Karl Germain, Obscure Secrets and Gas Tanks

Reproduced from Genii, The Conjuror’s Magazine, used with Permission

Karl Germain (February 12, 1878 – August 9, 1959)

It was 1988 and I had just finished interviewing magician, Stuart Cramer, author of the Karl Germain books. We had spent a delightful long weekend talking about Germain and magic in general.  On the morning that I was to leave, we planned to visit Germain’s grave outside of Cleveland.  We first stopped to make some Xerox copies of Stuart’s notebooks.  Stuart had parked in back of another car and I happened to look down at its dealership tag. It read, “Germain” which spooked us both a little bit.  Having later pai​d our respects to Germain at Riverside Cemetery (which is another story) I then had plans to meet up with Johnny Ace Palmer.  To save Stuart driving time, Johnny agreed to meet us on an entrance ramp of the interstate. Right on schedule, Johnny showed up, the three of us chatted briefly and said good-bye to Stuart.​

Torkova with Stuart Cramer
Ohio, 1988








Karl Germain props
Klosterman collection, 1988


​Johnny was driving me to Indiana to perform at a couple of clubs, one of them being “Illusions.” Knowing my interest in the history of magic, Johnny contacted Ken Klosterman who was in town on business and invited him to see the show.  Ken, whom I had never met, didn’t get to the show until after it was over.  We chatted about magic history and hit it off right away.  However, it was getting late and we decided to continue our conversation the next day.

Ken stayed overnight in a nearby motel and the next morning with Johnny driving, we hooked up for breakfast.  Seeing a McDonalds up ahead, Ken suggested we eat there.  We pulled into the drive-through and while waiting in line I couldn’t help but ask Ken a question.  Having heard that he was a successful entrepreneur I asked, “Ken, you eat at McDonalds?”  He said, “Of course, I make the rolls for them!”  Ken was the owner of Klosterman Bakeries with manufacturing plants in several states.  Just as we were pulling out of the drive-through the person working thewindow yelled for us to stop.  We did and were told our car had a gas leak.

We got out to look and sure enough, there was a thin stream of gas shooting out the back of the car.  We plugged it up with some cloth and headed for the nearest garage to get it fixed.  The fellow there put it up on the rack while we stood around and waited.  Ken walked over to a phone at the edge of the parking lot and made a call.  At some point, while he was on the phone Ken yelled over to Johnny, “What kind of car is that?”  Johnny told him.  Ken repeated the information back to the person on the other end of the phone.  “And what year is it?”  Again Johnny yelled back the year with Ken relaying the information to the other person.

Ken got off the phone and walked back over to us as we were talking to the mechanic.  The mechanic said that he could only temporarily plug up the hole in the gas tank with a screw but didn’t have the means to repair it correctly.  Johnny agreed to this and while the hole was being plugged, Ken mentioned that one of bakery plants was only about 10 miles from where we were.  If we drove over there his mechanic would work on Johnny’s car.

As we were driving to the plant, Ken and I got to talk some more about Germain and magic history.  We got so engrossed in our conversation that Ken forgot to tell us where the turn off on the road was.  We soon realized we were lost.  After driving around for a while, we finally figured out where we were and made it to Ken’s plant about thirty minutes later than anticipated.

As we pulled into the plant, there was a lone figure in overalls standing in the middle of the parking lot.  He was holding a welding torch in one hand and the accompanying tank in the other.  He had been patiently waiting for us.  As Ken’s mechanic put the car up on the rack, I realized that in a about an hour, a gas tank that fit Johnny’s car had been located and was now being installed! Johnny and I just looked at each other in amazement.  I had a realization.

​I was reminded of the story of Carlos Castaneda having an epiphany in the desert watching a beetle rolling a piece of dung.  He realized at that moment that while they both lived in the same world, the world was not the same for both of them.  So it was with Ken and me.  We lived in the same world, but it was not the same for both of us.

While the gas tank was being replaced, Ken offered to take us on a tour of his plant.  For the next hour we happily watched McDonald’s rolls being made.  When the car was repaired, Johnny drove us to Ken’s ranch to see his legendary collection of historic magic.  That day Ken was having a lake put in on his property.  Johnny stayed for a while eventually had to leave.  Later that evening, Ken took me down to see his collection.

One of the first things I noticed upon entering was a poster of Germain hanging on the wall.  Ken told me that it was actually mounted on a door behind which were shelves containing Germain’s smaller props.  I opened up the panel and looked at all the marvelous props of that by-gone era; nesting loaves of bread made from paper mache, bundles of throw out ribbons complete with a mechanical device for rewinding them during long train rides between shows, a break-a-way production bottle, etc.


Torkova holding Germain’s Card Sword
Klosterman collection, 1988







Now understand that just before my visit, I had re-read both the Germain books and then spent four days with the author, Stuart Cramer interviewing him.  So naturally, much of the information was still fresh in my mind, not to mention the many details and anecdotes that Stuart told me which were not included in the books.  Among the props I was looking at were curious little gimmicks along with some small blank cards.  Ken and his curator Steve Faris, who was also there, had not been able to identify what these props were or how they might have been used.  I studied them for a moment and realized that they belonged to a mentalism trick described in one of the Germain books.  It was a unique prop that used a piece of thread with a hook on it that was attached between Germain and his sister Ida, who was seated and blindfolded.  They used to tug on the thread to signal each other during one of their mind reading routines.  I explained how the props were used which delighted Ken for it had puzzled him for quite some time.

Ken then gave me a general tour of his collection pointing out such rarities including Kellar’s center table and it was thrilling to see it in person.  Ken had acquired it from the John Ringling collection and still bore Ringling’s brass nameplate.  At one end of the main room, Ken had a small stage set up as an exhibition space.   He would rotate the exhibition a few times a year to showcase various magicians’ props.   As luck would have it, he currently had Germain’s larger props on display.  This was especially appropriate since Ken had his stage fitted with Germain’s theatrical curtains.  These are same curtains that Houdini had once wanted to purchase.  I examined with interest the hollow flowerpot for the Flower Growth, his Spirit Clock Dial and his Germain Jars.

Germain jars
Klosterman collection, 1988








Germain props
Klosterman collection, 1988
(left to right)
Germain jars, Cramer’s book, side tables, clay pot for  flower growth,Top hat on pedestal (used to hide an umbrella), Miss confetti & Dove, Butterfly, Crystal clock dial, Green silk stage curtains


I was most intrigued by the jars.  Knowing what great taste Germain had, I was a bit surprised to see marks all over them giving them a sort of a leopard look.  This was possibly done after Germain had sold them.  Ken had never set up the jars as the book described and I was anxious to give it a try to see how it felt to perform them.  We got the Germain book out and set up the jars.  I went through the motions that Stuart had described in the book.  They had a great feel to them and I could see what a wonderful mystery this must have been.  As the tour continued, we walked through a secret door into an adjoining room decorated in Egyptian motif.  In one corner was one of Okito’s magnificent tables that immediately piqued my curiosity. Next to it was an umbrella stand with about a dozen card swords sticking out of it.  I reached in and took one out at random to examine it.

​​I turned to Ken to ask him about its unusual design.  He had a weird look on his face.  He said, “You know, that was Germain’s card sword!”  Again I got spooked.  Like before, Ken and Steve couldn’t figure out why it was designed the way it was.  Instead of having just a hollow shaft for the elastic, Germain’s card sword had a v-shaped, hollow trough.  They had speculated that perhaps this would better hide the elastic, but weren’t sure.

I examined it more closely.  Again, luck was on my side.  Stuart had not mentioned Germain’s card sword in the books, but coincidentally had told me about it the day before.  So in my most nonchalant manner I causally stated, “Oh, yes, Germain’s card sword; his father had made that for him.  The v-shaped trough enabled Germain to ribbon spread the cards out along the sword, then flip them all up into the air and stab the selected card!”  Ken and Steve just turned and looked at each other dumbstruck as if to say, “Who the heck is this guy?”


Rare props
Klosterman collection, 1988

Abbott talking kettle owned by Kellar,
Alexander Herrmann’s die box,
Robert-Houdin’s light/ heavy chest
& his crystal coin casket


Ken continued showing me his choicest pieces including the obscure Germain Monkey’s Paw, Robert-Houdin’s Light & Heavy Chest and Hofzinser’s Rose Mirror.  It was quite a humbling experience seeing and handling all these treasures from the past that I had previously only read about.  We continued to hit it off and Ken graciously invited me to stay for a few days as his guest. Unfortunately I had other commitments in New York which I had to get back to and so was unable to accept.  I went home not only richer in the knowledge I had gained, but also in the friendships I had made.

As I write this and reflect on that weekend fourteen years ago, I fondly recall what Stuart Cramer, Ken Klosterman and Johnny Ace Palmer shared with me. All had shared their friendship, graciousness and generosity that made my visit truly memorable and unique.  What better way to explore a person’s life than to hear their story from their biographer?   Then the next day be shown the physical realization of their ideas by the person who is their current custodian.

I think it would be “germane” (Karl Germain was very fond of puns) to end with a quote of something that, on the reprinting of his books, seems most appropriate.  As Karl Germain once wrote to a friend who had recalled his past glories, “…I thank you for the evidence of the survival of my personality, in and through you!  You may rest assured that you and your genial magical personality will live long after we have turned to dust-yes, after our very names have been forgotten.”

Hopefully, that won’t be for a long time to come.

Copyright 2002, 2017 by Robert Torkova




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