By Neal Pollack
"Let me tell you a funny story," said Mr. Ash.
It was early afternoon on a recent Sunday, and Mr. Ash, wearing a salmon-colored tuxedo shirt, red suspenders, and a black bow tie, was on his way to a house in Highland Park where a 65-year-old lawyer was celebrating his birthday.
"I buy joke books," Mr. Ash was saying, "and if I see a joke I like, I put an X on the page number. If there's a funny joke on page 17, I put an X on it. So one day this guy I know, his daughter is having a garage sale. She was one of those hippie type of persons. So there's stuff I don't use. I see some comedy books. She says, 'Gimme a nickel apiece.' So I bought half a dozen, didn't even look at them. I come home, I'm going through them, and I say, 'Hey, here's another guy who put Xes in the back of books.' I open the back, and it's my name! They must have bought it at my own garage sale!"
Mr. Ash is fond of garage sales. A few minutes ago he'd spotted a garage-sale sign from his car, and despite the one o'clock appointment in Highland Park he promptly detoured to investigate. The items for sale were mostly children's clothes and toys. Mr. Ash purchased a small hat, in the style of Zorro.
"Now I gotta get me a shawl and a black mask," he said, climbing back into his Chrysler minivan, whose license plate says "MR ASH."
An hour earlier, Mr. Ash had set off on this excursion. He shut off the record player, on which Hank Williams Jr. was singing "Your Cheatin' Heart," picked up his rabbit, Cleo, in a carrier, and locked the door to Ash's Magic Shop, on Western between Foster and Argyle.
He confided, "This lady keeps calling me and saying, 'My husband is a very shy person. Be careful what you do to him.' People get worried. One time these black organizers from a potato-chip company on the south side were throwing a party for their drivers. They kept calling me and asking my wife if I was really going to come to their party. My wife says, "If Mr. Ash says he's gonna be there, then he's gonna be there." The guy sent me copies of the tickets he had printed up. There was my picture, on the ticket! They were afraid I wasn't going to show up because they were black. When I showed up, they were so happy! 'My main man!' the guy kept saying to me. 'My main man!'"
During the drive up the Edens, Mr. Ash spoke of many things. Of the various direction-giving abilities of members of various ethnic groups, the tendency of suburbanites to speed, the superiority of the movie Jailhouse Rock, the construction of birdhouses, and the career of Jerry Lee Lewis, whose biography Mr. Ash had recently picked up at a garage sale.
"I am the king of garage sales, with a capital K," he said. "I have some diseases. I've got high blood pressure. I'm diabetic. I love to feed animals. I go out of the way to feed animals. I will walk to feed the pigeons. But my biggest disease is that I love to go to garage sales. I'm gonna cut down. I'm burnt out. Recently, I have put my mind to it. I am gonna cut down. Let's say I'm on the way to a birthday party for you and I see a sign. I'll stop. They'll say, how come you're dressed up in a tuxedo?"
Mr. Ash arrived at his destination a few minutes early. He unloaded the gray felt podium that serves as his traveling magic stand, and placed Cleo inside a red wooden box. He rang the doorbell and encountered the lawyer's wife.
"My husband doesn't know you're gonna be here," she said. "You're a surprise."
"Tell him I'm the stripper," said Mr. Ash.
Mr. Ash grew up in Iraq but he is in fact a full-blooded Armenian. His real name is Ashod Baboorian, but everyone, including his wife, calls him Ash, or Mr. Ash. He moved to the United States with his parents in 1960, when he was 20 years old. Upon arriving in Chicago, he quickly learned how to play the guitar. Soon after, he found himself in the army stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky. There he discovered the great love of his life, other than magic.
"I listened to country music on the radio," he says. "I still keep the country going all the time."
After his discharge in 1963, Mr. Ash came back to Chicago and started a country band, which he called Country Ash Ryan. He played at a variety of dumpy bars on the north side, particularly in Uptown and Lakeview, and opened for Billy "Crash" Craddock and Johnny Tillitson, who had a hit called "Poetry in Motion." Ash and a friend named Kenny played nightclubs with an act called the Kash Brothers. They were a comedy cover band, doing the greatest hits of Jack Benny and Abbott and Costello, among others. After a few years, the band and the act both broke up.
"People would still call me to do weddings," Mr. Ash says. "I didn't have a band, so I called you. If you had a band, I'd take your band with me. I sang on the vocals. Now I got a little rasp in my throat. Before, people couldn't believe that I was a country crooner, because I can't read music. When I play the guitar, I've got to memorize. I used to sit down and memorize the record so I knew exactly when to say certain words. I had one guy watch me one day, and he said, 'You know, you work very hard behind that microphone.'"
Around 1970, Mr. Ash heard the siren song of magic. He went to New York to visit a friend of his brother-in-law, an amateur magician who took him to a meeting of his magic club. "I was intrigued, but I wasn't completely sold," Ash says. A few months later, a friend of his in Chicago moved into the apartment of the recently deceased Indian John, a Native American who had made a living by going around north-side bars in a headdress and doing magic. "They were gonna throw his tricks in the garbage. I go, 'Bring the stuff to me.' I didn't know what they were. I'm new, right? I take them to this magic shop. The guy tells me what this does, that does. Some of this stuff is all beaten up, broken, rusted. But it was a start."
Mr. Ash began attending the meetings of various amateur magic clubs, which in those days were plentiful in Chicago. He found that magic suited his natural comedic gifts. He began doing shows at a club on Western called Magic, Incorporated, and soon became one of its most popular acts. One night Cookie the Clown from Bozo's Circus stopped by Magic, Incorporated, while Mr. Ash was performing.
"You know," said Cookie after the set, "you're a very funny guy."
"Thank you very much," Mr. Ash said.
"How'd you like to appear on Bozo's Circus?"
Two days later, Mr. Ash was booked. For many years thereafter, he was a regular on the Bozo show. He performed wearing a robe and a gold turban. He also began appearing every year on Channel Seven's cerebral palsy telethon. He was featured several times on other local television programs. Everybody wanted a piece of Mr. Ash's magic.
Over the years, the TV appearances have dried up. Bozo doesn't have magicians anymore. Channel Seven canceled the telethon.
"You get old," says Mr. Ash. "They forget about you."
Weekdays, Mr. Ash works for the state of Illinois. He is a bridge inspector two years from retirement. On average, he performs five magic shows a week, most on Saturdays and Sundays. There have been weekends, he says, when he's done eight or nine. He has done magic for Dennis Rodman, and this year he played Governor Ryan's birthday party. "This one girl," he says, "I did her ninth birthday party, I did her graduation from high school, and I did her wedding." He charges $125 for children's birthdays, $150 for adults'. Weeknights are cheaper. For a seven-hour corporate gig he will ask $100 an hour, but gives discounts for frequent customers.
"One day I did six magic shows," he says. "In the morning, eight o'clock, I was at the IBM building downtown. Then I had to go to Elgin. Then I had to come back and I went to Hoopeston, Illinois. I'd never heard of it. Then I had to go to Dundee...no...Dick Van Dyke, where is he from? Danville! We had to go to Danville, Illinois. From there I had to go to that town in Indiana--Merrillville--where they do all the shows and all that. I come home at night, my wife says there's a phone call from Seamless Cutters in Lombard. I used to do their magic. They left a message. 'Tell Mr. Ash that if he wants to come 11, 11:30, we don't care.' They were having a Christmas party. I told my wife, 'Tell 'em I got in too late.' These were traveling shows. You load, unload, drive. That's what's bad."
The lawyer's wife in Highland Park instructed Mr. Ash to set up his magic table in the living room. As dozens of people finished brunch, he unpacked his plates, coins, cards, scarves, glasses, beer bottles, and other props. He unveiled a "Mr. Ash, Magician" banner, donned a black and silver vest, and was ready to go.
"Some rich people are the nicest people you've ever met," he observed. "They'll change your flat tire for you. Others are just cheap bastards."
The show began, and Mr. Ash could soon see that this was a nice bunch. He produced a bottle of Schlitz, which he usually transforms into a Guinness. He asked a man in the crowd what kind of beer he'd like instead of Schlitz.
"Bottle of wine," the man said.
"It'd be awful hard to make beer into wine," said Ash. "Some guy did that about 2,000 years ago."
"Ladies and gentlemen," Ash said, "as you can tell from the difficulties I have saying some things, I am not from this country. I only came to this country, oh, about three apartment buildings ago."
The next hour was a cavalcade of card tricks, mind reading, and jokes. Mr. Ash made a long rope short and a short rope long. He made coins pour out of someone's ear and made it look like he was pulling a bra out of a woman's shirt. Everyone enjoyed his repertoire of jokes about Jews and lawyers.
When Mr. Ash got into magic, he really got into magic. His habit of going to garage sales paid off, and by the mid-70s he was operating a magic trick mail-order business out of his basement. When magicians vanished, Ash was there to relieve them of their stock, whether it was antiquated or not. "A guy came in and said, 'How long you been a magician?' I said two, three years. The guy said, 'I've been a magician 25 years. I don't have this much junk.'"
Eventually Ash started his own magic school, on Lincoln Avenue near Lawrence. The school was somewhat popular, but the magic tricks for sale proved even more so. Ash devoted one room of the school solely to inventory, yet the inventory began leaking into the class area. "I got more and more and more and more and more," says Mr. Ash.
In 1982 he moved his operation to Western Avenue and opened Ash's Magic Shop. It quickly became a magnet for magicians, amateur and professional, from around the midwest and the nation at large. Ash also sells by catalog, constantly replenishing his enormous stock through both garage sales and trick distributors large and small.
The shop is open until 6 PM Monday through Saturday. Most days, Mr. Ash shows up at 4 PM after work, or at 5 on days when he goes to the gym. At the store he books shows and does free demonstrations for interested customers. In October Ash takes down the magic tricks and turns the shop into a Halloween emporium. When he's not around, the store is run by his wife, Bonnie, who is not a magician.
"I can make money disappear," she says wryly.
One frequent customer at Ash's Magic Shop is Lee Preston, a circuit court judge who is also an amateur magician. He often stops by after work to chat with Mr. Ash about the art.
"Anything you could be looking for as a magician, you find at Ash's Magic Shop," says Judge Preston. "They have stuff that nobody else carries. Maybe they carried them 10 years ago, or 20 years ago, but it's here. If you look around, there are things that you've never seen before. Bonnie knows where everything is. Ash collects it, and Bonnie puts it where it belongs. They have everything back here. If you need flash paper, they have tons of it. I don't know if they opened this one drawer for you, but that drawer is full of cards. Any kind of gimmick deck of cards you can think of in the world. Most stores will have two, three, four, five. And all of these drawers have different gimmicks in them. I'm not puffing for Ash. That's a fact. None of this stuff that you see here is new. These are old, classic tricks. You can't find this anywhere else. They just don't have it. It's almost like a magic museum--some of this hasn't been marketed for decades. And Ash has it. Penn and Teller stopped in here when they were in Chicago. As a magician, if you run out of something, if you need a prop or you need a trick that fits into a certain part of your act, the first place you think of is Ash's Magic Shop."
On Saturdays, magicians come in, have a cup of coffee, and talk trade. For a time Ash joined them, but he got sick of them not buying anything so he started doing road shows instead. The shop almost always has visitors. On a recent Thursday when I stopped by, Ash was hosting Judge Preston. Soon after, a plumbing contractor from the neighborhood appeared. He'd been wanting to stop in for years, he said. Two boys who were interested in learning card tricks came in too. Ash showed off a little bit and told jokes, mostly to the adults. This one, in particular, he loves.
"There's this rabbi, this priest, and this minister," Ash said. "They're talking about rats. The minister says, 'We don't want nothing to happen to the rats. We have a special thing where we take them back into the woods. Sometimes they come back. That's the bad part about it.' The priest says, 'We have a trap that kills the rats. We put them in the woods, but a lot of them are alive when we catch them. So sometimes they come back.' The rabbi says, 'We have a different way. What we do is get 'em all together, give 'em a bar mitzvah. Once they leave they never come back.'"
I'd heard it before. It looked like the judge had too. The contractor didn't seem to get the joke.
For several years, Mr. Ash performed at Schulien's, a venerable restaurant on Irving Park that recently closed. For three years he did weekend gigs at a place called Mr. C's, in Berwyn. And for ten years he worked Fridays and Saturdays at the old New York Lounge, a bar on Lincoln Avenue that featured seven magicians on seven stages. "You went there one night, you saw enough magic to last you a lifetime," he says.
Mr. Ash likes to tell the following story:
"About 12 years ago, a guy comes in the shop to buy tricks for his kid. He says, 'Hey, I have a band that plays at this bar on Lincoln Avenue, a blues band.' 'Cause I told him I play the guitar and all that. So I went to see him. I got there early because I had a show downtown earlier that night. It was about eight o'clock. So I went inside and I sat at the bar. I had on a tuxedo, but it's not that kind of a bar, so I closed my overcoat. It was winter. I had a Diet Coke, whatever, and the bartender said, 'Don't I know you from somewhere? It's Mr. Ash from the New York Lounge!' We started talking about the New York Lounge. Anyway, the band came in and they're setting up. Then my friend came and said, 'Hey, Mr. Ash, let me introduce you to the band.' He takes me to the drummer, who said, 'Hi, Mr. Ash, how are you? How's your wife? I haven't seen you in a few days.' My friend said to the bartender, 'You know Mr. Ash?' The bartender says, 'Sure, I used to see him at the New York Lounge.' He said to the drummer, 'You know Mr. Ash?' The drummer said, 'Yeah, I live four doors from him.' The bass player came in, he said, 'Hey, Rick, I want you to meet someone.' The bass player said, 'Hi, Mr. Ash! You still got that shop?' Finally, he went onstage and says, 'Ladies and gentlemen! I want to introduce my friend Mr. Ash! Is there anybody here who doesn't know him?'"
Of late, Mr. Ash has been playing Friday nights at Ricky G's, a nondescript but pleasant workingman's bar on Western near Touhy. Only a fading handwritten sign in the front window advertises his act:
Be Mystified Every Friday Night
From 9 PM to Midnight By
Chicago's Finest Magician "Mr. Ash."
Business at Ricky G's has improved since he arrived. "He's perfect for this place," says the bar's owner, Dave Zimmer. "To be honest, a lot of people who come in here don't want to see a magician. They come in here to drink and bullshit with their buddies. But if they don't want to, they don't have to deal with him."
On a recent Friday night, my wife and I went to Ricky G's to catch Mr. Ash's act. He stood behind the bar, wearing his tuxedo with a tie in the shape of a butterfly and a button that read "Mr. Ash. No tricks. Just miracles." We and one other couple were the only ones watching him.
"What's your name?" he said to the other woman.
"Can I call you Susie?"
"What time can I call you, Susie?"
Susie's companion went nuts. "You don't know how funny that is," he said.
Mr. Ash turned five dimes into a 50-cent piece.
"Oh, man, I had a nightmare last night," he said. "You ever had a nightmare?"
"Yep," Susie said.
"I dreamt that I was a baby and Pamela Anderson was my mother. She was bottle-feeding me. What a nightmare!"
Mr. Ash was doing his adult material. A series of card tricks ensued, and then he made my wife's wedding band disappear.
"How does he do that?" Mr. Ash said. "I have no idea."
Mr. Ash eventually came out from behind the bar and began going from table to table. I followed him, and a woman named Dawn O'Brien quickly accosted us.
"You're the shit," she said to Mr. Ash. Then, to me, she said, "He is just so awesome. He is just the most awesome dude ever. One time he said, 'Can I have a cigarette?' He pulled one out of my pack, and it was already lit! Last week he said, 'Pick a card and write your name on it.' So I did. Then he threw the card in a bag with a bunch of other cards. Then he cut the bag with a knife, and the knife went through my card!"
She turned to Mr. Ash again.
"You are the shit!" she said.
As the evening progressed Mr. Ash won over some skeptics and broke out some new tricks for the regulars. "He knows like 20,000 jokes," Zimmer said, "so he's got different ones every week."
As the patrons got drunk, Mr. Ash became somewhat irrelevant to them. "If you're so fucking good," said one guy, "come in here during a Bears game and get a fucking drink. Then you'll be a magician."
A guy walked into the bar. He gazed at Mr. Ash in shock.
"My God!" he exclaimed. "It's you! From the New York Lounge on Lincoln Avenue!"
"You don't have to call me God," said the magician. "My name is Mr. Ash."
After the party in Highland Park, Mr. Ash and I drove to a bungalow on the northwest side, where he was scheduled to play a six-year-old's birthday party at three.
"Hi, magician!" said the kid.
"Hello!" said Mr. Ash.
"It's my birthday!"
"What's your name?"
"Can you make him disappear?" said a girl. "He's my brother."
"No," Charlie said. "Make her disappear."
Mr. Ash is modest about his conjuring skills. "Even when I was a musician, I used to tell jokes and do funny things. I always wanted to be funny. I always thought people should be entertained. The magicians tell me, 'You don't fool us with your tricks, but you make us laugh.' A guy introduced me once. He said, 'The next gentleman I'm gonna introduce, I've known him, I've seen him many, many shows. He doesn't fool me. But he sure entertains the hell out of me. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Ash.'"
But his compatriots respect his magic. Says Judge Lee Preston, "I have him on tape doing his magic show, and let me tell you, it's his specialty. I don't care what he says."
At the birthday party, no one seemed to care. The adults sat in the shade, smoking and drinking beer. They put the kids on a blanket to roast in the sun. Mr. Ash stood before them, visibly weakened by the heat. He plowed through the show. Charlie threw a fit because Ash gave his sister a prize for volunteering for a trick. Ash later admitted that this had been a mistake. There was much whining and carrying on, though by the time Ash produced Cleo the rabbit from the box, everyone seemed happy.
"This show got to me," he said later in the car. "You get all kinds of stuff like this in my business. You get some shows where the parents don't even show up for their own kid's birthday. You know what happens to me? Every once in a while I do a magic show and my heart isn't in it. I hate myself when that happens, so I have to move around and shout to get myself going. Then I almost have a heart attack."
Mr. Ash and I went back to his house, not far from his shop. He needed to have a cup of coffee and switch rabbits. Cleo was replaced by Snowball. Bonnie, his wife, was watching TV and folding laundry. The house was full of stuff Mr. Ash had bought at garage sales.
"You can't bring someone over when the house looks like this!" Bonnie said.
"The house always looks like this," he said.
We then drove a couple of blocks to his five o'clock gig, a bar mitzvah party for a 45-year-old man named Norman. The bar mitzvah had actually taken place in Ukraine; the party was a fund-raiser for a Jewish charity. Mr. Ash was the featured act.
"He's a neighbor," said Norman's wife, Fern, who was behind the affair. "Whenever we have a yard sale Mr. Ash is here early. Very early. And he buys everything."
Mr. Ash set up in the backyard. He had decided to combine his children's and his adults' shows for Norman, and his heart was definitely in this one. He did some mind reading, and the crowd laughed and laughed. For a special treat in Norman's honor, he burned blue-and-white paper in a casserole pan and an Israeli flag appeared. He made the crowd chant the magic word, which for this show was "mazel tov." During one trick, which mostly involved dumping water on himself and shrieking a lot, a woman shouted out, "Mr. Ash! You're so silly!"
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said in parting, "my name is Mr. Ash. I am a professional magician. I own and operate a magic shop on Western Avenue....I'd like to thank you very much for watching this little nonsense. I hope you had a laugh or two."
"Yay!" shouted the same woman. "We love Mr. Ash!"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.