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The secrets of Chicago’s not-so-secret society of magicians

Despite after-hours nightclub conclaves and Freemason-like fraternal initiation ceremonies, the mystique of the magic community is mostly smoke and mirrors.

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RYAN DUGGAN
  • Ryan Duggan

On a Thursday night in late September, men clad in bow ties and black vests work the floor of Uptown's Chicago Magic Lounge like street hustlers, snaking through a grid of tables to swoop in on audiences of two or three at a time. At one table, a magician turns two coins into three within a woman's clenched fist. Ten paces away a man's chosen card transports from the deck into a smirking magician's pocket. The Lounge, which opened early last year, is a throwback to Chicago's many magic bars of yore—places like Schulien's, the New York Lounge, and Little Bit O' Magic, where performers practiced a particular form called close-up magic that's done tableside in front of the onlookers' faces. The draw is the thrill of being fooled by simple sleight of hand, the Is-this-your-card?-type illusions.

What's particularly special about the Magic Lounge is that it doubles as a kind of incubator. Whenever there's a break in the action during the club's Thursday- and Saturday-night stage shows, off-the-clock magicians—many of them among the Magic Lounge's roster of 30 or so private members and each undoubtedly with a deck of cards in his pocket—cluster along the periphery of the bar to experiment with material on their peers, who most appreciate the rigors of the craft and who are most difficult to impress. Once the audience has gone, after-hours "sessions" overtake the club. Those in attendance workshop and talk shop with panache.

"If you've got a new flourish and you want to do it, the late-night session is the time," Magic Lounge host and cofounder Joey Cranford says. "That's when magicians get together and share the secrets of what they all know."

When Cranford, who's 39, opened the Lounge with fellow magic enthusiasts, he intended it as a clubhouse for magicians, a hideaway where tricks are shared and routines are sharpened offstage. "Our two-point mission is: (1) to reintroduce the public to this style of magic, and (2) to create both a community for magicians and a nightlife experience," he says.

On this particular Thursday, the showcase's headliner is Eric Jones, a Philadelphia magician known for his coin work, which he displayed last year on an episode of the CW network's Penn & Teller: Fool Us. Prior to the lounge's stage show—while paid, seated customers are being charmed by the posse of magicians working the tables—there are side sessions happening among magicians lining the back of the room.

Just below a VIP perch accessed via a flight of stairs, local magician Justin Purcell—who does a regular Tuesday-night gig at Logan Arcade—draws the focus of chatty card artist Simon Black. Purcell, 31, shows off the progress he's made on a "color change" trick Black taught him a while back, in which, with a wave of the hand, a two of clubs becomes a queen of hearts, which becomes an ace of spades, and so on. In front of the long, rustic wood bar, James Sanden, a gregarious fortysomething and Lounge regular, works a deck for an audience of Danny Rudnick (known onstage as Mister Danny) and hobbyist Al Koslow, who seems tickled just to be in on the action. Dead center in the club's back row, Eugene Burger—revered both as a longtime sage of close-up magic and keeper of a wizardlike beard—remains seated at his throne while the action whirls around him. The thrum of the room feels as much dictated by what's happening away from the curtain as what's happening directly in front of it. At one point even Jones, the night's star, threads his way through the throng, and is soon overheard demanding, "I need to have a deck of cards in my hand."

M A G I C

—Joey Cranford, Magic Lounge cofounder

The Magic Lounge and the spirit of community that enlivens it originated in 2014 with an invite-only back-room club based at Magic Inc., a vital incubator in its own right as one of the few surviving brick-and-mortar trick stores. ("During the day, you can go to a magic shop, sit around with magicians and bullshit," Cranford says of the stores' role.) John Sturk, the Magic Lounge's 33-year-old house piano player and one of its cofounders, was complaining about the lack of participation in more established fraternal organizations such as the International Brotherhood of Magicians and the Society of American Magicians ("the world's oldest magic organization," having been founded in 1902). "The same two or three people would take center stage while everyone else became spectators and just sat in the back to watch it like a show," Sturk says. "I wanted to be able to perform stuff I was working on to other magicians and get coaching and feedback—I wanted us all to help one another."

Cranford was eventually initiated into the Magic Inc.-based fraternity, which remained nameless though its few members occasionally referred to it as the Session Club. It wasn't long before he endeared himself to Sturk, who admits that during their first meeting he was "fooled pretty good" by one of Cranford's card tricks. Cranford says being part of a devoted fellowship of magicians was invaluable: "One week we'd work on how to do a torn-and- restored newspaper [trick] eight different ways," he says, "the next we'd talk about how to make a mouth coil," typically a tightly packed multicolored streamer that a magician will slowly draw out of his mouth. "John brought in books that discussed ways to do a trick and we'd make the prop instead of having to buy it."

After about a year, Cranford stopped practicing magic altogether and began working full bore on developing the Magic Lounge—which would be housed in the Uptown Underground space—while reporting back about the progress to Sturk and the other partners—magicians Terrence Francisco, Mike Rhodes, and the aforementioned Simon Black. Early on he met to discuss the concept with Bill Weimer, a magician and author of Now You See Them, Now You Don't, a memoir about his time in Chicago's magic-bar scene in the 1970s through the '90s. Cranford says he began to realize the potential for a club to draw on the city's significant magic legacy and breathe new life into the present-day scene.

The start-up capital for the club ultimately came from charter membership fees paid by magicians such as Bill Cook. Cook founded the Aces Magic Club in northwest-suburban Arlington Heights six years ago. (The suburbs, it turns out, are rife with magicians.) After separating from a club based at PJ's Trick Shop, also in Arlington Heights, Cook began furthering the belief that it's OK for magicians to share, to be conversational instead of competitive. "I wanted to focus on being well-rounded entertainers," he says. "What are the basic fundamentals of card and coin magic? What clowns can we get to help us make balloon animals? How do you pack so the TSA won't rifle through your stuff?"

For Cook, who has spent time wooing television audiences and corporate clients such as Apple, GM, and McDonald's, the idea that magic should be shrouded in secrecy is antiquated, even silly. "I'll physically take the gimmick out and hand it to you," he says. "I'm an open book."

Magicians commonly slog through lecture tours and industry conventions to peddle how-to notes and DVDs—it's part of the job, part of the hustle. So why attempt to hide the mechanics of a trick in plain sight when it can all too easily be replicated and/or appropriated? For Cook and like-minded members at the Lounge, magic is more about the wonder of the show. "I play this game called Spot the Thief," he says. "Two magicians do a similar trick. One explains he came up with it while sitting at a traffic light, a kind of divine intervention, while the other says, 'Well, I did balloon art for 15 years.' See, Batman has a more impressive backstory than Superman. Superman has innate superpowers; Batman had to suffer for his art."

RYAN DUGGAN
  • Ryan Duggan

The push for more transparency and solidarity among magicians has helped boost the member rolls of the Society of American Magicians, according to Sturk, who now heads the Chicago chapter. (Where he once felt detached from the organization, he now seems to believe the most effective way to make positive change is from inside the institution.)

"Famous illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer had a great quote: 'Magicians guard an empty safe.' It's not 'How did they do it?' The important thing is, 'How did it make you feel?' " Sturk says. "Magic is not nearly as secretive as you imagine it to be, though that's certainly part of the atmosphere."

Sturk traded on that mystique last year when he added a Freemason-like element to the SAM membership process to stir interest among new recruits. He dug up the annual initiation ceremony used in the early 20th century—and even flew out to see it in action at a SAM chapter in LA. Sturk believes that as fraternal organizations such as the Elks and Rotary continue to see their membership numbers trending downward, adding some extra appeal for would-be members is a sound plan for survival. The secrecy surrounding the initiation ceremony, for one, plays to the curiosity of those outside of SAM's usual orbit. Sturk refuses to discuss details of the rite and says that interlopers (journalists especially) aren't allowed to attend. But he goes on to joke, "Membership to the Society of American Magicians is very complicated. You have to pay $45 to the national council and your check has to clear."

AFTER ERIC JONES'S headlining set ends and the spectators have all made their exit, the Magic Lounge's after-hours conclave finally begins in earnest. The remaining magicians scatter throughout the space and make themselves comfortable at the bar and tables, taking the opportunity to ham it up more than a few notches above the reasonable volume they maintained throughout the show. Francisco, the Lounge cofounder who also happens to be a coin specialist, bounces between groups, chewing scenery with each trick he executes. Meanwhile hesitant novices sit back in their chairs, arms crossed, letting the parade of one-upmanship unfold in front of them. But it seems it's only a matter of time—and maybe a few beers—before a jittery, slightly buzzed newbie summons the courage to perform for his peers, uncertain if he's going to get through the routine without revealing the secret, the one that everyone else in the room already knows.

"It's really not exclusive, because all you have to do is show up," Sturk says of joining the fraternity of magicians. "Just learn one trick and, boom, you're a magician."   v

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