|The following article was provided by Ed Fitchett, and is from M-U-M magazine, September 1982 issue. In it is an article about Al Baker written by the late Walter Gibson, a charter member of the Poughkeepsie SAM #35, and famous author ("The Shadow") and magic consultant to Harry Houdini.|
Cover photo courtesy Robert Lund, The American Museum of Magic.
Occasionally it is our privilege to reach back into the past and honor a magician of bygone days. We had been considering a feature on Al Baker for several months when, over lunch in New York City with Father Cyprian, Chaplain of the S.A.M., we learned that the Al Baker Assembly No. 35, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Al Baker's hometown, was interested in preparing a magic section for M-U-M. So, we have combined the two, and their efforts will be found elsewhere in this issue.
Magical Ways and Means and Pet Secrets were two of the first books we purchased as a newcomer to magic back in the early sixties. We were taken by the simplicity of Al's approach. Then, as we began our collection of magical literature we found another side to Al Baker, his wit as evidenced in his contributions to The Sphinx and other magic magazines. His dry humor and tongue in cheek approach to his advice to other magicians is timeless, as we think you will agree from the selections found here.
Al Baker was born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. on April 4, 1874. By the time he was 21 he decided that his future lay in show business, and he entered the world of vaudeville, playing several seasons with magic and ventriloquism. Soon "all the other acts seemed mechanical to you, he once wrote, "and after awhile you found yourself getting that way too. That made me feel I was slipping as an entertainer." So Al left vaudeville and played chautauqua for several years before concentrating on club work and private parties for the later years of his life. He entertained and mystified all manner of men, women, and children, and every single member of his audiences felt he was working especially for them. That was the kind of performer Al Baker was. His lovable and kindly nature endeared him to children, and when he performed for them it was hard to tell who was having the most fun, Al or the kids. Adults found him to be a gentleman with keen humor, and he was a favorite as an after dinner speaker and entertainer.
Al Baker had a perfect sense of timing. He knew just when to make a steal and just when to ad lib. For many years he was recognized as one of the best, if not the best, humorists in magic. Bert Kalmer once wrote: "No finer compliment can be paid Al than to call him the Will Rogers of his profession.
Al was also a first rate inventor of tricks. Each one had the special Al Baker touch. Those that he marketed were instantly popular, and magicians everywhere performed Al Baker magic during the 3O's, 40s, 50's and on through today. Readers are encouraged to search out the literature and enjoy the inventive genius of Al Baker.
We are pleased to continue this tribute to Al Baker with the following article by one who knew him well, Walter Gibson.
By Walter Gibson, Charter Member, Poughkeepsie Assembly #35
My recollections of Al Baker date back some sixty years, to about the time when the Parent Assembly of the S.A.M. switched its monthly meetings from Martinka's back room on Sixth Avenue to the Hotel McAlpin, a few blocks away. In those days, you could travel all over New York City on the two main subway lines, the Interborough Rapid Transit and the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit for a mere nickel, which was also the price of a can of Maine sardines; and at the rush hours, the subway passengers were packed just as tightly as the contents of those cans. I remember Al arriving late for a magic meeting with a worn-out expression and announcing: "I've just come in from Brooklyn on the B.M.T. Best Man Triumphs."
That was Al Baker's way. When he made a quip, it was not only typical; it was often topical. One time a novelty manufacturer began stamping out flesh-colored thumb tips in such huge quantities that he was able to include them in a ten cents magic kit that sold extensively through the five and dime stores. Since tricks involving thumb tips were on the increase at that time, magicians began to moan about his cheapening of their favorite gimmick, but Al took a more optimistic, though whimsical view.
"It makes life easier," Al told his fellow magi." I don't have to carry anything when I do shows in private homes. When they ask me what I need, I say, "Just a table, a pack of cards and a thumb tip." Why not? Anything you can buy at a dime store becomes a household article overnight, so theres sure to be one around."
However, the ten cents trick boxes soon went off sale. Customers had a habit of opening the boxes and poking their thumbs into the tips to see if they were the right size. Invariably, they forgot to put them back before closing the box, so when they walked out of the stores wearing them, the thumb tips were so nearly invisible that nobody ever noticed them.
Some time after that, Al Baker opened a magic shop with Martin Sunshine in the Longacre Building at Times Square and introduced impossible gimmicks, headed by the Nickel-Plated Thumb Tip. Since all the finest magical apparatus was nickel-plated, Al saw no reason why the faithful thumb tip should be neglected, so he made one up and put it on display, stating that it was the only thumb tip that could be given for examination. Next, he turned to "shell" coins, saying that there were too many of them- the Dime and Penny Trick, Nickels and Dimes, Passe Passe Half Dollars, to name a few.
Since something better was needed, Al came up with it; the Shell Dollar Bill that would multiply automatically. Al admitted that it had mechanical problems, so he put it aside to work on something that was even more important, a "key-ring" for the Chinese Ring that would have two openings instead of only one, so that it could be linked to a solid ring and unlinked, all in a continuous action. All magicians agreed that this was Al's super-incredibility, the one nobody could ever expect to see until years later, Jay Marshall exhibited a ring that apparently had two openings, exactly as Al had described and proceeded to run a single ring right up through one opening and out through the other.
In contrast to these and other flights of magical fancy, Al Baker specialized in more realistic forms of mystic spoof in which "Swallowing a Knife" rated tops. This was usually performed following a S.A.M. after-meeting show, when a group went to a nearby restaurant such as Rigg's or the Alpine, for a midnight snack. A dozen or more would gather at a long table and Al would take a seat beside an out-of-town magician who didn't know what was due to happen. When the talk turned to table tricks, Al would ask the visitor if he could do the old trick of laying a knife lengthwise along the table edge, then covering it by pressing the fingers of both hands tip to tip; then adroitly sliding it into the lap and immediately raising the hands vertically to make a pretence of swallowing the knife.
When the visitor replied that he was familiar with the trick, Al would ask him to display his individual technique so that the group could witness a masterful rendition of a classic magical effect. Finding him-self the center of attention, the man would cover the knife with his hands and bring it neatly to the table edge, to make sure that the knife would not slip from his lap after it landed there. As he completed the vital move and brought his hands up for the pretended swallow, the victim realized that the worst had happened when he heard a sudden clatter, not just from a single knife, but from ten, fifteen or even twenty as they hit the floor with a resounding clangor.
It sometimes took the visitor several minutes to realize that it wasn't just his strained imagination; then Al explained the spoof. While the victim was agreeing to demonstrate his technique for Al's benefit, all the other people at the table were sliding knives into their laps, but keeping hold of them until the trick reached the swallow stage. Then they all let their knives go, with a result that had to be witnessed to be fully appreciated, the funniest part being when the victim was surprised to find that he still had his own knife safely in his lap after all that tumult.
One day, a boastful magician came into Al's shop, flashed an ornate gold ring with a big diamond and asked, "What would you do, Al,'if you could afford to wear a ring like this?" Studying the ring as well as the hand that wore it, Al replied, "I'd get a manicure.
On another occasion, when some customers were joking about a magician who bragged about making big deals that never came through, Al rebuked them, saying: "Don't criticize that fellow. He's a lot smarter than you think. The only mistake he ever made was the time he sold somebody the Brooklyn Bridge. I came over that bridge the other day and it's doing more business than it ever did, He should have kept it when he had it."
After a show where a magician washed a slate with a powerful chemical that could be smelled throughout the audience, then had a message automatically appear upon it, Al was asked what he thought of the trick. "It's great!" expressed Al. "I'm going to buy it, so I'll have it ready the next time I'm booked to do a show at a skunk farm."
At a convention in Springfield, Massachusetts, the local magi complained to Al that they weren't getting any publicity and they thought he ought to talk to the newspapers about it. So Al asked a reporter what the trouble was and received the reply: "All these magicians want to talk about is themselves. When you ask them about something important, like the famous Indian Rope Trick, they say it's a lot of bunk.
Al drew the reporter into a corner and looked around to make sure nobody was close enough to hear. Then, in a confidential tone, he said: "They're trying to cover their own ignorance, like all the magicians who have been to India and claimed they couldn't find it. You've got to climb the Himalayan Mountains or search the wilds of Tibet to witness the miracles of the mahatmas. I'll tell you about the real rope trick!"
From there, Al went on to tell it. The next day's newspaper had a feature article headed. DEAN OF MAGICIANS DESCRIBES MYSTERIES OF INDIA, complete with drawings to verify all that Al had said. When the magicians came to Al, asking why he had handed out all that bunk, he simply told them: "You said you wanted publicity. You got it."
Among my most cherished play-bills is one dated November 12, 1934, which lists me along with Al Baker and a dozen other magicians in a gala performance at the McAlpin Hotel. I was still back stage when Al finished his act with Williston following as the closing feature of the show. Just then, the master of ceremonies arrived and appealed to Al: "You've got to go on again after Williston. Do anything- whatever you want, but keep the show going, until we flag you. We've been counting on a special act that's playing a theater in the Bronx and we didn't think they would get here. But word just came that they're on their way-"
"Leave ft to me," interposed Al. "Don't worry about the time. I'll still be going when you flag me."
Mere minutes later, Williston was bowing off and the curtains were closing on what the audience thought was the finish of the show, when Al Baker stepped on from the wing apparently to deliver a few parting words. He told them how much he appreciated magic because of the recollections it brought back from years gone by, but those, he had to admit, were also due to the memory training course that he had taken in his youth.
Once you fixed a fact in mind, you couldn't forget it. He had bought it from a company in Chicago; no, it could have been Cleveland; or maybe Detroit. Anyway, it consisted of 25 lessons; or else 85; or possibly 30. Whatever the number, it was worth all of the $50 he had paid for it; he meant to say $60; or come to think of it, the price was probably $35. By using a key system, you could call off the capitals of all the states in the Union: Like Portland- the capital of Maine New Haven, capital of Connecticut Augusta for Georgia Charleston for West Virginia- or maybe South Carolina It didn't matter, as long as you knew that Omaha was the capital of Nebraska
By then, Al Baker had his audience in hysterics and he kept them on edge for more. Of course you had to remember the keywords that served as memory jogs, but they were in one of the early lessons that Al had either lost or mislaid; he'd forgotten which. He was still probing his memory for stray recollections when he received the high sign that the delayed act had arrived, so he brought his own extemporaneous act to a prompt close amid deserved applause.
The act from the Bronx featured a ventriloquist wearing a doctor's white coat. He was assisted by a trained nurse and a flippant juvenile dummy on an operating table. The act was great and after the show, everybody agreed that it should "go places," which it did. Rudy Valle, the famous orchestra leader, heard about it and invited the personable ventriloquist and his loquacious dummy to appear as guests on his radio program. Since most radio listeners were a strictly home audience, many of them had never seen a vent act and accepted both the ventriloquist and the dummy as live individuals. They wanted to hear more from this unusual duo and soon Edgar Bergen and Charley McCarthy became radio stars in their own right.
Their fame from then on was so fantastic that very few people have ever tried to figure exactly when it began. I am one of the very few who think that it was on the night of November 12, 1934, when Al Baker adlibbed his everlasting discourse on Memory that enabled an act to arrive from the Bronx in time to provide the finale for a never-to-be-forgotten show.
MUM 1982 note- This year was a banner year for U.S.A. performers at the F.I.S.M. held in Switzerland this past summer. First in Grand Illusion went to Wayne Allen and Sandy; First in Card Magic went to Daryl Martinez; Second in General Magic went to Jay Scott Berry; First in Close-up magic (tie) went to Michael Ammar; and, for the first time in the history of F.I.S.M. the Grand Prix award went to an American: Lance Burton. Pardon us, our pride is showing.
Al Baker performing an original card riser you can bet he is using a hair.
Notice the logo in the back. AL is likely performing at a Parent Assembly Show in New York City. (Photo courtesy American Museum of Magic.)
AL Baker and Harry Houdini. CPhoto courtesy American Museum of Magic-and appeared in the April, 1944 Sphinx