Dunninger: Airwave Mentalism (CD), by Todd Karr (editor)
Phantom Gramophone, part of The Miracle Factory, have produced a CD of radio programmes featuring Joseph Dunninger (1892-1975), who billed himself as the “Master Mentalist” and “The Master Mind”. In all there are sixteen digitally restored tracks in mp3 format, twelve a selection of Dunninger’s own shows from 1944. plus four others in which he makes a guest appearance. The result is more than seven hours of vintage radio.
Dunninger was a New Yorker, though you would not guess it from his refined tones. He appeared to be able to read the thoughts of his audience, achieving astonishing results with only a pad of paper and pencil as props. He said that he received mental impressions, and when he had identified the relevant person in the audience, he was able to tell them more about what they are thinking.
Typically he would throw out letters of the alphabet, a number or name and ask who was thinking about it, then when a person volunteered that it was his or her thought, he would give them other specific information such as names, addresses, bank note and social security serial numbers. He not only told one woman that a relative was a POW in Germany, but the name of the camp and his prison number (though she had to tell him it was her nephew). He stressed the need to be cooperative, otherwise, he claimed, there were no limitations on the information that he could obtain, talking of “tuning-in” to thoughts, and he claimed about 90% accuracy. It is worth remembering that these recordings were not post-edited to leave out misses and only include hits, so it is easy to see that this estimate is about right.
His performance was astonishing, and unlike many magic practitioners of the past, his secrets have remained secure. This was not a two-person act, like the Piddingtons; he stated that he did not use assistants or confederates, and offered $10,000 to anyone who could prove he had secret help, a sum that was never claimed. Shows were broadcast from different cities, so it is hard to see how he could employ extensive local knowledge. One would still like to have seen the front of his pad as he sat on stage, though. He would say that any 3-year old could do what he did – with 30 years’ practice.
Some of his technique seemed to be cold reading, and there may have been social pressure to agree with what he said when he asked if a person was thinking of something, but that does not explain the quantity and range of information that he produced with which individuals concurred, many of whom clearly were not bothered about pleasing Dunninger by agreeing with him, and who occasionally told him he was wrong. He was able to divine statements written by Hollywood film stars, individuals not likely to be overawed by him, with an impressive degree of accuracy, so this is more than people conforming to social pressure.
He was quick to turn ‘misses’ to his advantage. For example, he told a woman the number of a bank note number in her possession, and when she said that the number he had given - 634 - was wrong, he promptly asked who in the audience was thinking of 634, without asking the first woman what her number was. Dunninger claimed that as the other individual was thinking of the number at the same time, it made it difficult for Dunninger to receive the correct one. He quite often complained that the thoughts of others were interfering with those of a particular subject on whom he was concentrating. He needed to “tune out” interfering strong thoughts from others, and these he said accounted for errors.
The procedure with audience members was fairly standard, however it was done, but he was ingenious in thinking up variations on the theme. He always had a panel of judges, generally a combination of celebrities and local worthies, and they were often involved in his “Brain-Buster“ experiments, as he called them, which showcased his talents. For example, one “Double Brain-Buster” required the judges to leave the room separately, and each to think of a four-digit number. Dunninger gave the studio audience and listeners a large number while the judges were out of earshot. They came back , he correctly told them the numbers they were each thinking of, and when added up, the sum came to the number he had given the audience, and which was written on a blackboard on stage.
There was more, however, as if that were not remarkable enough (the “double” part): on this occasion the well-known country music singer Roy Acuff was a judge, and Dunninger asked him, using the Chicago telephone directory (the largest in the US), to find the page number, column and entry corresponding to the figures of the total number, a procedure reminiscent of the Spiritualist book tests. Dunninger was able to give the name, address and phone number of the subscriber listed at that point. On another show judges formulated a murder mystery in and Dunninger worked out the murderer while the judges thought of the name.
A curious variation was the “Mental lie detector”. The subject was asked to concentrate on a false name, and Dunninger said he would be able to distinguish the conscious, which was trying to deceive him, and the subconscious, which cannot lie, reading the mind rather than the thought. Thus one subject was thinking of the incorrect date of his mother’s birthday, and Dunninger told him which was the date of which he was thinking, and which was the actual date on which she was born (though he seemed to have trouble determining which was which until told, which might reduce the value of his technique as a lie detector).
He would also encourage participation by the listeners at home by giving them a “projection”, for example he would “project” mentally the name of a woman’s military service, or the name of a character from Gone With the Wind, and listeners, given a multiple choice, would write in with what they thought Dunninger’s selection would be. The answer would be given on the next show. For a New York broadcast, 3,000 letters that had been sent in by listeners within a 100 mile radius of New York City were on stage. The judges chose two letters and concentrated on them. Dunninger was able to read the contents from across the stage, including the names of the writers. He could certainly think on his feet: in one show, guests told jokes to which he gave the punch line, with hardly a pause.
He could be topical, such as using the massively popular Gone With the Wind (appropriately the answer to that projection was announced in Atlanta, Georgia). Similarly he did a long-distance “mental miracle” suggested by Dick Powell, based on Rene Clair’s film It Happened Tomorrow. The editor of the New York Daily Mirror thought of a headline for the next day’s paper while studio guest Dorothy Kilgallen was on the telephone to him, but with him only thinking of headline, not telling her what it was. Dunninger wrote it down, and then the editor told Kilgallen the headline. It matched Dunninger‘s text.
In addition to Dunninger’s shows, the CD includes a number in which he himself made guest appearances. The earliest pieces are an interview given when Dunninger was visiting Norfolk, Virginia, and an anecdote broadcast on a show called We the People, both stated to be from 1940. The interview by Gene Abrams on WLOW Radio in Norfolk is sadly incomplete, but features Dunninger describing an interesting test which bears a resemblance to the sorts of ‘muscle reading’ exhibitions put on by Stuart Cumberland (subject of another Miracle Factorydisc), though there is no indication that Dunninger used the muscle reading technique.
In this test, a newspaper was hidden by the mayor and city manager somewhere in Norfolk. Dunninger attempted to read their thoughts and locate the paper. He decided that they had hidden it at police headquarters so they all went there and he was able to tell them what the combination of the safe was, and retrieve the paper from it. Unfortunately he confessed to not being able to locate a missing husband, saying he was not a fortune teller, and stating somewhat irrelevantly that he could read thoughts but not predict the future. That inability would seem to include reading the thoughts of the missing husband.
The We the People item is not an interview but a story which sounds fictitious. It features a couple staying in a shack in the Adirondacks that belonged to the husband’s family but which had been empty since his father‘s death a decade before. In the way of these things, the place had acquired a reputation for being haunted. On cue, dad’s old guitar, hanging on the wall, started making strumming sounds in the night, stopping when the light went on. After a week of baffled nocturnal disturbance, they called in Dunninger who, apparently happy to visit the Adirondacks, quickly discovered what the hapless couple had failed to spot, that there were giant moths in the guitar which struck the steel strings as they flew about in the dark. Dunninger claimed, probably with much exaggeration, that he had investigated “hundreds” of haunted houses, and never found one that did not have a simple natural explanation.
He finished his contribution to the show by saying that he had codes with Houdini, Edison and Howard Thurston, but none had managed to communicate after death. As chairman of the Universal Council for Psychic Research, he said that he offered $10,000 to anyone who could demonstrate physical psychic or spiritualistic abilities that Dunninger was unable to explain or duplicate by natural or scientific means. This offer, he said, he had made for twelve years. He may not have been as close a friend of Houdini’s as he claimed, but he saw himself in the same anti-Spiritualist mould.
The other two appearances date from 1944. There is a short interview with Bill Stern, in The Bill Stern Colgate Sports Newsreel , in which he claims, somewhat improbably, to be a motor racing fan. The final item on the CD is a brief guest spot on The Lucky Strike Program starring Jack Benny. It takes a while before Benny gets to Dunninger, but he is very funny in the meantime. The encounter is based on Dunninger’s act, but is scripted.
As well as providing a liberal helping of Dunninger, the recordings are a window into a vanished age. Kem-Tone paint sponsored some of the shows, and was endlessly (and tediously) plugged, with Dunninger’s sidekick regularly stopping proceedings to supply rambling endorsements. It seems strange nowadays to hear tobacco products so shamelessly advertised, as done on the Jack Benny show, but more positively Dunninger included patriotic messages to help the war effort. In addition to the relentless messages from the sponsors, there were often songs to eke out the running time of the show, and add variety to the Dunninger formula.
Why is Dunninger of interest to psychical research? Assuming with some confidence that this was not real telepathy (ever the showman, he was happy to foster ambiguity about whether he could read thoughts paranormally), there seems to be little point in studying a stage act for insights into possible real telepathic processes. However, Dunninger demonstrates just how impressive a highly skilled but non-paranormal ‘thought reader’ can be. If he is able to achieve results like this, he becomes a benchmark against which other psychic claimants have to be measured, whatever the strengths of their performances. Tests have to be made in rigorously controlled conditions because it is always possible that a less scrupulous version of Dunninger might come along to try to trick researchers. The unwary could be easily, but falsely, persuaded that they had witnessed a demonstration of real psychic powers.
The radio show, which began in September 1943, was cancelled in December 1944 as audiences tired of the format and listening figures fell. Dunninger moved to television in the 1950s and 60s, until Parkinson’s disease curtailed his remarkable career. This is only a selection of his broadcasts, though the most complete available, and seems to have been taken from long playing records (of variable quality). The Miracle Factory have produced an excellent compilation of rare recordings, but it would have benefited from some contextual information (Barry Wiley who helped to compile the Stuart Cumberland CD for The Miracle Factory, has an informative article on Dunninger‘s pre-television career, ‘Psychic Radio: Dunninger the Mentalist‘ in History Magazine, Vol.10, No.6, August-Sept, 2009, p.47). But never mind, you can hear for yourself that Dunninger was a master mentalist. Listening to this fascinating collection, you really will be amazed.
Further details of the CD can be found at www.miraclefactory.net.