When I moved to the Maryland suburbs of Washington D.C to become the Magic Bartender at Bob Sheets’ “Inn of Magic,” I was stepping into a lengthy American magical and artistic tradition. The world of Magic Bar began in Chicago during Prohibition, and quickly expanded in the years after its end. Eventually there would be numerous bars in Chicago that featured close-up magic and Magic Bartenders making drinks and performing behind the bar. The two originators of the form were Matt Schulien, who owned his own bar and restaurant for years, and which his son Charlie continued for many years more; and Al Andrucci, a bartender whom Schulien taught a couple of tricks, and would eventually make his mark, among other things creating the iconic trick of Magic Bartending, the Card Under Glass.
I’ve written one of the few detailed histories of Magic Bar, which is included in my first book, Shattering Illusions. Two books about the subject that focus on the Chicago history and tradition include The Magic of Matt Schulien by Phil Willmarth (an instructional work for magicians about Schulien’s magic illustrated with magnificent photos of Matt at work), and a little-known volume entitled Now You See Them, Now You Don’t by Bill Weimer.
The Chicago School, if you will, was eventually spread in the ‘80s and ‘90s largely by Bob Sheets, who worked with Heba Haba Al in his late years in Chicago, and brought the style and repertoire to Aspen and later to Washington DC. As I briefly recounted in Take Two #25 about Street Magic, Bob would eventually train Steve Spill, Doc Eason (who would bring on Eric Mead), J.C. Wagner, Scotty York, and myself in the Chicago tradition of Magic Bar.
And while Magic Bar spread to Colorado and Washington—and also Tokyo and other Japanese cities in the late 1980s, and still continues in Japan today even though it has essentially passed into extinction in America—there was a completely distinct and separate line of Magic Bar tradition that evolved in and around Buffalo, New York, begun by a man named Eddie Fechter.
Fechter started doing magic in his youth, as most of us do, and when he got out of the army in 1946 he took a bartending job at which he also performed magic. In 1952, he and his wife bought their own place, dubbed “Fetcher’s,” and then in 1957 they purchased an old hotel on the Buffalo-Cheektowaga town borderline. They began living upstairs, while Eddie handled the bar and his wife Evelyn handled the restaurant’s cooking. Thus was born the Forks Hotel place in magic’s history. It would never be a hotel again, but say “Forks Hotel” to any magician, and even though it no longer exists, most will immediately respond: “Eddie Fechter.”
Fechter looked like a typical Buffalo blue-collar worker, with arms the size of your head sporting Navy tattoos. But at the end of those arms were hands that were as skilled as any in the history of sleight-of-hand magic. He was a master with a pack of cards, along with close-up magic with coins and dice (and cheater’s moves with dice as well), but could manipulate an audience as easily and thoroughly as he did deck of 52 pasteboards. He had a natural insight into the elements of psychology that are essential in order to excel at close-up magic, and he also had a playful and mischievous sense of humor that turned the sting into a friendly laugh. Fechter amazed you and made you a friend or a fan.
He also influenced at least two generations of magic, including peers like Lou Gallo, and Lou’s son, Michael, both extraordinary sleight-of-hand performers and innovators. When Eddie died in 1979, the little convention he had begun just a few years earlier—Fechter’s Finger Flicking Frolics, known to its friends just as “The 4F”—was continued by a handful of Eddie’s longtime cohorts, led by Obie O’Brien. The convention continues today as an invitation-only close-up convention, still one of the best of its kind in the world. I began attending in 1981, and so, sadly, I missed Eddie by just a few years. But I knew many of his pals and acolytes, and I had the chance to learn from a lot of them. When the Forks eventually burned down, the convention was moved, eventually to Batavia, but it still continues to carry the name of Fechter and the tradition that Eddie began.
We don’t have a lot of film footage of Eddie, and of what little there is, only a couple of items are currently available publicly. I hope someday some of the privately held footage sees more general release, as among other things, watching him perform his Multiple Selection routine is a breathtaking display, and a real lesson in card handling. Meanwhile, however, I commend you to these two videos. Only one is of Eddie, and it’s low resolution and black-and-white. But Eddie deserves our respect and celebration, and you deserve the chance to enjoy the magic of Eddie Fechter.
We’ll start with this, a lovely tribute to Eddie and the Forks and the 4F convention. Every name mentioned and almost every face shown is famous to magicians. And the narration is lovely, delivered in the regional accent that is inescapably Buffalo. I love the sound of it, as it reminds me of the setting, and the many years I enjoyed attending the convention, and the many friends I made there. It’s been a long time since I’ve attended, but I’ll never forget those friends and memories.
Eddie Fechter Forks Hotel tribute
Here’s a substantial performance by Eddie, seated at a table in the restaurant and performing close-up for some patrons. As I said, the resolution isn’t great and it’s black and white, but please: Turn up the sound. Expand the browser to the max. Put aside the smart phone so you can watch uninterrupted. And dive into the experience those folks are having, laughing and squealing and gasping at the work of a master in a polo shirt sitting at their table in their neighborhood family restaurant. (And yes, when that guy says “Two of Diamonds,” it’s not prearranged. Try not to hurt yourself thinking about it.) And like Eddie says: “Don’t tell nobody how they’re done!”
Eddie Fechter at the Forks Hotel