I lived the first 24 years of my life on the southwest side of Chicago. Now, I live in the western suburbs.
Magic was not so much a hobby when I was very young. I did get magic sets as a child; the one most remembered is the Marshall Brodien Money Magic Set. I must have been six.
The first magic shop trick I still have. It is a small wooden production box. It sucks and is difficult to use convincingly. That same trip to the shop, my father and I went across the street to a restaurant, “Little Bit O’ Magic.” I don’t have any specific memories about that lunch, save one: The magician who performed at our table performed the color-changing knives with the smash finish with all the little knives. It changed my life. I’ll never forget it. I was nine or ten.
My sister fluked into a job at Izzy Rizzy’s House of Tricks, one of Chicago’s neighborhood magic/novelty/ costume shops. She quickly became manager. I hired on to do odd jobs on Saturdays. I always say it was for $1.50 an hour, but to be honest I don’t remember the wage.
Soon after that, I put together an act. It was kids’ birthday parties at $50 a half-hour for me. By the time I was thirteen, John Measner and a girl named Alice (Forgot her last name years ago) started to train me to do sales. In the decade I spent at Izzy’s, I became a top salesman and learned the right (I hope) kind of work ethic. I am also unusual in that I never really did magic as a hobby. It was always a job. John, by the way, is a outstanding family show magician here in Chicago.
There were 3 Bit O’ Magics. I worked the third. It was one of the most creative times in my life. It was my first restaurant gig. You worked the floor with two other magicians and performed at perhaps 30 to 40 tables a night. I got good fast and worked out many new effects. From when I started the night to the end of the night, a new trick would never look the same. My audiences help me re-create it. The other thing that is quite odd in my development is that I usually worked with two veteran magicians, so I never wanted to do the same tricks they did. At the time I should have, I never developed a chop cup routine, sponge ball routine, etc. My magic was different. I was also named one of the top teen stand-up comics in Chicago. One of my few forays into performing without magic.
Bill Weimer was one of those veteran magicians. He was my mentor and friend. He started by taking me under his wing and now he is more like family. He is a wonderful magician and a terrific comic, who has a real sense as to what works for an audience. He taught me a lot. Glenn Bishop was another and, despite the nasty things recently said about him, I always remember him as a good close-up magician who was kind to an 18-year-old kid just starting out. The third magician I worked with that moved me was Terry Veckey. Terry is simply one of the finest magicians you will ever see. The best blend of skill and humor. He will fool you and you will love it.
During my time at Bit O’, I was still at Izzy’s and I took the Chavez Course with Neil Foster. I was lucky to have Neil as my teacher, unlucky in that he died near the end of the course. (I don’t think there is a connection.) As it happened, he left an able assistant to take his place, the very talented Chris Jakway.
I performed my Chavez act as no one had ever before; I was a drunken tramp magician. No clone was I. This won 1st place awards at the Abbott’s Magic Convention and the Houdini Convention. The year after I won Abbott’s, they had me back to open for Harry Blackstone Jr. on Wednesday night.
Soon after, I began to get burned out and walked away from magic. I worked odd jobs, mostly retail. Until, I stumbled into the gambling industry. Rockford Casino Players was once the highest grossing charitable games company in Illinois. I dealt blackjack and poker for them for just over a year. My skill as a magician came into play as I learned that this was not just an ordinary casino night business. They were outfit. The pit boss Ken Oddo and I became friends and he taught me how to skew the game odds to our favor. I showed him how I could combine that information with sleight of hand. I became the stopper, if a table was losing money; I fixed it with a combination of speed and guile. There is a book in there somewhere. After about a year, I got out. Just in time, because a few months later Rockford Casino was raided by the State Police and the bosses were indicted. Two of them escaped to Canada and are still at large.
I moved to the other side of the law or so I thought. Hollywood Casino opened in Aurora, IL and I became a surveillance agent. Eye in the sky. They would not let me deal; they feared my magic background. But I was a natural for surveillance. Two years I spent training the other staff and stopping practically every card counter and dice cheat that hit our joint. Not that I have anything personal against card counters, I’ve made much money off it myself, but it was my job. After two years, some personal issues with other department members boiled over and I was forced to leave. I miss it. I really did enjoy doing the job.
Soon after I left the casino, Magic Masters called. I was back. I am now starting my 11th year with the company.
During that time, I also worked the tables part-time at the world famous for its magic, Schulien’s Restaurant. This was the best performing situation I have ever been in. The great thing is that they were great audiences, every one of them. I still worked under more veteran magicians. I still developed magic different from everyone else there. When I started, I carried a lot of shit with me, but as time progressed (and I matured), I want to minimalize and create more powerful sets. Just a deck or two of cards and a few coins, that is all in took to work the tables.
Schulien’s closed. With the new owners it never seemed right, so that was the last restaurant performing I've done.
What next? I mounted my own show, Familiar Spirits, a theatrical séance. I first experienced Eugene Burger’s style of magic at a lecture at Bishop’s Magic Shop. It was 1986 and he lectured in support of his book, Spirit Theater. Gene is one of my favorite people in magic. Spirit Theater has meant more to me than practically any other magic book I own. It inspires me always. My show did all right and at the time I was the only guy doing séances in Chicago, now, there are more than a few.
Still at Magic Masters making a living. The store did open a couple of doors for me. I taught director Harold Ramis magic. I have consulted on several plays and movies including teaching Wil Smith magic for the film Ali.
Now, I direct most of my attention to the history of magic. If you read my Magic Magazine article, you know I’ve been busy. Hundreds of thousands of 19th century newspapers have passed before my eyes, while I picked out everything there was to find about magic. I spoke at the LA Conference on Magic History. (I am told it was well received. I was too scared to remember anything.) I wrote two books on Chicago magic history and have more coming. I will be writing about the books and posting excerpts from Jamy Ian Swiss’ kind reviews (Genii, May 2006) in future posts.
Last week, I started a blog. I want to write and that is what I am going to do. If I can’t sell it I publish it here. If I can sell it, I’ll let you know where you can find it.
That is really just a thumbnail sketch about my life and my magic.