A Magical Mentorship

Inside the enchanted bond between a neophyte illusionist and an octogenarian legend.

On a warm March night in 1973, David Roth, a lanky twenty-one-year-old Brooklyn native with dark eyes, light-brown hair and a prominent forehead, stepped for the first time onto the stage of the Magic Castle in Hollywood, California. Roth was the youngest magician ever to work the venue, magic’s equivalent of Carnegie Hall. Shaking slightly, he sat down behind a felt-covered table and scanned the audience. His eyes landed on an old man in the front row, and his face flushed with recognition.

Dai Vernon, an elegantly clad eighty-year-old Canadian with soft, white hair, a trimmed mustache, and faded blue eyes sat there staring at him from a table supposedly reserved for non-magicians that night. Defying a tradition meant to soothe the nerves of greenhorn performers, the most influential sleight-of-hand artist of the twentieth century had decided to closely observe Roth’s presentation.

Roth opened up a leather pouch and laid several glistening half dollars over the table. Summoning confidence, he grabbed a small brass box and opened it while addressing the audience.

David Roth demonstrates a coin trick (Photos by Emon Hassan)
David Roth demonstrates a coin trick (Photos by Emon Hassan)

“This is a real magic box with four coins inside,” Roth said, his voice a deep baritone. He threw the four coins across the table and invited a spectator onto the stage to check for smoke and mirrors. “This is the top of the box. This is the bottom. This is the top of the bottom, and this is the bottom of the bottom. And these are the four half dollars that go inside. One…two…three and four… Now watch.”

Roth closed the container. He pointed to his open left hand and clenched it into a fist. With his right hand, he plucked an imaginary half dollar from inside the box, and threw the ethereal coin across the air towards his closed fist.

“The idea is simple,” Roth told the audience, unfurling his fingers, one at a time. “To take one coin out of the box and put it into my hand.”

David Roth demonstrates a card trick, early in his career (Photo courtesy Magic Magazine)
David Roth demonstrates a card trick, early in his career (Photo courtesy Magic Magazine)

He opened his fist and a half dollar now rested in the center of his previously empty palm. The audience was transfixed. Roth went on to materialize the rest of his coins from the box to his hand and back again to the box. It was magic.

After a rousing ovation, the audience stood up and began to leave. Vernon, known amongst magicians as “The Professor,” rose to his feet and commanded attention. “Wait!” he shouted, his voice raspy and hoarse, the decades-old product of smoke and drink. “Wait. There’s something I have to say.”

Vernon hailed the New York born magician, calling him the best coin manipulator he had ever seen. In a speech to no one in particular, Vernon cemented Roth’s reputation, comparing him and lifting him beyond other experts he had known throughout his lifetime.

The event marked the beginning of a relationship that would last until Vernon’s death nineteen years later—with Vernon as the teacher, someone who could expand Roth’s knowledge of magic and transform the way he performed it, and Roth as the prodigy, a pupil to whom Vernon could transfer his skills through centuries-old tradition. Together, they may have proved one of the last great examples of what a magician’s mentorship can accomplish.

* * *

Interviews with various magicians conducted over months of reporting confirm that the experiences that cemented magic mentorships as far back as the eighteenth century are rapidly changing.

Today, some of magic’s most closely guarded secrets–those you could only learn by talking to other magicians or by reading arcane books—are a Google search away, and brick-and-mortar magic shops no longer seem a sustainable business. Across the U.S., the places of reunion where young enthusiasts used to walk up to their elders in an effort to learn about construction, techniques, and performance, have been replaced by online videos, Skype sessions, and occasional conferences. In that sense, magic mentorships are vanishing.

“It will be a shame if brick-and-mortar magic shops disappear,” Eric DeCamps, an award-winning illusionist and sleight of hand artist told me. “Young magicians won’t have a mentor. The beautiful thing about these shops is that people can go there and learn and experience a mentorship. You could do it through the Internet, but it is a different feeling, a completely different experience from seeing it live.”

Most magicians recognize, however, that the future of magic can’t be detached from the Internet. They also acknowledge that as younger generations move online and shift the center of magic’s culture from brick-and-mortar shops to the web, associations like that of Roth and Vernon’s will become rarer and rarer.

At sixty years of age and with four decades of performing under his belt, Roth is considered a living legend himself these days. Until this past summer he demonstrated tricks twice a week at Fantasma Magic, one of the two remaining magic shops in New York City.

David Roth talks with patrons at Fantasma Magic shop
David Roth talks with patrons at Fantasma Magic shop

On Sundays, you could find him towards the middle of the 3,500-square-foot exhibition room in Midtown Manhattan, easy to spot with his short, white hair, rolled-up sleeves, and casual smile. He stands in front of a glass cabinet filled with DVDs, Kennedy half-dollars, assorted Chinese rings, blue and red counterfeit decks (sets with repeated cards or other alterations for tricks), and a sizeable collection of original Houdini memorabilia, including handcuffs, locks, books and old photographs. He divines cards and makes coins disappear in front of a caged pet rabbit named Rambo.

“Vernon was fantastic,” Roth said one winter morning in 2012. “Everybody would go to California to sit at his feet. He would critique their routines and tell stories about the magicians he had met.”

These days Roth sits at no one’s feet, but of course, it wasn’t always that way.

He learned his first trick at the age of ten after figuring out how a family friend was seemingly able to pull a coin out of his ear. He quickly became obsessed with magic, practicing every day and spending his allowance on books and gaffs recommended by the magicians who hung out at Tannen’s Magic, a shop in Midtown Manhattan that dates back to 1925.

“There were two ways to find out about new techniques back then,” said. “You could either read a book, or approach one of the magicians who frequented the stores and ask them to show you something new.”

David Roth performing onstage early in his career, holding four coins between the creases of his fingers
David Roth performing onstage early in his career, holding four coins between the creases of his fingers

Roth pursued both paths during his teenage years, receiving advice from Slydini, a celebrated Italian-born magician who moved to the United States in 1930, and reading J.B. Bobo’s Modern Coin Magic, a classic book that established the foundations of his first tricks.

In 1970 Roth quit high school to devote himself to becoming a master magician. He began paying regular visits to Tannen’s, where he would meet with other magic-obsessed friends to discuss the latest trends and artifices. Along the way, he established a friendship with the shop’s owner, Louis Tannen, who helped him secure a fake license so that he could take off and perform in Las Vegas when he was only twenty.

Roth worked the scene in Sin City, rubbing shoulders with illusionists like Siegfried and Roy and Johnny Thompson while working as a magic demonstrator at the Magic Mansion in the now defunct Circus Circus Hotel and Casino. Word of his unusual ability quickly spread to the Academy of Magical Arts, a Los Angeles-based organization dedicated to the promotion of magic, which invited him to perform at their flagship clubhouse, The Magic Castle. There, he was told, he would perform in front of a general public at the Close-Up Gallery, a special venue where some of the world’s best card and coin experts had done their acts. No magicians would attend his performance that night, he was assured. And yet, when he took the stage there sat none other than Dai Vernon.

* * *

David Frederick Wingfield Verner, later known as Dai Vernon, was born on June 11, 1894 in Ottawa, Canada. By most accounts he was a precocious child. When he was six years old, his father showed him a magic trick, unknowingly initiating a lifelong obsession. Two years later, he performed a card trick involving a complicated technique called “The Pass” in front of Howard Thurston, a magician known as “The King of Cards.” According to David Ben, author of Dai Vernon: A Biography, Thurston was dumbfounded and had no idea how the child had done it. For his part, Vernon was disappointed. He had learned the technique in one of Thurston’s books, and had expected to receive a lesson from his idol, rather than befuddle him.

Vernon was a voracious reader of magic books. He attended the shows of any illusionist or conjurer that happened to visit Ottawa. Among the many that he met, J. Warren Keane, a vaudeville artist with a flashy show that included elements of mentalism, or psychic ability, proved to be one of the most influential, teaching Vernon a lesson he would exploit throughout his career.

Keane taught Vernon the power of thought association. Backstage after one of his shows, Keane removed a single card from a pack and asked Vernon to name any card he wished. Without giving it much thought, Vernon named the A♣, the precise card Keane was holding in his hand. Vernon couldn’t believe it. Smiling, Keane explained that throughout their talk he had briefly flashed the card while asking Vernon for the utmost concentration.

Years later, David Ben writes, Vernon combined similar psychological trickery with sleight-of-hand skills he learned from gamblers and from classic books like The Expert at the Card Table, by S.W. Erdnasse. Moving to New York shortly after finishing high school, he gained a reputation among local illusionists and was even mentioned often in The Sphinx, a leading national magic magazine.

Keane had imparted another lesson to Vernon: never reveal one’s secrets. Vernon took his advice to heart, only sharing his methods with a select group of friends and magicians he trusted and respected.

In 1963, Vernon moved to Los Angeles, where he became the star of the Magic Castle, a remodeled mansion that the general public, magicians, and celebrities like Muhammad Ali and Marlene Dietrich visited regularly to enjoy acts by some of the world’s most eminent illusionists. There–after separating from his wife–he found a home, a place where he could live and breathe magic among a deferential crowd without domestic concerns.

Vernon mentored a select group of sleight-of-hand artists: Charlie Miller, a card expert from Indianapolis who accompanied him on a trip to find a gambler capable of dealing cards from the center of the deck; Ricky Jay, a historian, actor and world-renowned magician; and finally, David Roth, the young coin manipulator he praised that warm night in 1973.

“Vernon would watch you do a trick and if he liked it he would get really enthusiastic,” Roth said in a recent conversation. “The opposite was also true, so if he didn’t like it he would thrash you and rip you apart. ‘Jesus Christ!’ he once told a card guy, ‘your magic is so bad I find it physically painful.’”

“He was like the Picasso of magic,” Roth said. “Whatever he touched, he improved, be it card, coin or whatever kind of magic. ‘Use your head,’ he would say, ‘think about your magic.’”

* * *

Most magicians acknowledge that Roth transformed the art of coin manipulation, creating acts that included story arcs and narrative tension–something that wasn’t all that common among close-up practitioners in the 1970’s.

“David Roth has an amazing ability when performing with coins,” Vernon wrote towards the end of his life. “He is truly a genius. I have been fortunate to have enjoyed the confidence and friendship of the leading exponents of coin manipulation of the past… To the very best of my judgment, David’s ideas and execution far surpass any one of them.”

Vernon died on August 21, 1992 in California. Roth learned about his death by phone while working in New York. After hanging up, he went to his personal library and opened Dai Vernon’s Tribute to Nate Leipzig, a book in which “The Professor” had recreated the tricks of Leipzig, a legendary Swedish magician who, like Vernon, stressed the importance of naturalness and shrouded skills. Roth found a section about cigar tricks and took notice of the brand Vernon was holding in the photographs: Royal Jamaica Cigars. He went out, bought one, and smoked it silently on the street.

* * *

“He didn’t do magic the way people do magic today,” Roth said of Vernon. “Now the younger magicians are very influenced by the Internet and do a lot of flourishes. He never did that. He felt that doing fancy flourishes gave away your biggest secret: the fact that you have skill. You don’t want the audience to know that.”

“Vernon always stressed the importance of being natural and the necessity of developing an original presentation,” Roth said. “That’s been lost with the Internet. The Internet is great for looking at dead magicians. But there is a lot of bad exposure.”

In other words, Roth says, many of the craft’s secrets are given away online.

“It can’t be helped and it’s only going to get worse,” Roth said. “In the end, it makes more and more magicians perform the same way. They all learn it from the same source, so they merely copy it, because it is easier to copy something than to add your own personal touch.

“You can wrench reactions out of people when you’re doing magic that you can’t get if you’re dancing or singing or playing the guitar. You’re doing something impossible and I think that is one of the main reasons why kids get into magic.”

* * *

Not too long ago, Roth regularly taught a small crowd of amateurs, many of them children, who visited Fantasma every Sunday to listen and learn.

Roth and an unwitting magic accomplice
Roth and an unwitting magic accomplice

But those events, referred to by the regulars as “David Roth Sundays,” no longer exist. Today, Roth works instead at Conjuring Arts Research Center, an NGO that studies ancient magic-related books and magazines. Fantasma, facing financial troubles, relocated from the vast 3,500-square-foot area on the second floor of 421 7th Avenue to a somewhat crowded space one floor above. The shop’s sense of amplitude is now gone and there seems to be little room for the kind of interactions that once took place there. On a recent visit, a handful of people could be seen rummaging through a box of tricks and gags next to the red-felt table that had been the heart of the old location. A little blond boy sat idle nearby, a deck of cards sitting in front of him.

Cut to a year before, at Fantasma’s old location.

“A copy is false art,” Roth said during one of his Sunday afternoon exhibitions. “A copy of the Mona Lisa, even if it’s done perfectly, is worth a mere three dollars because it’s false art. The same can be said about magicians who do a routine they learn on a DVD word-for-word, move-for-move, without adding their own measure of originality.”

A few steps away, David Murillo, an NYPD officer who used to be in the Navy, opened a brown leather bag, removing a crimson silk scarf and some glistening coins.

“You’ve been working on the trick we went over last week?” Roth asked.

Murillo nodded, and then proceeded to produce a silver dollar from behind the translucent silk. Roth watched silently and then smiled. He gave Murillo a few tips to hide some of his movements and then congratulated him on his progress.

Kevin Reylek watches Ben Pall try out a trick taught by David Roth at Fantasma Magic
Kevin Reylek watches Ben Pall try out a trick taught by David Roth at Fantasma Magic

Nearby, behind a black felt table, a twelve-year-old Latvian boy named Francis fanned a deck of cards. He took two, placed them in the middle of the pack, and made them jump by pressuring the two halves. While the cards turned and turned, flying through the air, his right hand darted out and clasped them in a single stroke.

“David, how do you do an Elmsley count?” the boy asked, referring to an advanced card technique.

Roth sat in front of him, slowly demonstrating the many ways in which the effect could be achieved. He grabbed four cards and placed one face up. He held them with the tips of his hands and managed to count to four by showing only face-down cards.

“Now practice this a thousand times,” he told Francis. “I’m not kidding. A thousand times. That’s the only way to acquire the muscle memory.”

The kid repeated the steps out loud several times. He followed the instructions and often interrupted himself to ask Roth a question. He would then repeat the count again and again, gently handling the four cards in his small hands.

* * *

Santiago Wills is a journalist from Bogotá, Colombia. His work has appeared in Salon, The Atlantic, Guernica, and several South American magazines. You can follow him on Twitter @swillsp.

Emon Hassan, Narratively’s Director of Video & Multimedia, is a New York-based filmmaker and photographer. He is also a contributor to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook & Google+.