iTricks columnist Michael Lauck writes every Monday.
iTricks columnist Michael Lauck writes every Monday.
Radio is not the best venue for magic, but one man made it work.
Although he was not the first magician with his own radio show, Joseph Dunninger was the first to bring his magic act to audiences every week on his Blue Network show in 1943.
Although it is not a rule set in stone, a magic performance is almost always a very visual experience. This makes a magician a pretty poor candidate to star in a radio show. This did not stop magic from migrating to the airwaves during the golden age of radio shows, though. Given the fact that one of radio’s biggest and most enduring stars was ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, who starred in his own show with his dummies for almost 20 years, a radio show centering on a magician does not seem quite as unlikely.
Harry Blackstone famously enjoyed a crime solving alter ego on the radio as Blackstone, the Magic Detective from late 1948 until 1950. The fifteen minute program on the Mutual Broadcasting System featured an impossible mystery (solved by the magician, of course) and an easy to do magic trick every episode. Despite being the inspiration of the show, Blackstone did not actually appear in the program and was instead voiced by veteran radio actor Ed Jerome. Blackstone’s friend Walter Gibson is generally credited with creating the show and wrote many of the Magic Detective’s adventures. Thurston had pioneered the concept of a magician starring on radio in the 1930s. In the first episodes Howard Thurston actually played himself, although he would eventually turn the role over to actor Clifford Soubier. Sponsored by Swift and Company on NBC’s Blue Network, the show was loosely based on the magician’s early career and featured a trick the audience could do at home. Today, not a single episode of Thurston the Magician remains. Unlike these fictionalized radio adventures, though, Joseph Dunninger presented a show built around his magic act.
Before becoming the king of radio magic, Joseph Dunninger was a highly successful vaudeville magician. He was no stranger to promoting himself and wrote many articles in the periodicals of the day to help spread his name and reputation. Like many other magicians at the time, he employed Walter Gibson to ghostwrite some of his material. However, this did not prevent Joseph Dunninger from holding an editorial position at Science and Invention Magazine in the early 1920s. In July of 1923 he used this position to organize the first attempt to hypnotize a subject over the radio. His subject, a man known to New York performers as easily hypnotized, and watching reporters were in the magazine’s Manhattan offices while Dunninger manned a microphone at WHN’s Long Island studio. The experiment was successful and appeared in all of New York’s papers the next day. In the magician’s later press material, the episode would be expanded to include amazed and baffled scientists. A few years later, in 1929, Joseph Dunninger would attempt to launch his own radio show. Unfortunately for the magician The Ghost Hours, which featured the mentalist busting fake mediums and spiritualists, was not a success. His next attempt would be different.
In the early 1940s Dunninger hired a new manager, Daniel Tuthill of National Concerts and Artists Corporation. The group represented several talents with their own successful radio shows, including Gertrude Berg. Tuthill saw the potential of a radio show featuring the magician performing his amazing mentalism in front a live audience and celebrity panel. A 19 minute test show was arranged for March 5, 1943 on a Philadelphia radio station. The local press reacted favorably and this boosted Tuthill’s claims that the act would play well over the air. His efforts paid off with the Blue Network, which was only recently spun off from NBC due to an anti-trust complaint. The fledgling network, which would eventually be known as the American Broadcasting Company, probably was a bit more willing to gamble on such a show since they needed new talent. Armed with celebrity guests, a series of personal challenges to his abilities that were known as Brainbusters and a $10,000 challenge to prove he used stooges, Dunninger The Mentalist hit the air on Sunday September 12, 1943. The broadcast was so successful that it immediately acquired the sponsorship of Sherwin Williams Kemtone Paints and was soon moved to Wednesdays to compete against extremely popular shows starring Eddie Cantor and Frank Sinatra.
In the finest tradition of the magic fraternity, criticism of Dunninger’s successful new show began almost immediately. Much of it centered around whether or not the performer claimed to be something more than simply a magician. The March 1944 issue of Genii featured a commentary on the show by Dr. Richard Straussberg that frets that Dunninger’s claim of psychic abilities, which the author realizes the magician simply does not have, will impede legitimate psychic research. Stuart Grant responded in May, emphasizing that Dunninger did not claim any real psychic ability. Dr. John Daley was quoted around the time as saying “Dunninger can’t read the mind of a gnat, and he knows it.” The best summary perhaps comes from the March 1967 installment of The Autobiography of John Booth (published in Linking Ring). The author relates his conclusions after going over the show’s transcripts with a law firm. He states that Dunninger did not claim to be a real psychic “But he went as far out onto the ice as possible.” The same article mentions that the situation was complicated by the fact that the president of the show’s sponsor had authorized the contract because he believed that Joseph Dunninger was not merely a stage magician. Magicians voiced similar discomfort about Kuda Bux and his claims, but the complaints about him never seemed quite as strong. Booth most probably sums up the difference in the attitudes towards the magicians when he mentions that Dunninger kept a certain amount of distance between himself and most other magicians while Bux was generally described in magic columns as charming and generous.
Dunninger’s legacy… AFTER THE JUMP
In the end, the criticism did not matter. Dunninger The Mentalist burnt itself out by December of 1944 as audiences grew bored of the magician’s success. No matter the guest or the amazing challenge presented, they had learned that Joseph Dunninger was simply unbeatable. Even though his regular show ended, he was brought back on the following summer to be the summer replacement for the immensely popular Amos n Andy Show and again as a summer replacement in 1946. That would be his last regular radio show run, but just a short time later the mentalist moved his act onto television. He starred in several different TV series over the next two decades.
One day after receiving the Academy of Magical Arts Magical Fellowship, Joseph Dunninger passed away on March 9, 1975. He started his magic career at age 16 and became a major vaudeville star, eventually performing for six presidents. Most importantly, he pioneered broadcasting magic to mass audiences in both radio and television popularizing the term mentalism along the way.
Despite having three radio series between 1943 and 1946, less than 20 episodes of Dunninger’s show still exist. Research from several sources have found the following commercially available shows:
January 19th 1944 Beatrice Kay, Carmel Snow and John G. Shalit,
February 23rd 1944 Brigadier General W.A. Danielson, Jimmy Brown and Roy Acuff
April 12th 1944 Betty Smith, Richard Rodgers and Bea Wayne
April 19, 1944 George McManus
April 26th 1944 Ruth Bryan Rhoda, Fred Archibald and Vaughan Monroe
May 3, 1944 Rosemarie Lombardo, Eddie Dowling and John Roy Carson
June 14, 1944 Dorothy Kilgallen
July 5, 1944 Irene Rich, Jeanne Cagney
July 12, 1944 Marie Manning, Gwen Williams, Roger Krupp
July 19 1944 Senator Ford, Joe Laurie Jr. and Harry Hirschfield
July 26 1944 Raymond Edward Johnson, Muriel Stafford and Marion Chocket
August 2, 1944 Jack Dempsey, Mary Small and Admiral Kovel
August 16, 1944 Mark Warnow and Louis January
September 27, 1944 Henry J. Kaiser