LINCOLN SQUARE — Ashod “Mr. Ash” Baboorian’s legacy as Chicago’s greatest magician spanned nearly 50 years.
Mr. Ash frequently appeared on WGN’s “Bozo’s Circus” and performed at countless street festivals and birthday parties when not at his Lincoln Square magic shop. He was recognized by the city in 2015 as being “Chicago’s Greatest Magician” and a “Living Legend in the World of Magic.”
Baboorian died July 3 from heart failure. He was 80. He is survived by his wife, Bonnie, and two sons, David and Edward.
Baboorian was born July 26, 1939, in Iraq to Armenian parents. His family immigrated to the United States in 1960, in the aftermath of the 14 July Revolution that overthrew the monarchy.
By the time they moved to the Northwest Side in 1969, Baboorian had connected with a group of older magicians well versed in Chicago’s unique style of close-up magic for people at restaurants and bars.
“Somebody showed him a card trick and that started him looking into magic,” David Baboorian said.
In “The Amazing Mr. Ash,” a 2014 documentary, Baboorian explained his parents weren’t always happy with his decision to pursue magic. His father was a priest, and when Baboorian would talk about his accomplishments, his dad always liked pointing out his son could have been a doctor.
“Laughter is the best medicine, they say,” a smiling Baboorian said in the documentary.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Chicago had 15 magic shops and a variety of “magic bars” across the city where patrons would go for a drink while a magician performed illusions at their table.
By learning from these veteran performers, Mr. Ash was able to pass on their history and knowledge to future generations of Chicago magicians, said Joey Cranford, co-owner of Chicago Magic Lounge.
In 1985, Mr. Ash opened his magic shop at 4955 N. Western Ave. It was near the former New York Lounge on Lincoln Avenue, where Mr. Ash had performed close-up magic and ad lib comedy for decades until it closed in the late ’80s.
As the other magic shops in the city closed, Mr. Ash acquired their inventory and became the “King of Boxes,” his wife Bonnie Baboorian liked to joke.
“If you remember the scene from ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’ when he visits the prank shop, it was just like that,” Cranford said. “He knew what was in all those boxes even though his back room looked like the warehouse from the end of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ But he also had a garage full of boxes, and I don’t think even he knew what was back there.”
As an 11-year-old, Ben Barnes, entertainment director at Chicago Magic Lounge, had only seen illustrations of magic tricks in magazine catalogues. Mr. Ash’s shop was the first time he saw all the gags and illusion equipment for professional magicians up close.
“I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and as a sort of a treat my parents brought me to Ash’s Magic Shop as a kid,” Barnes said.
Mr. Ash saw how excited Barnes was about magic and offered him advice on how to become a professional.
“If you want to be as big as David Copperfield — who was the guy everyone wanted to be back then — Mr. Ash told me I had to put in the work and take as many jobs that come my way,” Barnes said. “It’s something he told me as a kid and I never forgot that.”
Barnes frequented the shop for decades and reveled in Mr. Ash’s stories about the old days of Chicago magic. His mentor was incredibly helpful in helping develop Barnes’ talent.
“He knew I was interested in specific types of illusions and would find things he knew I would be into that were good for my skill level. I loved to read and he’d always have books he knew I’d be interested in waiting for me when I showed up,” he said. “He’d always find stuff for me that was really helpful and was just a warm person.”
Mr. Ash also performed to raise money for Ronald McDonald House, and he traveled to Armenia to do benefit work for schools, hospitals and orphanages.
While developing his skills as a magician, Baboorian studied engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology and University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Mr. Ash’s day job was as a state bridge inspector until he retired in 2004, David Baboorian said.
When he wasn’t at that job, he was either behind the counter of his magic shop, performing magic, or playing honky tonk music under the name Country Ash Ryan.
Jon Langford, of the Mekons band, had an art studio next to Mr. Ash’s magic shop and the two struck up a friendship due to their love of country music, David Baboorian said. Mr. Ash even recorded a single, “Give Me Back My Taxes,” with Langford and The Waco Brothers.
The magic shop will remain open in Mr. Ash’s honor, David Baboorian said. As he spoke to Block Club on the phone, he had to pause the conversation as customers stopped by to offer condolences to his family about Mr. Ash’s passing.
The family is asking people to submit their stories about Mr. Ash to a website as a tribute. Mr. Ash loved to make people laugh and they are requesting people share upbeat and funny memories rather than sad condolences.
“People would start cracking up around him because he always had a new joke for them whenever they stopped by the shop,” David Baboorian said. “People would be coming to the shop for 30 years and they’d hear a new joke from him every time.”
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