Interview June 2013, excerpted from his book, Interpreting Magic
It is not saying too much to say that David’s interpretation of coin magic redefined coin magic. Vernon called him a genius. David’s work did more than introduce new techniques and stratagems, he created new plots. He turned barren ground into fertile earth, seeing possibilities and alternatives that no one else saw, and we are still reaping the rewards. David also happened to spend time with some legendary magicians, and it was a pleasure to hear some of his stories.
You’re associated with New York.
I was born here. I’ve lived for months at a time in other places, mainly L.A., but I’m a New Yorker.
What part of New York did you grow up in?
I grew up on 94th Street, just a little south of what you might call East Harlem. And then, when I was eighteen, I moved out, down to the East Village and I’ve been in the same apartment for thirty years.
That’s a thinkin’ man, because in New York when you find that special apartment you hold on with talons. What did your folks do?
My dad ran an art gallery here in New York, on Madison Avenue. My mother was an actress in the Yiddish Theater – all the movie theaters here in the East Village used to be theaters for the Yiddish theater. And my grandfather, her dad, was a playwright for the Yiddish Theater. In fact, he was very well known: Louie Freiman. He had plays in all of those theaters, and she was in most of those plays.
With the name “Roth,” I had no idea you were Jewish. So, when did magic find you?
I got into it at about age ten. I went through the classic phase of magic sets, things like that, and little by little I got more into serious sleight of hand.
Did you ever do kid shows?
I did like two.
So that wasn’t your thing.
Right. And yet, I was the resident magician at FAO Schwarz for ten years. So, I can kind of deal with kids, but I’m in awe of magicians like Silly Billy and JP Laramee who can do kid shows. They would eat me alive. I have a great deal of respect for kid show magicians, because it’s a whole other world.
What prompted the move to sleight of hand?
When I was sixteen, my parents gave me a copy of Bobo [Modern Coin Magic]. I just found out that I was much more creative with coins than with cards or anything else.
Magic set to Bobo is a big leap.
When I was ten or twelve, even the magic sets had instruction booklets with some basic card effects, and even more basic coin effects. You can do a lot of really great card tricks that are almost self-working. They’re based on the prearrangement of the cards, or mathematical principles, subtleties or discrepancies that allow the trick to work, but they’re not technically demanding – they just require the skill of presentation. Coin magic was little bit different. There are almost no self-working coin tricks. Right away, you’ve got to start hiding things in your hands. Even if you’re working with gaffed coins, if you want the routine to be clever and well put together, you’ve got to switch the coins in, you’ve got to switch the coins out. All of a sudden you’re doing relatively advanced sleight of hand.
I think young people have an easier time learning sleight of hand than adults, because they don’t know enough to be intimidated.
That’s very true. In fact, I’ve heard the same thing said about athletes, gymnasts in particular. If you watch the Olympics, you see these very young gymnasts, teenagers, and they’re really good because they’re not afraid. They’re willing to try anything. If you were to try to teach those gymnastic moves to an adult, it would be very difficult. I think it’s the same thing in magic and sleight of hand. If you start young, you just don’t know it’s supposed to be very hard and it’s easier for you to become comfortable with it. It takes a long time to learn to hold out a coin naturally.
What were some of the first tricks involving basic sleight of hand you remember doing?
I remember doing some of the stuff from Bobo, and learning the basics from Bobo. It’s a wonderful book. Some people say it isn’t valid anymore, but everything in there is valid. It’s just that there have been advances since Bobo. There’s very little back-of-the-hand work in Bobo, and I think there’s one effect that uses an edge grip. In fact, it didn’t even have the name “edge grip.” They called it “an ancient concealment that should be known to all coin workers.” I’m the one who gave it the name “edge grip,” because I had to call it something when I wrote up “The Hanging Coins.”
You also wrote the coin section of Mark Wilson’s Complete Course in Magic, didn’t you?
I was in my twenties, living at the El Cerrito Apartments, and Mark asked me to do it. I remember that he was paying me by the word, and so all of the descriptions are a little bit verbose. [Laughter] The more words I could jam in, the more I’d get paid.
“You can use a quarter for this, but a half dollar will do. In lieu of a half dollar, a dime, or, in a pinch, a penny.”
Exactly. I would never write “don’t” when I could just as easily write “do not.” I get a credit for it at the beginning of the book, and it was a good experience. It’s a very good course, it’s really jam-packed with all kinds of great material, in all the sections.
What high school did you go to in New York?
I went to Music & Art High School, as a music student. I played the oboe, and I actually had classical training – I was a pretty serious musician. For a while, it was music and magic neck-in-neck. I even took private lessons at Juilliard, and I was very serious about it, but then magic won out. Irv Tannen got me this job at the age of twenty. I lied about my age and got a work permit in Las Vegas, and worked at The Magic Mansion in Circus Circus casino, which was a real thrill. I got to hang out with Siegfried & Roy, and Shimada, and Jimmy Grippo, and Johnny Paul. All these people were working there at the time, and they’d all come by the shop. So, I got to spend a lot of time with these guys. I was very fortunate that way.
I never saw Johnny Paul live, but I saw the videos that he did some years back. He was insidious, wasn’t he?
That’s true, and he was very good at taking you down the garden path, and then turning the hose on you. He was a very likeable guy.
A lot of magicians put you on alert. He did the opposite. He set you at ease.
Fred Kaps was very good at that. He would set you up two or three tricks ahead of time, and then just clobber you. And The Professor could do that, too. I consider myself very lucky that I got to spend time with The Professor. He asked me to go on a European lecture tour with him, and I was twenty-eight years old. What a thrill, what an honor. We lectured together in France, Belgium, and England, and just had a blast. He was a huge influence on me. Also Slydini – there’s a lot of Slydini in my magic.
Let’s elaborate on both of those. How do you feel Vernon influenced you?
Well, he had a wonderful enthusiasm that was contagious. The fact that he knew all these amazing magicians like Malini, and Leipzig, and Downs… he could talk about these people, and he was a wonderful storyteller. Many magicians, myself and Steve Freeman, Jeff Altman, Bruce Cervon, and [Larry] Jennings… we made that pilgrimage out to The Castle to spend time with The Professor. He had a wonderful personality. I didn’t meet him until he was eighty years old, but he was in such good shape that it was like hanging out with a forty-year-old. You know, when The Professor passed away, you couldn’t even bring up his name with Larry Jennings. He would tear up, he wouldn’t be able to talk. He loved The Professor. Everyone felt that way. He was a special person, he really was.
And how did Slydini influence you?
Look at any of my formal table routines that involve so much lapping – the misdirection there is all right out of Slydini. I never took a formal lesson from him, but I spent a lot of time with him. Just look at the way I move. The way I rub the back of my hand when I make a coin vanish in The Portable Hole. I’ve had people say to me, not, “Did you study with Slydini?” They say, “How long did you study with Slydini?” His thinking was absolutely great.
Were you attracted to coins exclusively?
I went through a card phase. In fact, I grew up knowing a lot of top card guys who would help me with my card magic because I was not a threat to them. I was doing mostly coins, but I was very close with Darwin Ortiz and Ricky Jay – we go back over forty years. And I don’t know if you know this, but I was roommates with Mike Skinner.
How’d that come about?
Ricky wanted me to meet him, and he drove Mike from L.A. to Las Vegas when I was working at The Magic Mansion, so that he could introduce me. We hit it off because Mike was such a sweetheart, and we ended up having an apartment together in Los Angeles. It was a unique situation. There were seven good magicians who were all living in the same apartment complex, and it was only two blocks away from the Magic Castle, which was very good for me, because I don’t drive. Imagine this: There was me and Mike Skinner sharing a place, and Steve Freeman, Jeff Altman, Earl Nelson, T.A. Waters, and Ray Grismer. It was just magic 24/7. We were all in our twenties, and very enthusiastic and, literally, all within two floors of each other. We would have sessions all the time and me, Steve Freeman, and Jeff Altman, we sort of became The Three Musketeers. We were inseparable, and spent a great deal of time together. We’re still very close, and we talk a lot. It was a wonderful experience.
You worked The Castle when you were how old?
Twenty-one. This is a nice story: When I went out there for the first time I was saying in Charlie Miller’s apartment, and working The Castle. They were about to have, in a day or two, the award ceremony for the previous year. I didn’t have an invitation, I didn’t have a tuxedo, I didn’t have anything. I was just out there to work The Castle for the first time. So, Ron Wilson gave me a tuxedo, because we were the same size. Now I had a tux. And I wore Charlie Miller’s patent leather shoes. And The Professor gave me a bow tie, the same bow tie that’s in all of his 8×10 glossies, and I still have it. So now I had a bow tie, and the shoes and the tux, and Francis Carlyle had a spare invitation for this event. So, I was his date for the night. All these wonderful legendary magicians chipped in so that I could go.
You mentioned all the young magicians living in the same place. I’ve always felt there’s an alchemy that happens in the creative arts that has to do with proximity.
Yeah, when you have sessions with good magicians like this, it stimulates your thinking and you come up with stuff that you might not have come up with if you’re working alone.
The material you created… it’s like you came to coin magic with a bulldozer and created a new landscape. Even more than the techniques, I think of plot. There are a lot of people who can come up with some new vanish sequence. However, almost nobody comes up with a new plot.
You’re right, and that’s the hardest thing in coin magic. With cards, you have so much to work with. The front of the card, the back of the card, the fact that if you turn it face down, instantly it’s a mystery. You’ve got the suit, you’ve got the numbers, all this stuff to work with, so it makes it easier to come up with card tricks than coin tricks. Coins are just objects. A lot of coin tricks, you could do with pebbles. They jump from hand to hand, or they penetrate something. It’s just the nature of the prop.
And you came up with one new plot after the other.
What I wanted to do with coin magic was longer, more theatrical pieces, because coin magic was all just quickies. You have a coin, it disappears, it comes back. You do a Bobo switch, and the coin changes. There were no long pieces where you could develop an atmosphere. That’s why I came up with effects like “The Portable Hole,” “The Purse and Glass,” and “The Turning Fork.” They’re long for coin tricks, but that way you can actually develop a mood. With coin box magic, it was the same thing. There were no long routines because the only move was the turnover, and that’s a big move. You can’t just keep doing turnovers in a trick. So, I worked out a lot of different sleights to steal out one coin, or two coins, or change coins, non-turnover moves that allowed me to do longer routines. Again, just to make them more theatrical.
Were there portable holes before you came along?
Yeah, they were used in cartoons, and there was a magician named Leon Leon who worked The Castle and he did things with a portable hole. But what I came up with, was what I thought was a very good marriage. The portable hole is a symbol of an object – it’s a symbol of a hole, that acts as if it was actually a hole. The purse frame is an incomplete prop that functions as if it was a complete prop. That marriage was an original idea, and I think they really complement each other. Plus, that move where you kick the coin under the hole, that’s a very deceptive vanish, and the opening sequence where you vanish those three coins in a row, it’s very clean. Then, having them all appear under the hole at the end is very nice logical, but magical, way of wrapping up the whole trick. That’s why I’ve opened with it all these years. I don’t usually like to watch myself do magic. I always think that I could have done it better, but “The Portable Hole…”
Where was it first published?
In my original set of lecture notes, from 1976 I think.
Every magician who has learned the routine has put a mirror in front of that little black hole and done the kick vanish about five million times, because it’s so much fun.
It looks good. And also, it’s a little counter-intuitive. You would think that the hole might move or jiggle a little, but it doesn’t, and that’s what makes the move very deceptive. It sort of clings to the pad, but you can still kick the coin under it. It makes for a very clean apparent pick-up and you’re home free at that point. You’re very far ahead of them. Plus, you’re using an extra coin, so you’re using the one-ahead principle in an unusual way.
An interesting thing about your routines is you very often bring in an “oddity.” In this case, a portable hole which is intrinsically amusing, as is a purse without a bag. There’s the introduction of a focal point, whether it’s the purse frame, a tuning fork, or a little planet earth. I think these things help an audience, because they provide train tracks for the routine.
I agree. The prop can define the plot, and sometimes the plot can define the prop—it works both ways. You’re in a retail store and you see some prop, like the planet, a pencil sharpener. If you have an imagination, that gives you an idea for a trick and then you go from there. I also like raw coin tricks, where it’s just the coins in the hands. Like “Winged Silver,” “Chink a Chink,” “The Hanging Coins.” There’s something to be said for that kind of simplicity.
Everyone always asks, “In this age of technology, isn’t it harder to impress people with magic?” but the opposite is true. To just have a coin in your hand evaporate is thrilling to people.
Because they know from going to movies what can be done with high-tech special effects, and they understand that there’s a team of people involved. But when you can achieve the same kind of look right in front of them, and it’s just you, it’s very effective.
It’s interesting that you were a serious musician, because some of your routines have almost a musical quality to them, there’s something satisfying about their structure and construction.
That’s nice to hear. I want the routines to look magical, and I want them to look smooth and almost ballet-like, where the rhythm of what you’re doing kind of draws the audience in. Slydini did exactly the same thing, like in his one-coin routine, where you get them sort of following your hands. When you can do that, because you’re doing it smoothly and in a nice rhythm, you can really misdirect them and achieve some very nice effects. Slydini was a master of that.
When you’re working out a routine, what are the qualities you’re looking for in the final result?
I always have a sort of picture in my mind of how I want the trick to look. In “The Purse and Glass,” which I think is a very well-constructed routine, I didn’t want to do just one copper/silver transposition. I wanted to do it several times in a row, so that there’d be no mistake as to what the effect was, and I wanted, again, for it to look very clean, and “The Purse and Glass” is a good example of that because you’re lapping multiple coins, but you’re covering it with sound. That’s a very strong principle, and in that routine the hands are empty after every change. You never go to your pockets, you never go to your close-up case, you never go to your lap, even though you’re using your lap. And there is no mistaking what the effect is.
Transpositions can be very confusing, even with just a copper and silver coin.
You’re right. In fact, sometimes people think that you confused them with wordplay, that they really didn’t transpose. I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted the effect to be very clear.
How did “The Tuning Fork” come to be?
That’s a really odd one. I had read in some old book the stunt that you do at a dinner table where you take a dining fork, hit it on the table, pretend to put the sound in a glass, then turn the glass over [releasing the sound]. With a dining fork, the fork doesn’t retain the sound for very long at all, less than a second. It compels you rush the whole thing, and even then it doesn’t sound good. Perhaps from my music training I knew about a tuning fork and that if you hit a tuning fork on the table, it’ll keep that sound in there for a good thirty seconds. You can talk, you can patter, and yet if you touch it to the table, you’d hear that sound and you’ll hear it very loudly.
Because the table is an amplifier.
And you get this wonderful delay. Then I read in the Downs book, going back to 1900, that rattle gimmick that he wore on his arm. The connection was made, and I realized that there was a trick there.
It’s a trick with sound.
What’s interesting about “The Tuning Fork” is they never see the coins in your right hand, they don’t even see you pretend to put coins in your right hand, but that sound gimmick of Downs’ is so deceptive that just on the basis of that they are so convinced you’ve got a handful of coins that when you open your hand, it’s a very stunning magical effect. I think it’s one of the strongest things that you can do, make several coins disappear in your hand at once, because even a child senses that that’s impossible.
Some things in magic work based on programming we’ve received all our lives. Bruno Hennig’s transfer move for Card to Canister is perfect, because ever since childhood we’ve learned that if you turn over a glass of milk, the milk spills. We know the card we saw in the box fell out. We feel it in our bones.
And with the Fred Kaps addition of having that card in the box attached with a little bit of thread, so you can see it jiggle ever so slightly before you dump it out, that makes it even more deceptive.
You knew Fred.
He’s another magician I’m very lucky to have spent time with. I’m the only person that he ever put up in his home. He didn’t have a guest room for magicians, so he put me up in his darkroom because his hobby was photography. I was the last person to see Fred alive in this country. He had a few hours between flights, so he called me up and I went out to the airport, picked him up, brought him to a friend’s house. We had a little session, I brought him back out to the airport, saw him off, and he was gone within the year. I spent a lot of time with Fred and he really was, I think, the best all-around magician I ever saw. He had the same kind of enthusiasm that The Professor had. He just loved magic, and it came across, and he was good at everything. Cards, coins, thimbles, balls. I even saw a clip of him on YouTube doing a kid show, and it was great kid show. He could just do it all. I think he would’ve been the next Professor, had he not died so young.
It’s wonderful to see great magicians who love magic. Johnny Thompson brags that he still has the enthusiasm of an amateur.
That’s a very good example. Johnny Thompson has that, and The Professor had it, and Fred Kaps had it. We had a great time together.
Did you ever see Francis Carlyle perform?
Yes, I knew Francis. In fact, I will tell you a very poignant story that Persi [Diaconis] told me about Carlyle. He used to work at The No Name Café, which was down on Jane Street, down the block from Harry Lorayne’s brownstone. And he would busk. He would do magic, and people would give him money, then he’d go and buy a drink. He was just a real alcoholic. Persi watched him work hundreds of times, and Jeff Sheridan apparently also saw Carlyle work many, many times and they both saw the same thing happen. Remember, this is a saloon. It was rowdy. It was bawdy. It was loud. Carlyle would perform, and he wouldn’t just do a card trick. He would do a card trick, and then he would tell a wonderful anecdote, then he would do another card trick, and he would recite some original poetry, then he would do another card trick and tell another story. Persi told me he saw this happen maybe half a dozen times out of the hundreds of times he saw him work… people in the audience, watching him, would start to weep. They would start to weep because they realized that they were seeing a very tragic figure, a guy that was so funny, creative talented, skillful, smart… and yet he had ruined his life with alcohol. And they would start to weep. In a saloon. In a loud, crazy, bawdy saloon.
You know, when Carlyle worked The Magic Castle, when I was out there at the time, The Castle didn’t want to have any incidents from him, like being drunk, so they eighty-sixed him from the bar. And that’s not a good thing to do to an alcoholic. It affected his performance. It’s a shame. They should have let him have a couple of drinks. But I’ll tell you another great Carlyle story that Vernon told me… did you know that Carlyle had an identical twin brother?
I did not.
He had an identical twin brother who was basically a career criminal. And once, the two Carlyle brothers and Vernon were in some rooming house. Vernon’s walking down the hallway, he gets to his room, and he hears a big ruckus going on inside the room. I mean, like furniture being knocked over, and people screaming. He opens the door and Carlyle and his twin brother, they are disheveled. Their clothes are out, their hair’s messed up. They’re having a fight, a real fistfight. And Carlyle looks at Vernon and says, “It’s me, Francis, help me!” And the other guy looks at Vernon and says, “No, I’m Francis, help me!” You really couldn’t tell them apart. And he just said, “Boys, I will see you later,” and he backed out of the room and closed the door.