Al James entertains at O’Donovan’s
By Jon Anderson
Tribune Staff Reporter
A good crowd is six people. And he’s been at it longer than anyone else in Chicago, he says.
In a time when change is everywhere, restaurant magician Al James has been doing pretty much the same thing for more than a quarter of a century. He lowers coins through solid wood tables. He pulls large baseballs out of small cups. He cuts rope with scissors. Then—presto—heals the wounds.
Then he moves on, to the next table.
If it is true, as TV’s satiric Father Guido Sarducoi once reported—that “you need three miracles to get into heaven, but two of them can be card tricks”—James is two-thirds of the way home. He can track cards however much a deck is shuffled. If he loses one, he picks it out of the ear of a stranger.
“It’s not all kids,” James said last week, speaking of the people he’s entertained over the years at 2100 W. Irving Park Rd., to a place that used to be known as Schulien‘s. Some of Chicago’s leading ﬁgures—the Daleys, Cubs players, Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse—would dine there, to be entertained by generations of Schuliens and their famous “Card on the Ceiling” trick. That involved asking a diner to pick a card and place it back in the deck.
The deck was hurled against the ceiling. The card that stuck was inevitably the card chosen by the diner.
“You have to keep the bit short. A waitress can interrupt at any moment and step on your punchline.” James said, explaining tricks of his trade. He started at Schulien‘s in 1978 when the family decided to outsource the entertainment tasks.
In 1999 the Schuliens sold the restaurant to Kevin Killerman and Bobby Burleson, owners of four other North Side bars.
They renamed it O’Donovan’s Pub and Restaurant, but kept on James and his sidekick, magician Jimmy Krzak. These days, Krzak takes Saturdays and Sundays. James works Thursdays and Fridays entertaining, for example, the Rogers family last week.
Son Kevin liked “the part when he put a cup down and a baseball came out, then another one.”
Daughter Nora was impressed when “he put three coins on the back of my hand, put his hand over mine, knocked the table and the coins went right through the table and into his hand.”
“A magic trick is the equivalent of a joke,” James said. “There’s the set-up. then a complete change of direction. Each move is called a sleight. Sleights are like notes in music. Combine them—and you get a trick.” He also performs at colleges, trade shows and corporate hospitality suites.
“Could you perform any magic for the Cubs?” said consultant to the restaurant, Pat Brickhouse, referring to a baseball team closely associated with her late husband, sportscaster Jack Brickhouse.
He promised to think about it.