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

Vancouver Courier
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Page: 1 / FRONT
Section: News
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 trick.

Sitting in 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.

"Think about one of the cards," he says.

I mentally pick out the four of spades.

"You don't 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.

"What card 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.

Lillico says 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 and Shaughnessy.

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.

"You actually 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 case."

Lillico was 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.

"They were 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."

Much has 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.

Instead of 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.

Still, things 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.

Magic is alive and well--and for reasons I'll soon discover, residing everywhere in the Lower Mainland from Main Street to Maple Ridge.

Maple Ridge 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.

Wilson is 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.)

Now 47, 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 Coquitlam.

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.

"For me [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 prospect.

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.

A picture 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."

Other 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.

Rising costs 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.

Norden estimates 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 guild, 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 Norden, adding that pulling kids away from their video games and computers remains a challenge.

"Eight years 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."

Wilson, the parent of two teenagers, agrees. "I tried to get my daughter interested, but it wasn't her thing."

One person 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 ago.

"It's an 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."

Practically a 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.

"There's 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."

Seaman is 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.

"He's not 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."

Seaman likes 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."

Coming up 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 different."

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."

"There's the 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?"

Fisk, who 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.

"There's a 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."

Lillico, who 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.

"I've never 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."