was laid off and decided to pursue his then-hobby full time.
PHOTO FOR THE TRIBUNE BY JOEL WINTERMANTLE
Al James Entertains at O’Donovan’s
By Kevin Pang | Tribune Reporter
The man placed cards on every table without a word, not wanting to intrude. His name tag read, “Al James, Magician.” He wore a tie design only a lifer in the entertainer industry would ever wear in public: patriotic playing cards. “We proudly present the humorous and mystifying magic act of Al James performed right at your table,” read the tent card. “If you would enjoy seeing this 10-minute performance, have your server call Al to your table.”
Half a century ago, sometime between vaudeville and improv, Chicago was the center of an entertainment movement: magic performed at bars and restaurants.
The names may be unfamiliar today—Matt Schulien, “Heba Haba Al” Al Andrucci, Lee LeRoi, Frank Everhart, Bert Allerton—but 50 years ago, they were marquee Chicago brands who starred in their own venues. During the scene’s heyday, a dozen restaurants and bars in Chicago were devoted to live magic.
Now there are none. Al James might be the last link to this bygone world. Among the small, insular circle of Chicago magicians, he’s something of a legend on longevity alone. In this, his 41st year of performing restaurant magic, James still discovers lost playing cards five nights a week, working a different venue each night from Lake Zurich to Palos Park.
I asked the waitress to bring over the magician.
Now you see it…
Al James sat himself down at our Brauhaus table.
His act relies on brevity and economy. performing a dozen tricks in about eight minutes. Before we had time to decipher a method, he was two tricks ahead.
Later, James handed me his business card. It read, “The World’s Second Greatest Magician.” It baits people to ask why.
“That just saves a lot of arguing,” said James, happy to deliver the punch line,
James, 65, carries a lot of these “bits of business,” a repertoire of crackerjack one-liners. He’d take off his glasses before a trick, saying, “I’ve seen this trick already.”
And so forth.
A few evenings later, I met up with James at O’Donovan’s. After Schulien’s closed, the new owners decided magic would continue on weekends. O’Donovan’s hired James as its house magician on Friday nights. Magic was no longer the bar’s identity, but an incidental homage.
Yet, you can’t deny the power in executing a good magic trick, I met Chris and Linda Penteris at O’Donovan’s, where they were playing “Go Fish” with their daughter, Lauren, 4, when they heard Al the magician was in the house. They live down the street from the restaurant, and have come in to watch magicians perform twice a month since Lauren was 16 months old.
James seats himself. By now it’s muscle memory. James has performed the same few dozen tricks he has been doing for four decade, but it’s still all new to little Lauren. Magicians call it the “moment of astonishment,” that point of denouement that hits you between the eyes, and makes you say, “How’d you do that?”
Every 30 seconds, little Lauren—as if on cue—covered her mouth with both hands in amazement: card produced from ear, hands on mouth; sponge balls appearing in her palms, hands on mouth.