It was, if not magic, at least a bit eerie, hearing a voice out of the past.
The voice belonged to Jay Marshall, one of the great practitioners of the ancient art of magic. He has been dead since 2005. But it was possible to hear his voice and almost see him, long before he died, leaning across the counter at the Magic Inc. store he owned and operated on the North Side and trying to answer a question posed by a customer: "What is a magician?"
"A magician," he said, "is someone who never let go of the sense of wonder all kids have."
That voice expressed a charming theory that seemed so right for the setting two weeks ago: the semidarkness of the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., where a couple of magicians named David Parr, 51, and Joe Diamond, 27, beguiled and astonished about three dozen people watching their show, "The Magic Cabaret."
It had promised to deliver "magic, mystery and mischief" and was doing so. "Watch closely," said Diamond from the small stage. "Something amazing is about to happen." And happen again.
"The Magic Cabaret" is a humble theatrical phenomenon, now in its eighth year. Yes, it only plays once a week, at 8 p.m. Wednesdays, but doing so for eight years is a considerable accomplishment, and one that attests not only to the relative lack of magic diversions in an area once filled with them but to the ongoing human desire for mystery.
"As we all become more and more technologically sophisticated, and our knowledge of the world expands," Parr says in an interview before the show, "our hunger for the mysterious increases. And magic is able to give us that, that feeling of awe and wonder."
Parr started "The Magic Cabaret" (magic-cabaret.com) in 2007 with fellow magician P.T. Murphy. It was a hit, but Murphy had a "real" job that often took him out of town, and when he was gone, Parr asked Diamond to fill in. These two have been together for three years now. Murphy moved with his family to history-rich Galena in northwest Illinois, where he currently has his own show (ptmurphy.com).
This show is still a hit. The Travel Channel called it "one of America's best magic shows," and it attracts people from all over. One recent performance had folks in from Germany; Brazil; Pigeon Forge, Tenn.; Rockford and Beverly.
Representing that South Side neighborhood were the three members of the Viero family, father George, mother Mary Jo and their soon-to-be 11-year-old son, Frank.
"Our reason for being here on a school night?" said George. "It could be called the winter blues. We were looking online for things to do on a Wednesday night, and this seemed very appealing."
He said that before the show. During it, he and his wife and Frank individually volunteered to participate in some onstage magic. George was part of a card game. Mary Jo helped the magicians turn one tiny toy rabbit into dozens, and Frank was in a rubber band routine.
During the show Frank said, more than once, "Oh, My God," and when Mary Jo was onstage, he proudly shouted, "That's my mom" — to which Diamond replied, "Moms are magical."
More tricks, more magic, and after the show, George said: "We loved it. Just perfect. We'll be back with friends and family."
The show is vigorously interactive, and the majority of the audience members gladly volunteered to be part of the action. This is quite intentional, as Parr explains at one point during the show, giving a brief history of the magic scene in Chicago and extolling its significance as the birthplace for what is known as up-close magic. As he further explains on a page in the show's program, "the performance was not a spectator sport but a shared experience."
He also mentions some of the city's famous and bygone magic clubs and some of the notable practitioners, such as Matt Schulien and the aforementioned Marshall. A memory was sparked of a personal favorite of mine from the late 1970s and early 1980s: Mr. C's, a tiny tavern on Roosevelt Road in Berwyn named for its magician/owner, the late Hugh Cosgrove. You'd walk in and a man might ask you to strap him into a straitjacket, while another joined your table, spread out a felt cloth and performed card tricks or ate needles or blew fire from his mouth. Both Diamond and Parr have been at this since they were children. They are lively and agile, appealing and enthusiastic during their 75-some minutes on stage. The show's a blast.
The former has performed on TV and in film documentaries and at Six Flags Great America. He has his own Web series on YouTube (youtube.com/user/DiamondCutMagic). Parr, who is also the editor of Magic Magazine (magicmagazine.com) and a writer, got hooked when he was 7 and now says: "It grew into not just something that I do, but became a large part of who I am. It helped shape my view of the world. I can't imagine my life without it."
It is possible to see more magic here, some, but not much. The Palmer House Hilton has weekly shows with Dennis Watkins (themagicparlourchicago.com) and a few area taverns and restaurants still feature magicians (magicalchicago.com).
"The Chicago magic tradition remains," writes Parr.
There are, of course, greater achievements than making little red balls disappear or telling you what card you picked from a deck. But such diversions are able to bring smiles to the faces of anyone in the vicinity. And try to tell me there's no magic in that.
"After Hours With Rick Kogan" airs 9-11 p.m. Sundays on WGN-AM 720.