Into the lives of Chicago’s modern magicians

Feature Photo
A magician and audience participant doing a trick at the Chicago Magic Lounge. (Mackenzie Evenson/MEDILL)

By Mackenzie Evenson
Medill Reports

During the pandemic, magician Jeanette Andrews is casting a few spells through a toll-free, magic telephone line. Shelter-in-place callers hear a voice give instructions and choices on the other line, resulting in what seems like a real trick. “The ongoing faith in me and my work is one of the only things keeping me going right now,” Andrews said.

The 30-year-old sensory illusionist learned much of her craft from generous mentors who spent their time and knowledge helping her succeed and grow. “Magic is one of very few fields that is still genuinely handed down from person to person,” she said.

In this industry, over 70% of magicians in the United States are men, according to the Social Psychological Bulletin. Being one of the only females in the room doesn’t slow Andrews down in the slightest. “I could choose to be a crusader for change within the industry,” Andrews said, “but I also feel like part of that is trying to advocate for yourself and doing your own work.”

The word “magician” conjures up images of kids’ birthday parties, decks of cards and rabbits coming out of hats. What is not taken into account is the time, energy and frustration put into perfecting the illusions that “wow” the audience, and the way an audience’s reaction to a performance can fuel the creative fire of the magician. That’s the real magic behind the magic. Movie lovers have seen for years the joy a good trick brings in movies like The Prestige, but these magicians take it out from behind the screen into the real world.

When sitting down with Sean Masterson, 57, he pulled out a bar of chocolate to share while discussing his journey into the magical community. Performing his first magic show at 12 years old in a library and accumulating 20-30 bowties for his costume over the years, Masterson has now taken it up as much more than a hobby, paying for and supporting his daughter’s college education doing magic. “I do it full time,” Masterson said. “I’m obsessed.”

Sean Masterson of Masterson Magic, standing outside of Metropolis Café in Chicago, Illinois. (Mackenzie Evenson/MEDILL)

Since everyone is painfully connected to their phones, the audience can be unaware that their presence in the moment of a magic show is essential to the effect of the trick. They see for only a fleeting moment, a trick an illusionist may have practiced for months. “ I always say, the magic isn’t the trick,” Masterson said. “The magic is the shared experience.”

John Measner’s passion leads him to do 350 shows a year. The 54-year-old steers away from the “video trickery” a magician like Criss Angel might do and focuses on everything from classic magic, animal-centered magic, to big illusions that leave his audiences in awe. He said his magic mobile is packed and ready to go if he ever gets a last-minute gig; he can be out of his driveway in two minutes and set up his whole act within the hour.

With a custom White Sox license plate and the number reading “MAGIC,” he enjoys time away from the full-time spotlight to indulge in his hobbies like baseball and going to concerts, he admits that even the most skilled magicians make mistakes. “A good baseball player only hits three out of 10 pitches. That’s why their averages are only .300,” Measner said. “Magic is skill, it’s technology, something can always go wrong, especially when it’s all 100% skill.”

John Measner of JM Magic standing in his home in Chicago, Illinois with magic flames and one of his magic props. (Mackenzie Evenson/MEDILL)

With so many unknowns about this craft, Measner wishes the modern era would care to learn more about enchantment. “People don’t know the history of the magic show; magic was one of the biggest things in culture,” Measner said. “It’s not as prominent anymore because now everybody thinks it’s just a deck of cards with a guy in jeans and a T-shirt.”

Some magicians grow up in the world, continuing the family business. Dennis Watkins, 41, is a third-generation magician who learned from his father and his grandfather before him; he performs around 400 shows annually. With a 10-month-old son, he cannot help but hope the same for his child: “The part of me that wants to be the best dad wants to say, ‘I want my son to do whatever he wants to do and to follow his passion,’” Watkins said. “But of course, I want him to be a magician.”

Rehearsing all his tricks in a space on the lower level of his house he calls the “Magic Factory,” Watkins is particularly passionate about changing the perception that magic is just for kids. “It’s infinitely rewarding to have a 50-year-old skeptical attorney sitting in a chair across from me and watch them giggle like a little child because they’re enjoying a moment of magic,” Watkins said. “Kids need magic, and we kind of forget that grownups need it, too.”

One magician, Danny Rudnick, 32, makes his living primarily through being a high school chemistry teacher at Beacon Academy in Evanston. “I like the millennial side hustle kind of thing,” he said. “It’s like I go to ‘work’ and then I go to ‘fun.’”

With an affinity for the sciences, he sometimes laces it into his acts, explaining the tricks using scientific terminology. Simultaneously blowing minds and teaching them as well, Rudnick takes what he loves to do and makes each act a part of who he is. “The first law of thermodynamics is you don’t talk about thermodynamics,” he joked.

Mister Danny, chemistry teacher and part-time magician, sitting at Colectivo Coffee in Evanston. (Mackenzie Evenson/MEDILL)

Yes, like most magicians, he has a stage persona. On stage, Rudnick becomes “Mister Danny.” But he refuses to perform a show that is inauthentically himself. “What I love about magic is anybody can bring who they are into their routines,” he said. “If you love to swear and love dirty jokes, you can bring that in. If you’re a goofball, you can be silly. Whoever you are, you get to be yourself.”

A comedy magician for corporate audiences, James Sanden, 47, entertains people who are tired after a full day of meetings, who’ve had dinner and are ready to go home. “My job in that situation is to, without saying so, say ‘I’m not a clown. I’m not cheesy. I’m not a kid entertainer. I’m smart. I’m amazing. I’m funny. I’m worth your time,’” Sanden said.

And if the rewards of his trade weren’t enough, he also thinks nothing is more fulfilling than mastering new skills or art forms. He tries to make his illusions psychologically, emotionally and intellectually stimulating. “There is so much that goes into it behind the scenes that you are not aware of; it’s the iceberg analogy. There’s so much under the surface,” Sanden said. “And I think knowing that would impact your ability to appreciate a piece of magic.”

Recently, because of millennial curiosity, a wave of new appreciation and enthusiasm for the uncertainty and element of the impossible has developed in a way it hasn’t in prior generations. It’s the craving for a reality beside one’s own to which they must ultimately surrender. “Magic is like a little metaphor for life,” Masterson said. “You cannot wrap your brain around it.”

Photo at top: Magician Scott Green and an audience participant do a trick at the Chicago Magic Lounge. (Mackenzie Evenson/MEDILL)