Friday, December 13, 2013

Review of Chicago Magic by David Witter

Review of Chicago Magic by David Witter

Magic has been my life. A big part of that magic life has been a devotion to the history of the art, specifically in Chicago. It makes reading the newly published book, Chicago Magic, by David Witter all the more distressing.

The book is riddled with historical errors and out right fabrications. The body of the book is 112 pages of long from the Introduction to the end of the story and I have 10 pages of notes correcting the lack of care Mr. Witter put into his book.

There are more mistakes than I want to recount here, so I will give you an example of a single chapter.

Chapter 8 – Schulien’s

(Note: There is really only one source needed in writing a story on the Schulien Restaurant: The Magic of Matt Schulien by Phil Willmarth, first published in 1959 by Ireland Magic CO. (Magic, Inc.), a book not in the thin bibliography supplied by Mr. Witter.)

 P 61-The chapter starts with a dramatization of Charlie Schulien performing Matt’s Card on the Wall, except Charlie never performed the trick.  None of Matt’s children did Matt’s trademark trick. It was “dad’s trick.”  (Page 142, The Magic of Matt Schulien)

P 62- Throughout the book Witter misspells and, flat out, misnames many performers. He repeatedly calls Don Alan, Don Allen, especially egregious because Don is one of the most important and influential magicians to come out of Chicago.  In Chicago Magic he is mentioned several times, but as no more than a bystander to the magic world. Second, He misnames beloved magician Jimmy Krzak as Mike Krzak. It is just sloppy work.

P 63- On this page there is a lovely picture of Matt Schulien, Jay Marshall, and an unidentified magician at the door of Schulien’s. Except, it is really a picture of Charlie Schulien, Jay Marshall, and Phil Willmarth at that door. The photo matches others used in The Magic of Matt Schulien.

P 64- Witter states that Joseph Schulien bought the saloon Quincy No 9 for the Schlitz Brewing Company. Actually, this was one of many bars Joe bought for himself. He made a business of buying or opening saloons , building up the business, and then selling it off.   He finally settled at 1800 N Halsted creating the first Schulien’s.

He also says that in 1948, Matt moved north to 2100 W Irving Park. It was 1949. He also writes that at Irving Park they started serving food. Wrong again. The “1800” was also a restaurant.

In the same paragraph he misspells the name of the restaurant currently in the Irving Park space as O’Donavan’s (Actual spelling: O’Donovan’s) and he misspells the name of the restaurant across the street, Lashet’s (Actually: Laschet’s). He’ll go on to misspell it later in the chapter, also.
Continuing on page 64 Witter quotes magician Al James on the birth of magic at Schulien’s. He says that Harry Blackstone Sr. performing magic tableside in the restaurant inspired Matt. The story is false. It does not appear in The Magic of Matt Schulien. In the foreword by Harry Blackstone Sr., it is not mentioned. In the wonderful essay, recounting the history of Schulien’s, Not the Best, but the Biggest by Frances Marshall does not include the story. In Matt’s own words, describing how he got into magic, the Blackstone story is nowhere to be found.

P 65- Witter writes that Matt Schulien died in a plane crash in 1959. This is the sloppiest of research. Matt Schulien died in 1967. Matt’s Son, Matt Schulien Jr., died in that plane crash. How you could get that wrong is beyond any reasonable thought. I am left scratching my head.

P 66- Witter now recounts the story of Al James performing the Houdini Milk Can Escape as a publicity stunt at the restaurant. As background, Witter writes about Houdini and the escape.

Excusable is the fact they get Houdini’s birthday wrong, April 6 was believed to be Houdini’s birthday, but more than 20 years ago it was shown to be March 24. If only Mr. Witter had some source, like a book about Houdini where he could confirm the date. Oh wait, he has three listed in the bibliography. Or maybe if he had some convenient way to search the internet to quickly find a source talking about Houdini. Oh wait, he could have googled Houdini and found his Wikipedia page. Wikipedia being a source listed in the book’s bibliography.

He also gets the details of escape wrong as performed by Houdini. If he would have actually read the Houdini books in his bibliography he would have learned that the Milk Can was invented by Montreville Wood from Berwyn IL and the original can was built in Chicago. Not invented by Houdini.

They did not fill the can with water while Houdini was in the can. It was filled before.

Houdini did not let spectators get into the can.

Houdini’s assistant Franz Kukol did not stand by the can with an axe asking the audience if they thought it was time to “hack.”

P 68- Here we go again. For a guy who purports to know Chicago history, why can’t you spell White Sox broadcaster Harry Caray’s name correctly? (Harry Carey)

 First, he writes that Schulien’s moved in 1948, now he writes it moved in 1947. He has two tries at the date and both are wrong.

He implies that Ed Schulien (Matt’s sons, Charlie and Ed, ran the business after Matt retired in 1952.) dropped out of the business and then Charlie sold out in 1999. In reality, Ed left the business in 1974.

And that ends the chapter.

Surprisingly, Witter misses the most important part of Schulien’s legacy. There is an acknowledged Chicago Style of Magic. Matt Schulien developed this style at Schulien’s. It is never mentioned. In a Chicago magic history book. Not once.

Virtually, every chapter that has anything to do with history has similar problems.

Witter also makes two confounding choices to end the book. The second to last chapter is a list of songs with a magic theme. The last chapter is a list of celebrities that do/did magic. Neither of these chapters has Chicago connections, so why are they in a book about Chicago Magic. It is the laziest kind of filler.

Finally, the book is poorly written. Especially shocking because the biography of Mr. Witter tells us that he is an English teacher.  However, as you’ve already seen, being devoid of any editorial process is the least of the book’s problems.

If you like your history fabricated then you’ll love this book , but if you want your history to be…true, then move along there is nothing to see here. Just a train wreck.

One of the worst history books I’ve ever read.


ChgoMagic said...

I also can report that one of the magicians featured in the book stopped reading after Mr. Witter started putting quotation marks around words that he never said.

deadbeatskeptic said...

I came across this book in my search for sources. I am writing a historical paper on the history of magic in Chicago that I plan to present at the Undergraduate research forum. This book is all I can find of a compilation of Chicago magicians-- if nothing else, than as name dropping source. Can you guys recommend some better sources? Right now all I can find is newspaper articles.

ChgoMagic said...

Unfortunately, deadbeatskeptic, the story of Chicago magic is mostly oral. I've been working on it for many years, but nothing comprehensive. There will be a new book on the magic bars in the 1970s/80s by Bill Weimer. (Now You See Them, Now You Don't)Magic,Inc have several books that will help a little like the Frances Marshall Bio and a book titled Magic Ink. Any way I can help please see me at