Ask anyone to name three great magicians, and you're likely to hear a combination of Harry Houdini, David Blaine, and David Copperfield. Ask a lifetime Chicagoan, and they might drop some less familiar names, including Bert Allerton and Marshall Brodien. But if you ask Joe Diamond and David Parr, be prepared for a full-on history lesson.
Diamond and Parr perform The Magic Cabaret on Wednesday nights at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Their act doesn't have top hats or tigers—it's all close-up magic in the Chicago style, which means mind-boggling card tricks and plenty of audience interaction. The stage itself embodies this no-frills aesthetic: a single table is placed in the center, where the volunteer and magician sit to share a seemingly unexplainable occurrence. The intimacy is by design, an homage to the Chicago magicians who pioneered this brand of casual prestidigitation.
"A Secret History of the City"
Before the Chicago style, magicians and their spectators inhabited separate worlds. Diamond explains that during the earliest street magic performances, Indian fakirs would sit on a mat that clearly delineated them from the crowd. Even when close-up magic became prevalent in the 1930s and '40s, magicians would carry a tray that hooked onto the dinner table and served as a stage.
"The first person [historians] can find who's sitting at the table with the people—and they're all in the same space literally and figuratively—was Matt Schulien," Diamond says. Schulien was a game changer. His personality powered his magic, and he took his charisma straight to onlookers’ seats, elbowing his way through whatever fourth wall had previously existed. His illusions centered around small objects and playing cards—some of which he hid in the folds of his sizable stomach. These were hardly new tools, yet the tricks were groundbreaking. "It was a collective experience, … not a spectator sport,” Parr says. “It created an atmosphere in which something magical could happen at any moment."
Schulien performed at two incarnations of his eponymous Chicago restaurant from the early '20s until the '60s. His methods became known as the Chicago style of magic, and others soon emulated the colloquial approach. There was Bert Allerton, who would perform in a tuxedo for guests at the Pump Room, and Don Alan, whose close-up magic was featured on his own television show, Don Alan's Magic Ranch. Meanwhile, Al Andrucci (known as Heba Haba Al) made the rounds at magic bars such as the New York Lounge, the Pickle Barrel, and, of course, Schulien's. His most famous trick involved drawing an X on a sugar cube, which he then dropped into a glass of water. A patron would hold a hand over the glass, and once the cube dissolved, they would find the X inscribed on their palm.
If you didn't frequent these establishments, you wouldn't recognize these names or the term "Chicago style" in reference to magic. "It's like a secret history of the city," Parr says. However, magicians across the globe—from mentalists to large-scale Vegas acts—recognize the Chicago style as its own distinct art form.
Stories to Astound
Parr and Diamond have been rehearsing tricks since the ages of 5 and 7, respectively. Before they met through a mutual friend, both remember feeling out of place in the magic community. "I was into magic that was kind of weird, that had supernatural themes," Parr explains. While his friends perfected the art of producing doves from nowhere, he was drawn to eerie narratives. "There's the fun aspect of magic up here on the surface level, but beneath it there's a disturbing implication … [that] there are forces in the world that we might not understand."
He wasn't a fan of the "pander or die" mentality found in comedy clubs and Las Vegas auditoriums. He wanted focus and a place "where the show can be like a conversation." The Magic Cabaret became the perfect outlet.
Diamond found himself in a similar rut during his first year of college, when he felt overwhelmed by all the choices facing him in his magic career. Upon meeting Parr, he was captivated by the older magician's knack for conveying a trick through storytelling. He started to contribute to The Magic Cabaret as a guest performer, and, in November 2012, he joined Parr as a permanent fixture.
Their weekly show is a collage of narration, humor, and confounding illusions. Many rely on parables, such as Diamond's description of the meanings behind each ace in the deck (one for luck, one for wealth, one for love, and one for death). Others explore moments in history—Parr has a trick that reenacts the fatal poker hand dealt to Wild Bill Hickok, leaving the volunteer with the "dead man's hand" no matter what cards they choose at the outset. Whether they're personal or spooky, the stories engage listeners and act as launching pads for the sleight of hand, which is conducted just as close to the volunteer's nose as it ever was at Schulien's.
Embracing the Unknown
To Diamond and Parr, one of the key attractions of the Chicago style is that it necessitates human connection. They emphasize that it's not a selfish brand of magic, or, as Parr says, "It's not about 'look what I can do.' It's 'look what we can do together.'" Rather than trying to dupe their audience, the performer collaborates with them to create amazing feats. And the closer you look, the more rewarding the show.
"A lot of people think that magic is about misdirection … I would say it's the opposite. The less they're paying attention, the more difficult it is to perform magic," says Diamond. The duo urges people to lean in and watch as they move through their tricks with slow, deft movements. It's the sort of act that demands to be seen live, and the pair is always heartened when they're the first magicians that someone has encountered in the flesh, as opposed to on a screen.
Most importantly, they view the experience of near and immediate mystery as a healthy practice. "If you are amazed by this, it means you're smart. It means your brain is working," Diamond says, responding to the misconception that magic is for the gullible. "Einstein was fooled by magic!" He also mentions Georges Méliès, the French illusionist who transformed early cinema with his special effects. "He changed the way we consumed entertainment forever, and he was a magician."
Parr takes particular issue with the notion that magic shows are for children. It's the adults, he says, who need a reminder of the mutability of perception. "We tend to live in a culture that values answers over questions. And being in that place of questioning, of not knowing, is a good place to be." As the artists behind The Magic Cabaret, they hope that these questions evolve from “How did he do that?” to ones about the human experience as a whole. What might you question about the world after seeing a light bulb levitate? After having a rubber band pass through your arm? These tricks teach us that there's more than one way to observe any given moment, not only in the theater but in life itself.
Photo: © Timothy Burkhart, Groupon