Al Koran: The Unique Years by Martin Breese
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii May, 2012)
In the 1960s, Tannen's Magic suspended their annual convention, the Tannen's Jubilee, for three years, and instead for each of those three years ran two nights of Tannen's Magic on Broadway, a gala show at the Barbizon Plaza Hotel. I have vivid memories of attending those shows, but none more vivid than, when I was about 15, getting to see Al Koran perform on stage. He had just emigrated to the U.S., made a killer appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and was embarking on trade show work along with the stage mentalism that had made him famous in England. Sadly, he would develop cancer within a terribly short period of time, which would end his life in 1972.
But he was the first great mentalist I got to see live, and I've never forgotten it. Koran brought a welcome directness and self-assuredness to the performance of mentalism that might seem almost too far a leap toward simplicity and minimal-ism, but it is still a model from which many a contemporary mentalist could stand to draw from and benefit. I actually saw him perform both nights in the Tannen's show, and on the Saturday afternoon between shows, I spent a little time with him at Tannen's, where I asked him about his Sure Fire Force from Professional Presentations by Hugh Miller, and I received an unforgettable personal lesson in the nature of boldness that has served me a lifetime.
In the 1960s, Koran was a star in the U.K., having been featured in his own television series, and in major television advertising campaigns. But Koran had a long history in magic he did, after all, create the now standard close-up trick, "Ring Flite" and while books of his mentalism work appeared late in his career, and more since his death, his early career was marked by contributions to British magic journals including The Gen, The Magic Wand, The Pentagram, and The Wizard. All of these contributions are collected in this volume, beginning with entries that first appeared in The Gen circa 1949. Totaling 38 items, the first 17 consist of a series of "Kard Kolumn" pieces from The Gen, consisting of mostly simple principles and tricks with playing cards. Although this is early in Koran's work, you can see his taste for subtlety over muscle, and direct but mysterious effects. While there are few blockbusters here, there is much that is practical and useable work, and much that will fool the laity. Close-up mentalists will doubtless enjoy a psychological card divination called "The Clutching Hand," a quick close-up bit of muscle reading of a sort.
In "A Letter From Al Koran" from the Pentagram, Koran explains how he began routining his initial stage mental-ism show, and offers a strong and direct mentalism opener, including the opening speech for the act. All of this still offers an effective lesson today (albeit at a time when pre-dictions are no longer as effective or appropriate in a pure mentalism program—a subject for another day).
Another section of the book includes several tricks of Koran's that were marketed items released by Harry Stanley's Unique Magic Studio, including his famous "Words in Thousands," still a useful utility tool for a word divination. And the book concludes with the instructions to two card tricks that Koran issued to those who had subscribed to a series of limited releases that was never completed. I shared my subscription at the time with Bill Schmeelk, whom we know today as the illusion builder behind Wellington Enterprises; in those days he was making Card Castles in the back of Tannen's, and as kids we had to split the subscription in order to be able to afford the tricks. I bet he still has the originals; I settled for copies! Meanwhile, you can read these for yourself, along with all the rest, for the asking price of this lovely little collection that might complete your shelf of Al Koran's impressive and memorable body of work.