Magic Ranch Video Tapes (PAL VHS)

Reviewed by Anthony Owen

In The Mail on Sunday's colour supplement feature on magic in 1996 Jerry Sadowitz was quoted as saying that "close-up magic is so perfect for television that it hurts". A statement proved since by, amongst others, Ricky Jay, David Blaine and Jerry. However, there was someone who proved this point - and at the same time revolutionised the performance of close-up magic - over 35 years ago: Don Alan. And now Bill McIlhany has released a series of video tapes which feature all thirteen episodes of Don Alan's Magic Ranch series (which aired on 185 stations in the American ABC network in 1961) and some priceless out-takes and ads.


Mr. McIlhany detailed the contents of all thirteen of these shows in his fascinating 'Magic As Seen on TV' column in the April 1998 issue of Stan Allen's MAGIC. He quotes the show's producer George B. Anderson as saying "The format couldn't be simpler - it's a dude ranch run by Don Alan where magic is the major indoor entertainment." (Anderson may also be known to you as the author of It Must Be Mindreading and The Magic Digest.) 

The set consisted of three main areas inside the 'log cabin ranch' - a reception desk (where Alan performs his pieces to camera and his close-up sequences), a fireplace surrounded with leather seats (where Alan performs a pre-title participation bit and, more often than not, the week's young amateur magician performs) and a small stage where the guest star magician performs and is interviewed by Alan. A small studio audience on the set provided audible reactions to the stand-up performers and an opportunity for Alan to select the two or three most suitable participants for his close-up 'sneaky stuff'. 

Guest magicians featured on the series were Jack Gwynne, Neil Foster, Al Flosso, George and Betty Johnstone, Karrell Fox, Clarke Crandall, Johnny Platt, Vic Torsberg, Ralph Pierce, Sam Berman, Jay Marshall and Richard Himber. As I had read and heard so much about some of these names it was fascinating to experience their performances circa 1961; some delighted me, some disappointed me and a couple had me reaching for the fast forward button. 

Amongst the highlights for me were Flosso (everything I said in my review of his performance shown at the recent Video Night still stands), Jay Marshall (a God) and Karrell Fox (his 'double act' with Don Alan is my favourite bit of all thirteen shows). The biggest disappointment for me was Crandall of whom I guess my expectations were too high based on my years of appreciation of his outrageous writings. And the biggest pleasant surprise was Richard Himber's performance, which featured one of the most baffling linking ring routines I've ever seen.

However, there is no doubt that the biggest delight from these tapes was the opportunity to watch Don Alan perform. His experience as one of Chicago's top bar magicians shines through as he captivates and delights his on-screen intimate audiences. In his column in the April issue of MAGIC Jon Racherbaumer wrote: "Don Alan may be the greatest close-up entertainer of my generation. He is certainly one of the most significant influences of this century, especially in determining how close-up magic is performed today. His signature presentations swayed magicians throughout the world." On these tapes you get an opportunity to witness Alan performing those monumental presentations, still as fresh and entertaining as when they were filmed. 


Unfortunately being in the presence of such a master failed to rub off onto any of the young amateur magicians on the series, most of whom perform dealer items of the day accompanied by patter presentations which I thought were so bad they wouldn't even have been considered for the accompanying instructions. Equally irritating was the organ music which accompanied the silent performers and provided the opening music (which I still can't get out of my head).


Don Alan retired from performing around 1992 (shortly after his appearance on John Fisher's Best of Magic series) and now lives in a nursing home in California, the tragic victim of Alzheimer's Disease. 


The four VHS tapes containing these shows are available as a complete set and, at present, only in NTSC. As someone who has been and is involved with getting magic onto British television these tapes were a delight. If you're a magical historian, a close-up entertainer or just enjoy watching entertaining magic well performed you'll definitely benefit from purchasing these tapes. And so will Don Alan's family, to whom all profits from these tapes go. Thank you Mr. McIlhany. 

(Reprinted from The Magic Circular, the house magazine of The Magic Circle, with permission of Editor, Anthony Owen.)


Anthony Owen, July 2000