OPERATION SNOWBALL: MY FIRST CAREER IN SHOW BUSINESS
Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.
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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. I was the (very) young assistant.
Under the auspices of Operation Snowball, “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, or most, 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.
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 reigning Governor, who would give his blessing for our two-week tour that followed.
I distinctly remember meeting Governor 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 Cessna twin-engine plane to our shows. Jerry, a captain in CAP, would pilot the plane sometimes. I loved it. I wanted to be a pilot. Civil Air Patrol even had a boys pilot program for pre-teen boys to fly planes. I remember going to a exhibition event where I watched boys my age (around 11) fly planes. Naturally they had an instructor with them, but still those kids took off, flew around, and landed those planes.
How cool can you get.
There were times when we had to land in cow pastures. No shit. I mean, except for the cow poop. Sometimes we hit severe winter turbulence that would make the most hardened pilots lose their lunch. I was such a sleepy little kid that no amount of sudden altitude drops or bump-and-grind turbulence could wake me from my slumber.
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. Watermelons stood in for actual heads. Jerry flew fighter pilot missions over Korea, 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 with tweezers.
At 6' 2'', Jerry was the epitome of rugged handsomeness.
One story goes that he killed one of his own men for being a traitor.
When he started Operation Snowball, Jerry was riding ambulance duty for a volunteer rescue squad in Richmond when he wasn’t doing live television news broadcasts for a local station. He’d later become a radio announcer for WEZS (Easy Listening), while teaching Standard First Aid to Richmond police recruits every Tuesday night. I spent more Tuesday nights learning first aid downtown 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 wore a black cape à la Count Dracula. His black hair was slicked back. Jerry had studied voice with the great Don Ameche, and copied Ameche's pencil-thin mustache.
When Jerry spoke in public, heads turned.
Jerry had a line of show patter 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 a “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. Tears of joy streamed down his face as he watched our act.
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 had robbed this poor human being of his humanity. Long before I hit puberty, I had an ingrained hatred of war that I carry to this day.
The Clash, Elvis Costello, and Elem Klimov confirmed my chosen ethics.
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. David Blane had nothing on Jerry. I watched my dad blow people's minds at cocktail parties. Billiard Balls were a favorite. The show would climax with Jerry chopping my mom’s head off with a guillotine purchased at Al's Magic Shop in Washington, D.C.
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 Public Library microfiche files of the Richmond News Leader and Times Dispatch (both newspapers I delivered as a paperboy in my neighborhood from 11 to 14) 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.
Us paperboys called 'em The News Bleeder and The Times Disgrace. I got to read my own newspaper copy everyday. That was cool.
I even landed a couple skateboarding photos in the News Leader. That's me skating the Pollak Building at VCU. Bitchin'.
Regarding Operation Snowball, I took special satisfaction in bringing fleeting moments of joyful entertainment to people without hope.
Jerry treated Operation Snowball like a military mission that had to be prepared for, executed, and completed without complaint. 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 a 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 Operation Snowball on the internet.
It was a big deal for ten years.
To quote Lux Interior of "The Cramps," "I learned all I know by the age of nine."