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.

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.


The Art of Practise

Me, age 12

Some have said – myself included – that I’m a recluse.  It’s not true.  For the past number years I could be found on any given night at a hockey rink.  Both of my sons play hockey, the youngest one – named Harrison and now not so young – at quite a competitive level. (Harrison has a certain notoriety with the magic community. They are his hands, age seven, shuffling the cards as a young Vernon in Dai Vernon: The Spirit of Magic. He also tossed out the memorable retort when he was asked, at age twelve, what his father did for a living. He replied:  “My dad’s a clown…I have really big shoes to fill.” And finally, when I pointed out to him that I dedicated the first volume of the Dai Vernon biography to he and his brother, i.e. “For the children of magicians: may you grow up and continue to believe in miracles,” he said, “You should have dedicated the book, ‘To my sons, Courtney and Harrison, who will never read this book.’” ) Being born and raised in Toronto, I am also a member of the Leafs Nation – Go Leafs Go.  Now you are probably wondering what this has to do with magic.

My youngest, Harrison, age 17.

Well, I’d like to think that hockey has informed my magic, and that my magic has informed my sons about hockey. Many years ago I undertook the challenge of learning Dad Stevens’ Riffle Cull.  I’ve been practicing it virtually everyday now for six or so years.  I considered it the most difficult sleight in the canon and also one of the most rewarding. The idea is to “locate, secure and stock”, as Erdnase would say, target cards as they flicker off your thumbs during the course of a riffle shuffle.  To do it with control and without hesitation is very difficult. I do, however, get into a Zen-like state as I practice the maneuver.  It really becomes a meditation on improvisation. One of the challenges, of course, is to recognize the indices of the cards as they flicker by. That’s where hockey comes in. I remember from my youth the concept of blocking out all of the net except for the four corners. The idea is train the shooter to aim for the most vulnerable spots on the goaltender, at that time, the four corners of the net.  (Some have added a fifth area – between the legs – as another zone, but that is discussion best saved for another day.) By reducing the size of the target, the shooter develops greater accuracy.

So, I thought I would apply that principle to the Stevens Riffle Cull. I started practicing the sleight with “Texan” playing cards, specifically No. 45-R as they had small indices.  This helped me quite bit for when I used a standard deck of cards the indices jumped out at me as if the deck was made for the visually impaired. I learned years later from Jason England that Steve Forte used a similar technique, namely gluing pairs of cards slightly off-kilter, but face to face, so that when he tabled the pair, he would have to determine the value of the card with only a hint from the contour of the index.

Hopefully my obsessive interest in practice has helped my sons with their hockey.  Recently, I had a conversation with Harrison about practice. Much to my surprise, Harrison seemed interested in how I practice.  (I practice a couple of hours each day.) He was trying to learn a move – the toe drag – in which the player drags the puck with the toe of his stick in an artful manner around – hopefully – the defender.

One of the things I stressed was the importance of executing the move slowly. “It is only by executing it slowly,” I said, “that you can obtain a real understanding of the move and the ability to execute it.”  I learned that from Ross Bertram, a master sleight-of-hand artist with whom I studied for many years. Not only do you learn how the move should feel like when executed properly, but you also embed every nuance of technique onto your soul.

Harrison informed me that he already knew the mechanics of the move. I replied that by going slowly he would learn more details than he ever imagined, that his hands would be able to sense every change in position and movement required to execute the move at speed.  It was only then, after he thoroughly understood the mechanics of the move that he could start to bring it up to speed.

After discussing this concept further with Julie Eng – a wonderful magician who, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it – is more obsessed with Argentine tango than magic – we agreed that one of the main benefits of performing something slowly was that it gave you the opportunity to “self-correct” as the technique was in motion. That is a very important concept. You have to develop the ability to self-correct, and you can only self-correct in performance – and at high speed – if you have a deep understanding of every nuance of the technique.

It takes discipline to slow down and self-correct especially when your peers equate speed with success. Hopefully, I will be at the rink the day when Harrison executes his maneuver because I will know how difficult it was to perform and also how much it is like performing magic – hours and hours of practice and dedication for something that takes place in the blink of an eye.