Take Two #30: Al Flosso
Al Flosso, known as “The Coney Island Fakir,” was a legendary performer, and truly one of the great American magicians of the 20th century. In my new book, Preserving Mystery, I include in the historical section a lengthy piece about Flosso that I originally wrote for Genii magazine in 1995, on the occasion of the centenary of his birth. I did a substantial amount of research for that piece, and recorded a number of firsthand anecdotes from people who knew Al, and so I’m glad that it is seeing second life in the new book.
Al Flosso was born in 1895 and by the age of fourteen was working in traveling carnivals and circuses around the country. By 1916 he became a resident performer at Coney Island’s Dreamland sideshow, probably the world’s largest sideshow, which claimed to present twenty-one acts. Doing as many as twelve shows a day is one way to get good, and Al did, adopting the “Coney Island Fakir” moniker, and developing his signature routine for the Miser’s Dream, for which he became most famous among magicians.
In 1939, Flosso bought Martinka & Co, the oldest magic shop in New York City, and in fact in the United States, that Harry Houdini had once owned. It would become known as Flosso-Hornmann Magic, and became a beloved magic center, patronized by customers that ranged from the world’s greatest magicians to enthusiastic amateur children, and all manner of magician betwixt and between.
Stories about Al abound, especially centering on the dusty disorder of the shop, which contained countless hidden treasures, many of which only Al could locate. Al was a great raconteur, and could be hilarious whether on stage or off. His shop was a meeting ground, a hangout, a center for magicians of all stripes to come to just to spend time in conversation and to soak up the atmosphere and the history.
Some of those stories invariably focus on Al’s kindly treatment of the kids that came to hang around the store and spend their allowances, their birthday money, their holiday gifts. Al was a wise teacher who would often deny a kid their desired purchase, instead selling them something more appropriate to their skill level. He would teach them carefully, then encourage them to come back, show him what they were doing, and gradually he would guide them along the path. And he would always make sure they had enough change in their pocket to get home, and make a pay phone call along the way, sometimes giving them the necessary subway token to get there. Much of this echoes my own experience with Louis Tannen, the founder of Tannen’s Magic.
For all the years that Al was a shopkeeper, he also remained a professional performer to the very end of his life, working regularly in the Catskills, and making numerous television appearances, including multiple visits to The Ed Sullivan Show. (He was also an accomplished Punch & Judy worker, and his puppeteering can be briefly seen in the Marx Brothers film, Monkey Business, in a scene with Harpo.)
While he was known for his stage work, he was also a superb close-up worker who was not only able to demonstrate countless tricks in the shop’s inventory, but who was also a masterly performer with an ordinary pack of cards. Fluid and spontaneous, he was spectacular both over the store’s countertop, or the dinner table and a social gathering. The great Joseph Dunninger, a regular at the store, declared, “If there is a better all round magician I have yet to discover him!” And my friend, the late Charles Reynolds, who knew many of the greatest magicians of the latter half of the 20th century, said that Flosso was his favorite magician.
This is the best footage we have of Flosso, it’s black and white but very crisp, from a television appearance, and reflects the core sideshow act for which Flosso became famous. It features the aforementioned “Miser’s Dream,” a classic of magic invented by T. Nelson Downs at the turn of the 20th century, but while few have come close, I’m not sure anyone has ever gotten quite as much out of it as Flosso. His loving and playful pretense of aggression with the kid is utterly charming (reminding me of my great friend Chris Capehart, whose work has appeared in Take Two installments about Street Magic), and the magic is astonishing, albeit he plays it off casually and without bombast. In one of Flosso’s multiple appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, he used Sullivan in the kid’s role, which must have been fabulous. But nothing can match the look on this kid’s face as he finds real money in unexpected places.
This is a full eight minutes and I dare not abbreviate a second of it for you. Please—please!—do put down the smart phone, do enlarge the browser, do turn up the sound, and jump into the experience of The Coney Island Fakir: Al Flosso!
Here’s Al on a local New York talk show, accompanied by Bob McCallister, who was the host of the legendary local children’s television series, Wonderama, after the original host, Sonny Fox, left the show. Bob was a ventriloquist and a creative professional magician in his own right, and a friend and fan of Flosso’s, and I believe I first saw Flosso in his appearances with McCallister on Wonderama. In my piece about Flosso, I tell the story, related to me by his son, Jack, of how Al was given one of the first “Card Duck” props made by Ireland magic, whereupon he developed his own routine that included many gags that have long since become standard, including blindfolding the mechanical duck. Here he does a very brief version of his routine—although he blindfolds the duck, he leaves out the “Peking Duck” joke that so many have used since, without knowing the originator—and note how he ends on a sleight-of-hand feat, a lovely concluding touch.
I didn’t know Al personally, but I knew his son, Jackie, who worshiped his dad, and asked me if I could do something to note Al’s centenary, which led to my writing my substantial tribute. When Al died at the age of 81 in 1976, Jack took over the store, eventually moving it to W. 34th Street, where he operated it until retiring in 2000. In an odd turn of coincidence, Tannen’s Magic moved to the same building and the same floor on which Flosso’s had operated for years; the then owner of Tannen’s was unaware of the history until after signing the lease, and Tannen’s remains in operation (under newer ownership) at the same location today.
Here is a nice two-minute clip of Jackie, accompanied by magic historian and collector Stanley Palm, talking about some of the Houdini-related treasures in the shop, during the years when Jackie was running it. I spent many joyous hours there with him, and still own a few rare signed books he kindly sold to me back in the day.
This next clip is essentially a repeat of the first video posted above, of Al’s act, featuring the Miser’s Dream, without the production finale from the hat. The quality of this is inferior to that of the black-and-white clip, which is why I featured the latter. But if you’re inclined to watch the act again, then watch this version, as the color, and the Coney Island location, help in bringing it to life.
Here also is a particularly lovely and informative New York Times obituary of Jack Flosso.
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