Al James And The Art of Tableside Magic
By Jefferey Kumorek
Photography by Lloyd DeGrane
What is it about magic that fascinates us? Street performers were doing card tricks—our most enduring form of performance art—in Europe in the 14th century and their heritage dates back further than that to the Orient, where it’s thought that magic originated.
Chicago has always had hands that are quicker than the eyes, and restaurants with working tableside magicians. Chicago’s famous German restaurant Schulien’s, was as well-known for its magic as its wiener schnitzel. Matt Schulien was doing magic in the restaurant in 1915, and is credited with the invention of the famous “Card on the Ceiling Trick,” which was featured on the cover of LIFE magazine. Alas, Schulien’s closed and was sold in the late nineties, and there was as much speculation in the news about the loss of tableside magic as there was about the venerable 113-year-old gastronomic tradition in Chicago.
But then, O’Donovan’s Pub and Restaurant owners Kevin Killerman and Bobby Burleson opened a new restaurant at the Schulien’s location on March 1, 1999, and they kept the important stuff: the decorations, the photographs, and the genuine artifacts (including the original liquor license and the Prohibition documents). Oh, and Killerman and Burleson revived tableside magic.
Al James, “Magician Extraordinaire,” is celebrating his twenty-eighth year of entertaining with tableside magic at Schulien’s, now O’Donovan’s. Al performs card, coin and rope tricks, and creates images with balloons, all interspersed with his comic banter. “Twenty-eight years at the same location may be a record,” Al says.
He has been a full-time, professional magician for thirty-five years. ln addition to his regular Friday night at O’Donovan’s, his career takes him to college campuses all over the place for magic and hypnotism shows. Al has even received an award from the City of Chicago for his help in the infamous “Plumber Rapist” case. (He hypnotized a police ofﬁcer to help him remember the license plate number of a man wanted for twelve rapes.) Al has done several engagements at Hollywood’s Magic Castle, a private club for stars, and for the past nine years he has appeared twice a year at the Wizards nightclub, also in Hollywood.