Take Two #27: Derek Dingle
Derek Dingle is a name to be conjured with. It is the real name of a real magician, one of the greatest sleight-of-hand artists I’ve ever known.
Derek hailed from England, where he became interested in magic as a young boy, on being gifted with a magic set—a typical origins story in the magic world. Later, during his service in the Royal Air Force, he met another magician, and with their shared interest in attending shows (during a 12-month stay in Hong Kong), and making up trick decks for sale by a local magic dealer, Derek’s passion for magic grew. After his military service he moved to Canada for several years, during the mid-and late-1960s, where he was influenced by sleight-of-hand legends Ross Bertram, and Eddie Fechter, the famed Magic Bartender of the Forks Hotel in Buffalo. He eventually migrated to New York City in 1969, where his reputation would eventually be established in the local, then national, then international world of magic.
And so, during my teens and twenties, as my own passion for magic was growing, I was fortunate enough to see Dingle’s work on a regular basis—at the annual Tannen’s Jubilee convention in the 1970s, at the New York Magic Symposiums in the early ‘80s, at local lectures around town, and especially, just hanging around the magic shop, and the Saturday afternoon gatherings at the Governor’s Cafeteria in Times Square, after Tannen’s closed in the early afternoon.
I was shy and quiet in those days, purely an amateur magician with no notion of ever becoming a pro. I would hang in the background, and try to step up a bit closer and watch determinedly whenever I could catch a glimpse of Dingle performing. I was truly awestruck at his work, no matter how often I saw him. His technical prowess with cards, and also coins, was stellar—literally unmatched, as I have never seen his better. In that particularly creative and competitive era for American sleight-of-hand close-up magic, of the ‘70s and ‘80s, Derek was a superstar. He would get up at a convention and within just a ten or twenty-minute show, knock the audience on their collective asses with a proficiency and inventiveness that could fool even the cognoscenti from start to finish.
While Derek became known as a magician’s magician during that era, he would eventually withdraw for a time to a less visible status, as he eventually elected to change careers in 1975 from engineering to performing, as he and his partner and fellow performer, Shelley Carroll, formed The Magic Agency, booking magicians at private and corporate events in New York City and beyond. During this period, Derek worked a fair amount in the trade show market, and while relatively few magicians recognized his commercial strengths, Derek became one of the finest close-up magic entertainers that I’ve ever known. He was playful and charismatic, and the combination of commercial routines with state-of-the-art technical chops, dusted with the addition of that charming cockney accent, made for an unforgettable presence and impact.
In the 1990s, after years of being a starry-eyed acolyte, Derek and Shelley booked me on a regular basis through their agency, and I had the chance to work many event gigs alongside him. At times my greatest frustration was the ever-present desire to stop performing and just follow him around to watch, and to learn. But sometimes there was an added bonus, as we’d end up at a bar after the show, where I might encourage him to dip into his repertoire and perform more than the mere half a dozen pieces that he mostly made his living on—albeit, they were half a dozen masterpieces.
In my second book, Devious Standards (just reissued by Vanishing Inc.), I include a lengthy memorial piece about Derek, in which I recount some personal anecdotes, and also discuss the impact his book, The Collected Works of Derek Dingle, by Richard Kaufman, had on me, when it was released in 1983, early in my own career change to become a performer. No single book has ever provided me with more material that I have used in my professional repertoire. Dingle’s work and influence is deeply present in my work. Dingle’s rare combination of technical mastery and commercial entertainment was an early inspiration to me, one that I tried to emulate when I became a professional magician, and that inspiration remains ever present in my thinking, and my appreciation for his influence.
Despite his being an influential maestro of mammoth proportion, Derek made most of his living performing close-up magic at close quarters, strolling among the guests during a cocktail hour, or hanging out at a bar, like his favorite haunt, Ryan’s Daughter, near his and Shelley’s home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. (After his untimely death from a stroke, his memorial gathering was held at that bar on February 8th, 2004.) I’ve found three videos that in some ways offer appropriate glimpses of Derek’s work, drawn from two different periods in his life. They are all relatively brief, and while they do not include any of his signature favorites with which he made most of his living, they each reflect his strengths and originality. Because they are short—none are longer than three minutes!—because they were always best experienced at close and sociable quarters, and because above all magic on recorded media pales by comparison with live performance, I will remind you to do your part, and please make an effort to try to bring this legendary performer to life before you. Set the phone aside for the duration, expand the browser, turn up the volume. I’ve spent the better part of a day watching videos to select for your enjoyment, and so this day was another gift from Derek to me. These performances are his, and my, gift to you. I hope you enjoy them.
This brief card trick, based on “Ambitious Classic” by Larry Jennings and Dai Vernon, would not seem to many to hold much potential as a piece of entertainment, rather than as a puzzling bit of magic for magicians. But Derek knew how to work for real people, and his light-hearted theme, along with his stellar handling, turned this into a people-pleaser in his hands. A note to magicians: When he performed this close-up, he would deal the cards into the spectator’s hand, foregoing the need for a table, and the trick’s impact was appropriately improved in the process. It’s quick—so don’t look away!
This is a trick that was typical of what made Derek notorious among magicians, in which he took a classic plot and built on it in his trademark fashion. A version of this routine was an early contributor to his reputation among magicians.
Derek made a significant enhancement to Dai Vernon’s classic plot of the “All Backs,” when he added a spectator’s selection card to the mix. I was fascinated by Vernon’s trick the first time I ever read it in the expanded third edition of Expert Card Technique by Hugard & Braue, and became obsessed with Dingle’s version, which I saw him perform and discussed with him on many occasions, and which eventually saw print in the book. Years of study and practice later, my own version eventually became, and remains, a staple of my repertoire.
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