… and some other memories along the way.
Warning: This is a very long post. I’m pulling together a lot of information from a number of different sources, primarily so I can solidify the memories. The core, however, is a tribute to some fine people who had a significant impact on my early development.
When I was about 8 years old, I joined a cub scout pack in New York City, back in the days when you first got a Bobcat pin for joining, and then earned your Wolf, Bear, and Lion patches. The Webelos patch (now called the Arrow of Light) was the last award, the bridge between the Cub and Scout programs. Kids today don’t know that Webelos stood for Wolf, Bear, Lion, Scout. My uniform pocket looked something like this:
I wasn’t much for knots and pinewood derbies, and it’s hard to do scouting stuff in Manhattan, but I enjoyed the interactions and I learned a lot. The best part of the experience, however, came serendipitously when, in 1962, an old gentleman with a raspy voice gave me his business card – after showing me a magic trick with it.
I had unknowingly crossed paths with Arnold Belais, affectionately known to the New York magic crowd as “The Rube Goldberg of Magic.” And my life would never be the same.
The Society of American Magicians was founded in 1902, but Arnold – an early member who joined that organization in 1912 – was interested in bringing magic to the youth – and that may have been why he was hanging around a cub scout pack. Right at that time, he was busy forming a feeder group for SAM, a club for young magicians called the IMPS (Independent Magical Performers’ Society), and I fell in love with the idea at once.
I also fell in love with Arnold, and was privileged to visit him and his dear wife Hortense in their New York apartment, where Arnold showed me his workbench where he tinkered together some of the most outrageous magic effects I have ever seen. His love of pipe, cigar, and cigarette magic also earned him the title “SmoKing.” He demonstrated his home-built “multiplying pipes” routine for me – I even got to hold those pipes, which appear in the picture below, and whoever ended up with that piece of equipment has a rare treasure.
Arnold was featured in the January, 1966 issue of M-U-M, the official organ of the SAM:
The article in its entirety by Leslie P. Guest follows:
By Leslie P. Guest
M-U-M, January 1966
Through his inventions and unusual routines, mostly dealing with cigars, cigarettes and pipes, Arnold Belais has earned the title of “Smo-King”; but among his many friends in provincial New York City he is affectionately known as “The Rube Goldberg of Magic.”
This is because Arnold is eternally experimenting, and coming up with weird concoctions of magic -halfbaked, un-rehearsed, but ingenious; and often snapped up and put to use by professional performers. Our perfectionist member, Dai Vernon once remarked, “I would rather watch one of Arnold Belais’ experimental routines than see a three-year magic student essay all the moves in Erdnase.”
You can kid Arnold, and many people do; but all admire him for his long and devoted service to magic and to our Society. Just think – S.A.M. Member No. 414, who joined in 1912 – thus has been a Compeer for 53 consecutive years! There are no more than three members living today who can equal his record; yet he has never sought high office, being content to carry out any specific job assigned to him, and doing it well.
Arnold Belais was born November 4, 1890 in New York City, and has always lived here. His first glimpse of magic was at age eight, when a playmate showed him a Ball Vase and other wondrous wood-turnings from a German Magic Set. Later that year he saw Elmer P. Ransom (particularly noted for his Clay Pipes Routine) on the stage of a Sunday School Auditorium. Later, on that same stage he saw Jean Irving, and Roltare Eggleston; then three generations of the Flosso Family – father-in-law Louis (Pop) Krieger, King of the Kups and Balls; then Al Flosso, the Coney Island Faker; then AI’s son, Jackie Flosso.
At age twelve he bought his first book on magic – authored by Fred Morphet -at a side-show. From this he learned to blow soap-bubbles magically – the bubbles went up in flames when ignited! This probably started Arnold in pyrotechnics; it is estimated that he has burned holes in more handkerchiefs than any other magician.
Then followed hundreds of shows as an amateur at schools, churches, hospitals, scout meetings and conventions; later the full round of service shows for the American Theatre Wing. In 1910 his picture appeared on the cover of “The American Magician” – we will reproduce that cover for you, if practical. In 1912 he joined the Society of American Magicians, and was initiated in Martinka’s Little Back Room Theatre.
About 1938, when Leith Loder started the Parent Assembly Open House Meetings (continuously sparkplugged by Paul Morris), Arnold attended from the inception, and became known as “The Perennial Opener.” Since the Open House was dedicated to progress and innovation in magic, this was the right spot for Arnold’s experimental routines. One of these developed into his “Multiplying Pipes”, featured and sold by Tannen Magic Co. since 1948.
In August of 1961, the “IMPS” was started by Paul Morris and Arnold Belais. The “Independent Magical Performers Society” is an idea for providing training for junior magicians. It was, and is, most successful in its field; and a number of these juniors have since applied for, and attained membership in our Parent Assembly.
Also in 1961 Arnold was appointed Chairman of the Membership Committee of the Parent Assembly, and earned recognition from the National Council for having increased the membership to a greater degree than any other Assembly that year.
Arnold Belais has had a long and successful career in Life Insurance, during which he attained the coveted distinction of membership in The Million Dollar Round Table of the National Underwriters. His wife, Hortense is not a magicienne herself, but joins Arnold enthusiastically in his various magical endeavors; They do not travel much these days, but if you visit New York City, you will enjoy meeting Arnold Belais and Hortense.
Arnold passed away on January 29, 1973 at the age of 82, and is terribly missed. But as a member of the IMPS, I learned how to perform in front of a crowd, and once was produced from a large box by senior magician Don Brill. The longer I associated with Arnold, the more taken with the world of magic I became.
Arnold’s “Diminishing Moustache” trick
A greeting card from Arnold 
As I grew old enough to navigate the streets of New York by myself, I discovered both The Magic Center, run by Russ Delmar on 8th Avenue between 46th and 47th Streets, and Lou Tannen’s magic shop closer to Times Square. Tannen’s was the “upper-crust” place, and they had a lot of high-end stuff there (my Tarbell Course is the one published by Tannen himself), but the Magic Center was more of an old-world everyman’s magic shop, and I felt a lot more comfortable there. I was just a kid, but I hung around there for years and Russ was kind; naturally he wanted to sell me magic, but he always encouraged me and taught me a lot along the way.
According to Russ’ son, his real name was Anthony DiSario. Russ was a skilled vaudeville dancer who – according to an article in the New York Sun – performed with Gene Kelly at one point, and was also a fencer, a boxer, a trainer in a Philadelphia gym, a juggler, and a unicycle rider; he traveled with the USO to entertain the troops, and met his wife in Germany. I’m not sure how he ended up with his magic stores, but apparently there were two – a larger one with a stage in back, and the smaller one that I knew.
From Mews Items: Amazing but True Cat Stories:
Eggbag the cat was one tricky kitty. For years, he astounded New Yorkers with his famous card trick.
One day in 1975, the gray-white cat walked into the Magic Center, a magic shop on Eighth Avenue, and stayed there, stealing the heart of owner and magician Russ Delmar. The cat was given the name Eggbag after the trick in which an egg is palmed out of a felt purse.
To earn his keep, Eggbag learned a card trick. He would lounge on the counter in the store while Delmar shuffled a deck of cards. “Pick a card,” Delmar would tell a visitor, fanning the deck.
The visitor would select a card without showing it to Delmar or Eggbag and slip it back into the deck. The visitor would then straighten the deck before Delmar would fan the cards in front of the cat.
Eggbag would yawn and stretch. Then suddenly he would bite a card, pull it out of the deck with his teeth, and let it flutter down. The card would be the exact one that the visitor had selected. Every time.
“How does he do it?” said Delmar, repeating a visitor’s question. “He does it very well.”
By the time Russ met Eggbag, I was serving a mission in Austria, and had moved away from New York, so I never met his cat, and I sadly lost touch, but Russ is fondly remembered as a mentor and the owner of my home away from home for so many years. I’d love to know more about him.
One of the people I met in Russ Delmar’s shop was Al Stevenson.
Like Russ, he was a showman and a salesman, but he also became a friend. My mother was quite taken with him (she was also a performer) and he was a guest in our home more than once. Al was also written up in M-U-M, and the article by Leslie Guest is show below.
By Leslie P. Guest
M-U-M, February 1965
This issue of “M-U-M” is dedicated to Long Island Mystics Assembly No. 77 and their chosen cover subject is Al Stevenson. Al is a recent member of the Assembly; but after all, they are a comparatively new group, although all live wires, and 100% active in magic.
Al Stevenson was born September 1, 1916 in Chicago, Illinois. Naturally his first affiliation was with Chicago Assembly No.3; then with the Parent Assembly; and because he lives in Massapequa on Long Island, he cast his lot with Assembly No. 77. He is also a Past President of The Wizards’ Club of Chicago, the Manipulators of Chicago, and of three hypnotic societies. For the past four years he has been Associate Editor of “Hugard’s Magic Monthly.”
His impetus in magic was at age eleven, receiving a free magic trick at a movie matinee about magicians. He says little of his early years, but he maintained and built up his magical skills, and has a rather remarkable service record. He spent three years in the Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. This included 17 months in a Fascist Concentration Camp. He was a pilot for three months, and a machine gunner for 15 months, during which time he was shot down.
Later he served three years in the U.S. Army and four years in the U.S. Air Force. He had various duties, and while with the Recruiting Service he used magic to get prospects interested.
From the Washington Post, Nov. 9, 1948
Then he was sent to Bolling Field, Washington – but by mistake he was classified as a “musician” and assigned to the Air Force Band. The mistake rectified, he went into Special Services, taught a class in magic, and did hospital and service club shows.
He did shows in France, England, Ireland, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Japan, Spain and Scotland, which is covering considerable territory. One show was in a submarine at New London, Connecticut; and for contrast, another was for U.S.A.F. General Hovey while flying in a B-17 Bomber. He also became interested in Hypnosis, and at one period was assigned to Camp Stoneman California Military Hospital as a Consultant Hypnotist, working with combat fatigue and war-induced neurosis. Another interesting assignment was to the Counter Intelligence Corps at Camp Halobird, Maryland. He assumed nine different identities, birthdates, etc., acting as a “captured prisoner.” The students would interrogate him, and their grades depended on the skill with which they extracted information from him. A good chance for Al to improve his own science of misdirection!
Since his service years, Al Stevenson has had an interesting career as a performer, teacher, author and magic dealer. During his stay in California he travelled with a carnival as a pitch-man, which is good training for behind-the-counter selling.
As a teacher he was founder of The Illinois Institute of Hypnotic Research and The California Society of Hypnotists. He learned the deaf-and-dumb sign language in order to teach magic to a deaf group in Michigan. He recalls that his favorite student was probably the biggest guy in the world -Henry Hite of the vaudeville act of Low, Hite & Stanley -seven feet nine inches tall! That chap could perform without a raised platform!
Al Stevenson is the author of “A Complete Course in Hypnosis.” “75 Tricks with the Stripper Pack,” “75 Tricks with the Svengali Deck,” plus some fine routines for Sponge Balls and other items which he markets. In Hollywood he advertised his hypnotic course in the local papers with rather unhappy results. It turns out the printed copy read, “A Complete Course in Happiness.”
He was a magic demonstrator in 13 magic shops; owner of two. One of his early jobs was in the Dell O’Dell Shop in Hollywood. While working in Boston he made a dollarbill-ring for a slightly tipsy customer; but the bill used was $100. The customer thanked Al and left, but soon returned, cold-sober. A block from the shop he had been held up at the point of a gun, his near-empty wallet and watch taken -but the ring was not noticed. He gratefully tipped Al $20 from the rescued $100!
For four and a half years Al Stevenson was the owner of The Wizard’s Shop in the New York Subway Times Square Station. This was an amazing hole-in-the-wall shop, located right in the heavy stream of traffic. People were always in a hurry, but AI, with his pitchman-acquired skill, could hold their interest and make sales. Among his regular customers was an armless man who loved magic. He bought the tricks, but had his wife learn to do them, and present them for their guests at their home.
Al Stevenson is now a partner in The Wizards’ Work Shop of Massapequa, mail-order and wholesale distributor of magical specialties. He makes remarkable sponge-balls and other compressible items. He likes to do table magic, some real sleight of hand and an apparent sleight routine by black art. Completely dedicated to magic, Al is a useful friend and instructor in most branches of our art, and certainly a great asset to Assembly No. 77.
Al was a complex character, and the official biography in M-U-M left out several important points about his life. A great deal of information about Al was posted on a website called The Wizard Shop by Steven Zaretsky, who was related to Al by marriage. The site is now offline, but most of it is available through the Wayback Machine, and I have also archived it off for safekeeping. If time permits, I may resurrect it so that it gets greater exposure.
Al’s business card
Here’s a photo of Al in The Magic Center. I was there the day he took this – it’s actually a gimmick he used. Force a 4 of clubs and tell your patsy you had a polaroid photo of yourself taken the day before… you “knew” which card he was going to pick.
When the guy complains that’s not his card, turn the thing over and say ‘Well, I always was a little backwards!'”
From 1982 to 1999, Charles Windley published Backstage, a journal for magicians. The following article about Al was published in Issue No. 5:
From “Backstage”, #5, April 1982
Published by Charles Windley
75 Tricks With A WIZARD DECK, 1962
Al Stevenson was one of the most prolific magicians I ever met.
I was performing at Hubert’s Museum in New York and would pass through the 42nd Street subway arcade on my way to work. One afternoon I noticed a crowd gathered around a stairwell and realized that one of the street entrances had been replaced by a magic shop. The Transit Authority had re-routed the exit and boarded up the area leaving a 10 x 8 foot alcove. An enterprising pitchman – quick to realize an opportunity – had rented the small space from the transit authority for $60 a week and turned it into a little store. He peg-boarded the three walls and placed an eight foot showcase across the front. Four feet above the counter was a long mirror hung at a 45 angle so those in the back could have a bird’s eye view of the demonstrations. Above this was a roll-down door so that the place could be locked at night.
Hung across the back wall was a sign that proclaimed “THE WIZARD SHOP“. The area was well-lit. During both the morning and evening rush hours, hundreds of stripper decks passed across the counter along with dozens of other small pocket tricks. As the weeks went by, The Wizard Shop grew in popularity and more expensive tricks were added although the stripper deck always remained the chief rent-payer. I voluntarily shilled his tip a couple of times and Al, the owner, and I soon became good friends. Suddenly I found myself working behind the counter every Tuesday (my only day off at Hubert’s) for 10% of the day’s gross. This not only paid MY rent but also gave Al a needed break for other projects with which he was involved. It turned out that he was not just another pitchman but was quite knowledgeable about magic.
He didn’t like the term stripper deck as he felt it gave away the secret, so he re-named it “The Wizard Deck” (after the shop) and designed a green wrapper with a drawing of a huge demon. I didn’t know then that the demon was real. The name became so widely used that it was eventually adopted by Haine’s House of Cards, the manufacturer, and the name and green wrapper with the demon is still in use today.
Al then wrote 75 Tricks with a Wizard Deck which he published and sold at the shop. This little $1.50 pamphlet has become a standard magic shop item and today is sold around the world in five languages. The demon also appears on the cover of the book. Al then wrote 75 Tricks with a Svengali Deck which enjoys the popularity. His 3rd book, 75 Tricks with a Mene-Tekel Deck, was never completed.
In addition to his books, Al took over as editor of “Hugard’s Magic Monthly” upon Hugard’s death and invented over 30 magic effects which he manufactured and sold at his little shop. He created many professional tricks including a Card On Ceiling with the cards IN their case so that the magician doesn’t have to play 51 pick up after the trick; a complete black art act that could be performed anywhere under almost any conditions and a chemical method of lighting cigarettes that was a boom to the cigarette manipulator. He was also the first to use foam rubber for sponge balls. At first he cut the balls by hand but later developed a special heat process which is the method still used today. He made foam balls, wands, fish, Coke bottles, carrots and an ice cream cone.
Al Seldom discussed his past, especially the demon, but once in a while I would get him wound up and he would tell stories of his days as manager of Dell O’Dell’s Magic Studio in Hollywood or his adventures as a professional soldier in the Spanish Civil War. He was involved at one time with the C.I.A., developing methods of smuggling papers and microfilm across international borders, and he had spent time as a hypnotist with U.S. Army Intelligence. Between all this, he had traveled most of the world as a magician and/or pitchman.
I learned two important lessons from Al. He taught me that the method is of very little consequence; the end result – a pleased audience – is what counts. He also said, “Always Be a magician…don’t just do tricks!”
When not involved with magic, Al spent his time battling his demon. He put up a strong fight but finally lost. One cold November night in 1964 as he was leaving the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the monkey bit too hard and he quietly fell down and rolled over in the snow.
Magic lost a prize that night, one that it never really knew it had.
It’s entirely appropriate to mention that this published version of Al’s death is not entirely accurate, but was somewhat modified for a magic publication. Shortly after Al passed away, I called his home as I often did, and was told an entirely different story about the event. The lady who answered the phone told me that he and she had been out to the films the previous night, and had seen “The Battle of the Bulge”. He left early because he wasn’t feeling well, and retired early. In the morning, he was gone. As alluded to in the above article, the big green demon was real, and Al had struggled for a long time with some sort of substance abuse, which ultimately led to his all-too-early demise. The truth never tarnishes the reputation of a great man, and my estimation of Al and his accomplishments and kindness is not a whit less.
I saved my earnings from delivering groceries at Daitch Shopwell on 1st Avenue and 58th Street, and purchased one of Al’s “Fantasy in Black” setups.
Never mind that I look like a weed in that madras jacket; it was 1963, I was 12, and didn’t know any better. But I loved the effect; the board long since deteriorated, but I still have a number of the original gimmicks which would serve just as well if I ever construct a new background. I also have a beautiful set of Chinese sticks that Al manufactured for me, and one or two of his other items; sadly, the sponge items which I obtained for him did not stand the test of time and crumbled. I loved the hand-painted sponge fish best of all.
Naturally I was devastated at Al’s passing, but the bitterness of loss swiftly passed and was replaced by the sweetness of memory. I’m honored to have known this outstanding entertainer who had such a big impact on me in my formative years.
One of the greatest favors Al did for me was getting me in to a personal seminar with Tony Slydini.
One of the foremost close-up magicians of all time, Tony in later years hosted private seminars where he would perform and teach a routine or two. It was an astonishing night, watching this man’s work. There were 5 of us, if I recall, including Al himself, and Slydini taught us his “coins through table” routine. I will never forget the experience.
Ten bucks was a fortune for me back then, but I never regretted having gone.
Time marches on, and while I still have almost all of my paraphernalia, real life and work and marriages and children and grandchildren pretty much erased any facility I had with a deck of cards… but not the love in my heart for the craft. I was a member of S.A.M. for a while, earning money doing children’s parties – so although my skills are dusty, I still consider myself a professional, and honor those who have turned their love into a career.
The Old Wolf has spoken.
1. If you want to learn all the moves in Erdnase, you can still do it here.
2. The card refers to the Dixie Magic Table. This was a gathering of magicians that took place on a regular basis at the Hotel Dixie in Manhattan. Even though I was just a kid and way out of my league, I enjoyed sitting with the old professionals and watching their amazing closeup work. Most of them were kind enough, but Joe Barnett once demonstrated an eye-popping routine, and told me I could learn how to do it in his book, Barnett on Sleights. I raced to Lou Tannen’s to buy it, only to discover to my chagrin that I had been sent on a fool’s errand – no such book existed. I was bitterly disappointed, but never held it against the Tannens – in fact, I could tell they were rather pissed at Joe for pulling this stunt. It’s worthy of note that after that I never again went back to the Dixie…