Dennis Watkins, King of Chicago Close-Up Magic


Chicago is the city of magic. From the teenage Harry Houdini wandering the Midway Plaisance at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair, thrilling the passersby by swallowing a thread, then a handful of needles and then regurgitating the threaded needles, to Howard Thurston’s five vanishing cards, to Southside native Harry Blackstone’s famous lightbulb that floated above his head then out over the audience, the twentieth century saw Chicago rise to become the nation’s capital of Magic. 

“New York had Broadway. LA had Hollywood. Chicago had Magic,” wrote David Witter, author of the definitive Chicago Magic: A History of Stagecraft and Spectacle, in his Brief, Wondrous  History of Chicago Magic featured in the Chicago Reader. 

According to Witter, “Magicians like Bert Allerton, Clark ‘the Senator’ Crandall, Jack Kodell, and Celeste Evans filled clubs like the Empire Room in the Palmer House Hotel and the Pump Room in the Gold Coast.” There were shops like Magic Inc. and bars like O’Donovans and the New York Lounge where enthusiasts could watch magicians perform through the night and into the early morning in the city’s Golden Age of magic.

And for all the impossible stage magic of the time–Houdini’s death-defying escapes, Thurston’s levitating lady, Blackstone’s electric buzzsaw–in Chicago, close-up magic was king. 

Close-up or table magic eschews dazzling production elements. It’s intimate. It’s magic right in front of you with the lights on. It dares you to catch the trick. Watch closely. This is your card. Now it’s gone. Here it is. Wait, I’ll do it again. Watch closely.

Sounds like Chicago’s kind of magic, right? Close-up magic is Chicago Magic.   

Enter Dennis Watkins, the critically acclaimed, third-generation magician and one of the finest practitioners of close-up magic in the country. Watkins’s The Magic Parlour, formerly in residence for more than a decade in a suite at the Palmer House, recently opened in the Goodman’s stylish new magic venue for what will almost certainly be a very long run. 

A trip to The Magic Parlour feels like the best kind of trip back in time, and Watkins gives us the best kind of lesson in Chicago’s magic history. But for Watkins, magic is about more than just the city. It’s about family.      

“I got lucky. My grandfather was a phenomenal slight of-hand performer,” said Watkins in the introduction to his 2017 performance on Penn and Teller’s Fool Us. “When I was seven, I asked him to teach me to do magic. He really believed that the greatest magic is also the simplest, and that’s the craft he passed to me.”

But of course, no great magic trick is ever quite as simple as it looks, and The Magic Parlour is no exception. Put simply, Watkins’s magic is a wonder. What appears, at first, to be a series of clever slights of hand and mind-reading tricks soon gives way to an inter-woven, spell-binding experience unlike anything you might see in the city on a Friday night. It’s a cliche that the best performers make it look easy, but Watkins takes this illusion to a new level. So often, the magician aims for bigger, better versions of tricks passed down through the decades. The rings are bigger, the buzz saw is louder, and the death-defying danger is greater. But Watkins goes the other way.    

In The Prestige, the Christopher Priest novel that became the Christopher Nolan film, Priest explains the three parts of every great magic trick: the “Pledge” or set-up, the “Turn” or twist, and the “Prestige” or solution. Watkins The Magic Parlour is, in essence, one long, impossibly wonderful trick. 

No magician actually uses these terms, but they make for a good review. So, without spoilers…

The Pledge. Throughout the performance, Watkins remains true to his grandfather’s insight that “the greatest magic is also the simplest,” but he takes simplicity to a new level. A deck of cards, dice, some duct tape, stuff provided by the audience, and his mind. That’s it. And that’s the hook. It’s easy. Right? It’s all right in front of us. It’s our imagination that will supply the magic. Seems simple enough, but then there’s…

The Turn. Watkins involves the audience in his illusions, explaining that our perceptions will make the magic real. It’s clever, and though it feels like he is about to venture dangerously close to some magic schtick, it will turn out to be one of the critical elements of the show. In the Encore following the performance (more on this later), Watkins talked about the influence of the magic of Juan Tamariz, the Spanish magician writer Shuja Haider described as “The godfather of close-up magic” in his New York Times article The Man Who Made Spain the Magic Capital of the World. Tamariz has reached legendary, perhaps even mystical, status by, among other extraordinary feats, involving his audience so profoundly in his tricks that it seems as though the unwitting volunteers are actually performing the magic. Like Tamariz, Watkins brings the audience deep into the performance, as what once may have seemed like simple tricks build with wonder and complexity. And, finally…

The Prestige. This you have to pay for, and besides, no review can do it justice, but it’s worth it. Trust me.

Magic is most definitely back in Chicago. The Northside’s Chicago Magic Lounge is one of the hottest venues in the city. And now the Goodman Theater and Petterino’s Chicago Magic Parlour, featuring the spellbinding close-up Magic of Dennis Watkins, gives the city’s Downtown Theater District a captivating new entertainment experience not to be missed. If you do buy a ticket, be sure to go in for the Encore performance. It’s the show after the show, and it, too, is well worth it. In true close-up magic form, Watkins gets better and better the closer you get. And though he will never reveal how he does it, the stories he tells and his insights into the craft bring even more wonder to the evening. 

One final quick personal note. When I started writing reviews, I saved the programs and ticket stubs. I thought I would look back at them someday. Somewhere along the line, I stopped. I’m not sure why. Like so many other things, I just stopped. Here’s the thing. I usually bring my kids to the shows I review, and I brought my daughter to see this one. After the performance, over fries and dipping sauces at the nearby Chick-fil-A, we agreed that there was something special about this particular show. Something more to this one. Something, well, magical. This might sound a little silly, but I’m saving the tickets.

Tickets for all The Magic Parlour performances are available at the Goodman Theatre Box Office. Call 312.443.3800 or visit TheMagicParlourChicago.com.  

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