Now you see it, now you dont: looking for the Zauberschloss

by Kathy Clark

It is a tough world for magic and magic-makers. This much I know. Most people are too firmly fixed in all aspects of their material existence to fully allow a spark of magic to flicker in their consciousness.

Me? I always look for magic. I first heard whisperings of a magic bar at a party which had an odd assemblage of friends and people who barely knew each other. Those who had been privy to the proceedings of “The Magic Bar” seemed to me like initiates of a secret society — a society to which I wanted to belong. The society included a colorful array of characters, with names like One-eyed Bob, Freaky Frank and Tattoo Joe. It was open to derelicts, bikers and businessmen alike. Inside “The Magic Bar,” marvelous and amazing things happened that astounded the initiates — such marvelous and amazing things, in fact, that echoes of awe were perceptible in their stories.

But eventually the party ended. And just like a dream, the remembrance of these tales vanished from my mind. But early this summer, a random conversation with a stranger prodded my memory and aggravated my curiosity again. The name “Aitch’s Zauberschloss” haunted me anew.

What was this place? Who was the man who created it?

Why had I not heard of it when it was in operation and I could have witnessed it first hand? And most of all, why is Greensboro currently Zauberschoss-less?

I embarked upon a quest to know the unknowable, to experience that which I could never experience. I began my search for the Zauberschloss.

What was this place?

I learned that a man by the name of H. Pat Sullivan once had a magic shop at 610 S. Elm St., the current location of Artmongers. H. Pat simply answered to “Aitch,” which is simply the phonetic spelling of the letter “H.” And this is how it is pronounced. Aitch = H.

Aitch’s shop carried bizarre artifacts like noses that you could strap to your face — one shaped like an electrical outlet and another shaped like a plug. There were buckets of junk: old broken toys and stuff that held just enough of a semblance of keep-ability that you felt compelled to rummage through it all. It cost a quarter to pick something up from the pile of rubbish. Fifty cents to buy it.

And of course there was magic. And the magic lured magicians.

Once, a magician named Joey, “Just Joey,” as he was known, who happened upon Aitch’s store. Aitch was “the craziest weirdest nutbag” Joey had ever met, he said. A graduate of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, Joey had studied magic for several years. Once Aitch became cognizant of this fact, he said, “Well show me a magic trick then!” And Joey did. And Aitch gave him a scowl and a sneer and performed a trick of his own with a “Well, top that then!” flourish. And Joey proceeded to top it. After a couple of hours of dueling with magic, a friendship was forged and magic-making became a daily occurrence between Aitch and Joey.

Then along came Freaky Frank and the triumvirate was complete.

A group dynamic formed between Frank, Joey and Aitch that resembled the classic triumvirate of clowning between the white face, the auguste and the character. Aitch would play the ultimate authority on magic. Frank wanted to learn magic tricks. Aitch would show him how to perform a trick with great bravado. And when Aitch wasn’t looking, Joey would show Frank how to do the trick better. This web of interplay established the basis for many performances as well as the emotional trappings of competition.

After a while, Aitch outgrew the magic shop on Elm Street.

He wanted a stage: a place where he could play and people could go and have a good time. He found such a place at 330 Bellemeade St. And Aitch’s Zauberschloss and Pub was born.

Zauberschloss is the German equivalent to the English “Magic Castle.” For ease, the Zauberschloss was referred to as “The Magic Bar” or simply “Aitch’s.”

The magic shop on Elm Street was moved to the front of the Zauberschloss, where it was self-contained and could be locked up during bar hours. From the magic shop, one walked down a long narrow hallway to the bar. Beyond the bar was a stage. The Stage. Aitch’s stage. On this stage all manner of fun was had.

Rhonda Cranford, having visited the magic shop on Elm Street and having been “completely enchanted by the weirdness” soon fell under the spell of the Zauberschloss. She went there two or three times a week to “sit at the bar, eat some freeze-dried squid, drink a beer and just watch the circus unfold.”

The walls, floor and ceiling of the Zauberschloss were painted black, so one was immediately impressed by the darkness. As you entered the building, the magic shop was on your left. It typically was open from 1 p.m. until 5 p.m.

But often it was open during bar hours. Rhonda said it was fun “to have a couple of beers, go in there and look around. It [seemed] like it was organized by a tornado. There was no rhyme or reason as [to] how items were grouped.” When you’d had your fill of the odd things in random order, you’d go down the hall to the bar and order a beer.

Everywhere you looked, there was something to see. Rhonda described “a crazy thing in a birdcage hanging from the ceiling at the end of the bar. A box that said ‘See the puerile monkey.’ And you’d look in it and there was a mirror. A huge black-and-white painting of Houdini had these tiny red lights in his pupils so that it looked like he was winking one eye and then the other all night long.” The stage had a backdrop of a medieval torture scene: “some guy hanging upside down and some people poking him with sticks.”

All in all the d’cor was “a bit disorienting. It was contrived to assault the senses and mess with your head a little bit.”

The proceedings on stage were always different. One night there might be a dance performance incorporating strobe lights and acrobatics. Or Aitch and Frank might saw a Barbie in half. And then they might make a Barbie disappear. There might be a television sitting on stage showing some random old movie and that was the show. Or Aitch, Frank and Joey would bicker with each other for hours and that was the show.

An audience favorite was a skeleton dance performed by Aitch and Frank. Aitch constructed a black box with several skeletons he’d acquired from one of Greensboro’s finest bargain shops. Aitch connected lots of wires to the skeleton’s bits, running them through the top and bottom of the box. Aitch controlled the top halves of the skeletons. Frank had to crawl underneath the box to control the bottom halves. In this way, the two of them made the skeletons dance to Tom Waits’ “Cemetary Polka.” Frank recalls a time in which the audience remained absolutely silent once they’d finished. He wondered aloud what he and Aitch had done wrong. Aitch said, “Nothing! It was absolutely perfect!” The audience was mesmerized.

Rhonda said there was always a little bit of drama unfolding at the Zauberschloss. “Like the time this man walked in and wanted to know where the owner of the bar was. Aitch was at the other end of the bar washing glasses. Somebody asked why [he was looking for the owner]. He said, ‘So I can kill him!’”

The man explained that he’d just gotten out of jail. And the reason he’d had to go to jail was because “he’d been swindled. He’d done some electrical installation in the basement and the owner had done him wrong and he wound up going to jail.” And Rhonda thought, “Wow! This guy is crazy! It is best not to fan his flame. Somebody say something to mollify him and maybe he’ll leave. But Aitch was just not that kind. He’s down there rinsing out glasses and he turns around and he says, ‘I’ve always wondered who installed that electrical work. I’ve always thought whoever did that was a total jackass!’ The man was totally stunned that there was somebody in the room he had not managed to out-crazy. I mean that was Aitch’s home court — crazy — and you could not play him on it!” Rhonda was sitting at the bar with a friend while Aitch and the “would-be murderer” were “exchanging unpleasantries.” Rhonda’s friend looked at her and he says, “Wow! This could get dangerous! This could really get out of hand! And we got front row seats!” And Rhonda responded with an enthusiastic “Yeah!” This sort of danger did not predominate The Zauberschloss.

According to Rhonda, it was more of a “carnival wonderland,” a place where one dressed in prom dresses purchased at Good Will in combination with combat boots and evening gloves.

Rhonda told me about a guy named One-eyed Bob who liked to hang out there. As his name would suggest, Oneeyed Bob had only one eye. One-eyed Bob lived in the Dixie building — right next door to the Zauberschloss — for years. Rhonda said, “He liked to get up on stage and tell stories that didn’t make any sense.”

Such as the story about how he became One-Eyed Bob? Freaky Frank, the bartender, says, “Well, the story he told is, he was on LSD one night in the desert and God wouldn’t talk to him. So he ripped his eye out and said ‘God will you talk to me now?’ I asked him what happened and he said, ‘Well, God still didn’t talk to me.’ Bob was a little bit nuts. But he was a great guy. He would do anything in the world for you.”

Then there was Tattoo Joe and his elephant-skinned dog: a hairless dog with rough gray skin. Tattoo Joe would stick a large needle through his bicep causing blood to run down his arm. Rhonda saw this two or three times and could never figure out if it was a trick or if it was real. If it was a

trick, it was impossible to determine how he was executing it.

Freaky Frank, the bartender, used to drive spikes up his nose and lift chandeliers with his nipples. He has nipple rings. And he is covered in tattoos. These attributes earned him his name.

Daniel Bayer sits with Rhonda and I as we discuss the Zauberschloss. Daniel, an initiate himself, interjects with a question for Rhonda:

“Remember that time we went down there and [Aitch] was doing a demonstration with that guillotine he had. And you volunteered?” “No! I don’t remember that at all!”

“Yeah, he had this guillotine that would come down but it wouldn’t actually chop your head off. You don’t remember that?” “Was I drinkin’?” “Yes, you were always drinkin’!” Rhonda, for whatever reason, does not remember this occurrence.

Who was the man who created it?

According to Rhonda, Aitch could be “really mean or he could be the most charming individual you’ve ever met. He was funny. A real showman. There was definitely a diabolical quality about him. But you didn’t really take it personally when he was mean and insulting.”

He enjoyed costumes. A wizard’s robe was one of his favorites. He wore this with zip-up ankle boots. And he looked slick.

According to Joey, Aitch was an egomaniac, a genius, a classically trained singer, a fair magician yet a brilliant artist who studied at the Ringling School of Art and Design. Aitch could make anything.

Aitch made you feel like you were a part of the proceedings at the Zauberschloss, even though “he alienated and ostracized you. But he always made you feel like it was a happening. It really felt like you had to be there. You felt like you didn’t want to miss anything because you just didn’t know what the hell was going to happen next.”

According to Frank, Aitch made people feel unwelcome at the Zauberschloss. “But he also made you feel like if you weren’t here, this wouldn’t be happening right now. The atmosphere wouldn’t be right.” It was as if he were saying, “Even though I don’t want you here, even though I don’t like you, you’re important to what’s going on right now. So you have to be here.”

According to Aitch’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, Aitch was everyone’s friend. He often befriended vagrants and people with very low IQs. Doctors, teachers and homeless drunks frequented his establishment and Aitch would often be seen having a drink with any of the above-mentioned. Quite often, his friendships would take a tumultuous turn and end in head-butting.

Aitch was a master bonsai artist. He taught at GTCC. He became fairly knowledgeable about Chinese herbs. He made strange-smelling concoctions with old lizard skins floating in them.

Aitch obsessed over Asian cooking and became well-versed in many forms of it.

Aitch had antique typesetting equipment.

He meticulously hand printed materials associated with the Zauberschloss such as menus and flyers.

Aitch and Elizabeth were big buddies.

Once, Elizabeth asked Aitch to help her with a science project on cohesion. Her parents had “spaced” and forgotten to provide the help she needed. Furious, Aitch proceeded to glue the front door of his daughter and sonin-law’s house shut with a very strong epoxy.

There was no way to un-stick the stuck door. The whole thing had to be replaced. He informed his daughter and son-in-law that this was their lesson on cohesion. Needless to say, Aitch’s daughter and son-in-law were pretty furious in return.

Aitch’s most common expression was “Don’t tell me, ‘Don’t’.” He refused to be told “no.” About anything.

Why is Greensboro currently Zauberschoss-less?

Aitch became ill with stomach cancer. He was diagnosed in April 1999 and died at the end of July. Aitch’s daughter, Theodosia, kept the Zauberschloss running after his death. Yet it had ceased being the Zauberschloss. Aitch’s brand of magic ended.

A new breath of life came in the form of a group of men calling themselves the Underground Business League. A collective was established in cooperation with Theodosia in which each week, two members of the League booked bands at the Magic Bar. The booking duties were rotated out. Jon McLean brought in a sound system and taught the other members how to use it. No one was paid, reducing the overhead. And since each person committed to no more than one weekend a month, burnout was minimized.

The music shows began with the likes of Oi Polloi, Codeseven and Eugene Chad bourne gracing the stage. The shows grew more successful. Meanwhile the magic shop brought in nearly no revenue. So the UBL decided to get rid of the magic shop in order to expand audience capacity.

Mysteriously, as the audiences grew and money in the till multiplied, there never seemed to be any money for bills.

The Magic Bar closed in October or November 1999, just three months after Aitch’s death.

In the words of Aitch’s granddaughter, “The artistic temperament is hard to tame and hard to accept.”

“The real heart of [the Zauberschloss] was the Heart,” says Just Joey. “You remember that time when you were running around through the woods and you had that stick and you were Tarzan attacking the Amazons and the Orangutan King was running after you? There’s that moment when you’re a child and you’re free you’re playing and your imagination’s running wild and you’re truly enjoying life because nothing else matters but that moment, that heart, that joy. That’s what the show really was. It was just pure joy and pure love and pure fun. It was just absolute, the beauty of being a kid and playing.”

While attempting to write this article, I lost copies of articles that Just Joey had copied for me, while he lost a video of Aitch made by local film students. I had a misconception about the deadline. I had a difficult time chasing down contacts. My computer ceased functioning more than once. And one day, the ancient Volvo that I’d been driving around while conducting interviews mysteriously would not stop running after I had turned the ignition switch to its “off” position. I began to realize that the spirit of the Zauberschloss — which contains a bit of the trickster, an element of spontaneity, a taste of angst yet always the joy of play — lives on and manifests in completely unexpected places and ways.

Long live the Zauberschloss!