SPOOKSTERS OF MAGIC PAST AND PRESENT
by Walter Hudson
One of the nicest and shrewdest show businessmen I know is Phillip Morris. Phil began his very varied career back in the early 1950's. He traveled through Michigan with his Midnight Ghost Show and found this form of stage attraction to be very profitable. There were still hundreds of theaters that had stages where a decent show with special effects could be presented.
In 1953 he turned to the South and joined the Lash La Rue western star 35 years ago and pulled in large crowds wherever he played. Films and live stage shows were still the leading forms of entertainment in those days, although TV was beginning to make inroads into the industry. Working with LaRue enabled Phillip to meet many agents and theater owners, who visited backstage. Morris kept a file of these important people and contacted them and booked his ghost Show along with the LaRue show.
Around 1955 he found himself booked through the Kemp Agency, into Charlotte, N.C. for a week of dates. He stayed. His home and business headquarters are still in Charlotte. Morris bought into the booking agency which enabled him to continue to book his attractions, as well as many others on the various southern theater circuits.
In 1958 he made elaborate plans to take his Ghost Show to South America. he learned Spanish and had all of his advertising material and film ads dubbed into Spanish. But the governmental economic problems in Mexico casued him to cancel the tour. The Mexican officials froze all admission prices and, along with other regulations, made it financially impossible for Phil to play Mexico. The plans were shelved and Phil started the "World of Fantasy" players and booked this production out of Sarasota, FL. "World of Fantasy" is an illusion show with fairy tale themes. It is a beautifully staged children's show that caught on with the public. It is still on the road today (1988). It tours 40 weeks of one-nighters in the U.S. and Canada and covers America from East to West Coasts. It has traveled the same basic route for 30 years and parents who saw the show when they were young now bring their children to see this super entertainment.
Phil traveled with this show during its early years but later hired other magicians to tour for him. Jerry Conklin (The Amazing Conklins) of Colon was with the show for three years. Ken and Roberta Griffin were with the show for a year. Each year the show is built around a different children's story like , Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella,m etc. Magic always plays an important part in the show.
In 1970 a large version of the show, augmented with novelty acts and a cast of 30, played large theaters and arenas in Canada for ten weeks. In 1984 a show featuring several comic book characters, favorites such as Popeye, Mighty Mouse, Flash Gordon, etc., toured arenas in Canada. Phil's fast Ghost Show toured Canada in 1973.
Other accomplishments of this very busy man include staging and costuming the "spec" for the Hanneford Circus and creating and supplying the acts for Ronald McDonald's Circus.
Morris was active in the early days of T.V. in Charlotte. In the 1960s he had several shows including a Saturday morning kid's show called "Captain Phil's Secret Island" where he featured his vent act and showed cartoons. He also did an afternoon show, "Three Ring Circus" and another, "Big Bill's Club House". On Friday nights he hosted horror films as Dr. Evil. Phil was able to tape shows weeks in advance and this permitted him to travel with his other product ions.
In the mid-1970s Phil left the road to he able to spend time at home with his wife and daughter. He continued to book attractions but started a show business related enterprise: Morris Costumes. He started this small costume rental business out of his home. It became prosperous and continued to grow as he often bought out costumes from ice shows and Broadway productions.
He then bought a large store in a shopping center and, in addition to costume rentals, started selling dancing supplies, magic and stage props. Business grew and he expanded by buying out other stores in the shopping center for needed space. Today, he is the largest supplier of theatrical costumes and masks (to other costume shops) in the U.S. He has expanded the magic and novelty branches of his business by buying out a large West Coast magic company. Morris costumes appear in circuses, ice shows and amusement park shows. He has created Mascots for several high schools and colleges. He has just acquired a new warehouse and his giant catalog lists over a thousand items he imports, manufactures and distributes.
Phil Morris has always had a keen eye for promotion and publicity. Over the years several of his stunts have paid off. Once an act featuring an elephant was passing through Charlotte. He invited the trainer to use the lot next to his costume shop for a stop-over. He could use the water and electricity from the shop. When the elephant arrived he had the owner stand it out in front of his costume shop and then Phil called the T.V. stations and the newspapers and told them he had an elephant in front of his shop that he was measuring for a costume. Media coverage resulted with a photo of Phil measuring the elephant with a giant tape measure. Of course, the costume shop was in the background.
A similar publicity photo appeared when Buck Nolan (an eight foot giant circus clown) visited the shop. Phil called the media and said he had the world's tallest man being fitted for a costume. The papers rushed out to get a photo but not before Nolan had put on his down makeup. When Phil asked him why he was putting on makeup, Nolan replied, "I don't want to be recognized when I walk down the street!" This photo was put on the Associated Press wire service and appeared in papers across the country.
Several years later the elephant came through town again and Phil had the trainer take the elephant out to his home and turn it loose on his front lawn. Then he called the newspapers and identified himself as a neighbor who was reporting an elephant loose in Phillip Morris' front yard.
More than once he dressed in a gorilla suit and stood in front of his store directing traffic. One time he was hired to dress up as a gorilla and climb up on the roof of a local pharmacy as part of a sales promotion stunt. Arrangements had been made through his staff. When he arrived at the drug store the manager was not in and the clerk knew nothing about the stunt, but Phil proceeded up to the roof and put on the costume. While he was dancing around, waving and stopping traffic, a guy came up on the roof and told him he was the manager and to stop what he was doing and to get off the roof. Phil thought the whole thing was a gag and refused to leave. The manager threatened to have Phil arrested. Phil continued to run around and carry on. The police came and arrested him and he was escorted to jail dressed as an ape. That night the paper carried a photo news story under the heading of "Don't Monkey Around On My Roof". whatever the mixup, it was great publicity for both the store and Phil's shop.
Another time, Morris approached a car dealer about the time the new car models were making their showroom appearance. He sold the dealer the blindfolded driving stunt, where he would drive a brand new automobile down the main street of town with a police escort. It would bring free newspaper and TV coverage to the dealer. The dealer liked the idea but wanted to know how much it would cost him. "Not a dime," replied Phil. "All you have to do is sell me the car at your actual cost. Whatever you paid for it, I will pay you." The dealer agreed.
The next year Phil went to another dealer with the same offer. He sold the first car, which was in like new condition and needed no repairs, for more money than it had cost him. Then he bought the new car at the dealers cost. he did this several times and ended up driving new cars each year and after the first year it cost him nothing! Yep! Phillip Morris is a show "business" man.
Editors Note: A big thanks to Morris Costumes for supplying the photographs that are included with this article. Just for your information, Phillip Morris performed at the annual Abbott Magic Get Together in 1958 and 1968. The Morris Costume Co. has evolved into the largest of its type under Phillip's guidance.
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