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Reappearing Act

Psychologist’s magical touch brings a joyful spark of life to nursing home patients

To say there’s something magical about Jim Dunn is to speak two truths at once. There is, for starters, the magic of his being—at 78 he exudes an energy for life one might sooner associate with someone in his 20s. His eyes sparkle as he speaks, and his wild mane of white hair lends animation to his lively conversational style.

And then there is the magic he has been performing for going on seven decades now. Together, Dunn’s gift for talking and his gift for tricks join forces in his day job. For this magician—who lives with his wife, Ellen, on a sheep ranch in Coryell County south of Copperas Cove—is also a psychologist who uses his magic act to gain the trust of his geriatric clients.

Performing as his alter ego, Professor Whatsit, and assisted by his puppet sidekick, Witch Hazel, Jim helps his nursing home patients in Copperas Cove and Killeen open up and cheer up. Transitioning to life in a facility can be hard for them, he says, particularly dealing with feelings of loss: “You’ve given up your car, your friends; maybe your partner has died. There’s a lot of depression.”

Dunn explains that magic can help his patients focus, especially those suffering from delirium or delusion. “They will speak to the puppet and enjoy it,” he says, noting that in addition to Witch Hazel, he has 50 other puppets and marionettes to call on when he needs a little help breaking the ice.

“Marionettes and puppets and magic bring a smile and a belly laugh,” he says. “Some of these people haven’t laughed in a while. I feel that relating to a magician gets them into a good mood, and life’s a little better when you feel better.”

Jim joined The Society of American Magicians—founded in 1902, it’s known as the oldest and most prestigious magical society in the world—over half a century ago. His passion for magic was sparked long before that, though, when he was 8. “I was given a wooden ball and vase trick. I was fascinated by it,” he recalls.

From then on, Dunn’s birthday and Christmas gifts were magic tricks (they still are, his wife says), including the popular Gilbert Mysto Magic Sets. He honed his skills during his childhood in Rochester, New York, and scored his first paying gig when he was 12, during World War II. “During the war, most of the entertainers were gone into the service and USO,” he remembers. This shortage worked toward his advantage.

Dunn recalls that after earning $12 for his first paid show, at Rochester’s Powers Hotel, he “went right to the magic store and spent every penny of it. I bought an AmazRing box, a little red box with a ribbon through it. Drop a wedding ring in the box, and moments later it’s threaded on the ribbon. I still have that—it’s one of my prize possessions.”

But the young magician wasn’t just learning how to create illusions—he was discovering something that would ultimately shape his work as a psychologist. “I was a very shy young boy and found with magic I could show something, and people were entertained,” he says.

Around the age of 30, Dunn—who by now had plenty of performances under his belt—saw a comic magician, Professor Irwin Corey, on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Inspired, he spent the next 10 years searching for the perfect frock coat so he could emulate Corey’s look. When he did, Professor Whatsit was born.

Of his alter ego, Dunn says, “He’s always a little confused and trying to figure out how a trick works. The audience helps him. He may be a professor, but he’s always out of touch.”

As for Witch Hazel, well, she’s best described as pleasantly grouchy. When Dunn found her years ago in a teachers’ supply store, he decided she’d make a great addition to his act. “Audiences love her,” he says. “She’s a grump. She lost her broom, and she’s stuck here. She asks people if they’ve seen her broom. One woman came to me and said, ‘You know, I think she doesn’t want to find it.’ ”

As with any audience, sometimes it takes a little time for Dunn to get his elderly patients warmed up. For example, if people are watching television in a dayroom, he’ll perform a magic trick to get their attention.

“Sometimes, I can engage them and hook them to where they’re interested in responding with a nod or a word or two,” he says. “Eventually, they’ll tell me their story. Then, when I come back, they’ll look forward to sharing their thoughts and ideas.” Establishing trust and getting patients to open up, Dunn explains, is part of the psychological process of building rapport.

Though most magicians won’t reveal their secrets, Dunn is happy to explain his. In his early days as a magician, Dunn taught a workshop called The Magic of Therapy and the Therapy of Magic. “People came to the magic show to learn what we did with it and how it could work in courts, jails and ministries,” he says. “The common denominator was that I was teaching them how to listen.”

And when Professor Whatsit and Witch Hazel listen, Dunn sees what this stirs in his clients. That’s when the magic really kicks in. “I watch things happen that are awesome,” he says.

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Spike Gillespie, who lives in Austin, has written several books and is a frequent contributor to Texas Co-op Power.