Saturday, August 13, 2011

Brick and Mortar

It didn't happen very often, but Agnes would take my brother and me out to lunch.

We would get the bus from school and ride down to the corner of Sherbrooke and Claremont and meet her for lunch at Murray's.

Not a diner in the Eat at Joe's sense, Murray's was a family restaurant where the waitresses wore uniforms and the milkshakes came in  a tall glass and with a metal container direct from the blender.

The Claremont location was in an area of Westmount that had a lot of apartments and bordered on a residential community.  It was a neighborhood place where the waitresses knew your name and very quickly learned your order.

These lunches were a great treat.  Normally, we would have to walk home, which took about twenty minutes, eat for twenty and then walk back to school.  When we would meet Agnes for lunch, we would have a whole half-hour for lunch and, most times, enough time left over to visit the Trainatorium.

As the name suggests, this was a hobby shop specializing in model trains, but they also carried a variety of other items including what used to be innocently described as novelties.

These were simpler times, when you could readily find a retail establishment that sold simulated dog poop and the ironically named joy buzzersTrainatorium carried a small selection of these treasures that continue to delight young boys and middle-aged men. 

While my brother studied the model kits, I went straight for the novelties to search through the handful of magic tricks that were displayed in the same section.  Interspersed with the black soap and the whoopee cushions would be the items like the ball vase, the three shell game and coin to nest of boxes.

I had been to the library and read through the general interest books on magic.  They were a very helpful introduction to the mechanics of the art, but for those effects that required special props, you were left to your own devices to make your own devices.  My brother was the artistic one in the family.  My attempts at such projects always ended up disappointing.  These little packages were my earliest apparatus and represented my first steps to becoming more like Magic Tom.

From the Trainatorium, I expanded my search to other toy and hobby shops.  Every time we went anywhere, I would seek out the toy stores and search through their Games section to try and find more equipment.  It was a source of constant frustration that the selection was always limited and the offerings were startlingly similar from one store to the next.  I was always hopeful that I would find something new and frequently disappointed when I did not.  Some of the earliest entries in my rule book of life's lessons were generated by my falling victim to a familiar product being repackaged and renamed.

In addition to my stalking of toy shops, I also was reading my share of comic books.  I didn't get wrapped up in the expanding mythology of the characters as I did by the ads that appeared in the back of these publications.  There were ads for Charles Atlas and for opportunities to sell greeting cards, but there were also ads from companies like Honor House.

Honor House carried everything: from gags and spy radios, to serious tools like X-ray Specs.  They also carried a selection of magic tricks.  I have very clear memories of taping coins to a piece of cardboard and sending away for some of the exotic treasures contained in these ads.

Never once did it occur to me that this was not serious equipment for the budding magician.  After all, it was in these same pages that you would see ads for submarines and space flight simulators.

I don't remember exactly when it was, but it was around this time, maybe a little later, that I became aware of magazines like Genii and Tops.  And from the ads in those magazines I learned about mysterious places like Tannen's and Flosso-Hornmann.  These and places like them were the storied meeting places of the performers who were profiled in these magazines.  It was here that magicians would meet and show one another their tricks and get and give advice.  From time to time, the magazines--the "trades"--would profile up and coming talents and these rising stars would tell of visits made to their local magic shops where they would watch and learn from the old-timers.

I needed to find a serious magic shop.

Montreal, at that time, was home to Morrissey's Magic on Rue Decelles, just east of Decarie.  The address is and was an apartment building, with their shop in the first apartment to your left on the first floor.

The showroom had a window, but that was the only part of any of the walls that was not covered by shelving and stuffed with stuff.  Lots and lots of packages containing lots of secrets.  It was kind of like that last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark:  so much stuff that you couldn't ever hope to take it all in in a single visit, or even a lifetime of visits.

And, best of all, no fake vomit or plastic dog poop anywhere.  This was a store for professionals.  I won't say I ever made it into the inner circle, but visiting Morrissey's let you know where the inner circle was.

Not only did they sell the professional equipment, but they also manufactured a line of their own.  Herb Morrissey manufactured and sold cups for the Cups & Balls, Dove Pans, Zombie Balls and Coin Pails.  Their stuff was so far beyond the plastic "toys" that I had started out with that just to hold it in your hands was to be in a different league.  This was the stuff the pros used.

I remember when I was able to purchase a Chop Cup from them.  This was going to be a turning point for me.  I was going to, once and for all, put down the toys and dedicate myself to mastering the sleights required to make the trick work.  Having a professional rig meant that it was time to get professional about magic.

But better than any single prop that I ever purchased there, or in any other magic shop, was the sense of possibility that Herb and Richard gave to even a hopeless beginner like myself. 

From the very first visit, they treated me with respect.  They assumed that I was serious about magic and, as a result, I became serious about it.  They treated me like I was an insider and not an outsider.  They pitched their talk just above my head so that I had a sense of how much more there was to learn, but not so far that I would get discouraged and give up.

They asked me what kind of a performer I was.

What a loaded question.

If I identified a specific area, they knew what sorts of merchandise to steer me towards.  If I did not, I would be marked as a tourist and I would be shown the Svengali decks and the ball vases.

They could demonstrate anything in the store and, based on how you responded, they would show you other similar effects.  If price was an obstacle, then they could direct you to a similar effect that was perhaps a little less expensive. 

The were terrific salesmen.  They could inspire and intrigue, flatter and challenge.  They empowered diuffers like me to think that we would be headlining at le Caf Conc--one of the last supper clubs in North America--in no time at all.

I do not have a lot of fond memories of being a teenager.  It felt like I experienced just about everyone of the topic areas covered in the ABC Afterschool Specials.  There were not too many places where I felt valued and respected.  Morrisey's was one of those places.  I remember after having having a tooth pulled--pre-trial punishment prior to being sentenced to a term of braces--I was offered the opportunity to have a "treat."  I chose a trip to Morrissey's.  I believe that was the day that I came home with an appearing cane:  seemed a fair exchange for a disappearing tooth.

Like the cane, eventually other interests "sprang up" to occupy my time and my committment to magic was redirected.  And while I was "misdirected," Morrissey's closed up and moved to Toronto.  And like the braces I wore, the application of technology has caused the important role that the so-called "brick and mortar" magic shops played in nurturing new magicians has been all-but erased. 

Today, just as in the Honor House days, magic is primarily a mail order business.  Instead of taping quarters to cardboard, we type credit card numbers into a computer and, sooner or later, new magic appears at your door.  It's all very efficient and makes good business sense, but like buying a suit off the rack, you never can be sure whether what you bought is a good fit.

For an old variety art, magic has made a real effort to stay relevant.  All you need is a web connection and you can see performances by the greats of today and many of those from days gone by.  You can comparison shop for particular effects in shops all over the world.  Performers, both living and dead, have fan pages and are present on Facebook. 

The price paid for all of this relevance is the loss of magic as a social medium. 

First and foremost, magic exists as live theatre.  It's a thousand and one stories about small miracles such as making a rabbit appear out of a hat, or being able to pluck coins out of the air.  In print, or online, these stories can seem silly, or unbelievable.  On stage, they become truly miraculous. 

If you have ever had the experience of watching a much-hearalded scary movie on television, you have a sense of what I am talking about.  It's so much easier to scare people in the dark then it is in the comfort of their own living room and easier still if there is a crowd.  Fear, like laughter and wonder, is contagious.

And just as magic need an audience, magicians need to engage with and be engaged by other magicians.  And hope-to-be magicians need to work for and be corrected by the more experienced.  Encouraged whenever possible and discouraged when necessary.  That's how you build the next generation of performers and sustain the art:  brick-by-brick, one magician at a time.

1 comment:

  1. "I believe that was the day that I came home with an appearing cane: seemed a fair exchange for a disappearing tooth."

    Great line