The thing with magic is that you have to be aware it is around. Otherwise, it just stays invisible to you. Which brings us to the Museum of Illusions, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it place on Front Street East, on the very edge of Toronto’s tourist district. Despite its modest exterior, however, the museum holds an impressive collection of bright installations and smaller pieces designed to confuse visual senses, impress the Instagram set and challenge the quaint, conventional notion that seeing is believing.
To test out the place, I invited a pair of professionals to the museum: magician Richard Young (one half of the razzle-dazzle duo Young & Strange) and mind-reader Alex McAleer. Both are performers in the touring British show Champions of Magic that will soon settle into the nearby St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, from Dec. 19 to Jan. 6.
Together at the museum, they appeared to enjoy themselves – kids in a candy store. At the mirrored Clone Table, Young played with a deck of cards and became four of his own kind. Both guys hung around the Anti-Gravity Room, lost track of time in the Vortex Tunnel and spent forever in the Infinity Room.
Afterward, at a coffee shop next door, they spoke about illusions in general and the museum specifically. “I thought it was a good one,” said McAleer, his accent a bit posh. “There are a few of these around, and sometimes they can be a bit of a disappointment.”
Young agreed. “It’s rare to see things you haven’t seen before,” he said, his own inflection a bit more Cockney. “I haven’t come across an optical illusion like the card table before.”
When the interview with the magicians was initially set up, the plan called for Young to come to the museum with his stage partner, Sam Strange. “He couldn’t make it,” the pair’s publicist said. “He pulled a dove.”
Speaking of doves and disappearing acts, there are no birds in the Champions of Magic show. No rabbits either. Who knows what the magicians have up their sleeves these days, but it’s not animals. Apparently audiences worried that the varmints and winged things were being harmed, a suspicion my new magician pals quickly dispelled.
“Those doves, I can assure you, were treated better than us at times,” McAleer said.
“They would get their own hotel rooms to fly around in,” Young chirped in. “That’s not an exaggeration.”
Getting back to the topic of the Museum of Illusions and hocus-pocus festivals such as Champions of Magic, I asked the two performers about the appeal of being fooled. “Everybody knows the rules to normal life,” Young said. “Things don’t just disappear. Up is up and down is down. But magic breaks the rules.”
So, it’s about a sense of wonder – the allure of the how and wow. “Especially in today’s world, where every single answer is on Google,” McAleer explained.
What the two performers are getting at is the regaining of one’s childhood imagination and carefree mindset. The show and the museum cater to that, and so does the new Happy Place installation at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre until Jan. 1, 2019. It’s something of a pop-up playground for adults (and kids, too).
Asked about his initial attraction to illusions, Young said he received a magic kit as an eight year old. A few years later, after watching a David Copperfield special on television and soon after catching that American illusionist at an arena during a British tour, Young told his parents he wanted to be professional magician. “They said it was okay,” Young recalled, “as long as I had a back-up plan.”
And did he have one?
“No,” Young said, smiling. “So, I had to do it. I had no choice.”
We all make choices. Most of us abandon our youth – by choice or by necessity, maybe, but probably by neglect. It’s still there, though. You just have to look for it.
Champions of Magic runs Dec. 19 to Jan. 6, 2019, Bluma Appel Theatre at the St. Lawrence Centre.
Museum of Illusions is open daily.