Close-up magic—small, intimate tricks with cards and coins—has always existed, but no one made a living from it until the 20th century. Magicians made money from performing in theatres, nightclubs, cruise ships, trade shows, circuses, or busking outdoors. As close-up magic became a viable profession it also developed as a legitimate art form unto itself. And one man influenced the development of this art form more than any other person.
His name was Dai Vernon. People on the east coast pronounced his first name “Day” and on the west coast it was pronounced “Die”. When asked which was correct, he would reply, “Either or Eye-ther.” However, magicians around the world knew him simply as “The Professor,” in tribute to his encyclopedic knowledge.
His father taught him his first magic trick when he was seven. (He often joked that he wasted the first six years of his life.) Soon after, he discovered a book called The Expert at the Card Table, a treatise on how gamblers cheat at cards, which also featured a section on card magic. Within a few years, Vernon had the book memorized. In his twenties, Vernon moved from his native Canada to New York, where the great magicians of the era recognized his mastery of card magic. Houdini declared that if he could watch any trick three times he could figure it out. Vernon fooled him seven times with a card trick of his invention. Thereafter, he would often be referred to as “The Man Who Fooled Houdini.”
When not traversing the country to meet magicians or track down gamblers to learn secret cheating techniques, he performed for high society in New York, doing close-up magic at private parties for enormous fees. Despite his success, he was more interested in artistic exploration and learning than he was in performing. Vernon’s guiding principle was, “Be natural,” rejecting the bombastic, contrived, and unnatural styles of other magicians. The comparison we often make is that Vernon was to magic what Stanislavski was to acting.
When The Magic Castle opened in Hollywood in 1963, Vernon moved to Los Angeles and became a fixture of the club. Magicians from around the country moved to LA to be near him, and The Castle became the center of the magic universe. He inspired his students and followers to strive for perfection, while realizing that nothing is ever perfect. He told them, “If you want to be truly great, you have to give up everything else—you have to dedicate your life to your art.” The Castle’s Close-up Gallery was one of the first theatres in the world devoted to close-up magic, and formal close-up developed into a previously unknown art form. Vernon’s performances in this room, shaped this evolution and inevitably his influence spread far beyond the Magic Castle. This resulted in Vernon becoming arguably the most influential close up magician!