The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Al Cohen, D.C. magic shop proprietor who knew all the tricks, dies at 94

Al Cohen, owner of Al’s Magic Shop, in 2001. (Frank Johnston/The Washington Post)

For more than five decades, through war and peace and from one presidential administration to another, there was a little corner of Washington that defied the times — and sometimes gravity, logic and your very eyes. First on Pennsylvania Avenue NW and later on Vermont Avenue, it was a place where secrets were closely held and revealed only to those with a need to know.

The organization became known around the world. Its chief operative, a man named Al Cohen, was in charge of this arcane intelligence branch longer than the 48 years that J. Edgar Hoover led the FBI.

The name on the door of this D.C. institution was Al’s Magic Shop.

Mr. Cohen, who sometimes disguised himself as Alfred the Magician or Purnell Zorch, was a professional illusionist, but he also held court as one of the country’s most prominent purveyors of the fine art of prestidigitation.

He was 94 when he died Dec. 13 at a nursing facility in Boca Raton, Fla. In recent months, he had a broken hip and heart ailments, said his son Stan Cohen, who worked alongside his father for many years.

Mr. Cohen didn’t set out to get into the business of magic. He grew up working in his father’s store, the National Gift Shop, and as a kid learned a few basic tricks from a college student renting a room in his family’s house.

He trained to be an accountant, but handling numbers didn’t possess the same, well, magic as manipulating coins and cards. In the mid-1940s, Mr. Cohen persuaded his father to stock a few items used by magicians and began working at the shop full time.

“People kept coming in, more and more interested in the tricks and jokes,” Mr. Cohen told The Washington Post in 2002. “They started calling it Al’s Magic Shop, and then a lot of professional magicians started hanging around, and before I knew it, I was in the magic business.”

The store’s name was changed in about 1950.

Mr. Cohen sold buzzers, whoopee cushions, fake vomit, Halloween costumes, masks and souvenirs. But his real joy came from performing tricks for awestruck children, creating original illusions and talking about how much fun he was having.

“I never get tired of it, every day is a fun day,” he told The Post. “What more can you ask from life?”

At the old 19th-century building on Pennsylvania Avenue, playing cards were stuck to the ceiling, remnants of the classic Card on Ceiling trick. The wooden floors sloped, and signed photos of Harry Houdini and Harry Blackstone hung on the walls, like patron saints presiding over sacred, mysterious rites. In the backroom, behind a curtain, masters of the craft such as Tony Slydini and Dai Vernon conducted private demonstrations for aspiring magicians.

“It just oozed with character, from having been there for decades,” Michael Kranish, a salesman and teenage demonstrator of tricks at the store in the 1970s, said in an interview. Kranish, now an author and an investigative reporter at The Post, called Mr. Cohen “a mentor, not just in magic but in life . . . The best magic is not about a clever gimmick but telling a really good story. He taught me, through magic, how to be a storyteller.”

Others who came through the doors of Al’s Magic Shop, which moved to 1012 Vermont Ave. NW in 1980, included CIA and FBI officers, as well as established magicians such as David Copperfield and Doug Henning. Comedians Joan Rivers, Henny Youngman, Steve Martin and Robin Williams were customers, along with actor Joel Grey and Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.

Muhammad Ali was a real magic buff, and he used to buy tons and tons, hundreds of dollars’ worth of things at a time,” Mr. Cohen told NPR in 2001. “Harry Truman was in the store. George Bush, the father, used to buy tricks for the boys.”

His shop became known to virtually everyone in the world of magic.

“Al’s Magic Shop wasn’t just a place to buy tricks,” internationally known magician Michael Ammar said in an email. “It was the beating heart to a community of magicians that would sometimes travel for hours to see Al demonstrate the latest miracles. Great magic shops like Al’s connect the magic community in ways the online marketplace can never replicate.”

Mr. Cohen, who gave thousands of performances in the Washington area and appeared at the White House three times, had two separate stage identities: as Alfred the Magician and as Purnell Zorch, a bumbling comic illusionist in an ill-fitting wig, whose props were constantly falling out of his pockets.

He traveled to conventions around the globe and was called “the greatest magic demonstrator in the world” in a 1994 cover story in M-U-M, the journal of the Society of American Magicians. The article described Mr. Cohen as performing “one trick after another endlessly, effortlessly, perfectly, with his original touches and exceptional humor.”

Until he sold his business and retired in 2002, Mr. Cohen reigned over a fantasy world for would-be magicians and connoisseurs of offbeat entertainment. Alongside the rubber chickens, rings, cups, cards, books and magic wands, the store was packed with ventriloquists’ dummies, fake skulls and crystal balls.

“They tell me I’m supposed to keep them covered with a black cloth,” Mr. Cohen said of the crystal balls in 1988, rolling his eyes. “Keeping them in the light is supposed to deplete their aura or something. Hey, people call up and say, ‘Is this the magic shop?’ I say, ‘Yeah,’ and they ask, ‘Do you sell dried bats’ blood or newts’ eyes?’ I tell ’em, ‘No, but I’ve got stink bombs. Will that do?’ ”

Alfred Lee Cohen was born Jan. 11, 1926, in Wilmington, Del., where his father had a jewelry store. The family moved to Washington during the Great Depression, and his father opened a gift shop in 1936. His mother was a homemaker.

After studying at the University of Maryland, Mr. Cohen received an accounting degree from the District’s old Benjamin Franklin University in the 1940s. In addition to the magic shop, he had a thriving tax-preparation business for many years. He was a longtime resident of Silver Spring, Md.

His wife of 57 years, the former Alice Dubow, who worked at times as an office manager in the shop, died in 2002. His second wife, the former Rita Novak, died in November.

Survivors include two sons from his first marriage, Gary Cohen of Grants Pass, Ore., and Stan Cohen of Boynton Beach, Fla.; two grandsons; and a great-granddaughter.

When Mr. Cohen sold his store in 2002, it stayed in business for two years before it disappeared. Few of the classic, cluttered magic shops of the past, where tricks were passed on like a treasured inheritance, remain.

For Mr. Cohen, though, the magic never ended, not even after he moved to Florida in his late 80s.

“He couldn’t see, he couldn’t hear, he couldn’t walk,” his son Stan said. “But he was still doing magic.”

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