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.
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!