Week With Dante

During one of my visits to Blackpool to judge the drama festival at the Grand Theatre, I found that Dante was a fellow guest at the hotel where I was staying.

I find it very difficult to describe Dante. He looks like Shakespeare, has enormous energy, and can be as quiet as a mouse and as forthright as a lion. As I came in from rather a late first-night session, Dante was sitting alone in the downstairs lounge. He called me over, stood me a hefty drink and to'd me he had heard about what I was doing. "As your job should fit you for being a good reader," he said, "would you like to glance over this book?" I did and found it full of press cuttings relating to his show. "Have another drink" he continued "and read some bits aloud". I did, and Dante sat back, smoking a cigar and, with half-closed eyes, he thoroughly enjoyed my recital of his exp'oits. I found that he did not go to bed until about 3 a.m. and that he generally had a steak or something equally heavy (those were pre-ration days) about 2 a.m.

Incidentally he used to book a suite of rooms at each hotel at which he stayed and transport his own furniture, pictures etc; so that he could always feel more or less in the same surroundings. These things, together with his magical apparatus and stage settings, necessitated the reservation of half a train, including two complete luggage vans, full-length.

His wife was delightfu'ly practical—a kindly, homely lady. His lovely assistant Moi-Yo Mil'er was just as attractive off-stage; yet she never put on any of the airs the glamorous ones usually do. I found her completely unaffected and a most adorable person.

Sitting at a table on the second day, Dante asked me if I did any parlour tricks, I felt a bit embarrassed, but got through one or two. Suddenly, he shattered me in a very simple way. At the end of a little series in which I crackled my nose stretched my arm and pulled off my thumb (you all know them!) Dante quietly said "This is my ending to the thumb trick"—and with that, he not only separated the top half of his thumb but put it down on the table and left it there! It was a beautiful'y natural thumb-tip, of course, but the effect was a shocker, so totally unexpected.

I learned a lot of little things like that from him. Never once did he "bring out a tr.ck" so to speak. He just did things with whatever was in actual use at the time—a cigarette, a glass, a handkerchief, a match, a coin. In spite of his elaborate show on the stage, he did not disdain little tricks. But he always made them fit in to what was going on. He never brought anything out of his pocket in a sort of "ever seen this one" manner. As a rule, he borrowed the articles with which he performed—and then only in a very casual way.

One evening he told me that the bookings for his matinee were not too good. It was the off-season in Blackpool. Would I help him? He then rehearsed me in a trick with a love'y full-sized chicken which collapsed telescopically so that it was no wider than my hand. "Don't try to palm it" he said. "Put it under your armpit beneath your evening dress coat".

That night, at the end of my adjudication, I said to the audience, "Many of you think that all I do is to give 'the bird' to these performers; but I get the bird later from the newspaper critics". With that, I displayed a local newspaper on both sides. "Here is the paper" I continued; and then whipping out the chicken from my armpit behind the paper and bringing it out as from the paper itself "and HERE IS THE BIRD". After that, of course, I proceeded to te'l the large audience that if they wanted to see real magic at its best, they ought to go to Dante's matinee since I was only a very humble pupil. The stunt had good publicity and Dante was delighted.

Dante had the most perfect way of dealing with the innumerable people who called at the hotel and cornered him so that they cou'd explain their theories on how he did his big illusions. He would welcome them listen in an immobile way and then quietly reduce all their arguments to ashes by putting some point in the form of a query which they couldn't answer. They may have been right; but they always went away certain that they were wrong.

A great man—Dante. So much more than a mere showman.

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