By Joe O’Brien
In less than five minutes, Al James has won several young fans. After one mystifying card trick, Kathy, the talkative blonde to his left, shrieks, “Do it again!” Iain, somewhat more reserved under his baseball cap, can’t help but smile. “That’s cool,” he says.
These are not 3-year-olds riding a sugar high at a Sunday afternoon birthday party. It’s Friday night in North Center, and the table where Al James works his magic is littered with beer bottles an packs of cigarettes.
The place, O’Donovan’s lively bar and grill, has been around for three years, but Al has worked this room much longer. He started in the late ’70’s when it was a restaurant called Schulien’s, and magic was very much a part of the dining experience. Charles Schulien, the owner and a magician himself, recruited Al after seeing him perform in nightclubs. The restaurant changed hands after Schulien died in 1998, but the new owners had the good sense to keep Al around. He now works Thursday and Friday evenings, between local gigs and touring the country playing college campuses.
Being the source of delighted expressions is magician Al James’ favorite part of the job.
Interested parties tell their server they’d like to see the show, and Al makes his way to their table. Of average size and soft-spoken, he doesn’t impress at first sight, but when the tricks and the jokes start flowing, you know you’re watching a craftsman. Al opens this particular set with card tricks. Cards start appearing in a variety of locations: the mouth of a wooden goose he uses for a prop; an unopened deck from his vest pocket; from behind Kelly’s ear.
Witnessing such sleight-of-hand has a transforming effect on even the most hardheaded patrons. A wise guy in a Cubs hat at the neighboring take who only minutes before made a non-family-magazine-eligible remark about the proceedings, now cranes his neck to see one of Al’s most popular tricks, wherein a baseball appears from underneath a small cup.
Being the source of amused, confused and delighted expressions is Al’s favorite part of the job. Although he plays to cheering crowds on tour—”I know what a rock singer must feel like sometimes”—he still gets a kick out of seeing smiles up close. “It’s a very candid reaction.”
All eyes are on the magician as he sets up the finale. Kathy has picked a card, signed it and returned it to Al. It seems like he has made a rare mistake as the cards burst from his hand and flutter in all directions. But glancing upward, Al provokes his best reaction yet, for stuck to the ceiling 12 feet above is Kathy’s autographed three of spades. Kathy’s friend Danielle speaks for everyone: “Al, you’re great.”