(1894 - 1992)
Born: David Frederick Wingfield Verner
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Compiled and written by Steve Dacri
Dai Vernon , considered by most magicians as the greatest sleight of hand man who ever lived, was affectionately known as The Professor. He was a remarkable performer, inventor and teacher. He was, I am very proud to say, my teacher, advisor, and above all, my friend.
He was also known as the The Only Man That Fooled Harry Houdini.
Born David Frederick Wingfield Verner in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada on June 11, 1894. As a child, he met and was influenced by magic legends Nate Leipzig and Max Malini, both of whom were his idols.
He was a student at Asbury College and The Royal Military College of Canada, where he was extremely active in sports, even making the grade as the captain of the hockey team. It was during this time that he began performing magic shows, developing his own unique style, which was obviously influenced by Malini and Leipzig. He decided to launch his magic career, and he moved to New York City.
He got the nickname of "Dai" when a typo in a newspaper gave him Dai instead of David. His last name "Vernon" came from the dancer, Vernon Castle, who with his wife was a dancer in the 1920's. While in New York, his name Vernon was carried over since most New Yorkers could not pronounce it correctly. Vernon is, without doubt, the most influential conjuror of the 20th century. Some say he was the greatest sleight of hand artist who ever lived. Those fortunate enough to know him intimately, as I did, would readily agree.
When he first arrived in New York, many of the magicians there dismissed him as "just a kid doing card tricks".
Work was never crucial for Vernon, though. Being broke didn't bother him; he believed it would come to him in due course. "If you chase fame or dollars, either will avoid you. People ask me how I get publicity. I tell them I try to avoid it. It's not going to do me any good.. I can't use it because I'm not in the business. I've never even gone into an agent's office." Indeed, Vernon lived that statement. Vernon, who is considered one of the most polished and skillful card experts in the world, supported himself much of the time by cutting silhouettes in Atlantic City, Miami, Chicago, and Denver. He was a remarkably-talented cutter.
It was in Atlantic City that Vernon met Frances Rockefeller King, an agent who booked acts for private parties. Vernon would go to these parties to perform magic or sometimes cutting silhouettes. Once she called him in Atlantic City with a job offer, but he declined it, preferring to cut silhouettes, go swimming, and have some fun along the Boardwalk.. Later, he found out she wanted him to entertain the Prince of Wales on Long Island. "I've always regretted that", he says. "Life is a funny thing."
It was on one of his trips to Chicago that an incident occurred that would become legendary in the life of Dai Vernon and another legend, Harry Houdini. Houdini has boasted that he could not be fooled by anyone if he saw a trick performed three times in a row. In Chicago, in 1919, Dai took Harry up on the challenge. Dai did what is now known as The Ambitious Card eight times, and Harry had no idea how it was done. Dai, not one to pass up this kind of opportunity, used the tagline "The Man Who Fooled Houdini" in his advertisements during the 1920s and 1930s. Bess, Harry wife, told people that after Dai showed the trick to Harry, Harry was very upset, talking about it all night long, trying to figure it out. He couldn't.
Over the years, Vernon would see Houdini whenever he was in Chicago or New York, and they often had heated "discussions". Dai sometimes insulted Houdini by telling him he didn't think he was a great magician, just a great promoter. Houdini hated to hear this, and many times a shouting match would ensue.
Vernon improved known tricks and created new ones. He had friendship with magicians like T. Nelson Downs, Allan Shaw, Max Malini, Nate Leipzig, Charlie Miller, and Houdini to name a few.
His clinical mind was responsible for many modern classic routines adopted by numerous magicians today. He set new standards, and elevated the art of conjuring more than almost any predecessor. He is probably the greatest contributor to the art of close-up magic who ever walked the earth. However, he was a modest person blessed with indescribable charm. He was a true gentleman and everyone loved him.
It was very rare to hear Vernon say anything unkind about anybody, aside from his personal "disagreements" woth Houdini.. Even if the person deserved it, he would always find something positive to say about them. He had the rare ability to fill anyone in his company with renewed enthusiasm for magic. There was only one conjuror that he spoke of negatively, and that was Harry Houdini.
He had no tolerance for poorly-performed magic. In his later years, he openly criticized bad magicians, often telling them that they should give up magic for the sake of the world.
Magic was the most important thing in Vernon's life. "If you want to be an artist," he says, "you must devote your life to it. Chess, music, anything. After you get just so high, you realize that if you want to be truly great, you have to give up everything else -- you have to dedicate your life to your art." It's Vernon's artistry of his magic that makes the experts rave. Vernon was known to take a fair trick and produce from it a masterpiece. Whatever trick he did became his own.
He was against all forms of flourishes and show-offy moves. He preferred naturalness and simplicity. He liked to say that you needed to strip away all of the unnecessary moves, so that you were left with just the magic.
"Some people copy," Vernon says. "They see someone do a trick and they copy. I do my own version. It's no good to copy because when a person creates a thing, no matter how bad it is, it's still his own creation. He will interpret it better than any copier ever could, because someone who copies doesn't know the reasoning, he doesn't know what's behind the effect. He doesn't know what the feeling should be so he doesn't put any feeling into it. That' what there should be in every work of art -- feeling."
(At left: Vernon came to support me when I re-created Houdini's most famous escape, the Chinese Water Torture Escape, on Hollywood Boulevard, one block away from the Magic Castle, on Houdini's star in 1985. When I got out of the tank, he came over to me and said, "Houdini would have been proud.")
In the mid-1960s, Vernon left the East Coast for California to visit Jay Ose who had been working at the Magic Castle in Hollywood at the urging of the founders, Bill Larsen and Milt Larsen. Vernon liked it there so much he never left. He moved into an apartment building within walking distance, and spent every single evening at the Castle.
Many sharp young performers followed him. He accepted few pupils, but magicians wanted to be near him to talk and see him work. His kindness and sincerity drew people as naturally as his artistry demands their respect. Dai's friend, Garrick Spencer, gave Dai the title of "The Professor". Dai didn't really care for this title, but Garrick kept calling him that and it stuck.
Dai's willingness to share his expertise with others is probably what prompted the title. Dai's student, while few, are prestigious in their own right, speaking much of Vernon's talents as both performer and instructor: Ricky Jay, Bruce Cervon, Steve Dacri, David Roth, Michael Ammar, Michael Skinner, and Larry Jennings all studied with The Professor.
Vernon lived according to habit, rising late each day and staying up long into the night. He also practiced the piano. "For a while, " he says, "I thought I would do an act with a piano. It's very hard to finish a magic act. A dance routine can go into a lot of high kicks and flip-flops, but for a magician it's hard to work out a finish. I thought to myself, 'What a great finish. First I'll do magic and then I'll play the piano.' I still think it is a good idea -- a good way to finish a magic act."
In the late 70's, I suggested to Vernon that he should undertake a lecture tour. He didn't believe anyone would want to see him at his advanced age. Joe Cossari, known professionally as "The King of Cards", helped me convince Dai that people would definitely want to see him perform.
(At left: The Professor performs his famous cups and balls routine at the Magic Castle)
One night, when I arrived at the Castle, Joe pulled me aside and said, "Come up to the library, Vernon wants to see you." He was very excited. I wondered what was up. I climbed up the stairas to the very top of the Castle, where the library originally was located. Dai sat me down and said, "Okay, I'm going to take your advice and do one last tour. And,, becasue this was all your idea, you can have the first two lectures." I was ecstatic. I knew this would be a momentus event.
I arranged the first two lectures - the first one in my hometown, Worcester, Massachusetts. The second one was in Boston. They both sold out completely, as did every single lecture stop on the tour.
The lectures were legendary. Dai would go on for over three hours, performing, explaining and patiently answering questions. He was in fine form, flawlessly demonstrating the cups, the rings, and endless card and coin effects. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience for all those who were lucky enough to attend.
He left this earth at the age of 98, in San Diego, California in 1992.