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September 06, 2017

OPERATION SNOWBALL: MY FIRST CAREER IN SHOW BUSINESS

By Cole Smithey

You’d be hard-pressed to track down any information on Google about Jerry Harmon’s Operation Snowball. Sometime in December of 1967, when I was just three-years-old, my stepdad Jerry Harmon launched a touring magic act project called Operation Snowball. Under its auspices, “King Karnak, Barbie, and Cole” would become a ten-year annual touring magic show across the state of Virginia. The purpose of the act was to provide Christmastime entertainment for the patients at all of the mental institutions in Virginia; there were a lot mental hospitals in those days. Western State Hospital in Staunton, Virginia was on the list.

Western_state_hospital_virginia

Every year we’d kick off the tour with a show at the Towne Theater on Broad Street in Richmond before heading over to the Governor’s office for a photo op with the Governor, who would give his blessing for our two-week tour that followed. I distinctly remember meeting Govenor Mills Godwin on several occasions. A government limo would drive us to a nearby airport where a government appointed pilot from Civil Air Patrol would fly us, with our gear, in a Cesna twin-engine plane to our shows. Sometimes we had to land in cow pastures. Sometimes we hit severe turbulence that would make the most hardened pilots lose their lunch.  

Jerry had been a medic in the Korean war before being switched to intelligence where he trained soldiers in specialized combat techniques, such as decapitation using piano wire. He flew fighter pilot missions, during one of which he had to crash-land his plane. The plane’s windshield exploded into his face, leaving scars from where tiny pieces of glass had to be extracted. The story goes that he killed one of his own men for being a traitor. When he started Operation Snowball, Jerry was riding ambulance duty in a volunteer rescue squad in Richmond, Virginia when he wasn’t doing television news broadcasts for a local station. He’d later become a radio announcer for WEZS (Easy Listening), while teaching Standard First Aid to police recruits every Tuesday night. I spent more Tuesday nights at the Richmond Police Station than I can remember.

Jerry cared about the Mental Health movement in Virginia. He worked for a Mental Health agency headquartered in one of the most beautiful buildings on Monument Avenue. So it was that we’d pull into the parking lot of Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg in the early afternoon, rush in to a cafeteria area with a stage, and perform for a half hour to war vets and mentally ravaged patients whose suffering was only being exacerbated by abuses they were suffering at the hands of their guards.

Jerry Harmon was a consummate performer. He had a line of patter that was so shiny you could eat off it. “Ice, the only thing in the world that is what it is cracked up to be.” My mom and I were the assistants. I had my “Twiggy and Stumpy” bit that I did where I pulled faces. I wore a Philip Morris-styled outfit with a pill box hat with an elastic cord that wrapped under my chin. It was uncomfortable as hell but this was show business after all.

I don’t have much memory of specific years; they all just blend together. But I have a strong memory of the first time I became aware of just who our audience was. I looked out from the stage at the grinning faces of people who would return to an abyss of sadness the moment we left their facility. I saw a Viet Nam war vet in a wheelchair. The man had no arms or legs. I was probably five or six at the time but I didn’t need anyone to explain to me how or why this poor man had arrived at this sad fate. War. War had robbed this human being of his humanity. Long before I hit puberty, I had an ingrained hatred of war that I carry to this day.

Jerry used a clothes hamper that he had dressed into a snazzy rolling lectern from which he would take out rope, Chinese Linking Rings, and a host of other tricks. KING KARNAK was emblazoned across the front. Jerry was a master at sleight of hand. Billiard Balls were a favorite. The show would climax with Jerry chopping my mom’s head off with a guillotine. Some members of the audience would have to be escorted out of the room before the trick could be completed. The patients would frequently mob us as we made our way to our waiting limo. It was frightening sometimes, but we were already on our way to our next show. We did two or three shows a day for our two-week run.

I’ve since gone down to Richmond looking through microfiche files of the Richmond Times Dispatch and the Richmond News Leader for articles or photos from the Operation Snowball years (1967 to 1976), but I couldn’t find anything. It’s funny to think that I had my introduction to show business at such a young age, but I learned the same fundamental lesson that anyone who dares set foot on the boards does; the show must go on.

I took special pride in bringing a fleeting moment of pleasure to people who had no hope in their lives. Jerry treated Operation Snowball like a military mission that had to be prepared for, executed, and completed. He never got paid a dime for his efforts. He might not have been the best dad, but Jerry was a humanitarian, as evidenced by his actions. Jerry had a huge ego, and was quite the braggart, but I never once heard him brag about Operation Snowball. That was something special. Perhaps someday you'll be able to see and read evidence of it on the internet.

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