It is 11 o'clock in the morning--quite early for Eugene Burger, who avoids daylight whenever possible--in the restaurant of one of Rush Street's tonier hotels. Burger, magician, lecturer, theorist, and character, is having lunch with a vice president of one of the largest entertainment conglomerates in the world. But the pair aren't talking points, royalties, or contracts. They're talking magic.
The VP, whose name is Paul, is a semiprofessional magician on the side. He does parties, amuses his kids, livens up the occasional business meeting. But somehow his magic lacks something. Like many others in the field, when he came through Chicago he was eager to meet Burger, who has a national, even international, reputation. Paul is 40ish, smart, together. He has a smidgen of that brashness, that directness, that is characteristic of some New Yorkers and many record-industry execs; but when he talks to Burger, his eyes practically mist over. "Your last book--" he says earnestly, "I can't begin to tell you how much it meant to me. I spent three weeks reading it. It made me think. It really made me think about what I was doing."
Burger eyes an appreciative audience the way Martina Navratilova eyes a tennis ball. He smiles. "Let me show you a few tricks."
He hands Paul the VP a deck of cards, face up. "I want you to do something for me," Burger says confidentially. "I want you to take this deck, and I want you to deal the cards out, face down one by one, but I want you to do it slowly, because I want you to notice something."
Paul complies, setting the cards down on the table one by one.
"Now, what I want you to notice," says Burger, "is that the cards you are dealing out are in no particular order. Can you see that?"
"Go ahead and deal a few more cards out onto the table, and when you feel comfortable, stop."
Paul tosses down a few more, stops.
Burger says: "Give me a number between one and five; don't think about it, just give it to me."
"Take the next three cards out, and lay them face up in front of you."
Paul does so.
"We're going to eliminate two of these cards," Burger says. "Put your left forefinger on one of the three cards." He watches as Paul puts it on the left-hand card. "Now put your right finger on one of the two remaining." Paul puts it on the right-hand card.
"Get rid of those two cards," Burger commands. "Now, I let you deal out as many cards as you wanted, right? I said pick any number from between one and five, right? You picked that card, right?"
"So turn the card over."
On the back of this standard red-backed playing card is scrawled one word in capital letters.
Paul looks slightly disconcerted. Burger doesn't let up. "I'm putting this other card face down over here, under this plate," he says, reaching over and sliding a red card under a plate on the far side of Paul, far out of his own normal reach.
"Take the rest of the cards," Burger continues, "shuffle them"--Paul does so--"cut them, and put them face up on the table."
The deed is done, with the king of clubs on top. "What would you say if the card I put over there under that plate was the other black king?" says Burger.
"Nooooo . . ." begins Paul in disbelief, but the card under the plate is the king of spades.
"Wait, this is cumulative," says Burger, without a pause. "Give me a number between one and ten."
"Jeez . . ." says Paul, who looks almost winded. "OK, seven."
"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven," says Burger, dealing cards face down. He takes the eighth and hands it to Paul. "Put that card over there face down. Now, take the rest of these cards on the table and mix them up."
Paul adds the first seven to the remaining deck, puts his hand flat on the pile of cards, and swirls them around.
"Take five cards out and put them over here in front of me," says Burger. "Dig deep in the pile."
Paul does so.
"Here we have five cards," Burger says. "We're going to get rid of three. Which three do we eliminate?"
Paul pulls three away, and then, at Burger's direction, another.
"Look, it's the nine of clubs!" says Burger delightedly. "Do you think that could be the nine of spades over there?" he asks, pointing at the card Paul had set aside.
It is, of course. Paul throws up his hands in a gesture of resignation.
"One more," says Burger brightly. "This one I call the world's fastest card trick." He holds up the nine of diamonds in his right hand. There's a sudden snap! as he whacks the card against his other hand, and suddenly the card is facing Burger. Gently, he blows on it, then tosses it to the table.
It's become the jack of spades.
Eugene Burger's Gold Coast apartment--a small one-bedroom on Dearborn--has been his base of operations for two of the ten years he has spent as a full-time professional magician. Though the carpet is beige, the walls are white, and the chairs are chrome and wicker, the operative color of this domicile is black. The couch is black, the coffee tables are black, the lamps are black. Burger himself wears only black.
The walls are unadorned save for a few of the old posters magicians love. Burger's advertise "Maro, Prince of Magic." In addition to the couch and tables there is only a small TV and a VCR, a smattering of videotapes, and a few incongruous houseplants (turns out they're silk).
Behind Burger as he sits at his practice table is a good-sized built-in bookshelf that displays what few of the trinkets of the trade he owns. Many--most--of the members of his profession collect books and gewgaws and mail-order items and other magical paraphernalia with the unparticular enthusiasm of teenagers. Burger, though, is a discarder rather than a collector; what items there are have a personal or aesthetic appeal: a few bits of stone that look like a miniature segment of Stonehenge; a pack of Max Maven playing cards, named after a famous "mentalist," a good friend of Burger's; a couple of trick devices, including one shaped like a skull; and a few lavishly weird "bizarre majick" books, these the work of Tony Andruzzi, a local magician.
If you sit across from Burger at his practice table and look to your left, you can look down a tiny hall and across his bedroom. At the far wall, there is a knee-high table with a pair of candles on it; above it is an old piece of driftwood carved into a circle and painted into a yin-yang symbol; this mock shrine is a reminder of Burger's years studying and teaching theology. The tiny hall, however, is the real shrine, Burger jokes--it's filled with pictures of him. Still, a religious influence is noticeable in the apartment; though appalled at the practices of most organized religions ("Religion is the history of futility"), Burger retains an interest, and also on that bookshelf are theological works by Paul Tillich and Krishna Murti and others. One is called The World of the Shaman; another is called Jesus the Magician.
If you sit at Eugene Burger's practice table and look back at him, you see a man of about 50, wearing a pair of circular glasses. He's mostly bald, with a rounded nose and an ornately long beard. Like his hair, the beard is gray; running through it, however, down each side and the middle, are three faint streaks of black. He isn't tall, nor slim. He looks a little like Allen Ginsberg, or a turn-of-the-century chemistry professor at Oxford. A videotape made about him called him "Magic's Mystic Guru." When Burger is "on," he has a way of tilting his head, beard down, and eyeing his victim or visitor or audience member, over the top of his glasses. When this happens, the beard, the domed head, and the dark eyes suggest drama, knowledge, and power. Secrets, too. Eugene Burger looks like a magician ought to look.
Burger is a "close-up" magician. Some magicians, like Max Maven, or Burger's friends Dan and Jan Orleans, practice mentalism; their equipment, for the most part, is in their minds. A magician standing alone on a stage--Harry Blackstone or any other monkey-suited guy pulling a rabbit out of a hat--is said to be doing "illusions," another school of magic. The big stars with big illusions, like Doug Henning or Siegfried and Roy, who with their new $57 million contract with Caesar's Palace in Vegas are the highest-paid magicians in the world--do what is known as Grand Illusion. To do productions like that you need stages and huge audiences and assistants galore, not to mention big props: David Copperfield recently used the Great Wall of China.
Burger doesn't work on stages large or small; he doesn't have assistants. What props he needs he carries in his pockets or an ornate little briefcase the size of a cigar box. He works not before thousands but small groups--a couple sitting in a bar, a table for four at a restaurant, or even standing up, in front of half a dozen people at a private party. His performance space is the bar, a corner of the table, or a pair of hands held out flat.
There are many close-up magicians in the world, but few, the consensus seems to be, are better than Burger. His largest contribution to magic is intangible: it's a new way of thinking about it--and his theorizing and philosophizing have garnered him a worldwide reputation. Trying to put his finger on a widely recognized malaise in magic in recent decades, Danny Orleans had commented that "too many magicians spend all their time searching for the ultimate magic trick." I asked Burger about this.
"I call it 'climbing the greased pole,'" he laughed. "Magicians are always looking for the one trick that's going to knock everyone on their ass, the one trick that all magicians, particularly, are going to fall on the floor over, saying, 'My God, you're the greatest magician I ever saw.'
"And of course, it's never ending--you never get to that trick. And yet every magician, amateur and professional, have many tricks that if they worked on them they could turn into something of great worth and real mystery."
Burger's secret--and the crux of his argument--is injecting a personality into the equation, deriving that worth and mystery by making magic meaningful. Burger works from a foundation of simplicity and spareness. His ongoing repertoire of tricks is exceedingly small for a professional magician: he works with less than 50, where others might have three, four, even five or six times as many. A few of his tricks are minor, though crowd pleasers: a cigarette stuck through a quarter--and smoked; a matchbox on the back of Burger's hand that stands up and then opens all by itself; some sheets of crepe paper that are ripped up only to be unfolded into a colorful party hat. But others are Burger's trademark tricks. Some ridiculously simple, some requiring complicated sleight-of-hand work, they have in common elaborate "staging" and Burger's thoroughgoing attempts to infuse them with meaning. Burger's own favorite, and the one mentioned most often by his friends and admirers, is one that requires very little "magic" at all. Variously referred to as "the dance of Shiva," "the origin of the universe," or "the thread trick," the routine has a unique effect that comes almost entirely from Burger's presence and formidable story-telling ability. Before a midnight session of last month's Invocation, a yearly conference of "bizarre majick" organized by Burger's friend Tony Andruzzi, it went like this:
"Over the years it has become more and more obvious to me that magic doesn't have anything to do with cards, or with coins. It has to do with the universe." Burger has a deep and melodious baritone; here, in front of a genuinely appreciative crowd, he is obviously energized.
"And the universe," he says, "is a system that seems to keep eluding us. As we build more powerful telescopes, the universe recedes from view; as we build more powerful microscopes, the universe gets smaller." A pause. "Now, of all the ways people have been known to relate to the universe, one of the most beautiful is mythology."
Burger stops and carefully lights a small candle; he holds up a small object. "Yellow cotton thread," he pronounces. It is a spool; he begins to unwind it. "A single length, which will represent the entire universe.
"In Hindu mythology," he continues, "it is the god Brahma who creates the universe and all that there is." Burger continues to unwind the thread, until he can stretch it between his two outstretched arms., "Brahma then retires and the god Vishnu takes over--and Vishnu sustains and preserves the universe in every moment of its existence.
"And then, at the end of time"--he now brings his arms together, grabs a smaller section of string, and burns it in half over the candle--"the god Shiva appears, and dances the Tandava dance [here Burger's voice rises as he burns the string into sections, one by one], a weird and terrible dance of fire! in which the entire material universe is destroyed in a blinding light, brighter than ten thousand suns." As the thread is burnt little bits of flame trail in the air on the dark stage. The thread has now been separated into something more than a half dozen pieces; leaving one dangling from his right hand, with his left Burger rolls the remaining pieces up into a little ball.
"And the universe," he says in a quiet voice, "is no more. There is only silence, a vast cosmic sleep." The thread rolled up, he puts it between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, which he then rolls some more to attach the ball to the one thread remaining. He then grabs each end of the four-inch piece, with the attached ball of burnt strings dangling in the middle. Burger looks up and faces the audience.
"And out of this cosmic sleep, Brahma wakens himself again." He begins to pull on the ends of the string, which begins, incredibly, to lengthen. "He looks around and seeing nothing, nothing lovely or beautiful"--the string is more than a foot long now, with the ball in the middle beginning to disappear--"he decides to create the universe once more."
Burger now stands at full height, his arms stretched out extravagantly, displaying the resurrected thread.
"And Brahma retires," says Burger, "pleased with his eternal play."
"There's no magic anymore--it's all tricks," says Burger. He sees it particularly in young magicians, some of whom are his students. "When I give lessons, I sit waiting and the first line out of their mouths will be something like this: 'Well, this is kind of silly but you might like it.'
"Wait a minute! Halt! If this is kind of silly, why are you wasting my time with it? And secondly, if it's silly you're silly for doing it, and I'd be silly to watch it.
"No. My relationship to my magic trick is that this is fabulous, this is worth your time--in a world where people are starving to death and getting blown up at airports. I mean, the world, when you look at it, is a very scary place and I'm here doing magic tricks. I think that the only way to make this work is to say, 'Look: this is a card trick, and on one level it's very insignificant. But for a moment, just for a moment, it can be fabulously wonderful for you.'"
Burger's approach to magic seems fairly obvious, but it has struck a surprising chord with magicians. A few years into his budding career as a full-time magician (he started in 1978), his friend Phil Willmarth began publishing a series of monographs based on lectures Burger had given. While Burger's magical talents are formidable, he has found his celebrity through his theorizing. A worthwhile magic book will sell in the hundreds; Burger's sell in the thousands. "Eugene has a crusade, if you will," says Max Maven (who even at mid-afternoon in the coffee shop of the Bismarck Hotel looks like a vampire who just got up), "which I share, against trivialization. Too many performers tend to trivialize what they do. Eugene does exactly the opposite." Willmarth, a market researcher now living in Arlington Heights who has a sideline lecturing on magic and publishing magic texts, says that there are a lot of magicians who are clever, "who can do better things sleight of hand-wise. Eugene's cleverness is of quite another dimension. It's in making little playlets out of magic and giving motivation to the things that are happening. If you can add motivation to magic, you can about triple the impact."
Strangely enough, Burger's books do not just advocate such dramatization. In fact, they do so only tacitly. What sets Burger's books apart is his insistent drumbeating for his own particular brand of magic making, an uncompromising amalgam of New Age theorizing, hard-boiled advice on such important things as tipping and dealing with hecklers, rigorous self-analysis, hard-line recommendations on practice and rehearsal, and citations from everyone from Marshall Field to Saint Thomas Aquinas, Aldous Huxley's wife to Bonaventure, the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann to an anonymous Sufi priest. Perhaps his best book is Secrets and Mysteries of the Close-up Entertainer. The title is a typical joke; there are two parts to the book--the "secrets" part and the "mysteries" part. The mysteries part comprises the standard magic-book explanation of tricks. But the first--the "secrets" part--is entirely Burgerian. It is a sequence of nine chapters, each of them delineating a factor--not a trick--that he maintains will improve a close-up magician's act.
In one, he discusses the device of using a spectator's name to attract his or her attention away from his hands. Burger begins with a short digression on the power of names, from their use in voodoo to the more recent Judeo-Christian aspects of them. He dismisses the old-line approach, i.e., "Wait two weeks if necessary." Burger's method of distraction is probably not original but in this context takes on a fuller, deeper meaning.
He devotes a chapter to "energy": "When I perform 'Card Warp' [the spectacular split-second switch that amazed Paul the VP], for example, I begin by saying, 'This is one of the greatest card tricks of the Twentieth Century.' I'm investing the proceedings with importance. Spectators move closer. They want to see this."
Burger's most famous essay, however, is the one on hecklers; for it, he won the International Brotherhood of Magicians' article-of-the-year award in 1986. The traditional response of magicians--indeed, of all entertainers--to an unwelcome heckler has been verbal firepower. But instead of meeting insult with insult, Burger recommends turning the other cheek.
"Once my mind applies the label [of 'heckler'], it begins to scan the label's association and stored memories (all those one-liners to use on hecklers) and I am suddenly dealing with the past, with memories and concepts and theories, and not with the present: with this living, breathing person, who, for a short time, is with me as my audience. . . .
"He wants recognition. Give it to him! Roll with the punch. Try being gracious and not cutting. Sometimes a wink and a smile is sufficient to quiet him--a kind of peace offering to get him to join forces with you instead of working against you."
If all else fails, Burger says, give up and go on to another group--gracefully. "As I see it," he concludes, "the important thing is to be perceived as a warm and pleasant person. (In fact, why not try being such a person?)"
Burger in person is the embodiment of his literary dictates. At the Royal-George theater complex on Halsted, where he can be found most weekend nights, he is an ebullient, humorous presence. If he cannot suppress a giggle when forced to describe what he does for a living as "work," at the same time he never jokes about the seriousness of his function. "I'm basically involved with hospitality here," he said of his work at the Royal-George the first time I met him. "I'm part of the experience. People don't want a downer coming to their table. If the kitchen's backed up or there's a crisis, I can go and smooth things over with a few tricks. Otherwise, I never go if I'm not requested. One thing I'll never forget is an experience I had at my first professional job. I was at the bar and doing quite well. I carried that energy to a couple down the bar, and just started right in. The man looked up to me and said [with a deeply pained expression], 'Can't you see we're trying to talk?' I wanted to disappear."
The Royal-George is an important venue for Burger: its warren of bars and dining areas provides more intimacy than a standard restaurant dining room, and the sophisticated audiences the several theaters and cabarets bring in are appreciative of his skills. In addition to the general support the complex's owner, Royal Faubion, has given him over the years, the clientele has provided an important source of the private parties Burger works to help make ends meet. It is also a clientele who, if they do decide they want Eugene Burger for a private party, can afford Burger's not insignificant fee. ("Magic has been Eugene's sole means of support," wrote publisher Willmarth in the introduction to Secrets and Mysteries, "and Eugene lives very well indeed.")
At one of the bars, Burger will do a preliminary reconnaissance to ensure that he's not goi ng to be performing in the middle of a divorce. On a recent night, he espied a fairly young couple desultorily downing a beer before George Peppard's one-man show of Papa, and decided that they might make a good audience. Burger slides down the bar, takes out the small, tasteful rug he uses to center attention, and looks up brightly.
"Well," he says, "here we are"--a remark he begins every magic session with.
He starts with a trick involving sponge balls. "On an 'Elegance Scale' of ten, I'd give them a '2,'" he once wrote. But they are a fabulous crowd pleaser, and Burger files them under effects whose appeal mystifies him.
"I'd like to begin with this because it is a game of observation," Burger explains to his two bemused victims. "It tells me how observant you are.
"You see, if you're not very observant this is considerably easier to do." He pauses to let the joke register, then garners the couple's names ("Bob" and "Carol"). The trick involves having the balls multiply and apparently jump back and forth between Burger's and Carol's closed fists.
"If I were to place one ball in my hand [he puts one of the orange sponge balls into his fist] and put one in your hand--now hold it tightly!--and then threw [he mimes the action] the ball in my hand over to your hand, how many balls would I have left in my hand?"
"None," Carol replies intelligently, and when Burger opens his hand the ball is gone.
"And how many balls would you have in your hand?"
"Two?" Carol ventures, and she is right again.
Soon balls are multiplying in both Carol's and Bob's hands. Finally, Burger picks up the four balls on the table and again puts them into Carol's hand, making sure she closes it tightly. "If I give you these four balls," Burger says, "and don't do anything at all [a significant pause and a raised eyebrow], how many balls would you have?"
At this point, Carol doesn't dare to venture a guess. "Open your hand, very slowly," says Burger.
Carol does, and out pop a couple of dozen balls spilling over the bar and down to the floor. Both Carol's and Bob's mouths drop open.
Burger does a few more small tricks as the preshow crowd in the bar grows. Then he does a set piece.
Burger asks Carol to cut a deck of cards. Leaving them for a moment, he pulls a small container out of his pocket. "I want to show you something very strange," he says. "It's my aspirin tin. Although it looks like any other aspirin tin, it is very special. In it, I keep some interesting items."
Burger opens the tin and dumps out its contents, which include two aspirin ("which I will personally take should this trick fail"), two tiny pieces of paper, and a triangular piece of black paper that turns out to be a photo-album corner. Burger tells Carol that the tiny pieces of paper are actually photograph paper and that the little tin is not for aspirin but is rather--a camera.
"You're the photographer," says Burger. "Have you had any experience in this area before?"
"I've taken pictures . . ." says Carol.
"Good," replies Burger. "This is a bit difficult for first-timers." Burger grabs the card Carol cut to--it's the five of diamonds. Burger puts away the other cards and extends the tiny piece of photograph paper toward her: "Put your initials there on the corner."
Carol does so. The paper is put back into the camera, and the five of diamonds is angled up against a water glass to model for the photograph. "Here's the tin," says Burger. "Hold your right hand like you're going to bark at someone."
This is a funny line; finally Carol gets the idea. Burger hands her the tin, which is closed but not shut tight. "See the little bump at the front of the camera? That's the lens," says Burger. "Point it toward the card. I'll hold the flash [he isn't holding anything]. I'm going to count to three and say the word 'snap!' When I say 'snap' you snap the camera shut, OK?"
Carol gingerly points the tin; the five of diamonds leans innocently against the glass.
"One . . . two . . . three . . . snap!" says Burger.
There is a flash of light that seems to come from nowhere.
"It's not a flash camera," explains Burger. "Now, it takes about an hour for the photograph to develop--would you like a little more wine? Just teasing.
"Years from now," Burger continues merrily, "when you talk about this--and you will--remember I haven't even touched the camera since you took it." He tells Carol to open the tin by punching down on the red dots on its corners. Carol takes out the tiny piece of paper she signed her initials to and turns it over. A genuine photo of a card is now on it, and it is, inevitably, the five of diamonds. Carol doesn't say anything.
There is to Eugene Burger's magic something refined and elegant: his tricks have a beginning, middle, and end; his manner is measured and calm; and when he speaks, he speaks to you. All of these things set him apart. Not to say that all other magicians are uncouth, frenetic, or lost in their routines--just that Burger adds something extra.
But there are other worlds of magic out there; I asked Burger to take me to one, a long-time south-side institution. Bit o' Magic is a club on Pulaski next to Dove's candy store. Bit o', as it is called, specializes in magic, but also dips into comedy and the occasional psychic. The sense of magic and fun found there can be best described as corrosive; wander in on a weekend night, and the odds are good you'll hear a comic saying something like:
"My girlfriend spilled perfume on my tie. She says it's called 'Come to Me.' Does this smell like come to you?"
Bit o' Magic's bathrooms are legendary: in the men's, the walls are painted with a large mural depicting a vast stadium entirely filled with women laughing and pointing and making rude gestures at the guy onstage, who happens to be the current occupant of the bathroom. In the women's, a male mannequin stands before an actual urinal next to the toilet. It's positioned just inside the door so that anyone entering gets a slight shock. There is no urinal in the men's room; Bit o' switched them just to pull off the mannequin joke.
On the walls of the club proper are scores of photos of local magicians; Burger's is on the south wall, though he's never played Bit o'. Manager Bill Weimer, a fast-talking magician-comic who is the source of much of that corrosive humor, did an elaborate trick for me that involved my writing my name on a card, which at different times changed color, appeared in his wallet, and disappeared from my hand. At the close of the trick, Weimer wrapped up the deck with a couple of rubber bands, and then suddenly tossed the whole thing up at the ceiling. The deck bounced off--but left on the ceiling was my signed card, stuck for eternity. The ceiling is papered with dozens of playing cards, each scrawled with a name.
Bit o' has magic almost every night. Local magicians perform onstage, and the restaurant has a small corps of table-hopping close-up magicians as well. One of the more imaginative one night we were there was Dale, a good-looking kid with longish hair. Pleased, as most of the Bit o' staff was, to perform for the great Eugene Burger, Dale ran through a number of tricks from his repertoire before pulling something of a shocker. "Gee, I'm sick of that trick," he said brightly, and pulled a quite realistic sleight that made it look like he was vomiting a deck of cards. (A few minutes later, I watched as Dale ran through his routine: a couple of tables over, for a group of three young women who were obviously quite taken with him. When he did the vomit effect, the group looked less than thrilled.)
Another night Burger went, with friends Jan and Dan Orleans, we saw Terry Veckey, a formidable close-up performer and a comic as well. Weimer opened the show with an "antimagic" act, an idea that goes back half a century but that he pulled off with vigor. He started by pulling out of a hat not a dove, but a bottle of Dove dishwashing liquid, and continued by pulling out a bouquet of flowers (which had been noticeably hanging from his belt) with great fanfare.
He followed that with dragging a line of scarves out of a hollow tube, allowing us to see them trailing out of his inside coat pocket. He then demonstrated the proper use of the "dove pan," a magician's prop that allows you to collapse a dove inside a pan, set it on fire, and then reproduce the dove. Weimer's trick ended up with a pile of charred remains. Adding spice to the routine was one truly impressive trick--the production of a full-sized basketball out of absolutely nowhere. Still, absurdism prevailed: Weimer brought three volunteers up onstage to sing the "Funny Company" song, to no apparent purpose, and also amused the crowd with a pair of Mr. T hand puppets. Before doing an elaborate trick wherein a pair of chattering teeth--"All that's left of my Uncle Herbert"--chewed into a page of the National Enquirer holes that reproduced the markings of a card an audience member had picked, Weimer paused to reminisce about his uncle. Herbert, he said, "knew the exact day and time he was going to die. The warden told him."
Weimer ceded the stage to Veckey after demonstrating the old-fashioned way of dealing with hecklers, this to a regular who, when the king of spades was mentioned, shouted out "Harold Washington." "You're a little behind, Jim," said Weimer. "Actually, you're a big behind." When the guy persisted, Weimer waited a bit and said, "Some places have cockroaches. We have Jim."
Veckey, an old friend of Weimer's, was relaxed and funky. He did about half a dozen tricks, interspersing them with a deadpan delivery of off-color and sometimes quite dreadful jokes. The best of his tricks involved taking a $20 bill from a volunteer, marking it ("Here's an IOU; take it to the staff here and they'll tell you what to do with it"), and having it end up inside a pill bottle in a purse pinned to the middle of his back. One of his more memorable jokes went like this, with Veckey doing the hoarse voices of two elderly British club members.
"Did I ever tell you about my trip to the Dark Continent?"
"No, tell me."
"It was in Mozambique. I was lying in a patch of elephant grass when all of a sudden I saw the king of beasts himself, a lion, munching on the carcass of an antelope in the shade of a eucalyptus tree. I took aim and fired--but it was a misfire! I took aim again--again a misfire! Then the beast caught my scent, turned, and pounced, with a great RRROOOOOAAAARRRR! By Jove, I shit my pants!"
"Well now, anyone would have, in those circumstances."
"No, just now, when I roared."
After his show, Veckey came to our table to display some of his close-up prowess. He did some card tricks, and demonstrated an oddity: a fuzzy little snakelike toy that crawled up and out of glasses, around a pencil, and out along the table. The thing was undoubtedly attached to a string--though it didn't appear to be; the interesting thing was that its movements were amazing even if it was attached to a string, or even two or three. Veckey also did an extended version of the cup-and-ball routine, this one involving a bowl and an ever more elaborate series of objects, ranging from three balls to a hunk of rock to a can of tuna to a huge steel nut. For a closer, he reproduced the three balls, turned the bowl over, tossed the balls back in--and suddenly they wouldn't fit, a large potato having somehow found its way into the empty bowl right under our noses.
Then Veckey did an elaborate card trick, which, due to a fluke in the seating arrangements, I got an interesting perspective on. Veckey was seated at the head of our table; the six of us were arrayed, three on a side, to his right and left. My chair happened to be sitting up past the edge of the table, so that I ended up positioned a little behind him to his left. My presence there made Veckey uncomfortable. "You might learn a trick sitting there--just don't tell them how to do it," he said, gesturing at the others.
Both Burger and the Orleanses are big fans of Veckey's card manipulations; this was a good example of it. Holding the deck in his left hand, with the cards facing out, he flipped through the deck, directing it at the person immediately to his right. "Tell me when to stop," he said; when she did so, he flashed the card that was at the point that she stopped at and said, "Remember your card." He squared up the deck and proceeded to the next person, making the same request. In this fashion, he continued around the table until he got to me. Along the way, he would dress things up a bit. When he was at the third person, he turned back to the second and said, "Don't forget your card, now. If you have trouble remembering it, just repeat it over and over to yourself: the four of clubs, the four of clubs, the four of clubs." From the look on the person's face, it was apparent that the four of clubs had indeed been her card, though it was not apparent how he could have known.
From, my perspective, however, it was clear. After each person had seen his or her card, Veckey, when he squared the deck, pulled the card out of the deck in a splendid pistonlike movement and dragged it around to be palmed in his right hand, facing him. It was a remarkable movement, and as he went around the table it went off smoothly, like a well-oiled machine, until he ended up with the cards the six of us had selected safely in his control. The move was entirely unnoticeable from the front, and my seeing it had nothing to do with Veckey being sloppy or me being at all perspicacious--it was just that my position was essentially behind Veckey, at a vantage point that he had already sensed would be unfortunate.
After this, Veckey spread the remaining cards out on the table and mixed them up with his hands. During this process, Veckey was leaning back from and toward the table, moving his hands around the table and reaching out now and then to touch one or another of the spectators. It was during this that I saw another amazing thing.
He reached over to the person across from me, picked up the saltshaker that was sitting in front of her, dropped a half dozen cards beneath it, and set the saltshaker back down. Nothing too special, except that the cards were, of course, the six cards the group of us had spotted in the deck, and he had reached over and placed the cards there, not 12 inches away from her nose, without her having noticed! She was visibly startled when, a few moments later, he pointed the cards out and, with a flourish, deposited them before each person as he named their card.
Later, Veckey acknowledged that where I was sitting had been a problem, but he said that he had tried not to let it bother him. "When something like that happens," he said, "you try to make the person a coconspirator. If they do see what's going on, they give you credit for being skillful."
Burger is a, Chicago native--or most likely is: he was adopted as an infant by a Jefferson Park milk delivery man and his wife. One of the more lasting experiences of his childhood was a dreaded stint of accordion lessons. In his book The Craft of Magic, Burger recalls his mother saying, "After all the money your father has spent on your accordion and those lessons, it would just kill him if you were to stop."
"Well . . . who, other than Oedipus, wants to . . . kill . . . his own father?!?!?" wrote Burger. "After six years of lessons, I [was] a dismal failure as an accordionist. I still couldn't play 'Lady of Spain' with a bellows shake.
"One day, when I was driving in the car with my father, I suddenly found myself blurting out, without even thinking, 'I don't want to play the accordion any more!'"
"I've been waiting to hear you say that for three years now," his father replied.
From this story, of course, Burger draws a moral: magicians truly interested in magic mustn't consider practicing drudgery. For him, though, paradoxically, the accordion lessons actually had one lasting benefit.
"I started doing magic when I was eight years old," says Burger. "When I was ten or eleven I discovered it at the public library--793.8, I think the number was. At around that time, my music teacher, of the accordion lessons that were the albatross around my childhood, moved downtown.
"And every week, I would get on the bus at Montrose and Milwaukee, and go to the Logan Square el stop and get on the el and take the el downtown. But there was a little magic store along with the cigar shop at the Logan Square el. I would go each week and buy myself a magic trick. It made the lesson not so gruesome. Then I looked up magic in the phone book--I was a resourceful child--and I found that there were all these magic stores listed!"
One of the first he discovered was Magic Inc., the preeminent Chicago magic store and one of the largest mail-order magic operations in the country. It was started by a magician named Laurie Ireland and his magician wife Frances in 1931. In 1954 Ireland died, leaving the store to Frances, who eventually married Jay Marshall, another well-known magician. The Marshalls have been godparents to several generations of Chicago magicians, among them Burger, who apparently didn't lack self-confidence. "Let's just say he knew a hell of a lot more about magic then than he does now," comments Jay Marshall drily.
"I would go to the magic store," recalls Burger, "Frances would be there behind the counter, and I would have read the catalog from cover to cover a thousand times, and I wanted to see everything demonstrated. Here's this person trying to run a business, trying to do mail order in the back, and here's this kid who has no idea what he wanted. She had infinite patience with me. We'd play for an hour, and she'd finally say, 'Look, kiddo, I have to go back to work,' and I could cop to that.
"I'd finally buy something and come home. My parents had a huge dresser with a mirror; I'd clear the dresser off and practice my cup and balls for hours."
With his father a willing assistant, Burger started performing at Lutheran church groups--"father-and-son stuff. I didn't go to even a baseball game a year with him," Burger sighs.
"One Sunday, I remember," he says, "I did three shows in one afternoon. I had all this stuff to schlepp around. Without him I couldn't have done it. He would drive us around, and stand there putting stuff away as I was finished with it." Burger's parents eventually had him audition for a slot as one of the junior magicians on a local show called Magic. Its star was Don Alan, one of Chicago's most important contributions to magic and a hero to Burger, then as now; Burger was on his sixth show. ("There's no videotape available, thank you.")
But when Burger went away to college, at Beloit, he left the magic equipment of his youth behind; besides some tricks for his fraternity's yearly rush party, he let it fade into his past. He was getting more and more interested in religion at this point, and when a Dr. Nordstrom--"a truly wonderful man"--suggested he "see what the church was offering" at a Lutheran seminary, he took him up on the offer.
"It turned out that he was the most interesting person there," recalls Burger. "The rest of them were pretty strange. I had to take one class called 'catechetics,' which is the teaching of Luther's small catechism to children of confirmation age--13--and below. The professor's method was you pretended that you were 13, and then he would teach Luther's small catechism to you. 'The church bell is the dinner bell of the soul.' Moral law--to argue this, his line was, 'A stream without banks turns into a swamp.'"
Burger lasted a year; he applied to Harvard, Yale, and Columbia to get out. "Columbia wanted five copies of the application with carbon paper," Burger says in a tone of voice that would seem to accompany a much more draconian requirement. "Harvard wanted you to write a spiritual autobiography, which I didn't feel prepared to do at that point in my life. Yale's was just a simple four-pager. So I applied and went to Yale. I loved it. I was entering the world of the mind."
It was the giddy days of the early 60s, when you didn't have to believe in God to go to Yale Divinity School. (Gary Hart was there at the same time, but Burger didn't know him.) For those who did believe in God, "there were the supernaturalists, and the nonsupernaturalists, which is to say those who thought that we can perfectly well deal with god languages, god talk, in ways that don't have to refer to a spirit being out there.
"Other times, we'd sit and talk about whether Buddhists would go to heaven."
Burger returned to Chicago in 1964, entered a PhD program in philosophy at the U. of I. at Circle, and worked as an assistant to a Lutheran minister for a year and a half. By this time, however, any thought of entering the priesthood had vanished. "All a minister does," says Burger now, "is tell people how to behave and tell God things he already knows."
He taught and studied a few more years, and finally ventured out into the real world as a social worker in the Evanston welfare office. Time and the sudden departure of a department head conspired to make Burger acting and then full director of the office, a position he held for nearly two years.
Meanwhile, however, Burger and a couple of friends in Evanston had renewed their interest in seances and haunted houses. Burger calls this vein of magic "spirit theater"; two years ago, he published an oversized coffee-table book with just that title, a lavish assemblage of everything one might need to put on such a show, complete with a history of spiritualism, instructions, and various other oddities. In Evanston, Burger and his friends produced a show called Hauntings, an evening of scary routines and stories, flying objects, sudden blackouts, and even a seance. The show gained a significant cachet, and Burger kept it up for several years, eventually taking it to the Playboy resort in Lake Geneva and Chicago's Playboy Tower.
One of Spirit Theater's more fascinating elements is the reproduction of a 40-page spiritualist paraphernalia catalog from 1901; it's basically a sourcebook for fake mediums, with dozens of forms of slate writing, table moving, hypnotism, and so forth. I asked Burger about one product ("Raps! Here!! There!! Everywhere!!") offered for $18, a not inconsiderable sum of money in 1901.
"It might have been something so rudimentary as a belt with a piece of tape measure taped on each end," he said. "By extending your stomach, you might get a click."
The book also reproduces one other product from the catalog, the "Mens Revelo" mind-reading trick, which sold for $25. Along with five pages of directions, the novice spiritualist would get for his money a large sheet of carbon paper, which was to be used to extract duplicates of whatever an unsuspecting audience member might write down for the magician to "mind read." Then as now, you paid not for the item but for the secret. Burger says it could be the first time carbon paper was used in a magic trick.
Over the years, his fondness for spirit theater has continued, and he is even now writing the script for a new show, hopefully one that will be produced in one of the smaller venues of the Royal-George. He wants to call it something along the lines of "Dreams and Nightmares." "I want things to go out in the audience and touch you and grab you," says Burger. He hopes to have a show of some sort prepared for next spring.
Hauntings also prompted a renewed interest in magic generally on Burger's part, and he slowly began reimmersing himself in the world of magic. Almost all magicians who work here say Chicago is a town uniquely supportive of magic. Restaurants that feature magic--like the famous Schulien's on Irving Park Road--are institutions in Chicago, and bars around the city, from the neighborhood inns to the Pump Room, feature magicians as well. One of Burger's magician heroes was Bert Allerton, whom Burger credits with creating the original version of his aspirin-tin trick. Allerton was a retired oil salesman in the midwest; the story goes that after the deaths, tragically close together, of his wife and mother, he hit the road as a magician and met, on a train bound for the west coast, one of the founders of the Pump Room. Allerton became its first magician.
"I believe that most failures in life are failures of the imagination," says Burger. "Now, when I was a kid I never met Allerton--I only heard about him--but here was someone who was doing the type of magic that interested me, and doing it not at the neighborhood tavern but doing it at the Pump Room! Here I had an example of someone doing magic at a fabulous placeand so now I'm at what I consider to be the most glamorous place in Chicago to perform, and certainly one of the nicest places any close-up magician in the world has to work in. If it hadn't been for Bert Allerton, maybe I'd just be performing in the Global Tavern, because that's as high as my imagination would have been able to place me."
The former theologian coughs. "And of course, that has implications in all of our lives. I think there's a generalization that you can draw there."
Still, it took Burger nearly a decade to find himself in his current position. There were corporate clients--cup-and-ball routines at McCormick Place conventions--and going from table to table in Rush Street bars, not venues he remembers with any fondness. "It was trying to do magic for people wearing sunglasses," he says. "People who didn't want to talk to their waiter, much less remember a card. They're all hung over down on Rush Street."
Similarly, the corporate work was a drain as well. "It would be ten in the morning and you'd have to stand on a platform, make eye contact with someone, and say, 'Do you believe in spirits?' I have never had so many people be rude to me. But here I was, ten o'clock in the morning, 'Hi! Pick a card!' [Burger adopts the mien of a jittery, hungover conventioneer] 'What the fuck? What? Who are you? What do you want?'"
Now, however, Burger is safely ensconced at the Royal-George, making a comfortable living and watching his reputation grow. This Halloween, he was a special guest, for the second year, on Paul Daniels's annual Halloween magic show in England. (Unknown here, in England Daniels is a superstar on the level of Johnny Carson.) Max Maven, who speaks Japanese and often works in Japan, used Burger to close a recent prime-time special for Japanese television. And Burger was a recent lecturer at the triennial FISM (the French acronym for the Federation of International Societies of Magicians) conference held in the Hague earlier this year. "With the exceptions of his performances and lectures in England last year," says Maven, "Eugene had never been out of the country. The word of mouth was very strong; all these European magicians had turned out to see this man they'd read about. People were so excited about having the opportunity to hear him that they gave him a standing ovation."
We're back at his practice table, Burger and I. Part of the deal I made in order to interview Burger (and in order to have access to his books) was that I not reveal any "secrets" in the article. I had no problem with this, first because it wasn't an unanticipated restriction, and second because while there is occasionally, as with the trick that Veckey did, a thrill to knowing the mechanics of a particular sleight, it is much more often the case that knowing the secret of a trick spoils it.
If someone asks Veckey how the cards came to rest under the saltshaker, he has a pat answer: "I put them there when you weren't looking." When they say, "But I didn't see you!" he says, logically, "Look, it's either that or it's real magic." Veckey is an easygoing sort on this issue; Burger, however, is a strict constructionist. As far as the audience is concerned, he feels, magic is magic.
Before we saw Veckey, Burger had talked extensively about what might be termed the magician's responsibility to his work. "You'll see someone," Burger says, handling the ever-present deck of cards, "getting the four aces." Burger assembles the four cards. He holds his hands over the deck in an unnatural position. "What is going on right now? What are you doing? Why are you holding the cards like that?" Burger is the picture of the teacher exasperated beyond belief.
"Now," he continues, "the only reason in the world someone would hold his hands like that is that he's doing a magic trick. Once that perception comes across to a spectator, the most you can hope for is being praised for being a technical manipulator of cards. They know you were doing something funny. They don't know what it was, but they know there was something.
"Magic happens when nothing seems to be funny. Everything is going along OK and suddenly, 'It's my card!'"
This in fact is one of the great challenges and difficulties of close-up magic. There's no stage, mirrors, or lights to help the effects, no beautiful assistants to distract attention. Close-up magicians have to make skilled use of a magic fundamental called misdirection to keep control of their performance. When Veckey was leaning over the table, stretching out to touch another spectator, the woman with the saltshaker in front of her was distracted. Veckey didn't wait to see if she wasn't looking when he made the move: he did it like it was the most natural thing in the world--and natural movements don't attract attention.
Part of the challenge of close-up as well is the very factor of its closeness: people who have never seen magic before take the unprecedented intimacy of the action as a challenge.
"Let's say I want to do something sneaky with a deck of cards," Burger says. He takes the pack again. "I'm performing in front of three people, and one of them is you, and you're just staring at the deck of cards. What I want to do is do a pass, which is to secretly cut the cards."
Burger demonstrates; he holds the cards in his right hand, casually moves his left hand over. I saw the deck being cut but at the same time almost did not. Mostly I sensed, rather than heard, a rustle, like a tiger approaching in the darkness.
"So I want to do a pass, and I've got three people here, and one of them is you, and two of them are looking at my eyes, which is where I want them to look, but you are watching the deck, right?"
There is a tone of mocking challenge in his voice; I nod, and watch the deck, lying calmly in Burger's hand, with something approaching ferocity.
"Well, what am I going to do about you?" Burger sounds like the prospects are hopeless. "Well, all I have to do . . ."
My eyes burn into the deck. Burger's voice remains soft and normal.
". . . is say, 'Bill, do you . . .'"
Our eyes meet.
"And you look up, man, and it's all over."
I look back down. The tiger's tail has disappeared around the corner.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.