Meet a true Urban Legend
A time and season for Magic in October
by Michael Gilbert
Few people can say they've sawed a woman in two and then with a snap of the fingers and wave of a wand have the beauty stand unharmed.
Ron Urban is one of those people - and he did it with a grin from ear to ear.
Palos Heights' "Magic Man" is marking his 50th year of theatre performing illusions and tricks for audiences. The last half century has taken Urban around the world to perform in front of such dignitaries as Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, King Constantine of Greece and Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
"The last 50 years have certainly been an adventure," said Urban, who is still quick to astound an audience with a card or rope trick. "I never thought in my life that I would reach this point and still be performing. It has been-and still is - amazing."
Born in Chicago, Urban decided at a young age that there's no business like show business.
"I was 8 years old watching the circus from the second-tolast row of the top balcony at the Medinah Temple," Urban recalls. "I sat there amazed and thought to myself 'I'm going to be on that stage someday.'"
After watching that show at the Medinah Temple, Urban headed over to his neighborhood trick shop to buy some pranks he would later try out on his classmates at St. Boniface School on Chicago's North West Side.
"I became a holy terror," Urban said with a laugh. "I'd shake hands with a buzzer, pour itching powder down their shirts and pass out exploding cigars. It didn't take too long before my classmates hated my guts."
But when Urban switched to doing card tricks for his classmates, instead of giving them electric shocks, he soon won them over. "People liked my card tricks and told me to do them again and I thought to myself 'I may have something here.' I was developing an audience and figured it was better to have people watching me than running away from me."
Urban honed his skills under magicians George Coon and Charlie Worpell at the Abbott Magic Company in Chicago. Still in his teens, Urban hired an agent and began performing in nightclubs.
He did his first professional solo show in 1957 before a crowd of about 600 people at the Green's Crystal Terrace in Duluth, Minn. It was there that he unveiled a unique act that truly set him apart from other magicians.
Urban's "Pastels" employed 15 doves, each dyed a bright color. Highlights of the show included his producing a dove from inside a balloon and a continuous conjuring of colorful doves from his bare hands.
The act was a hit with audiences and Urban toured all over the Midwest performing Pastels until he was inducted into the Army in 1958. Instead of allowing his time in the service halt his career, Urban, and his 15 doves who were inducted with him - he has the papers to prove it - toured with an Army road show and competed in several entertainment contests before thousands of soldiers.
He even edged out Marshall Brodien, who would later star as Wizzo the Wizard on Channel 9's "The Bozo Show," to win first place in a 5th Army competition talent show. The victory earned him an officer's uniform and access to the officers' club. "After that, the drinks were always on them," he said.
Urban's show business break came almost immediately after he was discharged from the Army in 1960. Merriel Abbott, the entertainment director for the Hilton Hotel in Chicago, signed Urban to a seven-month contract at $500 per week.
After his run at the Hilton ended, Urban took his magic to Europe and became a supporting act for singer and songwriter Paul Anka. On the side, he practiced for months on ice skates and would later present Pastels on ice.
But adapting Pastels to the ice was not the highlight of Urban's stay in Europe. While performing at the Carlton Hotel in Madrid in 1962, he met a lovely French girl born in Corsica named Monica. An assistant manager at the hotel, Monica refused to date guests. And because Urban was staying at the Carlton while playing there, she turned him down when he first asked her out.
After a few friends convinced her to see Urban's show, Monica reconsidered and began dating him. The couple would marry in 1966. Although he still loved performing and entertaining the crowd, Urban, who had moved back to the United States with his bride, found it more difficult to take his show on the road across the country now that he was bound in matrimony.
"When I was by myself the travel wasn't really a problem," Urban said. "But within the first year of marriage, Monica had seen all 48 [continental] states. It was difficult for her because we were always living out of a suitcase."
The Urbans after a few years found Palos Heights the perfect place in which to unpack and settle. While visiting a magician who lived in Oak Lawn, the couple was referred to a real estate agent who showed them a few houses in Palos Heights and the Urbans subsequently purchased one in 1970.
"As soon as my wife found out how many closets the house had and that she would be able to unpack her clothes she was sold," Urban said.
But after the birth of their son, Renaud, in 1971, the Urbans were back on the road as Ron jumped at the chance to take his act to Paris, capital of his wife's native France. The trip was forever memorable as Ron managed by sleight of hand to convince the right people to have his son baptized in the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Urban's first request to have Renaud baptized in the cathedral was denied by a monsignor who told him christenings were not normally performed in the famed cathedral.
Thanking the monsignor, Urban shook hands while he "magically" swiped the cleric's watch and planted it in the pocket of a passing monk. Amazed at the trick, the monsignor allowed the baptism. Renaud became just the 34th child to be baptized in the 650- year-old cathedral, according to Urban.
"I always told my son I would give him Paris," Urban said. "It was an amazing moment - something you really can't describe."
After the family's return from Paris, Urban was able to fulfill a lifelong professional dream when he starred on the same stage at the Medinah Temple where he first began his boyhood's ambition. His magic act, which now employed one duck, two roosters, 18 pigeons, one poodle, a full-grown tiger and three female assistants, was a hit.
"I was an overnight sensation at Medinah," Urban said. "It just took me 30 years to get there," he chuckled.
In the late 1970s, Urban performed in front of 40,000 people daily for 10 days at The Calgary Stampede. The magician was a supporting act for the McGuire Sisters, the famed trio from Middletown, Ohio, who recorded such hits as "Sugar in the Morning," "Sincerely" and "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight."
In December of 1980, the Urbans were invited to the White House to perform at President Carter's Christmas Party. In one of Urban's seven scrapbooks is a picture of his family with President Carter after the magic show. "It was another amazing opportunity," he said. Most recently he appeared with President Bush when he was president-elect.
Apart from magic, Urban has also produced countless ice shows throughout the United States and Europe. A trained ice skater, Urban has on occasion laced up his skates for the show and shared the ice with stars including 1968 Olympic gold medalist Peggy Fleming.
Over the past 50 years, Urban's work has been praised by presidents, a queen, fellow entertainers, celebrities and countless newspaper reviewers all over the world. However, an accolade from Andy Dallas, the former president of the Society of American Magicians, is what Urban is most proud of.
Dallas, who Urban mentored years ago, wrote in the society's September 2006 publication: "My time with Ron Urban is precious. He is one of the characters of magic who's bigger than life."
Maria Ibanez, the current president of the Society of American Magicians, proclaimed the week of Oct. 25-31 as National Magic Week. For more than 40 years the society has recognized the anniversary of the death Harry Houdini with a special week of events to highlight the charitable work of the society throughout the year.
Although his days of traveling all over the world to perform magic are behind him, Urban still dons his white tie, tails and top hat on occasion. The magician recently worked a retirement party in Chicago Heights for about 80 people. He has also considered taking the stage for a 50th anniversary show.
"Do I love performing? If I had to do it all over again I would," Urban said. "There have been some tough times in my career, but I love what I do."
This is part of the October 25, 2007 online edition of The Regional.