Remembering Al Cohen, magician, teacher of prestidigitation, seller of arcane tricks

Al Cohen was the owner of Al’s Magic Shop in the District.
Photo courtesy of Stan Cohen

Matt Neufeld remembers the meeting of his magic group, the Columbia Conjurors, when Al Cohen came to perform. Cohen, a Washington fixture as the owner of Al’s Magic Shop, not only performed magic, he showed his audience how he did it.

“He just blew us away,” says Neufeld, who counts himself as a student and friend of Cohen’s. “Not only were his tricks amazing, but the way he showed us that we could do them too.”

With Cohen, who died on Dec. 13 at 94, it wasn’t about making the Statue of Liberty disappear or dangling in a straitjacket over Niagara Falls. It was how he used magic to sell tricks in his shop and create a nurturing environment for budding magicians.

Cohen lived most recently in Boca Raton, Fla. But he ran Al’s Magic Shop from 1946 through his retirement in 2002. He continued making magic until his death.

Al’s Magic Shop began as the Oriental Bazaar in 1936, opened by Cohen’s father, Macye Cohen. He sold trinkets and Japanese imports.

“During World War II, the name was discreetly changed to the National Gift Shop and the lines of wares adjusted, including the addition of a few gags and magic items,” according to a 2002 Washington Post article. “President Truman dropped in one day on his Sunday stroll.”

Al began learning the tricks, so he could demonstrate them to customers and earn a sale.

The bug bit him, and the store evolved into Al’s Magic Shop.

Cohen was active in the magic community, locally and nationally. Over the years, he performed more than 1,000 magic shows in the Washington area, including at the White House. Celebrities and fanatics alike frequented his shop, including President George H.W. Bush, Muhammad Ali, Robin Williams and Steve Martin.

Al Cohen
Courtesy of Stan Cohen

When he wasn’t performing as Alfred the Magician or being introduced as Alfred the Musician, he was bumbling around the stage and messing up tricks as his alter ego, Pernell Zorch, who could never perform a trick correctly.

He covered mistakes with his quick wit and humor.

Once, when a rabbit escaped, “Al just turned and said, ‘Oh, there’s my rabbit. Glad to see you’ve made it here!’ and saved the whole show,” says Stan Cohen, Al’s son, who performed as Al’s backstage assistant and worked at the shop.

Al Cohen was born on Jan. 11, 1926, in Wilmington, Del., and moved with his family to Washington in 1936. A connective tissue disease he suffered from as a child disqualified him from fighting in World War II. Instead, he attended University of Maryland and then received an accounting degree. He continued working as an accountant throughout his magician days.

Cohen was preceded in death by his first wife of 57 years, Alice Dubow, and his second  wife, Rita Novak, who died in November. Cohen’s health went downhill following the death of Rita.He is survived by his two sons, Stan and Gary Cohen; two grandsons; and a great-granddaughter.

News of Cohen’s death brought together the members of AlCohenic’s Unanimous Facebook Group. The page has been alive with reminiscences of Cohen’s kindness, skill and humor.

“I started in magic in 2000, and one of my major, most important early magicians, mentors, educators and inspirations was the legendary, great, fun, funny and entertaining Al Cohen,” Neufeld wrote. “The world is a little less magical without Al Cohen in it. But, the world is a whole lot more magical for having had Al Cohen.”

“Al was unique in so many ways. He never once lost his enthusiasm. You would think that he was performing the trick for the first time — not the thousandth time,” wrote Dave Rutstein, AlCohenics Unanimous member, customer and friend of Cohen’s. “Al taught us so much more than magic. We learned to enjoy life, our experiences and the people with whom we interacted.”

Rutstein was echoing Cohen’s sentiments in the 2002 Washington Post article.

“I’m a very fortunate person,” Cohen said. “I have always loved what I do for a living, the people I’ve met, the friends I’ve made, and the wonderful customers that come in and enjoy our demos. I never get tired of it, every day is a fun day.”

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