Not too long ago, whilst back in my home town of Louisville, we went on a brief late-afternoon sojourn to the city’s historic Cave Hill Cemetery, of which we shall make mention many times in the future. The cemetery is well worth an entire day spent exploring it, but we were running late and looking for a specific grave (that of cult film director William Girdler). As is usually the case with any trip to Cave Hill, mere minutes after entering the vast rolling grounds, we were lost. It was as we tried to find our way back out before the cemetery gates were closed for the evening, presumably locking us in and fating us to a night battling ghosts, we stumbled across this, one of the cemetery’s many interesting monuments and markers. Not one to let something curious pass by without investigating further, we stopped and found out what we could about this Harry Leon Collins, also known as the Frito-Lay Magician.
Collins was born in Glasgow, Kentucky in 1920 and reportedly became interested in magic at a young age after a local attorney performed some sort of illusion for the lad. He entered the Marines during World War II and, when he wasn’t busy earning a Purple Heart in the battle at Saipan, honed his skills as an aspiring magician as part of jazz musician Bob Crosby’s touring USO performance, “This Is The Army Show.”
In 1952, Collins got a job at Frito-Lay, maker of an assortment of well-known snack foods, and it wasn’t long before the company discovered their new employee’s magical talents and enlisted him as “Mr. Magic.” Under that moniker and in the service of corn chips, Collins toured the country, performing magic shows that always focused on also selling Frit-Lay products. He even performed at my alma mater, Oldham County High School, back in a time when a corporate spokesman could perform at a general school assembly as long as he was doing something cool. Collins also mentored a young magician named Lance Burton, who would go on to become a Vegas mainstay and two-time Academy of Magical Arts “Magician of the Year.”
Collins performed for Frito-Lay for over four decades. He died early, at the age of 65. Tucked away on one of the outer drives of Cave Hill cemetery and boasting an impressive life-size likeness of Harry Collins, his grave stands as a wonderful monument to the magician. At once bombastic and tasteful, a smirking Collins (sometimes holding a rose) is about to pull one over on you from beyond the grave, in an alcove covered in flowers and ivy and the accoutrements of a stage magician. It was a lovely surprise across which to stumble. So we salute you Harry Leon Collins, and with a flamboyant swish of the wrist and puff of smoke, we say to you “Frito-lay!”