Article 13: Expert at the Lounge Table

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Expert at the Lounge Table

Jan Rose - Round Table Member Since 2018

Periodically, Jan Rose will be sitting “close-up and personal” with one of the table-side magicians from the Chicago Magic Lounge. You’ll learn their strategies for success doing table-side magic and maybe some performance surprises as well. This week, she interviews John Sturk, Music Director of the Chicago Magic Lounge


Interview with John Sturk

Jan Rose: We’re sitting in the 654 Club and I’m interviewing John Sturk. If you’ve seen a performance at the Chicago Magic Lounge on a Friday or Saturday night, you’ve seen John Sturk in action. He’s a man of many different talents and skills — music, comedy improv, emcee, and magic. He uses all those skills at the Lounge. John, take just a moment and talk a little bit about where you grew up, your education, and your early interest in music and magic.

John Sturk: I’m originally from Plymouth, Michigan, which is halfway between Detroit and Ann Arbor, the home of the University of Michigan. My Dad was an engineer, my Mom was a nurse and I have a younger sister. When I was kid, I had a magic kit and a book or two, but I was much more interested in music and playing the keyboards than magic tricks. Originally, I wanted to be a saxophone player. But my parents insisted I take piano lessons first. It might have been because our neighbor across the street taught piano lessons.

Jan Rose: How convenient.

John Sturk: So I took lessons with her for a couple of years. Then in middle school, there was a school band, so I finally got to play alto saxophone — which, at the time, I thought was cooler. But I continued to study piano and, as it turned out, that became my primary instrument. I thought I was really good and wanted to go to University of Michigan for music. I auditioned for the jazz program there, but I didn’t get in. 

Jan Rose: Disappointing!

John Sturk: Yes. But then I said to myself, Well, I’ll be a political science major. Because my other strong interest was in politics and government. In high school, I had volunteered for a number of campaigns. I wanted to go to the University of Michigan, which was my Mom’s alma mater, but I was wait-listed.

Jan Rose: How frustrating.

John Sturk: It was. But in the meantime, I got accepted to Michigan State. So I decided to accept that offer and go, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to be a political science or journalism major. I had been interested in broadcast communications because my high school had a radio station. I did news reporting and covered political campaigns. Once, in 2000, Dick Cheney came to Plymouth with Michigan governor John Engler. They did a campaign rally in my town and I got to be part of the press pool. That was really a lot of fun.

Jan Rose: I’ll bet! Especially for a kid who probably wasn’t old enough to vote!

John Sturk: That’s right! To be a journalist and cover what was, to me, a high-level event, it was really fascinating. So I ended up going to Michigan State, entering their political theory program with a second major in journalism. It turned out to be a great place for me to be, being interested in politics. I got to do internships in Lansing, the state capital, for a state representative and senator, and I also worked on governor Jennifer Granholm’s campaign in 2006.

Jan Rose: So, an early interest in music and politics. When did you become passionate about magic?

John Sturk: Magic came into my life as a bit of a coping mechanism. In 2001, when I started at MSU, I decided I wanted to try being an Air Force Cadet.

Jan Rose: Wow, a far cry from our musical poli-sci major!

John Sturk: Long story short, after doing the ROTC program at MSU for a year, they realized I has asthma on my medial record and I was medically disqualified. I got really depressed about that. My grades took a nosedive. Life was not good.

Jan Rose: I’m sensing a life-changing event was about to happen.

John Sturk: You’re right again! I was in Lansing for Statehood Day in 2003, at the State History Museum. I remember it very specifically, because it happened to be the last day of a special exhibit on magic in Michigan. There was a woman there named Joanne Arasin from the local IBM ring. She was demonstrating some magic, talking about the exhibit, and talking up the IBM. I thought it sounded interesting, so I gave her my contact information. In the next few days, I got emails from the president, vice president, and secretary of that IBM ring, all inviting me to their next meeting.

Jan Rose: How welcoming!

John Sturk: I guess. But I was very — well, I was overwhelmed. But I went anyway and became a regular there. What was motivating for me was the opportunity to improve. So magic became a way for me to cope with the bad feelings of getting booted out of the ROTC. I practiced and studied and got better. It was through that IBM ring that I was introduced to magic conventions. I went to my first convention, Michigan Magic Day in Ann Arbor, in 2003. And then again in 2004. From there, I learned about Abbott’s Magic Company through Hank Moorehouse. I went to Abbott’s in Colon, which had a small close-up convention in the springtime. They had a one-trick contest which I entered, thinking, What do I have to lose? 

Jan Rose: How did you do?

John Sturk: I ended up winning first place.

Jan Rose: Whoa!

John Sturk: And I was invited to perform at the Abbott’s Get-Together that summer. So, my first Get-Together in 2006 and…

Jan Rose: Do you remember what you did?

John Sturk: Yes, I absolutely do. It was the Fiber Optics routine by Richard Sanders, a Professor’s Nightmare routine. It’s still in my act today. 

Jan Rose: So it really was that IBM ring that started you on your magic career.

John Sturk: That’s right. And it was that IBM ring and Lansing that gave me my first professional work.  Some of the pro magicians there saw me improving, and one day I got a phone call from one of them. “Hey, John, I’m overbooked for Saturday. How would you like to do a birthday party for a hundred bucks?” Well, as a broke college student, of course I said “I'll do it. Yes. Absolutely.” And that’s how I got my first paying gig. 

Jan Rose: From another magician. It’s amazing how supportive our magic community is when it comes to passing work to one another.

John Sturk: I’ll always be thankful. It happened again, because of the magicians I met through IBM and Abbott’s. As I was coming up on graduation in 2006, I got a phone call from Aaron Radatz. He was a touring illusionist from Michigan. In my eyes, a really big deal. I couldn’t believe he was calling me! He said he had gotten my phone number from Hank Moorehouse. He was looking for a busking magician to perform all summer long in Mackinaw City. 

Jan Rose: Outdoor work? How long a gig and how many shows per day?

John Sturk: It was from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, three and a half months, seven days a week, six twenty-minute shows per day.

Jan Rose: Wow, I hope you did the gig. What a great learning opportunity.

John Sturk: It sure was and I sure did. Besides, I didn’t have anything else to do the summer after graduation. 

Jan Rose: [Laughs.]

John Sturk: Thanks to Hank and Aaron, that summer I think I advanced from an amateur to a true professional. That’s what happens when you do that many shows every day, performing in front of new audiences all day long.

Jan Rose: Absolutely.

John Sturk: It forces you to get good.

Jan Rose: Now, I’m jumping ahead here, but was that the act that I just saw you do in the 654 Club for your class of students?

John Sturk: Yes.

Jan Rose: You were wonderful. So funny. Great timing. Can you talk about your set?

John Sturk: When I did those busking shows on the street, they were twenty minutes long. The first routine was the Linking Rings because it was big, flashy, and it would draw people in. I could use the rings to encourage people to participate. As more people participated, more people wanted to stop and watch. It’s a great tool for a busker.

Jan Rose:  And those rings make that great sound! Clink, clink!

John Sturk: Yep! Great for building a crowd. Then I would do something in the middle. It would either be Miser’s Dream or Egg Bag, or sometimes even McCombical Deck. Then the closer was always Cups & Balls, which I learned from books and videos by Cellini, Michael Ammar, and Gazzo.

Jan Rose: Some of the best.

John Sturk: That summer, I made some good money. I was paid by the outdoor shopping mall, plus I got to keep my tips, plus the shopping mall covered my housing for the summer. They put me up in the Red Roof Inn. I remember that because one day I woke up and it was a Ramada Inn. They had changed owners overnight. 

Jan Rose: Life on the road!

John Sturk: Yes, but I didn’t see myself becoming a full-time pro. So when I came home from that summer gig, I went to work for Governor Granholm on her re-election campaign — and we won. But I didn’t get picked up to work on her staff. However, I found temporary work with the Ingham County treasurer’s office. It was really just data processing; it wasn’t very fun. But my magic bookings were picking up. I was working consistently, doing birthday parties and private parties almost every weekend, and I was also doing strolling magic in a restaurant.

Jan Rose: Which one?

John Sturk: I worked weekly at the Texas Roadhouse in Lansing, a family restaurant with a country-western theme. One of those places with peanut shells on the floor.

Jan Rose: So you were the quintessential part-time pro. A job with a steady check, plus doing magic gigs when they came in, as well as a weekly restaurant gig.

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John Sturk: Yup. But I really didn’t like the day job. So, in the spring of 2007, I applied for a job at Fun, Incorporated.

Jan Rose: In Chicago? The company that makes so many magic products that our community knows and loves?

John Sturk: That’s the one! I knew Gabe Fajuri from Abbott’s, and I knew he worked there. So I emailed him because I saw a post on their site, but it was vague. I couldn’t tell what they were looking for. Gabe encouraged me to apply. Graham Putnam, the president of the company, phoned me and introduced himself and said, “Well, I understand you go to Abbott’s. It’s in three months. Why don’t we meet there?”

Jan Rose: Really? Three months?

John Sturk: I know. But he’s the boss. So I waited the three months for Abbott’s to come around, and Graham and I had lunch at the café right there on Main Street. Two weeks later, he called and asked me to come to Chicago for a face-to-face interview. I moved to Chicago in November 2007 to work at Fun, Inc.

Jan Rose: Wow. What were your duties at Fun, Inc.?

John Sturk: Sales and product development. I did a lot of their web content management too, because they didn’t have a dedicated web person. Also, I handled orders for shipping and receiving, billing vendors — a lot of different stuff.

Jan Rose: So you had a full-time job in a field that you love. Did you keep up with your music? Were you playing piano or studying?

John Sturk: When I moved to Chicago, I thought I would take advantage of Second City for improv.

Jan Rose: That was a good idea.

John Sturk: Because I knew it would improve my magic. And it certainly did. It was through Second City that I was introduced to the world of musical accompaniment. I met one of their music directors who told me, “You can really make bank if you play piano for improv performers.” I said, “Really?”

Jan Rose: [Laughs.]

John Sturk: So I immersed myself in piano again. At one point I had two piano teachers, one who taught jazz technique and music theory, and the other who taught me specifically how to accompany improv performers. 

Jan Rose: How did that go?

John Sturk: About two years into it, they felt I was ready. So I started working as an improv music director. About a year later, I was working as much as I wanted to — between four and five nights a week, playing the keyboards for Comedysportz, iO, and a handful of smaller companies.

Jan Rose: Fun, Inc. as a day job, then music director in the evenings? Busy!

John Sturk: Very!

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Jan Rose: You know, when I studied theater in college, we kept hearing from our coaches that it was very important to have lots of tools and to be a flexible person if you wanted to survive in the industry. You clearly have demonstrated that at the Chicago Magic Lounge. It even became a little bit of a joke recently with the John Sturk Challenge. 

John Sturk: That was so much fun, performing in as many different rooms of the Lounge in one day as humanly possible.

Jan Rose: Even the kitchen! 

John Sturk: However, I have to say, it was never my intention to become a full-time performer. In fact, I worked very hard not to do that.

Jan Rose: Really?

John Sturk: That’s right. Look at my work history. I worked at Fun for seven and a half years. And in 2014, I felt it was time to move on. So I took a desk job in the River North with the American Bar Association, doing marketing and membership recruitment and retention. I did event marketing and event planning, social media marketing and email marketing. 

Jan Rose. A real job, far away from the world of magic. 

John Sturk: Yeah, I was far away from magic because I hadn’t been involved in the club scene, the IBM or SAM, for a couple of years. I had felt like they weren’t giving me what I needed. 

Jan Rose: Really?

John Sturk: A lot of times they would ask me to teach or lecture, but I felt like I wasn’t ready to do that. I was still learning. 

Jan Rose: What did you want to do?

John Sturk: I wanted to create something like the Long Beach Mystics.

Jan Rose: Hm. Tell our readers about that.

John Sturk: That was the legendary independent magic club in Southern California, in the late 1950s through the 1980s, that developed magicians like Stan Allen, Mike Caveney, Dirk Arthur, Mark Kalin, Kevin James, and a lot of other big names. So I started by creating a small, invitation-only magic club that met in the back room at Magic, Inc.

Jan Rose: Who showed up?

John Sturk: I invited Luis Carreon, Lee Benzaquin, and a few others. Luis invited Joey Cranford.

Jan Rose: And that’s how you met Joey, who didn’t realize that just four years later he would be an owner of the fanciest magic nightclub in the country.

John Sturk: That’s how it happened!

Jan Rose: Now, if I can, I’d like to go back just a few steps, because you made a statement and I want to make sure I understood you. What did you mean when you said, “It really wasn’t my intention to be a full-time performer.” Can you talk about that? Why did you not want to be a full-time performer?


John Sturk: Frankly, I was terrified.

Jan Rose: Why?

John Sturk: I was terrified because of the inconsistency of the work, and by that I mean the inconsistency of the money.

Jan Rose: Yes. Nearly all full-time entertainers deal with that.

John Sturk: Being without the security of having a weekly or biweekly check that’s the same every time.

Jan Rose: I can understand that concern.

John Sturk: Working a day job and having that regularity felt much safer to me. I liked putting performing on top of that — as bonus money. I’m just more comfortable not having to rely on magic for my living. I liked having the day job for expenses and savings. The money from magic was always the icing on the cake.

Jan Rose: Having the best of both worlds.

John Sturk: Yes, exactly.

Jan Rose: And that gives you security and assurance because you have a company supporting you. At the same time, you can pick and choose gigs, when and where you want to work those into your life.

John Sturk: Exactly, it gives me the flexibility to take a gig or turn it down if I want to. I can do as much music or magic as I want to. You know, some piano gigs paid only twenty dollars.

Jan Rose: Showbiz — not easy! It’s nice that you set yourself up to have a choice. So talk about the path you took to get to where you are today — the Uptown Underground, the original group of entertainers there, and how it developed into the Chicago Magic Lounge.

John Sturk: We had been running what I called The Session Club in the backroom of Magic, Inc. for about a year. I thought, Well, we’ve done this for a year. And still, the only item on the agenda for these meetings is to bring your works in progress, do them, get feedback from your peers, and improve. 

Jan Rose: So is that when the light bulb went on?

John Sturk: Kind of. After a year, I thought it was probably time that we actually go out and perform! So I thought about putting together a show, as Magic, Inc. often did, in the back room which they call the Jay Marshall Theater. There we could display these skills that we’d been working on. That’s when Joey came along and said, “I know these guys at the Uptown Underground and they’re looking for programming.”

Jan Rose: In life, it’s sometimes who you know.

John Sturk: Exactly. Joey knew the folks at Uptown Underground, but he didn’t really know many of the Chicago-area magicians other than the people he’d met at The Session Club. I knew a lot of magicians in the community. So I thought, We can join forces. He takes care of the business side, the relations with the theater, and I can find the right magicians to perform.

Jan Rose: So what happened next?

John Sturk: In mid-March 2015, we did our first show there. When we walked in to check out the venue and the lighting and sound, there was a grand piano next to the stage. I said, “Hey guys, let me play for you while you do your stage acts. Just trust me. I can do this. It’ll complement your magic, and you and the audience will like it.” And that’s how we added live music to Chicago-style magic at the Chicago Magic Lounge.

Jan Rose: And that music, at least for me, is an entertainer’s dream. When I was doing theater, we had live musicians. But most magicians, when they go to a gig, if they have music, they are relying on a tech guy who maybe has never seen their show, or a ShowTech or Show Cues remote system with music cues on it. They’re always hoping it’s all going to work when they press the button in their pocket. It’s so great to have your live music supporting the magic. I remember you calling it “punctuation.”

John Sturk: Yes.

Jan Rose: You know, when you work with the magicians onstage, you are so intuitively spot-on, knowing exactly when and where those moments are, to enhance the magic. It creates such a wonderful feeling for the stage acts, when we’re performing live. It’s a real gift to the performer, the audience, and to the Lounge’s atmosphere. 

John Sturk: And I have a lot of fun doing it.

Jan Rose: So what’s it like for you to now be what you specifically did not set out to be — a full-time entertainer? 

John Sturk: Well, it’s still not quite the same as being an independent entertainer. Because I do work full time here at the Chicago Magic Lounge, and that comes with the security of a regular salary and health insurance. Those are things that give me comfort. 

Jan Rose: I see.

John Sturk: And those are the things that kept me from leaving that world of gainful employment, what the entertainment community calls “a real job.” My father always had a desk job. It was a nine-to-five job. He wore a suit. My Mom was a nurse. During most of my teenage years, she worked as a home care nurse. She would go to patients’ homes during the daytime. Both of my parents would be home every evening. So when I think of work, that’s the world I think of. Nine-to-five job, home in the evening. Do it all again the next day. All year round. Weekends off. National holidays off. Two weeks of vacation per year.

Jan Rose: In a way, John, it seems as though you’ve combined all your talents and skills to create for yourself the security of a “real job,” but at the same time there’s no denying that you’re a full-time entertainer. How does it feel?

John Sturk: I’m still getting used to the hours. I’m usually here at the Lounge from mid-afternoon until ten o’clock or midnight. And I have days off in the middle of the week!

Jan Rose: Yeah. Quite different, isn’t it?

John Sturk: Actually, strange! I haven’t experienced that before.

Jan Rose: What advice do you have for Roundtable members who are reading this interview and want to perform more.

John Sturk: I would say “Find your collaborators.”

Jan Rose: Can you expand on that?

John Sturk: I think it’s important, and I was echoed by David Solomon when he was here to talk about his collective with David Finklestein and John Bannon, that you should have people to collaborate with. In my act, I talk about the isolation that comes with being a magician.

Jan Rose: Yes, that can be true. Many magicians jokingly refer to a lack of social life during their teenage years.

John Sturk: But with collaborators, who give us feedback, who encourage us, we progress faster. There’s great power in collaboration.

Jan Rose: So true. Whether you work with a friend, a director, or a magic teacher, it can be so helpful.

John Sturk: That’s why we have been working hard to create Roundtable programs like our monthly mezzanine jam, and the monthly session where people can work on their magic with other people who can help guide them.

Jan Rose: I agree completely. It’s very important. And I must say the Lounge has been an incredible home for magicians. It has created such community, for entertainers to talk and learn from each other and just to be able to hang out and, as you say, find their collaborators. It’s quite the gift.

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John Sturk: I often talk about the twofold mission that we have here. First, to create a showcase for Chicago-style magic. We magicians are constantly fighting the battle of integrity, trying not to be seen as clowns or kids’ entertainment. We’re fighting to showcase magic as this legit, sophisticated form of entertainment for adults. And the second mission is to create a community for magicians — to bring people who love performing and watching magic out from behind their computer screens, away from their YouTube cameras, to see magic in the real world. Magic is an art form that demands to be seen live.

Jan Rose: So, so true.

John Sturk: And the more venues and opportunities we can create for the public and magicians to see magic in a live setting, the better. That’s what I think.

Jan Rose: The Chicago Magic Lounge has certainly done that! And you’ve been a huge part of its success. On behalf of all the Roundtable members, thank you for your work and thank you for the interview.


Who would you like to see Jan interview next?