Allan Slaight's home is a metaphor for the man. Tucked away in a nondescript uptown Toronto neighbourhood a stone's throw from Yonge Street, the building's exterior presents a blank slate, a nearly windowless wall that looks very much like the dry-cleaning plant it once was part of. Inside, the industrial has given way to the fantastical: 40-foot ceilings, slate floors, multilevel walled gardens. Press on up the central staircase, and you'll find a little doorway, standing between some fine examples of contemporary Canadian art.
On the other side lies Slaight's most prized possession--his library of magic books. Thousands of volumes line the walls, constituting one of the most complete inventories of magic tricks in North America and one of the single largest collections on the subject. A piece of his personal history hangs amid the books: a 1948 poster for a Slaight magic show in Moose Jaw, Sask.
Most people recognize 74-year-old Slaight as the person behind the Standard Broadcasting empire, now the largest chain of radio stations in the country. But the man himself is a sleight of hand. He is upper-case "E" establishment, to be sure. Yet, while his peers might spend their days reliving boardroom victories or swinging a five-iron (he doesn't even play golf), Slaight's more interested in talking about, and continuing to invent, magic.
Just don't ask him to show you any.
"I don't think so," he says casually, when I suggest he demonstrate the card trick he's just described, something called Out of This World, in which a member of the audience randomly deals a pack of cards, face down, into two piles. Each pile is then revealed to be composed exclusively of black or red suits. When I ask him how the trick works, his practised reply is, "Very well."
By this point, we're sitting in Slaight's study, a room with baroque tendencies, though the dark walls and massive Oriental carpet are offset by a 15-foot projection television screen. He is explaining to me the origins of his magical obsession--that when he was eight years old and growing up in Galt, Ont., he went on a trip to Toronto one Christmas, where he saw a box of magic tricks at an Eaton's store. After much pleading, he found the kit under the Christmas tree.
In those early years, Slaight was more interested in finding the secret behind a trick rather than performing it. But this soon gave way to fascination with the elegance of the tricks themselves. "Sometimes," he says, "the ingenuity is breathtaking--the brilliance of the inventions." Some tricks are so beautifully constructed that he finds himself tempted to reveal how they work, an indulgence he always resists.
His own skill as a magician has kept him in demand as a performer ever since his grandfather, manager of a local bank in Galt, paid him $2 to entertain his staff back in the 1940s. Slaight had a travelling show by his late teens, which included elements of magic and mind reading. He has also invented a number of tricks of his own, and today organizes an elite conference for magicians: About 30 of the world's best gather in Toronto each August.
He admits it can be tiresome to be asked to perform, "especially at dinner parties." Part of the reason is that he isn't a magician in the legerdemain sense; he doesn't pull rabbits out of hats or coins from behind children's ears. Slaight's tricks are mind teasers, often card tricks that rely on intense practice.
In his 20s, Slaight toyed briefly with the idea of doing magic for a living, but with three young children, he thought it more prudent to keep his day job at a radio station in Edmonton, taking his magic show on the road only on weekends. He dismisses the idea that there may be a link between his interest in magic and his business success, "except, perhaps, the creativity required." But one thing is apparent: Slaight learned at an early age how to hold an audience (I'm still waiting for him to perform a trick), and also that delivery trumps content every time. "The best magic trick in the world will fall flat," he says, "if the presentation is dull."
In the world of business, this flair for showmanship has served him well. He rose from the ranks of cub reporter at a Saskatchewan radio station, owned by his father, to own and run Standard Broadcasting, which he purchased from Conrad Black in 1985 for almost $200 million. Later, his investment in the Toronto Raptors (and his subsequent whoppingly profitable sale of the franchise) called for a pinch of bravado and nerve to confront an uncertain audience, the fans.
In his business career, he is proudest of bringing Global TV back from bankruptcy in the spring of '74, just a few months after its launch: "I had to be absolutely ruthless." But in life, he is proudest of the vast two-volume account he wrote of one of the world's great magicians, Ontario-born Stewart James. (As we talk, Slaight's dog, a poodle-chihuahua cross named for the great magician, clambers up on the sofa behind him and lays a head on his shoulder.) "I wish I was a better magician, but turning out those books was an incredible achievement," he says. With his eldest son, Gary, now running the business at Standard, Slaight has removed himself from the day-to-day operations, though he maintains the title of executive chairman. He has also taken an active role in the next chapter of the firm's story--a bid for a satellite radio company. "I've had a pretty full and complete business and personal life," he says.
"I don't look back and say, 'I wish. . .'" Then he adds with a laugh, "That's probably because I'm an insensitive clod."
He pretends to forget all about demonstrating magic as he shows me to the door. But at the living-room coffee table, he stops and chooses two books from among the pile. He instructs me to pick a random word from the first book (I choose "mountainside"). Fanning the pages of the second, he asks me to pick another word (this time, "dread" is my choice). Then he proceeds to guess both. "You have to tell me how you did it," I beg. "Maybe not how, exactly, but the general method." His answer, delivered with that familiar twinkle but enough firmness to be taken seriously, comes without hesitation: "Get out."
Who's the smartest person you know? Max Maven, a professional mentalist What's your current bedtime reading? 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (And Al Franken Is #37), by Bernard Goldberg What's your greatest strength? Assigning responsibilities to others because of my innate laziness What's the worst decision you've made? Pulling out of England about 1966, just before commercial radio was introduced What's your hidden talent? Can't answer. I keep it hidden What's your guilty pleasure? Peanut butter, fried egg, Kraft cheese, lettuce and mayonnaise sandwich on Wonder bread What job did you like best? Programming CHUM, between 1958 and 1966 What do you hope to be doing in 10 years? Breathing