Until I found a comb-bound catalog of “Tricks gathered from the four corners of the World” in a second-hand store in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 2014, I didn’t have much clue about the history of Chicago magic—much less know that the city had pioneered its own style. Printed in 1940 by the National Magic Company (once located downtown in the Palmer House), the tattered volume features whimsical, colorful illustrations of vintage tricks on its cover (a rabbit out of a box, Chinese linking rings, et cetera). Inside is a veritable bounty of paraphernalia to order: the Famous Egg Bag would run you $1.60 postpaid, while for a reasonable $7.25 you could buy the Perfection Dove Pan. Once in possession of the latter, you’d learn that crumpling up some tissue paper and igniting it would—voila!—produce “a live rabbit, some doves, a guinea pig, or whatever animal you wish to introduce.” Pretty snazzy. The catalog devotes eight pages solely to cigarette tricks.
My interest piqued, I did some cursory digging and discovered that in the 1940s, Chicago had five magic shops in the Loop. The one still standing, Magic, Inc. (founded in 1926 and formerly known as the Ireland Magic Company), has since moved to 1833 W. Lawrence, roughly a mile from Uptown Underground—a lounge space that calls itself a “speakeasy cabaret” and hosts a show that’s reintroducing Chicago to the close-up, tableside style of magic the city popularized way back when the National Magic Company was in its prime. Uptown Underground claims to specialize in “retrotainment,” but despite that horrifying portmanteau, the Chicago Magic Lounge is legit. Spearheaded by actor and improv comedian Joey Cranford, it takes inspiration from the attractions at the historic restaurants and bars that prospered alongside the city’s trick shops in the 40s—especially the New York Lounge, Little Bit O’ Magic, and Schulien’s.
Close-up or tableside magic is exactly what the term suggests. Magicians work the crowd from the floor, moving from table to table to perform their tricks as opposed to sweating alone beneath a spotlight onstage. With the Chicago Magic Lounge, Cranford also incorporates stage magic and bar magic—the venerable Bob Schulien, great-grandson to magic innovator Matt Schulien, was bartending when I visited last year—to give patrons a dizzying variety of choices. You’re invited to let the magicians wandering the floor greet you with an illusion at your table, and the host might encourage you to approach the bar for some card-trick sleight of hand—all between sets by the main-stage headliner. It’s a lot of tuxedo vests and bow ties for one room, but as Cranford explains, he hopes to create the same type of clubhouse atmosphere for magicians that he experienced as a student at iO Chicago. Those old watering holes—most of which had dried up by the 90s—let magicians gather to share anecdotes about tricks, much the same way comedians work material with other comics.