As the producer and host of the Chicago Magic Lounge, Cranford aims to transport guests to the heyday of Chicago bar magic, which birthed the popular Chicago style. Unbeknownst to many, it’s a style that has since spread all over the world; its adherents usually break the fourth wall, eschew smoke and mirrors, and perform up-close tricks in a conversational manner. Basically, it’s the opposite of whatever mindfuckery Criss Angel has summoned from the eighth circle of hell. The Chicago style is more closely related to the work of the incomparable Ricky Jay: prestidigitator extraordinaire, scholar of the arcane, Hollywood actor, and world-record card thrower. Or, perhaps more famously, the street-prowling levitator David Blaine. But before Hollywood caught a whiff, it was pioneered right here by local bar magicians such as Matt Schulien, Heba Haba Al, and Don Alan.
“In the ’60s and ’70s in Chicago, you could see this style of magic at any number of bars, such as Little Bit O' Magic on the South Side, Schulien's in North Center, and the New York Lounge in Lincoln Square. But they vanished by the turn of the millennium,” says Justin Purcell, a local magician who has headlined at the lounge. Indeed, from the ’20s to the ’90s, there were at least 16 different magic bars operating around the city. Ricky Jay claims that when he was starting out, Chicago had the greatest magical bar scene in the country. Yet, it was rare to hear people discuss Chicago’s storied magic history for many years, perhaps due to the extra attention given to the city’s improv comedy, its blues and jazz clubs, and its theater. Now that the Chicago Magic Lounge is on the scene, chatter about a magic resurgence is spreading. Cranford suggests it’s long overdue: “I think it’s just awareness. David Parr and Joe Diamond have been running The Magic Cabaret for 9 years. Magic Chicago has been going on for 10 years. Dennis Watkins has a standing show at the Palmer House, and that’s been going on for years. We’re actually the only new player to pop up.”