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Interview: Magic, Inc. and Jay Collen – A Slice of Everyday Enchantment

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Love of Facts. Predictability. Logic. I’d say these things these are fairly important elements of the American psyche. But how then, do you explain the Harry Potter craze, the wild throngs of fans for David Copperfield, David Blaine, Penn and Teller?

Because underneath the surface, people, people everywhere and from every walk of life are hungry. Hungry for mystery. For shared ritual. For magic.

My own hunger for those things recently led me across the threshold of a small shop in my neighborhood here in Chicago. I live in Lincoln Square, on the north side of the city, and Magic, Inc. (5082 N. Lincoln Ave) is about two blocks from my apartment, a corner shop at the intersection of a busy street and a quiet residential block. I’ve looked in the window often and was fascinated with the vintage posters I saw on the wall, the people I saw fanning cards, or linking rings, and not too long ago I finally went in.

I was not disappointed. In just a few visits, I saw playing cards change color, rings lock together and come apart with a mere sweep of a hand, had my mind read, saw a dime change into a quarter, and the quarter turn into a solid dollar, and all of them appear and disappear at a magician's whim. Most importantly, I was given delight — that eight-year old's "the world is a shimmering, new, unexplainable treasure" kind of delight.

The store is owned by the family of world-class magician Jay Marshall. His son, Alexander (Sandy) Marshall and his wife Susan, hold court along with three demonstrators, who are all professional magicians in their own right. Terrence Francisco and Pedro Nieves-Bosque are both able to perform a variety of card tricks and sleight of hand with humor, charm, and an almost casual ease. The third, Jay Collen, has a decidedly gentlemanly approach to this art, and after a ring demonstration left me intrigued, I pursued an interview, included in the latter portion of this piece. But before you find out more about one man’s approach to everyday enchantment, I have to let you in on what you’ll find if you’re lucky enough to visit Magic Inc.

First thing you’ll notice once you’re inside are warm red walls and green trimmed shelves, the glass cases flanking the walls, but make sure you look up at the ceiling, where hearts, spades, clubs, and diamonds form a constellation overhead. Dead center and behind the register is an alcove leading to a back room crammed with books, memorabilia, and a mesmerizing stack of bowler hats. I think there’s one with my name on it.

The walls are papered with posters of names you’d expect — Houdini at the Empire Theater and an elegant deco-style one of inimitable Blackstone. Keep looking and you’ll see ones touting gigs of lesser known practitioners such as Stanfield, Master Magician, Professor Anderson at the Standard, and my personal favorite, one of an Alfred P. Soll, perhaps from the '30s, wearing a gaucho hat, striking an oh-so mysterious pose. Black and white photographs from the past occupy the space in between — men in tuxedos, men in turbans, men dressed in exotic garb from a fantasy Eastern realm — artists who defied logic, entertained the hell out of people, and looked elegant to boot while pulling it off.

Chock full display cases beckon you to come close to check out the booklets, with titles such as Hot Canary, Mismaid Girl, and Conjuring con Carney. And the tricks! Shelf after shelf, item after item, there’s a universe to choose from, whether you’re a first timer or talented veteran. I spied Morrisey cups, Indian cups with those little disappearing balls of my childhood, playing cards, including one with the interesting moniker of “Stripper Deck.” Don’t miss the color-changing knives, the “Stainless Steel Black Appearing Cane Maintenance Free.” You can have a demonstration, buy ‘em, and I’d encourage you to do just that, but beware — this kind of fun is habit-forming.

I made sure I attended the store's Harry Potter book release party this last week. To fully appreciate the spectacle, Magic, Inc. is about half the size of your average Starbucks, and from 10 PM to 2AM, the interior was packed like the sardine cliche, with the crowd spilling out onto Lincoln Avenue. Muggles of all ages were in full force, and staff wizards held court. The prestidigitation was led by Sandy himself, who was able to disarm even the most blasé adolescent girls, reducing a pair of Potterite ingenues into wide-eyed, beaming fans. Trick after trick was performed tirelessly to ever-rotating throngs throughout the store and even out on the sidewalk.
More amazing to me was the composition of the crowd itself. Besides the requisite Hogwarts students and masters of the occult arts, I spied plainclothes detectives (off-duty, of course) chatting up both soccer moms in J. Crew togs and old school punks wearing torn Black Flag tees, goths with kohl-rimmed eyes, bone piercings in each ear, and full sleeves of ink on each arm, keeping company with middle-aged men wearing Dockers, white, starched, button-down shirts and paisley bow ties. That, friends, is not magical, it's miraculous.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t give you more of the history Magic, Inc. offers the soul, so allow me to offer a Cliff Notes version of its story. The store's "parent" was The Ireland Magic Co., established in 1926 by Laurie Ireland. For many years it was located in The Loop at 109 N. Dearborn Street. It became incorporated in 1963 as Magic, Inc. under Jay and Frances Marshall and a second location was opened at 5082 N. Lincoln Avenue. The two stores ran concurrently for a few years, but the shop in the Loop was closed, and everything was moved to the Lincoln Avenue store which became America’s premiere magic shop. Magicians from around the world (past and present) — David Copperfield, Channing Pollack, Dai Vernon, Charlie Miller, Penn & Teller, Mac King, Lance Burton, David Blaine — have all shopped at Magic Inc., voted “one of the eight quirkiest sights in Chicago” by WHERE Magazine, and the truth is it’s a singular treat that should not be missed.

And now, my interview with Jay Collen.

What do you think are some of the underlying reasons that more people are interested in magic, both as audience members and practitioners? Is there a cyclical element to this interest? And if so, why do you think this is?

All magic tricks create the illusion of impossibility, and humans find impossibility to be just fascinating. Why? Because I think our large brains spend a lot of time trying to order our world and create reliable expectations about its behavior. Magic tricks seize the attention of both magicians and lay people because, in the first instance, they seem to violate or defy the way we believe the world has to behave.

I think, however, that audiences enjoy magic most when it is presented not merely as a stunt or as a puzzle, but as something having aesthetic, dramatic, and even emotional qualities. When these features are combined with a magic effect, the audience can have an enjoyable experience and not be aggravated by having been "tricked." As for magic going in cycles, it does seem to wax and wane in popularity. I think a lot of that has to do with magic being novel for each new generation.

Talk a little about your own calling to become a magician. What kind of qualities do you feel it taps into? In a related vein, how would you contrast your style to what is a more aggressive carnival-style approach?

At a narcissistic level, we all tend to be interested in what we do well and, if I may say so modestly, I do have a bit of a flair for magic. At a more altruistic level, magic is a means by which I can help bring a little joy, entertainment, and distraction to other people. When audiences have fun, I know that in a small but meaningful way, I'm helping bring a little bit of good into the world. Magic taps into a lot of different parts of me — I like performing live and personally for others, I like working with my hands, I like the discipline and challenge of the enormous amounts of practice I do; I like the learning the enormous body of magic knowledge. As for my "style" — I try to be warm, approachable, very respectful, and sharing. Magic works best as a kind of joint play with the audience and the magician cooperating to enact a fantasy, and I want my style not only to reflect the better parts of me but also invite and enable audiences to play along. There are, unfortunately, some magicians who come off as oily, smart-alecky, or smug. I don't think those are traits of mine, but if I were to construct a character with those traits, I don't think my tricks would be as effective or entertaining.

What makes the ideal audience for a magician?

First of all, the audience should want to see magic. As a professional, I get to perform for audiences who have enough interest that they have already decided to give time and money to see magic. So, I'm over that hump. Even working at Magic, Inc. demonstrating tricks, people who come into the shop are interested in seeing magic and potentially purchasing it. I feel badly for amateurs who have to inflict unsolicited magic on people. They're likely doomed to a tepid response at best.

Second, the act presented must be suited to the type of audience. I do classical general magic in part because it has the broadest possible appeal. Theme acts (such as a gambling theme), specialty acts, acts involving mature or controversial subject matter, obviously should be tailored to the audience and vice versa. In the final analysis, assuming the audience is sober and wants to be there to begin with, it's up to the magician to put on a fine show. And he owes every audience the best job he can possibly do.

What would you like our readers to know about this school of entertainment versus some others?

Readers who want to know more about what type of magic I do and what my entertainment philosophy is are respectfully invited to my website, Such Magic!

 
And for those readers who may need some extra blandishment to check out the site, let me say that Mr. Collen is gracious, engaging… almost courtly, in a way. The magic is skilled, subtle, and the observer is really brought into the act in a way that is warm and respectful. No carney hustle here folks. Sleight of hand is done with humor and easy conversation, and the net result is wonder-filled and wonderful. I found myself gasping at how a trick was done, laughing out loud and feeling completely disarmed. Bravo!

The other magicians in the store, Terrence Francisco and Pedro R. Nieves-Bosque, can be contacted via email.
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About Lisa Alvarado

  • http://www.magoRicardo.com magoRicardo.com

    it is great to see an article written by someone outside magic, we take many things for granted when we are magicians that we loose a sight of the wonderful effect that has on others, thank you for this wonderful article. Ricardo