These days, John Van der Put is best-known as Piff the Magic Dragon. He’s a magician with an onstage persona that is somewhere between grumpy, irritating and disinterested. If you’ve seen him on TV, you’d remember him. He wears a satin dragon costume and is accompanied by a Chihuahua – Mr. Piffles, who has his own dragon suit – and a showgirl named Jade Simone.
Clearly, it’s an image that has been successful for him. He has a long-term contract with the Flamingo Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. And when he’s not there, he’s on the road. On Sept. 15, his wide-ranging travels bring him to the Rising Star Casino in Rising Sun, Indiana, for a single 8 p.m. performance.
It wasn’t always this way. Oh, the glum, moody attitude was always there. But his magic acts weren’t always such a big hit. For the better part of a decade, Van der Put performed at bar mitzvahs, corporate gatherings and weddings.
But there was a problem. People really didn’t like his act.
“Everyone hated it,” says Van der Put, speaking by phone from his home in London, “I would get fired all the time. It certainly wasn’t successful.”
When he started doing illusions, around the age of 14, he dreamed of a glorious career as a master magician.
“But it was just a hobby when I was younger,” he says. “It was something to fill the time. Then it became a job. Then it became something I could to do avoid having a job.”
The turning point – there has to be a turning point to his misery, right – came when he was invited to a holiday costume party. He didn’t have a clue about what to wear. But his sister happened to have a dragon suit in the closet. He was desperate, so he borrowed it and headed for the party.
When he arrived, he was the only one wearing a costume. He could have turned around and left. But hey, what’s a little more ridicule when you’re already feeling low?
“Since it was a Christmas party, I told everyone I was rein-dragon,” he recalls. So what did people think? “I don’t really want to know the answer.”
In an odd way, though, he found the experience liberating. He could be just as testy as he wanted and no one got angry with him. Indeed, everyone was amused. For a terminally disgruntled guy, this was a dream come true.
“When I found out I could re-invent what I was doing, I had a lot of fun,” says the 38-year-old Van der Put. “Basically, putting on a dragon outfit allowed me to say anything I want. Now I’m doing the show 400-500 times a year.”
When you do a show that often, though, there are bound to be audience members here and there who are frustrating. Or worse. But even that is OK.
“Now, I can say what I feel,” he says. “Instead of being fired for saying sarcastic things, I get to turn it into humor. It’s really quite amazing. When I had to do someone’s wedding, I couldn’t say these things. Now, people can’t wait for it.”
So, having unleashed this new vein of mocking wit, who is it who is attracted to his shows? And to his humor?
“Mostly, I aim for the people who don’t like magic,” he says. “You know – if you hate magic, come see Piff the Magic Dragon. I’ll turn you around.”