How magic went from being his hobby to his livelihood, and everything in between
A magician never shares his secrets. It’s the cardinal rule of the profession, cloaking the field in an air of mystery and intrigue.
But on a cool evening at Higher Ground Café magician Malcolm Russell, 44, is going to share some secrets of the trade. Malcolm is a charming, dark-haired English gentleman. He’s impeccably dressed, and his welcoming nature makes you feel as though you are in for something exciting.
“Do you want to see the first card trick I ever learned?” he asks, pulling out a deck of cards. He asks me to pick any card I would like. I choose the two of diamonds.
Malcolm requests that I place the card on top of the deck, and then cut the deck anywhere. I oblige, and then complete the cut as requested. He repeats what I’ve just done.
Malcolm tells me that many people will often accuse him of stealing their card out of the deck during tricks like this, and fans out the cards for me to see that this is wrong. My card is still there.
Malcolm then informs me that if I’m playing a game and want a specific card, I just need to ask the deck for it very nicely.
“(If) I want the two of clubs,” he says, “all you do is spell it out, one card for each letter. T-w-o…”
With each letter he flips a card. The final card he flips is, sure enough, the two of clubs. He demonstrates again with the five of hearts.
It’s now my turn. I spell out the two of diamonds aloud, flipping a card for each word. And then, just like that, my card appears. I know there is much more to the trick than meets the eye, and Malcolm has likely done many things I haven’t seen. However, he is so tallented that it’s easy to forget how much work goes into each trick.
Malcolm specializes in close-up magic, with a personal preference for slight-of-hand tricks. Many of his tricks involve everyday items that have not been previously altered in any way, such as a deck of cards, an elastic band or a coin. Over the course of his career Malcolm has taught himself how to manipulate these objects in such a way that even the most dubious viewers are left awestruck.
It’s been a long journey for Malcolm to get to the place he’s at now. Twenty years, in fact. As he relays the path his career has taken, it’s evident that he’s passionate about the profession. It comes as a slight surprise that he hasn’t been working on his craft his entire life.
A future magician is born
Malcolm was born in 1969 in the United Kingdom. When he was nine years old his father, an oncologist, was transferred to Canada to help establish a bone marrow transplant program in Calgary. They settled in Cochrane, where Malcolm grew up and attended high school. He eventually enrolled at the University of Calgary, where he majored in Buddhist studies.
It was during this time that Malcolm says he began to get the bug for performing. He had taught himself how to juggle, and began to work as a street performer part time. Malcolm says his routines were based around juggling, physical comedy and audience participation. It wasn’t something that was making him a lot of money —he says he just did it for the enjoyment. As he got better he began to perform at festivals.
A magical introduction
Photo by Pauline Zulueta It was at one such festival in the early ’90s that Malcolm was introduced to his future, so to speak. Magic had become a part of his life.
“My story is a little unusual in how I came to magic,” he says. “There are, of course, thousands of different ways people come to it, but the stereotype that is remarkably common is, ‘I was 8 years old. I got a magic kit for Christmas and that was it. I wanted to be a magician.’”
However, this was not the case for Malcolm. As he tells it, he was already in his mid-20s when he was introduced to the world at the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival. A friend of his was the assistant producer at the festival, and one summer enrolled Malcolm in a four-day workshop with a close-up magician. Many of his peers in the class were hobbyists or already working in the field. Malcolm didn’t know the first thing about magic.
“I didn’t understand the names,” he says. “I didn’t understand the vocabulary.”
But he learned. By the end of the workshop, Malcolm says he knew enough to be able to successfully complete a few tricks.
Shortly thereafter, Malcolm and his wife moved to Poland to pursue English teaching positions. A year later, they made a move to Japan.
Street performing was still part of Malcolm’s life while overseas, but magic had captured his attention. And in a way, it seemed Malcolm was in a perfect place to learn magic. He says that in both Poland and Japan he didn’t speak the language well enough to enjoy watching TV. English books were difficult to come by.
“So what do you do in the evenings?” he says. “You take up hobbies. That’s when I started putting in the hours of practice to be able to do some of these things.”
And hours of dedication are what it takes to be a close-up magician. While magicians are not at liberty to share their secrets with the public, Malcolm says they are able to share them with other magicians. It’s a loophole that gives others in the profession the insight into how to perform tricks. Once they have the instructions, it’s in their hands to practice.
Malcolm’s tricks that appear so effortless have been perfected over days — sometimes weeks or months — of practice. In fact, he says that when he first became seriously invested in magic, he spent 100 hours learning one useful maneuver.
In the beginning, Malcolm’s wife, Nadine Russell, was often the first person privy to his tricks.
“When he first really got into it, he needed someone to watch him,” she says. “So we would spend hours where I’d be curled up in bed under the blankets on a snowy day like today, and Malcolm would stand at the end of the bed, and he would just do the same trick over and over and over and over and over. Hours of it.
“And I would be going, ‘I saw that, I saw that, I saw that. I saw the flash on the left, I saw that flash on the right. Turn to the left Malcolm, sit down in the chair, stand up from all different angles.’”
After living in Japan for three and a half years, Malcolm and Nadine moved back to the United Kingdom. It was during their time there that Malcolm decided he wanted to travel more, and decided to set a goal for himself with his magic. Always one for adventure, Malcolm decided that he would perform on all inhabited — and one uninhabited — island in Scotland.
A new direction
Photo by Pauline Zulueta Malcolm says that nobody had done such a thing before, and nobody has done it since. In fact, he says that nobody — not even the census bureau in Scotland — knew how many islands were inhabited. Malcolm says that many of them had a population of one, while others were home to only a single family.
Through a number of phone calls to the different islands, Malcolm was able to piece together an itinerary. In 2005, over the course of a year and a day, Russell visited and performed on 106 islands in Scotland.
After living overseas for 12 years, Malcolm and his wife decided to make their way back to Canada. A year later, Malcolm began working as a magician full time. It took him 15 years of experience to get to a place where he could support himself with his magic.
Malcolm says that while many magicians in Calgary are semi-professionals who may perform a number of shows each year, there are only about a dozen who have chosen to devote their life to magic.
Nadine has been by Malcolm’s side since the beginning, and has watched him advance from hobbyist, to semi-professional to professional. She says he is an extraordinary person who accomplishes those things he sets his mind to.
“Most of us are always told, you can do whatever you want to do,” she says. “But we have that fear of failure, so we don’t ever really do it. And he, for some reason, doesn’t have that little fear button. So he does what he wants to do.”
Today, Malcolm can commonly be found performing for tables at Earls resturant in Westhills, Calgary, or at community or corporate events. As his career has progressed, people have begun to recognize him. They’ve begun to look for him.
Liz Small, artist and owner of Absolutely Fabulous Facepainting, has seen first-hand people gravitate towards Malcolm. For the last five years, she’s worked with him at many corporate events, and says he has a knack for connecting with the people he performs for.
“They just stand there, and you can almost see their jaws sort of slack as they’re standing there just completely mesmerized by him,” Small says. “And it’s a really engaging and amazing connection he has with people. And I work with a lot of magicians, and none of them have that. None of them have that je ne sais quoi that he has.”
Malcolm is a special brand of magician. His tricks have stunned and amazed many, and audiences will soon be wowed with his latest venture.
This past month, Malcolm and magician Atsushi Ono launched Not From Around Here, a brand new magic show. Malcolm says the material is all brand new, with none of the tricks having ever been performed by either magician before. Right now the duo is performing at a number of private shows, but they plan to hold their first public performance in the new year. The date for this performance is yet to be announced.
This is an exciting new direction for Malcolm’s career, and one that perhaps will fulfill a large goal of his.
“Before I die, I want to create a show that I am really, truly proud of,” he says. “That’s my goal…I want to create something unique, something that I’ve never done before, that on my deathbed I can sit back and go, that was good. The rest was all fun and I was generally happy with it, but that was really good. That’s what I want.”
Malcom and a fellow magician recently launced a new show. For more information, please visit notfromaroundhere.ca