Ah, but the palace that Dana is currently performing in isn’t found at some theme park. It’s THE Palace Theatre in New York City’s Times Square. That historic 1,740 seat venue where – during the first half of the last century -- countless legendary entertainers once worked this stage.
“I am a huge Marx Brothers fan. I’ve seen all of their movies a million times. And now I’m working a stage that the Marx Brothers actually performed on,” Daniels enthused during a recent phone call. “I mean, they headlined the Palace back in 1920. And that just sends me through the roof.”
“And backstage at the theater, there’s this set of double doors. They’re off to the side and they lead out to the alley. Mind you, these doors are not huge. Especially when you compare them to what you typically find backstage nowadays at a modern theater. But these are the Palace’s original backstage doors. Which means that – when Harry Houdini was playing this theater – it was through those doors that all his props, all of his illusions came into the Palace. Probably by horse cart,” Dana continued.
You’re going to have to forgive Mr. Daniels if he seems a bit obsessed with the past at the moment. But that’s probably because he’s currently appearing in “The Illusionists – Turn of the Century.” Which is this limited engagement show that runs at the Palace through January 1st, where world class conjurors like Dana come together to recreate the sort of presentation that audiences would have experienced back during the golden age of magic.
So how did Daniels – who, given that he’s twice been named the Stage Magician of the Year by the Academy of Magical Arts, has carved out quite the successful solo career for himself – wind up sharing a stage with eight of the top prestidigitators working today? Dana was quick to credit producer Simon Painter, who – back in 2012, in collaboration with Tim Lawson -- created “The Illusionists” franchise. Which has since gone on to become one of the biggest magic shows of all time, playing in over 50 cities in 15 countries.
“Simon travels the world scouting talent. He goes to a lot of magic conventions. That’s where you get to see a lot of magicians at one time. And he also goes to places like the Magic Castle,” Daniels explained. “And one night when Simon is visiting the Magic Castle, he caught my one-man-show in the Palace of Mystery, ‘The No Show.’ And he just fell in love with it. Afterwards Simon offered me a job right there.”
The only problem was that the project that Painter was attempting to recruit him for directly conflicted with some dates that Dana had previously booked.
“So I had to turn it down. And – because I’d been wanting to do an ‘Illusionists’ ever since I first heard the concept of this show -- it killed me. Which is why I said to Simon ‘Please ask me again someday.’ And a year later, he came back,” Daniels said.
“That was last year. And Simon said ‘We’re going to do another tour. We’ll be making stops in the Middle East. Visiting places like Dubai & Abu Dhabi and then continuing on to Australia. And we’d like to have you on board,’ “ Dana continued. “Thankfully that time when Simon asked, I was available. So I took it. And then after we finished that tour, we began to hearing rumblings about us possibly doing Broadway the following year. And that’s where we are right now,” Daniels said.
Mind you, because this edition of “The Illusionists” was subtitled “Turn of the Century,” that meant that each of the conjurors in this show had to actually look like a performer who worked during the golden age of magic. Which meant that Dana had to ditch the duds that he normally wears when opening for performers like Ray Romano, Amy Grant and Vince Gill.
“They hired me to be the comedy act in this show. My character is called the Charlatan. He’s supposed to be this carnival sideshow sort of a guy. Someone who’d maybe try to swindle ya,” Daniels stated. “Which made me think of that traveling salesman character that Wally Boag created for Disneyland’s Golden Horseshoe Revue. A character that I was lucky enough to get to play as Wally’s understudy and after he retired. Which is why – as soon as they offered me the Charlatan – I said that I wanted a big, long coat just like Wally’s old traveling salesman character used to wear.”
And that’s not the only aspect of Dana’s performance in “The Illusionists: Turn of the Century” that may look familiar to Disneyland fans.
“I deliberately put a little bit of the Horseshoe into my performance here at the Palace. As a little tribute to Wally, I’m spitting some teeth. Just a few, mind you. Back when I worked at Disneyland and was playing the role of the traveling salesman, that was this huge extended bit. You’d put a handful of dried lima beans in your mouth and then spit them all over a minute or so with the band’s drummer accenting the spitting of each tooth with a rimshot,” Daniels laughed. “That’s what actually made me think to resurrect this gag for ‘The Illusionists.’ We have a live drummer down in the pit. But I only spit out a couple of teeth in this show.”
This tribute to his days at Disneyland isn’t the only aspect of “The Illusionists: Turn of the Century” which makes Dana’s Broadway debut sort of like Old Home Week. Take – for example – his co-stars in this show, Rick Thomas (AKA the Immortal) and Mark Kalin (AKA the Showman).
“Some of the other acts that I’m working with here at the Palace, I’ve known since I was a teenager. Rick Thomas and I both grew up in Long Beach. We both belonged to the same magic club. As did Mark Kalin. He grew up in Covina. And Mark belonged to the exact same magic club that Rick & I did when we were teenagers,” Daniels stated. “And even though we all went in different directions and had our own separate careers, all these years later, here we are. All in the same show, each of us wearing fake mustaches looking at each other and going ‘Wow.’ I mean, it’s really unbelievable.”
What Dana finds equally unbelievable about doing this limited engagement show in NYC is seeing his face up there on that huge “The Illusionists: Turn of the Century” billboard which towers over Times Square.
“Before I even got to New York, friends were sending me pictures of that which they took with their phones. And as I’m looking at those images of this huge billboard that’s right above the theater, I’m thinking ‘Well, that’s kind of cool,’ ‘ Daniels recalled. “But then I saw it on Saturday Night Live. On the episode just before the election, they sent Alec Baldwin in his Donald Trump make-up out into Times Square. And as the camera is spinning around him, you can clearly see the ‘Illusionists’ billboard in the background. I have to admit that I got an image capture of that.”
This week, though, Dana isn’t getting out of Times Square all that much. Because “The Illusionists: Turn of the Century” is so hugely popular with the holiday crowds that are in NYC right now, Daniels and his fellow magicians are doing three shows a day (a performance at 11 a.m., 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.) now through December 30th. With the final two presentations of this limited engagement being held on January 1st at 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.
“Of course, back when I was doing the Golden Horseshoe, I used to do 5 shows a day. But that was only a half hour-long show. More to the point, the Mickey & Minnie walk-arounds that I worked with at Disneyland back then looked a whole lot better than the ones that I see now out in Times Square,” Daniels concluded.