When I was a kid I worked at Boblo Island as a summer job. I was there the night of the tornado... It was that night that we saw the ghost of Smiley the Magician. (I know the name sounds silly, but it is the actual name of the guy).
Boblo Island was an amusement park that was at one time larger than Cedar Point. In my days they were very comparable although I think Cedar Point was a little larger. It was on a small island in the Detroit River at the mouth of Lake Erie. It was a Canadian Island and had passenger boats that sailed from Detroit, Gibraltar and Amherstburg Ontario.
I had worked several places on the island throughout the summer. Many of my shifts were half days so the rest of the day I would spend hanging out at the amusement park. One of the places I would go was the old Theatre. The magicians at the time where always changing and there were a lot of pretty show girls. It seemed people never worked the theatre very long.
One of the old magicians who seemed to have some fame behind him had worked at Boblo for many years in his younger days. He would tell all the stage hands secrets about the building. Stuff like special modifications to the stage that were built for certain tricks that were no longer allowed to be performed and famous people who had secretly worked or visited the stage. This old guy told many stories and he was very good at telling them. The staff ate up the stories especially the one about Smiley.
Smiley Smilovich Magician extraordinaire performed in the Boblo Theatre magic show in the late 1930s/early 1940s. His claim to fame was that he had attended Harry Houdini's private classes and operated his backstage performances in the late 1920s. He was close enough that he visited Houdini several times in the Detroit hospital just before he died, where Houdini had told him secrets of his magic tricks and discussed with him ideas he had for future tricks. This gave Smiley an edge over all other entertainers and he led a long and semi-famous career.
He eventually settled in to perform at Boblo since back in the day it was a high paying gig. Smiley, at the end of his career, was an older Jewish man who was very large and imposing. He had a longer square beard and often wore a bolo hat. He was not in good health, but being a Vaudeville actor was able to dazzle the crowds. It is said that he drew the largest crowds ever to that little old theatre. He died on stage during a trick.
It was known as the metamorphosis trick; a trick where he would place a trunk on the stage and then climb in, lock it and light it on fire. The fire would burn through the outer shell of the trunk exposing the missing magician inside. He had performed this trick many times but this time his large stomach had put pressure on his heart as he squeezed into position in the trunk. As the trunk was being locked, he had a heart attack and died. The assistants lit the trunk on fire and as it burned it showed the burnt body of Smiley. They immediately put out the fires and stopped the show. They closed the theatre for the next several years until the company manager changed. The new manager reopened the theatre. It is said that the ghost of Smiley would return from time to time and that stage hands and magicians would see him back stage or at the back of the crowd, especially if the magician at the time was performing a magic trunk trick.
Of course, I did not believe much about the story as there were many, many stories of people who died from being thrown off rides to people who died performing a high diving acts or other risky performances.
Some time had gone by and I forgot all about it. Until one day I was in the main office in the cafeteria. On the tables were several old black and white photos of the island throughout the years. They were some sort of collection or something someone had been working hard on sorting tons of old pictures. I don't know why nor did I ever meet the person as I only had 20mins to eat and get back to my job. So I thumbed though some of the pictures. There were pictures of the old water ski show with names signed on the pictures. There was the old captain who had given a personal message on his picture. All the pictures showed the Island throughout the years. Then I found a picture of the old theatre. It was very new in the picture and had a very large man dressed in black formal wear with a large beard and a bolo hat. He was standing in front of the main doors as a flood of people were entering. He was standing with his arms up and outstretched. He seemed proud and happy. At the bottom of the picture in faded pencil was the written name Smiley. It was him! The story could be true! The image of this picture is still burnt into my mind today. It was a very amazing discovery and stayed in my thoughts for a long time. But eventually it passed and I did not think about it any longer... Until the night of the tornado.
It had been a long time since I thought about the old theatre story as the old magician that told the stories was no longer around. It was in late summer (I think) I was now working as security. We were warned that there were bad storms moving in and in no time the sky turned that grey-yellow and the winds that were strong off and on winds died out completely. It was then that we were told that there was a tornado warning in effect and that the larger rides were being shut down until it cleared.
In no time the sky turned black. The air turned cool and cracks of lightning in the distance could be seen. At this time most of the people had packed into the last 3 or so boats off the island. There were 5 boats in total; 2 large southern paddle/steam boats that docked in Detroit (the Ste Claire (can be seen in Transformers 4) , and the Columbia). They left and would not return. There was a cruiser yacht that docked in Gibraltar. It too sailed and would not return. This left the last boat that docked in Amherstburg. It was the Papoose. (There was a few of them so which one I do not know. I think it was #4.) It was a bi-level tug boat shaped passenger boat sat probably 50 on the main floor and 30 on the top roofless deck. It still was doing a few more trips (every 30mins.)
The weather was getting really bad and word got around that we were going to evacuate the Island. All the other boats were no longer returning and only the little Papoose was going to bring the rest of the people to a shelter in Amherstburg. Soon the announcement went out and the park got really quiet. The wind was terrible and we (security) passed from building to building to avoid the harsh winds. We were told to do a quick search of the island and then get to the loading docks, to evacuate on the last boat. (The loading docks was a small dock that is the only landing used today.) It was on the far end of the island and sheltered more from the winds. We were told to be no longer than 30mins because the captain said he would not make it back to the Amherstburg docks.
As we scattered out into our designated areas I remember all the stuffed animals blowing down the main path in one large tumbling ball. They were blown out into the river. Also all the garbage cans were dumping and sending garbage, dust and litter zipping past in the air. We moved through the area and did a quick look. My area was very near the old theatre. I stopped and met up with another group. At this time it was getting really bad. The old fashioned cars were blowing/rolling down the streets. About 5 of us met up at the food court and all agreed to go onto the loading docks.
We had about 10mins left and we were on the far side of the island. We would have to move quickly. Just as we were getting ready to leave, someone asked if the old theatre was checked. It wasn't, so me and one of the others agreed to go check it out quickly (as we were bigger guys and the winds was not throwing us around as much as the others). So we moved quickly towards the old theatre and the others took off for the loading docks.
The wind was screaming and I had to lean into the wind when crossing the open paths as so I would not be knocked off my feet. Just as we were about to make it to the theatre the power on the island failed. Emergency lights kicked in. They were red lights and some flood lights that were sparsely scattered throughout the island and in buildings. With the lights out I could now see the sky. It was black and the wind moved through so strong that you could actually see the wind. It was foggy streams of air blasting overhead. Then we saw the tea cup Ferris wheel pods flying over above our heads. I counted 3 of them as we made it into the theatre. The theatre was dark and for the first time it really felt spooky.
We quickly searched the main room and back stage. We spoke to each other as we moved around calling out for anyone. We discussed the tornado and if it was best to stay in the theatre instead of facing the wind for the total length of the Island. We knew we had about 6-8mins left. As we got ready to dash out, satisfied that the theatre was empty, we both stopped as the theatre suddenly felt occupied. We both looked back at the stage and could see in the dark shadows between the partially open curtains a large bearded man in a bolo hat looking out at us. He seemed confused and concerned. He looked at both of us, me first and then the other guy.
I shot a glance at the other security guy. He was as white as I was. The Magician moved to come out of the shadows and we bolted out of the theatre. The winds were howling on and off and sounded like a tea kettle. We darted in full run back to the food court, through the back passages behind the games and rides to the main path. We stopped only for a second as we paced ourselves to cut across the open area of the main path. We watched a log flume cart roll past us and could see the vending tents were stripped of their canvases. Other rides were crashing into each other and tumbling around. We bolted and semi skidded across the main path. Then we tucked in behind the buildings and made a break for the loading docks.
The docks were separated by a large opening of wide open ground. But the ground was forested and seemed somewhat sheltered from the wind. The wind was not as bad but we could hear the wind behind us screaming like a steam whistle. We made a mad dash for the docks and found the boat. The water from the river was spraying everywhere. I almost hesitated as the thought of climbing on the boat that was heaving around so violently and the constant water spray slamming into my face seemed worse than staying on the land. We were quickly helped onto the boat and huddled in the bottom enclosed area. We were counted and given life jackets and told to sit with our heads between our knees.
At this point the other security guard and I were separated. We waited for one last crazy guy to get on, who made it 1min late. The boat set off and fought the massive ocean like swells in the river. The boat rose and rocked and slammed into the water over and over and over. Water sprayed in through the badly sealed windows and back door. The haul of the boat thundered off the waves and cracking, snapping and banging noises frightened me into a pseudo-reality where I was very aware I was about to drown at any moment as the boat would suddenly go under the waves. I can remember faintly hearing some of the girls quietly crying and trembling mumbles from others like I was hearing them through ear muffs, or from a dream like state.
The boat ride took forever. The captain (bravest boat captain I have ever known) fought the winds and waves for almost 2 hours (the boat ride typically took 15mins). He fought the currents and edged his way with each wave closer to the shore. Finally we docked. We were told to get off quickly as the boat was crashing into the docks and could not stay long. It had to make it to the boat wells that were sheltered before it was badly damaged. We all got off as quickly as we could. The docks were tossing with the waves and the boat was tossed around. The deck hands quickly grabbed you by the arms and flung you over the gangplank and onto the solid docks.
We rushed down the docks as pieces of the steel roofing tore off. We rushed until we reached the underground passage under the road that would lead up steps on the far side to the parking lot. It wasn't until I was well under the cement underpass that I stopped to turn to see the island. It was almost impossible to see but in the moments when the lightning cracked I could see the black swirling mass of clouds consuming the island. I made it to the parking lot and then drove home.
The winds were not as bad on the land. The storm did not seem to have that power behind it. On the way home I thought for sure the island was destroyed. The next day after the storm passed I drove past the Island. There was a ton of debris in the water. The island was a wreck. But it was still mostly intact. It actually was not even close to as bad as I thought it would be.
Boblo stayed closed for the rest of the season. It opened late in the spring of the following year, but it did not do well. It closed for the last time at the end of that year. That night was the last time I was on the island. It marked the end of an era for me. My youth had been spent measuring the time in the year from when the seasonal passes would go on sale. I would get one and ride my bike to the parking lot and spend a day at the amusement park. I knew every corner, every ride. I met so many great kids from near and afar. Had so many fun times... Time that were truly carefree and wondrous. I always thought that I would buy my kids seasonal tickets as it was the best feeling in the world to a kid to spend days and nights at the park. I was very sad to see it close. I never understood the politics/business behind it. Our little town dwindled significantly. Our summer tourism brought tons of jobs and people into the town. It gave families places to vacation, and kids jobs.
The town has truly never recovered. I never saw or spoke to the other security guard about what we saw. I actually can't even remember his name.
The Island is now stripped on most of anything that would resemble an amusement park. Only a few buildings and the sky tower structure still stand. The far end of the island is now all luxury homes. I recently visited the island to see that the old Theatre still stands. It is completely grown over with weeds and trees. It is boarded up but still stands. I was there with my kids so I did not venture in to look. We spent the day walking the grounds and I was telling the layout of the park and reminiscing of all the fun times I had as a kid (that was a good day).
I did tell a few guys at work and one even visited the island. He said he was able to get into the theatre through one of the boarded up doors. He said it was freaky inside and he felt as if he was being watched the whole time. I told him this story that I have written here. He seemed concerned for a few moments during the story and then we laughed off the legend of Smiley Smilovich as we parted. But I knew the ghost was real, and I think my co-worker did too.
I have recently seen the theatre on youtube. I am sure you can find it if you look. Most people don't know what it is. If you see it you will know it is a large two story building with a balcony. It is overgrown with trees and branches... As for the other buildings: there is a church structure (it's not a church.) It was made to look like a church but was in fact the power house. It was part of the antique car ride that at one time had a larger track that led it though an English country side. By the time I was attending the island the car track was reduced to a figure 8. The church was also part of the costume characters that once performed at the island. There is also the old souvenir shop and food court left (pavilion) and the old dance hall that was once the second largest in the world. That had the largest automated symphony ever built (giant music box).
I honestly don't know how much of Smiley's story is true? Nor do I know what came first the story or the ghost. But I do now that there was a picture out there of Smiley and there is a ghost. If you visit I am sure you could still find him.