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.

Eye of the Beholder

I’m just in from Chicago where I was undertaking a site survey of the O’Hare Westin Hotel for the 41st annual Magic Collectors’ Weekend. The facilities are excellent, and the theatre gives us the opportunity to showcase each presenter in the best light.

While in Chicago, I managed to attend the exhibition Apostles of Beauty: The Arts and Crafts Movement from Britain to Chicago at the Art Institute of Chicago just before it closed. This superb exhibition was of interest because the Arts and Crafts movement had a direct impact on magicians such as Karl Germain, Harlan Tarbell and Paul Fox. Fox, in particular, was greatly influenced by Dard Hunter, a resident of Paul’s hometown, Chillicothe, Ohio. Dard’s brother, Phil Hunter, was also a professional magician, and Dard and Phil toured Chautauqua prior to Phil’s passing. The influence of Arts and Crafts movement is evident in the promotional literature and posters of both Phil Hunter and Karl Germain.

Of course, Tarbell cites Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters various times in his magnum opus, “The Tarbell Course of Magic”, although I suspect Tarbell had little actual contact with Hubbard. Either way, it was wonderful to see some of the stellar works of this artistic movement close up.

I attended the Potter & Potter auction of items belonging to the late Bruce Cervon. The core items of the auction were, in fact, items that Bruce acquired directly from his mentor, Dai Vernon, or from Vernon’s family after Vernon’s passing. The recession seems to be over, at least for those who collect magic, as the prices realized consistently fell near or exceeded the high estimate.

I acquired a few items including Louis Falanga’s copy of the Deluxe Edition of Mike Skinner’s “Classic Sampler”, complete with copies of Skinner’s handwritten instructions for the items in the book. Louis was the publisher.

Classic Sampler has to be one of the most undervalued books in magic literature. It is surprising how much great information is in it. The “Profile” of Mike Skinner by William Murray at the beginning of the book describes not only what Skinner performed but also what he said and how he said it; invaluable information for a budding performer.

I only spent time with Skinner once. It was in the early 1980s at small conference organized by the late P. Howard Lyons and Bob Weill. (The conference, “the Ibidem Event”, was the inspiration for 31 Faces North, a gathering that I co-host with Allan Slaight and Magicana each August.) Skinner’s performance left an indelible mark. His magic was beautiful. I suppose that’s why I admired it so. My own mentor, Ross Bertram, also performed beautiful magic. So I, too, try to perform beautiful magic – funny, but beautiful.

In the departure lounge prior to my flight, I thumbed through a copy of the January 2010 issue of ARTnews and discovered a fascinating article,“Is Beauty in the Brain of the Beholder?”. The article explores the evolving field of neuroesthetics and traces what happens in the cerebral cortex when we see art. Researchers are trying to “figure out what makes great works so mesmerizing.”

Beauty, it turns out, is not just in the eye of the beholder.