(This article is an update of a presentation Tim made at the 2015 Magic and Meaning Conference. While the Chinese philosophy of “Tao” – pronounced “dao” – has multiple definitions, it is used in this context to mean the philosophy and pathway that reflects Don Alan, a premier close-up magician. Tim’s relationship with Don began 1975 when he audio recorded Don’s “Ethics in Magic” lecture at the SAM convention, which resulted in considerable controversy, as noted below. Their relationship grew organically and lasted until Don passed on 23 years later.)
Recently, I’ve been looking through all types of existing media, trying to find close-up performances with “class” and that certain something that entertains, amazes and amuses.
Specifically, I’ve searched for close-up performers with the personality and charisma that should set them apart from all others. You know the kind of people I mean, the Matt Schuliens, Johnny Pauls, Del Rays, Eddie Tullochs, Heba Habas, Al Goshmans, Jimmy Grippos and of course, the one and only Don Alan. Nevertheless, my search is like looking for a golden needle in a very dry haystack, the haystack being TV, DVDs, BLOGs, YouTube clips and every technology tool you can drum up these days.
Many of the contemporary videos I’ve seen recently seem like the same old stuff by performers packaged in the same “style” wrappers (dress), meaning unkempt, poorly dressed people performing magic with little personality or originality.
Much of their attire implies a lack of respect not only for themselves, but more importantly, for their audiences. Their showmanship labels themselves as what Guy Jarrett called, “Drug Store Magicians,” or in today’s vernacular, “Garage magicians.”
Compared with today’s performance standards, Don Alan is a welcome point of contrast.
This article deals with a man who gave much to magic; some might argue he gave even more than many of the current legends everyone keeps worshipping in every column that comes along dealing with this Art.
The major difference is that Don Alan not only knew and created; he could entertain, which is something many of today’s legends seem to forget or miss and those of yesterday could never do.
Importance of Don Alan
When you watch Don Alan, you finally see what real magical entertainment is all about and where all those clever lines and routines people have been using for years initially came from.
His focus was on entertaining, not fooling, although he did that too. He always strived to elevate the art of magic. In his performances, he tried to vitalize, not trivialize the profession.
Donald Alan McWethy was born on February 22, 1926 in Norwood, Ohio and passed away from the complications of Alzheimer’s disease on April 15, 1999 in Escondido, California at the age of 73.
When Don turned 18 (1944) he joined the U.S. Air Corps and ended up as an entertained in the USO. After serving in the military, he enrolled and graduated from the Chavez School of Magic.
From there, he worked his way to the Ed Sullivan show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and appeared on nearly every TV talk and variety program during the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s.
Don performed close-up for some of the greatest TV and theatre stars of his era, including Lucille Ball, Danny Kaye, Johnny Carson, David Merrick, Ed Sullivan, Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin. Very few magicians during that period could make that same claim.
Don Alan starred in three television shows;
⦁ The Bud Bowman Magic Show, 1952
⦁ Princess Mary Hartline’s Magic Castle, 1958. Don’s character, “Sir Dono,” was the direct model for Brodien’s ‘Wizzo the Wizard’ character from WGNs Bozo show),
⦁ Magic Ranch, 1961, a thirteen episode series that featured his signature magic and presented many rare clips of the greatest performing and influential entertainers of all time.
It was Don’s ability and personality to take a mere “trick” and turn it into a miraculous piece of pure entertainment. His motto was, “It’s all just Good Fun!”
He was named one of the most influential magicians of the 20th century by MAGIC magazine and awarded a Performing Fellowship from the Academy of Magical Arts. The creators of the Chavez School of Magic, Ben and Marion, have been quoted many times over the years that their three best students, in order, were Channing Pollock, Don Alan and Norm Neilson.
Overview of Professional Contributions
Don had many signature pieces, including the Chop Cup, Invisible Deck, Bowl Routine, Malini Hat Trick, and Ranch Bird. Although Don did not invent these magic effects, he did raise them from infancy to their mature adulthood, instilling life and character into each of their souls.
Don Alan was not just a performer; he lectured and taught during most of his performing life. He shared and provided ideas and philosophies about everything that had to do with being an “entertainer.”
Don wrote three: Close-up Time, Pretty Sneaky, and Rubber Circus. He was the very first person to write a manuscript on twisting balloons into animals. Francis Ireland urged him to write it and eventually published his manuscript in the early ‘50s.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
While Don Alan was mainly known as a “close-up magician” many people do not realize that he was also performed his own stand-up act. He was showcased on many TV programs including the Ed Sullivan Show in 1960. His “Garbage Can Act” included a comedy guillotine and appearing bowling ball long before it became fashionable.
Unfortunately, Don Alan’s close-up and stage performances were so strong, appealing and successful that many people helped themselves to his creative ideas and performed his routines without permission, many times even claiming to be their sole creator, as some people did from Cardini’s act. Mr. Alan never received any compensation from these plagiarists nor any credit for his creativity.
His answer to these bootlegger sins in the magic world was addressed in a biting and dramatic lecture given at the 1975 SAM convention in Chicago. His chastisement of the magic community was not well received; he was subsequently ignored, shunned and ostracized by dealers, magic organizations, and some of the so-called “stars” from the magic ‘fraternity.’ Don Alan eventually withdrew from the limelight and retired from performing and lecturing in the 1990s.
In a Class by Himself: Don Alan
Don was a true artist and perfectionist who honed every inch and ounce of every minute he performed. He worked on psychology, not only of his magic, but always the “whys” of performing; making sure that everything he did entertained his audience. He concentrated on blocking, scripting, staging, and timing for all his table performances. He constantly asked: what, why, where, when, who, and how, always making sure he was “covered,” just in case, because the audience was the most important concern in his work.
Here are some examples of Don’s meticulous attention to performing details. As a close-up performer, he wrestled with the issue of how to capture immediately audience attention at the beginning of an effect. His answer was to ask a question, since questions make people stop and think, thereby helping him to keep control of his audience. The brief pause following a question gave him the platform to proceed. That’s why, for example, his opening Chop Cup line was “Do you have one of these, sir?” It made you stop and think and look at the chop cup in his hand while wondering what he was going to do with it. With his Ranch Bird, he accomplished the same attention grabbing strategy by asking “How’s your bird?”
When Don performed the Bowl routine, he average a laugh every 12.5 seconds. Imagine! His opening questions was “Have you done tricks before, sir?” Besides the bowl and sponge balls, he also used a 12 inch dowel rod instead of a wand because he thought a conventional wand was a bit amateurish. Further, he said, “Give me one joke or gag you can do with a regular wand;”
In my view, Don Alan is the one essential performer that needs to be studied by every magician who wants to entertain professionally and not just do “tricks!” As Jon Racherbaumer notes in his excellent book about Don’s legacy, Don is a man who is