(April 28, 1892 – March 9, 1975)
Joseph Dunninger, known as "The Amazing Dunninger", was one of the most famous and proficient mentalists of all time. He was one of the pioneer performers of magic on radio and television. A debunker of fraudulent mediums, Dunninger claimed to replicate through trickery all spiritualist phenomena.
Joseph Dunninger was born in New York City, the son of a textile manufacturer who had emigrated from Bavaria. He headlined throughout the Keith-Orpheum Circuit, and was much in demand for private entertainment. Dunniger's psychic abilities were apparent in his childhood when he could cheat on math tests by reading the smart kids minds. His parents encouraged his talents and he entertained their friends with his magic tricks. At the age of seven, he was already performing his mind reading abilities as "Master Joseph Dunninger, Child Magician" and was a regular on the vaudeville circuit even performing for Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Pope Pius XII. Even Harry Houdini was impressed by the young Dunninger's abilities.
Joseph Dunninger died of Parkinson's disease in Cliffside Park, New Jersey the same day he was awarded a Masters Fellowship from the Academy of Magical Arts. He lived long enough to get a phone call from Walter Gibson describing the applause. Surviving are his widow, Billie; two daughters, Josephine Gimselson and Maxine Hohneker, and four grandchildren.
Dunninger was a debunker of fraudulent mediums. He claimed to replicate through trickery all spiritualist phenomena. He wrote the book Inside the Medium's Cabinet (1935) which exposed the tricks of mediumship. He also exposed how the indian rope trick could be performed by camera trickery. In 1935, Dunninger attended a séance of the fraudulent medium Emerson Gilbert. His testimony was used in court against the medium. Dunninger had a standing offer of $10,000 to anyone who could prove that he used confederates or "stooges." Through Scientific American magazine and his own organization the Universal Council for Psychic Research he also made an offer to any medium who could produce by psychic or supernatural means any physical phenomena that he could not duplicate or explain by natural means. No medium ever won the reward. According to Dunninger "through all these long years, I have sought good honest ghosts, phantoms, spirits, astral beings, banshees, fays, wee folk, apparitions, fetches—the whole pack and passel of the unsubstantial world—and I have always been able to prove them frauds." He was a good friend to many notables in the magic community including Harry Houdini, Francis Martinka and Tony Slydini. He maintained a lifelong friendship with author of The Shadow, Walter B. Gibson, who guest wrote or cowrote a number of books for Dunninger on magic, psychic phenomena and spiritualism. In the 1937, Max Holden considered "Dunninger the foremost magician and showman of the present day". Dunninger appeared on radio starting in 1943. In 1948, Dunninger and Paul Winchell were featured on Floor Show on NBC TV. Recorded via kinescope and replayed on WNBQ-TV in Chicago, Illinois, the 8:30-9 p.m. Central Time show on Thursdays was the station's first mid-week program. He was featured on television frequently in the 1950s and 60s. During the 1950s and 1960s his name was used as the basis for two recurring comedic characters, "The Amazing Dillinger" played by Johnny Carson on The Johnny Carson Show in 1955; and "Gunninger the Mentalist" on a television show hosted by the comedian Soupy Sales. On the I Love Lucy episode "Ricky's European Booking" (Season 5, episode 10) after Fred Mertz accurately predicts Lucy's excited reaction to Ricky's new booking, he gets a big laugh when he brags to Ricky "Just call me Dunninger."
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."
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.
Attacks on the radio 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. 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 self-published many of his works, and others were published by inventor Hugo Gernsback. He also wrote articles in Science and Invention, Mechanix Illustrated, Popular Mechanics, Fate, Atlantic Monthly, and other magazines. Many of these articles were ghostwritten by Walter B. Gibson.