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Neil Tobin, assistant director of magic and community development at Open Heart Magic
Neil Tobin, assistant director of magic and community development at Open Heart Magic
James Foster / Sun-Times

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His magic helps kids heal

‘We’re committed to empowering hospitalized kids through magic,’ says Neil Tobin of Open Heart Magic, a Chicago nonprofit that trains and sends volunteer magicians to hospitals to cheer up sick children.

Neil Tobin moonlights as a necromancer who practices the dark arts, but his day job is all white magic.

Tobin is the assistant director of magic and community development for Open Heart Magic. The Chicago nonprofit, founded in 2003, sends volunteer magicians to hospitals to perform sleight-of-hand tricks to cheer up sick children.

“We’re committed to empowering hospitalized kids through magic,” says Tobin, of Oak Park. “It’s not just entertainment. There are numerous studies showing that laughter and a positive outlook can improve patient outcome.”

Open Heart Magic is more than a one-man show. About 150 magicians visit 15 hospitals in three states — dazzling roughly 12,000 sick children a year with one-on-one performances.

A major part of Tobin’s job is to train volunteers at an intense, 12-week course nicknamed Magic University. Learning to be a hospital illusionist isn’t as simple as waving a magic wand, especially when you’re sometimes required to wear a mask or gloves in emergency rooms or burn units.

“Most have barely even held a deck of cards,” Tobin says of new volunteers. “But we teach them professional-level magic and rigorous hospital protocol so that ,by the time they graduate the course, they can walk in to any child’s hospital room and successfully engage that sick kid and family.”

Cleanshaven and boyish-looking at 53, Tobin doesn’t look the part of a Dumbledore-type. But his magician resume is substantial. He first dabbled as a kid growing up in Skokie. Then, after moving to Los Angeles for law school, he visited a famed magic-centric Hollywood nightclub.

“I hadn’t touched magic in eight to 10 years, but I went to the Magic Castle, and it was amazing,” Tobin says. “The next morning, I was at the nearest magic shop, buying books.”

After returning to the Chicago area in the early 1990s, he joined the Society of American Magicians and later become the president of its Chicago assembly. He also served on the board of the Psychic Entertainers Association.

For a decade, he was the creator and star of the “Supernatural Chicago” show at the Excalibur, a River North nightclub said to be haunted, until it closed in 2014.

“I’d use ghost stories about that building as a jumping-off point to tell stories of paranormal Chicago and then do interactive theater using magic mentalism,” Tobin says.

In 2018, he resurrected his Houdini-like necromancer character for “Near Death Experience,” a performance at a Rosehill Cemetery chapel that included an attempt at “clinical death” by stopping his own heart for a minute.

In other words: not exactly suitable for kids. So when Open Heart Magic founder Mike Walton asked Tobin to leave his full-time career in advertising and marketing to join the nonprofit last year, the dark magic didn’t come with him.

“When I’m at Rush Hospital every other week seeing kids, I am not the necromancer,” he says. “When I perform for adults, I want to keep them awake at night. In a hospital, I want to relieve stress and take that kid’s mind off of their maladies for periods of time.”

Neil Tobin demonstrates a card trick.
Neil Tobin demonstrating a card trick.
James Foster / Sun-Times

The repertoire of tricks that Tobin teaches volunteers through Open Heart Magic is different from his usual fare. It’s about making the kid — not the magician — the star of the show. One of his tricks is a variation on a classic of tearing up a dollar bill and then using “magic” to reassemble it. But the patient holds the wand and appears to be the one transforming the money.

“That’s incredibly powerful in that it makes that child feel for the first time since he’s gotten to that hospital that he’s got some power in his life,” he says.

Most of Open Heart Magic’s act is a variation of “close-up magic,” a style pioneered in Chicago in the mid-20th century that focuses on illusions using small props like playing cards or handkerchiefs that can be performed at a table or before an intimate crowd at a pub.

“We are doing magic that is actually traditional Chicago bar magic,” Tobin says. “When we walk in to a patient’s room, we expect to be entertaining, not just the kid but that kid’s family. So the magic better be good.”

Neil Tobin.
Neil Tobin.
James Foster / Sun-Times

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