On one of the iciest days in Chicago history, Dennis DeBondt headed to his wedding at City Hall, where a jaded clerk greeted him by saying: “You must really want to get married.”
“Well,” Dennis replied, “I always said it would be a cold day in hell.”
Quick-witted and acerbic, Mr. DeBondt billed himself as the “Sears Tower of Magic.” He stood 6 feet 7 and wore a 52XL suit. His shoes were size 15.
Though he excelled at the tableside card tricks and sleight-of-hand known as “close-up magic,” he had a gift for improvisation and wisecracks. He made people laugh—and stay awake—when he entertained at sales meetings and corporate retreats. He did magic for kids’ events, Blackhawks gatherings and Arlington International racetrack, and at restaurants including the Gale Street Inn, Manny’s Deli and Tommy Gun’s Garage.
“He could have you laughing so hard that you didn’t realize he had fooled you,” said Jeff Bibik, a magician-hypnotist who performs as “The Amazing Bibik.”
“Dennis was very charismatic and just extremely funny,” said Jane, his wife of 26 years.
“He was able to raise the family with magic and comedy,” said his daughter, Samantha Shreve. “He was fantastic at what he did.”
Mr. DeBondt, 58, died Saturday from cardiac arrest after a bout of internal bleeding, his wife said.
A native of Mexico, Missouri, he leveraged his height and basketball-playing to snare a full-ride scholarship to the University of Missouri, where he studied business.
His grasp of economics led other Chicago performers to seek his advice. “He really was a businessman,” said Richard Laible, a Second City veteran who works as a master of ceremonies at sales meetings. Mr. DeBondt coached friends like him on “how to put together an invoice, how to put together a proposal, the line items, how to market yourself.”
As a kid, Mr. DeBondt was fascinated by escape artist Harry Houdini. And he enjoyed books on magic.
He used his skills to tame unruly children in the homes where nobody else wanted to babysit. “He would tell a story [about] how all the bad kids in the neighborhood would never have a babysitter,” said his daughter. He’d wrangle them by saying, “All right, we’re going to play some guitar, we’re going to do some magic, but when I say it’s time to go to bed, if you don’t, I’ll never come again.’ ’’ It worked.
But he didn’t really focus on magic until his 20s, while based in Chicago as a sales rep for a children’s clothing line. When a neighbor demonstrated a trick, Mr. DeBondt started reading magic books and taking lessons.
“He could make a whole show with a deck of cards,” said another friend, comedy-ventriloquist Chuck Field.
In 1988, he met Jane at the Dry Gulch, a Western-themed dinner theater in Schiller Park. “He was playing guitar and doing comedy-magic, and I was singing,” she said. They married the following year and moved into a house in Portage Park with a high-ceilinged basement where he didn’t have to duck to fit.
He loved Sabatino’s for Italian food. He admired the magic of Penn & Teller and the Amazing Johnathan. “He was really into ‘Shark Tank,’ ’’ Samantha Shreve said. “He’d say ‘We’ve got to think of an invention and get rich.’”
“His favorite place was his Fox Lake cottage, where he would play guitar and fish,” Jane DeBondt said.
He’d call Samantha just to share a joke. Or, he’d sit on the porch and play guitar and ukelele for her as she sang Sugarland’s “Baby Girl.”
Mr. DeBondt entertained for free at childrens’ hospitals, senior homes, churches and schools, his wife said.
Actor-screenwriter Tim Kazurinsky, an alum of Second City and Saturday Night Live who met Mr. DeBondt through Laible, said “he impressed me as a funny, charming and sweet man.”
He is also survived by his son, Jack; his mother, Alma Jean DeBondt, and his brothers, Larry and Kevin, both 6 feet 1, and Michael, who towered over everyone at 6 feet 9.
Visitation is 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at Cumberland Chapels, 8300 W. Lawrence Ave., Norridge, with a funeral service to begin at 8 p.m. In his pockets, his wife said, will be a deck of cards and a little squeaker he hid in his hand for sound effects when he “stole” kids’ noses.