Take Two #28: Albert Goshman
I’m about to make a bold statement: Albert Goshman was the greatest close-up magic entertainer I’ve ever seen or known.
And yes, I’ve known a few. And, yes, there are many who come awfully close, and I’d be hard pressed to make too strenuous or lengthy an argument that the likes of Don Alan (whom I never saw live, however), or Frank Garcia, Harry Lorayne, Derek Dingle, Tommy Wonder, Juan Tamariz, or many others don’t come damnably close indeed. And I will also add that if I had to pick an immeasurably close second, it would be Del Ray—a subject perhaps for another day.
But for my money, and in the personal experience of my life, none will every completely match Al Goshman for sheer totality of impact. In a ten-minute close-up set, that I watched year after year at the Tannen’s Jubilee, or longer sets that I witnessed at lectures, shows, and at Mostly Magic in the Greenwich Village, Goshman overpowered audiences, and left them gasping repeatedly at the impossibility of the magic, at the rhythmic, textured, but relentless pace, and at the non-stop laughs. “My face hurts from laughing!” was not an unusual declaration from audience members after the show, but even in the face of all that laughter, no one could forget for an instant how badly and thoroughly fooled they had been.
Goshman was “The Baker who’s a Fakir,” a Brooklyn baker turned professional close-up magician, who moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s and came under the influence and counsel of Dai Vernon, in the early years of the Magic Castle. Goshman had a passion for coin magic and Vernon suggested that one way toward gaining fame in the world of magic was to specialize in one trick and do it better than anyone else, and for Goshman that became Vernon’s legendary routine, “Spellbound,” from the original Stars of Magic, in which a silver American half dollar mysteriously and repeatedly transformed into a large copper English Penny, and back again.
Eventually Goshman developed his trademark act of formal close-up magic, developed specifically for the conditions of the Close-up Gallery in the Magic Castle, in which the performer was seated at a table along with two spectator assistants—always women, in Goshman’s act—much as Slydini performed. Goshman and Slydini were not only contemporaries and performed in similarly seated, formal fashion, but also were both groundbreakers in that they used recorded music during portions of their close-up acts. And they both helped make the “purse frame” prop famous—a metal frame from a pocket snap purse, sans bag, from which coins and sponge balls were magically produced. Albert used a pre-recorded introduction for his act, and music to accompany his mostly silent versions of “Chink-A-Chink,” the magic assembly of four bottle caps, and the Rising Cards.
Goshman’s act was comprised of a number of neo-classics of the era, including the Benson Bowl, a one-cup-and-ball routine performed with a brass bowl and sponge balls (also made famous by Don Alan); the Nudist Pack (another Don Alan favorite); and the Rising Cards.
There were also a few lesser-known items in his pet repertoire, such as the Ireland “Matchless Matchboxes,” a dealer item that Albert used as a magical interlude between longer pieces. (And, like everything else he did, he had “work” on this piece, and occasionally made his own handmade sets for people, myself included.)
But those who remember Goshman, and those who will ever study his work in the future, will know him most by his most famous routine: the coins under the salt and pepper shakers. Albert’s act was sewn together with a magical thread that served as a through line: he would repeatedly cause coins (and occasionally other objects) to vanish from his hands and appear under a pair of salt and pepper shakers that sat on the table, one in front of each spectator assistant. As if at their apparent whim, they could reach out at any time and lift and shaker, and would invariably, and mystifyingly, find a coin beneath. The repetition of this became increasingly mysterious, impenetrable, and hilarious, as the act unfolded.
Goshman was a notorious target of criticism and jibes, for his legendary cheapness, sloppiness (he seemed to invariably be wearing part of dinner on his tie), and gruff nature when off stage. Vernon once said to me, as Goshman walked by, “That’s magic’s first millionaire!” Indeed, Goshman made a great deal of money not only performing, but with his business, “Magic By Gosh,” that specialized in the manufacture of prop sponge balls, a business continued today by his family.
He was an intimidating person, at least to me, offstage, but I did work up the nerve, one Thursday night at Tannen’s, to ask him about a sponge ball vanish he performed that was based on a thimble vanish from Thimble Magic by Jean Hugard. He said, “You mean this? Here,” and demonstrated the move. That was it. There was no offer of explanation, no helpful hints; just, “Here.” “Could you do it again?” “Here.” And so I stood and asked, and he stood and demonstrated, and I got to see the move up very close, several times, which did indeed lead to my mastering it. But he didn’t make it easy.
Decades later, however, Goshman paid me two of the most meaningful compliments of my entire life in magic, as I recount in the essay, “The Writing on the Wall,” in my book, Shattering Illusions.
Although we do have a book about Goshman’s work, Magic By Gosh by Patrick Page and Kathy Diamond, along with several vintage instruction sheets that at one time Goshman sold, for signature routines like “Card in the Purse” and “Four Cards Through the Newspaper,” and despite the fact that Goshman made a number of notable television appearances, we lack a rich, impactful, and lasting record of his work. No recording can ever do justice to close-up magic, but the recordings we have of Goshman are generally of somewhat limited quality. One of his best appearances was on an American TV special that the magician Peter Pit was also on, and during which Goshman gave a stellar performance, overcoming in fabulous style the failed but annoying challenges of a young TV actress. And I’ve never seen a recording of his appearance on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, during which Albert performed the sequential vanish of ten coins, at the conclusion of which he turned his hand over and revealed the coins concealed in seven different positions in his hand, a move that caused some ensuing controversy in the magic world.
The best recording we have of which I am aware is the performance and magicians’ lecture Goshman did for MacMillan Magic in London, which I believe is still available. We also have the video that Albert himself shot of the act, in the very early days of marketed magic videos, but Albert cut financial corners with the video shoot, and sadly chose to record it without a live audience, other than the two women assisting him at the table. Hence while you get to see the magic, you do not get any sense of the stunning impact he had on audiences. Words can do his work little justice in this regard.
So as the best testimony I can offer, here are two video clips of the magic of Albert Goshman, the greatest close-up magic entertainer I’ve ever known. The first is a clip from the aforementioned MacMillan video, which begins from the start of Goshman’s act, with the coins and shakers.
The second clip repeats that segment and continues with other magic, further into some of the fundamental routines in his legendary act.
Please turn up the sound, put the smart phone aside, and expand the browser a bit but not too much, because the resolution is unfortunately low. And try to capture the indelible magic and delight that was Albert Goshman!
This essay continues in #22B, Albert Goshman Returns
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