Movie Magic

A little magic goes a long way, particularly when you partner with someone who exemplifies creativity. In this case, the partners are Magicana, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Bell Lightbox, and the magic is the March Break Magic and Movie Camp.

While meeting with representatives from the centre late last year, I suggested that they partner with Magicana to provide a Magic and Movie March Break for kids. Magic and the Movies go back a long way. In fact, the movie business owes a great deal to magicians. Not only did magicians and their magic lantern shows help begat the technology that make motion pictures, but magicians were also pioneer producers and exhibitors of film.

George Méliès, for example, was a magician who purchased the theatre of Robert-Houdin in Paris, located a stone’s throw from the studio of the Lumière Brothers. Méliès soon afterward documented his stage spectacles on film, breaking through barriers of live theatre, creating cinematic special effects, to transport his audiences to exotic locations – including the moon!

Magicians were also amongst the first exhibitors of motion pictures, making them a feature of their traveling stage show. David Devant, the great British conjuror, brought motion pictures to the English Provinces and Carl Hertz, an American by birth, introduced traveling motion picture exhibitions down under – that’s Australia.

I knew that, with its program My Magic Hands, Magicana had a great deal of experience introducing children to the artistic process, empowering them to make decisions, communicate their ideas, and perform. Combine that know-how with the expertise and facilities of the Bell Lightbox Centre, and you create a golden opportunity.

The result was truly magic. The children learned the fundamentals of several magic tricks, how to develop a character, script dialogue and action, practice, rehearse and then, perform. They also learned, courtesy of TIFF, how to storyboard their ideas, pitch a script, shoot the action, edit the material and screen the results for the audience. Not bad for a week’s work!

The program sold-out quickly and the kids had a ball. It’s a programming initiative that I predict will become a perennial. If you have or know of kids that would be interested in participating in this type of program, contact TIFF and let them know that you are interested.



Piff Paff Poof

Who says tricks are for kids?  Well, just about everybody.

There are few places, however, where kids can see, let alone participate in, a great magic show.  That is, until now.

If you are anywhere near Toronto during the March Break (March 14-19) or each remaining weekend of this month, bring your family, or children, or friends of your family to see Piff, Paff, Poof! – an extravaganza of magic for the young at heart.

Magicana, where I serve as Artistic Director, in association with the Lower Ossington Theatre, is presenting this wonderful outing of magic for children ages 5 – 12.

The name “Piff Paff Poof!”, by the way, was inspired by both the magic words said by magicians of long ago as well as the name of a magic convention that was held in Fort Erie, Ontario in the 1930s.

The show features the magic of Julie Eng, a special guest performer, and her magic bunny – Poof!  Actually, Poof claims in his biography that he comes from a long line of bunnies, each of which adopted a magician at an early age. Poof’s magician is, of course, Julie.

Whichever came first – the Poof or the Eng – is irrelevant as together they make some wonderful magic. David Rayfield has designed a delightful set and, although the show is staged for children, there is something in it for everyone.  Julie has even been known to levitate a mom or two!

Don’t take my word for it.  Listen to the critics. Much to my surprise – and to their credit – Eye Weekly appeared on the scene unannounced to conduct exit surveys from those who matter most – the children who emerge from the theatre after witnessing a performance. Children have no filters.  They tell it like it is; they loved it.

And, you will too!



The Flight of Time

That was the name of one of Houdini’s famous pieces.  When it comes to magic, Houdini is a perennial favourite in the mind of the public.  The Jewish Museum has a wonderful exhibition on the life of this master of mystery. Houdini: Art and Magic demonstrates the extent of his reach not only in his own era but also even today. The exhibition showcases rare Houdini ephemera, props and posters as well as artwork and installations by modern artists that were inspired by Houdini. The exhibition closes at the end of March but will then “hit the road” as Karl Johnson writes, “like an old vaudeville company”, first to Los Angeles from April to September, then San Francisco from September 2011 to January 2012, and then to Madison Wisconsin, from February to May, 2012.

I have been conducting my own tour that included performances, keynotes or workshops in Boston, Baltimore, Miami, Montreal, Indianapolis, Chicago and London. I can’t imagine how someone like Houdini would have traveled in this age of heightened security. There is no escaping it. Still, each stop offers something that makes the hassle of traveling all worthwhile.  Here are three personal highlights from my recent travels.

While performing in Boston I had the pleasure of meeting George Goebel. George Goebel was one of the last of the grand magicians in the spirit of Harry Kellar, Howard Thurston, Dante and Harry Blackstone. He is also the proprietor of the oldest and most famous costume shop in America, A.T. Jones & Sons, founded in 1868 in Baltimore. A few days after my initial encounter with Mr. Goebel, I found myself in Baltimore, delivering a keynote address on creativity and problem-solving to the Association of American Manufacturers. Afterward, I made a beeline for the costume shop to soak in the atmosphere and to revisit Mr. Goebel.  It is always a pleasure to meet someone with such artistic sensibilities, and who has contributed so much, and who can best be described as a real gentleman.

While in Boston, I also had the chance to meet Dr. Robert Albo. In addition to being one of the most respected practitioners of sports medicine – he was the doctor for numerous professional sports teams including the Golden State Warriors and the Oakland Raiders – he was also a magic collector and historian. He wrote dozens of books, each one tracing the history of apparatus in his collection and the magicians who made it. Each book was a lavish work of art and sought-after collectible in its own right. It was his work on Theo Bamberg, a fifth generation Dutch magician who performed under the name Okito that enabled me to reconstruct “The Floating Ball”, a theatrical illusion that I featured in The Conjuror.

Dr. Albo was also an elite athlete, garnering numerous awards in multiple sports. He turned down the opportunity to play professional sport, however, to pursue a medical career. I told Dr. Albo how much I admired his work and career, and how I used him as an example for my own son, Harrison, to follow. Harrison has ‘hung them up” – that is to say, his skates and his Junior A hockey career – to pursue his university education in a sports-related field. Dr. Albo and I exchanged numerous letters following our initial encounter – letters that I will treasure forever.  Dr. Albo passed away on February 21, 2011, age 78.

A third highlight was participating in “It’s Always Something…” a fundraising variety show hosted by Russell Peters on behalf of Gilda’s Club of Greater Toronto, the organization that provides social and emotional support for men, women, teens and children with cancer. For this particular performance we restaged our “Sawing In Half” from The Conjuror, and with our original cast. It was an honour to appear on the same program with such artists as Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor, Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood, Robin Duke, Jayne Eastwood, and the cast from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; and for such a worthy cause.


When you wish upon a star

Doug Henning changed my life.  It was while watching his first network television special, broadcast live-live, meaning in real time and not on a tape delay, that I said to myself: “I want to become a magician.”  The year was 1975 and I was fourteen years old.

Now, some thirty-five years later, I have had the chance to repay Doug the favour.  Doug Henning will receive his “star” this weekend on the Canadian Walk of Fame and I have been working behind the scenes for the past several months on the tribute to Doug that will be broadcast to the nation.

Although Doug, sadly, passed away on February 7, 2000 from cancer at age 52, he not only left behind a large body of work – eight NBC television specials, three extended runs on Broadway, a legacy of magic on the Las Vegas strip, and numerous national tours and television appearances – but also he transformed the way that magic was performed by magicians and viewed by the public. You can learn more about Doug’s contributions here.

Fortunately, in creating the tribute to Doug, many friends lent a hand. First up was the late Sid Lorraine. Sid passed away in 1989.  I acquired, however, Sid’s extensive collection of magic from his widow, Rene Johnson, a few years ago.  Sid was very close to Doug, and had been one of his early mentors. Fortunately, Sid had videotape records of most of Doug’s television specials and appearances.

Jerry Goldstein – Doug’s longtime manager – gave me permission to digitize the collection so that I could review all of the television appearances and make some suggestions as to which clips epitomized Doug and his magic. Once we narrowed down the selections, Jerry kindly provided the pertinent excerpts from the master tapes for inclusion in the broadcast.

Richard Kaufman and Stan Allen, of Genii and MAGIC magazines respectively, provided dozens of digital images of Doug and his performances for both the media kit, and the broadcast tribute.

Charles Reynolds and Jim Steinmeyer, both men behind-the-curtain who advised Doug on what to perform and how, offered me their counsel and insight. For that I am grateful.

Keeping this all on track were the people at Magicana (Julie Eng and James Alan), Insight Productions (Aili Suurallik and Joseph Recupero), the Canadian Walk of Fame (Peter Soumalias), as well as Peter Samelson in New York, and Allan and Gary Slaight in Toronto.

Special thanks must also go to Chris Kenner, Homer Liwag and, in particular, David Copperfield, for donating their time and talent in honouring Doug. While Doug blazed the trail for modern magic, David Copperfield has certainly taken it to heights magicians never imagined.

Most of all, we have to thank the many people who voted for Doug to receive his star on the Canadian Walk of Fame. As the organization only recognizes one posthumous recipient per year, it makes Doug’s star that much more special for all who admired and were inspired by him.

Doug’s star will be unveiled on Saturday, October 16th. The broadcast of the ceremonies and celebration will take place on October 20th on Global TV.

Homing Hopper

“Where did THAT come from?”  I’m often asked this question not because I made an object like automobile appear in thin air but because, when I am asked to contribute creative solutions, my comments or suggestions at first glance appear to come out of nowhere.

I found myself asking myself the same question while screening Brian Johnson’s film Yes and No at the Toronto International Film Festival, and again after meeting Dennis Lee, the poet whose words inspired the cinematic treatment, at the post-screening party.

I already knew the answer, at least in some respect. The work came from their imagination and, more importantly, from the knowledge both Brian and Dennis had in store, knowledge that allowed their imaginations to create tangible works rather than thoughts that just swirled inside their brains.

Inventive but pragmatic solutions require someone with both imagination and knowledge. And, as Timothy Williamson points on his article in the New York Times, knowledge – far from being something that inhibits creativity – makes the imagination focused and productive.  He writes,

“Constraining imagination by knowledge does not make it redundant. We rarely know an explicit formula that tells us what to do in a complex situation. We have to work out what to do by thinking through the possibilities in ways that are simultaneously imaginative and realistic, and not less imaginative when more realistic. Knowledge, far from limiting imagination, enables it to serve its central function.”

Stewart James was one of the most prolific creators of magic in the twentieth century.  He created over a thousand magical pieces while most other magicians were lucky to create a dozen. Among his many innovations was the “Headline Prediction”. Stewart was the first to create and perform this sort of prediction.  His initial prediction and one that generated a great deal of publicity, was: ”Germany invades Poland”. That’s right, Stewart correctly predicted the outbreak of World War II!

I’ve written extensively about Stewart and his many modes of generating ideas in Advantage Play. Stewart had a myriad of techniques – idea kindlers – to generate ideas. All, however, were based on a foundation of knowledge. Stewart was extremely well versed in the principles and practice of magic. As far as Stewart was concerned, solutions pre-existed.  He simply had to explore his subconscious to find them. So, he regarded himself as an explorer like Christopher Columbus. Instead of looking for the New World, however, Stewart explored the uncharted areas of his imagination. He knew it was a  dangerous journey though, and easy to lose one’s way in the imagination. He saw first-hand some of his closest creative friends lose their minds as they spent too much time in their imagination.

Stewart used his superior knowledge of principles, practices and procedures as the constellations that guided his explorations. They also brought him home. He thought he could discover even more solutions, however, if he had a Homing Hopper as his guide.

A Homing Hopper, of course, was a product of Stewart’s imagination. It was a hybrid creature: part Homing Pigeon and part Grasshopper. The Grasshopper could jump from idea to idea, safe in the knowledge that it would never get lost in the depths of the imagination because the Homing Pigeon would bring the mind back to safe ground.

One pundit said that Stewart was in his own little world, but that was okay because they knew him there. I feel the same way.


Just over a year ago I received an email from Brian Johnson, film critic for Macleans magazine and, as I was to discover, a filmmaker in his own right.

 He asked if I would help bring some magic to a short film he was creating based on the poetry of Dennis Lee.

I love collaborating with other artists because it is always such a learning experience.  This was no exception. It was a particularly challenging shoot simply because, while Brian had created a special deck of cards for me to manipulate, one with visual imagery inspired by the poetry, he wanted me to improvise the magic during the filming.

Adding to the challenge was that we had a short window in which to film because he wanted to capture the magic with natural light, at dusk, just before nightfall.

Well, I finally get a chance to see the film, YesNo, this Sunday as it is will receive its official screening as part of the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the TIFF Shortcuts Canada Programme.  You’ll see from the listing that the film features narration by a stellar cast of Canadian authors, poets and musicians including Leonard Cohen, Margaret Attwood, Michael Ondaatje, and Karen Solie.

Although Brian offered to send me a copy of the film prior to the official screening, I declined the offer because I wanted to see it initially as it was meant to be seen: on a large screen in a theatre with hundreds of other people.

The film will also be screened at the Atlantic Film Festival, the Woodstock Film Festival, and the Vancouver Film Festival.

Behind the Curtain

Although space at 31 Faces North is limited, we have always tried to expand the reach of the conference by helping Magicana stage lectures and workshops for those locally with a passion for magic. These workshops and lectures are by performers who rarely, if ever, lecture or perform in these parts.

This year there are three!

First up is Rafael Benatar with both a workshop – limited to ten people – and the first half of a lecture double-bill. I’ve only met Rafael once, and that was a decade ago, but I have followed his creative output closely. Rafael, although from Venezuela, is of the Spanish-school, being a close-confidant of Arturo Ascanio and, of course, Juan Tamariz, two of the most influential magicians of the past quarter century. Rafael travels the world, and by doing so, sees and hears the latest wonders, all of which inform his own work. Rafael is also a great communicator. Fluent in several languages, he knows how to explain both the essence and the detail required for creating and performing superb sleight-of-hand.

Gaëtan Bloom is the second. I have known Gaëtan since the mid-1980s, and have seen him perform and lecture both here and abroad. I have invited him every year to 31 Faces North, and I am ecstatic that he has finally found the time to join us. It has been ten years since his last visit to Toronto, and for someone like Gaëtan, that was a million ideas ago! So, I’m pleased that we have the opportunity to catch up on his fertile imagination. Gaëtan is not only a superb inventor of subtle secrets, but he is also one of the most entertaining performers – one whose magic is the high watermark of visual deception.

Rafael and Gaëtan will be presenting a double-bill of magic in Montreal on August 14 and in Toronto on August 18. Rafael is also doing an intensive card workshop in each city.

Jim Steinmeyer is the third. As an author, inventor, magic historian and creative consultant, Jim has touched the lives of all of us interested in the art of magic. His lectures are few and far between, and I have traveled far to see and hear him in action: Louisville, Chicago, Los Angeles and London. For those in Toronto with a passion for magic, you now you have the chance to listen and learn from him in your own backyard.  It doesn’t get much better than that!

31 Faces North

I shouldn’t complain, although I do: too many projects, and all of them interesting.

As soon as the Masters of Magic Series finished – it closed the Luminato Festival – I was on an airplane to perform in St. John’s, Newfoundland.  It was my first visit to the Rock, but one that was all too short.  I was on another plane the next day to do a show that night in beautiful Banff, Alberta.  Although not coast-to-coast, something I’ve done before – a morning keynote presentation in Boston, an afternoon keynote in Vancouver and then back to Toronto for the evening – it was a great reminder of the size, beauty and diversity of the country. Signal Hill and the Banff Springs are both as majestic as the mountain ranges on which they are situated.

I am now, however, on to another project – 31 Faces North.  This is an invitation-only assembly of 40 of the world’s premier performers of sleight-of-hand.  This will be our 8th year co-hosting the conference with Allan Slaight, the Canadian media mogul and magician.

I’ve certainly spoken or performed at hundreds of conferences over the course of my career. 31 Faces North, however, is unique. Allan and I were inspired to host the conference by the late P. Howard Lyons. Howard was a prominent accountant by trade, but one with a passion for jazz, science fiction and magic. Allan and I first met some thirty years ago at Howard’s conference, “The Ibidem Event”.  The conference was named after an avant-garde magic magazine – yes, there was such a thing – that Howard published called Ibidem. In addition to the eclectic and thought-provoking magic, each magazine featured a cover created and individually silk-screened by Howard’s wife, Pat Patterson. Howard died in 1987.

Howard’s idea for a conference was to have three gourmet meals a day, and an open bar for four consecutive days, and minimal scheduled events. Delegates would just sit around, eat, drink and share knowledge. The event was staged at the Oban Inn at Niagara-on-the-Lake, and the delegates took over the entire inn. I was invited when I was quite young because Howard believed that it was important to broker knowledge. It certainly changed my life as I met many people there who not only became fast friends, but who also mentored me personally and professionally.

Well, fast forward to 2002 when Allan and I were discussing Howard, and the “Ibidem Event”. It was time, we thought, to resurrect the concept. Although many in the magic community believe we called the event 31 Faces North in honor of Howard and Allan’s magical muse Stewart James, and Stewart’s legendary feat 51 Faces North, the truth is that Allan and I set up chairs in the room and discovered that it could comfortably accommodate 31 people.  As all of the chairs were facing north, the name became 31 Faces North. The play on Stewart’s title was just a lovely coincidence.

We expanded the facility in the intervening years, and now accommodate about 40 attendees. The spirit, however, remains the same.  It is four days of the world’s best magicians – and a handful of the next generation – hanging around, sharing sustenance and secrets, and all for the love of magic.

Thinking In Person

As the Artistic Director responsible for programming the Masters of Magic series for Luminato, I have provided the Festival with notes for the media on why I invited Juan Tamariz, Mac King, Max Maven and Bob Sheets to Toronto.

In other words, what makes these performers so special? For now, let’s focus on Max Maven.

Max Maven’s list of credits is so broad, and so deep, that even a short listing seems obnoxious. He has performed throughout the world, been a featured performer on scores of television programs, and has created and hosted television series for a variety of networks. He has hosted eight network specials in Japan – performing in Japanese – designed an interactive museum exhibition and, of course, performed before live audiences for decades.

With a lifelong passion for conjuring and kindred accomplishments, Max has invented the modus operandi for more magic and mind games than probably any other person in the history of this ancient art.

Magic isn’t, however, his only interest. Inspired by Alexander Woollcott, the quick-witted and intellectual dominatrix of the Algonquin Round Table, Max wanted to become, like Woollcott, a “fabulous monster”.

So Max combined his interest in magic, the paranormal, and human psychology to become a globetrotting mindreader – but one who, like Woollcott, has an acerbic wit.

His full-evening show – Thinking In Person – reflects his myriad of interests. Max takes the audience on a journey. He ushers the audience into his mind as he takes his own trip through theirs.

Now, there is much talk in theatre about the need to break down the fourth wall. Most stage performers, however, are terrified of interacting with the audience in an unscripted manner.

What makes Max’s performances so rewarding is that he not only takes on the risk of interacting with his audience, but he actually embraces it. It can create tension for all concerned. And, that is a good thing.

Join us on June 18, 2010 for Max Maven’s Thinking In Person – the more minds, the merrier.

More Magic!

I’m pleased to report that the Masters of Magic series at Luminato has more than just stage and street performances by Juan Tamariz, Mac King, Max Maven and Bob Sheets. The Festival is also screening The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, a film by Ann Marie Fleming. I am honored to have played a bit part in both the making of the film, and its forthcoming screening at the Festival.

The film is about Ann Marie’s search for information about her great-grandfather, Long Tack Sam. Ann Marie describes Sam as, “The Devilishly Handsome Globe-Hopping Chinese Vaudevillian Magician and Acrobat”. And that he was.

I first met Ann Marie in 1997 when I was performing The Conjuror at the Royal Ontario Museum. She introduced herself as a friend of the filmmaker Ron Mann, a mutual acquaintance, and asked if I had ever heard the name “Long Tack Sam”. Much to her surprise, I had. She then showed me one Sam’s scrapbooks from “Scala”. I was able to put in her touch with many other magicians who helped her piece together the life of this remarkable performer. I then watched her over the course of the next few years assemble the story, and the film. Quite a journey! Although the film had its official premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2003, the actual world premiere took place a few days earlier, at 31 Faces North in Toronto, a gathering of magicians that I co-hosted with Magicana, and Allan Slaight. Several of the magicians featured in Ann Marie’s film were in attendance. It was a great evening.

Luminato is a curated Festival, that is, the programming is developed along lines envisioned by an artistic director, in this case, Chris Lorway. This year, Chris has tabled three broad themes: East/West, Artist Rights, and Divas. It was easy to suggest Ann Marie’s film be included because it deals with, in its own way, all three. You can see The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam for yourself – and at no charge – at the theatre at the National Film Board on June 20 at 2:30 PM.

I am also participating in a public form about rights in the arts. The forum, moderated by Chris Lorway, takes place at the Roots Store at 100 Bloor Street West on June 16 at 12:30 PM.  I have always been interested in this topic and I believe that the history of magic as a performing art offers insight into the relationship between artists and creative works.

Coincidentally, I was recently sent a copy of Law and Magic, a collection of essays published by Carolina Academic Press, to review. One of the essays, “Secrets Revealed: Protecting Magicians’s Intellectual Property without Law” generated a lot of press, including from The Economist, prior to its publication in this book. The paper discusses, among other things, how the magic community has developed a set of informal norms and sanctions to protect their intellectual property.

I read the paper at a draft stage when the author, Jacob Loshin, was seeking comments. His notion, however, of how magicians protect their secrets, and their ability to do so, was completely off the mark. It still is. This is because he makes the classic mistake of assuming that, because he once dabbled in magic, and was a member of a magic society – a hobby club, really – that he has an insider’s understanding of the profession. He doesn’t.  It certainly sounds good, however.

As for the third theme – Divas – need I say anything more?