Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Al Cohen: The World's Best Magic Dealer

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.


recycledbooks said...

Eric thanks for this informing and intersting article about Al. I first went to Al's magic shop on Penn. ave in the late 1960s. I was hooked on magic after that. Thanks again for writing this article and all you do in magic.

PeaceLove said...

Great article! I worked at Al's on and off for a decade, through both moves, and I definitely developed magical chops I could never have gotten elsewhere. Al remains one of the funniest men I've ever met, and he gave this teenager a huge break right when I needed it!

One correction: The Academy of Magical Arts & Sciences gave Al his Lifetime Achievement Fellowship just last year, on April 5th, 2008.

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Lisa Taylor said...

I have very fond memories of going to Al's Magic Shop with my Dad when I was 8 or 9 I loved listening to my Dad and Al talk shop while I hungrily perused old and new tricks, gags and props. The colors, the mystery, the mystique... WOW!
Now, the coolest magic that Al did was that -while carrying on a conversation with my Dad, Al always knew where I was and what I was looking at - without fail he'd tell me something fascinating about the trick or prop I was looking at. I still have my membership card to the Washington Wizards and my favorite trick - 3 card Monte.
Thanks for writing about Al so fondly. With warm regards, Lisa Connor

Dave Roberts said...

I was an enthusiastic magic hobbyist in the 70s, and Al's store was my support center. Any time I went there I'd get good advice and help, and come away with great tricks that I could actually do.

I remember Al as being always helpful and supportive, making me feel good about my interest in magic and the limited skills that I had.

merlehillaryinteriors said...

I was told al cohen did magic shows in NYC. I was also told he invented an illusion of a tiny mummy in a mummy case. I remember playing with this trick as a kid. I went into a magic store in NYC in the 80's and when I asked about the mummy trick, the shop owner had one and showed the the tny trick I played with as a child. Does anyone know more about this?

Tom Eagen said...

I walked into Al's shop in 1972 and later brought my wife with me. We'd come by for shows upstairs or just to spend an hour watching Al deal with customers. Always followed Al's advice on purchases and he never failed me. Over the years, we'd stop by when back in the area. It was like coming home: warm, generous and fun, a complete reflection of Al Cohen. My father was a salesman, much like Al. He enjoyed people and made everyone comfortable. After many, many years in and around the "halls of power" in DC, I can say without hesitation that the best hours I ever spent, and the best return on investment I ever got, were those spent in Al's shop. Thank you, Eric, for posting this.

Tom Eagen
Durham, NC

Mark Testerman said...

This was a wonderful piece on Al's and brought back a lot of good memories.

As a kid who was in love with magic, Al's was the only shop I knew growing up around DC. I remember from time to time, my mom would have to go into work on the weekends and she brought me with her. When she did, she promised me 2 things, a trip to Al's magic shop and Ollie's fries. Every time I went into Al's, it was a wonderful experience and I always came out amazed and wanting to learn more.

Over 20 years later, I'm sad to have learned that the store is officially closed. You can't get the same experience buying magic and gag's online, you can't get the joy and excitement of seeing it demonstrated in person by someone like Al, and that being your inspiration to go home and duplicate. There's no magic in that. I'm sad for kids today who may want to learn magic not having a place like Al's to go to.

Thank you for the wonderfully written walk down memory lane

Marie Chrzanowski said...

My brother Mike Chrzanowski R.I.P ,!ooked up to Al , as a mentor an a true friend . Although I was the one who Michael practiced on , lol .Here' s to you All A Magician an a Good Guy .

Roger Branch said...

Al and his shop are etched in my memory forever. Growing up in DC, you knew things. Places. I was introduced to Al's Magic Shop by a friend who also loved magic. Over months which became decades, I would return again and again. How often my hand would open the green wood and glass-panelled door of 1205 Pennsylvania Ave, NW. How many times I would turn to the right toward the glass counter that ran the length of the store. I would touch the nickel that was glued to the counter for good luck. Al would always be there. He had tricks for every budget and every level of skill. He was the consummate showman, always showing the illusion without showing off. His patter subtle and easy. He would know just what was right for you. It was effortless for him, thanks to his experience, and he made sure you knew it would be the same for you, with practice. He loved his craft, his art, and it showed. It must have been about 1963 when I first entered Al's. Fast forward to 2013. I was in Hollywood working on a project and I stayed at the Magic Castle. In meeting several other magicians there, professional and amateur, we talked magic, and I brought up up Al Cohen and his shop. To my complete lack of surprise, of the 10 of us talking together, everyone either knew or knew of Al Cohen. A man, a legend, a magician!

Eric Henning Magician