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Joseph Dunninger

I read minds through the possession of extra-sensory faculties, if you will - an extra sense, cultivated, sharpened, concentrated until the accidental manifestations familiar to everyone have, in me, matured to an unfailing technique of repetition. - Jospeh Dunninger

So tight had the grip of mentalist, Joseph 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, Joe Dunninger claimed to be the real thing - a genuine thought reader with a stunning 90 percent accuracy! "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," Dunninger claimed. 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."

By any measure, Joseph Dunninger unquestionably ranks as one of the premier performers of mystery in American show business history. His remarkable career over a turbulent 60-year period included dime museums, vaudeville, nightclubs, private society parties, radio and television. He has been the only performer to have top ranked shows on all three major television networks. Dunninger knew how to sell his product and he never let up, though the stage persona of a genuine mind reader, or "thought reader" as Dunninger preferred, wasn't easy.

Dunninger's long-time agent, Francis Rockefeller King, had molded the original Dunninger persona in 1920. Over the years, Joe Dunninger had experimented with several radio formats including a "Ghost Hours" show in 1929, in which the mentalist would expose the methods of fraudulent mediums, and a one-shot appearance on "The March of Time" in 1937. There was also a plan to cast Dunninger as a psychic detective in a crime drama. All these attempts to capture the public interest failed.

Finally, in 1943 and with a new manager, Daniel Tuthill of National Concert and Artists Corporation, Dunninger experienced the radio success he had been seeking. Tuthill took Dunninger's original vaudeville act, added celebrity judges, and a concluding thought projection, and on Friday, 5 March 1943, at 6:11 PM, Tuthill staged a one-shot 19 minute demonstration of "Joseph Dunninger, Mentalist", on station KYW, Philadelphia.

Several critics were most impressed when Dunninger, via telephone, apparently read the mind of an editor working in his office at The Philadelphia Record. The mentalist announced that the headline the editor was planning to write was "120 Warships Built in a Month". Incredibly, Dunninger was correct.

While Dunninger's studio thought readings were done "faultlessly" before the judges, listening critics felt, however, that the studio demonstrations lacked the dramatic impact of the "telephone telepathy". (Coincidentally, the word "telepathy" had been coined by British psychical researcher F. W. H. Myers in 1892, the year of Dunninger's birth.)

With the positive critical response in Philadelphia, Tuthill prepared a detailed proposal, pitching a Dunninger show to potential sponsors to be called "What's on Your Mind?", a 30 minute program" ... designed to intrigue its listeners and enlist their buying power ... in short, a timely answer to your merchandising problems". He further characterized the show as "...unusual as Charlie McCarthy, packed with thrills, chills and laughs". Tuthill compared Dunninger to the unexpected success of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen who, remarkably, had convinced his radio audience that his wooden dummy, Charlie, was a live personality and, in the process, became one of the most popular shows on the air. Tuthill concluded his proposal with: "No Mind is Closed To Dunninger 'The Master of Telepathy". "Dunninger, the Master Mentalist" premiered before 500 people in Studio 6B on WJZ, New York, on the Blue Network on Sunday, 12 September 1943.

The initial show was a resounding success and was called "The Biggest Thing since Orson Welles' War of the Worlds". Within weeks, Sherwin-Williams Kern- Tone Paints picked up the show with a five-year option. The shows received 1,157 letters 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.

Walking through the audience about twenty minutes before air time, Dunninger used magic tricks in his audience warm-up - the linking rings, a glass of water produced from an empty bag and card tricks. During the warm-ups, uniformed ushers handed out slips and pencils to the audience. Dunninger asked the people to "write your thoughts, nothing will be collected".

At five minutes to air time, Dunninger would retreat to the stage, strap a microphone around his chest to allow freedom for both hands, and sit in a chair surrounded by a three-sided screen, which provided him with privacy from prying eyes backstage without concealing him from the audience.

The celebrity judges were seated at a table on the other side of the stage about 20 feet away. An organist was at the edge of the stage. Finishing the stage furnishings was a large yellow satin KemTone Paints sign hung at the back of the stage. Each show was scripted to ensure the right timing, including the "spontaneous" comments of the judges, but not Dunninger's thought-reading sequences, which were allocated at precise intervals at different places in the show.

The core of each 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. No matter how bizarre the test, Dunninger never failed.

In one Brainbuster, objects were secretly selected and sealed by the judges in a can, which was then frozen into a block of ice and placed on a table at center stage. Once Dunninger had correctly divined the objects, as confirmed by the judges, the ice block was broken apart before the studio audience and the contents of the can revealed.

When the stunt was repeated several months later, with boxer Jack Dempsey as the principal guest judge, the can was sealed into a block of concrete. Dunninger again correctly discovered the contents in the minds of Dempsey and the other judges, but the block could not be broken open. To the growing laughter of the audience, the pounding and smashing of sledge hammers on the concrete continued in the background for the last five to six minutes of the show and continued until signoff.

Each week for publicity applications, Dunninger had two photos taken of himself with the judges and whatever materials related to that week's Brainbuster. As the show gained in popularity, the judges themselves came to utilize the photographs in their own publicity. Planning the Brainbusters incorporated Dunninger's suggestions along with the insights of David J. Lustig, who had performed a vaudeville mind reading act himself. He was a prolific script writer, though he did not write any of the Dunninger radio scripts. It was Lustig who handled the scheduling and direction of the judges up until air time. Dunninger frequently would not meet the judges until shortly before the show itself.

Popular cartoonist Al Capp went into an isolated guarded room and drew one of his famous cartoon characters while, simultaneously, Dunninger duplicated Capp's drawing before the studio audience; actress Molly Goldberg selected a single phone number from the phone books of several major cities, which Dunninger then proved he had anticipated by pulling Goldberg's selected number from a sealed envelope that had been deposited in a bank safe deposit box the week before; actor Cornell Wilde shuffled a deck of cards that were then wrapped in a newspaper and nailed to a wood block. Dunninger, without touching the cards, correctly named the order of the first 15 as Wilde tore them from the nail to confirm their identities.

Over the months, Dunninger's list of judges eventually included virtually every major performing star or industrial leader of the day. Even with the judges' integrity sworn to, Dunninger offered $10,000 to anyone who could prove he used paid confederates at any time. No one ever tried to claim the award.

Attacks on the show by magicians and newspaper critics started almost immediately, to which Dunninger had a compelling answer: "For 25 years, there has been but one man doing the Dunninger act. If they [the magicians] know so much about it, why will they take $15 a night when I get $1,500? The Dunninger act is the only thing in magic that has never been copied - if it is magic." Dunninger, 1943.

Dunninger relished the developing public conflict as it produced a sustained flood of newspaper clippings and other publicity. In 1944, Clippings, Inc., the largest radio press-clippings bureau, reported, " ...during the past 12 months we have collected from publications throughout the United States more than 16,000 clippings related to Dunninger . . . an extraordinary amount of printed recognition for a single artist. It represents the peak."

The relentless public attacks continued. A number of proposed exposures of the Dunninger act were based primarily on his apparent requirement for individuals to "write your thoughts". Finally, Dunninger, at each point in a show originating from Chicago, would thunder from the stage, "Did you write anything at all at any time?" The answer was always an emphatic, no!

Dunninger's performing persona and his iron nerve were so strong that the occasional troublesome studio member was silenced with an incisive remark or with just a sharp glance. Few performers, even the legendary Harry Houdini, a close friend, could match the performing nerve of Joe Dunninger.

Unlike Houdini, who stood only 5'5", Joe Dunninger was six feet tall and weighed almost 200 pounds, and had a powerful baritone voice. The mentalist could be an intimidating figure - but was always an amazing showman. "You know who's good? Dunninger, the telepathic marvel, who takes words right out of your cranium, before you can mouth them. He's probably dictating this plug right now by telepathy." Walter Winchell, 31 October 1943

With the show drawing high Hooper ratings, Dunninger asked Walter B. Gibson, the creator of The Shadow, to ghost-write a book on telepathy for him. The result, which Gibson completed in three days, was called What's on Your Mind?. The book sold 92,000 copies in two editions within less than five months. The failure of readers to succeed in the telepathic tests described in the book only enhanced their admiration for Dunninger's repeated successes on apparently even harder tests on the radio.

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 Dunninger's 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.

Dunninger (For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible. - Joseph Dunninger, 1944) went on to make various guest appearances on other radio shows, including Jack Benny. He was the summer replacement for Amos 'n' Andy in 1945, and had another summer radio series in 1946. And then, in 1948 the mentalist moved on to television.

Barry H. Wiley. Psychic Radio: Dunninger the Mentalist. History Magazine-. August/September 2009.


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