When Joey Cranford's wife jokingly bought him a magic kit as a Christmas present, she had no idea what she had unleashed.
"There was an especially good trick in there," he said, one that spurred the research-oriented Cranford to begin exploring and eventually led him to discover what he calls the Golden Age of Chicago-style magic, when magicians moved from table to table doing card and coin illusions, which thrived at various bars and clubs throughout the city during the 20th century.
Sadly, by the 1980s, these clubs were closing down. Cranford theorizes that the rise of stand-up comedy displaced it, but he also wonders if "bad magic" killed it. With so many venues, he opines, there were bound to be second-rate performers who would turn people off to the scene. People who witnessed these poorly trained practitioners may have given up on magic for good. "When the contract is there for you to fool me and I see everything," Cranford said, "you're wasting my time."
His vision of a new home base for magic began in 2015, when a friend was opening Uptown Underground and offered him one night to organize a magic show. Cranford made the decision to "tell the story" of Chicago magic in every show.
It didn't take long before the shows became so successful that they needed their own space, and Cranford's concept became the Chicago Magic Lounge, whose unusual Andersonville theatre opened in February 2018, a club especially designed to give customers a true taste of Chicago-style magic as well as a cabaret where they can see headline magicians.
The lounge itself is hidden behind what appears to be a laundromat at 5050 N. Clark St, which is intended as both an homage to the building's past ( history is everything ) and a way that people will feel the pull of something unusual from the moment they walk through the door. But once they figure out how to get past the false front, many more surprises await that are not limited to sliding or hidden wall panels.
The entertainment begins at the fully stocked bar ( a light food menu is also available ), at which veteran Chicago magicians draw audiences in with their banter and their illusions. Once inside the art deco cabaret itself, patrons are treated to magic performed at their tables by a band of roving and personable magicians before the main show even starts.
"Our job is to expose people to how rich magic is as a creative form and then to give them variety," said Entertainment Director Benjamin Barnes. In selecting magicians for the club, he realizes that the profession of magic has long been a male-dominated one, but he strives to change that. "You'll see yourself" reflected on the stage," he assures. "Every night at Chicago Magic Lounge there will be at least one woman, one Person of Color; all are bad-ass magicians."
One of these women is Jan Rose, a longtime veteran of the Chicago and national magic scenes who told Windy City Times that, when she got into magic, "I was so excited about the job that I didn't even notice that it was a male-dominated industry." Still, she said that, even after she started to understand that, "I was embraced by the magic ( community ); I never felt any kind of discrimination at all."
Neither has Paige Thompson, who was given a magic kit by her grandmother when she was just 6 years old and became obsessed. She said, "I started doing birthday parties. I was making money in high school and started wondering, why can't I do this forever?" She acknowledged that most magicians are men, but felt it is because "girls just don't see other girls doing it."
Everyone agreed that what Cranford has created is essentially a family. Thompson loved the fact that she has been able to learn from so many other magicians. Rose quoted her husband, magician Danny Ocean, as saying, "All of the magicians [at the lounge], stand on each other's shoulders."
Perhaps it is this atmosphere as much as anything else that draws the customers. Cranford noted that he does very little advertising, but the place is packed most nights. People are "moved by the story we tell," he said. "Word of mouth works best if you make your customer the hero of the journey, if you give them a story that is worthy of saying, 'listen to this.'"
"What makes people come," said Barnes, "is curiosity. People love magic, but they don't know until they see it. The thrill for me is that I love watching audiences watch magic."
For Cranford, who said he believes that "the Silver Age of bar magic is this next generation," the joy is found every time he watches a new trick. "I love being fooled," he said. "I don't want to know how it's done," adding, "truly, the secrets of magic are stupid, but the effect is amazing."
The Chicago Magic Lounge is at 5050 N. Clark St. Performances are nightly with a family-friendly matinee on Sunday. Visit ChicagoMagicLounge.com or call 312-366-4500.