Grasso's Magic Theater fills an ‘entertainment void' in Philly

Dancers (from left) Kelly Boeckle, Heather Grasso (no relation to owner) and Amanda Boeckle perform with audience member Fred Baus. SHUMITA BASU / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Dancers (from left) Kelly Boeckle, Heather Grasso (no relation to owner) and Amanda Boeckle perform with audience member Fred Baus. SHUMITA BASU / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: July 03, 2012

A CENTURY AGO, Philadelphia was home to a number of entertainment venues that were far different — architecturally, geographically and, most of all, artistically — from such grand halls as the Academy of Music, the long-demolished Arch Street Theater and North Broad Street's Metropolitan Opera House.

These cozy ("cramped" is probably a better word) performance spaces were generally located in working-class neighborhoods and catered primarily to burgeoning immigrant populations who, for just pennies, could avail themselves of lowbrow acts featuring dancing girls, mind-readers and magicians.

A hundred years later, a small, under-the-radar venue is thriving putting on just that kind of show. Since late 2009, Grasso's Magic Theatre on the 100 block of Callowhill Street has been recalling a bygone era with a regular schedule of shows featuring burlesque dancers, mentalists, comics and, most important of all, magicians.

Every Sunday afternoon, the vest-pocket theater (it seats a maximum 50 people) offers a family-friendly magic matinee. The first Saturday of the month brings cabaret-style "Magic Burlesque" aimed at adult audiences. Novelty acts, such as the sideshow attractions that are Coney Island signatures, are featured in a series of weeknight presentations.

The impresario behind it all is 67-year-old Joe Grasso, a construction worker by trade who, pretty much by himself, turned what once housed a produce distributor and then an electrical supply warehouse into one of the city's coolest performance spaces.

Grasso, a semi-professional drummer, and his two sons — including Michael, a professional magician who finished fifth on "America's Got Talent" in 2010 and who performs occasionally at the theater — bought the building in 2000. They wanted to create a venue for magicians, but the task became more of a real-estate project than a showbiz endeavor, and his sons lost interest. Joe Grasso kept going — though he still hasn't quit his day job.

Grasso's decision to showcase the illusionist's craft wasn't random. "I always loved magic since I was a kid," he said. "That's how I got my son into it. And Philadelphia has more magicians than anywhere else in the country [there are five magicians clubs in the region]. I thought it would be great to have a magic theater in Philadelphia."

The senior Grasso took over the project in 2001, and completed the physical rehab of the property in 2007. He got to use his construction skills on what became a complete renovation project (including restoring the building's original brick walls), and he's developed an eye for decorative objects that would make the History Channel's "American Pickers" look like amateurs.

Customers enter the theater via a lobby whose church-pew seating was salvaged from a razed South Philly church. The stage and foyer floors came from the historic Divine Lorraine Hotel at Broad Street and Ridge Avenue. The curtain was rescued from the Merriam Theater's trash. It had been used when the auditorium was called the Shubert. The wall sconces once greeted mourners at the Leonetti funeral home on South Broad Street.

Despite its recycled decor and off-the-beaten-track location, Grasso bragged that his room has become a key stop on the nation's magic circuit — only one of five venues in the nation that specialize in sleight of hand. (He said the others are in Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas and Texas.) As a result, performers reach out to him.

"We have magicians calling from Japan who want to play here," he said. "I got a call from a magician in Great Britain who's coming to the U.S. and wants to play here."

"It's awesome, a beautiful theater. You have to see it to believe it," enthused Michael Bonacci, a regular headliner at Grasso's. "It has a nice stage, all kinds of lighting, a fog machine built in. It's kind of like taking magic back to the old days of vaudeville. I can't say enough about it."

But Grasso's doesn't live on magic alone. Its proprietor admitted there just aren't enough topflight acts to be able to present a magic show every Saturday night. Which is why, so far, "Magic Burlesque," featuring a magician and a troupe of sassy, sexy young female dancers, has been presented only once a month. He's hoping to expand to twice monthly soon.

Grasso also is looking to expand offerings in what he puts under the general category of "vaudeville." Besides performances by sword-swallowers, fire-eaters and the like, Grasso is planning comedy nights and even jazz performances.

But so far, his strategy of concentrating on magic for different audiences — adults for the Saturday cabaret and families for Sunday matinees — seems to have paid off. With little promotion or advertising, Saturday's "Magic Burlesque" show is sold out; word of mouth certainly must be playing a role.

For instance, during a recent Saturday-night set, the theater earned good reviews from several audience members. Renee Will of Yardley, gave the theater props. "It's different than other venues," she said. "I think it's cute in here. And it's nice they have [alcoholic] drinks and snacks." Her friends, John and Joan Vagie of Lower Gwynedd, agreed. John praised the intimacy of the room, while Joan noted Grasso's Magic Theatre filled an entertainment void.

"There's a real need in Philadelphia," she insisted, "for something like this."

Contact Chuck Darrow at 215-313-3134 or darrowc@phillynews.com. Read his CasiNotes casino blog at www.philly.com/casinotes/ and follow him on Twitter @chuckdarrow.

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