AUGUST 2011

MAGAZINE

Breaking into the Church.

A day with Bill Abbott.

Written by Jamie D. Grant

 

Despite being on a Ducati, we weren't actually going that fast. I was driving and Bill Abbott was on the seat behind me. When we got on, I could tell Bill was wrestling with where to put his hands, as he didn't want to fall off the back while, at the same time, not wanting to get too personal. It's not too often that I ride with anyone other than my wife, but circumstances lead us to a place where Bill and I were cruising through the Canadian countryside along a winding road. He was in town for a gig and had been flown across the country to come perform in Victoria, which is on an island off the coast of Vancouver. This of course filled me with both admiration and horror.

 

Admiration: A church was paying to have Bill come out from Toronto, which is on the other side of the country, and was paying him a good deal amount of money to do so.

 

Horror: A church was paying to have Bill come out from Toronto, which is on the other side of the country, and was paying him a good deal amount of money to do so…while I live only thirty minutes away and am a performer myself.

 

I offered to pick him up and take him wherever he needed to go as he had a lot of questions to answer.

 

But, true to Bill Abbott style, they had hired a car and driver and picked him up at the airport, driving him to the island. Not to let him get away without explaining how he does what he does, I jumped on my bike and followed suit. On my ride over, I asked myself what I actually knew about Bill Abbott. I knew he performed a ton of gigs, that he had some DVDs out, and that he was rumoured to be the nicest guy you could meet. There was also something about a monkey and a floating cloth. Everyone talked about the monkey. I thought it was worth a trip. I also wanted to see his actual performance. I knew from the grapevine that Bill is one of the most booked entertainers in Canada and I was curious to see what was in his act. Would he do the same things that everyone else did? Would they have some sort of take that put Bill on a different level? I wanted to see for myself.

 

 

I pulled up to his hotel and he was down in the lobby. “Hi Jamie,” he said. “Did you want to come check out the venue?” I laughed at his total familiarity and easy approach. Within seconds of meeting, and I’ve seen this a dozen times since, Bill gives you the impression that you’ve been friends for years.

 

“Sure. Did you want to take any of your stuff over so you don’t have to take it later?”

 

“It’s all here.” He indicated to a leather satchel.

 

“Really? How long is your show?”

 

“Two hours.” He said.  “C’mon, let’s go.”

 

As we cruised to the church, I managed to gather some basic information over the roar of the engine. For the life of me I can’t remember why we took the bike, but I remember everything he told me on the ride over: The church had heard of him through one of his corporate clients back in Toronto. They were paying him his regular fee as they were selling tickets to the show as a way to get people to come see this new church. He’s been performing since he was twelve. Before he was performing for the likes of Al Pacino and Matt Dillon, he had worked as a Bingo Caller, Camp Counselour, and a Rave Organizer. He was based in Toronto but traveled to wherever he was needed. He performed around forty shows a year. And that show fit into the bag on his shoulder.

 

When we got to the church, I looked up at the sign. Instead of, “Jesus Saves” it said, “Tonight Only. Bill Abbott.” There was no explanation of who Bill Abbott was or why he was there for only one night. The absence of the word, “Magician” or “Entertainer” was noticeable and I wondered if this was out of the norm for a church. All I knew was that I never booked a church gig on the other side of the country. As we went up to the doors, we found them to be locked. “Do you have any lock picks?” he asked. He was deadly serious but it only took a brief second before we were both laughing. “You want to break into a church?” I asked.

 

“Well, I’d like to see the stage…”

 

We decided that it might not be the best idea.

After trying all the other doors, and windows, we decided to head back. Returning to the hotel, we sat in the chairs in the lobby and I learned a lot more about Bill’s life and work.

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He grew up in Toronto and has lived and worked there his whole life. As a child, he was raised without a television and was only allowed to watch 16 mm movies of Laurel and Hardy, Marx bros. and Chaplin one weekend a month. His father was a concert pianist and composer and, along with his sister, they regularly played violin duets at his concerts.

 

Moving from the stage to the backyard, Bill started putting on puppet shows behind the house, inviting the entire neighborhood. By the time he was fourteen, he was performing magic at birthday parties and as he grew up and moved on to university he was booking seven or eight gigs a week, paying for his schooling with cards and a monkey puppet named Chico. For five years after graduation, he started performing close-up at restaurants three nights a week, and did a formal show at a jazz club called the Senator. On the third floor of the club was what was called the Torch Lounge where, to an audience of around forty, Bill perfected his material for adult audiences.

 

It was around 2003, when Bill was 30 years old, that he started releasing products to the magic community. A friend of his had sent him a video of a magician poorly performing his Chico Monkey Puppet routine word for word. Deciding that it might be best to start putting his name on routines that other people were seeing and copying, he began to release effects from his professional repertoire. By 2006, he was sponsored to go to FFFF (an invite only close up magic convention) where he met many of the people who he is proud to call friends today. He has an easy laugh as he reminisces about his journey from the backyard as a kid to the private suites of the likes of Charlize Theron, who interestingly enough, slapped him across the face when he revealed the name of her first crush as part of a magic effect. “Because she was upset that you exposed it in front of room full of people?” I asked. “I don’t think so,” he replied. “I think she was just so shocked. It left a red handprint on the side of my face.”

 

A few hours had now passed and, after grabbing something to eat, Bill needed to get ready for the gig. I went and got some coffee as he prepared for his night. When I came back he was in a suit with the same leather satchel slung over his shoulder. “Let’s do it.” Off we went.


The inside of the church was quite nice and the pastor had laid out the chairs in rows facing the stage/pulpit. We went into the room behind the stage and Bill took out his microphone that he always uses, a kind of 1930’s radio style mic, and set it up.



“I like the floor mic better. It’s a prop in itself.” As he unpacked his gear onto the table, I was trying to take mental notes of everything I saw. Cards, sponge balls, a small Plexiglas box with nothing in it. This was “pack small and play big” at it’s finest. Although I hadn’t seen how it would play yet. We chatted some more about past performances and I asked if he still gets nervous before shows. “To be honest, I only get nervous at the hotel when I’m trying to remember everything I need to get done. It’s more about whether I’ve packed everything I need than from stage fright.” He says with a laugh.

 

As I sat at the back of the room and watched people file in, I couldn’t help but wonder how this would go. Part of me knew that it had to go over well; Bill is a seasoned performer and odds are that none of these people had been to a magic show before, and would be pleasantly surprised. There was an excitement in the air as around two hundred people of all ages took their seats and waited for the show to begin. I also saw the preacher with his family. He too was scanning the room, probably wondering how his investment was doing. Fifteen minutes before show time and there wasn’t a seat left. He looked happy and went up to the stage.

 

“Hello everyone, thank you for all for coming tonight. I hope you enjoy our evening together and that we’ll see all of you again in the future…” he pulled out a piece of paper, “As one of Canada's foremost magicians, Bill Abbott has been performing since the age of five, making numerous television and film appearances, sharing his talents with audiences throughout Canada and Western Europe. Over the past eighteen years,  Bill Abbott has been in constant demand for private parties, corporate functions and special events, becoming one of the most sought-after experts in this unique field of entertainment.  Celebrities from Samuel L. Jackson to Charlize Theron have been enthralled with Bill’s magic. Everyone...Mr. Bill Abbott!” I made a mental note that the hand print had long since faded.

 

Bill came on stage dressed in a dark suit with a gold tie and had a sort of presence that only people who have performed, a lot, have. Whereas I’m pretty sure most of the people in the audience would have been terrified to have to speak to more than five people at once, you could tell, in an instant, that this is where Bill felt he belonged. He later explained to me that the stage was the only place he feels like his true self. His very first memory of his life, in fact, takes place on a stage, at five years old, playing violin with his father.

 

“Ladies and Gentleman….” He began.

 

From that moment on, the audience was hooked. It’s always a pleasure to watch someone do something well, especially when you can watch the audience too, who is experiencing new feelings for the first time. I remember the first time I saw a bill come out of a lemon, and here I was with two hundred others who were having that same inaugural magical experience. It was nice to be able to see that from the back row. When I thought about it later, I also remembered how you never really forget the first time you see a magician live. I looked over the audience, seeing their faces, and was happy for them. Happy because Bill’s act isn’t so much of a magic act but more of a magical presence. As he performed on stage, it wasn’t all about the patter and applause but rather more like a friend stopping by. It wasn’t so much about a famous magician coming to town, but rather, Bill Abbott coming over. No description on the marquee seemed to be necessary. The audience sensed that.

 

Amongst the joy, laughter, and wonder I slowly came to realize that I, too, couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Not because it was great magic, which it was, but because I slowly came to realize that I had Bill’s entire act in my own house. Every effect he performed was from his effects that he sells to the magic community.

 

Five Card Opener

Sponge Snack

Sponge Ball Routine

The Thing

Chico

Bill in Lemon

 

~Intermission~

 

Pokerface

Mind Reading

Magazine Test

Vacation Prediction

Diamond Jack

Violin Card Rise

 

 

- 2 -

It truly was a revelation for me at that moment. I often wondered in the past how certain performers could release their signature parts of their act or, in Bill’s case, the entire thing, simply to be purchased online or at a magic convention. I always thought it was so risky. I mean, surely, if everyone in the world starting doing a monkey bit, it would lose some of it’s luster? But I sat there in the audience and watched a grown man take a monkey puppet and make a woman cry before an audience full of strangers. And I mean openly weeping. She was laughing so hard I thought she was going to need physical aid. It was then that I understood. Bill could sell a million Chicos and, to be fair, a lot of performers would kill with it, but it wouldn’t be this. It wouldn’t be what I was seeing right now.

 

I also had to sit back and ask myself when the last time I had been to a show with an intermission. In a theatre watching Das Boot maybe? After the first half, people were milling about near the snack bar. I tried to listen in on what was being talked about and, as I thought, everyone was discussing their favourite moments so far. They showed no signs of tiring and you could tell they couldn’t wait to see what was next. We all took our seats and when Bill came back on it was like welcoming an old friend. The pastor was getting his money’s worth. Bill moved into a more mystical feeling for the second half and the audience settled into the night with their minds filling with things they had never seen, or felt, ever before in their lives.

 

Near the end of the show, Bill took out his violin, which was private magic moment for me. There was no way there was a violin in his leather satchel and, to this day, I haven’t asked him where it came from or how it got there. All I know was that it was obviously his. He picked it up and performed a beautiful Card Rise to music. The laughter had stopped and you could hear a pin drop in that church. I think people blocks away could hear the silence, with the exception of a lone violin, emanating from the building. It wasn’t magic. It was a spell. Its incantation was “Tonight Only. Bill Abbott.”

 

Jamie D. Grant is a writer, magician, and artist from Vancouver, Canada known for his “Anything Is Possible” bottle at www.SendWonder.com

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