Top Canadian Magicians and the Tricks that Made Them Famous

From Doug Henning to newcomer Billy Kidd, Canadians are famous around the world for their magic acts. Devon Murphy

Whether you believe in magic or not, there’s nothing quite like seeing a trick performed just right. Even though we know that magicians employ techniques of persuasion and manipulation, there is the delight in seeing something impossible that keeps us coming back.

The Nature of Things explores how magic is a unique tool for gaining new insights into human cognition and neurobiology in the new documentary, The Science of Magic. Here are some tricks that made some of Canada’s magicians successful — even if they’ll never tell us how they did it.

Julie Eng

Julie Eng grew up with magic in her blood — her father, Tony Eng, had a magic shop in Victoria, BC called Tony’s Trick and Joke Shop. “He had me in his show since I was a child,” said Julie, who grew up learning and performing side-by-side with her father. For this second-generation illusionist, magic is a way to connect with people; the performance and the interaction with the public is what she loves most. “Because of magic,” she said, “we move from being strangers to friends in the flip of a card!”

Her favourite routine was one of her dad’s top picks, Chinese Linking Rings. This “seemingly-simple-but-in-reality-complex routine” is a classic illusion that involves the appearance of solid metal rings linking and unlinking in various patterns and configurations. “I started off learning my father’s routine move for move, but over time, and under the influence of other magicians, it evolved for me,” said Eng. The version she performs today is based on legendary performer Dai Vernon’s routine, called “The Symphony of Rings.”

FROM THE FILM: Magician Julie Eng hits the streets to perform a magic trick.
Dai Vernon

Ottawa-born Dai Vernon lived until age 98 and spent most of his long life fooling everyone around him. A magician’s magician, his close-up magic and card trick techniques even managed to fool the great Harry Houdini, who asked Vernon to perform a card trick over and over, in an attempt figure it out — to no avail. Vernon wasted no time calling himself “The Man Who Fooled Houdini.”

Aside from the famous aforementioned Symphony of Rings routine, Vernon is credited with the modern cups and balls routine, where balls vanish and reappear under a series of moving containers. His mastery of and improvement upon many classic illusions is what earned him the nickname “The Professor.”

Doug Henning

Likely Canada’s most famous magician, Winnipeg’s Doug Henning had a storied career around the world. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, “his shows led to a general resurgence of interest in magic,” said magic magazine editor Phil Willmarth. He even got a Canada Council for the Arts grant to study magic. Many contend that it was Henning&rsquo's carefree spirit that drew audiences in. The yogi and transcendental meditation practitioner, with shaggy hair and bright, rainbow clothing, was a world away from the stoic, formally-dressed illusionists of yore.

A student of Houdini’s, Henning co-wrote a biography on history’s greatest illusionist, as well as putting his routines into practice. One of his more impressive Houdini recreations was “Metamorphosis,” a speedy and awe-inspiring trick where he and a handcuffed assistant locked in trunk swap spots by the count of three. Henning died in 2000 at age 52 of liver cancer and was written up in the New York Times’ notable obituary section.

Billy Kidd

Though the old guard of magicians paved the way, young women like Billy Kidd are making a splash travelling the world doing magic, and reaching a whole new audience online and on TV. The Edmonton-born illusionist is currently based in the U.K. and has been featured on the Discovery and Syfy channels. Though she excels at many kinds of magic, she’s great at working the crowd on the street, and, in the style of magician David Blaine, is just as interested in capturing the audience’s reaction to a routine as the routine itself.

Her Canadian coin trick is a good example of her rapport with the audience. Getting strangers around Europe to put their coins in envelopes, and sneaking a Canadian dime into the pile, Kidd manages to locate her little piece of home every time, without getting anywhere near the sealed packages.

Mahdi Gilbert

Born without hands or feet, Toronto’s Mahdi Gilbert had to start from scratch when it came to magic. Because all the magic books he read were for performers who had hands, the crafty illusionist came up with entirely original routines only he knows the trick too, which makes the manipulations all the more enticing and exciting to watch.

What Magic Has Taught Us About How The Brain Works
he Science of Magic
More Trickery From The Magicians Featured in The Science of Magic

One of those routines — a play on an oil and water card trick, where mixed red and black cards seemingly organize themselves into separate red and black piles — got him a spot on the television program Penn & Teller: Fool Us. On the show, he did indeed fool the magician hosts with his hands-free sleight of hand and went on to perform as their opening act in Las Vegas. 

Greg Frewin

Stoney Creek’s Greg Frewin goes big with his magic. He has a magic castle all his own in Niagara Falls, The Greg Frewin Theatre, where he’s free to dream up and create the large-scale illusions of his wildest dreams. In fact, this talented stage performer owns five tigers, and 30 birds that he uses in his act regularly.

The 2009 Magician of the Year at the World Magic Awards, and a World Champion of Magic in 1994 at the International Federation of Magic Societies championships, Frewin doesn’t do anything small. He has assistants; he uses fire, music, animals and props to tell a story. Take a look at the routine that won him first place in general magic at the world championships in Yokohama, Japan — it involves birds, ropes, a cage, juggling, and his signature flair.

David Ben

David Ben, a former tax lawyer turned magician is also known for his knowledge of magic history and his collection of magic objects.  He's also the co-founder and artistic director of Magicana, a performing arts organization dedicated to advancing magic as a performing art.

Ben has been an entertainer for almost 40 years and says he still rehearses several hours each day.  He like all kinds of magic including grand illusions and has made automobiles appear and disappear before incredulous eyes.  He was the sole protégé of Ross Bertram, one of the great sleight-of-hand artists of the twentieth century, and also performs magic that, as they say in the trade, packs small but plays very large. 


For more, watch The Science of Magic on The Nature of Things.

Available on CBC Gem

The Science of Magic

Nature of Things