Growing up bad in the West Texas town of El Paso

The last thing I wrote in my memoirs ended in 2003. It contained everything that was politically correct, and not salacious, at the time. Twelve years have passed, and now I'm ready to tell the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would put it.

As a regular member of the Magic Castle in Hollywood California, I seated myself at a small table near an elderly couple. Noticing that they had an accent, I asked where they were from.

"Prague, Czechoslovakia. Slovakia," they responded.

"How did you decide to come to the Magic Castle?"

"Our son is a very famous person and a member of the Magic Castle," came the response.

"Were you circus people in Czechoslovakia?"

"Why, yes. How did you know?"

And now my story begins:

In 1948, the Communists took power in Czechoslovakia and it became a Soviet Union satellite state. It would take many years for the Czech Republic to emerge and Slovakia to become a separate country. There were many refugees created at the time and a circus family escaped to the United States and began their way in a new world. A young member of the family was able to establish himself as a clown magician performing with the National Assembly Association. The Association supplied high schools with cultural exchange experiences from  all over the world. The Association performers had skill sets that were of interest to young people. These Assemblies included archers performing their sport and Native Americans dancing and demonstrating their crafts. When I was 15 years old, and a junior at Ysleta High School near the West Texas town of El Paso, there was an assembly for a clown named Googie.


After the requisite introduction, a clown wandered on stage stopped, looked quizzically at the room waited for a moment. In vaudeville, they call that pause taking two beats. Googie took one step forward and started to raise his hand. Before he could get his hand up to ask for a volunteer assistant, I was halfway up the aisle. I knew what was coming, and I had a quarter in my hand.


Googie he was surprised that before he could even ask for an assistant, I was already on stage. My response to him extending his hand was that I rolled a quarter across the fingers of my hand and the quarter disappeared.


"Thank you. I need you." was his whispered response.


Knowing that I was a magician, my high school friends were getting prepared for something unusual, and they got it. Googie later told me that was the most responsive audience he had during his tour. He invited me to help him pack after the show. He told me that his show had started in the East, and he was heading for California. Googie had an apartment in Hollywood. He gave me the address and made me promise to visit him during school vacation.


He also expressed that this was as close as he was going to get to Mexico. He was looking for advice on how to see the activities across the border. I was very happy to be able to introduce him to magicians working in Juarez Mexico.


At the end of the day we met at the border crossing. I introduced him to the Master of Ceremonies at the big nightclub just on the other side of the border. At that time in history, Texas was a completely dry state. But there was no such thing as underage in Mexico. If a kid were tall enough to get a nickel on the bar, he could drink. I was not yet five feet tall and only reached my adult stature 5'5'' years later.


Being the poor boy that I was, I always took seats in the side balcony, which was as any Arabic mosque was, where the ladies would sit while the men sat near the stage. The view is actually very good there and in addition to that, the MC depended on banter from the audience to provide straight lines for his jokes. I knew his routine well, and he knew he had a good confederate to bounce lines off. I could tell that Googie was already happy with his experience in Mexico.


Then, we were off to visit my magician friend Felix and his bar up the street. I signaled to Felix that he was entertaining a new magician in town. And so Felix performed his famous card to the pocket routine, with the pocket not his own but rather, the target audience member. The two magicians sat nose-to-nose looking each other in the eye. And when Googie reached to his hip pocket he found the card that he had selected. Wow! Another home run.


The only thing better was actually to find girls in the girls’ balcony. Googie had already expressed an interest in finding a girl. Our next venue was in Guadalajara de Noche, the seedier part of town. There, Googie was almost completely distracted by the fine performance on stage, while a young lady (I use the term loosely) was trying to start a casual relationship. My advice to him as he stepped away was keep your eyes open and be very careful.


The first thing Googie saw as he stepped through the curtain behind our seats was a large burly man in a khaki uniform and big black belt with a Colt 45 automatic on his hip. At least the girl was going to be safe. The next thing he saw was a big fat lady with a red cross sign, sitting behind the table dispensing doughboys, not biscuits, but a powerful ointment capable of killing the viruses that were killing people who frequented these places. If that doesn't make you want to be careful, nothing will. After passing through the beaded curtain, he was able to converse semi-privately with the young lady. I am reasonably sure that nothing happened because he would have been complaining about the burning ointment as he returned to his seat. He urgently whispered to me, "We've got to get her out of here."


Googie was almost in tears as I dragged him to the bridge crossing.


I had arranged to meet Googie in Hollywood during my school break in 1952. My mode of transportation was simple. My father worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Employees with seniority are allowed to have a free pass for themselves and their family. We called the pass our magic carpet. Willie Nelson, years later wrote a song in which he referred to the magic carpet, singing about the city of New Orleans. My best friend Tommy was 6 feet two inches and would act as my visible bodyguard for the trip.


Our instructions from Googie told us to take the light rail to Hollywood from the door of the train station and get off at Hollywood and Vine in the underground terminal. Traveling down Hollywood Boulevard, we noticed Toppers Magic Store on the left and Grauman's Chinese Palace in the next block on the right. Oh yes, we saw Frederick's of Hollywood on the left but we didn't look. One block to the left and one block to the right and we were standing right in front of Googie's apartment. It was a nice warm visit and chance to reminisce, but then we were off to see the rest of California. That's a different story for another time.


20 years later when I talked to Googie's parents at the Magic Castle, I found out that his new clown name was Ronald McDonald. Starting in that time era, 50 Ronald McDonalds were in California. Googie was the one that had the most influence on the original face of Ronald McDonald. Willard Scott, the TV weatherman, was reputed to be the first Ronald McDonald. I saw a picture of Scott as Ronald McDonald. It is not anything at all like what we know as his modern day costume.

Ronald McDonald, as a brand name for the McDonald hamburger company, has gone through many costume changes and iterations.
One of the most famous was closest to Googie. It was the reclining statue on the park bench. That Ronald McDonald was used as a picture opportunity. One of the greatest victories for Madison Avenue executives was putting those park benches all over the country. For years, there were hundreds and thousands of personal family pictures taken on those park bench that were cherished and put into albums. You can't buy that kind of advertising on any signboard on the highway anywhere.

Everything I told you up to this point is the absolute truth. If I say more, the story will phase into a fiction. Like if I were to surmise that Googie had a family and was teaching them the art of magic and clowning. It would be even a greater stretch to conjecture that he had returned to the West Texas town of El Paso and had further contact with a certain Mexican maiden. I think Marty Robbins has taken care of that myth.