Art Spotlight

There's a stateliness about him that evokes another era. Maybe it's because he was born an era or two ago, or maybe it's because Dean Bunn is simply a gentleman who entertains gently, performing magic, juggling and comedy the way the great ones did it "back in the day."

Bunn can drop some big names on you: Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Red Skelton, for instance, but this soft-spoken conjurer and quipster can just as easily entertain you in the present as with stories from his past.

Be it a child's birthday party or a holiday celebration at a nursing home, the 76-year-old magician-for-hire will juggle a couple of balls and a tennis racket (wrapped in silver tape to look more showbiz-style) or deftly work some sleight of hand followed by his signature line: "It can't be done, but I do it anyway."

Interspersed throughout the magic and juggling is his genteel humor, which he probably describes better than anyone.

"I have a bottle of Windex, about half-full, and I drink it. And I say, 'Probably you wonder why I drink Windex. Well, I'll tell you, it makes my eyes sparkle.' Very corny. Very broad, bombastic type of silly prattle humor, but I like that type of thing," he said with a smile as he sat in the dining room of the Victorian house he shares with his wife, Roberta, daughter and son-in-law in Uptown.

Seeing the possibilities

Born in 1928, the Minnesota native became interested in magic as a child. "My dad did a few [magic] things with cards and coins and things with rope. Then a fellow came with the Art B. Thomas Carnivals to our hometown of Watson. And he was the Great Roy and Helene; that was his wife. And they did things that you see in a concert rather than in a carnival. They carried the carnival magic one step further than most of the performers. He was amazing. I enjoyed his work so much that I thought, 'If he can do it, I'm sure other people can do it. If he and other people are doing it, well, I can do it, too.' "

By the time he was 16, Bunn had decided to become a professional magician. He took a train to Michigan to attend a gathering of magicians, jugglers and other show-biz performers.

At the conference, he saw Edgar Bergen do his ventriloquism and comedy act with his famous puppet pals, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd.

It dawned on the young man that he, too, might benefit from being more than a one-dimensional magic man.

"If I can do two acts, I can work when somebody else wouldn't be working," Bunn remembered thinking at the time.

But World War II was coming to an end and the age of television was about to dawn -- teenaged Bunn needed to think realistically about what the future held for him.

A place for fun

"Vaudeville was dying," he said. "About the only thing left was corporation shows and banquets and trade shows. And unless you were so good and had so many connections, you weren't going to get too much work. And it's a silly thing, but people hate to starve to death. So I thought I'd better find something during the day and use my entertainment field as just a place where I could have fun."

He started working for Minnesota Rubber and Gasket in St. Louis Park, and then he wound up in the Army and served in the Korean War. The experience wasn't entirely bad, however. He got the opportunity to work with Hope and Benny on some USO shows in South Korea.

Bunn recalls Benny fondly.

"Do you remember his thing about how he was so niggardly and stingy? It was just exactly the opposite in real life. Jack Benny donated to so many different organizations."

Though it seems big stars would have even bigger egos, Bunn said he found the opposite to be true.

"They put their clothes on just like anybody else," he said. "The bigger they were in the business and the higher up the ladder they were, the easier they were to talk to because they had already made it. … It's the people that are about halfway up the ladder -- they don't know if they should talk to you or shouldn't. Maybe they can't do something for you or they can do something or you're going to try to steal something from them. It's a vicious, cutthroat business, like anything else."

Red, never blue

Bunn also recalls crossing paths with sentimental clown, Red Skelton, who was one of the biggest stars on fledgling CBS when they met.

"I worked with Red in the Beacon Theater [in New York City], 1954, and we were playing split-week vaudeville. Red was in there Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and I was in there Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

"It was something I'll always remember. He said, 'When you go out tomorrow, you go out and break a leg'; which is a show business term, a circus term, actually, which means go out there and do a really good job. Whenever I felt down and out, I would think of Red and what he said. He was an amazing guy. You just felt good talking to the guy."

It's the kind of thing Bunn hopes people say about him after they've seen him perform, which he admits he doesn't do as often as he'd like to these days.

"I like to have as much fun [performing] as I hope the audience is having watching me."

One of the things he knows people won't say is that his show offended anyone with bawdy material.

"I don't do blue humor," Bunn said with firm precision. "If somebody wants a performer to tell a lot of vulgar jokes, they are not going to find it from me. I don't think I need it; in fact, I know I don't need it. I'd rather have the audience laughing with me than at me. There's a big difference."

Keeping and sharing secrets

He's also not the type to conjure and tell. The sacred code among magicians is that they never, ever reveal the secrets of their illusions.

"To me, somebody that will expose magic is like somebody who will go down to a used car lot and knock all of the lights and windshields out of the cars."

Then again, he says that there are some magicians who expose their secrets simply by not being proficient enough to keep the tricks of the trade hidden.

Bunn said the way he stays sharp after 60 years in the business is by practicing an hour or two a day. That way, when he steps in front of an audience, he's as mysterious as ever and the audience is baffled, as usual.

If you see Bunn, be sure to look for that Windex sparkle in his eyes. It was shining there when he said, "I like to perform for everybody from 6-year-old youngsters all the way up to senior citizens in high-rises, and everything in between."

Dean Bunn can be contacted about performances at 822-0553.