Just off Union Square, away from the bustle of the crowd, is a cozy and charming place where history and imagination meet: Walt Anthony’s San Francisco Magic Parlor.
Setting up shop in the breakfast room of the 100-year-old Chancellor Hotel, which has been cleverly decked out with Belle Epoque-era furnishings, Anthony is a conjurer-storyteller who spins tales of old San Francisco peppered with classic feats of magic.
Dapper in a tux, with an easy-paced theatrical patter that manages to be calming, quiet and haunting at the same time, Anthony serves up saucy vignettes about some of The City’s most infamous historical figures: abolitionist Mary Ellen Pleasant, a voodoo practitioner; eccentric Joshua Norton, who proclaimed himself emperor; occultist Anton LaVey, the father of modern Satanism; and the beautiful Gertrude Atherton, writer of scandalous Victorian-era romance novels.
With each story comes a trick, often involving an audience member joining him onstage. Those who choose cards or cut decks are as enthralled as the rest of the folks in the intimate crowd — some 30 seats — when Anthony magically conjures their selection.
He has a special box, which he reveals as empty at the beginning of the show, when he separates the hinged sides.
But after he puts it back together, it quickly fills up, and from it he pulls fascinating objects such as a Chinese laughing Buddha figurine, which illustrates a story about the mysteries of alleys in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
He does fun things with ropes, including making three pieces of different lengths all the same length, as well as passing a clothesline — held by two audience members in jump-rope fashion — through his body.
For his final and most mind-blowing feat, Anthony levitates an antique end table as the climax to an appealing yarn about 6-foot-tall socialite Alma Spreckels, who includes the invention of the garage sale among her claims to fame. Married to Adolph Spreckels, a sugar magnate 24 years her senior (whom she called sugar daddy), “Big Alma” was instrumental in building the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, filling it with Rodin sculptures and donating the museum to The City.
Program notes indicate that Anthony has more stories of old San Francisco to tell, and that he’s keeping his parlor doors open as long as listeners come to hear them. For old-fashioned, old-time entertainment, his magical drawing room is well worth a visit.