After surveying the scene inside Grasso’s Magic Theatre, a venue for the magic arts recently unveiled in Old City, it becomes apparent that you’re not about to get mind-freaked by Criss Angel.
The exposed original brick and thick, velvety curtains hearken back to the days of Houdini. Vintage sconces snagged from a funeral parlor adorn the walls and church pews with Bible niches still attached to the backs are a far cry from the leather-clad, attention-grappling stunts you see on television.
Although the atmosphere in Grasso’s is romantically traditional, the lineup is anything but.
“We’re going to have weekly performances with magicians who have traveled all over the world, a bartender’s magic school where bartenders can learn tricks, corporate meetings and birthday parties,” said owner Joe Grasso.
Grasso’s Magic Theatre is Philadelphia’s first and only theater for the magic arts, joining a short list of similar sites scattered across the United States in locations such as Las Vegas and New York City.
“There are only five of these in the country, tops,” said Mike Miller, soon-to-be president of the Society of American Magicians. Miller will also be a regular performer and instructor at Grasso’s.
Several openings during the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in September, as well as specials during the Thanksgiving and Christmas weekends have given locals a taste of Grasso’s magic potion.
“We sold out every show,” Grasso said.
The 50-seat theater allows spectators to be close enough to the stage to participate and engross themselves in the live entertainment.
Other opportunities for involvement are popping up for those lay people interested in magic.
Beginning in February, Grasso’s will be running its first of many month-long classes. Internationally recognized young maestro Francis Menotti will teach sleight-of-hand tricks and magical stage-craft.
There will also be a rotation of frequent performers like Doc Swann, who sticks screwdrivers up his nasal cavity, walks on nails with an audience member on his back and catches a bullet in his mouth. Other regular acts will include magicians Taddo and Loudini, as well as Michael.
Grasso began the venture six years ago when he purchased the property from his sons, Michael and David.
Each member of the Grasso family plays a different part in the quest to entertain and delight. Grasso builds up the environment, David sets the ambiance with lights and sound, Michael dazzles with hocus pocus, and Joe Jr. performs live music.
While Joe Grasso can work magic on the set, trying his own hand at abracadabra is a different story. When I ask him to teach me a trick, he sheepishly admits he doesn’t really know any.
“I love the art of magic, but my son is the performer,” he says.
“That’s him, right there, performing for the president of India,” Grasso said of his son Michael as he pointed to a photo on the wall of a chiseled young man in sequins surrounded by billowing smoke.
Michael starred in the 2005 NBC special T.H.E.M.: Totally Hidden Extreme Magic in which he collaborated with several of his magician friends. He plans on recruiting cast members from T.H.E.M. to perform in the grand opening in hopes of getting locals excited about this form of entertainment that dupes reality and screws with your senses.
The intimate nature of the theater allows the audience to meet and chat with virtuosos after a show, creating a strong rapport with tourists and residents. Grasso’s could very well become a staple entertainment spot in the city.
“This place is going to take off,” Miller said. “People go to the casinos to see shows like this, but now it’s here, right in Philadelphia.”
Maureen Coulter can be reached at email@example.com.