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Las Vegas Strip’s first magician turning 100

Updated August 24, 2022 - 7:17 pm

David Copperfield is performing a show after the show backstage at his eponymous theater at MGM Grand. It’s a meet and greet for a small group of VIPs and invited guests. Many are tourists and conventioneers, wowed after seeing Copperfield perform for the first time.

A few magicians, past and present, have also filed into the theater’s exclusive hideaway.

One guest is a regal lady with flowing gray hair. She’s in Vegas glam, wearing a gold-sequined dress. She is in a wheelchair, scooted along by a caregiver, moving gradually toward Copperfield. The group splits to create a passage, a scene that plays out like a scaled-down version of Moses parting the Red Sea.

Copperfield presents a deck of cards and starts a classic trick. He spreads the deck and instructs, “Pick a card.”

“David, before you go on,” the woman says, “I love the way you fan your cards.”

Copperfield pauses. The magic legend has just performed a Disney-esque spectacle featuring the alien character BLU32, an actual flying saucer and a giant skeletal dinosaur. He smiles and says, “The answer here is, ‘Thank you.’ ”

That woman is herself a magician, from an era steeped deep in Las Vegas history. She is Gloria Dea, who performed at El Rancho Vegas on May 14, 1941. Her show that night at the hotel’s Roundup Room is the first appearance by a magician ever in Las Vegas.

Thursday is Dea’s day. She turns 100 years old, celebrating with several magicians, including Copperfield, at her favorite Vegas resort, the Westgate.

A magical time

Dea is still sprightly, quick to recall those days as a 19-year-year-old entertainer at El Rancho. She remembers performing two shows that night at the first hotel-casino on what would become the Strip.

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

Dea was more than just the first magician to ever perform in Vegas.

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

In magic, she specialized in a billiard-balls routine and also a floating-card trick, routines taught to her by her father. From a Review-Journal account of her El Rancho debut, “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 showed the young magician with applause.

“It felt good,” Dea says. “Anytime someone likes something that you do, you feel good don’t you? Oh, yeah.”

Even today, she remembers looking out at that Las Vegas audience.

“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,” Dea says. “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 Could’t Be Cuter,” played by the hotel’s house band.

“They had all these cottages, these bungalows, around the property,” Dea says. “I stayed in one of those. That’s where the entertainers stayed.”

Bay Area roots

Dea is originally from Oakland, the daughter of magician Leo Metzner, aka “The Great Leo.” She started at age 4. At 7, the Oakland Tribune was writing about her local “exhibitions.” By 11, she was dubbed a rising star for her “mysterious exploits in magic.” By her late-teens, she was a highlighted performer in a variety show on the Strip.

But Dea’s time onstage didn’t last long after Vegas. In the late-40s and into the 1950s, she moved to Southern California and turned to movies. She was featured 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 says. “ ‘Planet 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 fell off the entertainment radar in the decades after those films. She sold insurance for a time, then new and used cars for a Chevrolet dealership in the San Fernando Valley (breaking ground, then, too as the rare female who became a top sales rep). She moved to Las Vegas in 1980, living quietly in a house in the historic Paradise Palms neighborhood with her now-late husband, Sam Anzalone, also an auto-sales exec she met at the Chevy dealership. Sam died this past January.

The couple was married for 46 years, their home remarkable for its Caesars-styled fountain out front.

The search for a legend

Dea has for decades lived in Vegas in anonymity, but for a fluke transaction by a fellow magician. In July 2021, AnnaRose Einarsen, the magician/hypnotist in “Late Night Magic” at Alexis Park was shopping downtown at Neon Cactus Village.

An antique and vintage-clothing buff, Einarsen spotted 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, and still living in Vegas.

“I said, ‘Hold up. What? I’m buying this now,’” Einarsen says. “I was like, ‘Who is this lady?’ This is interesting to the average person. To a magician, this is insane.”

The shop’s collection included many items from Dea’s personal belongings being sold on consignment. Photos, magic and hypnosis books dating to the 1800s. Einarsen contacted her friend and Vegas illusionist Bizzaro , also in “Late Night Magic,” and ran Gloria Dea’s name around the magic community. No one knew of her.

But Einarsen did find a cousin of Dea’s online (she is an only child) who filled in the blanks. Magician and historian Lance Rich also combed the magicians’ community for details. Lance gathered the facts and introduced Dea, watching online, at the Las Vegas Magic Collectors Expo in August 2021.

During this time, Einarsen contacted Copperfield, who was creating a display at his famous magic museum dedicated to female illusionists. To Dea’s boundless delight, the magic icon invited her to tour his museum, and also to his show at MGM Grand. Her appearance at the David Copperfield Theater in October drew a standing ovation.

Einarsen, Bizarro and Ruby Coby are also among the Vegas magicians who have befriended Dea over the past year and a half. Dea has become a fan of Westgate headliner Jen Kramer, too, who reminds her of her own days onstage.

Dea still performs some of her routines with the little display at her new home, an assisted-living residence in Vegas. Einarsen, Coby and Dea’s caregiver Beth Bowes set up what looks like a small showroom. Dea still toys with the props from her childhood, smoothly running the silk handkerchiefs across her arm, just as she did as a teenage magician.

The story of finding Dea has moved magic’s greatest storyteller.

“Magic is not just inventing new technology, even though we do a lot of that in my show. But it’s also about telling stories,” Copperfield says. “Magic should be about taking audiences on journeys. This whole journey of discovering Gloria, this hidden treasure, has been wondrous, thrilling and very gratifying.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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