Saturday, April 27, 2019

The History of Baer's Treasure Chest Downtown Chicago's Arcade and Magic Shop.

In November of 1949, Bobby Baer opened his magic store, "Baer's Treasure Chest" at 19 West Randolph Street, across the street from the Oriental Theater, in downtown Chicago.
A two-story-high, chase-lighted marquee out front heralded the arrival of Baer's "Treasure Chest," and home of "Chicago's Magic Center." The Treasure Chest front entrance circa 1950.
Inside were rows of skee-ball games, a shooting gallery, a lot of flashing pinball games and coin-consuming mechanical arcade machines. 

In the 1960s & 70s, the Treasure Chest was a hang-out for Navy Cadets on a pass from Fort Sheridan, just north of Highland Park, about an hour train ride away.

The Illinois General Assembly made "mechanical gambling devices" illegal in 1895. It wasn't until 1942 that the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that pinball machines that awarded free replays would fall under this same category. Because of a bit of political gamesmanship known only to Bobby Baer and certain city councilmen, the new amusement palace was the only arcade licensed within Chicago's Loop, thus allowing pinball machinesThe Illinois pinball machine ban was finally overturned in Chicago in early 1977.
Magician Marshall Brodien demonstrating at the Treasure Chest's Magic Center, the upstairs shop that catered to the pros.
Brodien began making semi-regular guest appearances on Bozo's Circus, in which he frequently interacted with the clowns, he began appearing as a wizard character in an Arabian Nights-inspired costume in 1968 and by the early 1970s he evolved into "Wizzo the Wizard."
Marshall Brodien played Wizzo the Wizard on ‘The Bozo Show.'
Brodien's TV Magic Cards were first released in November of 1969. TV Magic Show was released in 1972.
When you came in the front door and walked past the counter on the right side, there were stairs leading to an upstairs shop, also on the right. The entrance had a velvet rope across it and a small sign, saying "Abbott's Pro Shop." The rope barrier was to keep out the idly curious. You needed permission from an employee to go upstairs. 

Although the upstairs Pro Shop had professional, high quality and expensive magic, the downstairs area had a magic area that sold some professional tricks. 

Further down on the right side were the gag gifts; fake vomit, doggie poop, itching powder, plastic ice cube with a fly inside (my favorite prank), Pepper or Garlic Gum, hand buzzer shockers and tons more cheap but fun gags.

On the left side as you entered were counters and shelving full of jewelry, watches, transistor radios, tape recorders, switch-blade combs, and other kinds of "general merchandise." You could get your own headline printed on the front page of a faux newspaper i.e. "Dr. Smith Survives a Flood, Asteroid Strike, and Airplane Crash."
1974 Midway Chopper helicopter coin-operated flying arcade game. It was touchy business making a toy helicopter to fly in slow circles and brush electric contacts with spring feelers before the timer ran out. My personal favorite.
Skee-Ball Machines... Win tickets and turn them in at the counter for a cheesy toy.
Examples of the type of pinball games. Not a Treasure Chest photo.
In the back half of the store were all the amusement games, taking up every inch of available floor space; Pinball, mechanical games, and a row of skee-ball machines. Later they added coin-operated video games, but they still kept some of the money-making vintage games. Lunchtime, 11am-1pm, was also a very busy time with 'suits' playing games.
In the 1960s they were open 7 days a week until midnight. A 1960s Tribune Ad shows a second location at 9252 Milwaukee Avenue in Niles.

By 1980 the hours were changed to 9am-10pm Monday thru Thursday; 9am-midnight on Friday & Saturday, 12pm-10pm on Sunday.
In the 1970s, some people thought the name of the Treasure Chest was "Fun City" because of the sign over the door read: "Entrance to FUN CITY." Note that the length of the front windows was at some point elongated from about 5' to the door in the 1950s photo above, to about 15' to get in the door. All the merchandise in the windows drew you in like a magnet.
Baer's Treasure Chest closed sometime in 1985 after a fire in the 17-19 W. Randolph building.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

2 comments:

  1. The prohibition of free games on a pinball machine was also in effect in Los Angeles. What became the loophole there was also implemented in Chicago: Instead of a free game, you could earn extra balls of that game.
    The next step toward legitimizing pinball machines was a demonstration in New York City that when flippers were installed, the game became one of skill, not gambling.
    It was perplexing that the City of Chicago prohibited even flipper skill pinball machines (which is always how they were marketed) until the recently-retired Chicago Police Superintendant James Rochford testified on their behalf before a City Council committee. Especially since the factories manufacturing the machines were on Belmont Ave. and California Ave. on the North Side.
    I was out-and-about riding around the city on a CTA Sunday Supertransfer in the mid-1970s, and distinctly remember when I espied my first in city machine in the Kee Department Store at Cicero, Milwaukee, & Irving Park in 1976.

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  2. I worked there in the Mid-1970's managing the magic counter. This was just after Ed Marlo, one of the most published and renowned magicians in Chicago had left there. We pitched loads of the Adam's cheap magic tricks, sold a lot of novelty items including Snap 'n Pops (little paper things that would go off like a cap in a kid's cap pistol when you threw in on the ground and a lot of rubber barf, doggie-doo and rubber chickens.

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