The House Theatre of Chicago has brought magician Dennis Watkins to the Palmer House for an open run of The Magic Parlour that promises to astound audiences. Guests meet at the Potter's Lounge then are escorted to a 32-seat intimate library-styled room. There the magic begins, from classic tricks such as linking rings to mind-reading stunts.
Our dear Watkins keeps the room laughing and guessing at what he has up his sleeve. We met for lunch to learn more about what goes on behind the magic curtain.
Windy City Times: So, Dennis, when did you start performing at the Palmer House?
Dennis Watkins: In January. The Magic Parlour is something we started down at the Chopin Theater, which is where The House Theatre does most of the shows. We started it two years ago. It was a very different feeling event. Some of the same material is in the show but it was down in their little basement bar area.
WCT: I have seen shows down there before.
Dennis Watkins: Then you know it is a quirky space with lots of furniture. It was a late-night Wicker Park event. We ran it down there for a while but the opportunity came to run it at the Palmer House and we jumped on it.
WCT: It must feel more upscale.
Dennis Watkins: It does. I think it was fun at Chopin but now at the Palmer House it is a special event. It's good for a date or special celebration.
WCT: You are a third-generation magician?
Dennis Watkins: Yes; my granddad was a magician. He did slight of hand magic for a long time then after World War II started working at a magic shop in Texas that he stayed for 30 years. He did a lot of magic at the shop and was an excellent sleight-of-hand performer. He was my primary teacher when I was a kid learning to do magic.
WCT: So you learned from a young age?
Dennis Watkins: From when I was a little kid, which is funny because none of my three brothers had an interest in doing magic. None of my cousins did either so I was the only from my grandfather that did. We used to go to magician conventions, so it was super-duper fun for me!
WCT: Doesn't that take the magic out of it?
Dennis Watkins: Well, seeing the behind-the-scenes does, but watching it I still get totally fooled. It is awesome when that happens.
WCT: How much do you practice to do a trick?
Dennis Watkins: An awful lot, especially when something is dependent on specific sleight of hand. I have a little brother who is a pianist and I compare the two. There is daily practice and daily repetition. It is like playing a piano where you can enjoy it and stop thinking about how you do it.
WCT: When I did magic as a kid I had a suitcase full of tricks like yours onstage. Does everyone have a suitcase?
Dennis Watkins: When we did a show called Death and Harry Houdini, and the stage manager brought in a suitcase just like you had. His dad had the suitcase in the attic for years with tricks in it. We opened the suitcase and all of the items were stamped with "shipped to you from Douglas Magic Shop in Texas," which was my grandfather's magic shop. I took pictures and sent it to my dad.
WCT: Do you go to school for something like this?
Dennis Watkins: I went to school for theater. I grew up learning magic and all I wanted to do was be a magician. When I got to high school I studied theater to help me with magic. I studied acting in college then started a theater group in Chicago with friends from my college, which is The House Theatre. Now it is fun that I am back in the magic world.
WCT: It seems like the spiel is as important as the tricks.
Dennis Watkins: Absolutely. The fun part of being the performer is making it fun for the audience. It is taking the things that magicians did in the '30s and making it current now. Scripting and enjoying it is the trick.
WCT: It is almost like a stand-up act.
Dennis Watkins: It is. I learned pretty quickly when I wanted to pay my rent and was doing corporate events that making it funny became incredibly important to getting audiences to pay attention. Some performers take it very seriously but it's magic, man! It should be fun and light.
WCT: Your show was a modern take on stylish magic from the past.
Dennis Watkins: When we moved it to the Palmer House I wanted it to be classic magic in an old school venue. The blindfold segment has been around for a long time. Those things are still interesting to people and fool them. It is probably nowhere as dry as it was the '30s and hopefully a lot funnier. The Sam the bellhop trick was done by my grandfather ages ago.
WCT: It [takes] audiences back to being little kids.
Dennis Watkins: I think it should. My hope is that people come to see the show and don't even ask how a trick works by the end of the show because they won't care at that point. I want them to have fun to be fooled and wonder about it.
WCT: It seems like a good date night show for people. We need to build your gay audience.
Dennis Watkins: They have been trickling in, which I appreciate.
WCT: Do you want to move the show to other places?
Dennis Watkins: I want to stay in Chicago because of the theater scene and I love it. My family is all over the country not just in Texas now. I have built a really great family here. People think I have to move to Vegas and make this a big show, but I love a room of 50 people that I can involve with it. I want to build this show here and make it a long-running experience. If I could make this show run forever at the Palmer House, I would be really happy!
The Magic Parlour is an open run and currently has two shows at 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. every Friday at The Palmer House Hilton Hotel, 17 E. Monroe St. Tickets are $75; visit www.TheMagicParlourChicago.com or call 773-769-3832.