Al Cohen 2001 Photo: Barry Gordemer/NPR
On Monday night, I once again had the pleasure of seeing a lecture by the one and only Al Cohen, this time at the National Press Club. For more than 55 years, Al WAS magic in Washington, DC. His shop on Pennsylvania Ave. (later moved to Vermont Ave. off McPherson Square) was the Mecca of magic in the Nation's Capital. Magicians, both famous and obscure, would go out of their way to visit Washington and stop in to see Al.
The list is so long and distinguished, you wouldn't believe it. When someone questioned it, Al would just smile and point at the ceiling, covered with playing cards signed by great magicians. Doug Henning, David Copperfield, Blackstone (Sr. and Jr.), Fred Kaps, Dai Vernon, Eddie Fields, Lou Tannen, Carl Ballantine, Eugene Burger, Okito, Cardini, J.B. Bobo, Mark Wilson, Bob Fitch, Slydini, Jay and Francis Marshall, Ali Bongo, Don Alan and many more all made the pilgrimage.
The list of celebrities who made a point of visiting Al's Magic Shop reads like a Who's Who from the last half of the 20th Century: Presidents Harry Truman & George H.W. Bush, DC Mayors Walter Washington and Marion Barry, GEN Norman Schwarzkopf, Mohammed Ali, Jay Leno, Joel Grey, Joan Rivers, Avery Brooks, Willard Scott, Steve Martin, Henny Youngman and Ted Koppel...and the list goes on.
While being in the Nation's Capital undoubtedly helped, I know of no other magic shop that can boast of this kind of patronage. When Al retired and sold the shop in 2001, the magic world went into mourning. In 2003, Al Cohen won magic's equivalent of a Lifetime Oscar, the Academy of Magical Arts' Lifetime Achievement Award.
Why? Why would someone who sold magic tricks for a living command such respect and admiration? And what can we learn from Al Cohen?
I first met Al in his shop as a youngster of perhaps 9 or 10. I supposed now that Al must have met thousands of budding magicians, but he always remembered my name and made me feel important. He also steered me right. I can't count the times that I would be looking at some expensive piece of apparatus and he would say, "You don't want that - get this instead," and he would sell me a trick I could actually learn and perform.
You see, Al was in the business for the long term. He knew that if I felt bad about an impulse purchase I might not come back. So he sold me things I could do and books that would help me become a better magician, knowing that I would buy from him for many years to come.
Al has a manner about him that has earned him the moniker "Magic's Mr. Nice Guy," a nickname he detests. But he learned early on that being an amazing magician was NOT the way to sell tricks. "People had to believe that they could do it, too," he once told me, "or they wouldn't buy the trick." So Al developed a style of presentation that was casual, conversational and fun. He was everybody's uncle who can do a few tricks and will teach you one. And that's how he became King of the magic dealers. His subtext was never "Look at me and be amazed," but always, "Look at this cool thing - you can do this, too!"
He seldom presented a trick according to the instructions. He would get a trick in the shop and spend hours, sometimes days, playing with it, experimenting, coming up with presentational gambits until he finally had something he felt would engage his customers and their audiences.
One of the few tricks he did by the book was probably his best-seller: a close-up gambling demonstration from Emerson & West called "Color Monte."
"This trick is great," Al told me, "It has lots of visual surprises, it's easy to do, and it comes with a story, so you know exactly what to say. And the story helps you remember what to do. It's great for beginners." It was also great for sending his son Stan to college. When Stan graduated from Georgia Tech in 1973, he came to work with his father at the shop, eventually taking over doing shows so Al could focus on his burgeoning mail-order business and creating his own products.
Al needed someone to do shows because by this time he had become the favorite magician of Washington's elite, performing at the White House and the most exclusive dinner parties at the homes of the rich and powerful. Years earlier, Evelyn Lincoln, President Kennedy's social secretary, loved to bring Al in to entertain - with a twist.
"There were never more than 4 or 5 couples at a time," Al wrote in his GENII Magazine column, "Memoirs of a Magic Dealer." "The thing that made this quite unique was the fact that she wanted everyone to think that I was just another guest at the parties who happened to do magic."
The irony of all this is that Al never thought of himself as a magician. He told me that he always thought of himself as a salesman who happened to sell magic tricks. Because he wanted to sell a LOT of magic, Al was good, prepared and did everything he could to make the experience of watching magic and buying magic as much fun as possible for the person on the other side of the counter. In the process, he became not only a great dealer but a great magician, too.
In the early 1900's, the great pioneer of close-up magic, Nate Leipzig, famously said, "People want to feel that they have been fooled by a gentleman." No one in contemporary times embodies this more than Al Cohen.
The magic shop is long gone, a victim of online discounters. But today, remarried to the lovely Rita, Al is still healthy and active at 83, and has a renewed interest in magic. We had lunch recently and he told me, "Eric, I am really having so much fun with magic! All those years I was selling it, I never really had time for magic as a hobby. Now I have time - and I'm having the time of my life!"
Time for another lesson.