Sometimes I have to pull a column out of a hat.
I was fortunate to meet Forest Park magician, Ken Wojtas, at the Historical Society open house recently. He handed me a folder containing news clippings and photos from his career. We later spoke in his remarkable “magic room.”
Ken started learning his craft at the age of 12. He was drawn to magic because he liked the idea that he could fool people. His hangout became the Mazda Mystic Ring in Oak Park, where he purchased his props.
He bought cards, coins and balls to practice simple tricks. Completely self-taught, he perfected his tricks and began performing at local clubs for adults and kids. He pulled off stage stunts and the more difficult close-up magic. He still has his close-up case, containing all the props needed to dazzle a table full of customers.
Ken was following in the footsteps of his idol, Don Alan, who could fool people in tight quarters, surrounded by his subjects. Using three balls and three cups, Ken made balls appear and disappear in mysterious fashion. He perfected sleight of hand, using misdirection and distracting stage patter.
Ken found a ready audience at St. John Lutheran Church, where he is a member. He performed for church groups and students. One of his props was a solid transparent frame, which he pushed a pencil through. He then pulled a silk scarf through the “hole.” This is what’s known as an illusion. He could also take three ropes of different lengths and make them identical.
He was not alone in his passion for magic. He had many Forest Park friends who shared his hobby. As soon as he learned a new trick, he’d try it out on his buddies. When he got older, he would frequent Mr. C’s Magic Lounge, in Berwyn, where magician Hugh Cosgrove mystified the customers. Ken never performed there but picked up some valuable tips.
He learned how to recover from a trick that was going badly. TV host Johnny Carson, who began his career as a magician, had that same ability to recover from a bad joke. Most of the time, though, Ken’s trick was strong enough to survive scrutiny. His biggest prop was a 6-foot guillotine, which he used to “behead” kids.
When he wasn’t performing magic, he worked at Forest Printing and still has a print shop in his basement, adjacent to the magic room. This sanctuary contains a custom-built bar, which he constructed and where he did his close-up tricks. The bar is illuminated by colored lights shining through glass blocks. Ken, who retired 10 years ago, at the age of 65, is now an avid collector of all things magical.
His bookcase is crammed with magic books, he has shelves of magic kits, and the walls are covered with posters of famous illusionists. He has DVDs of Houdini performing death-defying stunts. The collection grows, as Ken and his companion, Sybil, just returned from a four-day convention in Michigan, where he purchased more props.
He was encouraged to see so many young people attending the convention and noted that magic is surging in popularity, thanks to modern magicians like David Copperfield and Penn & Teller. Magicians like Ken have been among us since ancient times. The word itself is Iranian in origin. It meant “sorcerer.”
I have to thank this sorcerer personally for sharing his story with me. Ken made what could have been a hole on Page 3 completely disappear.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.