In a Class by Himself: The Legacy of Don Alan by Jon Racherbaumer
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii May, 2001)
In the pages of this new book about legendary close-up magician Don Alan, veteran professional close-up entertainer Mike Rogers is quoted as saying that Alan was "the most copied close-up magician of the 20th century." This is a bold and extravagant statement, yet further consideration produces no obvious competitors. And so, now, at long last, we are given a book devoted to the work of this most iconic of all close-up magicians, whose magic was revered by many, and copied by far more whose voracious envy far outweighed their respect. The late Don Alan was certainly a great magician, and since his memory is still so fresh in at least some of our minds—he died in 1999 after a long surrender to Alzheimer's Disease—many would hope for a book as great as he. This is not that book, yet there are elements of his greatness to be found within its pages.
Countless magicians discovered the magic of Don Alan on their television sets, be it through his syndicated Chicago-based show Magic Ranch, or appearances on talk shows hosted by the likes of Dick Cavett, David Frost, Steve Allen, and Mike Douglas (on whose show he appeared no less than 18 times). Alan also appeared on The Tonight Shaw with Johnny Carson eight times, and more than once on The Ed Sullivan Show; this is a remarkable record of achievement, unprecedented in the field of close-up magic. But consider, too: Don Alan was also a frequent guest on Hugh Hefner's Playboy After Dark, a late-night oddity of performance, talk, schmooze, and booze. Younger readers will not remember it, and may find it difficult to imagine a time when Hugh Hefner defined what was cool and hip—but he did, and there was such a time, and the magician whom Hef knighted as conjuror to the cool was no less than Don Alan.
Such was the stature of Don Alan, and latecomers will be hard-pressed to realize the esteem in which we held him. He was, truly, a model. He had an eye for a good trick, a sound plot, an appealing premise. He ruthlessly pared his routines down to the bone, maximized the impact of every magical bear that remained, and made deadly certain that every moment was filled with something, anything, that would somehow serve the larger goal of creating entertainment, a true performance. So there was never a prop introduced that wasn't justified with a relevant plot point or an offhanded joke; never a moment of procedure that wasn't covered with a witty aside, never a transition that failed to feel like a part of the show. In creating this approach he also had a knack for developing material that was instantly, let us say it now and clearly, stealable. If ever routines seemed to be designed for copying, his were. Of course, he did not intend it robe so, and in fact greatly resented the outcome. And who in his position wouldn't?
Don Alan was undeniably bitter over aspects of his popularity and influence, and while this fact is rather unflatteringly on display in the transcribed conversation between Don Alan, Jon Racherbaumer, and one Earle Christen berry that the book includes, no further context is provided, and one wonders if this entry was included primarily to establish that the author and subject had at least met. But there are interesting and complex aspects to Alan's legendary crankiness that remain unexplored but beg consideration.
In the opening minutes of his videotape from the Stevens Greater Magic Video Library, Alan presented one of the most powerfully articulate arguments against copying and theft of material that we have ever encountered in the world of magic, wherein he declared unequivocally that "theft is theft," and explained how the predation of a creator's output "diminishes the artist" and batters one's drive toward originality. Yet while Alan had been victimized by unethical imitators throughout his life—even by one who worked professionally in Alan's own locale—nevertheless in many cases he had inadvertently contributed to this outcome by having marketed the material himself, most famously his routines for the "Chop Cup" and "Invisible Pack." And yet this leads to still further ironies, because Alan invented none of these signature tricks himself, and while this is not meant to even remotely diminish his genius, the fact is that what he had actually done was to indelibly adapt and mold these works, designing them to a form-fitting personal vision—that just happened to also share the appearance of a one-size-fits-all label.
Don Alan did not create the "Invisible Deck" presentation; Eddie Fields did, yet Alan eventually marketed it. Don Alan did not create the "Roy Benson Bowl Routine," but he likely contributed the addition of a final load, later adopted by Albert Goshman and others (and while Benson was perhaps inspired by the work of Rezvani, as the preface to this book disingenuously states, the single-bowl approach was certainly defined by Benson, along with his unique vanish, a technique which Alan himself used and which is briefly described in the book). And while Don Alan did not invent the "Chop Cup," he most assuredly made it his own, and countless others in turn made his seemingly definitive version their own in turn.
These intricacies of history and personality aside, that there is beauty to be found in the pages of this book remains undeniable, since Alan's material lies at its core. There are routines here that are gems, masterpieces honed to perfection by a distinctive talent in countless thousands of performances, and to read them is to be dazzled by all their glittering brilliance. If you have seen the Stevens video from which the first segment of the book has been drawn—dubbed the "Pretty Sneaky Act" and consisting of the core of Alan's professional repertoire—then you will already have delighted in the polish that Alan brought to this material. But to have the chance to sit down and read these words and actions is to reveal them in a different light, in which their multitude of facets may be far better appreciated. Given the fact that much of this section is built upon what is fundamentally an annotated transcript of the Stevens tape, there are those who will ask if the book is even necessary, and I admit I asked myself this question at first. But in fact the text serves as a prima facie argument for the very idea of books. Alan's taped performance is so well armed with luscious pleasures that it can easily seduce you and then slip right by you, leaving many of its deeper secrets still intact, like a treasure ship sunken to the sea's floor. The light provided by the written word on the page illuminates that treasure and induces you to examine it more closely, to run it through your hands, to bask in the glow of its almost guilty pleasures. The simple presence of the stunning array of material recorded in these pages would provide sufficient justification for the book's existence had it not a thing more to offer.
But added to the descriptions of these routines are a handful of invaluable pages, none more so than about eight pages of the author's prologue which address what he terms many of Alan's "underlying themes," including such ideas as the Circle of Fun; Picking Players; Time and Timing; Control; Interrogation Strategy, Performance and Persona. Coupled with a page and a half at the book's close of "Sneaky Things to Remember," these provide the all-important clues to what set Alan's routines apart from the work of others, especially others before him (albeit that in fact the Chicago Magic Bar scene, in which Alan worked, had initiated this evolutionary offshoot, marked by the covering every moment with either a laugh or a gasp, lest attention be lost to ever-competing distractions). Aiding in this detective work is an interesting foreword contributed by Eugene Burger. As a boy growing up in Chicago, Burger saw a lot of Don Alan's magic, and while there arc striking differences in their styles, underneath it all they have built the edifices of their work upon similar bedrock. Both take a ruthlessly practical approach toward reliability of method; both achieve a relentlessly consistent quality from performance to performance, utilizing what Burger here calls "presentational choreography;" both went to great lengths to cover dead rime and procedural steps, what Burger has called "the elimination of non-moments:" both often seized their audience's attention with compelling opening questions, labeled in the book as the "Interrogation Strategy." It is revelatory to see how Alan blazed these trails.
While the prologue material appears to stem from Alan's personal input, much of the remaining theoretical commentary appears to be the result of author Jon Racherbaumer's own post-mortem examinations, and here is where one begins to feel the buffeting of the book's stormy history. While a definitive recounting of that background might make for an interesting investigation (especially in light of the intense back-channel campaign aimed at this book as it came to press), suffice to say that Mr. Alan's direct involvement in this project was limited and in fact concluded entirely in its earliest days, almost a decade ago, and so the author was often left to his own devices in his analysis and explanation of the material. Certainly Mr. Racherbaumer was not constrained from formulating his own independent commentary, but under the circumstances it would have been ever more useful to all concerned if we were given clear guidance—even a hint would do!—as to what commentary tame directly from Mr. Alan, and what material was added entirely by the author. Instead, we are left with a puzzling and persistently distracting mystery a lingering haze of questions unanswered, rather than the clarity of full illumination.
Among the author's more useful analytical contributions are a kind of statistical time analysis of the routines, an interesting perspective from which to examine the efficiency and directness that were defining elements of Alan's work. Courtesy of the videotape records we have of the "Pretty Sneaky" items, the author compares the precise running times of each with the number of laughs and the number of "magic moments." It seems doubtful that Alan himself took such a rigidly formulaic approach to his unremitting insistence upon entertainment value—but so what? As a post-mortem lens, I found it an insightful and interesting vantage. Consider, for example, that Alan's famed "Chop Cup" routine contained five magic effect beats, I I laughs, all of 300 spoken words, all during an elapsed time of 99 seconds! That little insight likely made you stop and think—and that's exactly the purpose it serves in this book.
But there is roughly where the book's charms come to an end, with a sigh of sinking expectations and a resounding thud of disappointment. This reader's frustrations continue with the fact that while Don Alan resented his copyists, the author seems to have fallen under the sway of his subject, and argues Alan's approach as a definitive, recommended, universal one—an idea Alan would have doubtless found an anathema. Consider this statement: "... if you want to be an entertainer, your goal is simple: make spectators enjoy and laugh at everything. Your close-up act should be a show-within-a-show where everybody laughs together."
Nonsense. Don Alan's close-up show should have been "a show-within-a-show where everybody laughs together." Not once does the author explicitly point out that if you intend to be funny, it is terribly important that you figure out if you actually are funny. If you're just repeating stock lines to get laughs—even the brilliant and now oft-considered-stock lines of Don Alan's origination, who inadvertently became a utility gag writer of dose-up magic—then you're no comedian, and if you hope to ever contribute something sincere and original to your work, you had better try another line of attack, and soon. Comedy is certainly a way, but it is most assuredly not the way.
Note too that Alan came up working in Chicago magic bars, and later on the Playboy Club nightclub circuit, and thus much of his comic asides (transcribed from the Stevens tape) are heavy-handed and suggestive, and would be highly offensive today to many con-temporary audiences, all the more so if used by a fresh-faced 20-something rather than a weathered veteran. Yet this material is repeatedly excused door evangelized by the author, with but a single brief footnote (superfluously referencing the late TA. Waters) addressing any possible downside.
Similarly, the Alan "Chop Cup" routine is incredibly appealing to magicians, a piece that lends itself to instant transplantation to your own performance repertoire. But what are the implications—not the ethical, but the artistic implications—of someone else using it? Alan framed his performance in the guise of a guessing game. He did only one vanish, performed offhandedly. He did no penetrations. He produced the final loads by remarking about the use of extra balls, a reference to method—a joking and light reference to be sure, but a reference to method just the same. Above all, he used the trick as an opener. Is this the right approach for everyone? Is it the right approach for you?
Yet these complaints pale when compared to this book's greatest single flaw, namely its more than 300 illustrations consisting of video frame captures drawn from the Stevens Magic video and the Magic Ranch videos. A half-hearted defense is offered in the volume's opening pages, to the effect that Don Alan never had the opportunity, be it by will or by chance, to sit for illustrations. Please: Has no one ever illustrated the works of a dead man? How did anyone ever manage to illustrate a Hofzinser trick? What's more, these photographs are entirely from the audience viewpoint, hence no methods can actually be seen at all. Are we somehow prohibited from reconstructing such methods and illustrating them accurately and simply? If we are, why then are we not similarly prohibited from guessing as to the subject's own motives and thought process?
Furthermore, the sheer volume of illustrations further mars the production, unavoidably invoking the dreaded specter of padding. At first glance the numbers of photographs remind one of the many Slydini books that were similarly illustrated (albeit with high-quality photography, not fuzzy, low resolution video images that are badly printed on textured instead of glossy paper). But Slydini's body language, posture, and poses were integral elements not merely of his performance, but of his actual methodology. While there are occasional moments when Alan's focus or expression is important to the execution of a method, these moments are, relative to the quantity of photos included, rare. Need we see that the spectators do laugh at the jokes?
Finally, it must be said that there is an unfinished quality to this book that pervades its pages. It reads like an early, incomplete draft. Instructions are vague to the point of incompleteness, some material is clearly in error, other material is inexplicably missing. A few examples will suffice.
In error: Although Man was not by any means a sleight-of-hand technician, he did possess a handful of distinctively personalized handlings. Quite possibly the most singular of all of these was his manner of secretly introducing a "big load" to the "Chop Cup" (or the dice cup in the dice stacking routine); the move is described at best inadequately, and at worst, inaccurately. Compare Alan's handling on Magic Ranch to that on the Stevens tape, and I believe the former was his more standardized approach—although his thinking behind the handling, ignored in the book, is discussed on the Stevens video. What's worse, by providing an accompanying frame capture of what is in reality a split instant in which both hands are hidden behind the table, the reader could easily conclude that this position should be held for a lengthy period of time, or for that matter that it is the correct way to load a cup. It is not, and in fact, I don't believe Alan normally assumed this posture at all.
Missing explanation: Don Alan's handling of Al Koran's "Ring Flight" was a significant improvement, later marketed by Ken Brooke. The description here is ludicrously incomplete, yet much of the missing details can, inexplicably (like the reasoning behind the cup load), be found right on the Stevens video. And if agreements with dealers or video producers perchance constrained such explanations, then it is up to the author to clearly identify such restraints, and at least clarify what is missing, where, and why. Similar gaps abound, including the location of the ball bearing at the start of the bowl routine; the indecipherable workings of a gaffed mousetrap; the fictional workings of a stack of rotating dice (at one time a commercially marketed item); the missing routine for the Allerton "Aspirin Tin Trick" (and if rumors that this has been withheld by a third party are true, that matter remains utterly mysterious to the reader); and similarly, any information regarding Alan's standup comedy act, known (and referred to within the book) as the Garbage Can Act. While some individual apparently owns this act, could we not even be given an overview description of it? Was that party contacted for the possibility of contributing all or part of the routine? Then again, who owns it, anyway?
Given the challenges that Jon Racherbaumer had to meet in order to create this book, one imagines that some of its flaws were all but inescapable. However, one's patience feels tested beyond reason; although labeled a "legacy" it seems a vastly incomplete one. Call it lazy, call it slapdash, all and more seem to apply, and mystifyingly so. The book and its author were clearly in need of a strong editorial hand, and none seem to have been avail-able. This is a shame, and it will be up to future investigators to piece together the countless fragments of Alan tales and anecdotes that, for the moment at least but not for long, are there waiting to be plucked from Alan's remaining friends, fans, and colleagues.
When I think back over the literature of conjuring to books that specialize in the portrayal of one creator's output, there are few examples for comparison, and interestingly enough, fewer successes, still. I am not, after all, speaking of books of the past quarter century in which the contributors were also active collaborators, as in the books of Dai Vernon or Derek Dingle or David Roth or Brother John Hamman, to name a few. But what of other books in which the creator himself was absent from the process, as in books about Hoftinser, Francis Carlyle, Bert Allerton, or Paul Rosini, each a notable failure in its own right? We do regard Vernon on Leipzig as brilliant, but if we had videotape of Leipzig as a ready source of comparison, would we feel the same away about Vernon's accounts? The Don Alan book seems trapped in the worst of all worlds, suffering from both its subject's distance and the comparisons borne of recent memory and new technology. The book is clearly not a success, yet I wonder if such a work will ever be deemed as such? Meanwhile, this one joins a long list of flawed attempts that nevertheless likely requires a presence on your shelf.
(In the interests of full disclosure, my name appears among acknowledgements of a list of people who allegedly "copy-edited" this book. While I don't think the author invokes this term to be deliberately misleading, this certainly if generously overstates at least my own role. I was asked to mad an early draft, for general notes and comment. I did not copy-edit, proofread, or critique the book in any detail. I saw no illustrations and had no idea if what I was reading was a first or final draft. I offered a few minimal comments based on some personal knowledge and opinion of Alan's work, little if any of which was actually included, to the best my recollection can determine. I was not paid for this effort, and read the draft on a purely collegial basis.)