The Importance of Signs
A story about a Mayor, a Medium, and a Magician
Joyce Servidio, mayor of Erie, was about to pour her second cup of coffee for the morning when she thought she heard someone knock on the front door of her home. A glance at the clock told her that it was six-thirty. Who could it possibly be at this hour? When she opened the door, no one was there. OK, she thought as she returned to the kitchen, so I thought I heard someone at the door. With all that's going on at City Hall right now, I'm not surprised.
An hour later, on her way to work, she spotted two street signs that should be replaced and a pothole on Brown Avenue big enough to cause motorists, also known as voters, unnecessary grief. Signs are important, she said to herself –- they tell you things you need to know. As for potholes, especially in a city with long, hard winters, they can come back to bite you on election day.
As she took the elevator to her office on the top floor of the Municipal Building, the mayor was preparing mentally for her meeting with City Council that afternoon. "The Three Amigos," as they liked to call themselves, were three councilmen who regularly opposed at least half the things she was trying to do to improve the city, and she was sure that today would be no exception.
Thank God for Rita, the mayor thought as she entered her office. She'll have some good arguments for me to use with the Amigos. Joyce and Rita Covello, her top aide, had grown up together in Erie's Little Italy. Rita was Joyce's campaign manager in her bid to become the city's first woman mayor, and together they had triumphed, or as Rita put it on election night, "Who would have thought, Joyce -- two little Italian girls."
"Good morning, Mayor. Coffee's ready," Rita said, "And wait till you see what I've got for you to beat the crap out of the Three Amigos with. Your first appointment is in half an hour." When one of the women on the staff came over and asked Rita an especially tough question, she raised her hands in a typical Italian gesture and said, "Contrary to what you may have heard, I'm not a magician, but I'll see what I can do."
The mayor's first appointment, with Ted Schenley, was a downer. Ted was in charge of construction at a site in front of the old post office at Griswold Plaza that was being transformed into a new city park. "I know we're a week behind schedule," he said apologetically, "but we keep having problems with the equipment."
"What kind of problems?" the mayor asked.
"It's the damndest thing –- pardon my language –- we keep having electrical problems with the trucks, the back hoes, everything with a motor. One minute something is working fine and the next minute the motor dies and we can't get it started."
"And you've had everything checked out by your mechanics?"
"Of course. But the weird thing is: they can't find anything wrong, and when they try to start it up again it kicks right in. It's enough to make you wonder if the place is haunted or something. Who knows –- maybe it's the site of an ancient Indian burial ground."
"All right. We'll have our top mechanic at the municipal garage stop by the site this afternoon."
"Thank you, Mayor," Ted said as he stood up. "Hopefully, we'll get to the bottom of this."
A few minutes later, Rita came into the mayor's office and said, "You're not going to believe this, but while you were talking to Ted somebody from Lily Dale called and wanted to speak with you."
"Lily Dale? Are you sure it wasn't a crank call?" the mayor said. Lily Dale, New York, a 50-minute drive from Erie, is the largest spiritualist community in the world. While only three-hundred souls call it home year-round, twenty thousand people visit it every summer to communicate with the dearly departed.
"The call came from the right area code, and the woman sounded very professional –- not what you'd expect from a crank call."
"I can't talk to her today. To be honest, I'm not sure I want to talk to her at all. Please call her back and try to find out what she wants."
"But Madame Mayor," Rita said, with an impish tone in her voice, "What if she has a message for you from somebody important who's crossed over –- like maybe Frank Sinatra?"
"Of course, why didn't I think of that?" Joyce said as she slapped her forehead with the flat of her hand. "My father met Frank at the Calabrese Club in Little Italy forty years ago. Maybe they didn't get a chance to finish their conversation. I'll check with my father the next time I see him."
The meeting with city council was even more contentious than Joyce had anticipated. I wish they'd spend half as much energy coming up with good ideas as they do opposing me, she thought on the drive home. As if to top off the day, she spotted another street sign that needed to be replaced. She made a mental note to talk to the head of the streets department first thing in the morning. Maybe I'll just show up at his office with a big sign that says "Signs are important," she thought as she started to smile.
During her coffee break the next morning, the mayor asked Rita if she had gotten back to the woman who called from Lily Dale.
"Yes, I did. I explained how busy you are and asked if there was anything I could do to be of assistance. She said she appreciated my offer but she really had to speak with you in person. She identified herself as Alicia Farnsworth and said that she's a registered medium at Lily Dale."
"I've heard of her. She's written a couple of books and she's been on several of the morning TV talk shows. But she wouldn't say anything about the reason for her call?"
"No, other than the fact that she felt it was something you would want to know. She said she's only done this once before where a person in public life was concerned. That person was the wife of a U.S. president, and when she finally got through to her, the First Lady was grateful that she had."
Joyce set her coffee mug on her desk with a thud. "The Three Amigos I know how to handle. Mysterious breakdowns at a major construction site I can cope with. But a phone call out of the blue from a nationally-known psychic? I don't think I signed up for that. Please call her and tell her that I can speak with her for ten minutes tops, and I don't know when I'll have that much time again."
When her phone rang five minutes later, Joyce picked up the receiver and said, "This is Mayor Servidio."
"Thank you for getting back to me, Mayor. My name is Alicia Farnsworth. I'm a certified medium with the American Spiritualist Association, and I've had a home at Lily Dale for the past twenty years. I know you're a very busy person, and I wouldn't dream of bothering you with something trivial, but I've been picking up a strong presence for a week or so, a presence that wishes to communicate with you on an important matter."
"All right. And who would this presence be?"
"Well, that's just it -- he won't come right out and identify himself. It's almost as if he expects you to know who he is. This much I can tell you: he was a person of great achievement in his earthly life. I can tell that from the way he comes through. And while I definitely feel that his intentions are not sinister, I also discern that he is skilled at deception if he chooses to be."
"And that's it? There's nothing more you can tell me about him?"
"Well, there is something else, but I hesitate to mention it because it's so unusual...so fantastic in a way."
"His presence, his persona, reminds me of the Wizard of Oz in the movie. Not the man behind the curtain, but the powerful, mysterious presence that Dorothy encounters when she finally gets in to see him."
Joyce took a deep breath. "And that's it?"
"He said that his desire to contact you has to do with something that happened at the Park Opera House in Erie in 1908. And I'm afraid that's all I can tell you at the moment."
As she looked at her watch, the mayor said, "Thank you for your call, Alicia. I have to be at an important meeting in a few minutes. I'll think about what you said, and if I have any questions I'll get back to you." After she hung up the phone, she looked up at the ceiling and said, "Why me, Lord, why me?"
Then, on an impulse, she picked up the phone and called the Erie County Historical Society. "This is Mayor Servidio," she said when the receptionist answered, "I need to speak with the director."
"Hello, Mayor, how are you this morning?" said Lena MacLaren a half a minute later.
"I'm well, thank you, Lena. I have a rather strange request."
"We specialize in those."
"Would it be possible for you to come up with a list of the major acts that performed at the Park Opera House in 1908?"
"Well, that's a bit off the beaten track. But you're in luck –- we have a complete set of playbills for the years 1898 through 1910."
"Great. Could you look through the playbills for 1908 and let me know if there were any outstanding acts?"
"Sure can. May I call you back after lunch?"
"Of course. And thank you for looking into this. I really appreciate it."
A few minutes before two that afternoon, the mayor got a call from Lena.
"Harry Kellar, the famous magician," Lena said before the mayor could say anything. "Erie was his hometown, and he made a point of performing here once a year, even after he became world-famous. His performance at the Park Opera House in 1908 was special because he was retiring later that year and it would be the last time he performed in Erie."
As Lena spoke, Joyce recalled something Alicia Farnsworth had said: "He was a person of great achievement in his earthly life, and while his intentions are not sinister, he is skilled at deception if he chooses to be." Who's more skilled at deception than a magician? Joyce thought.
"Thank you so much, Lena. One last question: Are you aware of any connection between Harry Kellar and the Wizard of Oz, the portrayal of the wizard in the movie, I mean?"
"Not really, but then I'm no expert on Kellar. Why not check with someone who is -- Erie magician Bobby Burgess."
"Great idea. Thanks for all your help. Lunch on me next time." After hanging up, Joyce sat back in her chair. "Harry Kellar," she said to herself slowly,
"Harry Kellar." Is that who's trying to contact me through Alicia Farnsworth? If so, why? And what possible connection could he have with the Wizard of Oz? Not one to leave questions unanswered, she had Rita contact nationally-known Erie magician Bobby Burgess and arrange a meeting at his home on Saturday.
When Joyce entered the basement of Bobby Burgess's home, she looked around in amazement. It was a combination museum and shrine dedicated to Harry Kellar, possibly the only native of Erie to achieve international acclaim. One whole wall was covered with framed photographs, some of Kellar by himself and others with Kellar and various magicians of the golden age of magic, including Herrmann, Houdini, Carter, and Thurston.
"I guess I don't have to ask who your hero is," Joyce said to Bobby. "How long have you been interested in Kellar?"
"I fell in love with magic when I was eight and got my first magic set for Christmas. When I was ten or eleven, I found out that Kellar was born in Erie, and he's been my role model ever since. He overcame incredible odds to become the greatest magician in the world."
While Bobby was talking, Joyce had been looking at a large vintage poster of Kellar that hung on the wall above him. She had never seen a likeness of the master magician and was immediately struck by the powerful image he projected, especially the aura of mystery and authority that seemed to emanate from his face, a face that reminded her of... She had to stop and think for a moment, and then the answer came: The Wizard of Oz.
"Bobby," Joyce began slowly, "has Kellar ever been compared to the Wizard of Oz?"
"Absolutely. The guy who wrote the Oz books, L. Frank Baum, was fascinated with theatre and saw Kellar perform several times before he wrote the first book in the series. Most of the experts on the Oz books believe that Kellar was the inspiration for the character of the Wizard."
"You said that Kellar overcame great obstacles. Can you tell me what they were?"
"First of all, he was a large man with powerful hands that were totally unsuited to doing sleight of hand. He had to practice hundreds of hours to acquire the necessary dexterity. And he had an unhappy home life. His mother died when he was very young, and his father married a woman who was a version of the wicked stepmother. Harry had a job at Carter's Apothecary on North Park Row. One day, when the owner was out of the store, he was fooling around with some chemicals and caused an explosion. Terrified of what his boss would say, not to mention his stern German father, he ran home, packed a bag and hopped a train to Buffalo. You probably know this: his boyhood home was in the block we now call Griswold Park."
"No, I didn't know that," Joyce said softly, as two pieces of the puzzle came together for her: Alicia Farnsworth's phone call had come while she was meeting with Ted Schenley to discuss the problems he was having at Griswold Park. "So, Erie is the birthplace of the man who was the inspiration for the fictional character known around the world as The Wizard of Oz," she said pensively. "In other words, it's the birthplace of the real-life Wizard of Oz."
"You got it, Mayor. Now do you see why he's my hero?"
"I certainly do. And I think it's time the whole city recognizes that he's our hero."
First thing Monday morning, Joyce had Rita call Alicia Farnsworth at Lily Dale. "Alicia, this is Mayor Servidio. I believe the person who's been trying to contact me is Harry Kellar, the famous magician. The next time he comes through, please tell him that I'm very sorry that there is no sign, no official historical marker, honoring him at Griswold Park, near the house where he grew up, and that the situation will be rectified as soon as possible. He has my word on that."
While driving home that night, the mayor reflected on the events of the past week. It was frustrating at times, she thought, but to be honest it was a nice break from dealing with the Three Amigos. Then she smiled and said out loud, "Yes, Harry, signs are important. Signs are important."
There were no more incidents of equipment malfunctioning at Griswold Park.
About the author: A native of Erie, Don McQuaid has published three books of poetry, a book for children, and hundreds of articles for newspapers and magazines. For four years he served as Poet in Residence for Northwestern Pennsylvania by appointment from the Governor's Council on the Arts. After living in Arizona for 16 years, he returned to Erie in 2019 to enjoy his retirement and focus on his writing.