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.
Then television happened. The trouble is not so much that people thereafter spent more time in their living rooms staring at the thing. After all, other marginal art forms -- jazz, for example -- continued to thrive. Magic simply did not fare very well on that particular medium: There was distance, separation from the miracles, and people couldn't be certain that the effects weren't created by editing and/or camera trickery. So magicians were forced to ply their trade where they could, in seedy nightclubs, shopping malls and, of course, children's birthday parties.
Magicians also have a kind of collective guilt about the decline, in essence accusing themselves of a paucity of imagination and innovation. There is the general feeling that many of the effects have a dreary sameness, best summed up by these well-worn words, "Pick a card, any card." (Dai Vernon did his best to change that; he was the man who began saying the more daring and mystifying, "Think of a card.")
Because the basics of magic are easily acquired (and some effects are what they call "self-working"), many people do associate magic with amateurism, and often the only prestidigitators they've come into contact with are ham-fisted and do indeed intone the words, "Pick a card, any card." But to therefore dismiss magic would be like dismissing music because you've heard too many knuckle-rolling renditions of Heart and Soul.
The blanket dismissal is also a little wrong-headed because there are many orders of magic, just as music runs from soloists to chamber groups to philharmonic orchestras. There is the big stuff, the grand illusions that have again found a footing on the stage, in big halls, thanks mostly to the late Doug Henning. ( The Magic Show, on Broadway, was a huge hit, and re-established magic as big boffo stuff. Las Vegas has built spectacular theatres for the likes of Lance Burton, and Siegfried and Roy.)
Magic also functions on a smaller scale, what I have heard referred to as parlour magic. This is entertainment that accepts the traditional audience-artist relationship, that is, where people sit in chairs and the performer works on a stage (or corresponding area) before them.
While the Magical Arts Festival offers no huge shows, there are venues for this kind of thing, thaumaturgical dinner theatre.
I visited a New Orleans-style eatery called Big Daddy's to catch one of the shows, and enjoyed myself thoroughly. The main performer that night was Glen Ottaway, a vast and vastly entertaining gentleman who combines magic with comedy. So, for example, while his back was turned, Ottaway had a young woman select a card from a deck, place it on a seat and then sit down on it. Ottaway announced that he would peer down the woman's throat, through her internal organs, and name the card.
She craned back her neck, Ottaway peered down briefly and then turned away with disdain. "The card has to be face-up," he snarled, and the woman sheepishly flipped it over.
The festival's artistic director, the aforementioned Biss, also performed. Biss is a mentalist, a particular offshoot of the magical arts, perhaps not as popular as it might be.
Biss, animated and dynamic, had a great deal of fun with the audience, and we had a great deal of fun with him. Among other successes, he correctly identified the colour of people's underwear. (This bit was based on a challenge issued by his daughter. Dad: "If I had unlimited psychic powers, what could I do?" Daughter: "Tell the colour of people's underwear"). It was a small audience, and one of the people Biss had to work with was the woman he is currently dating. "I hope to prove this definitively later this evening," he muttered as he cogitated, stretching his brow with his fingers.
I might by now have convinced you that some pretty talented artists are currently performing in Toronto, but I anticipate the following question. "Amazing Frisby," you are all asking, "there are always plenty of talented artists performing in Toronto. There are musicians, actors, comics and more. Why should I see magicians?"
Well, The Amazing Frisby has an answer to that, but it might best be relayed while discussing what magicians call close-up. Here, the traditional audience-artist relationship is done away with. The magician performs his effects right under your nose. The Magical Arts Festival offers a few venues where this takes place. (My personal favourite is that place Vinnie's, if only for the shrieks of delight that come from Layla, one of the waitresses there, who loves to watch the magicians.)
So, for example, Magic Mike, long a big part of the Toronto scene, removed a matchbox from his pocket and drove a needle through it. "Isn't that something?" he marvelled, studying my face. "You don't seem to be impressed," he noted, and I confessed I wasn't, until he opened the matchbox and showed that it contained a chunk of solid metal.
Another magician, Baldini, lit my little cigar for me. I watched as the matchbox stood upright on his palm, lay back down and then closed itself. "Good trick," said I.
Baldini -- his name is David Grosfield, and he has other careers, as a photographer and media consultant -- is atypical, in that he came to magic as an adult. Traditionally, magicians are made as teenagers (and that is still the case, I think, given the number of youngsters that frequent the Browsers Den on Saturday afternoons.)
Baldini's ambition was born when he saw David Blaine on television. There is something of a magical renaissance happening, and Blaine, best known for burying himself alive, is a big part of it. Ironically, Blaine used television, the very medium that had scuppered the art, to put it back on its feet. Blaine practises street magic, very in-your-face stuff, close-up as close can be. He performs an effect (often, an effect that many can duplicate) and then he stares steadfastly into the face of his subject, registering all the nuances of stupefaction.
The camera lingers there, too, as though the real effect is not the translocated card or restored coin or whatever, but the look of wonder on the spectator's face. Which, of course, is absolutely the case.
There is no denying that magic is trickery. But the nature of that trickery is very important. Because we are bombarded ceaselessly by sensory input, our brains (which think themselves too clever by half) have developed a number of ways to limit it.
Our brains make assumptions, employ simplistic logic, they filter against distraction. And magic works because of these mechanisms; it's why we get fooled. But my theory is that, allowing we couldn't function otherwise, we have wrapped ourselves in a kind of perceptual swaddling, and anything that cuts through is both liberating and illuminating.
But maybe I spoke too soon, maybe there is denying that magic is trickery. A young man named Adam Swaye had me pick a card (any card), which happened to be the three of hearts. He then removed an empty card box from his pocket and began to poke around inside.
"You picked a red three, didn't you?" he asked. I agreed. "Know how I know?" He turned over the card box and a billiard ball, the red three, fell onto the table with a resounding thud. And for a second or so, I wondered if that had really happened.
Even though afterward I felt that I could probably reason out how the thing was done (as I said to Adam, "You probably have 52 billiard balls secreted about your person"), there was an instant when I wasn't sure that the rules governing the universe hadn't been shattered all to bitsy pieces.
I crave, and I believe we all need, such moments of wonder. For from them arises the notion that all things are possible.
The Amazing Frisby will have two books published next year: My Side of the River, a collection of angling essays, and a novel, Galveston. The Magical Arts Festival runs until tomorrow.