David Copperfield performs show after show backstage at his eponymous theater at the MGM Grand. It's a meet and greet for a small group of VIPs and invited guests. Many are tourists and convention-goers who are amazed after seeing Copperfield for the first time.
A few magicians, past and present, have also gathered in the theatre's exclusive hideout.
A guest is a majestic lady with flowing gray hair. She's into Vegas glam and wears a dress with gold sequins. She is in a wheelchair, being pushed by a caregiver, and is gradually moving toward Copperfield. The group splits up to create a passage, a scene that plays out like a reduced version of Moses parting the Red Sea.
Copperfield presents a deck of cards and begins with a classic trick. He spreads the deck and says, "Take a card."
"David, before you continue," says the woman, "I love the way you fan your cards."
This woman is a sorceress herself from a time steeped in Las Vegas history. She is Gloria Dea who performed at El Rancho Vegas on May 14, 1941. Her show that night in the hotel's Roundup Room marked the first performance by a magician in Las Vegas.
August 25th was Dea's day. Turning 100, she celebrated with several magicians, including Copperfield, at her favorite Vegas resort, the Westgate.
A magical time
Still vivacious, Dea quickly recalls those days as a 19-year-old entertainer at El Rancho. She recalls doing two shows that night at the first hotel-casino on what later became the Strip.
"There wasn't a strip back then. We had Last Frontier and 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 rumba because it was difficult to build all my magic stuff," says Dea. "It was a lot of work. I got lazy (laughs).”
In magic, she specialized in a billiard ball routine and a floating card trick, routines she was taught by her father. Of aReview-JournalReport on her El Rancho debut: “Miss Dea left the audience completely bewildered with her sleight of hand. Her final trick of jumping a card from a handkerchief to a quartered orange was the show's hit."
The crowd showered the young wizard with applause.
"It felt good," says Dea. "Every time someone likes something you do, it makes you feel good, doesn't it? Oh yeah."
To this day she still remembers gazing at the audience in Las Vegas.
“I was received wonderfully. It was a great room. They had audience seating, then floor to ceiling glass in the back and on the other side was the swimming pool,” says Dea. “Then you were on stage and confronted with it. It was chic. It was a fun place.”
Between her magical acts, Dea danced to such tunes of the time as:You couldn't be cuter, played by the hotel's house band. "They had all these cabins, these bungalows, all around the property," says Dea. "I stayed in one of them. That's where the entertainers stayed.”
Bay Area roots
Originally from Oakland, Dea is the daughter of magician Leo Metzner, also known as "The Great Leo". She started at the age of four. At seven thatOakland-Tribunewrote about their local "exhibitions". At 11, she was dubbed a rising star for her "mysterious exploits in magic." In her late teens, she was a standout performer on a variety show on the Strip.
But Dea's time on the stage didn't last long after Vegas. In the late 1940's and 1950's she moved to Southern California and turned to film. She has appeared in feature films such as 1945Mexican, the story of a "Mexican Frank Sinatra" (she played a dancer); 1952sKing of the Congo, co-starring Princess Pha alongside Buster Crabbe; Ed Wood's Jewel from 1957Plan 9 from space(where she played a "mourner").
"I went to the Saturday matinees for the kids," she says. "Planet 9 from spacewas the worst movie of all time. Ed Wood, the director, was the worst. But I enjoyed doing it.”
Dea fell off the entertainment radar in the decades following those films. She sold insurance for a time, then new and used cars for a Chevrolet dealership in the San Fernando Valley (also pioneering at the time as the rare woman-to-become top salesperson).
She moved to Las Vegas in 1980 and lived quietly in a house in the historic Paradise Palms neighborhood with her late husband, Sam Anzalone, also a car salesman whom she met at the Chevy dealership. Sam died in January. The couple had been married for 46 years, their home notable for its Caesars-style fountain out front.
The search for a legend
Dea has been living anonymously in Vegas for decades, but for a random transaction by another magician. In July 2021, AnnaRose Einarsen, the magician/hypnotist inLate night magicat Alexis Park shopped downtown at the Neon Cactus Village.
Einarsen, a fan of antiques and vintage clothing, spotted a turquoise and pink skirt that probably dates from the 1940s. She was told it was part of a collection owned by a Hollywood actress who was also a magician. It was known that this woman was 98 years old at the time and still living in Vegas.
"I said, 'Wait. What? I'll buy it now',” says Einarsen. "I thought, 'Who is this lady?' That's interesting to the average person. For a wizard, that is madness.”
The store's collection included many items from Dea's personal belongings that were sold on consignment. Photos, magic and hypnosis books from the 18th century. Einarsen contacted her friend and Vegas illusionist Bizzaro, also inLate night magic, and spread the name of Gloria Dea throughout the magical community. Nobody knew about her.
But Einarsen found Dea's cousin online (she's an only child) to fill in the blanks. Magician and historian Lance Rich also scoured the magician community for details. Rich gathered the facts and introduced Dea online at the Las Vegas Magic Collectors Expo in August 2021.
During this time, Einarsen contacted Copperfield, who was creating an exhibition dedicated to female illusionists at his famous Magic Museum. To Dea's boundless delight, the magical icon invited her to a tour of his museum and also to his show at the MGM Grand. Her performance at the David Copperfield Theater in October drew a standing ovation.
Einarsen, Bizarro and Ruby Coby are also among the Vegas magicians who have become friends with Dea over the past year and a half. Dea has also become a fan of Westgate headliner Jen Kramer, who reminds her of her own days on stage.
Dea still performs some of her routines with the small display at her new home, an assisted living facility in Vegas. Beth Bowes, Einarsen, Coby and Dea's caretaker, set up what appears to be a small showroom.
Dea still plays with the props from her childhood, gently sliding the silk handkerchiefs down her arm just like she did as a teenage magician. The story of finding Dea moved magic's greatest storyteller.
"Magic doesn't just invent new technology, although we do a lot of it on my show. But it's also about telling stories,” says Copperfield. “Magic should be about taking the audience on a journey. This whole journey of discovering Gloria, this hidden treasure, has been wonderful, exciting and very satisfying.” - Las Vegas Review-Journal/Tribune news service