02-27-2012, 07:25 PM
Chapter Four: The Overnight Sensation.
Luke's star was rising. He was in demand at theaters and magic clubs all over the East Coast. Everyone wanted to see this young illusionist who was barely out of his teens yet performed like a seasoned professional. Women went gaga over his sultry good looks and muscular physique.
Around early 1998, Luke Blade made his first Las Vegas appearance at the Magic Castle. It was a three-night engagement with every performance sold out. Luke did not disappoint his audiences. He worked hard at his craft, developing new illusions and even more life-threatening escapes. Bill Whitmore had told him that he was only as good as his last show, so every new performance had to be better than the previous ones.
Luke did not work alone, though. A small crew of eight people set up the stage, rigged the lights, handled the props, and assisted with the act, then had to tear it all down and pack it up for the next show. This tiny group would become the founding members of the Family, as Luke would refer to them, growing to nearly thirty crew members and assistants. They worked long hours, paid only mimimum wage with little overtime compensation.
Luke himself, though achieving fame, did not make a fortune. Whitmore handled all the finances, and proved himself a miser when it came to expenses. He gave Luke a fifty-dollar a week allowance for personal expenses. Luke Blade was making less than his crew, even with federal, state and local taxes withheld. When Luke complained, Bill said that he was keeping an eye on the bottom line. It cost a fortune to keep this "circus" going, as he put it, and besides, he didn't want Luke to squander all that money on himself. He had his crew to think of; they had to make a living, too. Fifty dollars a week was all he was getting.
Luke was furious. He was a star. and his manager was treating him like a kid! Fifty dollars a week barely covered a week's meals! He was being cheated! The crew felt the same way; they threatened to go on strike, even quit en masse, if they did not get better pay. Luke used this animosity to his advantage. He claimed to be on their side, sympathizing with their cause. Together they would win, he said. They were his family, and families stuck together no matter what. His crew cheered him on.
It all came to a head in late April, 1998. An outdoor show had been scheduled in Miami. Unfortuatly, an F1 hurricane had been spotted off the Gulf of Mexico and was headed for Florida. While an F1 is minor compared to more devastating storms such as Katrina in 2006, the heavy winds can still cause major damage.
The scaffolding for the lights had been barely set up when the tail end of the hurricane struck. Luke and the crew watched helplessly as all their hard work came crashing to the ground. There was no way to set it up again until the storm was over, and they were already behind schedule. Local authorities insisted the show be cancelled.
Whitmore was adamantly opposed. He had too much money invested in this, he argued. People wanted Luke Blade, and they were going to get Luke Blade. The wind would die down soon, and the show would go on, even if the crew had to put in extra hours.
When Luke and the crew heard Whitmore's decision, their outrage triggered an even bigger storm than the one from the Gulf. The crew pleaded with Luke to intercede on their behalf, reminding him that they were "family", and of his promise to stick together with them. Luke, still bitter over his meager allowance, was all too happy to oblige.
What followed is still a matter of debate. Luke demanded more money for himself and his "family", accusing Whitmore of holding out on them. They slaved for him, nearly risking their lives for him. And now he expected them to perform in the face of a howling hurricane? They had almost been killed by that scaffolding! Didn't Bill care at all for him and the "family"?
Whitmore insisted that Luke's demands were "unreasonable", that expenses were high enough. He reminded Luke yet again that he was the one who dragged him off the street, taught him everything he knew about magic, and made him the celebrity he was today. After all his hard work and sacrifices, this was how he repaid him? He should be grateful simply to be alive because of him.
Luke, for once, was not yielding to guilt. While it was true Whitmore had given him a break, he was also exploiting his talents for his own profit. Luke stood firm, demanding to know just where the money was going. He would not be cheated, he said.
Whitmore said later that he showed the profit and loss reports to Luke, while Luke denied any such claim. Luke was no financial genius, but he knew instinctivly he was getting screwed in this deal. But the outcome was certain: the Miami show was postponed and Luke and the crew walked out, until better terms could be reached. A week later, Luke filed legal action against Bill Whitmore. An accounting firm was hired to go over the financial records, and the findings shocked everyone, including Luke.
It turned out that Whitmore had been pocketing the profits from the tour, to fund his gambling habit. Evidence of tax evasion was also revealed. Nearly a million dollars had disappeared, never to be recovered. Luke was crushed. He had been betrayed by the one person whom he had trusted more than anyone in his life, his mentor and father figure, the man who had saved his life twice and taught him the great secrets of magic and illusion. For a boy who had been rejected, abandoned and abused, this was another stab in the back for Luke Blade.
A lawsuit had been filed, and a federal trial was set, but Whitmore never made it to court. On May 18th, 1998, Bill Whitmore was found in his kitchen in his Long Island apartment with his head in the oven, dead. The person who discovered his body was none other than Luke Blade himself, who had come home from the gym that morning. Neighbors later reported hearing screams of anguish from the apartment and had called the police, thinking it was a domestic disturbance. The two officers who responded to the call reported seeing Luke cradling the body of the older man in the kitchen, weeping uncontrollably. The love Luke once had for his mentor resurfaced at the sight of his dead body. Death to him was abandonment, a sort of betrayal, just as his adoptive mother had betrayed his love and trust by returning him to the children's home.
It was the accounting firm of Blum and Schwartz who gave Luke the impetus to go on. After sorting out the tax mess and the estate, Luke was left with a quarter of a million dollars, the most money he had up to that point. They gave Luke a crash course in business math, and recommended a more reputable agency to represent him in the entertainment world. They also made sure the original "family" members were well compensated. Luke would retain Blum and Schwartz as his personal accountants for the rest of his career. They treated the young magician fairly and honestly, and Luke treasured that.
He was introduced to his new manager, David Barron, and his agent, Mick Thompson. Together, they had Luke touring the entire continental US, getting more public exposure, even appearing on national television. Luke Blade was the new phenomenon. His "family" grew to three times the size it had been before, to almost thirty people: stunt engineers, make-up artists, stage hands, wardrobe keepers, electricians, and personal assistants. Due to the extreme danger of his escapes, and to cut insurance costs, a professional nurse was hired to keep Luke in good health and to treat any injuries to himself and the crew as well. Luke's "family" was growing, and they filled the lonely man-child's need for both control and belonging.