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!



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.

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!

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?


We’re back!

Blogging is a lot like dieting: one starts with the best of intentions but it is easy to fall off the track. There are simply too many distractions.

Fortunately for me, it wasn’t the chocolate cake. We’ve just been busy with many projects.

We’ve been working with the fine cast and crew at the Shaw Festival to develop a new illusion for A Touch of Venus, a musical written by Kurt Weil, Ogden Nash and S.J. Perelman. To crib from an old Penn & Teller testimonial – one that I believe they wrote about themselves – the musical can best be described as zany, brainy, marvelous and mad.  I don’t want to spoil the illusion by giving you too much information. Suffice to say, the team put lots of time into it, more than most people would ever imagine, which is the case with all great magic, and the results show. They have created a wonderful grace note to a fun-filled theatrical outing.

We’re also just back from Chicago where we hosted, as Artistic Director of Magicana, the 41st Annual Magic Collectors Weekend. Although we have produced many shows and conferences over the years, this was our first for the Magic Collectors Association. Fortunately, we had a crackerjack team, led by Julie Eng, Executive Director of Magicana, ensure that everything ran smoothly. There were many highlights – the presentation by Guests of Honor George Daily and Mike Caveney on their acquisition of Egyptian Hall, the presentations by Diego Domingo and Gary Hunt on “finding your man”, and a heartfelt presentation by Walter Blaney of his famous levitation. Walter, now 82, informed the group that he was performing the levitation for the last time. Julie Eng was his floatee. It was a beautiful illusion performed by a real gentleman. All delegates felt enriched by his stories and presence.

Finally, we’re now gearing up for Luminato, Toronto’s festival of creativity and the arts.  As you know, Magicana is producing “Masters of Magic” with Juan Tamariz, Max Maven, Mac King and Bob Sheets. Advance sales have been very strong. So much so, that Juan’s Sunday afternoon show is now going to be performed in English. Originally he was going to perform the first show in Spanish, the second in English, and the third in French. Tickets disappeared so quickly for the English-only performance, however, that the Festival asked for Juan to change the French-language show to a second English-only performance to accommodate the demand.

Many other exciting projects are in the works, and we will report on them shortly.


Deliberate Practice

Check out Alina Tugend’s column, Shortcuts in the April 9th edition of the New York Times. She discusses the ‘Nature v. Nurture’, ‘Talent v. Persistence’ arguments for success.

First, I found her discussion of practice, and in particularly “deliberate practice”, interesting. Deliberate practice is a useful term.

One of my pet peeves has always been listening to people who pontificate how long they have been involved with something as if the length of time at an activity warranted respect. We’ve all heard someone – who is not particularly good at the task – state, “I’ve been doing this for thirty-five years…”

My mental response is usually, “Well, if I had been doing it for as long as you have, and was still that bad, I’d want to consider an alternative career.”

The reason they are bad is not because they haven’t put the time in, but because they have not done ‘deliberate practice’. Tugend cites Professor Ericsson’s notion of deliberate practice: “It involves spending hours a day in a highly structured activities to improve performance and overcome weakness.”

The key words, in my opinion, are ‘highly structured activities’ with the goal to ‘overcome weakness’. Sheer repetition is not enough.

The practice exercises must be well-conceived, targeted exercises designed to overcome specific weakness. Going back to one of my earlier posts, I find working slowly allows you to understand each component of the task at hand so that you can flag the weakness you need to correct.

One of my mentors, Ross Bertram – one of the great sleight-of-hand artists of the 20th century – often used a rhythm count to help him flag weakness. He would apply a musical count (1-2-3-4) to a series of sleights not to give him a mechanical rhythm to the piece, but to flag any stutter in the routine, one that his eye would gloss over, or for which his mind would provide a false justification such as, “no one would notice that”.

If his hands couldn’t keep pace with the fluid timing of the count, then he would focus on the point where the rhythm was broken, and fix it.

Second, I found Tugend’s comments about the optimum length of practice sessions interesting. It appears, for example, that four hours is about the maximum that anyone can practice in a day consistently to achieve great results.  After that, the sessions can be counterproductive.

This certainly holds true from my experience.

So, I’ve always questioned the stories of certain performers who maintained a practice regime of 8-10 hours a day. It may sound great in a media kit but, if they really did so (which I doubt), it probably wasn’t very productive.

Third, Tugend flags the emotional and human cost of such dedication. The focus required to persevere day in and day out has a price. Relationships slide, and empathy – the EI (Emotional Intelligence) of the player or performer is often diminished.

There are certainly enough examples of artists, performers and athletes who have sacrificed all for their art, craft or sport. That’s why I dedicated the first volume of my biography on Dai Vernon – a man who sacrificed all for his art – to the children of magicians: “May you grown up and still believe in miracles.”

It’s also probably why, as I mentioned in that previous post, after I pointed out to my son Harrison, then age 14, that the Vernon biography was dedicated in essence to him and his brother, he said, “Dad, you should have written something else.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“You should have written,‘To my sons, Courtney and Harrison, who will never read this book.’ ”

How true.

Shhh…It’s a Secret!

As you know from previous postings, we are programming the Masters of Magic series as part of Luminato, Toronto’s superb festival dedicated to creativity and the arts. Tickets go on sale to the general public on April 15th through Ticketmaster.ca.

We’re pleased, however, to offer you the opportunity to purchase your tickets in advance of the general public by using a secret password. No, it’s not “Open Sesame”. The code is “IMAGINE”. Yes, all capital letters.

You can use it anytime from April 5th to 14th to purchase your tickets. Simply visit Ticketmaster.ca to order your tickets and, when prompted for the code word, enter the word IMAGINE.

Just remember, it’s our secret!


The Oldest Trick in the Book

I’ve just finished reading “Cowboys Full – The Story of Poker” by James McManus.  McManus, you may recall, parlayed his fifth place finish in the World Series of Poker championship into Positively Fifth Street, a New York Times bestseller.

Although I am interested in the history of poker, I’ve never been too interested in Texas Hold’em. I’ve always thought that the game’s most celebrated players were cheats. The game – their game – is a scam. While McManus may have set out to glorify the history of poker, and lionize the current crop of players, for me his book did the exact opposite.

If one considers the sources cited, McManus knows very little about cheating. It is only near the end of the book, after he has given the play by play of some of the most publicized games, that he discusses the game’s dirty secret: collusion – two or more players acting in concert to affect the outcome of the game, and the tournament.

One way players collude is to self-insure: each person getting a portion of the winnings of the other members of his or her team. Sadly, McManus describes this as “legitimate”. On page 290, he writes,

(A note about deals: to insure themselves against spikes of tournament poker in general, many players legitimately trade or sell percentages of their action either before the tournament begins or upon making the final table. In 1983, for example, Johnny Chan had 20 percent of both Peate’s and McEvoy’s action.  Because each finalist had sold other pieces of himself before the tournament, the still unknown Chan netted more than either of them.)

Part of the mythos of poker, however, is that it is every man (or woman) for himself.  When one goes “all in” he does so with the knowledge that he may lose everything. Well, apparently not. Unbeknownst to others at the table, my “all in” is only 80% in because my undisclosed partner is going to give me 20% of his winnings, and vice versa. This will certainly affect play, particularly in the early stages, where players blitzkrieg those who wait for the ideal hand in order to capture as many small blinds as possible to build an insurmountable position.

Collusion can manifest itself in other ways. McManus finally discusses some of them near the end of the book. On page 406 he writes,

The most common form of cheating at poker these days is collusion. At a live table, colluders can signal the contents of their hands to each other, building pots when one of them has a strong hand. During tournaments, teams of cheaters pass around chips, usually from the members who have fallen behind to the one with the largest stack. The chips can be transferred by hand during a break or, at the table, by raising up a pot together before one of them folds, a maneuver called dumping. In either case, the beneficiary is given a big leg up toward reaching the final table, where whatever price money he wins will be split with his cohorts.

McManus appears to call a spade a spade on page 416:

Any form of collusion is illegal and unethical. This obviously includes teaming with partners to raise and reraise other players, but it also includes soft-playing each other – not betting strong hands, for example. Even if a friend is short-stacked a few places out of the money, not raising his blind with raiseworthy hole cards is cheating. Many such rules must be self-enforced, in much the same way that a PGA player uses the honor system to add a stroke for grounding his wedge in a sand trap, even if he’s the only person who could see or feel that it happened.

And yet, he appears oblivious to the form of collusion he embraces in the very next paragraph,

Another note about deals: Second place in a tournament usually pays about twice what third pays but only half what the winner receives. Thus, making a deal with fellow finalists often makes sense, especially when three or four players have similar stacks and the blinds are disproportionately high, in which case luck more than skill with determine the finishing order. A typical deal would involve dividing 90 percent of third- through first-place money equally among the last three players, then playing on for the bracelet (or trophy) and the remaining 10 percent of the money. But if you offer your opponents a deal, or vice versa, negotiate with the understanding that all deals are voluntary.

The ethics, it would appear, change to fit the situation.

Sadly, while it is nice to say forewarned is forearmed, the only sure way not to be cheated is to not to play.

But you knew that.