Today is the birthday of Joseph Dunninger (1892-1975), one of the great professional mind readers of the twentieth century. Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, as a child he was brought to see all the major magicians of the day: Harry Kellar, Thurston, the Herrmanns and Houdini. Inspired to emulate them, by age sixteen he was already performing sleight of hand at clubs and events. For many years he worked at a department store while performing in the evening. He was already a success professionally by 1914, when he played a regular gig at the Eden Musee which lasted over a year. Two years later he astounded the people of Hartford, Connecticut when, to publicize a local engagement, he drove a car through the town blindfolded en route to locate an object that had been hidden by local luminaries. By now it was becoming clear that his second sight act made a bigger noise than magic, so he began to specialize in mentalism, apparently reading the thoughts and minds of random selected from his audience. Nowadays his various tricks and techniques are well known to the general public — in the early twentieth century he seemed a purveyor of actual miracles (while all the while, using Houdini’s tactic of gaining publicity by exposing other mediums). In 1943, he became a national household name when he launched his own radio show. In 1948 he began doing television as well. He lasted long enough in the business that both Soupy Sales and Johnny Carson did routines spoofing his act. His foremost heir in the show biz world is of course The Amazing Kreskin.
Here he is in an RKO short from the 1930s (and stay tuned for part two, in which Walt Disney reveals the secrets of animation:
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc