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And Now, for Paris's Next Trick

Sunday, June 12, 2005

WHAT: Paris's Museum of Magic (Musee de la Magie)

WHY GO: Paris is the City of Light! The city of magic! And if you have kids in tow, you may need to be a bit more literal about that "magic" stuff.

Paris and magic go back a long way. In the 17th century, conjurers used to perform on the Pont Neuf. So it's fitting that the Museum of Magic is on one of the city's oldest streets, Rue Saint Paul, in the Marais district.

It's a cubbyhole of a museum, but if you're accompanied by les petits (kids, that is) allow at least an hour for a visit. There are 15 or so interactive "curiosities" the little ones will love to fiddle with. In fact, we were the only adults visiting without youngsters, so don't expect a reverent hush in these galleries.

Over the entryway, a tiny devil riding a giant quill pen magically traces the command, "Entrez!" ("Enter"). From the street, a stairway leads below ground, where the museum is housed in ancient vaulted chambers built of stone.

Once you've paid your admission (about $8.70), you'll be hustled into a small theater for a live magic show. During our visit, a talented young magician performed rope tricks, card tricks and other sleights-of-hand, assisted by audience members. The patter's in French, but it's easy to imagine what's being said, as magician shtick is universal.

After 20 minutes of entertainment -- and wanting more -- we were herded into the museum area. An older magician regaled us (in French) with the long and glorious history of magic, tossing in a few tricks along the way. For non-French-speakers, this is the time to peel off and start inspecting the exhibits.

You'll find old stage tricks, beautiful wooden props from centuries past and some fascinating jerry-rigged devices used by spiritualists to conjure fake apparitions. Unfortunately, explanatory cards are sparse and in French. A booklet in English, available at the ticket booth for about $1.30, provides a history of magic and a brief overview of the collection.

Kids won't need any translations, though, when they discover the interactive curiosities scattered around several rooms. Many involve mirrors and basic principles used in more complex magic tricks. Look at your face in a mirror, then turn a crank to flip your head upside down. Stare right though your hand. Transform a fair maiden into an old hag with the twist of a wrist. Stick your hand in a lion's mouth and feel its "tongue" swish by. Admire yourself in front of a looking glass that warps you from tall and skinny to squat and corpulent, then back again.

When you tire of these diversions, head down a hallway lined with old magic show posters, advertising spectacles like Physique Amusante ("Amusing Physics"), to the creepy automaton display. More than a dozen figures from various eras take turns coming to life, but these likely won't hold much fascination for kids raised on transformers and Go-Bots.

If you're interested in seeing how some of the museum's antique props were used in prestidigitation, don't miss the video playing next to the automatons. Nearby, kids will be gleefully monkeying with a nearby portrait designed to startle anyone who triggers a "magic eye" in the frame.

In its shop, the musuem sells books, videos, simple tricks and real used stage props. Kids were piled four-deep watching the clerk demonstrate his wares. If you venture inside, be prepared for the final magic trick -- watching a few euros disappear.

-- Gayle Keck

The Museum of Magic is at 11 Rue Saint Paul in the 4th arrondissement. Nearest metro: St. Paul or Sully Morland. Open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday 2 to 7 p.m. and on French school holidays. Admission about $8.70 adults, $6.20 children. Details: 011-33-1-42-72- 13-26,http://www.museedelamagie.com(French only).

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