Mind reading, the slight of hand — pure, close-up magic.
This is what the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust now offers to the area with the opening of its newest endeavor, Liberty Magic, earlier this year.
Scott Shiller, vice president of artistic planning at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, has always had a love for magic.
“Magic has really come to the forefront of entertainment with Penn and Teller and the show Masters of Illusion and even on America’s Got Talent,” he said.
Liberty Magic specializes in “parlor magic,” or up-close magic, where a person can see the illusions in a very intimate setting.
“I think that magic is part of our culture right now,” said Shiller. “Parents and kids are watching it in their homes, and we wanted to make a place dedicated to this art form.”
And more than 100 years after Howard Houdini executed his famous 1916 straight-jacket escape on the same block as the new Pittsburgh venue, Shiller said they can honor Houdini for his accomplishments.
“We are the first major non-profit cultural center in the country that has said the art of magic is as important as opera or ballet or Broadway,” he said. “They are masters of their craft the same as a violinist who has spent their entire life mastering the art of playing that instrument.”
Liberty magic seats around 60 individuals in a setting that is meant to have a 1920’s speak-easy feel.
Shiller said they encourage guests to dress in 1920s era clothing to add to the effect of the evening.
“There are very few places in this world where adults can go on an adventure and not know what the outcome will be,” he said. “Tapping into that is hopefully a great gift that we can give to Pittsburgh.
We want our guests to feel comfortable, so we want them to dress however they feel the most comfortable and they won’t get turned away, but dressing up in a 1920’s feel just adds another level to the show,” Shiller added. “It’s rare to think about become a character and dressing up and making a real evening of it. There’s something to be said about being someone else for an evening.”
Experiencing the art of magic in a real setting is also an incredible opportunity.
“When you watch magic on TV, maybe you think they have a unique camera angle that helps with the illusion, but when you’re here, and it’s close up, you stop thinking that was an impressive prop or camera angle and start thinking that was amazing,” Shiller said. “You can go on this magical journey and have the experience of being a kid again.”
A lot of thought and work went into the creation of the space that is Liberty Magic.
The entry space itself is meant to feel like an old fashioned magic shop.
“We restored the copper ceilings, and we thought about what a magic shop feels like,” Shiller said. “We wrote 200 stories from the history of magic in Egypt until now, and we found things to display in the (entry) room to tell those stories. Each element here is a tribute to the history of magic.”
It was the end of World War I when Harry Houdini and medium’s became popular. There were mothers and wives who had lost their husbands and sons in the war without having a chance to say goodbye.
Shiller said this is about the time period of mediums and when clairvoyant seances became popular.
Liberty Magic pays homage to that vein of magic with the Zoltar room. They also have a VIP room that is modeled after the old parlor rooms in London.
“I’m a fan of magic, and I love the history of magic,” said Shiller. “When it came to constructing the actual room where the show would take place, we wanted the stage to be on the same level as when and where the entrace was because the audience is a part of the show as soon as they walk in — they’re all assistants.
“But, if they want to hang back and not participate, they can do that,” he added. “We want our audience to participate and engage in the art form, but we also want them to feel comfortable.”
Each show runs between 60 and 90 minutes and is a one-person act. The magicians are brought in for a six-week residency.
Mark Toland, an artist-in-residence at the esteemed Chicago Magic Lounge, recently brought his mind reading show to Liberty Magic.
Shiller actually saw Toland’s show in Las Vegas and called Toland up and invited him to do the six-week show at Liberty Magic.
“Working at one place for such a long period of time is not common,” he said. “Most of my work is flying into the city for one to two days. Here it feels almost like a Broadway setup, and I’m quite enjoying that and not taking it for granted.”
Because of the longer stay, Toland has been able to have opportunities to explore the city, which has allowed him to incorporate local references into his show.
“There’s actually a calm feeling that sets in after about a week of doing the show, and that’s something I’m not used to having,” he said. “I tell people, it doesn’t matter if you support my show or others - just spread the word about this venue.”
Toland added that a six-week definite schedule appeals to him and has allowed him to test out some new ideas he’s had.
“This type of venue is a real gift to performers to have,” he said.
In a typical setting Toland said he works a crowd of anywhere between 300 to 1,000 individuals and the audience is the cast of the show.
Typically he doesn’t get the chance to interact with a huge portion of that number, but at Liberty Magic, with a cast of 50 to 60 individuals, he has the opportunity to work with about half the audience.
“That is just unheard of for a typical magic show,” Toland said. “At Liberty Magic, the lights are up just high enough that I can make eye contact with everyone. The venue traps us in an intimate way and encourages banter.
“I’ve just had the time of my life here, and I hope to come back to Pittsburgh in a year or two,” he said.
Tickets are $40 and $65 for the shows at Liberty Magic and can be purchased at trustarts.org/magic or at the door.
Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays. The current act is Eric Jones, who had a sold out six-week run at Liberty Magic in the spring.
The shows are recommended for individuals 18 years of age and older, but anyone under 12 is not admitted. Those between 12 and 18 years are at the parents’ discretion.
“We’ve only had three artists so far, but it’s neat to see that people are already coming back time and time again,” said Shiller. “They have already started asking for a subscription service.”