Gloria Dea, the first magician to perform on what became known as the Las Vegas Strip and who later disappeared into obscurity following a brief career as a Hollywood starlet, died March 18 at a care home in Las Vegas. She was 100.
In 1941, Ms. Dea was 19 when she appeared onstage at El Rancho Vegas, the first Las Vegas hotel and casino on a mostly desolate stretch of road now lined with towering spectacles of gambling and entertainment, including Caesars Palace and the Bellagio.
Floating playing cards and inducing the disappearance of several billiard balls, Ms. Dea “completely mystified the audience with her legerdemain,” the Las Vegas Review-Journal said in a review. “Her concluding trick, when a card jumps from a handkerchief to a quartered orange, was the hit of the show.”
Between her magic routines, she danced to popular songs of the day, recalling in particular the number “You Couldn’t Be Cuter,” performed by the house band.
Decades later, she recounted her first performance with a tinge of nostalgia for a time when Las Vegas performances were intimate and lacking in pyrotechnics, lions or acrobats.
“It was a great room,” she told the Review-Journal. “You had the audience seated, then floor-to-ceiling glass in the back, and on the other side of that was the swimming pool.”
Ms. Dea continued to perform in Las Vegas until she left for Hollywood, appearing as a dancer in the musical “Mexicana” (1945), starring as a princess opposite Buster Crabbe in the jungle-set serial “King of the Congo” (1952), and playing a mourner in filmmaker Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1957), widely considered the worst movie of all time.
She soon quit her performing career, slipping into a life of near-total anonymity selling insurance and then cars at a Chevrolet dealership.
Then, in 2020, Ms. Dea was rediscovered in a remarkable bit of happenstance. AnnaRose Einarsen, a magician and hypnotist, tried on a skirt at a Las Vegas vintage clothing store. The shop’s owner told Einarsen it once belonged to a magician who became an actress.
“I literally just stopped and I was like, ‘What?’” Einarsen said in an interview with Connie Boyd, host of a YouTube channel about women in magic.
The store owner had acquired a trove of Ms. Dea’s clothes, as well as her magic book collection, tricks and promotional posters. Einarsen bought everything and set out to learn more about her, ultimately connecting with the illusionist David Copperfield, who despite running a magic museum had never heard of her.
Copperfield rallied the magic community to honor her. In October 2021, he invited her to one of his shows at the MGM Grand. She received a standing ovation. Copperfield and other magicians, including Teller of “Penn & Teller,” gathered to celebrate with her when she turned 100 last August.
“Gloria was amazing,” Copperfield told the Review-Journal after her death. “She was charming, funny and engaging. And in Vegas, as a young magician, she started it all. It was an honor to know her.”
Gloria Metzner was born in Oakland, Calif., on Aug. 25, 1922. Her mother was a homemaker, and her father was a wallpaper and paint salesman who also performed magic as “The Great Leo.”
“Papa pulled a gold coin out of my ear when I was 4 years old, and right away I got interested in magic,” she told the San Francisco Examiner in 1934.
She began performing at 7, with the Oakland Tribune nicknaming her the “Mysterious Mite” and describing her stage presence as that of an “old trouper.”
“She makes a coin disappear in a glass of water,” the paper reported, “takes pigeons from hats, makes half-dollars disappear and reappear, changes a match box into a playing card and back again, does the vanishing wand trick and takes woolen balls off a tightly stretched string without breaking the string.”
She later went by a stage name, Gloria Dea.
Ms. Dea married Sam Anzalone, an auto-sales executive, in 1975. He died in 2022. Her earlier marriages to John Statham, Hal Borne and Jack Shulem ended in divorce. A list of survivors was not available.
Copperfield was scheduled to induct Ms. Dea into the University of Nevada at Las Vegas’s College of Fine Arts Hall of Fame this week. The event will go on as planned, university officials said.
“I look back into the past and see all the giants on whose shoulders I stand upon,” Copperfield told FOX5 in Las Vegas shortly before Ms. Dea’s 100th birthday. “So maybe I owe my career to her.”