As curio shops go, Brent Smith's Vanishing Rabbit is all things magical. Attached to the ceiling is a series of old billboards advertising the greats through the ages – Houdini, Sorcar, Mandrake and a young Doug Henning as Chou Chou (pronounced Shoe Shoe), the clown who actually sold shoes for a living.
Inside Mr. Smith's store, a creepy-looking Charlie McCarthy puppet sits above display cases filled with easy-to-perform tricks and novelties, including the ever-popular Fart Extinguisher.
"It's a big hit with the kids," Mr. Smith says as he emerges from behind a counter holding a deck of Svengali playing cards. "I sell a lot of cards, too. Magic is really hot right now."
Magic isn't just hot: It is a bubbling cauldron of showy illusionists, polished prestidigitators and expert sleight-of-hand artists. Turn on the TV and out pop the master tricksters – Dynamo, known as Magician Impossible; David Blaine, street magician/endurance artist; and Criss Angel Mindfreak, who can lop off the arm of a willing volunteer using hypnosis and a power saw. Viewer discretion is advised.
Out to boost their credibility are Zack Mirza, a Toronto street magician who stars in OLN's Illusions of Grandeur, and Darcy Oake, a Winnipeg-born magician/showman who came of age on Britain's Got Talent. Sourpuss judge Simon Cowell was so impressed by Mr. Oake's performance that he said, "We are witnessing the birth of a star." Mr. Oake now has his own show touring the United Kingdom. He's even highlighted in a Tim Hortons commercial.
All of these performers have invigorated the magic market, transforming it into a new art form and a multimillion-dollar business.
At the top of the heap is David Copperfield. He does 300 shows a year at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and is worth an estimated $800-million (U.S.) Most magicians will never experience such rarified heights. Still, the dreamers dream, hoping they can find a niche in a highly competitive market.
The going rates for magicians differ from $100 a show to as much as $15,000, according to the Society of American Magicians, an association with more than 13,000 members. Ron Keller, president of the Canadian Association of Magicians, says his organization has 500 members of varying skills.
"There are three levels – amateur, semi-pro and professional," Mr. Keller says. "[The pros] are pretty competitive guys doing it for a living. The most successful of them do other things, too. They give lectures, they own a magic shop. They've carved out an identity."
According to the on-line Magicians Directory, Alberta is home to more than two dozen professional conjurers who can dazzle in different ways. There is stage magic with props, corporate magic for conferences and workshops, rope magic, comedy magic, escapology, mentalism, card tricks, even a magician (Richard Sherry) with a lovely assistant (Dayle Krall) who gets sawed in half in every show, then pulls herself together for a dip in the classic Water Torture Cell.
In Calgary, street magic, or close-up magic as it's known in the trade, is considered busking and comes with guidelines. The city tries to license every street entertainer. There is no fee involved, but performers must adhere to 12 rules that include a limit on performance times (one hour) and no busking in areas where paid performers are working. Calgary Transit collects a $25 annual fee from artists who want to work near the covered LRT stations. To make sure they can actually play music or do magic, the artists have to audition for transit officials.
"They come in, play a song or whatever they're doing, just to make sure they're good," says Ron Collins, communications co-ordinator for Calgary Transit. "The vast majority are approved."
Calgary has a local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. [Shawn Farquhar of Maple Ridge, B.C., is IBM president; Mr. Smith is a territorial vice-president.]There's also a Calgary spinoff of the Magic Circle, a magician's hangout whose origin dates back to 1905 London, England. The Circle's motto is indocilis privata loqui, Latin for "not apt to disclose secrets." Those members who are apt to disclosing secrets are expelled.
In a handful of TV specials in the early 2000s, a Masked Magician – real name Leonard Monatono – revealed the secrets behind many a trick. Mr. Smith, a magician himself, says he detested how the code of secrecy was broken to millions of viewers but had to admit, "I sold a lot of stuff after that."
So did Jeff Pinsky, owner of the oldest magic store in Canada, Brower's Den of Magic, which opened in Toronto in 1975. Professional magicians shop at the Den as do countless hobbyists. From his perspective, Mr. Pinsky has dubbed magic "a cyclical business" that is currently on the upswing due to artists pushing the limits of their acts, then marketing themselves via their websites and social media.
"In the 1950s and 1960s, magic wasn't very popular. Then Doug Henning came along in the 1970s with his hippie style and it worked," Mr. Pinsky says. "Initially, David Copperfield was more conservative. Then David Blaine came along and he was just wearing jeans and doing his magic on the streets. Then there's Criss Angel with his [rock star look]. In magic, it's very good to be different."
There are now magic shows across the country offering up multiple performers over an entire weekend. Toronto has its Magic Bash, Quebec City has Festival de Magic and Calgary has both WOWfest and the Magic Mega Show. Think of it as Woodstock for wizards.
As for gazing into the future, Mr. Smith runs a pair of summer camps in Calgary for kids who just might grow up and become the next great magician.
"When I was young I wanted to be David Copperfield. It took me awhile to embrace the kids," says Mr. Smith, who charges $200 for a birthday appearance. "Now I can do three shows a day and enjoy it. The toughest thing in magic is to find out who you are."