I am sitting in a rather tony establishment (named, a little untonily, Vinnie's) discussing the Henning/Vernon connection with James Biss. I shall explain the Henning/Vernon connection, and tell you who James Biss is, but first I must distract you, as I was distracted, by odd goings-on in the restaurant.
As diners supped at their custom, a young man would approach the table almost shyly. He seemed to be wearing too many clothes. I recognized, not the man, but the role. He wore many clothes because he needed many pockets; this was a magician.
"I'm here with the Magical Arts Festival," he would tell the table. "Do you mind if I show you a few things?"
But for now we must return our attention to Mr. Biss and the Henning/Vernon connection. Thirty-odd years ago, a young man named Doug Henning received a Canada Council Arts grant allowing him to travel to Los Angeles and study magic with the great Dai Vernon. This is significant in a couple of ways. For one thing, it should be an occasion for patriotic pride. Not only was Henning -- who would go on to revolutionize magic, to alter the popular conception of the tuxedoed and mustachioed prestidigitator -- a Canadian, but so was his mentor, Vernon.
Dai Vernon was perhaps the greatest close-up magician who ever lived. He was known far and wide as The Professor, although in his younger years he had earned a longer, slightly cockier sobriquet, The Man Who Fooled Houdini. The other significance is that, at least for a brief period, a government arts-funding body recognized magic as an art form. This is no longer the case.
Biss shakes his head wearily. "All the arts councils told me that magic wasn't an art form. I told them it was one of the oldest art forms in existence." Biss shakes his head one more time, but then he is done with that.
The man possesses an abundance of evident drive and energy, and devotes little time to weary headshaking. "So I had to make this happen without them."
He is referring to the Magical Arts Festival, currently taking place in Toronto, although you may not have been aware of this. Biss has long been determined to find a way to expose large, disparate audiences to the art of magic. "I wrote a play, a theatrical play, with magic in it. And one reviewer said that while the play was no good, the magic was great. My feelings were hurt, but I saw that he had a point. The magic is what's important."
As Biss relates it, he was sitting around in a bar stewing over this defeat when inspiration struck: a festival, using the jazz-festival model. "The idea was simple," he says. "To provide adult-level magic entertainment at various venues in the city."
The venues are all in Toronto's entertainment district, by the way, but before we get down to particulars, I suppose we should all collectively wonder: Was Biss's idea, in fact, a good one?
Well, I'll tell you up-front that I think so. Magic has become one of my hobbies. A few years ago, I began to write a novel, The Spirit Cabinet, that was set in Las Vegas and had at its heart two characters not at all unlike Siegfried and Roy. In order to imbue the work with some verisimilitude, I started investigating the magical arts. I read books, I haunted a magic shop (the Browsers Den in Toronto, run by the friendly, droll and endlessly patient Jeff Pinsky), I talked with local magicians (chiefly David Ben, another Canadian who, like Vernon and Henning, has garnered an international reputation).
I am now a card-carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. (I even claimed a stage name, The Amazing Frisby, after the Loony Tunes cartoon character). So I am a big booster of Biss's Magical Arts Festival, but my guess is that you might need some convincing.
There is no doubt that magic's reputation has suffered some damage over the past many years. It is interesting to note (and perhaps a little hard to credit) that in the first years of the last century, the most famous man on the planet was a magician. I refer to Ehrich Weiss, aka Harry Houdini. This was the age of the great stage shows: Carter the Great and Harry Blackstone, for example, travelled the world with crates of props, scores of comely assistants and the occasional elephant.