A Magical Second Act

Alumnus moves from distinguished legal career to owner of a magic lounge and producer of films and plays

Donald Clark Jr. RLAW’79 and his wife, Ellen SC&I’77, with actor Jeff Daniels at the Broadway production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Daniels wrote and played the lead in The Guest Artist, a film for which Clark was the executive producer.

By Dan Hanson

How does one go from being a highly successful attorney to an entertainment entrepreneur? “I tell people I followed the natural progression from Fortune 500 litigator, to being a religious denomination general counsel, to being an entertainment entrepreneur,” Donald Clark Jr. said with a laugh.

After graduating from Rutgers Law School in Camden in 1979, Clark and his wife, Ellen, who earned a master’s degree in library science from Rutgers, moved back to his hometown of Chicago. He began his storied career there, working for two of the city’s largest law firms—Isham, Lincoln & Beale and McDermott, Will & Emery—before hanging his own shingle as founding and managing partner of Clark & DeGrand. He also served for 15 years as general counsel for the United Church of Christ, a tenure that included winning a landmark lawsuit in federal court in 2014 that struck down as unconstitutional a North Carolina law banning same-sex marriage.

After retiring from practicing law in 2015, Clark decided to let the next chapter in his life find him. While taking continuing legal education courses in Chicago, he attended a magic show. Magic—once as much a part of Chicago culture as deep-dish pizza and the blues—held a deep connection for Clark. “I’ve been interested in magic since I was a kid,” he said. “I sawed a woman in half in my day, but that was a long time ago.”

He loved the show, which was held in a basement, but knew it could be bigger and better with its own place. He approached the show’s creator, Joey Cranford. “After a few meals and a handshake, we became partners,” Clark said. The Chicago Magic Lounge was born when they converted an old commercial laundry building into a 7,200-square-foot venue with three performance spaces that include a 1930s-style speakeasy performance bar and a cabaret theater. “It’s going fantastic,” Clark said. “We’re sold out Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, three or four weeks in advance.”

Clark expanded his entertainment enterprise to New York, producing The Encounter, a Broadway play that won a Tony Award, among others plaudits. Most recently, he looked toward filmmaking, serving as executive producer for The Guest Artist, a film written by and starring Jeff Daniels. It debuted in February at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and was honored with Best Independent Film and Best Actor awards at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival.

Clark and his wife, Ellen, who live in Glenview, Illinois, and have two children and seven grandchildren, have been generous supporters of Rutgers. The commons area on the third floor in the Rutgers Law building in Camden is named for Clark, as is the annual Donald C. Clark Jr. Endowed Law and Religion Lecture. He also supports an endowed scholarship, and has taught for Rutgers Law as an adjunct faculty member. His wife supports the Ellen Boates Clark Endowed Fellowship at the School of  Communications and Information at Rutgers–New Brunswick.

As for his career, he said while there may be no “natural progression” from being a lawyer to a religious denomination general counsel to an entertainment entrepreneur, there are some common attributes. “In their own respective ways, they’re all intellectual enterprises and communications enterprises,” he said. “They’re all about reaching people in different aspects of their lives.”

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