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.


Size Matters

It’s nice to know that something you secretly suspected may just be true.

Size matters.

We’re talking about the size of your hand, of course, and the ability to perform sophisticated sleight-of-hand.

A recent study published in The Journal of Neuroscience suggests that, in this case, the small guy wins.

Layman, that is the general public, and – I suspect – most magicians, believe that the larger the hand, the easier it is to perform sleight-of-hand; that it must be easier to ‘hide’ things with big mitts.

Vernon, whose hand was of modest proportions, indicated that a smaller hand was no impediment to performing superb sleight-of-hand. He informed Lewis Ganson, editor of Malini and his Magic, that Max Malini, one of the great magicians of the twentieth century, had a small hand with short and pudgy fingers, and yet could perform miraculous feats of card conjuring, and such bold illusions as making a block of ice appear underneath a borrowed hat.

I myself have rather small hands; broad but small. Riffle shuffle work, however, has built up the muscles around my phalanges so that there are no gaps or spaces – magicians call them “windows” – between my fingers. They are strong.

Daniel Goldreich, a professor in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario – alma mater of both the late master magicians John Booth and Doug Henning, suggests, if I interpret the findings correctly, that smaller hands are more sensitive hands. We are given, for example, a finite number of sensors at the fingertips regardless of the size of the digit. This means that, in larger hands, the sensitivity is spread out across a greater surface. Small hands, with smaller fingers, pack the same number of sensors in a more confined area, giving the holder a more sensitive touch.

While traditionally women have been flagged for the sensitivity of their fingers, it turns out it is due more to the size of their hands rather than their gender. This goes a long way, the study suggests, to explain why people with fine motor skills, such as surgeons – and I might add gratuitously, sleight-of-hand artists – have smaller hands.

Thankfully while the index finger appears to be the most sensitive, other fingers can be trained. This certainly explains why, after years of dedicated practice, strip-out shuffle work can, indeed, be performed with such a fine tolerance.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

A World of Wonder

Sometimes we forget just how magical this time of year can be.

The more we are involved with creating wonder, the less we appreciate its power.  We become jaded.  It’s all a trick. Fortunately, the holiday season gives us opportunity to rekindle our sense of wonder, and share that gift with others.

Recently I acquired the bulk of Sid Lorraine’s magic collection. Sid was known for many things, one of them being his Christmas cards. A gifted artist, Sid designed something unique every year to send to his family and friends. He also collected the cards sent to him by others. The card at the top of the page was drawn by the great magic illustrator Nelson Hahne and was sent to Sid by J.B. Bobo, the author of the seminal text Modern Coin Magic. (A copy of “Bobo’s” is in the postman’s satchel ready to brighten up a magician’s day.) The card reminds me of my youth.

I remember receiving magic books at Christmas. I can’t recall any other gift that brought me more joy – and keeps on giving – than the magic books I received at Christmas. I still remember, for example, ripping open the wrapping paper to discover volumes of the Tarbell Course in Magic and spending the day devouring the contents. I still have those books some thirty-five years later and I still dip into them from time to time to learn new ideas and revisit old ones.

The holiday season is also a time when we get to perform our magic for family and friends. Whereas at other times of the year we had to sometimes impose our performances on our audiences, people actually seemed interested in watching it during the holidays. For many performers – professional and part-time – it is the busiest time of the year.

My work as the Artistic Director of Magicana, a performing arts organization and registered charity, reminds me of how we are part of the present but also deeply rooted in the past; how we are part of a larger community both locally and in the world at large; and how fortunate we are to perform something that gives us and, more importantly, others joy.

Until I return next year, here’s wishing you a safe and joyful season.


Table Magic

“You go with the table that brought you.”

That was how Ron Conley, one of the world’s preeminent authorities on preventing casino fraud, responded to my question about the type of table surface he wanted for his demonstration of card handling. Ron was attending 31 Faces North, a conference that Allan Slaight and I co-host with Magicana where many of the world’s great inventors and performers of magic congregate to exchange ideas and libations. He was about to demonstrate the real deal, so to speak, when it came to defrauding a casino with playing cards.

I had asked the question because many magicians can be quite picky when it comes time to selecting a performing surface. They have become accustomed to ‘close-up pads’, mats that provide a soft surface, one with ‘give’, on which to perform. Gary Ouellet, often the triggerman for the powerful lobby firm Government Consultants International, used to set up a micro-stage – a close up mat on stubby legs – and speakers on each side, to demonstrate his intimate work.  (Gary was the triggerman in the sense that he always offered to take the picture rather than be in it, a rather astute move particularly when some of his colleagues would have to testify years later about their activities before government inquiries.) Conley, however, was much more pragmatic: professional card cheats have to be able to work on any surface.

My favorite performing surface is a beautiful white tablecloth, the type found in restaurants like Il Posto, a local haunt.  Of course, it is not just the tablecloth. It is also the ambience created by the cutlery, the stemware, the cups and saucers, and the breadcrumbs scattered across the surface that make the magic appear real, real in the organic sense.  Magic is always stronger when it ‘just happens’.  This applies not only to the sleight-of-hand technique used to animate it but also to the environment in which it takes places.

Magic performed in the close-up gallery at the Magic Castle or on an unadorned card table at a magic convention can’t compete with magic that grows out of, and uses the resources available from the environment.  Knives, forks, glassware, sugar, tablecloth and other articles found on or around the table are for me the earth, wind, fire and water used by alchemists to turn base metal into gold.

Just make sure you save room for dessert.

Magic Circles

It’s trite but true: things have a way of returning full circle.

I first became involved with the Shaw Festival, one of the four great English language theatre festivals in the world, in 1994 while developing The Conjuror with Patrick Watson. The first incarnation of the show premiered there at the Royal George Theatre in 1996. We were invited back for round two in 1997.

The Shaw Festival has a crackerjack crew of theatre craftspeople: set designers, lighting designers, scenic and prop builders to name but a few. I developed a very close relationship with the latter, and one of the their builders – XXX XXXXXX – remains one of the best kept secrets in magic. He has built a broad range of apparatus for me to use in my shows.

Well now, some fifteen years later, I have returned to the Shaw Festival, but this time as a consultant. I am helping them develop some magic-related special effects for a new production – One Touch of Venus – that, as Jay Marshal may have said, was so rarely performed, it was practically new. As is typical with the Festival, they have a way of uncovering these long-forgotten gems. The show features music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ogden Nash, the book by Ogden Nash and S.J. Perelman. The show was produced originally in New York in 1943 under the direction of Elia Kazan, with choreography by Agnes DeMille. It starred Mary Martin. It was turned to a film a few years later.

So, the first circle is that we’re back at the Shaw Festival. The second circle is the remounting of a show that is rarely remounted.

The third circle was running into Wayne, now head of the prop shop. Wayne built the Sawing In Half illusion that I used in The Conjuror. It was a based on the design that Alan Wakeling developed from the original illusion invented by P.T. Selbit circa 1920. (Jim Steinmeyer described Wakeling’s variation in The Magic of Al Wakeling.) Wayne mentioned to me that he had seen another performer do the routine with the same type of apparatus that I had used. He spoke to the performer afterward and the performer mentioned that he had spoken to me about performing the illusion. I was surprised, to say the least, as I had never spoken to this person, or remotely given him permission. Of course, he may have used the same source as I did in developing the trick. What is more interesting, however, is that Wayne developed certain details and incorporated them into the design he built for me. Wayne had added his own ingenuity, dictated by the demands of our particular production, to the illusion; and the copier, unbeknownst to him or his builder, had appropriated Wayne’s innovations.

The easiest way, of course, for him to do this would be to copy or download the promotional photographs for The Conjuror that depicted the illusion. He, or his builder, could then ‘scale’ the photograph, a technique often used by illusionists and their builders to reverse engineer the work of another. Sometimes it is a good thing, other times bad. For a person or performer who invents something novel and is using it in his or her business, it can be quite irritating. As many of magic’s greatest illusions were developed during the so-called “Golden Age” between 1875 and 1925, it is not surprising that copyists relied on photography and the scaling of photographs to determine the modus operandi of the competition. Often, the person doing the copying rarely understands what he or she is copying, and the reason for the technical developments. They just copy and assume that it will work.

Of course, in the hands of someone like Jim Steinmeyer – one of the great minds in magic – the technique can help him unravel the riddles inherent in the great illusions of the past, not only so he can restage them, but also so that he can extrapolate new ideas and applications from those principles. Jim, however, is a rare breed.

For me, it is a simple reminder of another circle: I was now part of a long lineage of those who, while performing one of the most pirated illusions of all time, was also the victim of piracy.