One hears all the time of youngsters who want to be doctors, lawyers, astronauts or police officers when they reach adulthood. It’s unlikely that anyone in their youth ever dreamed of being a magic book publisher or video producer. However, if any kids like that ever existed, Louis Falanga was not in their number.
Falanga, of course, now sits on top of what is arguably magic’s largest publishing and video production empire, L & L Publishing. The names on the L & L roster constitute a veritable pantheon of close-up magic gods.
From legendary icons such as Dai Vernon, Alex Elmsley, Ross Bertram, Ed Marlo, Al Flosso and Slydini to contemporary masters such as Bruce Cervon, Jeff McBride, Max Maven, Johnny Thompson, Larry Jennings, Michael Ammar, Harry Lorayne, Daryl and many others, L & L Publishing has amassed a body of magic literature that is truly astounding. Yet, its beginnings are rooted in a chance meeting between Louis and Jennings, one of his early magical idols.
Louis Falanga grew up in Brooklyn, New York, a quarter of a world away from the shores of Lake Tahoe, where he’s resided for more than twenty years now. It was an uncle who provided Louis’ first peek into the netherworld of magic. Louis would later recall, "I came from a big Italian family and Sunday dinner was a big deal, like in most Italian households. My Uncle Tom would come over for dinner and show me magic tricks. It was gimmicky stuff like "Nickels to Dimes" and the "Money Maker" but I loved it just the same. I think I was about seven at the time."
Several years later, Louis got another glimpse.The 1964-65 World’s Fair was in New York and drew people from all over the Eastern metropolitan corridor like a magnet, sometimes for dozens of visits. Mark Wilson was performing at the General Cigar Pavilion and it was at one of Wilson’s performances that Louis set his mind to a serious pursuit of magic.
Though the usual boxes, tubes and gizmos claimed Louis’ initial fascination with magic, he soon developed a profound love of close-up magic, particularly card magic. The future publisher consumed books like Wilfred Jonson’s Magic Tricks & Card Tricks and Scarne on Card Tricks, learning every trick in them. He also developed the same habit that many magic kids in the New York area had, that of hanging around Lou Tannen’s magic shop in the hope of being able to rub shoulders with the many legends passing through town.
Just as Horace Greeley encouraged 19th-century adventurers with "Go west, young man, go forth into the country," Louis relocated to California in 1973, settling in Tahoma on the shores of Lake Tahoe. He got a job first as a lift operator and later as a staff trainer for the Squaw Valley Ski Resort but also soon found work as a close-up magician in the many exclusive restaurants that ring the lake. It was also during this period that Louis would first meet Larry Jennings, a crossing of paths that would change the younger man’s life forever.
When he first arrived in the Tahoe area, Louis had heard about a weekly magician’s gathering in a local pizza parlor. What really intrigued him was that he also heard that Jennings occasionally graced the assembled with his presence. Louis showed up at the next appointed time and was bitterly disappointed to find that no one else showed up. As he was leaving, he happened to notice a large bearded man in a cowboy hat holding a deck of cards. To Louis’ amazement, it was, indeed, Larry Jennings. Louis would later write about the encounter, "He immediately did a trick for me: ‘Pre-Figuration.’ I explained that I had come for the meeting, also in hopes of getting a lesson. ‘Sorry, son,’ he said, ‘I don’t teach beginners.’ To prove that I wasn’t one, I did Frank Garcia’s ‘All In A Nutshell’ routine. Larry liked it. We spent the next several hours doing tricks. When it was time to leave, we said our good-byes, and he looked at me and said, ‘Son, would you like to have my phone number?’ He pulled a rubber stamp from his pocket and stamped his number. I still have that napkin."
Louis struck up a friendship with Larry that would extend beyond mere magic lessons. In fact, Larry moved to Newport Beach soon after to assume the position of entertainment director at the new Magic Island and brought Louis down for a month to act as a host at the club. At Magic Island, Louis found himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of Michael Ammar, Martin Lewis, John Carney and Daryl, a period of his life that he still remembers fondly.
It was also during this time that Louis began to develop a significant number of his own effects. He decided to incorporate these original ideas and routines into print form and enlisted the aid of a local magic pal, Mike Maxwell (now the head of A-1 MultiMedia) to write up the material. Louis was sure that the material was good but it was soon to receive a most stringent test.
Louis learned that Larry was bringing Dai Vernon and Bill Bowers to San Francisco to see Dr. Albo’s magic collection. Louis met them there and showed Larry, along with the Professorand Bowers, the material that he planned to publish. Vernon would later write in the foreword to the book, "Louis has some very offbeat and unusual effects with playing cards. I was really entertained with new sleights and novel packet
Louis Falanga’s Lake Tahoe Card Magic made its debut in 1985. Not only did it offer fourteen of Louis’ items, but Larry Jennings contributed an entire chapter of unpublished material. The book was well-received by cardmen and critics alike and continues to be a good seller.
It was about this time that Derek Dingle’s Complete Works became an instant best-seller. Louis began to suggest to Larry that he should put out a comprehensive book of his work, too. Larry finally warmed to the idea and Louis brought in Mike Maxwell as the writer. Tom Gagnon was enlisted as the illustrator and the long, arduous process began. Finally, in 1986, after much honing and shaping, writing and re-writing, The Classic Magic of Larry Jennings was ready to unleash upon an unsuspecting magic world.
What to call the company, though, became a dilemma but Jennings had the answer. "It’s you and me, Louis. Larry and Louis. L & L Publishing." And that’s the way it was until 1989, when Jennings signed over his interest in the company completely over to Louis.
And the rest continues to make magic history.
PLAYING 20 QUESTIONS WITH LOUIS FALANGA
Since you’re relatively young, Louis, we thankfully won’t have to listen to a "Mysto Magic Set" story in answer to this question, but could you describe how you developed an interest in magic?
I came from a big Italian family and like in most Italian households, Sunday dinner was a big deal. My Uncle Tom would come over for dinner and he showed me my first magic tricks when I was about seven years old. It was stuff like "Nickels to Dimes" and the "Money Maker."
A couple of years later, I saw Mark Wilson at the ’64 World’s Fair in New York. He was performing in the General Cigar Pavilion and to this day, I remember being blown away by the Asrah levitation. I owe a lot to him for being the one who really piqued a serious interest in magic. Thanks, Mark!
Since magic books are such a big part of your life now, whichvolumes on magic do you remember most fondly?
My first magic books were Magic Tricks & Card Tricks by Wilfrid Jonson and John Scarne’s Scarne on Card Tricks and I learned every trick in them. Later on, after I relocated to California when I was 18, my mother brought me out some magic books she had picked up at Tannen’s. One of the was Stars of Magic, which still is one of my favorites.
Since it’s an obscure fact buried somewhere in a little book called Lake Tahoe Card Magic, could you talk about your experiences as a close-up performer before L & L Publishing got started?
Like most close-up magicians then and now, I got my start on the local party circuit. Later on, I worked at the Squaw Valley Ski Resort as a staff trainer and used magic in my training sessions. I also performed in a number of high-class restaurants in the Lake Tahoe area.
How are book projects developed? Do the artists come to you or do you go after the artists?
In the beginning, we sought out artists whose material we thought would make a good book. Now, most artists come to us with ideas or manuscripts. In fact, there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t have at least one or two manuscripts on my desk. Unfortunately, we reject about 50% of everything that’s offered to us.
What are the three top-selling books in the L & L catalog?
The Magic of Michael Ammar is, far and away, our biggest seller to date. In fact, it’s in its fourteenth edition! The five books in the Vernon Chronicles series are our second biggest sellers and the two volumes of The Collected Works of Alex Elmsley are third.
Which books in the L & L catalog are your personal favorites and why?
The Dai Vernon Book of Magic is my personal favorite. I loved the book when I was younger and never dreamed that I would some day own the publishing rights to it. It’s a classic magic book for all times.
What books in the L & L catalog do you consider to be hidden gems-books that perhaps have been overlooked but still contain some amazing magic?
Sid Fleischman’s The Charlatan’s Handbook has some great stuff in it. Sid is, of course, a professional writer so the book, in addition to containing some genuinely stunning magic, also makes for great reading.
Another is Bob Wagner’s Master Notebook of Magic. What may have put some people off about Bob’s book was the fact that the text was hand-lettered and we decided to leave it that way. That aside, there are some wonderful items in it, particularly Bob’s ideas on card indexes.
What made you decide to widen the focus of L & L Publishing to include the production of instructional videos?
I’m not a writer or illustrator myself so I’ve always needed outside help with the books but I’ve always been interested in film making. Since we now have a video studio in the L & L complex, I have direct control over our video projects, something that is not always true with the books. I really have to thank Mike Ammar, who was instrumental in getting our video projects to such a high technical level right from the start.
How would you answer the critics who say that video tapes are creating a generation of magicians who not only learn tricks from the tapes but also mimic the presentations of the artists?
There are a lot of books, also, that reflect the personality of the artist and are also subject to appropriation by the consumer. Even before videos, magicians would copy other performers that they saw on TV or at a convention.
Videos will never replace books, nor should they, but they are an excellent adjunct. There are things that videos can teach that books can’t however, such as the timing of sleights. When done properly, a video can almost be like having a personal instructor and I wish there was such a thing when I was learning.
Which L & L videos have been the most successful?
Again, the award goes to Michael Ammar. His Easy-To-Master Card Miracles video series have been our biggest sellers. The Jeff McBride videos also did very well.
Who is your favorite magic writer?
Stephen Minch, hands down! What’s more, Stephen is truly one of magic’s "good guys." Even when he’s busy with his own projects with Hermetic Press, he’s never been too busy to help us when we’ve needed his assistance. With Stephen, it’s always what’s best for magic and his meticulous attention to detail is as apparent when he’s working with us as it is in his writing. I’m proud to count him as a good friend.
Who is your favorite magician?
Dai Vernon. His magic and his life have been and continue to be a great influence on me and what I’m trying to do with L & L Publishing.
As a purveyor of magical secrets, what is your view concerning the recent trend toward revealing magic principles on network TV specials?
It’s really how we all got started, isn’t it? Someone showed us a trick. I think there’s a big difference between showing a few simple tricks on a magic special to pique interest and wholesale exposure of magic secrets just for the sake of exposure.
When he isn’t barking at people about deadlines, Louis Falanga enjoys doing what?
I’m a big music fan and enjoy spending time with my rather large tape collection. When I get the time, I like to take advantage of the beautiful Tahoe area and go boating or hiking. I also like to play poker on occasion, but not with Simon Lovell…