CHICAGO MAGIC LOUNGE

ABC's Windy City Live (02/21/2018) featured
 the opening of the Chicago Magic Lounge 2.0.
Bill's article on the Chicago Magic Lounge 1.0 in GENII magazine September 2017 issue (text below)...

Close-Up Magic Reappears in the Windy City

By Bill Weimer

 

        The Chicago Magic Lounge, the theatrical experience currently wowing Chicago audiences, traces its origin way back to 1886 when Joseph Schulien, who drove a beer wagon for Schlitz, purchased The Quincy No.9 to prevent the pub from being bought by a rival brewer.

        This was the age of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago which introduced 1893 audiences to the Ferris Wheel and an unknown magician named Harry Houdini.

By the 1920s and 30s, many magicians found work in the city’s nightspots, while the grand theaters of Chicago were hosts to large illusion shows by Houdini, Howard Thurston, and Harry Blackstone. 

        Blackstone frequented the Schulien restaurant, which by now had moved to 1800 North Halsted Street with a sign outside that read “Schulien’s.” Joe’s son Matt developed an interest in magic from Blackstone and was soon performing card tricks for the patrons of the family saloon. But Matt Schulien was a people person and, instead of working off a small rolling table as was the custom of magicians at the time, he sat at the tables with customers. Matt’s great sense of humor, amazing card tricks, and bits of business, like goldfish swallowing, made his shows fun, informal, and intimate. Chicago-style magic was born. 

        Magic bartenders started popping up: Lee LeRoi worked at the Ivanhoe, later to be replaced by Frank Everhart. Johnny Paul entertained the crowds at the Gay Nineties Room in the LaSalle Hotel.

        In 1945, when “Heba Haba Al” Andrucci filled in two weeks for owner Jack Murray at Johnny’s New Yorker, his card tricks and a miracle called the Sugar Cube Trick gave birth to Chicago’s most famous magic bar, years later relocated and renamed The New York Lounge.

        In the 50s and 60s, Johnny’s New York alumni, such as Don Alan, Jim Ryan, and Senator Crandall branched out throughout the Chicago area with their own magic bars. Other places like The Pickle Barrel and Mr. C’s Magic Lounge appeared.

        In 1977, the second generation Chicago magic bars started to appear with the opening of Little Bit O’ Magic. Izzy Rizzy’s House of Tricks owner Mike Rzeminski and friend Bill Stecich converted Mike’s parents’ restaurant into Little Bit O’ Magic, a new nightclub where South Siders could have a sandwich or dinner and see close-up magic and stage shows with magicians, mentalists, and hypnotists. Little Bit O’ Magic’s success led to two sequel restaurants and Houdini’s Pub and Pizza Magic, the eventual home of Bill Malone in his Chicago days.

        But as the years rolled on, the magic bars closed one by one. By the late 1990s, the lone holdout was Schulien’s Restaurant, the place that started it all. That, too, disappeared in 1999 when the family sold the restaurant after owner Charlie Schulien (Matt’s son) passed away.

        The magic bars had already disappeared from the Chicago night life. Magicians still worked, but now they were extensions of existing bars, clubs, and restaurants. Mostly, the public’s initial contact with magicians came by accident.

        In 2014, comic/improv performer/actor Joey Cranford approached the management of a new theater about hosting a weekly magic show. Cranford, who directed sleight of hand artist Luis Carreon’s magic show, loves magic and wanted to do another magic production. He and the management of the Uptown Underground Theater soon struck a deal for a magic night on Thursdays.

        Shortly after that, Cranford picked up the book Now You See Them, Now You Don’t—My Life in the Magic Bars of Chicago. He became enthralled with the Chicago magic bars and their history. The book ends with, “Down the road, someone will come up with a new magic bar that will be fresh and exciting to younger audiences, while bringing back older Chicagoans who remember a time when ‘it was fun to be fooled’.”

        Cranford read it and thought why not? There were too many talented people in the city to not make the attempt. His project took a different turn, with an emphasis on the Chicago magic bars. He soon put together a small group of magicians to work with him. The project became the Chicago Magic Lounge.

        “The Chicago Magic Lounge brings back a style of magic unique to the Windy City, which once hosted over 15 bars, restaurants, and lounges all dedicated to what would become known as Chicago-style magic,” said Cranford.

        The night’s activities start with close-up magic as several magicians dressed in white shirt and black pants, vest, and tie, in the tradition of Schulien’s and the New York Lounge, stroll the audience and perform Chicago-style magic, reminiscent of LBOM and Schulien’s. Bob Schulien (Matt’s grandson) is a frequent worker, performing the famous Schulien tricks to a whole new generation.

        Following the close-up are two stage acts, a nod to Little Bit O’ Magic. During the break between the two, audience members are invited to move to the bar area to experience Bar Magic in the style of New York Lounge or remain in their seats to be further awed by the close-up magicians.

John Sturk, a founding member of the Chicago Magic Lounge, provides music for stage shows by playing the opening and closing themes on the theater’s grand piano. When he’s not performing on stage, Sturk also tinkles on the piano throughout the stage acts, accenting magical and comical moments.

        Cranford, the show’s producer, acts as the night’s host and as emcee to the stage entertainment. He warms up the audience with his humorous telling of the history of magic in Chicago and why the Chicago Magic Lounge exists.

Around 10 o’clock, the theatrical part of the Chicago Magic Lounge ends, but the fun continues. On Thursdays, Deven Brown performs behind the bar, entertaining night owls with his magic, jokes, and bar stunts.

        Since its opening in March 2015, the Chicago Magic Lounge has been a stunning success. People love the show, especially the close-up magic; for many, it’s the first time they’ve experienced it. The Lounge is a popular tourist attraction, with rave reviews on the Trip Advisor, Yelp, and Gold Star websites. Local news programs have done remotes from the theater and The Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern visited the Chicago Magic Lounge to tape a feature for his Driven by Food program.

        The small group of magicians has grown into a pool of 30 local magicians, which include Chicago magicians Jeff Bibik, Mark Toland, Trent James, Bill Cook, Luis Carreon, and Justin Purcell. Many guest stars such as John Carney, Kayla Drescher, Jon Armstrong, Eric Jones, and Peter Samelson have also appeared on the Chicago Magic Lounge stage. The cast is a veritable “who’s who” of the Chicago Magic Scene.

        The Chicago Magic Lounge has since added a second night: Saturday. The regular late-night Cabaret Show at the Underground puts a time restriction on the magic, so Saturday’s Chicago Magic Lounge schedule eliminates the Bar Magic. After the headliner, those lucky to have purchased premium seats can head to another room for the Close-up Gallery, a formal close-up show with tiered seating similar to The Magic Castle. Recent performers have been Ryan Plunkett, Lee Benzaquin, and Chicago legend Eugene Burger.

        The Chicago Magic Lounge has another purpose for Cranford. “I was a road comic for many years and, when I was home, I would often go to an improv theater called Improv Olympic (now I.O.). There were always improvisers from this, and other theaters in town, hanging around the bar swapping stories, and sharing bits. We had a sense of community, instead of competition.

        “I wanted to build a community for magicians. Magicians can go to magic club meetings and hang out at magic shops, but the Chicago Magic Lounge offers a nightlife spot for magicians, not only for work, but where they stay in contact, share some laughs, and grow as performers from seeing each other work.”

        To meet that end, Membership Passes are available; members may visit the Chicago Magic Lounge any time they wish.

        And now for the future …

        On June 7, 2017, the Chicago Magic Lounge broke ground for its new full-time home, offering more nights for it to showcase its particular brand of magic and fun to Chicago audiences. The multi-million-dollar renovation will be an art deco-style magic lounge featuring secret entrances, a performance bar, and an approximately 100-seat cabaret theater with a mezzanine overlooking both the stage as well as the bar underneath it. The Close-Up Gallery will transform into a separate, exclusive performance room renamed the “654 Club.”

        Owners Cranford and Donald Clark, Jr. expect The Chicago Magic Lounge to open its luxurious new entertainment center in early 2018.• 

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        Bill Weimer is a founding member of the CML, a veteran of seven of the historic Chicago magic bars, and the author of the book Now You See Them, Now You Don’t—My Life in the Magic Bars of Chicago.


Copyright (c)2017 Genii Magazine, Edition 9/1/2017

Watch Bill perform at Chicago Magic Lounge 1.0

on Andrew Zimmern's Driven by Food

(The Travel Channel).

© BILL WEIMER