Bob Zagone nourished his soul through magic.
His lifelongpocket companions were a cigarette, a deck of cards and a couple of coins that disappeared before the eyes of tavern-goers, doctor’s office receptionists, people next to him in line at the pharmacy, anyone, really, who said yes to a simple query of: Wanna see something?
He nourished his family by selling fake poop, hand buzzers, costumes, magic tricks, tantalizing trinkets for bachelor and bachelorette parties and a host of other gag gifts at Zagone’s, a novelty store he ran near Belmont and Ashland in the Lake View neighborhood in the ’60s and ’70s.
His life changed when a guy came in one day looking for a comfortable gorilla mask.
“Costume masks up to that point were rough and scratchy, hard to breathe in and tight, so my dad realized this and worked with artists and sculptors to come up with something better and really revolutionized the industry,” said Mr. Zagone’s son, Dean.
The novelty shop closed, and Mr. Zagone opened Be Something Studios nearby with his brother, Phil, and the company hit its stride with several classics such as fang face (a ghoulish monster), the party animal (a wolf in a red beret), the hooded skull (think grim reaper) and the thug (a burglar wearing a knit hat and black mask over the eyes).
Party Animal mask
The masks, designed by resident artist Billy Ystrom, were distributed around the country.
Mr. Zangone died Jan. 7 from pulmonary disease. He was 78.
One feather in the company’s cap came when one of its masks appeared in a trick-or-treating scene in the 1982 movie “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.”
The masks were hallmark Halloween gifts for Mr. Zagone’s kids’ basketball coaches, the family dentists and teachers. A yearly shipment was also donated to Misericordia Home.
“It was totally cool,” said his son, Dean, who worked in the family business. “The mask business was wild because who does that? There just aren’t that many people in the world who wake up and make Halloween masks.”
Mr. Zagone fashioned a life out of doing things that ”just tickled him,” his daughter, Dena, said.
When his kids were little, about 7 and 9, Mr. Zagone made a mask of his own face, nestled it just so on his pillow Christmas morning and walked through the front door a few minutes later dressed as Santa.
“Santa picked me up, and I was like, ‘Wait! You look like my dad!’ and he said, ‘No! Your dad’s in bed.’ And he must have felt my heart going bump, bump, bump,” Dena said.
Mr. Zagone played a recording of himself snoring, and kept them from getting too close to the decoy by declaring: “Let your father sleep!”
Mr. Zagone retired in the early ’90s, by which point the operation had become a full-fledged family business. It was later renamed Zagone Studios, which still makes masks at its Melrose Park location.
Mr. Zagone got into the entertainment business as the son of two factory workers who hung around and worked in magic and novelty shops.
“He got his hands on a deck of cards, and that was it,” Dena said.
As a boy, he met his idol, the famous magician and Chicago native Harry Blackstone, whom he impressed with this budding sleight-of-hand ability.
“He was so impressed that Harry asked his mother for permission to take my dad under his care and under his wing and train him, and the story goes that she said ‘No!’ and told him to leave immediately and threatened to punch him in the face,” Dena said.
Mr. Zagone swore off the sort of saw-a-woman-in-half prop magic as a teen when someone in a small audience kept yelling out the secrets behind the tricks he was performing. From then on he focused on what’s known as close-up magic and became a master prestidigitator, largely by reading books and relentlessly practicing.
Throughout his life, Mr. Zagone, who grew up near Halsted and North and attended Lane Tech, would walk into Near North Side bars along Lincoln Avenue and Rush and Clark streets and hang out and perform magic. He’d accept a few dollars or a drink as a tip, but that’s not why he did it.
“He had no monetary motivation whatsoever with his craft,” Dena said. “As much as he liked being the center of attention, he was never into the idea of being a famous magician. But he did go to trade shows sometimes and groups of other magicians, his peers, would surround him and they’d be like, ‘Where did this guy come from? And he’d just wow these guys for like 30 or 40 minutes.”
Andy Dallas, a past president of the Society of American Magicians, was a dear friend.
“He was just meticulous and did magic in his own unique, innovative way, and he understood that it’s a form of communication that’s worldwide and universally understood, and I just loved him for it,” said Dallas, who is from Champaign.
In addition to his two children, Mr. Zagone is survived by his wife, Eleanor, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
A visitation is scheduled for Tuesday from 4 to 8 p.m. at Drake & Son Funeral Home, 5303 N. Western Ave. A funeral Mass will take place Wednesday at 11 a.m. at St. Pascal Catholic Church, 3935 N. Melvina Ave.