Many of us forget the defining moment that set us on our career path. TV magician , comedian and Countdown favourite Paul Zenon hasn’t.
He owes it all to the man who made magic back in Blackpool when he was a seaside sorcerer’s apprentice at the aptly named House of Secrets.
The late Bill Thompson created tricks and invented illusions at the studio allied to his shop - initially on Central Promenade and later Caunce Street.
Paul turned to Bill for bespoke magic time and again through his career.
He remained friends with the craftsman of conjuring until Bill’s death at 78 last year.
It was Paul who had the ceremonial duty of breaking the wand Bill had kept behind his counter for years - and placing his lucky card, the nine of spades, upon the coffin too.
Paul , who lives in Brighton, returns to resort roots this month with Bill’s Magical Mystery Tour.
It’s a tribute to Bill and vehicle for Zenon’s own charity - Wonderbus which provides outings to elderly people who might otherwise find it hard to get out and about. Paul’s the charity’s director.
That was inspired by another friend Dot, a pal of his late gran’s.
“I gave Dot a lift home after my gran’s funeral. We lived in Earby, on the border between Burnley and Skipton, so no distance from Blackpool either.
“Dot used to organise coach trips for the local kids, myself included, to see pantos in Bradford and Manchester.
“Now she was living in sheltered accommodation, spent all day looking out of the window.
“I went off, raised some money, and organised a mini bus to take Dot and some others to a panto. It went so well we organised another - The Wonderbus was born and the charity registered.”
Paul’s got a healthy respect for older people.
“They are scapegoated for living too long, or costing too much, although they have contributed so much.
“Too many just see an older person. They don’t see what’s within.”
Paul similarly fell under Blackpool’s spell too. The resort has one of the oldest magic clubs in the world, let alone the land. It hosts an annual international magic convention. All the big name magicians have heard of Blackpool. Many have visited at some stage in their career either to appear here or pick up tips.
For Paul, as a boy, Narnia lay through the doors of Bill’s House of Secrets. He even looked like a wizard, says Paul, with his bouffant hair, perma-ciggie and ready smile.
“Bill was the magicians’ craftsman. He wasn’t a performer but he had boundless time to spare for those who needed help or some scruffy kid buying his first box of tricks.
“Although not well-known by the general public, as one of the most well-respected figures in the world of magic, Bill was responsible for setting numerous would-be wizards on the road to stardom. He was one of the longest term friends I had. He was my mentor.”
Paul reckons Bill would have liked the venue for the variety show in his honour at 7pm on Saturday August 31.
It’s in a gem of a theatre, the Pavilion, within the Winter Gardens.
The pretty Pavilion is almost the illusion of a theatre, stage and surrounds remain but backstage trappings have long gone.
It seats around 600, ideal for the intimacy of magic or variety.
All involved have given services for free - and gladly. Most knew Bill. All back the Wonderbus. Entertainers include comedian Dave Spikey, Britain’s Got Talent semi-finalist magician James More, local panto favourite Steve Royle, veteran resort magician Mark Raffles, circus performer Sylvia Pavone and more.
Bill’s Magical Mystery Tour follows on from a theatre tour with Paul’s pals Harry Hill and Lee Mack, and a sell-out show at the London Palladium, hosted by Paul and featuring comedians Dara O’Briain, Sean Lock, Mack and Spikey.
For Paul it marks a return to his second home.
Blackpool’s a rite of passage to any entertainer but Paul adds: “I don’t think many realise just how big it is within magic.”
He had his first big break here, at the Grand, went on to do summer seasons elsewhere, before moving into TV work.
Paul was one of the first to move magic away from the stage and make it slick and quick on the streets. He made street magic hip for a younger generation sick of the more self important smug stars.
He is arguably Britain’s best close up magician- but has made enemies along the way.
Paul set about exposing the stage secrets of so-called psychics.
“I’ve never set out to court popularity,” he admits.
“As a kid I was a nerd who was mad about magic. At 10 I got a job on North Pier at Clive’s Magic Shop .
“Bill had the House of Secrets on the Prom by Central Pier, alongside the Time Gap Bar. I got chatting to him because he sold magic stuff. I got a summer job there demonstrating card tricks, selling plastic dog turds, laxative chocolate and practical jokes. I lived at Marton Mere.
“I worked weekends in the Lights often until 11pm at night.
“In term time I’d be home in time for school.
“But Blackpool was my real school. It was here I learned my trade.”
In his early teens Paul - then Paul Collins - went on the knock to local guesthouses.
“I’d offer a show for free and another for a fiver if they booked me back.”
Zenon has never lacked nerve. This is the chap who demonstrated a close up trick to a parking warden on primetime telly - who then turned to find his own car clamped by the wizard.
Distract, divert, sleight of hand on a grand scale.
Paul moved here in his teens as lead singer with Blackpool band Crackousrocknroll.
His passion for live music prompted an odd alliance with his heroes - rock band Hawkwind.
Still in his teens he talked them into taking him on as support act - playing to heavy metal fans and stoned bikers.
At 18 he left Blackpool to go back packing in Greece - street magic paying his way.
He was a free spirit. “I came across a postcard I’d sent home to my parents. It said sorry I haven’t been in touch for three months.”
On return he moved to Brighton. “It was because of the work situation. Closer to London and the TV and shows I did. ”
He kept in touch with Bill.
“He made props for me and kept his eyes open for tricks for me. He was an incredibly lovely generous bloke - big bouffant hair, posh scouse accent, total chain smoker.
“He moved in the late ‘80s to Caunce Street . You’d have to ring a doorbell on a green door to see him and he would emerge from behind a sash curtain. It was like the Wizard of Oz.
“It was a social club for magicians. He would dispense free coffee and good advice and when the magic conventions came magicians would visit before and after.
“His depth of knowledge was unparalleled. I was just happy to be in his company.
“Even his funeral was fantastic. It started off from Mark Raffle’s house. It was a humanist funeral. Standing room only for all he had no relatives.”
Paul can’t wait to return for the show at the Pavilion.
“I feel like the prodigal son. The Pavilion is perfect. The country needs more mid sized venues of 500-700 seats.
“What makes it so special is I didn’t call in any favours . It was the easiest sell. People knew Bill or they liked the Wonderbus. Everybody’s working for nothing.
“We’re not out to raise a massive amount of money - tickets are £15 , half price for pensioners.”
* To book visit www.winter gardensblackpool.co.uk.