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The Enduring Magic of Chicago
Lake View is the most magical area of Chicago.
Hands down. Nothing up the sleeve.
The site of the old Riverview amusement park at Belmont and Western was an escape for Chicagoans between 1904 and 1967. Magician Marshall Brodien got his start as a Riverview barker before becoming Wizzo the Clown on Bozo’s Circus–taped at WGN-TV just a block west of Riverview.
O’Donovan’s Pub & Restaurant, 2100 W. Irving Park Rd. is the former Schulien’s. In 1915 owner Matt Schulien began performing magic in his bar, then on North Halsted, making O’Donovan’s the oldest establishment in the world featuring magic entertainment.
Al James performs card tricks, rope tricks and baseball tricks between 6-10 p.m. every Friday at O’Donovan’s. He is celebrating his 35th anniversary of performing table side magic at the same spot.
All these stories are passionately chronicled in David Witter’s new “Chicago Magic (A History of Stagecraft and Spectacle)” [The History Press, $19.99]. Witter leaves no shell unturned.
Chapters are devoted to Harry Blackstone, Sr., Harry Houdini and his ghost and young Brighton Park native Maritess Zurbano “Girlie Magic For The New Millennium.”
James and Witter will appear in a book release party that begins at 6 p.m. Nov. 15 at O’Donovan’s. [(773) 478-2100, no cover, food and drink specials.]. A chapter of the book is devoted to Schulian’s-O’Donovan’s, which is the Wrigley Field of magic.
Well, one is more magical, but they are both nearly 100 years old.
“(Baseball Hall of Fame announcer) Jack Brickhouse came here all the time,” James told a young audience earlier this week at O’Donovan’s. “I used to do the ‘Cup and Ball’ trick with oranges. One time Brickhouse said to me, ‘Why don’t you use baseballs?, you’re located so close to Wrigley Field.’ The next day he came in and gave me two baseballs’.” And that’s how James performs the trick today, with baseballs magically appearing from under a cup.
“Magic is having a mini-resurgence,” Witter said. “All the home video games, flat screen stuff, people have realized they are sitting in a place with a remote—and they’re not experiencing anything. You can see, hear, touch and feel magic. It’s an experience for your children. Even though magic is an illusion, it is more real.”
James added, “People watch a movie with special effects and see a super hero flying through the sky. But when they see you doing magic sitting one foot away without computers–but with your hands and a deck of cards, it impresses them.”
Witter calls the golden age of magic between 1900-1930. “It coincided with Houdini, (Harry) Thurston, vaudeville,” said Witter, who attended Alcott Grammar School on the north side, the same school that produced Brodien. “The end of vaudeville and the depression ended that. Magicians were like the Rolling Stones. They toured the country in trains with a large entourage. Table side magic got scaled down. There were two reasons it came to Chicago.
“One was because of Schulien’s.” In the early 1900s patriarch Joseph Schulian was a driver for Schlitz beer in Milwaukee. The family’s first tavern opened in 1918, drawing a magic crowd at 1800 N. Halsted under the spell of original owner Big Matt Schulien who perished in a 1959 plane crash. Witter reports that during Prohibition the basement speakeasy’s liquor supplier was Al Capone.
In a 1990 interview his son Charlie Schulien said, “During Prohibition my dad was always in the back of the speakeasies doing these tricks. A lot of people liked it.” Charlie died of a 1998 heart attack he suffered above the bar, where he lived. He was 68.
Schulien’s moved to the current Irving Park location in 1948 and remained in the family until 1999.
“Also, Hollywood had the actors and movies,” said Witter, 50. “New York had Broadway and recording studios. Magicians had a lot more of a center stage in Chicago. And you still had 3 million people who needed entertainment. The economy was good in the 1940s through 1970s and that was the golden age of magic in Chicago. You had five, six magic stores downtown within a couple blocks, you had magic at five or six different clubs seven nights a week.”
Here is Al James and his 1987 Houdini underwater escape in Schulien’s parking lot:
James also appeared on “Bozo’s Circus” (the 1961-80 edition). James and Witter said there are more working magicians in Chicago than people realize. James has mentored a stable of young musicians who appear at O’Donovan’s between 6-10 p.m. Saturday and 5-9 p.m. Sunday; in rotation they are Jim Maddox, Tomas Medina, Dan Rudnik and John Sturk.
Witter observed, “People are doing birthday parties and people like Dennis Watkins does close up magic shows at the Palmer House. His autobiographical Houdini show sold out for two years in the Chopin Theater building (2012, 13). People see him and they know they’re not going to do photo shop. He is an actual person in a tank. It is real. These add to the aura of magic in Chicago.”
James was a disc jockey in Cleveland, Ohio and his booming Rush Limbaugh styled voice serves him well. He came to Chicago to become a salesman for the Cory Corporation, which manufactured coffee making equipment. Fun fact—the company president was married to advice columnist Ann Landers. When James’ division went up in smoke, he began magic as a full time occupation.
James looked around the back room of the historic tavern and said, “I’m sure no magician has worked in the same place for 35 years.” He knows how to seal the deal with speed. “People have shorter attention spans,” said James, who wore a natty print tie depicting a deck of cards. “I don’t like coin tricks. I never got a good reaction with them. When I do a card trick, I can bring the house down. They both require a lot of sleight of hand. But in restaurants we always had to work fast because of all the interruptions you get.”
Witter added, “Close up magic is truly table side magic. “It’s made for three or four people and that’s what made Schulien’s one of the centers of magic for the whole country.”