Big Friday sale

The Magic Of The United States by Robert James Albo, M.D.

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 1996)


Would you by a $95.00 paperback from this doctor? Robert Albo's celebrated Classic Magic with Apparatus series was originally offered for sale at a stiff price, which instantly escalated into the stratosphere. A year ago, a complete eight-volume set (including supplements) was going for $3500.00. More recently, the good doctor has embarked on a six-part series of "Magic by Country." So far, Magic of Germany, Magic of France, Magic of England, and now Magic of the United States have been released. Magic of Austria is anticipated in about a year from now, and the series will conclude with Magic of Holland approximately a year beyond that. The first three volumes retailed for $75.00 each ( Magic of France is out of print), and one assumes that future volumes will sell for at least as much as the one currently under discussion. So... who wants one?

Odds are that the question, much like my opening query above, is moot. Only 300 copies of Magic of the United States were produced, and most will doubtless be gone by the time this review sees print. Some customers are perfectly satisfied, and some who may not entirely be so will go ahead and buy anyway. How come?

The first and foremost reason likely comprises the same rationale behind the success of Dr. Albo's original series: These works were essentially the first of their kind, and not only are they unprecedented, but there aren't even any close comparisons or competitors to name. Dr. Albo's massive collection—since purchased by and gradually being transferred to David Copperfield's rapidly burgeoning stockpile—is amongst the most important and renowned collections of magic apparatus in the world. The author undertook a significant and invaluable task in cataloging and recording it, and then offering the results to the magic community at large. The fact is that while these books aren't perfect, in the absence of anything to compare them to, they may be merely extraordinary.

The present volume may well serve as a microcosmic example of both the strengths and flaws of Dr. Albo's body of published work. The Magic of the United States (this is in fact the frontispiece title, while the cover bears the title, "The Magic of America") attempts to represent, according to the author's foreword, "...the major magic stores that existed in the United States in three eras: Pre-1900, 1900 to 1920, and 1920 to 1950," or in other words, approximately a century of American-made magic apparatus, excluding post-war dealers and manufacturers. Thus, in the first section of the book, about 60 dealers are discussed, some in merely a few sentences, virtually none receiving more than a page or two of discussion. This is a personalized overview of, according to the author, "only those (magic establishments prior to 1950) who, in my opinion, have significantly influenced magic as we know it today."

Following a brief bibliography, the next segment of the book addresses "American Magic Collectors of the Present," consisting of eight pages of remarks on the subject. This portion is followed by two pages of "American Magic Collectors of the Past," a list of eleven names accompanied by brief comments. Next we find "Reflections on the Professors of the Laboratories of Legerdemain," about ten pages of the author's personal reminiscences of some of the great characters with whom he has been personally acquainted in the course of his collecting experiences. This is far and away my favorite portion of the text, and includes anecdotes about Ed Miller, Phil Thomas, Jack Chanin, Joe Berg, and others. The charming stories of Al Flosso and Marvin "Buma" Burger are priceless—well, perhaps not literally priceless, considering the asking price of this book—and are delightful reading, just the same. Finally, we come to "The Magic of America." About six pages of text precede the color section which concludes the book, consisting of 32 pages containing 223 individual color plates, identified by a useful numbering sequence that is continuous across the entire international series.

In short summary, that is what you receive for your $95.00. The author's personal anecdotes, as mentioned, make for decidedly good reading, and when he speaks from personal experience he is clearly on his most reliable ground. Thereafter, the flaws increase as the text expands. Mistakes begin with simple spelling errors and escalate to the factual: Al Flosso's famous father-in-law was known as "Pop" Kreiger, not "Pops," Lou Tannen's early pitch partner was One-Armed Mac McDonald, not "McDougel," Phil Thomas sold out to an operation in Ellicott City, not "Eloquette," etcetera. In graver matters, rumors of Chet Karkut's demise are apparently greatly exaggerated. The Schlosser catalog cover on page 35, while stamped by Schlosser, clearly depicts a Sherms logo, since Sherms catalogs were often used as generic catalogs by retailers, much as Robbins catalogs were in more recent times; Schlosser in fact produced its own catalogs of unique merchandise, a sample of which would have provided a more fair and accurate depiction, and this is not the only example where a generic catalog is used to represent a distinctive manufacturer. The Crambrook catalog reproduced on the first color page is doubtless notable as the first known English-language magic catalog, and also presents the author with the opportunity to compliment Byron Walker's appropriately laudable collection, but was in fact produced in Great Britain, not the United States.

Errors aside, one might expect significant production efforts and values in return for such a substantial investment; in fact, the production is neither good nor careful. While an index would have been invaluable (and cross-indexing of the color plate identifications, by manufacturer and prop, for example, might also have provided useful service), the fact that the book lacks even a table of contents strikes me as incomprehensible. One is compelled to leaf through the pages each time one searches for a particular entry. There is little else apparent in the way of design effort, and the fact that the reproduction of the color plates is merely workmanlike is not the worst of it; two plates (343 and 345) containing glass props were either so poorly photographed as to be rendered invisible, or else the original glass is missing (we are not informed in either case), and so the author has apparently drawn them in by hand, lending a somewhat festive, paint-by-numbers feeling to the production.

What exactly is going on here? The prospective buyer would doubtless be mistaken if he presumed either malice aforethought or avarice on the author's part; there is little question that Dr. Albo spends a great deal of money producing these books, and probably asks a below-usual profit by comparison with typical publishing margins. Rather, it appears to me that while one might approach such a book with hopes of encountering scholarly efforts, in its place we are presented with, in essence, an impassioned and ingenuous hobbyist's scrapbook of his own collection, with all the foibles and imperfections that a hobbyist's enthusiasm can sometimes yield.

Hence this is neither a scholarly nor academic work; rather it is a work of love, possessing the frailties of the besotted. The fact is, this is not an all-encompassing or definitive history of American magic shops, but rather of those establishments which have most fueled the author's personal tastes and the shelves of his collection. Dr. Albo dismisses Harte Magic Shop, but Tom Ewing, the author of Two Hartes That Beat as One, would no doubt dispute such casual rejection. The author is similarly ill disposed toward the props of the great inventor U. F. Grant, but contemporary collectors of Grant are still ever on the lookout for additions to their own treasured collections, regardless if his production values weren't always as good as his ideas.

And so, taken in the proper context, there is both charm and value in this book, and despite the fact that one cannot always be sanguine about the reliability of the facts or attributions stated within, there is as yet nothing to rival these works for those collectors who have legitimate use for them. Hence its value is, in the final analysis, perhaps inestimable. What is perhaps most troubling are those errors that seem born more of insouciance than of misguidance. Some of the very people the author names as associates could have easily corrected the obvious errors which permeate this work, and indeed, a number claim to have offered their assistance throughout the production of this and previous texts in the past, but their efforts have apparently been ignored. This is troubling, regardless of whether or not the author maintains overt pretense to scholarship. On the other hand, there is wide variance in the quality of other volumes, both in the previous series and in "Magic by Country," frequently due to the presence of the author's sometime collaborators; The Magic of England, for example, relied heavily on the work of Eddie Dawes, one of the world's preeminent conjuring historians, and that superb volume benefitted substantially from his presence. Magic Christian will be an important contributor to the forthcoming Magic of Austria volume, so perhaps we will see a similarly positive effect there. As a record of one man's devotion and personal achievement, this is an unmistakably marvelous work. Perhaps the reader, along with the author, may be best served by pursuing one's reading in such a luminous, enchanting light.

8 - 1/4" X 10-3/4" perfect-bound paperback; 135 pages; 32 pages of color photographs plus some additional black & white illustrations; 1995; Published by: the author