Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Magician has a lifetime's worth in his 'magic room'

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When professional magician Steve Chmara was a teenager, he staged a show in his basement for a few of his high school chums. After a series of card tricks and some sleight of hand, Chmara announced his finale -- an ominous-sounding stunt called Disecto.

Chmara trotted out a contraption that resembled a guillotine, with a hole just wide enough to fit a person's wrist through. He placed a couple of carrots in the opening to demonstrate the might of Disecto's blade ("It slices, it dices...") then asked his buddy Glen to step forward.

Chmara manoeuvred Glen's arm into position. He lowered the cutting edge until his subject could feel it pinch his skin. Chamara brought the blade handle down and...

"Right away, Glen started screaming and I was like, 'Way to go, man, you're really making me look good,'" Chmara says. "That's when Glen jerked his arm back, and I saw blood spraying everywhere."

Needless to say, the show ended with a whimper -- Glen's -- instead of a bang, as Chmara's mother bandaged the injured youth.

Chmara never performed Disecto again. Instead, the device now has a permanent resting spot in his "magic room" -- an enchanting space that houses a museum-quality collection of magic tools and tricks, many of which date back to the early 1900s.

"Magic apparatus is a unique collectible because it's not something that just sits there," says Chmara, perhaps the only person in town with a drawer labelled "Wands." "People come over and say, 'What's that?' But instead of going into this long-winded explanation, I simply show them."

With that, the married father of one reaches for a clear, plastic cube a newspaper scribe has been eyeing. He asks the writer to name an iconic landmark in the United States. After the reporter responds, "Statue of Liberty," Chmara waves his hand over the box, removes its front panel and - ta da - reveals a miniature Lady Liberty.

Chmara, 57, caught the magic bug -- both performing and collecting -- when he was 12 years of age. One of his friends had an extra ticket to see Peter Reveen (who died earlier this week) at the Centennial Concert Hall and asked Chmara to tag along. Reveen mesmerized the crowd for two hours and Chmara left the theatre muttering, "That's what I wanna do."

The next weekend, Chmara went shopping for supplies at Goofy's Bazaar, a downtown novelty shop that stocked magic paraphernalia alongside its assortment of whoopee cushions and fake poop. An employee there filled Chmara in about a fledgling junior magicians' club. Chmara signed up immediately.

Four years later, Chmara became one of the first underage members of the Winnipeg Magicians Society, a cluster of people from all walks of life who hooked up -- usually over beers at the Maryland Hotel, Chmara says with a laugh -- to discuss their craft.

At the tail-end of one get-together, an older gentleman approached Chmara. He told the youth he was getting out of the biz and offered to sell the Elmwood High School student his wares.

"He told me I could have it all for $500 and I said, 'Done.' It took me all summer to save but I ended up with a bunch of really good, classical magic -- most of which I still have."

Chmara answers "yes and no" when he is asked if he employs his collectibles onstage nowadays. (For over 30 years, Chmara performed across the country on behalf of McDonalds. He recently retired from that gig to devote his full attention to Magicians Unlimited, a company he founded in 1980.)

"Some I collect to use, like this one, Miser's Dream, which plunks coins out of thin air. Other pieces I don't (use). Either because they're so rare and I don't want to risk damaging them, or because they're no longer functional."

Take Chmara's gun funnel, for example -- a contrivance that makes canaries materialize out of thin air.

"It was also called a blunderbuss and was fixed to the end of a gun barrel. It was popular at the turn of the 19th century and mine is about that old. Magicians used them to vanish small birds and have them fly across the stage to another destination."

Only problem: the loud blast usually shocked the canaries so much that they dropped dead on the spot.

"Because of that, modern magic has no use for this trick," Chmara states. "I love animals (as if on cue, two of Chmara's cats join him on the couch) but for a guy who collects this stuff, it speaks to you. You wonder who it belonged to, how long ago it was used and how many birds died in it."

Chmara monitors eBay on a weekly basis. He also has contacts all over the continent -- people who get in touch when particularly coveted pieces are up for auction, or come available through estate sales. He's paid everything from "a few bucks" to four figures for individual items, he says.

Last year, Chmara had one of his treasures assessed by the Antiques Roadshow team, when they were passing through Winnipeg.

"I brought a silver card box (it can be used to restore a torn-up card) that was made by an out-of-business German company called Zaubertechnik Haug. The appraiser stated it was one of the most unique and well-made silver items he had ever seen and his value estimate practically made me fall out of my chair."

(As for cards in general, Chmara says he stays away from poker tables for two reasons: if you win you're a cheater, and if you lose you're a crummy magician.)

Paul Gross is the owner of Hocus Pocus Magic Shop, a 26,000-square-foot store in Fresno, Calif. Gross, 58, started performing magic when he was 13 and opened his first magic shop six years later.

Value depends on a number of different factors, Gross says when reached in his office. "Sometimes it's by rarity -- whether or not something was a limited edition -- and sometimes it's by manufacturer. Certain companies are more collectible than others.

"For example, we just sold a checker cabinet (used to make game pieces disappear) that was built by Okito; only six are known to exist and a private collector paid $15,000 for it."

Gross says many magicians, like Chmara, double as collectors. But a lot of people who shop at his store harbour no illusions about getting onstage.

"Some have an affinity for a certain performer like Houdini, so they collect apparatus associated with him, to display in a case in their home," he says.

Gross ships over 3,000 packages a year to points all over the world. His customer base includes everyone from young up-and-comers to giants of the industry, like David Copperfield and David Blaine.

"Doug Henning placed an order with me two weeks before he passed away," Gross says, citing his knowledge of Winnipeg. "I actually have a lot of Doug's props and costumes here, on display."

Do you believe in magic?

Steve Chmara became a professional magician because he wasn't adept enough at his first love: guitar.

"I wanted to be a musician but when I realized that career wasn't going anywhere, I quit my lessons and devoted myself to magic, full-time," he says.

In honour of Chmara's original pursuit, we've come up with a list of 10 tunes that should be on every magician's personal playlist.

Do You Believe in Magic? - Lovin' Spoonful

Magic Man - Heart

Hocus Pocus - Focus

Magic - Pilot

Magic Carpet Ride - Steppenwolf

Every Little Thing She Does is Magic - The Police

Magic Bus - The Who

Strange Magic - Electric Light Orchestra

Abracadabra - Steve Miller Band

Magical Mystery Tour - The Beatles

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2013 E1

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