- Ian - Ian


Interview: Nikki Gillingham, Blue Whale Communications

Photography: Marianne Rothbauer, Rothbauer Studio


Tell us about yourself and how you got started. 

I actually got started late in the business, relatively speaking. I was 20 and visiting Canada's Wonderland with some friends. One of the Toronto Magic Shops had a booth in one of the stores there and I wound up buying a book, just out of curiosity. I started doing tricks here and there for friends until one day, someone asked me to do their nephew's birthday party. I agreed. I thought I did a terrible job of it. I had no showmanship then, just technical skills. Despite that, I got paid $50 from a happy family. A few weeks later, I got a call from the parent of one of the kids who had attended that birthday. They wanted to hire me. I decided to invest in some more appropriate tricks and develop a proper magic routine. Through the years, I went from birthday magician, to corporate magician, to touring magician offering educational programming with various school boards. About 7 years ago, it came full circle and I'm back to doing mainly birthdays, but this time, I'm doing it right. We created the brand and became Ottawa's largest birthday specialty service, offering magic, balloon twisting, face painting, puppet shows, character parties, bouncy castles, giant games and more. My little one man operation became a full service firm with a staff of 8 talented performers.


Were you always interested in magic?

I remember seeing Doug Henning on TV as a child and thinking it was the coolest thing ever. Unfortunately, the internet didn't exist back then and Ottawa had no magic shops, so my interest was simply a passing fancy until opportunity knocked at age 20.


What made you realize you could make a career out of it?

At first, it was simply an occasional gig for extra pocket money, but I had made a friend and mentor in the industry, Elliott Smith. He was a full time professional magician, and under his guidance and encouragement, I grew as a performer. When I grew disenchanted with my career as a lawyer, going into show business just seemed like the right thing to do. I had to take that chance and see if I could turn something I loved into a career. It worked!

Many people dream of being a lawyer, but you choose to leave that world. Was that a hard decision to make?

The decision to leave the law and go full time into show business was easier than I thought it would be. I did have to ask myself a hard question at first, though: What makes me happy? I realized the money and status as a lawyer meant very little to me compared with the feeling of enjoying my work and bringing joy to people. Once I figured that out, the rest was pretty easy. I planned my transition to be as pain free as possible. I was also very fortunate in that my spouse was supportive of my choices.

Which do you prefer: balloons or magic?

I honestly don't know! I have been doing magic a lot longer than balloons and have always loved it. Balloons allow me to be more creative on the spot. With magic, you have to plan a new effect in detail and rehearse over and over, but the wow factor is bigger. With balloons, I can often make things up as I go along and the results are usually quite spectacular. I also think that it might depend on the day. If I've been doing lots of balloons, after a while, I might crave the magic, or vice versa. Ultimately, I enjoy both very much.

Did any balloons pop while you were creating your Harley Davidson model? 

When I built a life-size Harley motorcycle out of balloons, I had no idea what I was getting into. It was my first BIG corporate centerpiece sculpture. While I had a design idea in mind, there were a few parts that became trial and error. There were also the occasional unexpected pops that would then require major corrections. It took longer than expected, but the end result was quite fabulous.


What do you love most about your work? What gets you excited to keep going each day?

I think what I love most about my work is the look of joy and wonder on people's faces. Back in my lawyer days, the vibe was always about conflict, deadlines, and unhappy people trying to make a problem go away. There was a lot of negative energy surrounding the work. With being an entertainer, I get the opposite. I get to make people forget about their troubles for a moment and simply enjoy themselves, whether they're amazed by a magic trick, or simply astounded that someone could make something so cool out of balloons. Everyone gets to become a kid again!


Is there someone in the entertainment industry that inspires you?

I don't think there's one particular person who inspires me. I find inspiration in most every performer I meet or see on screen. I love to hear stories of accomplishments despite adversity. I love to hear about their influences and how it impacted their art. I take a little bit from everywhere and add it to my fuel. Granted, some have inspired a little more than others. As previously mentioned, my friend and mentor, Elliott, was probably the first big inspiration for my career. In the magic world, other great influences have been Mac King, and Jeff McBride. Beyond that, I've met so many other great magicians, buskers, twisters, actors... I don't think I could ever compile a proper list.

You wrote a book about running a business in the entertainment industry. How is it different than other industries? How did you learn about running a business?

I co-wrote Highway to Success: The Entertainer's Roadmap to Business with Elliott Smith. We felt there was a need for such material because show business is indeed different from other industries. The nature of the work lends itself to a particular type of marketing, with a unique kind of product. This isn't about running a store or a service. Show biz means you have to be the business manager, the agent, the talent, the producer and wear so many other hats. It's a lot to take in. I learned what I needed to from two different major sources. First, I learned about traditional business models in my education and career as a lawyer. Setting up a company, dealing with contracts, managing and book keeping were all things I learned from my first career. The additional details, the ones related to show business in particular, were taught to me by Elliott. Through the years, I learned a lot from his decades of experience. Ultimately, I became the test subject for our book. If I could quit the law and become a successful full-time performer, then our book had merit... and it does!


If you could perform on any stage in Canada, where would it be?

Oddly enough, I don't want to go too far. While there are many great stages across this country, I would rather stick close to home and play the National Arts Centre. You see, back in the 90's I was an usher there while I studied at the University of Ottawa, just a few blocks away. I have seen many great performances on that stage and always had a secret wish to play there one day. It probably won't ever happen now as the nature of my shows has shifted greatly in the last 7 years. I no longer do big stage shows or tours. My business model now focuses on local entertainment for birthday and corporate events. I've gotten rid of most of my big illusions in favour of materials better suited to my current clientele. However, one can never say never. If the opportunity were to present itself, I might just dust off a few old props and get ready for the big stage again.

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