PICTURED: Piff the Magic Dragon with Mr. Piffles, his chihuahua sidekick. Photo by Christopher DeVargas
by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
Piff isn’t your ordinary dragon. Rather than guarding princesses, hoarding underground treasure or fighting White Walkers from beyond The Wall, he’s been holding court at the Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, where he does the slaying with his clever mix of comedy and amazing magic, assisted by his faithful chihuahua sidekick, Mr. Piffles, and the glamorous showgirl (and Piff’s wife) Jade Simone. Known as John van der Put in human form, the London native was beguiling audiences on the other side of the pond as a regular at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and impressed magic royalty Penn Jillette and Teller during the first season of Penn & Teller: Fool Us in 2011. He came to the attention of U.S. audiences in 2015 with his breakout performance on America’s Got Talent — and he’s been striking gold ever since.
Piff and company will bring their act to the Scherr Forum Theatre at the Bank of America Performing Arts Center this Sunday. The “#1 magic-performing dragon” answered some questions for the Ventura County Reporter ahead of his March 27 performances.
Were comedy and magic an interest for you at an early age?
I grew up in London, England. I loved watching comedies like Blackadder and Fawlty Towers, and Penn & Teller were also big stars in the UK.
Early on, who were among your biggest influences — both for comedy and for magic?
Penn & Teller, The Amazing Johnathan, Jerry Sadowitz.
How does one “train” to become a magician? How did you learn your trade?
I learnt to cheat at cards before I learnt magic. Thankfully the skills are transferable, saving me from a life of crime.
When did you first start performing? Any memorable shows?
I started performing when I was 15, doing magic at bars and restaurants. Once I asked a couple if they wanted to see a magic trick; the guy stood up and told me his wife had just asked him for a divorce. That was pretty awkward.
When did you adopt the Piff persona? What made you select a dragon?
In 2008 I went to a costume party as a dragon. No one was in costume apart from me. A friend said I should do this in my act, “you could be Puff the Magic Dragon,” she said. Wait, I could be Piff the Magic Dragon . . . you might have heard of my older brother, Steve?
Do you ever do work under your actual name, John van der Put, or as any other persona? And if so, how are those performances different from your Piff work?
Not anymore, being a dragon keeps me busy enough.
When did you come to the United States and what brought you here originally?
I came to Vegas in 2013 to be a small part of a big show at the Cosmopolitan. It only lasted six months but I loved it so much I wanted to stay.
Has your act changed as a result of moving here? Do you feel like audiences in the U.S. respond to a different kind of comedy as compared to the UK?
Magic is more popular in the U.S. than the UK, and Vegas is the mecca of magic. I love being able to perform the show every night for new audiences and that dry British humour is a hit here.
Mr. Piffles is of course a highlight of your show. How did he come into the picture?
He was a rescue dog from Dundee, I thought the act needed a gimmick.
Was it hard to develop your magic and comedy routines around him?
Not really, he brings a lot to the party.
Your wife, Jade Simone, is also part of your show. How did the two of you meet?
We met through the magician Lance Burton. I offered her a donut backstage and we’ve been together ever since.
Do the two of you collaborate on the show together?
She brings the glitz and the glamour to the show.
How has your act evolved through the years?
The tricks have gotten bigger and better over the years, for sure. Also the dog has got much more of an ego now than when we started.
Who today are among your biggest influences?
Penn & Teller have been mentors and heroes to me over the years. They’ve adopted me and shown me great love.
Anyone you’d love to collaborate with for future shows?
I always love working with other magicians, whether that’s David Copperfield, or P&T, it’s a lot of fun to collaborate.
I understand that you’re working on a television special. Care to dish on the details?
We’re about to release it in the next couple of months.
What makes a Piff the Magic Dragon show different from other magic and comedy acts?
There’s a dragon, a dog, a showgirl and an attitude.
What can audiences to your Thousand Oaks show expect?
We bring a bunch of new tricks as well as a couple of old favourites on tour. Come for the dog, stay for the dragon.
The pandemic brought many acts to their knees — but yours has grown. I understand that you’re performing in a much larger theater now. What do you think is the secret to your appeal?
We’ve been lucky to be able to hang in there. It’s been a lot of work but, thankfully, it has paid off.
What’s new and exciting in the world of magical dragons?
Training a unicorn to do a card trick.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I can juggle.
Piff the Magic Dragon performs on Sunday, March 27, at 2 and 7 p.m. at the Bank of America Performing Arts Center, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. Tickets start at $44.50. For tickets and more information, call 805-449-2787 or visit bapacthousandoaks.com.