Al Koran (1914-1972)
It was towards the end of the 1930’s that the magic community really became aware of a clever young man named Al Koran. Koran was born on 4th March 1914 as Edward C. Doe in London’s East End. His parents were Charles Edward and Lois Heckman and he grew up in London, starting his working life as a barber before pursuing what was to become his legacy. As with many mind-readers, his life in magic began as a close-up performer, and quite a talented and successful one at that. He had a reputation of a true gentleman, a charming debonair man, quiet and unassuming and certainly not the showman type like Dunninger or Fogel; he was a great conversationalist and exceptional entertainer. At the height of his career his talents took him all over the world, billed as ‘The Fantastic Koran – the Worlds’ Greatest Mind Reader’, performing on the London circuit, including the Palladium, and for the likes of Sir Winston Churchill and Princess Grace of Monaco. In his 25 Royal Command performances at Buckingham and Sandringham Palaces, he worked in front of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, and counted Princess Margaret and Lord Snowden as clients and friends.
Koran’s first experience of magic was watching a street performer named ‘Pins’ Draper who worked London’s Petticoat Lane and Club Row. Koran soon began to act as his stooge and assistant, being taught in return, the secrets of such classics as the Cups and Balls and Glass of Water from Borrowed Hat. His earliest recalled readings in magic included the Hoffmann books, loaned to him by his tutor, along with numerous magic catalogues full of effects and equipment he could not afford; and so began his study of sleight of hand, an area in which he was to later excel. In fact, as a close-up performer, he went on to gain a reputation for his incredible card effects including a magician-fooling card stab routine.
At the age of 16 he joined The Magician’s Club, giving his age as 19. On the outbreak of war he joined Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) for a time, later joining the Parachute Regiment. He was performing and increasing his knowledge and experience, constantly and after the war he became a member of The London Society of Magicians, soon making a name for himself by his originality and enthusiasm; at the age of 29, he became the youngest member ever to be awarded their Gold Medal (although some references claim he joined at 15 and gained his gold award at 16!).
At this time Eddie Doe (as he was still called) was a hairdresser in Trueffit& Hills (still in St James. London) and living in Bethnal Green with his wife Kay; he made the decision to become a full-time professional magician, taking the name of Al Koran. Many people were skeptical about the name and its potential religious connotations but in fact it worked out well, being easily remembered and making effective billing. In 1947, in collaboration with Jack Lamonte, he wrote the book ‘Mastered Amazement’ which established his reputation as a clever originator. This was only the first of his many writings; manuscripts and magazine articles followed in profusion with his last major publication being the fine ‘Professional Presentations’ which Harry Stanley published in 1968. In fact, Koran had a long relationship with Harry Stanley and his Unique Magic Studio in London, and many of Koran’s creations were marketed through Unique; these included a special deck of cards known as the Koran Deck and the Colour Psychology (Billiard Ball Effect) and his best-known effects were probably Ring Flight and the Koran Medallion; as well as his many simple yet striking creations, Koran also dabbled in the use of electronics in particular for a card from pocket routine.
Though he first became known for immaculate card and close-up magic, like many of his predecesors and followers, he decided that he would be more successful focusing on mentalism and so channeled his efforts in this area. He set out to completely transform his image from that of a friendly, ingenuous trickster to that of a serious, cultured, highly educated gentleman possessed of unusual powers. He really did put in effort to create the exact image he wanted; he dressed and spoke accordingly (he previously had a strong cockney accent), and he even whitened the hair at his temples to give himself added dignity. He put together routines that were direct, subtle and original; many were simply genius thinking from a creative mind (along with much painstaking thought and effort) and a testament of this is the number of his routines still being used today. He had the knack of turning long-neglected magical concepts and ideas into absolute miracles and was clever with the use and simple addition of words, which in itself is a great, and extremely underestimated skill in this genre of magic, in order to create strong presentations. Much of methodology was quite daring, another trait of some of the best mind-reading performers we have seen. Koran would, unlike many magicians who have specialized in mental magic, often wove conventional magic into the presentation of his mental feats (similar to Alexander); he might, for example, divine the contents of a locked box and then cause the box to vanish. It’s true to say Koran was a prolific ideas man who also had good sense of theatre. In fact, before turning pro Koran was an ‘ideas’ man for many other acts. Amongst his many well publicised predictions were his correct revelation of the results of an election, along with the newspaper headline, four days before the event on TV to an audience of millions of viewers, and the correct winner and runner up of an English Derby two weeks before the race.
In 1964 a book was published titled ‘Bring Out the Magic in Your Mind’, purportedly by Koran but actually ‘ghosted’ and widely advertised. Later it was reissued as a cheap paperback. It was a combination of self-help positive-thinking advice with a number of publicity stories about Koran. Some referred to it as weird mixture of sound psychology and mumbo-jumbo, full of extravagant claims and inaccuracies, none the less the book publicised Koran’s name and no doubt increased interest in his performances. It was also described as the ‘world’s thickest advertising brochure’
Koran’s fame and certainly fortune never quite reached the levels of other big named mind-readers before or after, and certainly pound for pound he probably expected to achieve much more in terms of financial reward for his endeavors. Despite his popularity he never quite made ‘the big time’. Writing the ‘psycho’ book as he did seemed to be the de rigue amongst famous mind-readers to enhance their reputation and make some money, but what seemed clear is that Koran lacked the crucial promotional and marketing talents and expertise (or access to a good publicist) that other more successful, yet possibly much less talented performers did possess.
In January1969, Koran and his wife uprooted themselves and emigrated to the United States. It is uncertain what the reason was; his brother had moved to Chicago some years before and his wife had relatives in the US; these factors may have contributed, yet it appears that seeking fame and fortunes may have been the overriding factor for Koran to move; perhaps he felt that his driving ambition was being thwarted in his native land, and that America offered him greater prospects for top class private work; he had an immense confidence that bordered on ego that his act would be a success in the States.
On moving to the States, Koran first went to Cleveland, Ohio, later settling in Chicago, the Convention Centre of the U.S. He moved into an expensive apartment, buying a large salt-water aquarium and other non-essential extravagant trimmings; he wanted to live the life he fully expected to be able to afford. He was soon advertising exclusive ‘Professional Secrets’ in Genii, in limited numbers at high prices. He began to appear at some of the American Conventions and other events and the engagements began to come in. He was making frequent appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and appeared to be within sight of new success when his rise was cruelly cut short when he became terminally ill three years later. A short spell in hospital only served to prove that nothing could be done to save his life. There is no National Health Service in America, and the cost of medical attention has been enormous; led by his friend Ken Brooke, British magicians raised nearly £1000 ($2500) towards his medical costs.
Though Koran deliberately made himself something of a lonely figure in latter years, he had many friends and admirers in the world of magic. He grew more frustrated with amateur magician’s constant quest for new material or new ‘moves’, and would frown when a magician went into a dealers room and purchase an effect that he would immediately put into his act that night! He believed that they did magic a colossal amount of harm and even claimed that there was probably more exposure done by magicians who were bad performers than by any newspaper or media exposure.
His interests outside magic included photography (as with Alexander), tropical fish and DIY. In magic, his originations and brilliant routines have secured for him a place of his own in magical history, and his writings will be studied for many years to come.
After a brave fight, Koran came to his inevitable end on Monday, 12th June, at the age of 58. After Koran’s passing from cancer his ashes were handled by his good friend and fellow magician Billy McComb, who took the ashes back to London and scattered them from numerous small vials in various meaningful places – including the stage of the London Palladium, the Dealer’s Exhibition at the Magic Convention in Margate, Davenports & other dealers and in Bond Street by Truefitt & Hill. Koran left a wife and daughter, Katherine, along with a legacy of Mentalism that is greatly admired today
Professional Presentations; Hugh Miller
Koran’s Legacy; Hugh Miller
The Magic of Al Koran; edited by Martin Breese
The Mind Readers; William V Rauscher
Genii Magazine 1972; Bayard Grimshaw