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The Coney Island Fakir: The Magical Life Of Al Flosso by Gary R. Brown

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii December, 1997)


Al Flosso was unquestionably one of the greatest and most unique magicians of the twentieth century. Hence there is no doubt that he not only deserves this portrait, but that in fact it is of the utmost importance to magic and magicians that we have a biography for the future of our art and its history and culture. Within the pages of this book, Charles Reynolds is quoted as having written that on a television talk show in 1976, "When asked, 'Who do you consider to be America's greatest living magician?', my immediate answer was 'Al Flosso..' In the intervening years I could find no reason to alter that opinion." Greatness deserves not merely acknowledgment, but an explicit record.

Author, magic historian, and U.S. Attorney Gary Brown has stepped in to fill that important responsibility, and he has done so responsibly, with an obvious fondness and respect for his subject. This project likely became an outgrowth of an excellent article Mr. Brown wrote for M.U.M. on the occasion of Flosso's centenary (about which I also wrote a piece for the November 1995 Genii , from which the author occasionally quotes in his book; the introduction to Mr. Brown's book, by Teller, also first appeared in that issue of Genii ). This is a quite readable portrait of a delightful and unique character in the annals of magic. Those who knew Flosso will revel in adding these recollections to their own; those who did not will find this an enjoyable account of the little man with the big bow tie and even bigger talent.

Magic biographies are invariably problematic. They are generally done for love, not money, and hence there are pragmatic limitations in the time and effort that can be expended on research. They are done out of interest and passion, and hence not always assembled by professional historians and writers, but rather by amateurs and enthusiasts. Only in the minority of cases are there stores of records and research materials from which to draw; lives are scattered to the winds like ashes from a cremation urn. With such limited resources and tools, magic does what it can to keep hold of its history and prevent it from blowing away. Also, it is often difficult to track down disparate living sources, and all too frequently, whether in the case of projects massive or modest, they come out of the woodwork after the book is completed. Yet sadly, unlike figures of more public renown in politics and the sciences, film and the arts, there are few second chances for the subjects of magician-oriented biographies.

Gary Brown was doubtless faced with all of these constraints and obstacles, and in the face of them has mounted a book that capably takes us through Al Flosso's story, from his turn-of-the-century childhood on the Lower East Side of New York, a neighborhood filled with mirror images of the young Albert, the first generation offspring of poor Jewish immigrants. In fourteen chapters we are guided through his youthful apprenticeship to the likes of famed cup-and-ball master Pop Krieger and another of Krieger's circle, Max Malini, along with Al's eventual marriage to one of Krieger's daughters. We witness the development of the once and future Coney Island Fakir, working circuses and sideshows in Coney Island and on the road; performing Punch and Judy shows; his experiences pitching magic and eventual purchase of the ancient Martinka's magic shop after the death of proprietor Frank Ducrot, along with accounts of some the tricks he sold in the shop and how he did them. Eventually of course we get to Flosso's signature act, featuring the Miser's Dream, along with tales of his travels and touring as he continued to perform throughout his life while also operating the shop. In the final chapter, "Art Imitates Life," the author discusses two fictional works that have utilized elements of the Flosso name and personage, in the form of a 1946 novel by Maurice Zolotow, and then, decades later, in an alternative comic book work. Truly and yet appropriately, Al Flosso's reputation traveled further and wider than he ever could have envisioned.

The book also includes some wonderful photographs, not only of Al but also of some Krieger and Malini memorabilia, along with images of the Flosso family, friends and more. I would have preferred that some of these photos had been reproduced in a larger format, and a section of glossy paper for such reproductions would have been greatly appreciated, albeit more expensive; a detailed photographic record of the collection presently on display at Flosso's shop would also have been invaluable, along with perhaps a detailed annotated accounting, rather than the mere single photo provided without commentary. Following the bibliography will be found a reprint of Our Mysteries, a booklet assembled by John Mulholland and illustrated by Harlan Tarbell (the rights for which were later bought by Flosso as a graceful attempt to assist Mulholland in his financial distress), consisting of some brief contributions from the likes of Al Baker, Roy Benson, Robert Harbin, Flosso himself, and several other noted contemporaries, and this in turn is followed by a Ted Annemann manuscript entitled Buried Treasures. One cannot help but regard these materials as essentially padding included by the publisher to justify the price tag. A rather astonishing typo also graces the rear dustjacket, where Our Mysteries is twice misidentified as Our Magic.

This is an entertaining if occasionally thin portrayal of a very important subject, and readers will ponder and wonder, laugh and linger over the extraordinary character it portrays. There are some wonderful details unearthed, such as the tale of how Flosso came to be identified as the Coney Island Fakir, by none other than Milton Berle. The book could have benefited from an index, which would have been particularly valuable to those who would use this volume as a research and reference tool. There are occasional errors of imprecision: Eddie McGuire's overstated and unsubstantiated claim to being Malini's manager is repeated here as fact; Malini did at least once damage a rare table doing the Card Stab, but it seems unlikely that he made a habit of doing so, or that more than one hostess, as in the famous story, ever had the opportunity to raise objection. The author speculates that the phrase "affus gaffus" might have led to the use of the term gaff, when in fact the word has origins in the early nineteenth century, including as a slang Britishism for "secret." A method for the rattle bars which Dai Vernon attributed to One-Arm MacDonald (in the Dai Vernon Book of Magic [page 101 ) is here credited to Flosso, but the conflicting information is not addressed. My greatest reservation is that the book neglects the most useful material to practitioners of the art, perhaps the most important service any such historical work can provide. That is, while Flosso's core act is reasonably well described, there is no discussion of the technical aspects of that act: the specific apparatus, expert sleight of hand, and remarkable misdirection that enabled Flosso to create his amazing performances. What's more, there is virtually no mention of the other material that Flosso developed and frequently performed, such as his distinctive versions of the Rising Cards, the Egg Bag, and his seminal approach to the Card Duck. While Ken Silverman wisely withheld methodology from his Houdini biography (and stoically withstood the slings and arrows of some critics as a result), this is a book for magicians, and so one is compelled to ask, whither the magic? These complaints aside, this is a worthy tribute to and account of one of magic's greats, and Mr. Brown has done not only his subject but the future of our art great service by assuring Al Flosso's place in the memory of magic.

6" X 9" hardbound with full color dustjacket; 221 pages; illustrated with photographs; 1997; Publisher: L&L Publishing