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Disappearing ActJanuary 19, 2012
Kevin Pang, Chicago Tribune, January 19, 2012
Halfway through the soothing sways of "Edelweiss" at the Chicago Brauhaus, a gentleman dropped a tent card between the knackwurst and Wiener schnitzel on our table.
The man placed cards on every table without a word, not wanting to intrude. His nametag read "Al James, Magician." He wore a tie design only a lifer in the entertainer industry would ever wear in public: patriotic playing cards. "We proudly present the humorous and mystifying magic act of Al James performed right at your table," read the tent card. "If you would enjoy seeing this 10-minute performance, have your server call Al to your table."
I spied James standing in the back, waiting to be summoned for entertainment. In the interim, he twisted balloon animals as giveaways for children.
This struck me as a bit depressing, not so much the sight of a grown man crafting a balloon giraffe, but that James is among the last of a near-extinct breed. Half a century ago, sometime between vaudeville and improv, Chicago was the center of an entertainment movement: magic performed at bars and restaurants.
The names may be unfamiliar today -- Matt Schulien, "Heba Haba" Al Andrucci, Lee LeRoi, Frank Everhart, Bert Allerton -- but 50 years ago, they were marquee Chicago brands who starred at their own venues. During the scene's heyday, a dozen restaurants and bars in Chicago were devoted to live magic.
Now there are none. Al James might be the last link to this bygone world. Among the small, insular circle of Chicago magicians, he's something of a legend on longevity alone. In this, his 41st year of performing restaurant magic, James still discovers lost playing cards five nights a week, working a different venue each night from Lake Zurich to Palos Park.
I asked the waitress to bring over the magician.
19th century roots
Chicago's once-shining restaurant magic scene began in 1881 at a tavern at LaSalle and Randolph streets. Joseph Schulien, a barrel driver for Schlitz Brewing Co., purchased the space and named it Quincy No. 9. Eventually it would move four miles north to 1800 N. Halsted St., where it was renamed The 1800 Club. Regulars knew it as Schulien's.
It was 1910, and vaudeville was the rage in Chicago -- more than 60 cabarets in downtown alone, according to performer Lee Levin (now a news director for WLS-Ch. 7). Schulien's was a favorite hangout for vaudeville performers, who would come to imbibe and demonstrate card tricks for Matt Schulien, one of Joseph's sons. Matt Schulien was enthralled by this and, soon, was hobnobbing with superstar magicians Harry Blackstone and Harry Houdini.
At first, Joseph didn't care for his son's newfound hobby, but he soon saw the business potential. They made a deal: Matt would perform magic to bring in crowds; Joseph would sell them drinks.
At the time, most magicians performed on a stage, which presented a literal and figurative distance between audience and performer. Matt Schulien, 320 pounds and with a booming radio voice, made performances intimate by gathering spectators around his table. He was an exemplar of the close-up magician, bringing the stage to the spectators. Because his magic competed against food and alcohol, Schulien held spectators' attention with rapid-fire tricks -- usually card tricks not more than 30 seconds long -- interlaced with one-liners. One of his favorite gags was pretending to eat a live goldfish (Schulien used a slice of raw carrot).
"This was sophisticated card magic, not just what your uncle does," said Eugene Burger, a Chicago magician who wrote a book on Matt Schulien's magic. "Most bar magic tends to be fast, with lots of laughter. The key was to keep things moving along. Pick a card, sign it -- bang -- it appears folded up in a matchbox."
Schulien's closing trick was the stuff of legend. A playing card was selected, signed and lost in the deck. Schulien would place a thumbtack in the middle of the pack and heave the entire deck at the wall. All the cards cascaded to the floor, except one: the once-lost, signed selection would be tacked to the wall. More than any other trick, it personified Schulien's outsize personality: loud, flashy and commanding.
In 1949, the bar moved to 2100 W. Irving Park Road and became a full-service German restaurant. Schulien went into semiretirement, but his reputation for performing magic lived on in a band of rotating performers. You could enjoy dinner (roast prime rib and baked Thuringer sausages were Schulien's specialties) and have magicians perform a private show at your table.
This culture of magic as dinner theater pervaded Chicago, from restaurant-bars such as Johnny Paul's Magic Lounge in Cicero, the Ivanhoe Theater in Lakeview to the Pickle Barrel in Rogers Park. Yet Schulien's remained the standard bearer.
Al James never saw Matt Schulien perform (Schulien died in 1967). At the time, James was a coffee maker salesman in Cleveland. James' sales job was transferred to Chicago in 1969. When he was laid off two years later, he figured he would turn his magic hobby into a full-time endeavor.
James' first gig happened by accident. Al Andrucci, who went by the stage name Heba Haba Al, was working at the Pickle Barrel when he slipped on a pat of butter and injured his shoulder. James stepped in. He parlayed that experience into residencies at the New York Lounge, the Ivanhoe Theater and, for 21 years, at Schulien's five nights a week.
On Jan. 27, 1999, magicians performed at Schulien's for the last time. After 118 years of family ownership, the restaurant was sold. It was turned into a sports bar called O'Donovan's.
Now you see it ...
Al James sat himself down at our Brauhaus table.
His act relies on brevity and economy, performing a dozen tricks in about eight minutes. Before we had time to decipher a method, he was two tricks ahead.
Later, James handed me his business card. It read: "The World's Second Greatest Magician." It baits people to ask why.
"That just saves a lot of arguing," said James, happy to deliver the punch line.
James, 65, carries a lot of these "bits of business," a repertoire of crackerjack one-liners. He'd take off his glasses before a trick, saying, "I've seen this trick already."
And so forth.
James won't reveal how much he makes but says that, between restaurant gigs and private shows, he pieces together a decent living. He goes through 150 decks of playing cards a year but saves money by buying in bulk at Sam's Club.
A few evenings later, I met up with James at O'Donovan's. After Schulien's closed, the new owners decided magic would continue on weekends. O'Donovan's hired James as its house magician on Friday nights. Magic was no longer the bar's identity but an incidental homage.
I asked James if he lamented the loss of Chicago's live magic entertainment culture.
"In a way, yes, except I'm so busy I don't have time to worry about that," he said. "Thing is, there used to be places like the New York Lounge that were open until 4 a.m. If I'm done working, I can visit my magician friends. We don't have places like that anymore."
William Pack, an author on magic history, was a house magician for the last four years of Schulien's. He remembers an elderly lady who walked in the restaurant and said: "I haven't been here for 50 years." The lady pulled out a playing card signed by Matt Schulien she had kept for decades.
"That's not an uncommon story," Pack said. "This is the kind of impact it had on people."
For years before the family sold the restaurant, Bob Schulien (grandson of Matt) saw the writing on the wall. The customer base was growing older. As much as magic attracts customers, it also tied up tables, Bob Schulien said, and turnovers were a key to financial viability.
"In this restaurant business, you have to attract younger people," Bob Schulien told me. "My generation moved on. Unless they came with their families, the younger kids have never heard of Schulien's."
Then he repeated the sad but common refrain of so many restaurateur hopefuls: "I'd like to open up again, but right now is not a good time, with this economy."
Yet, you can't deny the power in executing a good magic trick. I met Chris and Linda Penteris at O'Donovan's, where they were playing "Go Fish" with their daughter, Lauren, 4, when they heard Al the magician was in the house. They live down the street from the restaurant, and have come to watch magicians perform twice a month since Lauren was 16 months old.
James seats himself. By now it's muscle memory. James has performed the same few dozen tricks he has been doing for four decades, but it's still all new to little Lauren. Magicians call it the "moment of astonishment," that point of denouement that hits you between the eyes and makes you say, "How'd you do that?"
Every 30 seconds, little Lauren -- as if on cue -- covered her mouth with both hands in amazement: card produced from ear, hands on mouth; sponge balls appearing in her palms, hands on mouth.
After their tableside performance, I asked Lauren if she enjoyed the show. But she was too enamored of her balloon giraffe to answer.
Where: 2100 W. Irving Park Road
When: Magic performed Friday to Sunday nights