Will Tremonte's story goes like this: His life as a magician and storyteller began four generations ago, in 1873, when gypsies snatched his seven-year-old great-grandfather from his home in the Italian village of San Marco dei Cavoti, near Naples.
"He was gone for about seven years," Tremonte says. "Then, when he was 14 or 15, the gypsies were traveling through the part of Italy where he was born. He recognized where he was, ran away, and returned to his family."
From that point on he was a minor celebrity--not just for his unusual adventures but also because he had become a masterful storyteller. "He was illiterate, but eloquent," says Tremonte. "He knew hundreds of Italian folktales and gypsy legends. He could weave magic with his words and could spellbind audiences."
About 35 years later Tremonte's family had emigrated to Chicago's near west side. Tremonte's great-grandfather, though considered an old man by then, was still famous throughout the neighborhood for his colorful past and unusual abilities. "Everybody loved him," Tremonte says. "When he walked down the street people would call out his name."
One day a kindly wholesaler at the produce market on South Water Street told Tremonte's dad, then nine years old, that if he came back at the end of the day he could keep all the rotten bananas he could carry. Tremonte's great-grandfather showed the boy how to slit the pockets of his overcoat, making the lining one huge pocket--an old gypsy trick.
As Tremonte's father headed home down Halsted, his coat filled with bananas, he noticed a magician in a tuxedo performing on the dirty street between Jackson and Adams.
The man, Mr. Seewald, was an itinerant merchant and showman who made a living traveling around the country selling patent medicines. While he performed magic tricks to attract a crowd, his assistants sold sundry items--tonics, elixirs, special soaps--to the curious onlookers.
The moment Tremonte's father saw the magic act, he wanted to join the man onstage. "He worms his way to the front of the crowd, stares up at the magician with these blazing eyes, and Mr. Seewald pulls him onstage to help him with his finale."
The bit was the old chestnut called the miser's dream, in which the magician appears to pull coins from all kinds of odd places--behind the ears, under the chin, the back of the head. Mr. Seewald tossed the coins one by one into a tin pail, where they landed with a satisfying clank. The magician gave Tremonte's dad the pail to hold.
"Suddenly Mr. Seewald looks at my father and stops in the middle of his act," says Tremonte.
"What do you have in your pockets?" Mr. Seewald asked.
"Nothing," replied the kid.
Mr. Seewald asked again, and again received the same noncommittal reply. So he rolled up his sleeve, thrust his arm into the boy's pocket, and removed a banana. The audience tittered. He reached in again and withdrew another banana. The audience laughed a little louder. He did it again, and the audience roared.
Tremonte pauses at this point, clearly relishing the tale. "That day," he continues, "Mr. Seewald made record sales. After the show he asked my dad, 'You live around here, kid?' And he took my dad under his wing." For the next four years, whenever Mr. Seewald was in town, he worked Tremonte's father into the show, sometimes as an assistant, sometimes as a shill, gradually letting him in on the tricks of the trade. Still, he was never able to fool his grandfather and his quick eye.
Though he never became a professional magician, Tremonte's dad was often called on to entertain at neighborhood clubs, family get-togethers, and other events. In what was becoming a family tradition, two of his sons, Tom and William, became adept amateurs themselves. "As a kid I thought everybody did magic," Tremonte says.
In 1970 Tremonte went away to Southern Illinois University, at Carbondale, where he was persuaded to give up his dreams of performing magic professionally by an acting teacher who told him he had no talent. Instead, Tremonte graduated with a degree in English and worked for several years as a loan officer. A few years later he left that job to open up a barbershop in Wauconda. Once in a while he acted in a local community-theater production, but his interest in performing magic lay dormant until his brother discovered a tiny corner bar in Berwyn called Mr. C's Lounge where all the bartenders were magicians. The two became regulars.
Soon Tremonte's brother, tired of teaching junior high school, put together an act. His career flourished--"He performs a pickpocket act; you just step onstage with him, and he'll get your wallet, your watch, your belt, your necktie"--and eventually he talked Tremonte into joining him.
But as an adult, Tremonte found it much harder to build up the confidence and agility he'd had as a kid. "My hands would shake, I was so nervous. It took me about three years of appearing with my brother before I started performing on my own."
One night, unprepared for an acting class, he did a few impromptu magic tricks while relating the story of how the gypsies had kidnapped his great-grandfather. Impressed, his teacher, local director Sandra Grand, strongly suggested Tremonte collect his family stories and interlace them with his magic act.
The result, Sleight of Heart: A Magician's Diary, starts preview performances next weekend, Friday and Saturday, March 13 and 14, at 7:30 in the studio of the Chicago Cultural Center, 77 E. Randolph; tickets are $14 to $16. A free preview will be offered at 3 next Sunday, March 15. The show then opens at 7 Monday, March 16; a reception at La Strada Ristorante, 155 N. Michigan, follows this performance. Tickets for the opening are $12 to $16; to go the reception, add $25. Call 312-913-9446. --Jack Helbig
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by J.B. Spector.