Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The Young Joe Dunninger


(This is the transcript for Episode 99 of The Magic Detective Podcast)

Joseph Dunninger was born….April 28th, 1892 in New York City.  His father  was Nickolas and he was a catholic from Bavaria. His mother was jewish, her name was Carolena, or Lena for short. He had two older brothers, Maximilian, who would grow up to play violin for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The other brother was Louie would become a painter but died a tragic and unexpected death at only 21 years of age.

At the age of five he saw a street magician doing magic and this was his initial peek into the world of magic. He soon began to demonstrate his own feats of magic via sleight of hand. All the bios say he was self taught, but whether he got the information from books or friends is unknown. 

At the age of seven he was invited to perform for the local Masonic Club. He went by the moniker, Master Joseph Dunninger, child magician. The Linking Ring, November 1951 shares a fun story that happened to the childhood Dunninger. The article says that Dunninger was not necessarily the brightest of students, but for some reason he always received 100 percent on his arithmetic problems. Perhaps he was cheating. So his seating arrangement was changed several times. But still his answers came out 100 percent correct. Of course, Dunninger never truly shared the method behind this. Instead he was often quoted as saying, “I didn’t have to work the problems out. The bright children in the classroom just sent me thought waves, and consequently I got everything right.”

In 1904, when Joseph was only 12, he and his mother and two brothers just boarded the PS General Slocum Ferry in NYC. This was a charted run for St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, they were on their way to a church picnic. But before the Ferry left port, Nicholas, who was at work, had a terrible premonition. He left work abruptly and ran to the Ferry. He found his wife and boys and had them all leave the boat. The boys were none too happy as they were all looking forward to the fun at the church picnic. They made it off safely. As the General Slocum departed, a fire broke out on board. Rather than head back to shore, the Caption chose to speed up in an attempt to make it to the next street and disembark. But that was not to be. It is said, of the 1342 people on board, 1021 died that afternoon. It was recorded as the worst maritime disaster of the 20th Century, until the Titanic sank in 1912. 

Makes me curious if this mind reading thing ran in the family. It was said that Joseph as a child could finish his mother’s sentences and always seemed to know what she was thinking. 

Though street magicians first got Joe interested in magic, it was the next performance that made the biggest difference. Young Joe saw performance by Harry Kellar  at the Academy of Music on 14 st in NY.  It was this performance that solidified young Dunninger’s desire to be a magician. 

At age 17, young Dunninger;s reputation is spreading and he gets hired to perform for one of his idol, the inventor Thomas Edison. From what I gather, Edison must have been a fan of magic because he had associations with numerous different magicians over the years. But in this case, it was likely Joe’s early one man mental feats that was winning the attention of the elites. Here is what Edison had to say, “Never have I witnessed anything as mystifying or seemingly impossible.”

Speaking of elite’s, this same year he was also booked to perform at the home of someone on Oyster Bay Long Island. That man, a former President, was Theordore Roosevelt. The Roosevelt’s were big admirers of Dunninger’s performances. And Roosevelt wasn’t the only President that Joe would perform in front of, but he was the first.

In 1910, Joe appeared in the The Sphinx, August issue. Here is the write up, “Joseph Dunninger of the Mysterious Dunninger and Co is presenting one of the finest and most mysterious magical acts upon the vaudeville stage. He presents a number of original  tricks and illusions in his act, and is the inventor of a large number of others, many of which will appear in the Sphinx. He enters dressed as a Chinaman, and after going through a number of oriental mysteries, he holds a large cloth in front of himself for a moment and when again removed he is seen dressed in evening dress, all traces of his Chinese make-up having completely vanished. He then presents a number of really mystifying tricks and illusions, in one of which he causes a large ball to flow from the hands of one of his audience and follow a large magnet, which he hold s to the stage. He concludes with his own illusion, “The Hindoo Flight”

I should also mention, Joe was on the COVER of the July 1910 issue of the Sphinx, but apparently didn’t get his bio in on time so it was saved for the August issue. He did have two tricks that appeared in the July issue however. One was a clever coin vanish and the other was an illusion idea with three illustrations.

That gives a little peek into Joe’s act, but here is another. This comes from The Sphinx Feb 1911. “The audience was given more food for thought by the wonderful exhibition of magic and necromancy presented by Mr. Dunninger. The colors of handkerchiefs changed by mere touch of his fingers, rice changed to water at his command.  A large crystal clock, free from all mechanism was caused to answer various questions in the most mysterious way. One of the illusions presented by Dunninger that caused quite a sensation was that of causing a large ball to float  through space, over the heads of the audience, without any visible means of support. After passing a solid hoop over the ball to prove it actually levitated, he caused it to vanish completely while suspended in mid-air.  Various cabinet tricks and illusions brought the evenings entertainment to a close.” In another article, same magazine, we find this quote, “Dunninger is a king with cards, we should say in a class with Leipzig. He performed many new tricks and most baffling illusions.”

in 1913, Dunninger was 21 years old. He had a good reputation as a magician, doing stage magic, illusions, and more. He was hired to appear for a year at the Eden Musee in NYC. The Eden Musee had originally opened its doors in 1884. It was located at 55 West 23rd St. and was famous for its Wax Figures and family friendly offerings. Many performers had appeared there including the famous Indian Chief Sitting Bull. But magicians had performed there as well, no less that Buatier DeKolta and Frederick Eugene Powell were two magicians who had been featured there. At one time, the Eden Musee was the go to place to perform. Located new Madison Square Garden, it was a booming entertainment district. But after the turn of the century much had changed. The entertainment district had shifted and now was near Broadway. Only one other theater remained nearby and it would close in 1915. The Eden Musee itself would close in June 1915, so Dunninger was also one of the last popular acts to perform there. And his was no small contract, he was booked to perform the entire year at the Eden Musee. The Mysterious Dunninger was now a legitimate hit. But he hadn’t quite found his nitch. He was doing stage magic, illusions, escapes,. A bit of everything. For illusions, he had a hanging cabinet in which an assistant vanished when he shot his starter pistol. Then a previously shown empty chest magically produced that same assistant.  He also has the production of a woman from a cloth on a raised platform. Then he also has something he called “The Flight of the Night Rider, which I believe may have been some sort of transposition illusion. But his big illusion is that Floating Ball I’ve mentioned before. Interestingly, I found an ad in The Sphinx for the Dunninger Floating Light Bulb. The add was by Burling Hull. So I wonder if Dunninger changed the ball to a Light Bulb at some point. 

Following the Eden Musee run, Joe was picked up to do a tour of the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit. In the book, Daddy was a  Mind Reader by his daughter Maxine, she says that Joe started doing mind reading on his vaudeville run. But I don’t believe this is accurate, at least not quite yet. He would eventually. But at this time, he was still doing the magic and illusion act. In fact, he starts in Nov 19, 1915 Dunninger was locked into a number of cuffs, provided by the police in Peekskill NY, and escapes in a few seconds. There is a Letter to certify from the chief of police. This was done as a publicity stunt to promote his tour. Obviously taking a page from Houdini’s playbook. Dec 6, 1915, Bridgeport Conn. Dunninger allows the Detectives to lock him into any variety of cuffs and he quickly frees himself. Again there is a Letter to certify that he actually accomplished this escape.

I don’t know the date of this one, but it’s likely from this same time period. Dunninger decided to hire a publicity agent. He wanted to get some press for his upcoming gigs. Duninger left it to the agent, who came up with this newspaper headline; “Dunninger Jumps Off The Poughkeepsie Bridge While In Handcuffs” When Dunninger found out what was supposed to take place he was livid. The last thing he wanted to do was jump from a bridge handcuffed, but now he had no choice. The agent assured him, it wouldn’t be an issue. The day of the jump, a very nervous Dunninger showed up at the Bridge with handcuffs and leg irons. He was prepping himself for the jump, and likely thinking hard on his career choice, when police appeared out of no where and stopped everything! They made Dunninger stop the jump. The question soon became who tipped off the police? Well, the publicity agent called the police and warned them that some crazy person was going to jump off the bridge in a suicide attempt. As it was, Dunninger got the publicity and he never had to jump!

Feb 5, 1916 Dunninger escapes from a variety of handcuffs in front of the Chief of Police in Perth Amboy NJ. Letter from Police chief to certify. And then Sept 22, 1917 Haverstraw NY, Dunninger escaped from handcuffs and the jail. Letter to certify from Chief of Police. So all of these stunts are done to promote his vaudeville tour. It’s unknown what Houdini thought of this. However, listen to this next story…

Dai Vernon tells a great story about Dunninger, this comes from his column the Vernon Touch in Genii Magazine, March 1989. As Vernon tells it, “Years ago in New York, Dunninger and i both worked for the same agent. Her name was Francis Rockefeller King. She was the best society agent in NY and the reason she handled Dunninger was that one time Houdini was booked for a show for a Mrs. E.T. Stotesbury in Philadelphia. It was a Milk Fund show and Houdini was going to entertain them.  Miss King got a very large fee for him, but at the last minute Harry Houdini called her and said, “I’m sorry, I’m going to Chicago and cannot fill the engagement.” Miss King was having nervous prostration because at the last minute he let her down. She called up Joe Dunninger who she hardly knew and told him her trouble. He said, “I can do it!” she said, “You can’t fill in for Houdini.” Joe said, “Yes, I have a lot of leg irons and handcuffs.” Well anyway, he went to Philadelphia and he had no cabinet to hide in like Houdini’s big velvet covered cabinet. He just got some people up on the bandstand and had them hold large opened up newspapers around him in a large circle. With this covering he escaped from countless leg irons and handcuffs and really filled the bill. Miss King received her fee and after that she was very enamored with Dunninger and gave him a lot of bookings. His fee jumped from a few hundred dollars to as much as $1500 a week.”

I’m personally fascinated by Dunninger’s escapes. He has numerous photos of him in front of jails strapped in many handcuffs and leg irons. There is even an illustration, which is a copy of  Houdini illustration of him being in the Water Torture Cell. I do not know if he had one, I tend to think he did not, as Houdini was extremely protective of this escape. 

Also during the 1915-16 time, Dunninger teamed up with another performer Devlin. Earlier in his career, 1910 or before, he was doing an act called Dunninger and Winston, which was a comedy magic act. 

It’s likely during his vaudeville run is when he saw the act called The Fays. This was the mind reading act of John Cummings Fay and Eva Norman. It was basically the stolen act of John’s mother Anna Eva Fay. But stolen or not, they were making a big impression in vaudeville. And Dunninger saw them. This type of act, the mental act, was always a two person affair, but in 1921 Joe Dunninger began to introduce feats of mind reading, except for a time they were used as publicity stunts. So he would read the mind of some famous person and used that for publicity.

At a private event in 1924 on a houseboat for Rodman Wanamaker, a Philadelphia Department Store Millionaire, he read the minds of the guests, including the future Duke of Windsor who also happened to be on board. What’s most interesting about this is a few years before, Dunninger, when not doing magic shows, was working for Wannamaker’s Department store in NYC stocking shelves. 

But as late as 1925 Dunninger was still doing the big-show with magic and illusions. It appears that he was doing a magic and mentalism show only for more exclusive events. Joe Dunninger did a lot of those. But word was getting around about his one man mentalism feats. Joe would even do the stunt of having an object hidden by a client and then being blindfolded he would find that object. Again this was used for publicity.

By 1927, Joe Dunninger knew his future lie in Mind Reading. Soon, most of the magic, not all, but most of it would take a back seat to the mentalism…

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