By Matt Blitz
Updated April 05, 2016
Credit: © Matt Blitz

There’s a little bit of magic in the back of Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky. Just off the pathway in the same cemetery where Colonel Sanders rests eternally and beneath a few trees stands the life-size statute of Henry L. Collins, Frito-Lay’s most famous employee. He didn’t work the fryer or develop reuben-flavored chips though. No, Henry Collins was Frito-Lay’s official magician. With his arm extended and his piercing hollowed eyes, he beckons to all who pass to join him for one last magic show. It’s clear that many people do with the bright red carnations that are frequently left in the magician’s outstretched hand. Here’s the story of the greatest snack food magician the world has ever known, Henry Leon Collins.

Born in Glasgow, Kentucky in 1920, Collins became interested in magic at an early age after a local lawyer gave him a few lessons. He joined the Marines and fought in World War II, earning a Purple Heart during the Battle of Saipan. Due to his injuries, he was reassigned to the Special Services and joined musician Bob Crosby’s touring USO performance “This The Army Show” as a magician. When he returned from war, he eventually got a job with H.W. Lay & Company, the purveyor of potato chips, who had just opened a manufacturing plant in Louisville, Kentucky (Frito Company and H.W. Lay would join forces in 1961). The legend was that by day Collins sold snack foods, but at night he was “Mr. Magic,” performing tricks across the city as Louisville’s most popular magician.

In 1970, his employer discovered Collins’ secret life. It is not clear if Collins revealed the truth or the company knew all along or if someone from Frito-Lay caught him in the act, but the company began to employ Collins as their official, full-time corporate magician. From then on, “Mr. Magic” traveled the country performing in the name of Frito-Lay at trade shows, grocery conventions, civic clubs and even schools. It was said that the magic word for every one of his tricks, rather than “abracadabra, was “Frito-Lay."

Perhaps the most interesting element of Collins’ career was the role he played in the mentoring another famous magician, Lance Burton. According to a 2012 article, Burton, a Louisville-native first became interested in magic when he was five thanks to being an onstage volunteer for Collins during a performance at his mother’s employer's Christmas party - yes, Burton's mother worked for Frito-Lay. Burton was so smitten with magic that he asked “Mr. Magic” to mentor him. At 17, thanks to Collins’ help, Burton won his first magic competition. Burton would end up spending over a decade performing in Vegas, earning hundreds of millions of dollars.

In 1985, Henry L. Collins died at the early age of 65 and was buried in historic Cave Hill Cemetery. Below the visually fascinating statute is a slab of marble with an etching of a top hat, a magic wand and a poem. Describing the magician’s trade, it starts "He comes to you with top hat donned, White gloves flash with a sleight of hand that stretches reality beyond. The twinkle in his eyes hide the secret he will never share.” There’s a legend that if you accept Collins’ invitation and approach him on a windless day, one can faintly hear the “The Star Spangled Banner” play as a call back to his all-american roots. Frankly, the legend would make more sense if it claimed that one could faintly hear his famed catchphrase - “Frito-Lay!”