How Chicago magicians took tricks off the stage and into the bar

Learn the secrets behind Chicago-style magic from local legend Bill Weimer.

CHICAGO — His sleeves rolled up, Bill Weimer shuffles and spreads a deck of cards onto green felt from his perch behind the bar at the Chicago Magic Lounge. Sliding his fingers across them, he turns over the only red-backed card of the lot.

“Is this your card?”

Gasps. Applause. Magic.

Weimer has plenty of other illusions up his rolled-up sleeves, picked up over four decades as a working magician in Chicago and beyond. His career began while he was in his 20s and studying comedy writing, and word got out that he knew a trick or two.

"I lived in an old Chicago neighborhood where everybody knew everybody," Weimer said.

He says neighbors started calling him over as he walked by, asking him to perform tricks for them. Eventually, he scored an audition at Little Bit of Magic, which brought in magicians to entertain patrons as they sat at the bar.

That type of entertainment has its own Chicago roots, according to Weimer. In the 1960s, a gregarious bar owner named Matt Schulien would perform tricks for customers at his family’s North Side bar. Schulien’s intimate, improvisational style set it apart.

In one of his most iconic tricks, Schulien would have a patron pick a card and put it back in the deck, before throwing the entire deck against the wall. As the rest of the cards fell to the floor, only the selected card would stick.

"He really created Chicago-style magic," Weimer said. "You felt friends with the magician, they were no longer an unapproachable person up on stage.”

Schulien’s style caught on, and nine magic bars opened in Chicago from the 70s to the late 90s, according to Weimer, who wrote a book about their history.

"The Southwest Side was devoid of any nightlife like that, so when that hit it was so popular,” Weimer said. “There were lines out the door all the time.”

But the illusions didn’t last forever. The magic bars closed. Even Schulien’s shuttered in 1999.

"After a 20-year gap, many Chicagoans haven’t seen magic in years," Weimer said.

That doesn’t mean magicians have gone away. Weimer said he’s personally performed in every hotel downtown during one event or another. And new venues like the Chicago Magic Lounge are working to bring magic back to the bars, as a new generation of magicians continues to push Chicago-style magic forward.

“When I got started, I was in my 20s and they were all the old guys, and now I’m the old guy here and they’re all the young guys, and some of the stuff they do is unbelievable,” he said.