Harry Houdini is sitting cross-legged playing a flute at the entrance to the Tunisian Village at Chicago's 1893 World's Fair. With his curly hair, it takes just a little dark makeup and a white, robelike wrap to transform the 19-year-old, who was born to Jewish parents in Budapest, into a Hindu fakir attracting visitors to the exhibit. When he's not performing in costume, Houdini wanders the Midway Plaisance, swallowing and regurgitating sewing thread and needles to amazed audiences for tips. On the same stretch, Howard Thurston, wearing a suit and hat, is standing in front of the re-creation of a West African village. The 24-year-old calls out to passersby, promising that for a small fee they can see "savage" African dancers in jungle garb. When not shilling for the sideshow, Thurston too has a side hustle, including a card trick in which he changes suits with a wave of his hand.
As the story goes, the budding illusionists chance upon each other somewhere on the midway and compare cards, shells, and handkerchiefs. Less than 20 years later, the once-impoverished young men would be the rival top magicians in the world, staging lavish touring productions in front of sold-out crowds.
The serendipitous meeting of Houdini and Thurston at the World's Columbian Exposition signaled the dawn of a luminous era of magic in Chicago. The period from 1890 to 1929 was the so-called golden age of magic in America, when Houdini, Thurston, Chicago native Harry Blackstone Sr., and others drew crowds to vaudeville houses and major theaters, and mounted enormous tent shows on tours across the country and around the world.
In 1898, a still-unknown Houdini executed an elaborate stunt that helped him begin building his legend: placed in shackles and leg irons and locked in a jail cell in the South Loop Levee District, he miraculously managed to free himself in what was the first of a series of prison breaks. This was also a popular period for seances, which Houdini reviled after he tried unsuccessfully to contact his recently deceased mother through a medium. The incident gave rise to the magician's crusade to expose so-called spiritualists as frauds, which included making raids on the sites where they practiced. While in Chicago for a performance in March 1926, Houdini targeted spiritualist Minnie Reichert. He and his team reportedly brought along a photographer from the Chicago American, which ran a front-page story the next day headlined "Photo Proves Houdini Charge of Seance Fakes."
If Houdini and Thurston were the Beatles and Rolling Stones of the era, Blackstone could be compared to Led Zeppelin or the Who. Born Harry Bouton in Chicago in 1885, Blackstone by all accounts took his stage name from the Blackstone Hotel in the South Loop. A tall man with a wild shock of brown hair, he resembled an ostrich, and his magic was equally unusual. His repertoire included a vanishing horse, a dancing handkerchief, and a lightbulb that floated out into the audience.
In a bid to outdo Houdini, Blackstone added elements of suspense and danger to his shows, including the famous lady-in-the-box trick. "While most magicians used a handsaw, which could easily be manipulated, Blackstone used an electric buzz saw," Jeff Taylor, director of the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan, told me. "This was not only faster, more dangerous and unpredictable, but it made that high-pitched buzzing noise, which only added to the overall drama on stage."
The death of Houdini on Halloween in 1926, the introduction of talking films in 1927, and the Great Depression largely put an end to the grand magic tours of this golden age. But after World War II, the nation's economy boomed, and Chicago boasted a population flush with disposable income and seeking amusement. As Broadway and national radio production were to New York City and Hollywood film production and movie stars were to Los Angeles, magicians and magic clubs helped fill out Chicago's entertainment industry. Much of the localized boom time of the 1950s and '60s featured "close-up magic," a style pioneered in Chicago that eschewed the large props and machinery of the magic caravans in favor of smaller illusions such as levitating cards, disappearing objects, and doves emerging from handkerchiefs. All the acts could be easily performed at a table or before an intimate crowd in a nightclub.
During this time magicians like Bert Allerton, Clark "the Senator" Crandall, Jack Kodell, Celeste Evans, and many others filled clubs like the Empire Room in the Palmer House Hotel and the Pump Room in the Gold Coast. The Loop was also crowded with magic shops selling items from wands and card decks to prepackaged tricks.
"When I was boy I would take the train from Logan Square, and at Randolph and Dearborn were three magic stores—Ireland's, Joe Berg, and Abbott's," Eugene Burger, an accomplished magician and elder statesman of Chicago magic, once told me. "You also had National Magic Company, which was at the mezzanine of the Palmer House. . . . One other place was the Treasure Chest, located near Randolph and Dearborn. The shop had big windows and attracted a lot of tourists."
In midcentury Chicago, magic also flourished on the north side. The seminal store Magic Inc. moved in the early 1960s from downtown to its longtime location in Lincoln Square. During the day, the shop's late co-owner Jay Marshall, dean of the Society of American Magicians, held court with his wife, Frances Ireland, who established "Magigals," an organization for female magicians with Houdini's widow, Bess. As the sun went down, the dinnertime crowd moved to Schulien's (now O'Donovan's) in North Center, where owner Matt Schulien amazed customers with his trademark trick: a customer picked a card that Schulien reinserted back into the deck, which he then threw against the wall, the customer's card astoundingly remaining stuck while the rest cascaded to the floor.
As the night grew darker and the neon flashed brighter, the crowd would migrate to the New York Lounge, which was located on Lincoln between Carmen and Winnemac Avenues. "When it was really late at night," Burger has said, "the place you took your girlfriend to at 2 AM and didn't leave until four in the morning was the New York Lounge."
It was here that Al Andrucci, known by the stage name Heba Haba Al and legendary for his risque humor, held court. In his most famous gag, he'd draw a chosen audience member's initials on an ice cube with a pencil, drop the ice cube in a glass, and tell the person to palm the opening of the glass. Once the ice had melted, the initials would appear on the person's palm.
—Neil Tobin, magician and necromancer
Perhaps the most famous magician of this era was Marshall Brodien. A Chicago native, Brodien got his start as a barker for the freak show at Riverview Amusement Park. But he became a national celebrity during his 20-year stint as Wizzo the Wizard on Bozo's Circus and as the inventor of TV Magic Cards, which helped bring magic into the homes of baby boomers.
During the 70s, the counterculture took hold of magic, once again in Chicago. "In the 1970s there was a backlash, as for many magic had become a man in a tuxedo, a series of jokes, a trick or two, kind of like a caricature from the movie The Incredible Burt Wonderstone," says Neil Tobin, the local magician and necromancer.
Enter Tony Andruzzi, one of the pioneers of a style known as bizarre magic. Along with his wife, Gloria Jacobson (who performed as Vampira), Burger, and others, Andruzzi began incorporating spiritualism, mystery, stage props like candles and skulls, and eerie music into his act in the early 70s. Andruzzi's repertoire included plunging a needle through his hand without drawing blood, turning a skeleton key without touching it, and making a rock move as if it were breathing.
While the illusions seen on Chicago's stages today may not be quite as strange as those in Andruzzi's era, a new generation seems to be falling under the spell of live magic as it becomes a more viable part of the city's nightlife culture. In the House Theatre's Death and Harry Houdini—which just finished its fifth run this summer—audiences gasped as the incomparable Dennis Watkins hung upside down, handcuffed, chained, and shackled in a tankful of water as he re--created Houdini's Chinese Water Torture Cell, perhaps the magician's most famous escape. The Chicago Magic Lounge, which opened in Uptown in early 2015, is playing a key role in reintroducing the city to its storied tradition of magic bars with a combination of close-up performers and classic cocktails in a cabaret atmosphere. "Magic is not just for kids," Magic Lounge cofounder Joey Cranford says. "Magic and especially tableside magic, which was born in Chicago, is something you can see with your very eyes. Seeing one hour of magic up close is something that's unlike anything else in entertainment."
After more than 50 years in Lincoln Square, Magic Inc. is experiencing a reawakening at its new location on Lawrence Avenue in Ravenswood; its onsite venue, the Jasper Theater, is the scene of shows and lectures by various hypnotists, mind benders, and conjurers. The shop's staff have been around long enough to see the changes, and they're witnessing a new crop of magic fans entering the store.
"There has been a resurgence," says Jay Collen, a magician who's been a staff demonstrator at Magic Inc. for 12 years. "Just as television shows with David Copperfield or Penn & Teller brought in the last generation, for this new generation of fans YouTube and the Internet have been a great tool to generate interest. But once your imagination has been stirred by what you see on the screen, it's only natural that you would want to see the real thing live. In this way magic is like a phoenix. Every time you think it's dead, magic itself becomes magically reborn." v
David Witter is the author of Chicago Magic: A History of Stagecraft and Spectacle (The History Press, 2013).