Magicians come in many shapes and sizes. Some are larger-than-life showmen who ooze pomp in their performances, such as David Copperfield. Others are mystifying in their mind-bending execution, a la Criss Angel. And then there’s Piff the Magic Dragon, whose crotchety disposition and homely appearance give him an anything-but-magical vibe…until he proves you wrong.
With a two-day stint at the State Theatre this weekend, the Las Vegas transplant by way of London, Piff (whose real name is John van der Put) had always had a thing for magic. The low overhead cost of cards allowed him time to do hour-plus shows growing up in Britain, and after some self-proclaimed “dark years” working as an IT guy telling people to “shut down and restart” their computers, he made the leap to magic.
There was no soft-landing in the world of entertainment. This was especially so when then-John would show up to perform at weddings or birthday parties, sport his default grumpy expression (he’s a happy fellow, he promises) and found himself getting less-than-satisfactory responses from the crowd. The tone of his routines changed when he came as the only costumed attendee of a party and found inspiration for a career metamorphosis.
“I went to a costume party as a dragon, but when I got there I was the only one in character, so I asked my friend what happened and he said ‘We thought the idea of a costume party was a bit childish so we called it off,” Piff said. As he grew more disgruntled with every inquiry about his rather gaudy party attire, “One of my friends came up to me and said, ‘You should do this as a part of your act, and go by Puff the Magic Dragon,’ and I replied back saying I’ll go by Piff instead and reference my well-known older brother…Steve.”
Thus in 2008, Piff was born into the world, with his sidekick/chihuahua, Mr. Piffles, joining him soon after that. It became a freeing experience for the magician formerly known as John, who was able to spin his naturally dry, somewhat biting humor into the narrator for magic tricks. As he described it, “Piff is who I would be if I could get away with it. In the dragon suit, I can get away with it.”
While generating momentum with appearances on the British TV show “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” in 2011 and opening for musicians Mumford & Sons in 2012, it was a later move to Vegas and hitting the performance circuit there that catapulted his American stardom. This was bolstered by a lengthy run on America’s Got Talent in 2015 where he finished in the season’s top 10. Piff is currently a regular at The Flamingo in Vegas.
Piff’s card tricks have always been the backbone of his shows, but he’s learned to improvise on stage and work the give-and-take with the audience to up the ante. One recent example was taking an 8-year-old show participant who wet herself on stage and boosting her into a hero by the time she left. Being able to spin moments like into a positive are what makes the expensive, two year testing cycle for tricks all the more worthwhile.
“People want to feel like they’re a part of a show that doesn’t happen every night — that they’re seeing something special,” Piff said. “I think of being on stage as my time off since I’m working on tricks and improving tours the rest of the time. It’s the fun bit of the job and the reason I do it.”
Piff the Magic Dragon will be performing at the State Theatre (220 N Washington St, Falls Church) on Friday and Saturday at 9 p.m. For tickets, visit thestatetheatre.com.