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Gloria Dea, the Strip’s first magician, dies at 100

Updated March 19, 2023 - 9:41 am

Gloria Dea, the first magician to perform on what would be the Strip, only to be rediscovered in the twilight of her life, has died. She was 100.

Dea died of coronary artery disease at 6:35 a.m. Saturday her caregiver, Beth Bowes, said Saturday morning. Dea died in hospice care at her Las Vegas residence. Plans for a memorial are to be determined.

Magician legend David Copperfield, who befriended Dea in her later years, said Saturday, “Gloria was amazing. She was charming funny and engaging. And in Vegas, as a young magician, she started it all. It was an honor to know her.”

Dea was an only child and had no immediate family.

Bowes had cared for her for years and spent more time with Dea than anyone late in her life.

“Gloria was an amazing woman who accomplished an amazing amount of stuff,” Bowes said Saturday. “She deserved all the accolades she got. Her personality was the catalyst to achieve it.”

Dea was a budding, 19-year-old entertainer when she performed at El Rancho Vegas on May 14, 1941. Her show that night at the Roundup Room is the first recorded appearance by a magician ever in Las Vegas.

Dea turned 100 on Aug. 24, and was honored with a birthday party Aug. 25 at Westgate Las Vegas, her last public appearance. Dea was to be inducted into the UNLV College of Fine Arts Hall of Fame on Tuesday night.

Those plans will go forward, as Dea will be inducted by Copperfield in a presentation at 5:30 p.m. before the full program begins.

UNLV College of Fine Arts Dean Nancy Uscher moved to honor Dea shortly after learning her remarkable story.

“I am very sad to learn of the passing of Gloria Dea,” Uscher said in a statement Saturday. “She was a true pioneer in her discipline and has inspired many great illusionists working in the field today, who will honor her memory with great admiration and respect.

In a conversation in August, Dea remembered performing two shows the night of May 14, 1941, at the first hotel-casino on what would later be known as the Las Vegas Strip.

“There was no Strip, really, in those days. We had the Last Frontier, and the El Rancho Vegas, ” Dea recalled. “They had just started building the Flamingo.”

Dea performed magic, and more, that night.

“I also danced, I did the rumba, because it was difficult to keep setting up all my magic stuff,” Dea said. “That was a lot of work. I got lazy (laugh).”

In magic, she specialized in a billiard-balls routine and also a floating-card trick, routines taught to her by her father. A Review-Journal story about her El Rancho debut reported, “Miss Dea completely mystified the audience with her legerdemain. Her concluding trick, when a card jumps from a handkerchief to a quartered orange, was the hit of the show.”

The crowd showered the young performer with applause.

“It felt good,” Dea said. “Anytime someone likes something that you do, you feel good don’t you? Oh, yeah. I was received wonderfully. It was a great room. You had the audience seated, then floor-to-ceiling glass in the back, and on the other side of that was the swimming pool.”

“Then you were onstage, facing that. It was fancy. It was a fun place.”

Between her magic acts, Dea danced to such tunes of the times as, “You Couldn’t Be Cuter,” played by the hotel’s house band. “They had all these cottages, these bungalows, around the property,” Dea said. “I stayed in one of those. That’s where the entertainers stayed.”

Dea’s time onstage ended in the late-40s and into the 1950s, when she moved to Southern California and turned to movies. She appeared in such feature films as the 1945 “Mexicana,” the story of a “Mexican Frank Sinatra” (she played a dancer); 1952s “King of The Congo,” the co-lead of Princess Pha opposite Buster Crabbe; Ed Wood’s 1957 gem “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (where she played a “mourner”).

“I was in the Saturday matinees, for the kids,” she said. “ ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’ was the worst movie of all time. Ed Wood, the director, was the worst. I had fun making it, though.”

Dea halted her entertainment career after those movies. She sold insurance for a time, then new and used cars for a Chevrolet dealership in the San Fernando Valley, as the rare female who became a top sales rep.

Dea moved to Las Vegas in 1980. She lived quietly in a house in the old Las Vegas Royal Crest Rancheros, which abuts in historic Paradise Palms neighborhood, with her now-late husband, Sam Anzalone. Sam died in January 2022.

It was Copperfield who helped bring Dea’s story to light. Having settled into retirement, Dea had been living in anonymity Las Vegas for decades, but she was re-discovered in July 2021. AnnaRose Einarsen, the magician/hypnotist at the since-closed “Late Night Magic” at Alexis Park was shopping downtown at Neon Cactus Village.

Einarsen found a teal-and-pink skirt, likely dating to the 1940s. She was told it was part of a collection from a Hollywood actress, who was also a magician. This woman was known to be 98 years old at the time, living in Vegas.

Einsaren was stunned, and ran Dea’s name around the Vegas magic community, to the stage performers Bizzaro and Ruby Colby, and magic historian Lance Rich, who turned to Copperfield, himself a magic historian.

Lance raked through decades-old publications to assemble her story, and introduced Dea — watching online — at the Las Vegas Magic Collectors Expo in August 2021.

Collectively, the group researched and befriended Dea. She would visit Copperfield’s show at MGM Grand in October 2021, drawing a standing ovation as Copperfield introduced her from the stage.

In a birthday party at Westgate on Aug. 25, Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom presented the Key to the Las Vegas Strip and named that date as Gloria Dea Day.

The party was held at Westgate because it was Dea’s favorite Vegas casino. The staff there knew her only as a friendly, funny lady who played the slots. The Westgate team had no idea of her performance past until she was rediscovered at 98.

Bowes is now arranging some of the rare personal belongings Dea left behind to be sold to anyone with a sense of Vegas entertainment history.

On the event of her 100th birthday, Dea talked of how much she loved being with her fellow magicians in Las Vegas, the mecca of the magic universe.

“Vegas makes me happy,” she said that day. “I don’t care to live anywhere else.”

Contact John Katsilometes at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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