Keeping the Magic Alive!
Once one of the hottest tickets in town, the Vancouver Magic
Circle hopes the renewed interest in magic will take the aging
group back to its glory days
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Page: 1 / FRONT
Byline: Michael Kissinger
Source: Vancouver Courier
For a guy who
says his hearing and memory are shot and his eyesight is getting
dimmer, Jack Lillico can still pull off a pretty mean card
his tastefully cluttered West Broadway medical office, the
79-year-old denturist retrieves a tattered deck of cards bound
by a rubber band from the bottom of his black duffle bag. He
throws five cards face up on the floor: an ace of clubs, a king
of diamonds, a four of spades, a seven a hearts and a three of
clubs. His chair creaks as he hunches over the cards, his thick
hair white as lightning.
one of the cards," he says.
pick out the four of spades.
want to change your mind, do you?"
I shake my
head. He then picks up the cards, moves them around and after
some deliberation throws one of them face down on the floor.
did you pick?"
I tell him,
and he motions for me to pick the lone card off the ground--it's
the four of spades.
when he was in high school, he could perform card tricks for an
hour and a half without repeating. "And I didn't get very good
marks, I can tell you."
This was in
the early 1940s--vaudeville was dying out, television had yet to
invade everyone's living rooms and Lillico thought he was hot
stuff performing magic shows at garden parties around Point Grey
One day, he
got a call from a member of his father's lodge inviting him to a
meeting of the Vancouver Magic Circle held at the Devonshire
Hotel on the corner of Georgia and Hornby.
couldn't go to a meeting unless you had a suit and tie on,"
Lillico remembers. "I figured I was pretty good, so I packed
this little suitcase of tricks and I went in there and, wow, I
saw some card work and I was spellbound. I didn't even open the
16 when he joined the Vancouver Magic Circle in 1944, and
figures even after he turned 30 he was still the youngest in the
group. Now the club's longest standing member, he remembers when
the Magic Circle operated essentially as a gentlemen's club.
They held workshops, demonstrations and competitions at each
meeting, and its annual magic banquet was considered a major
event on the city's social calendar, each year attracting some
600 people, including the mayor and the chief of police.
high quality shows," says Lillico. "And you didn't get in the
door very easily. But people wanted to get in because it was
such a prestigious type thing."
changed since the dapper days of the Devonshire and later the
Hotel Vancouver, although the club's mandate remains the
same--to carry on the traditions and foster the art of magic.
upscale hotels, the Vancouver Magic Circle rents out the Sunrise
Community Hall on the fourth Thursday of every month, sharing
the space with ballet classes, Cubs, Brownies and hiking groups.
The dress code is gone. Women were allowed to join sometime in
the 1970s. In the late '80s, membership and interest dwindled to
the point that the club's biggest trick was keeping itself from
disappearing. And the last time the organization received any
significant media attention was during the avian flu scare when
a confused Canadian Food Inspection Agency official contacted
the Magic Circle's president over concerns about his beaked
sidekick Rufus, a rubber chicken.
aren't all toil and trouble for the once-revered club, which
turns 65 this year. Membership is at an all time high at 151,
making it the largest magic circle in Canada and the second
largest in North America. And despite an increasingly skeptical
and technologically savvy public and performers like the Masked
Magician and irony-laden Penn & Teller revealing the secrets to
classic tricks, magic is experiencing a resurgence in popularity
that hasn't been seen since the mustachioed days of Doug
Henning. This past year saw the release of several major motion
pictures concerned with magic, including The Illusionist and The
Prestige, and performers like David Blaine and Criss Angel are
enjoying rockstar-like success with their amped-up brand of
street magic, illusions and stunts.
alive and well--and for reasons I'll soon discover, residing
everywhere in the Lower Mainland from Main Street to Maple
is where Magic Circle president
Mike Norden and
treasurer David Wilson call home. And it's where I meet them on
a strangely weatherless Wednesday morning in February for a
magical mystery tour of the club's past, present and future.
"Make sure you get your shots and vaccinations," warns Wilson
before we meet. They're a jokey bunch.
also tall, thin, sports a devilish-looking goatee and looks how
you'd imagine a magician to look, except he pays the bills
working as a grain handler on the Vancouver waterfront. He
credits his uncle Eli, who worked as an assistant to legendary
Mandrake the Magician, for hooking him on magic at a young age.
He also took Wilson to his first Magic Circle meeting when he
was 16. This was in 1976, when many of the original members were
still around and wearing suits. (These days, the club's most
popular fashion item is its logo-adorned fleece vest.)
Wilson is the Magic Circle's archivist, tending to more than
two-dozen boxes of memorabilia and artifacts that occupy a
cramped room in his home, much to his wife's chagrin.
Thankfully, the club's library of 1,500 books, periodicals,
magazines, videos and DVDs is kept at another member's home in
Norden, who's 32,
works in customer service at Telus and looks like an amalgam of
every softball coach I've ever had, describes himself as a "late
bloomer" when it comes to magic. When he was 25, he took a road
trip with his buddies to Disneyland, grew bored and hung out at
the amusement park's magic shop for several hours. While there,
his comic book collecting obsession abruptly shifted to card and
sleight of hand tricks. Since then he estimates he's invested
tens of thousands of dollars into his Norden the Magician act,
performing mostly at children's birthdays with his rubber and
avian flu-free chicken, Rufus.
[magic] is that personality trait,"
Norden says. "I
need something to collect... This club has just made it
something that I can unfortunately see myself becoming David
Wilson in 30 years, and I'll probably end up with all his stuff
in my basement." He reports his fiancee isn't happy about that
The roots of
the Vancouver Magic Circle stretch as far back as the 1920s and
'30s when a small group of local tricksters formed what was
loosely called the Vancouver Society of Magicians. Years later,
in the spring of 1942, retired army captain Charles Howard and
William Shelly, a former provincial minister of finance and
businessman who owned the 4X bakery chain, formed the Vancouver
Magic Circle. (The Vancouver Magic Circle is one of 257 "magic
rings" around the world that form the International Brotherhood
of Magicians. The Vancouver contingent is Ring 92, otherwise
known as the Charles Howard Ring.)
For the first
few years, monthly meetings were held at the Devonshire Hotel. A
membership drive in 1944 saw the club's numbers increase from 16
to more than 50, and in 1945 the sharp-dressed men moved across
the street to the Hotel Vancouver.
taken at the Hotel Vancouver on March 29, 1945 is the oldest
known group photo of the Vancouver Magic Circle, and it reveals
an eclectic cast of characters. Among them were Lillico;
founders Howard and Shelly; Francis Martineau ("the best
magician I've ever seen," says Lillico); H.B. MacLean, inventor
of the MacLean Method of Handwriting; broadcaster Ken Hughes;
and funny man Cecil Akery, brother of Ivan Akery, longtime
manager of the Orpheum.
As lore has
it, Cecil once saw Chinese lettering on a sign in a photograph
and liked it so much he hired an artist to paint the same
lettering on one of his props for his Asian-themed comedy act.
During his show, two Chinese men in the audience started
laughing, but it was never after any of the jokes. Once the show
was over, Cecil went over to them and asked what was so funny.
Apparently the writing on his prop read, "Please do not urinate
on the street."
notables who've passed through the Magic Circle's ranks include
famed magician Leon Mandrake and his son Lon; Dr. Grant Gould,
who owned the West End apartment where actor Errol Flynn died;
Juliana Chen, the "World's First Lady of Magic"; and two-time
world champion of magic Shawn Farquhar.
eventually forced the group to move its meetings from the Hotel
Vancouver to the CKWX Playhouse and later to the Biltmore Hotel
and the Moberly community hall, before finally settling at the
Sunrise Community Hall in 1995. In fact, the club's yearly
membership dues remained $20 until recently. Now it's $35.
only 25 per cent of the club's members are what he would
classify as "part-time professionals" like he and Wilson. Many
of its members don't reside in Vancouver and live as far away as
Chilliwack and Bellingham. But having a membership with such
varied backgrounds has its advantages. "We have doctors,
dentists, mechanics, construction workers," says Norden. "We
have a nice little network, so if you need your car fixed, or if
you need a set of dentures, or you need some grain, you know
where to go."
part workshop, part historical preservation society, the
Vancouver Magic Circle finds itself in the unusual predicament
of being more popular than ever in numbers, but lesser known to
the public. While attracting younger magic enthusiasts remains
key to its survival, so, too, is remaining connected to the
club's colourful past.
"We need more
junior members to come in so they can be mentored before the
elders aren't around anymore," says
that pulling kids away from their video games and computers
remains a challenge.
ago we had 23 junior members, now we have nine... You go see a
magic show 40 years ago and you'd walk home wondering how it was
done, maybe there was a book at the library, or you'd do the
reverse engineering to try and figure it out. Now you go home,
you google it, 'Oh look that's how it's done, there's no magic,
that guy was just a fake,' and children don't have a mystery of
it and they don't want to learn it."
parent of two teenagers, agrees. "I tried to get my daughter
interested, but it wasn't her thing."
who hasn't had any problems encouraging his children to follow
in his magical footsteps is Rod Chow. The champion magician, who
sells insurance in Chinatown in the skinniest building in the
world, joined the Vancouver Magic Circle in 1991 and says it not
only introduced him to a community he never knew existed but
also helped him come out of his shell.
"I was pretty
shy in the beginning, so magic gave me more confidence. Magic is
great for developing yourself."
It even gave
Chow the confidence to show his wife, Sylvia, a few magic tricks
on their first date. Now she's his assistant and their children
Nicholas, 7, and Jack, 10, are the youngest members in the
history of the Vancouver Magic Circle, having joined two years
excellent learning experience for anyone," Chow says. "If you
want to get into magic, you need the peers to help you along,
but you also have to be really interested in performing. You
can't just go in their as a curious person just wanting to know
how tricks are done, because no one is going to want to tell you
all their secrets."
grizzled veteran compared to Chow's offspring, Alexander Seaman
is the newest member of the Vancouver Magic Circle. The
14-year-old Grade 9 student at Coquitlam's Riverside high says
he loves the "overall presentation" of magic as well as the look
of awe people have when he performs a magic trick. Still, magic
isn't a popular pursuit among high school cliques.
different groups of people," Seaman says. "There's the
skateboarders, there's the cheer team, there's the jocks and
there's people who are just off in their own little world...
Myself and another boy, we're the only magicians in the school."
also the only magician in his family, though his father happily
supports his habit. He took Seaman to a recent David Copperfield
show and chauffeurs him across the Lower Mainland.
much of a magician--he's my magic supporter," says Seaman, who
hopes one day to balance magic with a job in the Vancouver
Police Department. "He's the one who will drive me down to [the
magic shop at] Granville Island and he's the one that's going to
drive me to all the meetings."
the camaraderie and responsibility that comes from being in the
Magic Circle--he even got to vote in the club's most recent
election. As for a stage name, the young magician says he hasn't
pulled one out of his hat just yet. "I'm trying to think of one.
I haven't come up with one, but it's in the works."
with a stage name has not been a problem for Cameron Fisk. The
articulate 19-year-old Coquitlam resident performs magic for
adult audiences under his own name but calls himself "Mac
Backwards" for his kids act. Fisk joined the Magic Circle in
2003 and has been interested in magic since he was six.
"I was just a
young punk who wanted attention," Fisk says. "So instead of
getting into trouble, now I do some magic tricks for people, so
it's a means to get attention. And people like watching it--it's
As with most
magicians, a substantial chunk of Fisk's business comes from
performing at kids' birthdays. That said, he prefers to perform
for jaded adults so he can "blow their minds."
perception that magic's for kids," says Fisk, almost mystically.
"But kids don't need magic. I mean, show them a tree. That's
pretty magical, right?"
works as a barista at Starbucks, estimates he's invested $10,000
into his act so far and says it's not uncommon for him to "rock
out" in his room for a week straight working on magic tricks.
"It's pretty intense," says Fisk, who gained media attention a
year-and-a-half ago when his two trained doves were taken from
outside his basement suite by a would-be animal liberator. They
were later returned.
He says the
Magic Circle has given him confidence, made him a better
communicator and showed him how to be more business savvy.
"Every magician is always looking for work," he says. "But it's
not a bad thing. I enjoy it--it's the hunt, right. But there's a
huge market out there. Every year a kid has a birthday... So if
you know how to sell it, and you know where to look, there's a
market for everything."
But how do
you tap into that market when more and more people know how the
tricks are performed? Well, if it's "good magic," it's not
important, says Fisk.
saying that magicians guard an empty safe. Once you look inside,
it's pretty stupid what you learn. So it's not about that. It's
about entertainment, it's about the effect, it's about
suspending your disbelief."
Back at his
West Broadway office, the Vancouver Magic Circle's
longest-serving member smiles at the success of his trusty old
trick. "People always want to know how I do it, but if I told
them they'd think it was silly."
lives in Tsawwassen and doesn't get out to many meetings
anymore, shuffles conversation topics like his deck of dog-eared
cards--Model T Fords, hitchhiking to Los Angeles and meeting
Gene Kelly, sailboat racing, the Optimist Club, jazz piano--but
he always returns to magic and the role the Vancouver Magic
Circle has played in nurturing generations of magicians.
lost my obsession with magic," he says. "You'll find a guy like
myself will always have a deck of cards on him. It never leaves
you, you know."