Monday, September 08, 2008

Chicago Magic & The Magic Cabaret

My friends, David Parr and PT Murphy have returned with their show the Magic Cabaret. I thought that they put on a terrific show in its last incarnation and I expect nothing less for this new show. I wrote a piece on Chicago’s role in the magic world for the show program. This is a slightly longer version of what will appear there.

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.

Harry Bouton was a struggling unknown until he borrowed the name of a south-loop hotel and became famous as Harry Blackstone.

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.

September 18 - October 18Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm
The Greenhouse Theater Center2257 North Lincoln Avenue
Tickets $25. No one under age 13 admitted.Go to or call (773) 404-7336


Gordon said...

Terrific, Bill, just great.

mai-ling said...

you failed to mention halten-jansen,
the round table, ed & mae miller or the polish prince.

ChgoMagic said...

Dante is in the piece for The Magic Cabaret but sometimes you have to make editorial choices. I didn't mention Roterberg, Hartz, Heller, Andruzzi, Allerton, Alan and many others.

mai-ling said...

The only other correction I would
suggest is the re-wording of
Jay and his wife Frances’ shop, Magic, Incorporated


Jay and his wife Frances transformed Ireland Magic into Magic, Incorporated when they married. Becoming the epicenter of magic where professionals and hobbyist would spend time gathering for hours.

mai-ling said...

another thing i notice while re-reading your piece.

It is an assumption that Papa Blackstone took his name from the
hotel. There are many stories
of where he took it from.

Talking to one of his nephews there are several stories. That
the story about the hotel
is not true.

I asked my father also about this
and he said at the time, Harry wanted to change his name to Herr
Bismark. With war breaking out with Germany, a lawyer suggested that he should take the name Blackstone.

During that time, the Saturday Evening Post voted him as the #1 magician.

x-posted at the magic cafe.

ChgoMagic said...

From Milbourne Christopher’s Illustrated History Of Magic, “Depending on his mood, Harry afterward explained his choice in several ways…more often, he admitted that on day on Michigan Boulevard in Chicago the sign of the famous hotel caught his eye.”

When fact becomes legend, print the legend.

mai-ling said...

Well then, if that is the case with going with legend over fact...
then who knows with Blackstone, it could have been the last name of some local girl he was chasing at the time.

ChgoMagic said...

The point is we don't have fact. We have several unconfirmed stories, one of which Harry told the most. I'll go with his own words.

mai-ling said...

Then it is better to tell all unconfirmed stories not just one, because they all came from Harry's mouth.

ChgoMagic said...

If I were writing about Blackstone that may be true, but that is not the point of my essay.

The overwhelming preponderance of articles and clippings I’ve collected give the hotel as the inspiration.

Your story has one major hole. If he got the name from his lawyer, where did his lawyer get it? Am I to believe that his lawyer just pulled it out of his ass? No, so now we have a coin flip, Blackstone Hotel or Blackstone Cigars. Since Hotel has been repeated by Harry more often than any other story, my coin flip goes to the hotel.

It seems like the story Harry wanted on record, why should we argue?

Stinky McGee said...

The suggested "correction" or "re-wording" includes a sentence fragment and a typo. Such is the nature of advice on the Internet.

mai-ling said...

a short or long essay about chicago is not an easty task to do. it needs to be taken seriously in all points of view.

it is not a coin toss. if family members have said the hotel story is not actual then it is not.

have you ever thought that harry told that story because it sounded good and impressive when the papers wrote about it, and when people read about it in the programme? or even when he told people in general?

it is the responsibility of the writer to include everything that is heard, or else the stories that have told for generation after generation will be much harder to undo.

ChgoMagic said...

1) It not the responsibility of a writer to give equal weight to all stories. It is the responsibility of the writer to interpet facts and develop conclusions, and tell the story to tell.

2) You make the fallicious assumption that Harry is the only liar and that all other source aren't lying or been lied to.

ChgoMagic said...

I also forgot to mention that I am done with this argument because all it will do is continue to go around in circles and circles.

If nothing new can be added to the actual subject it is just a waste of time.

I prefer to move on to other things.