Recapturing the magic

Dan Kamin with white face paint and a red nose, wearing a white tie and tuxedo and waving a magic wand
Dan Kamin’s newest act is a return to one of his first loves, close-up magic.

“Dan Kamin swings a wand and presto! Magic for all occasions.”

That’s from an article that appeared in one of Kamin’s hometown papers, the Miami News, when he was 15. The story notes that he appeared on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour. His prowess with card and coin tricks is a big hit at local “kiddie party appearances,” according to the story, which credits his skill to an informal apprenticeship with local magicians who met every week at Miami’s Mayflower Hotel.

Missing from the story are details Kamin recalls with relish, more than 50 years later: some of the “magicians” were instead (or also) card sharps and grifters.  They included Evil Eye Finkle, a former boxer and “legendary con man,” according to Kamin. (Old-time comics fans may remember “Evil Eye Fleegle,” a character named for Finkle in the “Li’l Abner” comic strip.) Sketchy though they may have been, Kamin said, they were generous with their time and talents.

“They were great mentors,” he noted.

In a 2020 essay he wrote for the Post-Gazette, Kamin traced his earliest fascination with performance and sleight of hand to seeing Houdini, a biographical film starring Tony Curtis, as a young boy: “I was enthralled.”

In my view, it’s the best movie ever made about a magician,” he wrote; that enthusiasm led him to the Mayflower several years later.

Kamin has had a long and colorful career. It started when he left Miami for Carnegie Tech, soon to become Carnegie Mellon University. He planned to major in graphic and industrial design, but then he saw another movie: Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush.

“I walked out of there a changed person,” Kamin recalled. Chaplin’s uncanny grace, and his ability to tell stories with movement alone, galvanized him. “I asked myself, how can I enter that world?”

Kamin took classes with Jewel Walker, a well-known teacher of pantomime and theater movement at CMU, who went on to train students including Cherry Jones and Ted Danson. Kamin’s status as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War required that he volunteer for two years; Fred Rogers helped him get a position at the Home for Crippled Children (now the Children’s Institute), where he put on plays and made movies with the kids.

From there, Kamin started working around town as a mime. He was hired to perform in local schools and hospitals, and eventually was able to become “a full-time mime,” he said.

(As an aside, Kamin acknowledged that pantomime has gone in and out of fashion over the years. It’s not a popular performance art right now, he conceded, but he sees “the energy of mime” in Julie Taymor’s production of The Lion King, and the wordless grace of Cirque de Soleil.)

Since then, Kamin has traveled the world as a mime and comedian, performing solo and with orchestras. He has written books about Chaplin, the most influential artist in his life and work. That expertise led him to the opportunity to train Robert Downey Jr. for the title role in the 1992 film, Chaplin; Downey was nominated for a best actor Oscar for his portrayal.

Kamin’s other film assignments have included working on physical comedy with Johnny Depp for Benny and Joon (1993), and a role in front of the camera as a scary wooden Indian come to life in George Romero’s 1987 film Creepshow 2.

It was during the pandemic, though, that Kamin circled back to the first performing skill he acquired: magic. He developed ShaZoom!, a story centered around card tricks and close-up magic. Kamin performed it live for free, by request, on Zoom during the lockdown, and entertained audiences worldwide. A sample is still available on his website.

“It was an act of desperation,” Kamin said. “Magic is very relatable. It’s a simple primal pleasure.  It was a relief to me.”

Dan Kamin poses with a statue of Charlie Chaplin in Kerry, Ireland, Chaplin’s favorite summer vacation place.

The performance also got Kamin thinking about his long-ago mentors, Evil Eye Finkle and the gang, from the Mayflower Hotel. Though they’ve long passed away, “it’s important to me that I thank them,” he said.

So Kamin created a new live show, Pandemic Pastimes, which combines some of his ShaZoom closeup magic tricks with stories and reminiscences of the Miami magicians, complete with a PowerPoint presentation. He’s in the process of booking performances for the new show, as well as the shows he does for schools, concert halls, and corporate events.

When he’s not on the road, Kamin, who has lived on Avon Drive for more than 30 years, enjoys Lebo (or nearby) restaurants including Little Tokyo, Mineo’s and Kabob-G Grill in Castle Shannon, as well as walking some of the steeper hills, like Ashland Drive. He called Mt. Lebanon Public Library, where he has performed many times, “one of the finest libraries anywhere.”

After half a century, Kamin remains a performer who’s always looking forward to the next show. He’ll leave the stage, he said, “when they get the hook out.”