Drawing fun out of a hat

Chicago Magic Lounge — hidden behind a fake laundromat, complete with spinning dryers — honors the city’s history of cabaret magic.

Austin Bumgartener performs a trick at the Chicago Magic Lounge, 5050 N. Clark St., a sophisticated cabaret hidden behind a fake laundromat. The club is open seven days a week.

Austin Bumgartener performs a trick at the Chicago Magic Lounge, 5050 N. Clark St., a sophisticated cabaret hidden behind a fake laundromat. The club is open seven days a week.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

When the Chicago Shakespeare Theater opened on Navy Pier in 1999, I used to say it was worth going just to sit in a seat there — the fact that they also put on a show was an added bonus.

I had that same sense of being somewhere special just entering the Chicago Magic Lounge, 5050 N. Clark St., on a recent Saturday night. You almost have to. The establishment is hidden behind a fake laundromat, complete with spinning dryers. Guests aren’t fooled per se — it’s all too pristine to be an actual laundromat. But you know something extraordinary is afoot, a feeling magnified by the black-walled bar to the left and a pristine little lobby decorated with museum-quality magic memorabilia to the right. This feels like someplace you’d find at Disney World instead of a North Clark Street cabaret. Not a raw cinder block in sight.

“Somebody put a lot of money into this,” I said to my wife. That somebody was Don Clark and his partners, who opened the Lounge in 2018. Clark invited us to stop by, and while two years of COVID-19 hunkering has gotten us out of the habit of regularly going places and doing things, the Magic Lounge seemed worth risking a visit.

It is. The room had a boisterous party atmosphere before a single card was turned over.

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That night’s show, like Gaul, can be divided into three parts. First, roving magicians performed close-in magic at various tables, engaging in friendly banter and showing off well-executed card tricks.

Second, the main show, consisting of two acts, opener Jimmy Rock and headliner Paige Thompson.

Both presented routines built around finding the chosen card and assembling a number that then appears in an unexpected place. Rock is an actual Florida cop who does magic. “It’s never fun to encounter a police officer,” said Rock, accurately enough. Thompson’s act involved people in the hinterland thinking a woman with purple hair doing magic has to be a witch. While her twist of dancing upon cards blindfolded to find the right one was different, it didn’t rise to what I consider high-caliber magic. Both were competent. Maybe a few cocktails would have helped.

Joshua Messado performs his namesake ring trick at the 654 Club, a small venue tucked at the back of the Chicago Magic Lounge in Andersonville.

Joshua Messado performs his namesake ring trick at the 654 Club, a small venue tucked at the back of the Chicago Magic Lounge in Andersonville.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

What the first two weren’t was clearly, if inadvertently, demonstrated by the third part. After the main show, holders of tickets in the front row, main floor cabaret and banquette tickets were invited into the 43-seat 654 Club in back. There they enjoyed Joshua Messado, a top-hatted, bow-tied Philadelphia magician whose self-assurance and professional polish were an order of magnitude greater than what had gone before. Maybe two.

“It just looks like magic,” he confided. “I’ve been practicing since I was 8.”

Obviously. Messado deftly linked and unlinked seemingly solid rings; a classic routine, but one Messado makes his own, literally. He sells a line of “Messado Rings,” smaller, sturdier versions of the traditional magic rings.

Jan Rose, the emcee at the Chicago Magic Lounge, gives her audience a quick history of Chicago magic.

Jan Rose, the emcee at the Chicago Magic Lounge, gives her audience a quick history of Chicago magic.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

The Chicago Magic Lounge can’t be whisked offstage without mentioning its emcee, magic veteran Jan Rose, a lady of a certain age whose personality outshined the two featured magicians, first by her dramatic rendition of the considerable history of Chicago-style close-up magic.

“We are here to celebrate the grand history of Chicago magic,” she exuded, detailing the dozens of clubs that once spread across the city.

“Slowly, one by one, they began to disappear,” she said. “Pun intended.”

Then she began calling out various members of the audience.

“There are lots of celebrations of all types” at what she called “kind of like a grown-up Chuck E. Cheese.” She acknowledged Becky, celebrating her divorce, another christening a new job, then a couple on their night out without the kids, going from table to table in what built into an astounding demonstration of the mnemonist’s art. Rose has a vaudevillian glitter and real panache, and her regular presence makes whomever else is performing on any given night a secondary consideration.

Tickets are $35 to $80. It’s open seven days a week and the weekend shows typically sell out.

“That was fun,” my wife said, several times, as we walked to our car, parked a block away for free on Ashland. “That was really fun.”

Fun. Now that’s a concept you just don’t see in the newspaper much anymore.

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