The Arabian Nights might chronicle cup-and-ball or pebble-and-shell games promulgated by traveling players in marketplaces, and as a spectacle later migrating to medieval and Renaissance faires throughout Europe. However, in the United States, the birth of so-called "close-up" magic can be traced to 1925, when tavern owner Matt Schulien would amuse his customers with quicker-than-the-eye illusions, performed right at their tables, involving equipment no more complicated than ordinary coins and playing cards.
his novelty sparked a proliferation of entertainment venues offering magic as part of their line-ups. However, when these waned in popularity during the 1980s and '90s (with the venerable Schulien's finally closing in 1999), sleight-of-hand manipulation became associated with trade shows, casinos, and children's birthday parties.
John Sturk and his colleagues in the Society of American Magicians are not content to let that continue, however. Few solo shows may still enjoy regular runs, but the Magic Lounge at the Uptown Underground—a museum and cocktail bar devoted to the comedy, burlesque and vaudeville acts of Chicago's speakeasy era—is the only permanent stage in the city offering feats of legerdemain to audiences seeking to be painlessly bamboozled (or puzzlers like me looking for a challenge).
Created especially for the club located, literally, underground in the basement of a landmark Walter Ahlschlager-designed building near Broadway and Lawrence Avenue, the Magic Lounge plays host on Thursdays and Saturdays to a revolving cast of local and out-of-town artists—Windy City mentalist Mark Toland and California's David Cox on the night I attended.
But first, in keeping with period protocol, viewers waiting for the show to begin in the spacious Moonlight room are regaled with displays of prestidigital skills by house tricksters, until Sturk (at the piano) and emcee Joey Cranford introduce us to our milieu and the headlining performers to the stage.
Since a hallmark of cabaret magic is audience participation, several volunteers were called on for assistance—most of it co-operative (though Cox appeared momentarily shaken when a young Canadian woman, asked to name her "fantasy dream date," declared Jennifer Lawrence her choice).
To ensure that those for whom 90 minutes of teleportation, clairvoyance, and how-did-he-do-that are still insufficient, do not depart unsatisfied, the Magic Lounge's evening also includes (for a single admission) the late-night "bar magic" exhibit on Thursdays and, in the smaller "Starlight" space down the hall past the vintage gaming-machines on Saturdays, the intimate 20-spectator Close-Up show. The results make for cozy adult winter fun—especially if your last encounter with a "magic" show was in a grade-school festival that dissolved into chaos after the rabbits escaped.