Dunniger (1892 – 1975)

Joseph Dunninger, the Master Mentalist, ranks as one of the premier mind readers in American show business history. His remarkable career spanned over a 70-year period from 1899 to 1971. He has been the only performer to have had top ranked shows on all three major US television networks and gained immense accolades in the period between 1929-56 with both his radio and TV specials, where he impressed his audiences with inexplicable feats of apparent psychic nature. His act consisted of no obvious gimmicks, turbans or beard, nothing out of the ordinary; he simply wore a business suit and used his charisma and persuavive nature to engage and amaze audiences. Like many successful mind readers before and after, his publicity was carefully crafted and he used press releases in a very clever way. He would say “I really read thoughts – I read minds through the possession of extra-sensory faculties – what any child of six could do with 60 years of practice” and insisted that thought reading was a serious science with no link to supernatural or spiritualism. During his career he became a household name, performing for celebrities, Presidents, the Pope and royalty; everyone who was anyone wanted to have their minds read by Dunninger.

Joseph Dunninger was born in Brooklyn, New York City on April 28, 1892. He was the youngest son of Nickolas and Carolene Dunninger, and had two elder brothers Louie and Max. His father was a successful Bavarian textile manufacturer and as a child Dunninger would spend time at his father’s shop where, during one visit, he met both Buffalo Bill Cody and Sitting Bull and their tales of the Old West fascinated the young man who would continue to be interested in this area throughout his life. One fun tale from his schooldays was said to be causing some wonderment among his school teachers when, not seeming to be an extra brilliant pupil, he got all his arithmetic problems correct; Dunninger later explained “You see, I just couldn’t get the wrong answer. I didn’t have to work the problems out. The bright children in the classroom just sent me thought waves, and consequently I got everything right.”

 
 

Dunninger’s interest in magic started at the tender age of five years old when he saw some street performers. He taught himself magic beginning by specializing in sleight of hand with cards and reputedly performed his first paid show at the age of seven at a Masonic Club in New York, where he was billed as “Master Joseph Dunninger, Child Magician.” After seeing a performance by the great Harry Kellar, Dunninger knew that his destiny would be as a magical performer. By his mid-teens he had developed an enviable reputation and was invited to perform at the homes of both Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas A. Edison, both of whom were avid admirers of his mysticism. A short time later (around 1913) he appeared for a year at the famous Eden Musee in 55 West 23rd Street in Manhattan, New York. In these early days he was billed as “The Mysterious Dunninger” and his performances included escapology and straight magic and illusions. In the mid 1920’s he was picked up by the Keith-Orpheum’s Vaudeville Circuit and it was during this tour that he was inspired by the two-person mind reading act performed by Mr. & Mrs. John T. Fay. He developed an astounding one-person act which quickly became a hit. He was soon headlining the circuit and was very much in demand for private performances.

Dunninger’s ability to read thoughts grabbed the attention of Harry Houdini and Howard Thurston and being inspired by Houdini and others, he took part in the crusade against fraudulent mediums and wrote a book ‘Inside the Medium’s Cabinet’ (1935), which exposed the tricks of mediumship. He claimed to replicate through trickery all spiritualist phenomena and also exposed how the Indian rope trick could be performed by camera trickery. Like Houdini, Dunninger was unique and also a collector of both historical magic props and books (his library once held over 30,000 books). Unlike Houdini, who stood only 5’5″, Dunninger was six feet tall and weighed almost 200 pounds, and along with his powerful baritone voice he could be an intimidating figure. He made significant wagers of $10,000 to anyone who could prove that he used confederates or stooges claiming that he could raise that offer to $100,000 and still no one would ever collect it because he did not need any assistance; he also made a similar wager through Scientific American magazine and the Universal Council for Psychic Research to any medium who could introduce him a real ghost or with the aid of the spirit world, could disclose the translation to secret coded messages entrusted to him by Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison both of whom wanted to investigate the possibilities of communication with spirits.

 
 

Dunninger’s ability to read thoughts grabbed the attention of Harry Houdini and Howard Thurston and being inspired by Houdini and others, he took part in the crusade against fraudulent mediums and wrote a book ‘Inside the Medium’s Cabinet’ (1935), which exposed the tricks of mediumship. He claimed to replicate through trickery all spiritualist phenomena and also exposed how the Indian rope trick could be performed by camera trickery. Like Houdini, Dunninger was unique and also a collector of both historical magic props and books (his library once held over 30,000 books). Unlike Houdini, who stood only 5’5″, Dunninger was six feet tall and weighed almost 200 pounds, and along with his powerful baritone voice he could be an intimidating figure. He made significant wagers of $10,000 to anyone who could prove that he used confederates or stooges claiming that he could raise that offer to $100,000 and still no one would ever collect it because he did not need any assistance; he also made a similar wager through Scientific American magazine and the Universal Council for Psychic Research to any medium who could introduce him a real ghost or with the aid of the spirit world, could disclose the translation to secret coded messages entrusted to him by Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison both of whom wanted to investigate the possibilities of communication with spirits.

Similar to Dynamo’s reputation growing exponentially with the advent and his clever use of social media (particularly You Tube), Dunninger’s rise coincided with the advent of first radio and then TV. It is said that he was the first paid entertainer to go on the air and his debut was a demonstration of hypnosis by radio; he next played the role of a psychic detective, but neither of these features caught on. It was Daniel S. Tuthill, Vice-president and director of the Popular Division of the National Concert and Artists Corporation, who successfully evolved the Dunninger radio formula of thought-reading. The idea quickly caught the favor of Phillips Carlin, Vice-president of the Blue Network, and on September 12, 1943, Dunninger’s first broadcast as ‘Dunninger-the Master Mind’ was produced. To say it was a huge success would be an understatement. Fan mail flooded broadcasting offices, tickets to the show were the most demanded of all shows and within weeks, Sherwin-Williams Kern-Tone Paints secured a five-year option on the show, which received 1,157 letters in the first week, and double that number in each of the weeks following. The Blue Network soon moved the show to Wednesdays at 9:00 PM to compete against Eddie Cantor and Frank Sinatra. In the 1940s, a poll showed that Dunninger’s voice was more recognizable than that of the President’s.

Dunninger was also there when television started proving itself to be a popular form of entertainment; he tailored his act to fit the format of a television show and got his own TV series as well as countless guest appearances on other shows where he appeared frequently in the 1950s and 60s. The core of each TV show was the weekly Brainbuster, an apparently utterly impossible test of Dunninger’s mysterious powers, which would involve the judges who pledged their integrity regarding the conditions under which the tests would be done; for these Dunninger was assisted by David J. Lustig, who had himself performed as a vaudeville mind reader. No matter how bizarre the test, which included divining objects sealed in cans frozen in blocks of ice or concrete, Dunninger never failed. All the while he was involved in radio and TV he was also getting top dollar for his live two hour performances.

As brilliant as he was at performing, Dunninger proved a genius in marketing himself; he knew how to sell his product. To keep himself in the public eye, he wrote articles for magazines for both laymen and magicians. Soon the Dunninger byline was carried in such popular magazines as Time, Life, Look, Reader’s Digest, Vanity Fair, Science and Invention, True Detective, and Sphinx. He also authored a number of books, including ‘What’s On Your Mind’, ‘Monument To Magic’, ‘Complete Encyclopedia Of Magic’and the previously mentioned ‘Inside The Medium’s Cabinet’; some of them ghost-written by his good friend Walter B. Gibson who also collaborated with Dunninger on his final book, ‘Dunninger’s Secrets’. Dunninger used the wonderful phrase “To those who believe no explanation is necessary. To those who do not believe, no explanation is possible”. His performances or demonstrations were titled ‘Mysteries of the Telepathic Mind’ or ‘A Full Evening of Phenomenal Telepathy’ and interestingly he would always include a little magic, such as the linking rings, in his show even in later years.

In the eyes of the public, Dunninger filled the void left behind by Houdini. Despite other magicians around at the time, including Thurston, Blackstone, Dante or others, in their minds Dunninger was different; his type of magic, like Houdini’s escapes, was something that seemed real to people. Plus he had a platform to promote himself that none of the big illusionists of the day had, he had mass media on his side. He also had a one man show, which was easier to travel with and far more profitable than a touring illusion show. So tight had the grip of Dunninger become on the imagination of the American people that while Life magazine, in its 12 March 1944, issue, devoted five pages to the fierce battle for Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific, it committed eight pages to Dunninger’s radio show. His 1943-44 program ‘Dunninger, the Master Mentalist’ on the WJZ Blue Network had achieved explosive recognition, while at the same time igniting fierce criticism from magicians, academics and journalists alike. Unlike the conjurors, Dunninger claimed to be the real thing – a genuine thought-reader with a stunning 90 percent accuracy> He once exposed most of his methods in a newspaper article ending with the disclosure ‘of course, if I were to use any of those techniques I would not be publishing them in this paper!”. He would also claim “My work is 60 percent mind reading, 10 percent psychology, 10 percent hypnosis, 15 percent self- hypnosis and 5 percent magic. All of which adds up to 100 percent entertainment”. But not everyone agreed, like magician Dr. Jacob Daley. “Why if I had a ten percent edge on other people – not ninety percent as Dunninger claims – I could rule the world. Dunninger can’t read the mind of a gnat, and he knows it.” But it wasn’t the relentless attacks of critics that finally led to the cancellation of “Dunninger, The Master Mentalist”, on 27 December 1944. The audiences had simply become jaded with his unfailing success with the Brainbusters and other miraculous stunts – there was no dramatic tension to grip the listening audience’s imagination. Producers tried other program formats in an effort to revitalize the show with singers and dramatized events, but the ratings continued to drop over the final weeks until the sponsor’s final decision.

His private life was a quiet one and included collecting Oriental art and an assortment of priceless Buddhas. His final series of programs for the TV network ABC were recorded in 1971 but were never broadcast. By that time he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and decided to retire from performing and seldom left his home in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. On March 9, 1975, Joseph Dunninger died at his home. He was 82.

Biography of The Amazing Dunninger: Ed. Browne
The Mind Readers; William V Rauscher
Dunninger Knows: Joseph Atmore