Aaron Rabkin just wants to perform

By Trina Ryan
Medill Reports

Aaron Rabkin can’t stop moving. The Chicago’s Boystown magician has less than an hour to prepare for his show—a one-man act he performs four nights a week at his small, storefront theater called Trickery. Bustling from room to room, he takes mental inventory of what needs to get done. He starts by running a vacuum over an oriental rug in the waiting area, his arm moving back and forth at a brisk clip. At 29, he is boyishly handsome: large brown eyes, dimpled cheeks, a mile-wide smile. He’s dressed, as he often is, in a solid-colored T-shirt, black skinny jeans and sneakers. A self-proclaimed introvert, he performs alone and runs his business alone. He would rather shoulder all responsibilities himself, he tells me, than entrust them to someone who doesn’t share his same enthusiasm and intensity.

He heads into the theater, an intimate space that sits roughly 40 people. Tonight he’s expecting 36 guests and wants to give the illusion of a full house. He stacks a few chairs and places them in the lobby, behind a glass case displaying novelty magic tricks. He dips back into the theater, and one by one straightens each seat so that every row forms a perfect line. When it comes to his business, Rabkin has a gift for multitasking and precision—a mind that works at quicksilver speed, like watching computational data flash across a screen. Though he’s a perfectionist, he doesn’t linger on a specific detail long. He gets what needs to get done and swiftly moves on.

Trickery’s lounge, designed by Rabkin, evokes a mix of oldfangled charm and saloon-style intimacy.

Trickery divides into two sections: an anteroom to the right, and a theater to the left. Dimly lit and draped in dark velvet curtains, the entire space feels cozy and humble, parlor-like. Rabkin keeps the theater side functional, appointing the room with only a makeshift stage and a seating area. The lounge boasts an array of vintage furniture: upholstered chaises; an old coat rack; brass sconces bearing long, skinny candles and pearl-white lamp shades. Despite his young age, Rabkin has a predilection for the outmoded, for objects that convey a level of workmanship and tell a story. “I like paying these things respect,” he tells me. “Vintage pieces were made with intention, and we just don’t know how to make things like that anymore.”

I ask Rabkin about a piece of art hanging near the entrance. It’s a print of a painting titled “The Conjurer,” by Hieronymus Bosch, executed in the early 16th century. It shows a conjurer performing a cups-and-balls trick as a rapt onlooker gets pickpocketed by someone in the crowd. “What’s interesting to me is that the act of conjuring isn’t the greatest deception occurring,” Rabkin says. “It’s the fact that this guy”—he points to the man in thrall to the magician—“is getting his money stolen. It’s as if the artist is mocking the insincerity of lesser magic tricks.” In other words, there’s a distinct difference between those who perform tricks and those who spend years mastering a well-thought-out illusion.

Rabkin holds strong opinions about his fellow magicians. “My blanket statement is that I hate magicians,” he says. “I flat-out hate them.” Like any passionate artist, he wants to protect his craft from those who disrespect it. These days, he feels “the very idea of magic has been hijacked,” that it no longer carries the same finesse and prestige it once did. Someone flourishing a deck of cards on the street, he explains, now gets to call himself a magician. Little nuance exists between an amateur and a practiced professional. And by guilt of association, the former is often placed in the same category as the latter.

Just as with other forms of art, magic, if presented a certain way, can tell a story. “Magic can be beautiful,” Rabkin says. “But you have to make it mean something. That’s where the industry is failing. Magicians are so inbred within their own community that they’re losing sight of what’s actually important: the showman side. Or what I’ve been trying to figure out is that maybe they’re not symbiotic. There’s magic with craft and there’s magic with performance. I’m a performer whose medium just happens to be magic.”

Patrons begin trickling through the front door, and Rabkin rushes over to greet them. In addition to bookkeeper, custodian, interior designer, marketing director and stage manager, he serves as his own doorman. “Hellooo,” he says, emphasizing the last vowel with a jaunty, stagy inflection. “Welcome, new friends. Do you guys have reservations?”

Rabkin has an uncanny ability to switch between harried business owner and casual virtuoso. To unpack his complex personality is to understand his many contradictions. He is an introvert, but a lively entertainer and an expansive conversationalist. Ask him a question, and he will talk at length, sometimes interminably, with fervor and insight. He expresses himself with candor, yet, perhaps by virtue of his occupation, remains something of a cipher. For all his outspokenness, specifically about fellow magicians, he’s impossibly attentive and a keen listener. Whenever I spoke during our conversations, he would lean forward, as if spellbound, and only checked his phone to take business calls.

After directing his guests to the theater, Rabkin dashes backstage and turns on a playlist of snappy pop music. As meticulous as he is with his business, he keeps his personal spaces disorganized and cluttered. Where the front area represents his professional side, the backroom, in some respects, is like his mind turned inside out: an organized chaos. The space, painted all black, is roughly the size of a walk-in closet. Miscellaneous items litter every surface: empty egg cartons, hangers, clothes, cardboard boxes, scraps of paper, decks of cards. He keeps two pale blue T-shirts, along with a mustard yellow one, in the back as his wardrobe. His black-and-silver sequined tuxedo jacket and an extra pair of black shoes also live at the theater. He tells me he prefers to keep his costumes, casual as they are, and everyday wear separate.

Watching Rabkin toss about random objects, I’m curious to know: Where’s Hoppy the Psychic Wonder Bunny? Onstage, the plush, teacup-size prop sits on a side table inside Rabkin’s top hat, perched on its brim, looking out into the audience like a miniature soothsayer. Rabkin often makes reference to Hoppy’s psychic powers throughout his show—a gesture that is as absurd as it is endearing. The gimmick works, often gaining laughs from the crowd and giving the impression that Rabkin doesn’t take himself too seriously. Asked if he considers Hoppy his sidekick, he says, “Oh, no. Hoppy is my partner. He’s the star of the show. I don’t like to think what I would do if anything ever happened to him.”

He opens a drawer from a plastic bin and fishes out a grocery bag shoved near the back. He unspools it and retrieves Hoppy, placing him gently into his top hat. Rabkin looks at me as I stand stock-still, my mouth agape. “You couldn’t put Hoppy in a more comfortable home?” I ask. “It’s in case of a burglary,” he assures me. “He’ll be in an unsuspecting place.”

Hoppy, a tiny, plush bunny, makes an appearance at all of Rabkin’s shows.

Rabkin was 5 years old when he received his first magic kit, a gift from his aunt. He was brought up in a conventional middle-class home in Valencia, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. His father, Mark Rabkin, is a certified public accountant; his mother, Randi, a dental hygienist. Thrilled that their son had an outlet for his excessive energy and overactive mind, they encouraged Rabkin’s newfound hobby, eccentric as it was. He became a self-taught magician, collecting dozens of magic kits he received from relatives, devouring DVDs of his favorite childhood magicians—Lance Burton and Siegfried and Roy among them. At some point during early adolescence (around 12 or 13), he joined a chatroom affiliated with Penguin Magic, one of the biggest online magic distributors, to swap ideas, videos and book recommendations with other magicians. When his parents took him to magic shows in Las Vegas, Rabkin would steal the magazines from the backseat of taxi cabs, rip out the pages featuring magicians and paste them onto his bedroom wall. He would spend hours stargazing at the dozens of playing cards he had affixed to his ceiling. “I just really loved magic,” he says. “To reflect on it now, I’m even a little disturbed by it.”

For many aspiring magicians, the Magic Castle, a performance venue and clubhouse in Los Angeles, stands as the mecca for the conjuring arts. After seeing his first show there at 9 years old, Rabkin learned about its Junior Program, a private membership for young magicians between ages 13 and 20. Of those who audition, fewer than 20 make the cut. Those selected meet once a month for a peer-based workshop, where they receive feedback on ways to improve their act. If they so choose, junior members can showcase their talents at the Castle’s weeklong annual event called Future Stars of Magic.

The mentorship and stage experience seemed invaluable to Rabkin, training he would need if he decided to pursue a career in magic. Even though he had a few years before he could audition, he wanted to prep early. A few weeks after his initial visit to the Castle, he and his mother went to Longs Drug Store, now called CVS, where he bought two decks of cards on sale for $1 each. He thought, I’ll use one now, for practice, and save the other for when I’m accepted into the Castle. His prediction proved correct: He auditioned at age 14, and secured himself a regular spot at the venue.

Though he loved being onstage, he felt like a misfit among his peers. “He didn’t like a lot of performers he saw at Magic Castle,” said Rabkin’s older sister, Heather, who is 33. “He knew right away he didn’t like the grand scale type of magic. He always gravitated toward a style where you could connect with the audience.” Such practice allowed Rabkin to feel more confident with close-up magic and entertaining crowds in smaller venues. Close-up magic involves a show using a table, usually no more than 10 feet away from the audience, and sleight-of-hand manipulations—card tricks and cups-and-balls are two of the most popular. After a year of performing at the Castle, Rabkin entered a junior close-up magic contest with the International Brotherhood of Magicians. He placed first. But while winning such an award seems an admirable feat, especially at an age when most teenagers squander their time on prepubescent mischief, Rabkin downplays the achievement: “There were only three competitors,” he says, “so it wasn’t a big deal. [A junior close-up magic contest] sounds like a bunch of babies who knew how to play with their plastic tricks. It’s like, ‘Who had the best cutesy factor this year?’”

I ask Rabkin if he kept those decks of cards he bought as a kid. He tells me that at some point he shoved them in a kitchen drawer at his parents’ house, where they were most likely tossed out. “Even if they were still around, they would mean nothing to me now,” he says. “I despise card tricks. It’s just silly to call that magic. A magician is someone who, supposedly, has some sort of special powers. And the idea that those powers are card tricks is belittling.”

It’s minutes before showtime, and Rabkin scurries to get ready backstage. He asks which T-shirt I think he should wear for tonight’s performance. I choose the mustard yellow. He pulls on his sequined tuxedo jacket, runs his fingers through his sandy-blond forelock and powders his face to remove excess shine. He assumes this new persona with the grace of an old hand: hair slicked, shoulders back, tension diminished. Some part of him, I figure, still has to love magic. I venture the question: “Why magic?” A puzzled look flashes across his face. “I don’t know if I can answer that,” he tells me. “It fills a void as a child, I guess.” He pauses. “I can’t go there. That’s an existential crisis waiting to happen.”

He shuts off the music, and his guests in the theater grow silent. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he announces into a microphone, “make some noise for Aaron and Hoppy the Psychic Wonder Bunny.” At the sound of the audience’s cheers, he draws the curtain and bounds onstage.

What compels someone to the conjuring arts, where secrecy holds a peculiar kind of preciousness? To reveal the method behind a trick is to commit magic’s greatest blasphemy. One wonders, then: Does a career built on deception and secrets create an unbidden seclusion from society? Or does it serve as a pretext to engage strangers in conversation, a way of feeling socially accepted? In his book titled “Conjuring,” James Randi, a renowned magician and outspoken paranormal skeptic, puts it this way: “We magicians constitute an admittedly strange sector of humanity. … We are, in some cases, misfits from a parallel universe. … To enter this profession, one needs to be a little mad.” For some, the idea of deception—that one can dazzle and mystify a crowd with ostensible magical powers—acts as a salve against social awkwardness. The preservation of secrets therefore serves as a sword and a shield, safeguarding the magician from ridicule (others can’t scrutinize what they don’t know or can’t see), while also arming him with coveted knowledge: the methods to his tricks. “I’ve seen the depths of magic, and it is very gruesome and sad,” Rabkin tells me. “It’s a lot of people who lack social skills, and somehow magic gives them a power that makes them believe they have something special that is now their excuse to approach somebody.”

Jeff Jay, who’s 60, is broad-shouldered and wears square-framed glasses. He started practicing magic at 29, relatively late for a career magician. A Chicago native, he incorporates both hypnosis and comedy into his shows, which he performs with his assistant, Donna. I met Jay this spring at a magic swap meet, an annual event where magicians in the Midwest congregate to hawk their unwanted paraphernalia—something akin to a magic flea market. This year it took place in a nondescript, beige banquet hall in Elmhurst, a western suburb of Chicago. Jay told me that a few decades ago, the way magicians acquired magic secrets was either from reading books or by gaining the trust of another magician, who would later serve as a mentor. Going to places like magic swap meets or participating in specialized clubs “were an important part of breaking the magician’s code,” he said. “It was where you could learn magic tricks, and it necessitated membership to interface with other magicians.” In today’s digital society, one can unlock the method behind a trick by, say, sharing videos online or going on YouTube, thus circumventing the need to build a rapport with a fellow magician. Consequently, places that once inspired in-person interactions, like magic conventions and swap meets, are now on the wane.

When Jay was living in San Diego, he became a patron of Brad Burt’s magic shop. (The business has since closed its brick and mortar store, but still operates online.) It took him nearly eight months to curry favor with the shop owner, to convince him that his curiosity was genuine, and that he would not appropriate tricks verbatim. “It was like a fraternity,” he said. “You had to demonstrate your knowledge to get invited into the back area of the shop, where most of the real magic happened.” This custom—of an amateur earning his initiation into the magic domain—is not uncommon. A magician is the gatekeeper of his secrets, and those willing to share, out of respect for the craft, must remain skeptical and guarded. “The more you hang around magic shops and try to learn someone else’s tricks, the less you’re held in regard,” Jay said. “But if you spend the time trying to build your own, then you’re applauded.”

Rabkin is far from radical in his disdain for magicians, or, more precisely, for those who assume the title magician, but who make a mockery of the art. Take Penn & Teller, the oddball dynamic duo who have made a career, and quite a successful one, out of flouting the traditional rules of magic. Teller, the diminutive, mute one of the pair, mimes all of his performances, saying that he finds “magician patter disagreeable.” His partner, Penn, who towers over Teller at 6-foot-6-inches tall, and whose bombastic irreverence toward magic culture has earned him both the ire and the admiration of his colleagues, has spoken at length about the distinction between performing a hoax and creating a sense of wonder. The small-time peddler on the street producing a coin behind someone’s ear is considered what Penn refers to as a “charlatan,” an imposter of magic. But spending months on a trick, perfecting its presentation and executing it with panache, is the mark of a bona fide artist.

“I think what’s lost on magic is the production of it,” said John Measner, 53, whom I also met at the swap meet and who has been a professional magician in Chicago for more than 30 years. “Going up to someone on the street is not what I consider magic. That’s a guy in jeans doing a couple of amateur tricks. There used to be a prestige with magicians, a mystique, and I think we’ve lost that.”

To find an exemplar of a magician’s “mystique,” look no further than Teller’s Red Ball trick, made famous not just for its elegance and simplicity, but also for its debunking the myth that magicians must never disclose their secrets. The trick, a fairly recent addition to Penn & Teller’s Las Vegas act, aired on the second season of the duo’s show “Fool Us,” and has since gained widespread attention. In the “Invisi-Ball Thread” episode, the pair stands onstage before a live audience, Teller holding a shiny red ball and a wooden hoop, Penn looking like a scowling giant next to him. Before Teller performs his trick, Penn announces, “The next trick is done with just a piece of thread.” He exits the stage. Teller, silent and unassuming, makes the ball perform a series of commands, giving it an almost lifelike quality: it jumps through the hoop, floats in midair, hovers atop his index finger, affixes itself to the small of his back, follows him around onstage like a lost puppy. The trick lasts almost four minutes, concluding with Penn taking a pair of scissors and snipping the invisible thread. The ball plummets to the ground, and the crowd cheers.

The Red Ball, the trick’s official name, resonates because, even though viewers know its simple method, its execution is so complicated, takes such dexterity and precision, that the secret becomes almost meaningless. It’s the presentation of it that marks the distinction between an amateur and a consummate performer. Inspired by a book written by legendary magician David P. Abbott, Teller spent 18 months mastering the choreography of The Red Ball. As he told “This American Life,” in a 2017 interview, “The reason that so few people have done most of the material in David P. Abbot’s masterpiece of a book is because he gives so much detail that if you’re a dilettante, you are not going to pay attention to it. You go ‘I can’t make this out.’ Because you’re not sitting there and going through it sentence by sentence by sentence by sentence.” In 2012, detailing the grueling hours of practice he devoted to perfecting the trick, Teller told Esquire’s Chris Jones, “Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.”

To the extent that magic appealed to Rabkin, it provided him with a talent and a vehicle through which he could express himself onstage. More important to him than becoming a notable magician was mastering the craft of showmanship. He enrolled in UCLA and quickly developed a broader sense of the arts. A history major and film minor, he learned how to weave different elements of storytelling into his creative outlets. He dabbled in filmmaking, stand-up comedy, radio, acting—all of which, he says, informs his one-man show today. He left the Magic Castle his senior year of college, disenchanted with what he calls its “air of self-importance.” By his account, the institution had a narrow view of live entertainment, such that it propagated magic as the only way to establish rapport with an audience, focusing more on technical ability than on performance. “I started thinking outside of magic,” he says, “and it allowed me to be influenced by more than just magicians. So anytime I went back to the Magic Castle, I sort of became aware of the lameness of it.”

Rabkin’s magic mentor, Robert Dorian, who is in his 50s and has a penchant for using analogies, sits on the committee for the Junior Program at the Castle. He also has appeared in two documentaries, “Make Believe” and “The Magic Life,” featuring young magicians on their paths to stardom. When I spoke to Dorian over the phone about Rabkin’s experiences at the Castle, he explained to me that Rabkin didn’t so much exile himself from the magic community as place himself above its pettiness. “Magicians are like a big barrel of crabs,” he explained, “and if one starts to climb out and makes some progress, the rest will pull him back in.” He went on, “Aaron spent his formative years at the Magic Castle, where everyone had something to say, most of it negative. And he endured that. When you’re in your 30s or 40s, it’s one thing. But when you’re 17 or 18, it’s something else.” I asked Dorian for examples of the kinds of comments other magicians would make to Rabkin, but he remained cagey, assuming the role of protective father figure: “All I can say is that”—he pauses, measuring his words—“they were far more hurtful and juvenile than you think.”

After college, Rabkin moved to upstate New York to live with his then boyfriend—and to carve out an identity as a performer, away from the entertainment juggernaut that is Los Angeles. (“L.A. is the last place to find one’s voice,” he says. “You have to already be fully fleshed out.”) He earned a living, albeit a meager one, as a street performer in Saratoga Springs. The biggest challenge, Rabkin tells me, was not the stamina and persistence it required, but the patience it took to rivet an audience. James Randi devotes an entire chapter to street performing in his book “Conjuring,” saying that “street working is the ultimate crucible, the sternest test and the greatest challenge for a magician. Great respect is due the artist who chooses to pit his wit and skill against an audience that can move about freely, defeat his attempt to control their viewpoint, arrive or leave at any point, and insolently insult and challenge his earnest efforts.”

Within the magician community, there’s a stark difference between a street magician and a street performer, and the latter is often held in higher regard. The magicians I interviewed explained the distinction to me like this: The street magician—think David Blaine, Criss Angel—seeks out his audience, approaching passersby on the street, inveigling them for their time and attention; the street performer, on the other hand, must put on a spectacle, using charm and adept skill, to attract crowds. Where one requires a more hustler-type personality, the other necessitates a quieter resolve, a determination to capture and hold spectators’ interest. If you were to ask Rabkin about the defining moment that cemented his love for magic, what vaulted him from a novice magician to an expert performer, he would emphatically reference his busking days. “Street performing certainly made magic matter again,” he says. “It made me more entertaining. I learned to keep the show moving, to have no downtime. And as I got more confident and my acts more polished, I felt invincible on the street. I could say and do whatever I wanted.”

Rabkin, performing his newspaper trick, at a Saturday night show.

In the spring of 2015, Rabkin moved to Schaumburg, a suburb of Chicago, where he worked as a software sales representative for a year and a half. He took the position to appease his parents, who wanted him to have a more secure, stable job than busking. But he found the corporate structure “soul-crushing,” and “devoid of any happiness or purpose.” The small parameters of a cubicle, the humdrum routine of an office setting, the monotony of a nine-to-five schedule—all made him feel trapped, bereft of creativity. He needed to hatch what he referred to as a “graceful exit strategy”: performing his job with lackluster enthusiasm until his employer fired him.

When Rabkin first moved to Chicago, he thought he was done with magic. What sparked a renewed interest, he says, was “seeing it become a thing again,” but represented in way he “couldn’t endorse.” In his view, the qualities that had once made the craft singular—showmanship, originality, class—have now fallen by the wayside, due in part to a new wave of quasi-magicians who blur the line between layman and performer. In January 2017, he began scouting potential locations for his theater. Having a storefront always appealed to him, not only because it felt more manageable, but because he enjoyed intimate settings where he could connect with people, see their reactions. It’s that connection, Rabkin says, that drives every creative and business-related decision. Magic is his instrument of artistic expression, to be sure, but performing is what inspires him, pushes him to challenge himself and take risks.

With no business partner, little professional experience and a paltry savings account, opening Trickery was a big risk. Previously known as Boystown Collectables, a novelty shop, Rabkin’s newly acquired performance space resembled less a theater than a vacant office suite: drab, stripped-down, uninviting. Having sketched a blueprint of his ideal theater as a teenager, he had an idea of how he wanted the space to look. Envisioning the showrooms in which he had performed at Magic Castle, he painted the walls all black, stapled pleats in all the curtains, giving them a more sumptuous appeal, furnished and designed the rooms with a saloon-style flair. “All the beauty Trickery is today comes from Aaron’s hard work,” says Rabkin’s boyfriend of a year and a half, Kevin Scribner, who is 28.

Next came the name. “I was roadblocked on what to call the business for weeks,” Rabkin says. He fortunately dodged the clunky Theater Impossibilia—his first choice. Then he remembered a line from his grandfather; referring to magic, he would say, “It’s all trickery.” Given that several surrounding businesses had one-word names—Lark, Elixir, Replay—Rabkin thought his grandfather’s coinage fit. He also liked that the name didn’t have the word magic in it—too staid, too unoriginal, he says. He wanted something that could be open to different interpretations, elastic enough that it could apply to other forms of art.

Built into Rabkin’s two-year lease was a clause which stated that the first two months were rent-free, but if the establishment had any code violations, then rent would be further waived until it passed inspection. Rabkin’s theater, situated in a low-rise building with apartment units and two other storefronts, did not pass muster with the inspector—who cited, among other issues, violations with electrical, plumbing and ventilation. It took an additional six months before the landlord addressed all the problems and Trickery was brought up to code. During that time, Rabkin couldn’t legally own a business license. But as stated in his lease, he could use the space for performances, so long as admission was free and each show maintained a seating capacity of no more than 100. Adopting a “busking model,” as he put it, he performed 30-minute back-to-back shows each day. Exhausting as it was, having nearly a year of no rent allowed him time to build a following, polish his act.

Trickery officially opened in July of 2017. As it stands, Rabkin is the only magician in Chicago who performs out of his own theater. All of the magicians I spoke to either travel to clients or perform out of an already-established venue. Most of them said that relying on a steady stream of business to pay overhead and employees was too chancy, that they would rather not anchor themselves to a place. “I’ve created a very unique path,” Rabkin says. “I’ve built my own theater, and that allowed me to become a professional magician. Most people would say I’m a professional magician, from however that happened, and now I’ve merited a theater. I kind of went backwards. I just said, ‘I have a theater, therefore I’m a professional magician.’”

Given Rabkin’s ambivalence toward magic—his aversion to and ardor for it—owning a theater seemed an odd, if implausible, aspiration. Why would he make such a commitment to a profession for which he seemingly holds contempt? When I asked Rabkin about this, he mulled the thought for a while, then referenced a conversation he had with Dorian before he started his business. “I was saying I hated magic at the time, and Bob corrected me, telling me that ‘it’s not magic you hate; it’s magicians.’ That’s a good point, because I think if I really hated magic, this [Trickery] would be a bit of a hypocrisy. Clearly, I’m in deep enough that I care, but I also loathe what is being done to what I think can be beautiful.”

Rabkin leavens his performances with wry humor, inverting the pomp and self-reverence typically seen at magic shows.

The appeal of Rabkin’s performances is not his impressive sleight of hand or his blend of wry humor and onstage charisma, but his knack for impeccable timing and feel for an audience. He’s not your pull-a-rabbit-out-of-a-hat magician: His extemporaneous approach to performing feels more like stand-up comedy infused with magic than grandiose stunts. Which is one reason why billing his act as “The Miracles Show” and calling Hoppy a “psychic wonder bunny” work to his advantage: It makes his show feel “so outlandish,” he says, that it entices people to stay until the end. “And I need them to stay, because that’s when I do my hat line.” A “hat line” is an often courteous, sometimes humorous way street performers ask for money. Rabkin’s is rather lengthy, but entails something to the extent that any donations over $1 will go “straight to little Hoppy’s college fund,” and that if anyone can muster $100, he and Hoppy will go home with the benefactor.

Rabkin describes his show as a “bougier form of street performing”—busking, but with a stage and a captive audience. “What finally fixed me as a performer was being on the street, because I needed to learn about timing and pacing and getting to the point,” he says. Despite his distaste for card tricks, Rabkin does several of them in his show. Indeed, the first 20 minutes of his act comprise somewhat standard tricks: cups-and-balls, coins appearing out of thin air, ripping apart a newspaper and making it appear whole again. (The more impressive, showstopping illusions come later, in his Miracles segment.) But what feels different about Rabkin’s show is how he elevates these tricks through humorous storytelling and makes them fresh. The brilliance of his magic, it seems, comes from not just the illusions themselves but the comedic elements used to manipulate the mind. Teller cites this machination as one of his secrets to altering viewers’ perceptions. As he wrote for Smithsonian, in 2012, “A viewer has only so much attention to give, and if he’s laughing, his mind is too busy with the joke to backtrack rationally.”

Rabkin has said to me on many occasions that he’s a performer first, magician second. Most important to him is that people watching his show feel a rekindled sense of wonder, that, for an hour, they can forget about the negativity in the world and feel good about themselves. “He doesn’t see magic through the same lens as other magicians,” Scribner says. “And I think that’s what makes him special. We have this stereotype in our head of this magician who is so caught up in the magic itself that he loses the performance aspect of it. And that’s what Aaron brings back.”

On a late-May afternoon, I visited Rabkin at Trickery after one of his shows. Sunlight beamed through the storefront windows, casting a soft glow over the theater that made it feel open and airy. He had had a small audience, maybe 20 people. As the crowd dispersed, Rabkin stood behind the display case, obliging requests for selfies and saying goodbye to guests as they left. A young girl, who looked to be about 7, approached him. She had large brown eyes, waist-length dark hair and shaggy parted bangs that fell over the sides of her forehead like open drapes. Her father, a tall, lean man with chiseled features and a scraggly beard, complimented Rabkin on his show.

“She really loved the show, too,” he said, gesturing to his daughter while tossing a $20 bill into Rabkin’s top hat.

“I appreciate that,” Rabkin said. “I’m so glad it kept her attention the whole time.”

“I’d like to buy some magic tricks for her. Do you have any you would recommend?”

“Sure! But I want to make sure she knows how to use them. Presentation is important.”

Rabkin removed a small box from the glass case. It was a novelty contraption that could make a coin disappear and reappear. He demonstrated the trick to her, at first quickly, then slowly, revealing the secret behind the mystery. The girl, intrigued, took the item and performed the trick for Rabkin. Again. Again. And again. Each time she made the coin disappear and reappear, her face lit up, eyes wide, convinced that, somehow, she possessed magical powers. “Dad, look!” she exclaimed. “I can make money!” Rabkin, kneeling in front of her, watched with a hint of a smile. And for a moment, he, too, looked lost in the wonderment of magic.

Photo at top: Aaron Rabkin and his assistant, Hoppy, at his storefront magic theater, in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood. (Trina Ryan/MEDILL)