The Province - March 12th, 2006

Wiz kid: Watch closely now: With magician Shawn Farquhar around, parts of this page may disappear while you're reading!

The Province
Sunday, March 12, 2006
Page: B6 Section: Unwind Byline: Mike Roberts
Column: Mike Roberts
Source: The Province

Shawn Farquhar, two-time world champion of magic, has just made a cheeseburger and two Cokes disappear the old-fashioned way.

"All right," he says, swiping aside spent fries and greasy napkins. "You wanna see a trick?"

The afternoon regulars at Coquitlam's Woody's Pub -- drawn from their reverie by Farquhar's sudden dash of showmanship -- move in close for a look-see as playing cards shoot through the air like fireworks.

The magic man places a deck of cards on an assistant's left palm and asks him to cover it with his right palm. The cards are secure between two closed hands.

"OK," says the silver-tongued magician. "How much do you want to bet those cards are no longer between your hands? Wait, don't take that bet! Open your hands."

The cards are gone.

A snortin' roar erupts from the regulars.

"Whoa!" they say. "How'd-ya-do-that?"

"That's what I do. That's my job," Farquhar replies with a shrug and a grin. "Any 12-year-old kid could do it, with 15 years' practice."

Shawn Farquhar, who has won all the major magic awards in North America and Europe -- 20 awards in all, including world champ in 1998 and 2001 and Canadian magician of the year in 2003 -- left for Greece last week to produce the seven-week-long Art 'n' Illusion Magic Festival in Athens for Canada's magic superstar, Juliana Chen, "The World's First Lady of Magic."

Then he's off to Stockholm to compete in the Federation International Society of Magic, the "Olympics of Magic," at which he won the silver medal when it last convened four years ago.

When he returns home to the Coquitlam community of Maillardville, Farquhar faces a dilemma: Does he continue in his struggle to bring the wonders of magic to reluctant mainstream audiences in Canada -- or, like so many of his compatriots, does he head south to the magic-happy U.S. with its casino contracts and easy money?

"I'm going to give it another year," he says, sighing. "Then we'll see."

Shawn Farquhar was born with a silver wand in his hand. His father -- a career military man with the Canadian Armed Forces -- was a hobby magician, as were his grandfather and great-grandfather.

As a five-year-old, Farquhar was already performing card and coin tricks. Growing up on military bases across Canada, he began building illusions based on the "nuts and bolts theory" of crafted magic passed down by his father.

"It was really supposed to be my brother. He's the oldest," explains Farquhar, with mock indignity. "But he's an animator and has talent, so I took on the family business."

The novice magician worked the malls, clubs and conventions, garnering gasps and accolades with each new show.

At a Vancouver performance in 1984, Farquhar wooed his future wife, Lori, with one of his standard tricks.

"I made a rose appear and threw it out," he recalls.

They began dating. At a show in Victoria weeks later, Farquhar's regular assistant failed to show up.

"I asked Lori to get in the box, shoved two blades through her, chopped her in three and pulled the middle out," he says. "The rest is history."

Lori quit her job to become a full-time magician's assistant.

"I was planning to start accounting courses and spend the rest of my life at a desk," Lori recalls. "I never had any ambitions to be a performer in any way, and before Shawn, I can't even remember seeing a magician!"

The magician and his assistant -- who never tires of being sliced, diced and folded into small boxes -- were working at West Edmonton Mall later that year when a cruise- ship director called.

"A magician had levitated a girl -- you should never levitate a person at sea, that's just insane! -- and she broke her hip when she fell," says Farquhar. "We drove down to Vancouver and got on board and stayed on for the next four-and-a-half years."

As they moved up through the ranks of the cruise liners, each ship bigger and better than the next, Farquhar and his fiancee spent less and less time ashore. Still, when they did return home to the Lower Mainland, Farquhar invariably won another medal or appointment.

He is the first magician in the 73-year history of the International Brotherhood of Magicians to win a gold medal in both stage and sleight of hand. He's also served as president of umpteen international magic organizations, including the 142-member Vancouver Magic Circle, the largest collection of magicians in Canada and the third-largest in North America.

"My carpenter is a magician," he jokes of the tight-knit community. "My machinist is a magician, even my dentist is a magician -- I tell you, I'm afraid of needles and he'll sneak it in your mouth without you even noticing."

Mike Norden, current president of the Vancouver Magic Circle, says only a very few surpass Farquhar's talents in the magic world.

Last year, Norden proposed to his girlfriend during one of Farquhar's shows aboard the Norwegian Star.

"Shawn made the evening so magical the crowd was in tears," he recalls.

The Maillardville magic man, now 44, has been a consultant to 40 film and TV productions and toured Asia extensively, where he is considered a mob-worthy superstar.

"I go to Asia and it's 'Ooh, magic guy!' I come home and I've got to stand in line at 7-Eleven," Farquhar explains with a self-deprecating shrug. "I don't think Canadians embrace variety arts yet."

But fame, like magic, Farquhar admits, is a vaporous thing. As the medals piled up on the mantlepiece, he began to experience what can only be described as a magician's mid-life crisis.

"I used to want people to come up after a show and say, 'Wow! When you put that girl in the box and shrank it down to 12 inches and drove three swords through it, I shook my head.' That's not what I want anymore," he explains.

"When I won the world championships twice, I realized I'm a good magician. But what I had a problem with was connecting with people on an emotional level. And now I've niched that and I love it."

He niched it with the help of his wife, whom he eventually married in 1989, and the tiny assistant they created together five years ago.

Her name is Hannah and she has rekindled a love of life and family in her father that has become the trademark of his show.

"The more I talked about my family and my love of what I do, the more people liked the show," he says. "Way cooler. Way, way cooler."

Farquhar says a cruise ship -- a safe, comfortable, cosmopolitan environment -- was the "perfect" place to raise his daughter.

"My daughter celebrated her first birthday on the Black Sea," he says. "Think about it, we had no beds to make, no laundry to do, no meals to cook. All we had to do was look after each other, look after Hannah. It was perfect. And I worked one day a week, which left me six days a week to play with my daughter. How great is that?"

With 300 new kids boarding each week, Hannah had plenty of playmates; and with comedians, singers and dancers berthed down the hall, she had oodles of inspiration.

"She speaks some German, French, Spanish, English, a little bit of Hindi, a little bit of Tagalog," says Farquhar.

Joining mom and dad on stage each week in her tutu, Hannah became a "regular celebrity" on the high-seas circuit. But when it came time for grade school, the Farquhars decided to end their cruise-ship contract. Last Christmas, they came ashore, for good.

Today, Hannah takes swimming and karate lessons and is learning to skate and ride a bike. But more importantly, her community doesn't change under her each week.

"There is never a dull moment," says Lori, 41, of life ashore. "But there are times when, if I get asked to pick a card one more time, I'll scream."

Still, the dilemma: Do they stay or do they go?

The irony is not lost on Farquhar that he is off to Greece to produce a festival for Juliana Chen, a neophyte magician when he introduced her to the Vancouver Magic Circle in the early 1990s.

"As long as she stayed in Canada, she knew she wasn't going anywhere, so she packed up and went to Las Vegas and leaps and bounds," says Farquhar of his friend. "Me, I just refuse to leave. I had an offer to go work in Las Vegas. I'm staying."

Farquhar does not begrudge Chen her success. He only wishes audiences in Canada would embrace magic as they do in Europe, Asia and the showbiz centres of the U.S.

"The Canada Arts Council doesn't even recognize us as an art," he laments. "They'll allow clowning as an art, but we're like juggling or something. But it is an art form and it's really grown . . . it's very progressive."

Magic Circle President Norden agrees: "There is no funding for magic [in Canada] as there is for music, acting or other performance arts. It sits in a category of its own. We know there is interest, it's just getting that out to the public."

In the last 20 years, with the mass-media arrival of David Blaine, David Copperfield and "MTV rock-edge" Chris Angel, magic has evolved, says Farquhar, aided by the miniaturization of motors and electronics and new and stronger plastics and fabrics.

"Magicians are on the cusp of technology, and we hide technology to make it look like us," explains Farquhar, who's currently toying with magnetic forces.

Still, says Farquhar, modern magic is a hard sell in Canada.

Four times he has pitched a TV special to Canadian broadcasters, and twice he has approached a Whistler theatre with a proposal to provide family entertainment in a resort town sorely lacking it.

"'Yeah, whatever,' they say," says Farquhar. "They say they're saving the theatre for a media centre for the Olympics; they say they can buy another American show and fill that hour" -- snaps his fingers -- "like that. Meanwhile, Rita MacNeil can get another special any day of the week. Arghh. It's frustrating."

The Maillardville magic man says he's giving it another year before pulling up tent. Still, as he wows the small crowd at Woody's with a picture of his daughter holding the same playing card his assistant has just pulled from a blind deck, Farquhar can't help but smile.

"Hannah told me she wants to be a ballerina, a mom and a superhero if the world really needs one. I asked her, 'What about magician?' She said, 'Well yeah, of course.'"