Local Magician Entertains, Mystifies
CHICAGO, Illinois USA — On a recent summer day, “Mr. Ash” held court with two customers inside his Lincoln Square magic shop.
“What's your name?” he asks a dark-haired young lady. “Maria,” she responds. “Can I call you Maria?” She nodded in reply.
“What time can I call you, Maria?” he joked.
While Maria Santos and Eric Smith of Budlong Woods watched, Mr. Ash then entertained with a rope trick. “Watch,” he said. “We will cut the rope right in half. And then we will put it back together.”
Mr. Ash is a magician, shop owner and salesman. He has sold magic tricks since the 1960s. “Originally, I started as a school of magic on Lincoln and Lawrence," he said.
As various Chicago magic shops went out of business, he began buying up their stock. Then he bought a television mail-order business call Marshall Brodien's Magic Cards. With a ready supply of merchandise, he opened Ash's Magic Shop at 4955 N. Western Ave near Lincoln Square. He has been at that location since 1980.
As a performer, Mr. Ash has been doing magic tricks in Chicago since 1972. He entertained at George Ryan's 65th birthday party. He has performed on Channels 2, 5, 7, 11, and 26, and at fundraisers, telethons, charity events. Mr. Ash worked at the former Schulien's restaurant, and “when they reopened it as O'Donovan's, and they wanted to do magic, I was the first guy they called,” he said. “I went and I worked that first night.”
Mr. Ash had regular gigs at Dennis Rodman's now defunct Illusions restaurant.
“I used to do a stage show, and then I would go and work the tables. I was there for nine months, but I only saw Dennis Rodman four times. People would say, 'Can you tell Dennis to come by and say hi to us?' and I'd say 'Lady, they are playing in Milwaukee tonight.'”
He appeared a dozen times on the television show Bozo's Circus, and still enjoys performing for children. “I am sure one of the only guys (magicians) who won a Golden Apple Award, which is for teachers,” he said. “We did a bunch of shows on nutritional safety... for example, the guy is going to eat cookies, and I say 'Don't eat cookies, drink milk.' You have an empty bottle, you say the magic word, and milk comes out. The kids loved it. The teachers loved it better," he says.
One of Mr. Ash's favorite places to perform was Chicago's New York Lounge. He described it as a mecca for magicians, and he relished the decade he spent performing there three times a week. “Five to seven magicians did magic all night, from 8 at night to 4 or 5 in the morning. It was very popular; people used to come from Europe; they knew what the New York Loung was because they read the magazines over there, you know.”
Today, he performs magic tricks at private parties up to four times a week. At $150 for a 45-minute performance that includes pulling a rabbit out of a hat, yanking coins out of ears, and 'accidentally' pouring water on himself.
Mr. Ash, whose given name is Ashod Barborian, emigrated to the U.S. from Armenia in 1960. He returns to his native country every two years to perform for free for children, and to donate money, supplies, and furniture to underprivileged schools. In America, he said every Armenian knows every other famous Armenian. “But they took me to visit John Belushi's uncle. And I said 'Is it true you are Armenian?' And he said 'No, we're not, we're Albanian.' People confuse Romanians with Armenians too. Armenians, Albanians, Romanians.”
For five years, Mr. Ash passed himself off as Irish. First, he shortened his first and last name and became a country singer called Ash Rian. However, people had trouble spelling that, so by the time his second 45 RPM record was released, he changed his stage name to Ash Ryan. “I had so much fun with that name,” he said. “And then when I decided to do magic, I just said I'll be Mr. Ash. It's easier for people.”
The annual sales at Ash's Magic Shop are a mystery to him. His wife, who also calls him Mr. Ash, handles that. He merely writes out checks to pay the bills. While chatting with me, he opened his mail and glanced at his bank statement. “This month I notice I got $1700 (in the account). So I'm gonna write checks for $1500,” he said. He gives a 20% discount on any book that costs over $20. He offers 48% off many other items, since he is currently celebrating his 48th year in the U.S.
Mr. Ash says he has over 12,000 magic tricks at his store. For beginning magicians, he has the heavily requested penny-in-a-box, which changes into a dime. The stink bomb is his second best seller. He carries a popular card trick deck for $8.
“I have the silk-scarf-out-of-the-egg, and just to show them it is a real egg, you crack the egg and a real yolk comes out. Why? Because you put it there,” he said. “I have the airborne glass - you pour a coke in it, then someone calls and you let your hand go, and you say 'Did you want me or something?' and the glass is floating in the air.”
Ash's Magic Shop carries fractured spoons, squirting cameras, fart sprays, lipstick shocks, fake cigarette burns, nerd glasses, and exploding ink. His shop carries hundreds of books, DVDs and videos on magic. He sells many magic sets and joke books.
“An average person doesn't know how much magic I got. Even magicians or magic shop owners - they walk in here, they go 'Oh my God,'” he said. “I got so much stuff, I amaze myself.”
It is likely that when he performs, he amazes his audience even more.