Chicago’s leading resident magician, Dennis Watkins, plyed his trade in disappearance, extrasensory perception, and a variety of other extraterrestrial physical feats at the Palmer House Hilton for nearly 15 years. It’s Chicago’s Loop’s one-man economic generator that delights tourists Certainly, and a purveyor of rare, retro downtown charm in a city where such experiences must remain part of the global brand.
He’s also a generously inclined close-up magician and a talented live performer who truly enjoys talking to all kinds of people and empowering them in front of his dates. No one deserved a better room anymore.
Happily, Watkins is now located in the basement of Petterino’s restaurant; The theater district restaurant has yet to fully accept its destiny as a show business meeting place, to my continued disappointment over the past 20 years. But it’s definitely an upgrade to have the “Magic Hall” downstairs in the party area where I once saw Mel Brooks dancing on the table with Anne Bancroft. Baby steps over decades.
Watkins, now affiliated with the Goodman Theatre, has a set of rooms that allow for pre-show cocktails, an intimate main exhibition hall (accommodating about 70 people, all with tables) and a close-up lounge. A boutique after-show experience for VIPs; many of them peppered him with questions Thursday, in several cases rendered tongue-tied by too many “Magic Parlour’s” Houdini cocktails. But Watkins, genial to the end, was unimpressed. Over 15 years and hundreds of performances, you see it all and learn how to handle it.
I last saw “The Magic Parlor” about 12 years ago (Watkins must have eliminated the intervening years), and it has only improved with time. Then and now, I watched him win over the initially skeptical crowd. His program uses a lot of volunteers – so many, in fact, that people feel relieved because they know they can participate without having to do much. Most people pick at least one number and receive the traditional applause.
Watkins could have done so much more with this space, from creating a multi-artist venue downtown for the growing magic market in this city. But it will probably always be the main attraction, offering a full 90-minute show with the luxury add-on that will be totally worth it just for the chance to play the rigged shell game.
What is the main difference from 12 years ago? People now have a hard time putting their phones away even when asked to do so. Watkins smiled when I mentioned this to him later; He tries to meet his audience where they live, as his mentors taught him, but he also tries to leave aside the mundane world outside. My Lord’s work.
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Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Magic Hall” (4 stars)
When: Turn on run
Where: Petterino’s, 50 W. Randolph St.
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes (optional 25-minute replay for an extra $30)
Tickets: $85 (includes one beverage) at 312-443-3800 www.themagicparlourchicago.com