We Went Backstage in Vegas with Piff the Magic Dragon

by Oscar La-Gambina, Jul 04, 2018

Because why wouldn't you watch a hilarious magician in a dragon suit who had once toured with Mumford & Sons?

A few years ago, Mumford and Sons played the 'The Secret Policeman's Ball' concert. Also on the lineup was a London man dressed in a dragon suit with a pet dog: Piff the Magic Dragon. 

They became good friends, and Piff went on to support them on their 'Tour of Two Halves', he was part of their Galway 'Gentlemen of the Road' stopover, and he featured on their album cover for their number one hit Babel.

Before any of this had happened, Piff had been on ITV's Penn & Teller: Fool Us, a show where magicians from around the world perform in front of a crowd and two of the best magicians of all time, Las Vegas headliners Penn & Teller. They create their own tricks and, if they fool the two wizarding legends, they get a trip to Vegas to perform as part of their show.

Fool Us was cancelled by ITV after just one season, however it was later picked up by American channel CW and the fifth series started just last week. Until recently, the first couple of seasons were also on Netflix.

Piff became a viral star after his performance on the show and he also entered America's Got Talent a few years later, which also became an internet hit. He reached the final, but often makes a joke out of his 'Loser of America's Got Talent' status.

Real name John van der Put, Piff now has a hugely successful show at the Flamingo in Las Vegas, which started three years ago and is still going strong. Him, showgirl Jade Simone and little chihuahua Mr Piffles present an hour of hilarious and mind-boggling tricks, and you also have the opportunity to meet them all backstage afterwards.

Native were lucky enough to gain backstage access at Las Vegas to have a sit down with Piff the Magic Dragon, Jade Simone and Mir Piffles, to chat all things Vegas, Edinburgh Fringe and Ukrainian copycats.

Gaining a residency show in Las Vegas is no easy feat. You have to be one of the best in the business, and it's a job which requires you to perform every night in the same venue and put on the best show you can every day. Huge names such as Penn & Teller, David Copperfield and Criss Angel all have successful shows on the strip, and they all got them through different ways.

For Piff, it was lots and lots of touring coupled with the exposure on TV. "I was touring all over the place and then I was in Australia. When I did Penn & Teller: Fool Us the original time, it went viral, a lot of people knew about that act. I did a tour of Australia and while I was there this guy came and saw the show and he said he was doing a big show in Vegas and he wanted me to be a part of it. So, I said fine and I sent my agent to go and meet him in New York, and she thought it was legit, and it was.

"I did that show with Mr Piffles in 2014. It was this big $40 million show and it crashed and burned because it was never going to make money, and I was only a small part of it. That ended after six months but I liked Vegas so much that I wanted to try and stay here and get my own show. A few months later I went on America’s Got Talent, that went really well, and off the back of that I was able to open my show here. The Flamingo room is really great for the show and the Flamingo is a world-famous venue as well, so it’s easy to tell people where you are."

Having a show every night isn't enough for Piff and his team, though, as they regularly head out to tour the rest of the country. "Normally we tour Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and we do the Vegas show Sunday through Wednesday, so normally we’re on the road every week. Then over summer and Christmas we’re here full time. I love it here."

Once you set foot on Vegas soil, the first thing that hits you is the heat, and yes, we were British enough to discuss that with Piff. "F**k the UK with it’s cold weather, it was miserable, like nine months of winter! After I was there for 35 years I was done with it. We work a lot and we work indoors, so [the heat] is no problem."

Lot of magicians, and other performers, often compare Las Vegas and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, during which Piff will make an appearance this year. They both have so many shows in so many venues each night and it attracts a lot of attention to be a headline name there. 

Before making it in Vegas, Piff spent a lot of time performing in the UK and so knows a lot about each location. He cut his teeth in comedy clubs across Britain and performing in Scotland every summer, as well as having a headline tour of his own and doing several corporate events. At the end of it all, Piff said he prefers to perform in Vegas.

"There’s a bigger performing culture. There are 50 states to tour and every time it’s like you’re going to your own small England. It’s a huge country and it’s got a lot of opportunities and we love it. They’ve definitely super embraced that act."

Dressing up in a dragon suit and having a pet dog with him on stage has certainly made quite the impression for Piff, and it also made an impression worldwide. So much so that in Ukraine, someone did a near-identical performance of his act on the show Surprise Me!, where the only difference was Mr Piffles was a guinea pig, not a dog. Piff embraced it, though. 

It's quite the idea to recreate, but the story behind it is as simple as it could be. "I went to a costume party and I didn’t have a costume to wear, so I asked my sister if she had a costume. She said she had a dragon outfit under her bed, and so I wore that. Somebody came up to me at the party and said I could wear that in my act and be Puff the Magic Dragon [after the famous song and film franchise 'Puff the Magic Dragon'], and I thought ‘wait, I could be Piff the Magic Dragon’.

"I kept getting fired before I was doing this act because I was too grumpy and too rude to people on stage because I was just wearing a regular suit. But when I put on a dragon outfit, apparently that was hilarious.

John van der Put has performed by himself in the past, but once you create an idea like Piff, why would you go back? "I probably could [perform without the outfit] now, but it’s just so memorable that it means we stick in people’s minds. It’s been here three years now, so it’s proven to have some sticking power."

Piff completed the dream of so many wannabe magicians in not only meeting but becoming good personal friends with Penn & Teller. They loved the act when they first saw it on Fool Us back in 2011, and since then they've done all they could to help. Now, Penn sporadically appears as Piff's dad, Pop the Magic Dragon. 

"They really liked the act when I did it the first time. They both said that if there was anything they could do for me I should let them know, and I took them up on that offer and asking for advice and hanging out with them. Just over time we became friends, and when I wasn’t doing much they invited me to be part of their ‘brain trust’, where they work on new tricks. Penn and I decided one day it would be funny if he dressed up as my dad with Teller being the squire. It’s crazy, it’s been a crazy time."

Their collaboration proved extremely popular, and they're now planning to hopefully have a joint show together. "Penn and I are pitching a TV show around at the moment, too. It’s Piff the Magic Dragon: Based on A True Story, and Penn is my landlord and it’s set in Las Vegas. It’s all about me having a show over here basically, and the life of a magic dragon."

That's not the only exciting project coming up for Piff. Along with his assistant Jade Simone, he filled us in on another TV show coming soon. "It’s an hour-long comedy special and we finished the stage part of it. It’s going to be a mixture of stage and off stage. We start on the second part of that this week, and hopefully that’ll be out in a couple of months."

During the pre-show meet & greet, we learned that Piff will soon perform his 500th show in Vegas. Jade told us more about some of the big milestones coming up very soon in the world of Piff. "It’s a big couple of weeks coming up because it’s 500 shows here [in Vegas] but that doesn’t count all the touring shows. Some of the touring shows are two shows a night. On July 5, it’s actually the 10th birthday of Piff the Magic Dragon."

Ten years is a very long time to be doing the same idea but van der Put loves it. "July 5, 2008 was the first time I ever did it. Double whammy in July! It’s been great to do the thing that I love. We do seven days a week when we’re in Vegas, and people ask if we take a break, but it’s like the easiest thing. I love going on stage, so it’s great to have been able to do it for so long."

Of course, we had to ask about performing with an animal. Mr Piffles is the cutest dog you will ever see in a Vegas show and one of the cutest animals in entertainment in general, but it's not like things don't go wrong.  "He got stung by a bee once when we were in Edinburgh, he couldn’t go on that night."

Jade and Piff have enough experience to deal with when it goes wrong, though, and they also know how to act with an animal on stage in general. Tragic events have occurred in the past, such as the end of the careers of other magic legends Siegfried & Roy when their tiger attacked Roy on stage. Nothing that serious would happen with Mr Piffles, though, but Piff and Jade would know what to do. "He gets grumpy like any human would. He gets tired and you have to know."

Unlike Siegfried & Roy's tiger Montecore, who was an integral part of the magic and had to be trained to do certain things, Mr Piffles can just sit there on stage and the show would go as smoothly, which is quite handy for Piff. "He doesn’t do anything, so he doesn’t need to do anything on stage. He literally needs to sleep. He can just sleep through the show. Luckily, it’s a very low energy output for him."

Another staple of magic culture is the The Magic Circle, which is quite well known. Far less known is The Magic Castle, an incredibly secretive and exclusive members-only magic club, featuring some of the best performers and some of the biggest names in entertainment. Piff and his team play there every year, and they told us a bit about what it's like inside.

"They’ve very strict there. It’s an amazing place. It’s members only and they serve dinner, they have tonnes of amazing magic memorabilia throughout the whole place. They’re very strict dress code wise. They don’t care if your name is the biggest in Hollywood, if you’re not dressed the way you’re supposed to be, they will turn you down. It’s that private and they love it."

Piff proved this: "Nicholas Cage wanted to see the show the other day and they refused him entry. They didn’t have any space, and we were like, really? They didn’t care who it was."

Now that the legendary actor, director and producer was involved in the conversation, who else had Piff performed for or with? We know Penn & Teller and Mumford and Sons, but no day in Vegas goes by without a meeting with a worldwide star.

"I performed with Shania Twain, she asked me to join her on stage when she was at The Colosseum. But my favourites are Penn & Teller, and Mumford and Sons were a lot of fun. They came through town the other day and we went for a chat and went to the roulette at The Venetian."

The post-show music at Piff the Magic Dragon's show could be none other than Mumford and Sons, and as the crowd filtered out of the Flamingo venue, we reflected on what had been one of the best magic shows we had seen. In fact it wasn't just a magic show, it was incredibly funny, the audience felt relaxed with every interaction made with Piff, and the tricks on stage were mind-boggling.

Piff's coming to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer and is also doing some shows in London and Manchester, and if you're ever in Las Vegas he has a show there every night, so make sure you get your tickets here before you miss out. If you want any more information, Piff and Mr Piffles both have their own Instagram. That's right, a dog Instagram. We suggest you follow it.

It's a man in a dragon suit with an adorable dog. What more could you ask for?

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