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.

Setting the stage

While the New Year reminds us of what occurred during the past twelve months, it also gives us a chance to look ahead.

2010 promises to be a busy and exciting year with many projects on the go.

As the Artistic Director of Magicana, we have added additional responsibilities to our portfolio: we are now the stewards of the Magic Collectors’ Association and their publication, Magicol, a quarterly magazine that focuses on the history of magic and the apparatus and ephemera associated with it. Our first issue will be sent to members in February. Membership in the MCA is one of the best bargains in magic. If you are interested in the history of magic, you should really join now!

We will also be programming the 41st annual MCA Conference held near Chicago. Scheduled from May 13th to 15th, the conference will feature a broad range of speakers, performers and dealers, and be the perfect opportunity for those with kindred interests to share information and build new friendships. We will be releasing information on the conference shortly on Magicana’s website.

Although I also have several books in various states of completion – the business biography of Canadian media mogul Allan Slaight, the life and magic of Paul Fox, and the second volume of the Dai Vernon biography – several other books are scheduled for release in 2010.

I took my M.O., so to speak, from Walter Gibson, the creator of “The Shadow”. Gibson was one of the most prolific authors of the twentieth century, writing scores of books and articles under a sundry of names. Apparently, Gibson had a typewriter in virtually every room in his house, and a different story set in each carriage. He’d wander into a room, read where he had left off and then, if the muse struck him, continue on with that particular story. Yes, there was multi-tasking prior to Microsoft.

Titles in our 2010 queue include a book of finger-flinging one-handed cuts by Dr. George E. Casaubon (Msgr. Vincent Foy). Nick Sacco and I finally convinced Msgr. Foy – a pioneer in this area and now age 94 – to release a manuscript of his favorite cuts. Photographer Ron Van Sommeron took photos of Msgr’s hands – or rather, hand – performing each cut!

Also, with the success of How Gamblers Win, Magicana will reprint another rare title: A Grand Exposé. Published originally in 1860, there are reputedly less than 12 known remaining copies of the first edition of this book. It is a marvelous work and one that should be in the hands of serious aficionados of card table artifice.

Speaking of card table artifice, 2010 should also see the publication of the first volume of three centered on The Expert at the Card Table. Although not my original intention, I’m sure that it will raise a few eyebrows and some controversy.  It’s been a longtime coming. I completed the first draft of it almost ten years ago. Hopefully, it will be worth the wait.

With any luck we might be able to squeeze in another publication or two.

The big news, however, is still to come. If you love magic, just plan on spending some time in Toronto this summer.

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.