The Magic of Allan Slaight: How an amateur magician became a business legend

Magicians never tell, but Slaight’s life in business, philanthropy and having fun spoke volumes

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The Canadian Magicians Archive is an A-Z online reference guide to the purveyors of tricks, past and present, who have made a name for themself in the nation’s magic circles.


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Listed beneath the letter “S,” for example, is Max Scott, founder of the London Magician’s Guild; Alfred Walter Scudds, a member of the Order of Merlin; and Richard Sherry, an escape artist and renowned manufacturer of escape equipment.

A few entries further on is Allan Slaight, who, using the stage name, Will Powers, travelled around Western Canada in the 1940s “performing magic/mind reading shows.”

Slaight, it should be noted, pulled off a few other tricks, such as: recognizing that being a professional magician was not going to pay the bills and, in time, and with effort, imagination and a showman’s flair, building a radio broadcasting empire and becoming fabulously rich.

He also helped lasso an NBA franchise for Toronto, owned the Raptors for a spell, authored three books (about magic), gave away tens of millions of dollars to a host of good causes — cancer research, the arts, education, restoring a grand piano that once belonged to early rock and roller, Fats Domino — and died at home in Toronto on Sept. 19 at age 90, with his family by his side.


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Slaight’s final disappearing act after a long life, well lived, had those that knew him best eager to share their stories about him. David Ben, a professional magician, who befriended the radio mogul 40 years ago — after they bonded over tricks — remembers Slaight talking about his early days in Toronto radio in the 1950s.

He wasn’t a mogul then, but just some guy who had worked in Alberta who was hired as the program director at CHUM-AM, a Toronto radio station, looking to capitalize on the rock-and-roll craze.

Slaight, who once told Ben that, “mischief is necessary,” needed to hire a promotions manager. He received a resumé that was pockmarked with cigarette burns and, well, he smelled mischief, and hired the applicant, Allen Farrell, on the spot. Together they dreamed up a series of promotional wonders to win over audience share, like having a DJ broadcast from underwater for three days at the Toronto Sportsmen’s Show.


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Under Slaight, CHUM-AM emerged as the dominant player in the Canadian market. Rock-and-roll history was made.

“Allan had this knack for recognizing talent,” Ben said. “Him hiring Allen Farrell was like Lennon and McCartney hooking up before Lennon and McCartney had actually met each other.”

“Those two guys transformed rock-and-roll radio in North America.”

Slaight once explained his winning radio formula to Financial Post columnist Diane Francis. “Play Top-50 music, stage zany promos and have good news coverage.”

It worked.

Slaight left CHUM in 1966. Four years later, he mortgaged his house and borrowed a boatload of money to buy his first radio station. More followed, before he cemented his place in the big leagues by buying Standard Broadcasting from Conrad Black — yes, our Conrad Black — for $196-million in 1985.


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Slaight promptly turned around and unloaded the sole television station that was included in the deal, in Ottawa, for almost $180-million. The end result was an amateur magician with a private empire of radio stations at his disposal, and basically no debt.

“Allan led the consolidation of radio in Canada,” said John Bitove, another old friend, and admirer, who asked Slaight at a party how he felt about helping him land an NBA franchise for Toronto and got a reply which, to paraphrase, amounted to: “Let’s go for it.”

Naturally, there was some magic involved.

Bitove remembers being in a hotel room in New York City with Slaight, his father, John Bitove Sr., David Peterson, the former Liberal premier of Ontario, and a few others. The group was killing time before heading to an NBA press conference to introduce the new Canadian basketball franchise.


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Slaight was asked to do some magic. He borrowed a lit cigarette from Bitove Sr., and plucked the pocket square from Peterson’s suit.

“We are all watching this, and thinking the cigarette is going to disappear, and instead he burns a hole in the pocket square, hands it back to Peterson and says, “Ah, sorry, I screwed this one up.”


Slaight, mind you, was a political agnostic when it came to gag magic. He once cut former Progressive Conservative Alberta premier Peter Lougheed’s tie in half during a demonstration.

“Allan loved to laugh,” Bitove said.

When he hosted parties, his magician pals were invariably on the guest list. The festivities always concluded with a magic trick. His signature act of hocus pocus involved having a guest pick a book from the book case and asking them to think of any word in the book — and then correctly divining what the word was.

So, how did he do it?

Magicians never tell, but Slaight’s life in business, philanthropy and having fun spoke volumes.


In-depth reporting on the innovation economy from The Logic, brought to you in partnership with the Financial Post.


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