Restaurateur Joe Bello learned the power of magic as a teenager in high school, looking for a way to break the ice with the other kids. Voila, he had friends!
Tonight, he's using that same power by bringing his mentor, professional magician Paul Gertner, to The Wooden Nickel in Monroeville. Presto, he has customers!
It's "An Evening of Wine & Magic," an upscale-casual dinner show featuring a five-course meal with wine, followed by the illusionary artistry of Mr. Gertner.
The Wooden Nickel opened in 1947 and is a landmark on Berger Lane. Mr. Bello and his father-in-law, Jeff Ross, took it over a year ago and are celebrating their anniversary this week with special events.
"We've started a social media campaign to bring in more people, more of the younger crowd," said Mr. Bello, the former sous chef at The Capital Grille. "But we still embrace the regulars, and we always will."
So what's for dinner?
"The dinner is a chef-selection menu, each set with its own wine," Mr. Bello said. "Each one of the culinary staff members got to create their own course."
After you've made all the food and wine disappear, here comes the magician.
"I wouldn't mind highlighting the magic," Mr. Bello said. "He puts on an incredible show. I would love for people to see what he does. Besides, he's a local guy, and it's always great to support local talent."
"Joe and I have been close ever since he called me when he was a teenager doing a senior class project," said Mr. Gertner. "It's a different venue. I don't normally perform in restaurants. But we're creating a kind of mini-theater."
Mr. Gertner, 59, has been practicing professional magic for 40-plus years. He is the winner of numerous national and international awards, but he still makes his home in Fox Chapel.
"Most of my work is all over the country and all over the world, so I can work out of anywhere I want," he said. "I grew up here and have a large family network here. Pittsburgh's been a good city to work out of.
"I teach, I do lectures, I create routines and have products on the market that other magicians use. I've sold stuff to David Copperfield over the years.
"I've been very fortunate. My niche has been the corporate market. I do a speaking program on change, innovation and technology. I do a lot of trade shows and weave in a message about the product. I'll draw 50, 100 people twice an hour to [a company's] booth. It's a nice little niche."
Mr. Gertner said the concept of weaving magic into trade shows started in the early 1960s and he did his first one in the mid 1970s, learning from some of the old-timers who were leaving the business.
That's the way it works in the magic business. There's nothing magical about learning how to do it. You have to study and practice and perfect.
"Nowadays, there's some learning done online," Mr. Gertner said. "But it's better to have one-on-one personal instruction. Mentoring.
"If I do a corporate date, I might line up a lecture at the local magic club. I have a bit of a reputation in the magic world, so I can do that."
The connection of magic with corporate dates is a natural fit, Mr. Gertner said.
"There's something out there we don't quite understand. And that's what magicians are doing. They're challenging you. They're putting something out in front of you that, for a moment, it deceives you, it fools you.
"If I can trick your mind into believing that the bowling ball came from that little cup, is it possible that you can trick your mind into believing that you are good at sales, you can fix your car. Tricking your mind into believing something that might not necessarily be true."
The dinner-and-show are $75 and start at 7 p.m. Call 412-372-9750 for a reservation.
But if you can't get in on the meal, you can still enjoy the 9 p.m. magic show for $30.
"We can certainly take in some walk-ins," Mr. Bello said. "I'd be perfectly happy to pull some chairs in."
If you can't make it tonight, there is a cigar-and-scotch night on tap for Thursday. And another night with a magician will appear on the calendar in a few months.
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