Take Two #3: Don Alan

November 11, 2016

It is impossible to talk about close-up magic of the latter half of the 20th century without considering the name of Don Alan. The impact and influence that he had probably cannot be overstated, and most any magician of my generation will acknowledge being influenced by Alan's work. In the 1960s we watched him on The Ed Sullivan Show (one of the only close-up magicians, perhaps even the only one, to ever appear on that stage), and in repeat appearances on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Carson, an enthusiastic amateur magician, had some of the very best in America on the show in that era, including Al Goshman and Michael Skinner—names to conjure with another day.

Thrilling as all those appearances were for me to watch, Don Alan’s guest spot on the Carson show was probably the most inspiring. I recall that, instead of moving to a separate close-up table with Johnny and other guests, as Goshman and Skinner did, Johnny simply had Don sit right next to him and perform right there at the desk. I've never seen that appearance again since, but I can still tell you he did the Nailed Nickel (on forehead), the Cup and Ball routine, and ended on the Fez with the appearance of a huge lump of coal beneath. And along with all those indelible details, I remember my thought at the end of the spot: “I want to do THAT.”

Don Alan hosted a local Chicago TV show called Magic Ranch, and those videos are worth tracking down because not only did he have wonderful magicians of the era on as guests—including Jay Marshall, Karrell Fox, Johnny Paul and more—but Alan's spots in every show are also simply stellar. The magic is clear, crisp, and clean. The personality is playful, charming, and witty. The prop management is a constant lesson, with lines to cover every segue between tricks, without ever allowing the flow to lag while props were being put away or brought into play. Alan's performances were all about the “removal of dead spots,” as Eugene Burger would later advise us. Burger himself grew up in Chicago and saw Don Alan perform in person, when his parents would bring him in his boyhood to see the great magician perform close-up magic at a local restaurant. Just imagine it! And it is fascinating to find Alan's influence in Burger's work. Despite their dramatic difference in personal styles, Burger's approach is as relentlessly practical and efficient as was Alan's. 

Don Alan defined the way professional (and much of amateur) close-up magic would be performed in the late 20th century. For all the tremendous impact that artistic mentors like Dai Vernon and Ed Marlo and Slydini had, it was Alan whose performance style became the standard. His comic lines were so well crafted that they were easily taken and used by others, to the point that his lines were so commonly stolen that they eventually became “stock,” the original source often being lost in the process. When a large Don Alan book finally appeared in 2000, one reviewer complained that he had heard all these lines before—failing to recognize that he was now reading about their originator. 

Lou Tannen taught me the famous Don Alan Cup and Ball routine when I was about 12 or 13, and it served as the most powerful routine in my repertoire for many years. You can watch that routine in opening first three minutes of this clip:


This clip opens with an off-beat trick about a card named Clyde:

You are welcome to watch more of these performances, after that initial three-minute routine from each. But that’s not your assignment. Your assignment is to stop multi-tasking for six minutes, expand the browser window, turn up the sound, and try to capture what it was like to be amazed and entertained by Don Alan.

Magic is an art meant to be experienced live, and no recorded version can ever compete with that experience. That means in order for you to reap the greatest benefit of watching these clips, you need to invest a little effort at your end—nothing more than a little extra focus. I would much rather you did that, and simply but fully experience the first three minutes or so of each of these clips, then watch eight or sixteen minutes while dividing your attention, and diminishing Don Alan’s brief presence in your life. Enjoy. 

Watch more Don Alan in The Screening Room




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