Apr 192013

Chicago: Magic City

In Chicago there was always magic. No, that’s not more bluster coming from the windy city.

Consider this:

The first public entertainment by a professional performer was an exhibition of “amusing feats of ventriloquism and legerdemain.” You can look it up in the Chicago Democrat archives, February 24, 1834. Although at the time, Chicago was just a town not yet a city, but I think it still counts.

That’s not all…

Alexander Herrmann, first of America’s great magicians, made yearly trips to the city. He filled the best theaters, to rave reviews, which ensured him a profitable season.

The second of America’s magicians, Harry Kellar purchased his first show from the money he earned performing séances (with his partner William Fay) in Chicago. In an era where showmen advertised not only the feats to be seen, but also their show’s weight in tons, Kellar had the best illusions and the heaviest show in America.

Harry Houdini first hit the big-time here with some deft publicity and a pair of police handcuffs. Before his premature death, Houdini’s final appearance in Chicago was considered the greatest triumph of his career.

Extraordinary sleight of hand artist, Max Malini, magician to Kings and Queens, performer for Presidents and Generals, lived for a time at the once opulent Congress Hotel. He held court in the Florentine room where he performed for Al Capone.

Renowned for the grace of his performances, Theodore Bamberg, whose stage name was Okito, retired to the city. In retirement, Okito demonstrated magic at the State Street novelty emporium, The Treasure Chest, and manufactured elegant magic props that now command high prices by collectors.

All in Chicago, but wait, there’s more…

During Vaudeville, Chicago’s status as the nation’s transportation hub made it the natural place for performers to settle. Chicago Vaudeville theaters offered plenty hometown performing opportunities, from the low “break-in joints” for new acts to the high-class palaces for the experienced headliners.

When the motion pictures usurped Vaudeville, magicians moved into showrooms and nightclubs. The Empire Room at the Palmer House and the Boulevard Room at the Hilton showcased the best magicians of the era. In the outfit-controlled nightclubs, gangsters and their kibitzers supported magicians and marveled at their tricks, a legit cousin to their own criminal ruses.

Chicago’s large population provided ample opportunities for performing at social clubs, civic organizations, and private parties.

In turn, the city became base to many world-renowned professional magic shops and manufacturers. The numerous neighborhood novelty shops supplied fun-loving amateurs with an endless supply of tricks, pranks, and gags. Chicago had, perhaps, more magic shops than anywhere in the world.

In the 1970s, a Chicagoan took the magic pitch he saw in those stores to television. Marshall Brodien and his TV Magic Cards became a rage and inspired a generation of children to become magicians.

Chicago’s greatest gift to magic was Matt Schulien. Early in the 1920s, he conjured up a new way of performing magic, “the Chicago Style of magic.” When Carl Sandburg lovingly called Chicago a “stormy, husky, brawling” city, he unknowingly described Matt’s performances. His magic was visual, fast, direct, explosive, sometimes crude, and driven by his out-sized personality. He shattered the formal barriers between the performer and the audience. Once seen, Schulien’s magic was never forgotten and neither was the table-slapping, tear-inducing, chest-heaving laughter he elicited.

If Schulien was the heart of Chicago magic, Heba Haba Al was the spirit. Mentored by Schulien, Al became the original magic bartender. He expanded on and refined the rowdy style into pandemonium. From around the world, magicians would pilgrimage to a seedy bar on the north side of Chicago to see this imp and his nightly antics. These Chicago barkeeps taught magicians that the real secret of magic was not the trick, but the person behind the trick. Those performers who experienced the magic of Schulien and Heba went on to spread the gospel of the Chicago style.

In 1955, Jay Marshall, the single greatest repository of magic knowledge and a frequent guest on the Ed Sullivan Show, made Chicago his home. Jay and his wife Frances’ shop, Magic, Incorporated, became a Chicago institution and a gathering place for visiting magicians. If that were the only thing, you knew about the Chicago magic world that would be enough.

That alone made Chicago the center of the magic world.

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