Magic and mystery, Chicago’s history

By Sophia Coleman

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, come one, come all to see the spectacle and wonder that Chicago’s magic history revealed.

From the full service magic shop, Magic Inc., 5082 N. Lincoln Ave., to one of Chicago’s oldest restaurants, O’Donovan’s, 2100 W. Irving Park Road, it is no secret that sleight of hand is alive and well in the city.

“[The magic scene] is very strong,” said Jay Collen, a magician and demonstrator at Magic Inc. “There are a lot of active magicians, and Chicago has a tremendous magic tradition.”

On Jan. 28, people will have the opportunity to take home a piece of magic’s history during the Potter & Potter auctions, 3729 N. Ravenswood Ave. Bidders can vie for items like autographed magic books, playing cards and silk scarves from famed 19th and 20th century magicians Larry Jennings and Dai Vernon.

Potter & Potter auctions began in 2008 when founder Gabe Fajuri appraised the estate of historic Chicago magician Jay Marshall, the owner of Magic Inc. There were so many items that an auction was proposed in order to disperse the objects.

Fajuri still has an abundance of magical items up for auction, including the glove puppet “Lefty,” which was part of Marshall’s ventriloquist act. He estimates the price will go as high as $4,000 because one has never been sold before.

“We’re selling things that appeal to magicians, but also appeal to the general public,” Fajuri said. “There’s a whole world of antiques out there that people are not aware of, so I think it’s worth [it] to take a peek behind the curtain.”

More of Marshall’s history can be found at Magic Inc., which began in 1926 at a different location downtown under the name Ireland Magic Company. The store was originally owned by Laurie Ireland, and Marshall took over in 1954 after marrying Ireland’s widow, Francis. Collen, who was also a long-time friend of Marshall, said the shop moved to its current location on Lincoln Avenue in 1963 and was renamed Magic Inc. Marshall soon became the dean of the Society of Magicians and made a record 14 appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

After Marshall died in 2005, his son Alexander “Sandy” Marshall took over. Sandy Marshall, a graduate of the Goodman Theatre School in Chicago, is also an accomplished magician, writer and Emmy award-winning producer. Marshall currently is in London, where he is debuting his hit show “The Art of Concealment,” a play about the life of gay British playwright Terence Rattigan.

“[Sandy’s] direct involvement in running Magic Inc. has been instrumental to its success,” Collen said.

Collen, who has been teaching lessons at Magic Inc. since 2004, first became interested in magic when he was taught a sleight-of-hand trick at age 7 by his cousin, Carl Ballantine, who was a full-time professional magician. Collen’s specialty is manipulative magic, meaning he uses objects in his hands as opposed to an apparatus.

“[There is] enormous lore and history to Magic Inc.,” Collen said. “You walk in there and you are a part of magic history, not just Chicago magic history.”

Another integral part of Chicago’s magic history lies in O’Donovan’s, which was named Schulien’s for 100 years. The magic began in 1915 when Harry Blackstone Sr., a famed Chicago-born stage magician and illusionist, went to the restaurant for dinner and performed tricks for the owner, Joseph Schulien, and his son, Matt. Schulien’s son was so intrigued that he began performing for patrons, and magic became a mainstay at the restaurant.

Al James, head magician at O’Donovan’s, said although the magic performances are not as frequent as they were in the ’50s and ’60s, the art of magic is still popular in the city.

“Nobody’s opened another restaurant like [O’Donovan’s] that [is] completely dedicated to showcasing magicians,” James said. “Actually there [are] a lot of magicians working in restaurants, but it’s more

scattered around.”

James, whose specialty is close-up magic that is performed with the audience close to the magician, said he incorporates original ideas into his performance. One of his signatures is producing a baseball underneath someone’s drink, and his favorite is the haunted handkerchief—or in this case, a napkin—which he said patrons get a kick out of.

“The main aspect [of magic] is entertainment,” James said. “People want to leave their own troubles for a while. Magicianry is a great form of escapism.”

While most magicians agree that audiences use the art form of magic as a vacation for the mind, magician Eugene Burger believes that magic also holds deeper meaning.

“The most important lesson that I’ve learned [through magic] is that you are the magician in your own life, and you either play it or you don’t,” Burger said. “If you don’t, you become the victim.”

Burger, who has been practicing magic for more than 25 years, practices both close-up and storytelling magic. He said magic is an interesting art form because it has the ability to transcend the human condition. While other art forms sometimes reach that point, he said many don’t surpass it.

“Performance magic is a lot deeper,” Burger said. “It reminds you of things that you are in danger of forgetting in a highly industrialized society. Things are not always what they seem to be, and so if you want to be a success, you have to be awake and alert.”

For more information on the Potter & Potter auction, visit Catch Al James at O’Donovans, 2100 W. Irving Park Road, on Friday nights. Visit to watch a video of Jay Collen’s magic.