THERE IS AN old story of a magician's picnic, in which a legendary master calls together his circle of young magicians upon the occasion of his retirement and proceeds with a considered bit of matchmaking, mating his protégés with all his trademark tricks and illusions. And so, the story goes, the old magician's work passed on, lived on, and spread to all corners of the earth. Or something like that.
A quiet little local version of the magician's picnic has been going on in downtown Minneapolis since 1897, when Collins Pentz, a regional magic legend and medicine show veteran, opened the Eagle Magic and Joke Store. In the intervening 99 years, upon each proprietor's retirement, the store has passed into the hands of a younger employee.
"In 1958 I was having an eye operation at the old General Hospital downtown," current owner Larry Kahlow remembers. "My parents stopped in at Eagle Magic and picked up a few pocket tricks for me to entertain myself. In no time at all I was doing tricks for the doctors and nurses. Not long after that I started coming in from Bloomington on the bus by myself. I do seem to remember that I would linger in here for quite a long time."
Kahlow is a tall man who wears a suit and tie to work. He is a professional keeper of secrets, and is always careful to deliberate for a solid moment before offering an answer to any question. When he does speak his syntax is formal, studded with odd expressions. He is apt to mention "a box that will accept a woman, a substantial piece of equipment necessary for the production of a girl."
Kahlow hung out at Eagle Magic for years, doing the usual scratch magic gigs through high school and college. In 1971 he started working at Eagle as a demonstrator, and in 1976 he bought the place.
"I'm very fortunate in that I've never really had any other job," Kahlow says. "Since I was 13 years old magic has been my life. I can't even really say there have been any crises, or even any other options considered. I mean, sure, I was bombarded in high school by guidance counselors, the usual career talk. And I'm sure my parents were a little concerned more than once, but here I am, and after all these years I'm still very much interested in the art."
The Eagle Magic and Joke store is shoehorned into the middle of a block on Portland Avenue along the eastern fringe of downtown, hemmed in by bail bondsmen and parking lots. Kahlow is there behind the counter most days, listening to jazz and talking with the occasional visitor. His Yellow Pages ad promises: "Professional magic equipment, gag gifts, practical jokes, masks, make-up, costumes, rubber chickens, groucho glasses, chattering teeth and newspaper headlines." The place is crammed with stuff. It's like a little attic museum filled with all the abracadabrant wonder and idiot fascination of childhood, the timeless tastelessness of whoopie cushions and stink bombs, dribble glasses, joy buzzers, and plastic vomit. Even if you go no further than 10 feet in the door, it is virtually impossible to leave empty-handed. Larry's got the store pretty clearly divided in half: the jokes and gags--the stuff for the armpit ghoul in everyone--on the left side of the room, and the magic stuff--the tricks, props, books, and videos--on the right side.
That right side is nuts-and-bolts stuff, magic stripped of its tuxedos and jumpsuits and bad haircuts. An aspiring magician can get started with a basic cups-and-balls or nickels-to-dimes set, while a more experienced practitioner can pick up a $150 Miracle Dove Act. Larry will even sell you the doves.
"I've got cages here, and cages at home," he says. "Rabbits and doves, the occasional chicken. I've had rabbits and doves almost all my life. I sell them. The White Java dove is very cooperative, hard-working. People generally don't realize that these doves have to learn their tricks. Say you have a balloon bird or a handkerchief bird; each of them has a specific job to do and it has to be trained for that job."
After years of performing, these days Kahlow spends much of his time booking other magicians and rummaging in magic's past. He is a magic historian and lecturer, and travels often to magic history conferences and trade shows. "You'll go to these conventions and see 200-year-old illusions that are still astounding," he says, "such as the Kellar levitation of princess Karnac. I still enjoy being fooled, just not fooled on a regular basis. I'm always working on tricks that have seldom been seen by contemporary audiences; I'd like to put together a show that incorporates some of that history. There always have been and always will be things that are startling or mystifying, but a lot of the tricks you so often see--the presentation of a mutilation, for instance--the illusion is pretty much out of it. Everyone knows junior's not really going to lose his head in the guillotine, so the challenge is to keep refurbishing and introducing new wrinkles."