew Fechter, to join their April tradition: Paul Richards, 40, owner of the online store Elmwood Magic, and Mike Seege, 35, a magician who performs at restaurants and clubs in and out of Buffalo.

Allen, Carroll and Richards have been helping Seege refine his approach to the magic business since he quit his factory job five years ago to focus on performing full time.

"Like Eddie was to them, that's how they are to me," said Seege, who used to work in Richards' store when it was open on Elmwood. "Anytime I ever have any questions, these are the only guys I call."

After the graves of Fechter and his wife, Evelyn, were clean, the magicians were drinking coffee, eating eggs, talking shop, reminiscing and making cards and a creamer disappear.

There were even Fechter memories emanating from the diner where magicians ate breakfast last week: Alton's is at the corner of Transit and Walden, on the same spot as another bygone diner -- Anjon's -- where Fechter used to walk in, making people laugh by peeling off winter layers, dropping hat, scarf and gloves on the floor and leaving a trail as he made his way to a booth.

Once settled, he would start bending a spoon so its bowl would break off. Then he would stir the coffee with the stem handle. When the waitress asked how everything was, he'd lift it up and say, "The coffee's a little strong."

"I actually still have one of those spoons at home," said Allen, who made that giant papier mache rabbit.

Carroll learned from watching Fechter that magic is as much about mining unique personality traits as it is about the tricks.

"It starts in your soul," he said. "If you really want people to feel the magic, it has to come from inside of you."

Fechter, a World War II veteran and tattoo artist who once wrestled Joe Louis, was a burly practical joker with tattoos on his arms and a teddy bear personality. He first learned card tricks from his father, who ran a bar.

Fechter bought the old hotel with the money he made tattooing soldiers, Carroll said. He turned the Forks into a place where crowds came for fried fish, drinks and to see magicians perform sleight of hand the "close-up" magic of cards vanishing and even appearing on the ceiling. They played to crowds at the big horseshoe bar and back room tables.

The place drew magicians from all over, said Carroll, including the late Canadian magician Doug Henning -- before he became famous for his Tonight Show and Broadway performances.

Carroll and Allen turned careers from Forks magic lessons into well-paying, business-oriented performances at trade shows and conferences. Carroll traveled the world for clients such as Xerox, splitting one dollar bill into two to demonstrate copying. Allen still performs with his wife, Carol. They've been designing shows for the local Dairy Council, including a quiz for kids and blowing up a rubber glove and then milking it as if it were an udder.

In the 1970s, Fechter started holding an invitation-only, annual "Fechter's Finger Flicking Frolic" convention for people who do "close-up," table-side magic. It is scheduled for later this month in Batavia.

At the breakfast table in the diner, the magicians wisecracked and a deck of cards appeared.

Seege joked about all the time he'd spent refining his signature trick. "It's funny that someone would devote 18 years to a paper clip," he said before beginning. A woman sitting next to him picked a card, the seven of hearts. He asked her to sign it. As Seege shuffled and offered her choices from the deck, the card kept showing up. Other cards seemed to morph into the seven of hearts until it wound up stuck to Seege's forehead. Then, in a flash, a card seemed to have been left on the table, folded in a paper clip all the while. It was the signed seven of hearts.

Then Richards tried one of Fechter's tricks called, "Be honest, what is it?"

He started with two red aces on the table. Then he turned them over to be held in place by an observer's finger. When he turned them up again, they were black.

e-mail: mkearns@buffnews.com