crew of the airship Kronos poses in front of the
Notes from the Curators Office:
(01/11) Anybody who reads my column knows that
I'm a fan of steampunk, so you probably won't be surprised when
I tell you that recently a poster in a local store covered with
Victorian and mechanical imagery caught my eye. It read:
Extraordinary Display of Magic and Illusion
Illusions Smoke and Mystery Tour
The poster was also peppered with some interesting
to boggle the imagination - J. Verne
bears further investigation - S. Holmes
Clearly this humorous play on Victorian literature
with the promise of some steampunk examples of legerdemain was
right up my alley. Since my son was also a fan of magic, it
seemed like catching this performance would be a wonderful father
and son outing, so I ordered tickets for the next show.
Captain prepares to pass through the blades of a spinning
fan. How does he do that?
We arrived early and were able to snag a couple
of center seats near the front of the house. The program explained
that the show, divided into several acts, took place on the
airship Kronos. The curtain opened and the Captain, who
I later found out was Jeff Nelson, emerged. What followed was
two hours of fun as the crew of the ship Kronos took
us on a magical journey. The highlights included seeing a full-sized
helicopter appear out of nowhere on stage; watching a girl walk
through a solid steel wall and observing the Captain push himself
through the spinning blades of a fan. The show was unusual,
not just for its steam punk theme, but because the performers
worked as an ensemble featuring not one, but three accomplished
illusionists: The Captain along with crew members Lynn and Sharii.
In addition, other henchmen filled out the production working
as various assistants and dancers.
Perusing the program during the intermission,
it was easy to conclude that the heart of Nelson Illusions was
a family business: husband and wife, Jeff and Lynn, with daughter
Sharii. This intrigued me and I wanted to know more about who
they were and how they came up with their steampunk-based illusion
show. Fortunately, the program included an URL and that gave
me an email address for Jeff. He responded and offered to have
the crew answer any questions I had, as long as I didn't ask
how the magic was done. "I don't know either. I'm just the captain,"
As much as I would have liked to have asked him
how he got through those spinning blades without being sliced
and diced, I promised I would limit my inquiries to other areas.
My first question was how Jeff and Lynn got into the magic business
in the first place.
and Lynn when they first started out in an early promotional
"We both had an interest in magic from childhood,"
they replied. "Jeff loved watching magicians on TV variety shows.
Lynn's dad, who grew up in a vaudeville theater, would make
little tricks for Lynn. When we met at university [they both
graduated from York University's performing arts program in
1980], we started collecting tricks and working together, finally
going professional after graduation."
In the course of human events this eventually
led to marriage and Lynn pulling off the ultimate feat of prestidigitation
by conjuring up Sharii in 1993. "We're still collecting pieces
for the show, but Sharii gets a say in it now," they added.
Of course, Sharii didn't initially realize that
her family was a bit unusual. "My parents took me with them
since day one. I thought it was normal that dads would stick
swords through moms and float them around till I was about six.
Around then I started to realize not every kid goes to work
with their parents."
Sharii herself joined the troupe early. "My parents
had me coming on stage since I was 18 months old taking stuff
on and off. When I was five I told them I wanted to do a real
magic trick. They taught me how to produce my first dove."
the road backstage Jeff relaxes while daughter Sharii,
then age 13, plays on a laptop.
Sharii's been producing doves ever since. During
one of her routines in the show, she materialized at least eight
of them seemingly from out of thin air. Then capped off the
performance by conjuring up an enormous parrot from nowhere.
Of course, working with such live animals has its unexpected
"Once my blue and gold macaw, Pippin, flew into
the audience and landed on a lady. She was scared of him, but
he was really friendly," she told me. "The best funny moment
had to be when one of my doves flew out and laid an egg in mid-air.
It was like a little bomb dropping."
Sharii, who is now 17, has spent most of her life
doing magic and has been recognized with several honors including
the Magicians Alliance of the Eastern States Best Newcomer Award
for 2006. Such recognition doesn't come without effort, however,
and she spends between four and six hours a day practicing.
"Sharii would have missed a lot of school with our working shows,
touring, and her personal practice time, so home schooling was
necessary," Lynn told me. "We think it also resulted in a better
overall education for her. Aside from getting a full apprenticeship
in theater, she has traveled across and seen much of North America,
done many things and had many interesting experiences."
No school rooms, traveling the world and doing
magic every day! Every kid's dream, right? Well, it's not all
a bed of roses for Sharii. When most kids are out playing and
enjoying the summer break, she's doing schoolwork and practicing.
"The biggest shock to me was when I found out that most kids
went to a place for school and they got summer off. I
work summers to catch up on fall when we are really busy."
loves playing historic theaters. Many have a signing wall
where performers leave their autograph. Note Bob Hope's
name on the upper right-hand side.
Busy means moving from venue to venue and as any
parent who has taken a driving vacation with small children
knows, they aren't always the best travelers. "When she was
very little," reported Lynn, "She was kept happy with books,
modeling clay and Barbie dolls. Now she reads, works on school
lessons or crochets while we travel."
I asked Sharii if while traveling she ever performed
in any odd locations. "Not too many unusual places but my favorite
locations to perform are old vaudeville theaters. They are so
beautiful and there is something wonderful about working on
a stage that has housed over a hundred years of performers."
What are Sharii's plans for the future as she
negotiates that tricky path metamorphosing from adolescent to
adult? Is college waiting in the wings? "Thanks to my parents,
I am 17 and working full time in my dream job," she told me.
"Unfortunately, I found out that when I stop practicing for
a week it takes me a month to get back in top form. If I went
to the university that would set me back years or more and sadly
there is no degree in magic. I am planning to take courses part-time
online. I will major in math and psychology."
with her feathered friends, Sharii, at age 9, takes a
break at home from her practice schedule that can run
from 4 to 6 hours a day.
So which of these three talented magicians dreamed
up the idea of a steampunk themed magic show?
"We were already big fans of Steampunk, but we
just didn't know it," Jeff told me. "We loved movies like Howl's
Moving Castle, Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,
The Time Machine and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
We loved the writings of Jules Verne and H.P. Lovecraft. We
loved the look of Victorian handiwork. We loved the combination
of Victorian aesthetics and the concept of technology as the
Victorians might have developed it had history transpired differently."
Despite the family's deep interest in these things
they still didn't have a name for it. It was Sharii who finally
stumbled across the steampunk subculture while peursing the
web. "I am a big gamer in my free time and noticed some of my
favorites being a part of steampunk. So I googled it and haven't
been happier since!"
"Then it was like a curtain had opened, a light
went on, and we finally saw something that we had always wanted
and been searching for suddenly within our grasp," related Jeff.
"We knew what we finally wanted to do with our show and in what
direction to go with it. That was December 28th, 2009, which
went down in our family history as 'Steampunk Monday.'"
transmutates her way through a solid steel plate in what
she told me was her favorite trick, Moonshadow
Actually combining magic with Victorian steampunk
makes a lot of sense. The period from the mid-19th century through
the early 20th century was the heyday of live performance and
magic (as expressed in films like The Illusionist and
The Prestige) Around the 1860's, magicians started discovering
how the science of optics could help them create mind-boggling
disappearing tricks that simply floored audiences. It is probably
hard for us to conceive of in our world, which is filled with
the illusions created by video and computer-generated imagery,
the impact that such tricks had on the people of the day. Back
then something that was seen was always real. Magic can be viewed
and enjoyed through the medium of TV, but its natural habitat
is the live performance. I asked Jeff and Lynn if this was one
of the reasons they chose to go with this theme.
"Partly, but more because most other magic and
illusion shows we saw were stuck in the 80's in terms of style
and presentation. They all looked pretty much the same and usually
revolved around a single male magician. That didn't work for
us because right off the top, we are a trio of magicians and
two of us are female. We wanted our show to look totally different
but it also had to be something we personally enjoyed and that
was meaningful to us."
The idea that the theme had to be interesting to the performer
doing it really struck a chord with me. A couple of years
ago I wrote a piece on teaching, comparing a good lesson to
a good magic trick (Magic &
Teaching) One of my contentions has always been that for
a teacher to make a lesson interesting to a student, they
must find a way of presenting it so that it also engages the
teacher's own enthusiasm. Students can always tell if you
are bored with a subject and are just going through the motions.
It seems the same thing is true for magic and for the Nelsons
to present an appealing show, they needed to find something
that engaged their own interests.
decked out in her cool steampunk threads, pulls off
a card trick.
"Steampunk fit the bill," Lynn said. "It is artistic and
celebrates hands-on craftsmanship (practically all our equipment
is handmade). Its setting and costumes are naturally theatrical.
Its what if... aspect of an alternate reality lends
itself well to the presentation of magic and illusion. To
top it off, Steampunk has a wide age appeal and everyone from
teenagers to nonagenarians can look appropriate and really
cool in steampunk threads."
So the Nelsons came up with the idea for the Smoke
and Mystery Tour and started retooling their equipment and
costumes to fit the bill. This was perhaps a little easier said
than done as they didn't always have the most ideal facilities
for building props.
"We live in an apartment community. Occasionally
we build magic props and sets for the show in our apartment.
Sometimes, things are just so big that we have to work on them
outside on the apartment lawn and the stuff can look pretty
weird. The neighbors always find this interesting, they peek
at us through their windows but rarely have the nerve to come
out and ask us what we are doing. We get a lot of odd looks."
Along with steampunk sets, it was clear that the
production would need matching music. "Steampunk Monday wasn't
just about finding out about Steampunk, it was also finding
steampunk music," said Sharii. "I thought it was an amazing
sound and I love all the different bands. My dad (who was a
performing musician and composer himself at one time) and I
went over all the music. We agreed on what we needed in the
show. We especially loved Abney Park's music."
A quick look at the Smoke and Mystery Tour featuring
the music of Abney Park.
Now the new act is up and running and my son and
I were lucky enough to catch one of the first performances.
Next, the Nelsons plan to take their special brand of ensemble
magic on the road, performing at various arts centers and college
theaters. For more information you can check their website at
Perhaps you can catch the airship Kronos when it docks
at a theater near your home.