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Chicago Magic Lounge Brings Back the City’s ‘Close-Up’ Magic Tradition, In Style

The city’s first magic bar in nearly 20 years is 6,000 square feet of cocktails, sleight-of-hand, and cabaret—and getting in is a trick in itself.

Ryan Plunkett entertains guests at the Chicago Magic Lounge.   Photo: Daniel Boczarski

There’s no obvious mystery behind the ordinary brick façade of 5050 N. Clark Street.

But if passers-by looked up at the neon letters on the ceiling above the door, they’d discover the word “misdirection”—and their first clue that this 1940s-era commercial laundry is not what it seems. If visitors can work out the right path through the washers and dryers, they will enter a hidden world of artifice, ruse, and subterfuge where roving magicians befuddle all who enter.

Chicago is the birthplace of close-up magic, and in the Chicago Magic Lounge, the city has a grand new stage dedicated to the art for the first time in nearly 20 years.

The 6,000-square-foot space features a cocktail bar, where magicians will dazzle drinkers free of charge; the Blackstone Cabaret, a 120-seat theatre that will host stage performances starting at $30; and the 654 Club, a smaller back room where the audience can experience intimate close-up shows for an additional $10. Tickets for the main stage will be available Wednesday through Saturday, with a family-friendly matinee on Sundays.

Actor and comedian Joey Cranford started the Chicago Magic Lounge more than three years ago as a Thursday-night show at the Uptown Underground before the weekend’s burlesque performances. He would open the nightly festivities with a whirlwind historical primer on Chicago’s old magic bars, the last of which closed just before the turn of the century. Cranford’s passionate delivery signaled a museum-quality appreciation of Chicago-style magic—something most of the audience probably didn’t even know existed.

The bar at the Chicago Magic Lounge Photo: Steve Hall

Now, Cranford and partner Don Clark have created a real-life museum to the art, replete with relics and souvenirs from Chicago’s most famous magic bars, including the New York Lounge, Little Bit O’ Magic, and the last of them all, Schulien’s (which shuttered in 1999). Everything inside has meaning, especially the extensive collection of books: physically picking up Corinda’s 13 Steps to Mentalism causes the fireplace to slide open, allowing patrons to move from the outer bar to the inner sanctum.

“Magic doesn’t have to be bunny rabbits and top hats,” Cranford says. “It can be sophisticated enough to fool you and fun enough to keep you entertained.”

Cranford is also resurrecting the Chicago Magic Round Table—originally established in 1929 as a regular lunch meeting for amateur and professional conjurers. For $250 a year, members will receive free entry to shows, discounts on food and beverages, access to the Lounge’s library, and more. In the future, Cranford hopes to establish a professional school for aspiring magicians.

The Magic Lounge aims to create the kind of community standup comedy has enjoyed for decades: a hub where magicians can learn and practice new material on each other. “I’ve been in magic for over 30 years, and I’ve never seen the community more unified than it is now,” says Jan Rose, one of the Lounge’s elder stateswomen. “We’re all working together.”

Like vaudeville, magic has been in decline as a form of adult entertainment since the days when it became popular to have a clownish magician circulating at a child’s birthday party. But there was a time when it was de rigueur for Chicago bartenders to be able to conjure a few tricks while customers tippled their Old Styles.

This was the opposite of elaborate stagecraft, with pretty ladies being sawn in half and shackled men in water tanks struggling to free themselves before drowning. It was a deeply intimate form of magic where miniature vanishes, penetrations, and transpositions were performed with seemingly ordinary objects in front of spectators’ faces—or sometimes inside their own hands.

“In Chicago, unlike most other major cities in the United States, there was a defined market for a type of magic that wasn’t for kids,” says Max Maven, a world-renowned mentalist who is opening the theatre with five performances this weekend. “That’s a really special tradition. And I would like to think this new venue will restore that.”

Having a famous magician like Maven preside over the grand opening is a testament to the Magic Lounge’s aspirations for hosting global talent. But Cranford is also adamant that it’s just as much a place where local up-and-comers like Justin Purcell, Luis Carreon, and Trent James (you heard about ‘em here first, folks) will remind the world that close-up magic is just as “Chicago” as hot dogs, deep-dish, blues and improv.

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