Elliott Smith: the Man and the Magic

What is magic?  The Oxford dictionary defines magic as: a quality that makes something seem removed from everyday life, especially in a way that gives delight. Well, if Oxford is right, then Elliott Smith is definitely magic.

The Ottawa born illusionist has been wowing audiences for 40 years with his memorable mixture of magic, comedy and laughter.

Raised in Centretown, at the corner of Somerset and Lyon, Elliott Smith fell in love with magic at the tender age of six. Every Saturday afternoon he would watch a magic show by a man named Mark Wilson, “and I was totally taken aback,” says Elliott. “I said to my parents, ‘that’s what I want to do.’ and they were very supportive.”  His parents went and bought him his first magic set, and Elliott spent everyday practicing. “It consumed all my time,” he says, “all the other kids were out playing sports and I was home practicing magic.” Well, it obviously payed off.

Elliott performed his first magic show at seven years-old for a friend’s birthday party, and performed his first paying gig at 16.

While his parents supported his passion for magic, when it came to being a full-time magician, they insisted he go to school, and get a “real job”. So Elliott went to University, and studied architectural and mechanical drafting, but he never once even considered abandoning his passion for magic. To Elliott, magic was always his “real job.”

After university, Elliott dabbled in a number of occupations: he worked for the government for almost nine years, managed a restaurant, and worked for an advertising agency for another 12 years. In fact, it was through working for the ad agency that he first met many of the corporate clients he has today.

An avid believer in the importance of following your dreams, Elliott eventually decided it was time to quit the agency and pursue his true passion: to travel the world and perform-full-time.

Today, he passes that advice on to others, and talks at schools encouraging kids to follow their passions, whatever they may be.

“I lived it,” he says, “I had a dream and a goal to be a full-time magician, and I did it-right from an early age.”

“A lot of people don’t have the balls to go out and do what they want to do,” he says.
But Elliott did.

While working as a full-time comic magician, Elliott was also running a small magic shop. One of the many people he met while working there was a young law student and magic aficionado who, today, is known as Ian Quick. Elliott hired Ian to help him run the shop when he was off traveling and doing shows, and began to mentor him in the art of illusion.

When Elliott first took him under his wing, Ian was convinced that his goal was to be a lawyer. He continued school, passed the bar, and began practicing will and estate and commercial law; but after working in the shop with Elliott for a few years, he realized he’d been mistaken.

“One day he came in and said, ‘I hate my job’,” says Elliott. “He said he wanted to do magic but didn’t know how to do the business thing.” Well, Elliott had been doing the “the business thing” for some time, and for him, this was inspiration.

Throughout his travels, he regularly encountered other talented young entertainers with the potential for so much, but, much like Ian, did not possess the business savvy that Elliott had successfully mastered. So he decided to write a book.

He told Ian they should write the book together. Elliott started recounting his daily routine and experiences to Ian, and then expanded from there. Ian began to follow Elliott’s patterns, “I used him as my guinea pig,” he says, and clearly it worked.  During that time, Ian quit his job at the law firm, and began performing full-time.

They sat at Elliott’s bright-red kitchen table for two and a half years before they brought the book to fruition; they had taken Elliott’s pilgrimage and turned it into a handbook for entertainers, entrepreneurs, and anybody who has a dream, but not the business know-how to bring it to life.

“It’s directly transferable to anybody, in any business,” says Elliott. The book is especially useful for people like him, whom he refers to as “solopreneurs- people who have to wear all these different hats,” he says.  And occasionally, it seems, pull a rabbit out of them too.

The book led Elliott to add yet another element to his skill-set: teaching.  Now Elliott uses magic as a tool in team building and motivational speaking, which he offers to schools and corporate companies. “Learning magic tricks teaches people how to focus their minds and train their hands,” he says, “it teaches patience, determination and dexterity.”

By 2002, the book was done, and Elliott embarked on another dream: putting together a huge, full-scale illusion show. He and Ian got together, and along with five others, including Puppet-master, Matt Ficner, created “Smith and Quick in Mod-Vod.”

Matt Ficner is a very talented and creative local artist who has worked with many movie and television studios worldwide, including the muppet’s very own, Jim Henson.
He helped create the illusions, staging, and music for the show, as well creating, and acting a number of background characters. “He put the ‘and’ in Smith and Quick,” says Elliott.

The group premiered the show at the Casino du Hull, where they had booked a month-long gig, and then took the show on the road.  Although Matt has traveled many places, and been part of many projects, his experience on tour with Elliott was particularly momentous.

“He’s so full of zest for life,” says Matt, “he’s silly and crazy in all the right ways, and any time you’re around him – its always memorable.”

While the full-scale illusion show had always been a dream of his, Elliott doesn’t think he will embark on such a feat again.  “It was glamorous,” he says, “but I’m much happier doing a one-man show.”

Although Elliott has done plenty of one-man shows, there is a particular one that stands out; it was a private show for Liberace in his Uncle’s basement.

His Uncle Dave had a very prominent steakhouse in Ottawa, and was well-acquainted with stage manager at the NAC; so he would invite performers to the restaurant after their shows. “He had pictures on the walls of all his celebrities, like Madonna and all sorts of others,” says Elliott.

Apparently Uncle Dave also had a very large basement in his house, which he turned into a banquet and party hall for friends and guests; and on this particular night, the basement’s guest of honour was Liberace.

“He called me up at 3 a.m.” says Elliott, “ and said, ‘whatcha’ doing?’ and I said, ‘um, sleeping, what are you doing?!’
“He said, ‘I’ve got Liberace at the house, and apparently he loves magic, wanna come over?’ So I jumped outta’ bed,” says Elliott, “did my hair, grabbed some stuff and ran out the door.”

When he arrived at his Uncle’s house, he found Liberace sitting on the couch waiting for him.  “He was just in jeans and a flashy shirt,” says Elliott, “and he was totally into it!” Elliott gleams; “afterward, he signed my business card: ‘Liberace-you’re great!’”

Another famous face that had the pleasure of a one-on-one show with Elliott, is none other than late-night comic Jay Leno.

Elliott was in California, and heard that Leno performed every Sunday at the famous Hermosa Beach Comedy and Magic Club to test his material for his show.  Determined to get in and get a copy of his book in Leno’s hands, Elliott had a friend pull a few strings. And sure enough, that Sunday night, he and his wife, Roslyn were eating dinner at a table in the front row.

Even though the club had a policy forbidding guests to bring anything for the entertainers, Elliott managed to get a copy of the book into the green room for Leno to find.

When he received a tap in the shoulder part way through the evening, Elliott thought he was getting kicked out, but in fact, Leno had found the book, and had asked to see him.

When Elliott and Roslyn got backstage, Leno was waiting for them with the book open on his lap. “He had clearly been reading it,” says Elliott. Leno told him he thought the book was great, but unfortunately, they don’t do book reviews on his show.  Instead, Leno gave him the names of some contacts, and VIP tickets to his show the following day, but not before Elliott performed some tricks for him first.

“He was eating it up,” says Elliott. “He’s really one of the nicest guys. He even came to greet us at the show,” he says. “It was definitely one of the highlights of my life.”

Elliott has also performed for ambassadors and other political figures, including the late prime minister Trudeau.  He was doing a performance for the British High Commissioner, and Trudeau happened to be there; and like Liberace, he too turned out to be a fan of magic.

“He came up to me after the show,” says Elliott, “and started talking about magic.” Soon after, Elliott received a call from Trudeau’s office asking him to perform at Sacha’s next birthday party.  Trudeau was such a fan of Elliott’s that he even started bringing him along to functions to perform.

Along with famous audiences, Elliott has also accumulated some pretty illustrious titles throughout his career. In 2003, Ottawa Life Magazine chose him as one of “Ottawa’s Top Fifty” influential people. In 1996, he was nominated for Small Business of the Year by Ottawa Tourism, and in 1999, he was inducted into the Order of Merlin by the International Brotherhood of Magicians. Ten years later, on Jul. 3, 2009, Elliott was awarded the prestigious Order of Merlin Shield by the International Society of Magicians.

All those reputable titles were certainly well-earned; Elliott has gone to some great heights for the entertainment of others-quite literally. For one of his tricks, he escaped from 700 feet of chain and handcuffs while dangling upside down from the basket of a hot-air balloon, 250 feet off the ground. And among some other daring tricks, he also performed a fire-breathing stunt that almost lost him his face.

Oddly enough, as impressive as those were, his favourite trick, through all the years and all his acts, is still the first he ever learned: the three rope mystery.  This is where Elliott has three robes of different lengths, and turns them into three robes of all the same length, and then back again.  “It’s one trick I kept all these years,” says Elliott, “not only do I blow myself away, but the reaction from other people is always astonishing.”

But how does he do it? Well, as the saying goes, when it comes to their tricks, a magician never tells; and apparently, a magician’s wife never asks.

“At first I did,” says Roslyn, “because I’m a very curious person, but I don’t want know anything else. It’s much more fun not knowing.” Not that being in the know would make life with Elliott any less interesting, because as you can imagine, “there’s never a dull moment in my house,” says Roslyn, “It’s always a lot of fun.”

He will however, share one secret: the key to being a successful entertainer. “It’s all about the little stuff,” says Elliott. “It’s about the presentation,” he says, “and the personality. You’ve got to find what works for you. The whole thing about our business, our art form, is entertainment; but it’s not all about fancy card flourishing, it’s about the whole experience,” he says. “I just have such a good time.”

And so do his audiences. Whether it’s a kids birthday party, a group of politicians, or a bunch of locals selling fish on a beach in Barbados; it’s all about the joy, and passion that Elliott brings to other people’s lives. “That’s just what he does,” says Roslyn, “magic for the sheer joy of bringing joy to another person.”

Elliott is always spreading his positive energy, not just to his audiences, but to his colleagues as well.  “It’s refreshing to work with someone with such a vibrant personality,” says Jason Earle, an advertising professional and designer who has worked with Elliott, “dealing with Elliott is always a good way to break up the day.”
Along with being an entertainer, an author, a teacher, a businessman and much, much more, Elliott has also done some acting. He has been in three movies, including the the role of ‘Magic Bob’ in the opening scene of the 1990 Hollywood blockbuster, “The Hunt For Red October.”

With his busy schedule and lengthy list of accomplishments, does this colourful and  and vivacious man ever relax? Though it may not seem that way, Elliott does take the time to clear his head-once in while.

He says he likes to meditate on his inversion table with some headphones on; and if you don’t find him there, when the weather’s nice, you may find him riding around the market on his Yamaha V-star Classic motorcycle- you can’t miss him, he wears all leather, and a full-face mask with a skull on the front.

So what does the future hold for a man who’s done everything?  “I know that, physically, I won’t be able to perform for the rest of my life,” says Elliott, “but I’ll still be able to do the other stuff: the teaching and training- I would love to get into T.V.” he says, “host a talk show, or be a game show host, and be in another movie.”
Well daytime television better watch out, because as he’s shown us time and again, what Elliott Smith dreams, Elliott Smith does.

“So what’s the moral of my story,” says Elliott, “follow your dream and follow your passion; live your dream, live your passion, and don’t let all those dream thieves steal it away from you.”

At a time when people get lost in the norm, and our dreams get so easily left behind in the rush of our lives, a man like Elliott is truly a rare find; and while he does specialize in the art of illusion, there’s nothing up his sleeve-with Elliott Smith, what you see is what you get.

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