Dai Vernon. The Master.

There are many magicians but very few masters in magic. Dai Vernon was above all a master. The professor, as he was known around the World was the man who changed the face of modern magic and reinvented close up magic.

I first met Dai when I joined the Magic Castle in Hollywood. He was every inch the master when you saw him holding court in a corner of the Castle with brandy in a snifter, a cigarette in the ashtray, and a deck of cards in his hand. Magicians would discretely shadow him for hours just to add a little touch or move from his endless store of wisdom. Dai was very subtle, nothing he did was flashy or “show-offy”, it was just right. For any situation that might present itself during a card trick, the professor had at least half a dozen ways to get where he wanted to go. Some of the greatest books of sleight of hand routines can be traced directly to gems from his fertile mind; he was also generous and a true gentleman.

In spite of the fact that I have always made my living performing comedy magic I have a guilty secret, I am also a first-rate sleight of hand magician, shh, don’t tell anyone! However, for me, the mark of a true magician is to appear not to be doing anything other than watching the magic happen. My greatest joy is to find a move that works perfectly and then find a way to make it look like nothing is happening.

Dai was a fan of my magic but deeply suspicious of the laughs my show created in audiences, to him anything that wasn’t magic was unnecessary and indeed a detraction from a magic show. Dai kept asking me why did I feel the need to make people laugh and in honesty it was a good question. I learned a great deal from the ‘spirit’ of Dai, he was unique and a true living legend, in a world where everyone thinks they are legends. In spite of his disregard for comedy Dai gave me a comedy line once: “When you lick the envelope to seal it say, “I will seal this envelope in this unsanitary manner. There is a long list of people Dai gave ‘moves’ to but I was always pleased with him giving me a line for the show.

Sometimes late at night after the Castle closed I would take Dai for a late-night supermarket run to the all-night Hughes market in Hollywood, I would push the cart and he would throw some groceries into it, then I would drive him home and carry the grocery bags to his door. I always enjoyed these late-night runs, it was fun to spend time alone with the great man and watch him choose between brands of dishwashing liquids. It made the legend into a real-life person.

Well, I never did give up the comedy in my act and I still haven’t quite worked out why I need to get those laughs. However, after seeing one of my shows in the ‘Parlor of Prestidigitation’ Dai said something that I will never forget. He looked me in the eye and said that one of his greatest joys was that he had never needed to perform magic for a living. He then added that if he had to actually earn his living doing magic then he would come to me and buy my linking finger ring routine. He loved the strength of the magic and thought the comedy was perfect for the routine. Then he gave me a big wink and said; “But I wouldn’t ever want to perform magic for a living, it’s more fun perfecting it.”

Here’s to the great perfector, if there is a heaven, I know Dai will be in a corner of it with brandy in a snifter, a cigarette in an ashtray, and a deck of cards in his hand.


 

~ by Nick Lewin on September 10, 2011.

10 Responses to “Dai Vernon. The Master.”

  1. Lovely!

  2. Nick, with nothing but the utmost respect for both you and Dai Vernon, one of the quotes you mentioned from Vernon may have come from an earlier source: David Devant. In his 1910 book “Magic Made Easy”, Devant wrote these very wise words: “The presentation of the trick is everything; the little secret round which the performance has been woven is comparatively unimportant.” That’s very similar to your Vernon quote that the effect is what counts and the method is always purely secondary.

    • Thank you, Robert. Always glad to hear of a Brit getting there first! I’m sure Dai was just referencing Mr. D.

    • How is saying the effect is everything the same as saying presentation is everything? A very different claim even if both agree the method is secondary.

      Sorry, but Vernon wasn’t quoting Devant. It’s a different claim. He was however quite fond of “Our Magic,” albeit likely more for Maskelyne’s portion.

  3. Thanks for this lovely tribute. Well done.

    With respect ..,

    — the hands doing the strike double lift belong to John Scarne, not Vernon.
    — While it is often misattributed to Vernon because he so fond of quoting it, it was Al Baker who originally said, “Don’t run when no one is chasing you.”

    Best,
    Jamy

    • Thank you Jamy, I really appreciate the corrections! Mr Vernon was never afraid to repeat good advice from others!

      • Yes and he did not hide the source. Although he Frequently quoted this and other Baker statements, he would routinely credit them as well, even though the sources are often overlooked now.

  4. Thank you very much for sharing a few of your memories of the time you spent with a truly influential AND inspirational individual—The Professor. I’m sad that I never did get to meet him.

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