David Roth (1952–2021)

By Dr. Michael Rubinstein

My friend David Roth is gone. He was my best friend in magic. He had developed some chronic health issues over the past few years but seemed to be doing OK until recently. He wasn’t feeling well and made an appointment to see his doctor but sadly, he never made it. His passing was sudden and unexpected.

Born in New York on March 13, 1952, he grew up not far from his apartment in Greenwich Village. As a youngster he studied the piano and oboe. He was so talented with the oboe, that he had considered auditioning for Julliard. However, when his parents bought him Bobo’s New Modern Coin Magic at the age of sixteen it changed his life. He became lifelong friends with fellow magic enthusiasts Pat Cook and Darwin Ortiz, and magic became the focus of his life. It seemed that an entire generation of young magicians in New York grew up around David, all influenced by David’s work.

At the young age of twenty-one, David first performed at the Magic Castle. Vernon was in the audience, sitting in the front row. After David performed, Vernon rose and told the crowd that he had known all the great coin magicians of the past, and David was better than any of them. While for some, that would in itself be the pinnacle of a career, for David it was only the beginning.

It wasn’t long before David Roth was considered a legend in the field of magic, and the man who shaped coin magic for generations. He knew all the greats and did things magicians only dream about. As a teenager, he worked as a magic demonstrator in Las Vegas where he got to know Siegfried and Roy, Johnny Thompson, Norm Nielsen, and Jimmy Grippo. In his twenties, while living in LA, he stayed with Charlie Miller, roomed with Mike Skinner, and had constant marathon sessions with Steve Freeman, Jeff Altman, Earl Nelson, T.A. Waters, and Ray Grismer, all of whom lived in the same building as David (the El Cerrito Seven). He became close with Vernon and Kaps. He was a stage manager for Ricky Jay. He starred in a play that ran in North Carolina in 2003 called All of the People, All the Time, written by his lifelong friend Pat Cook about David and Darwin Ortiz growing up as young magicians in New York, aspiring to appear the Magic Castle. He won numerous awards at the Magic Castle including Visiting Magician of the Year (1974), Close-Up Magician of the Year (1977), Lecturer of the Year (1997), and the Magic Castle Creative Fellowship Award (1998). He was the ace magic demonstrator at F.A.O. Schwarz and Fantasma Magic in New York. He performed and lectured all over the world. He was a hand model in commercials for such products as Burger King and Pepsi Cola. He appeared as a guest on numerous TV spots, bested Letterman on TV, and fooled Penn and Teller. He created magical theatre with coins, with classics like the Portable Hole, The Planet, the Rainbow, the Tuning Fork, and the Sleeve. He changed the way people thought about coin magic.

To me, however, he was a friend whom I could call, and we would talk for hours. He loved to share stories about the giants in magic and had a great story about literally everyone. He worked at Bill Kalush’s Conjuring Arts Library and reveled about transcribing important correspondence from famous magicians and historical documents (like the Houdini Diaries), uploading them into their vast data base. But we also would talk about our lives, and what we were up to. Years ago, he stayed with me for three months after a fire broke out in his apartment, and yet, in all that time, we never had those all-night sessions that magicians crave. We just talked about life, and my cats. In fact, he turned down an offer to move into the city to be closer to his place of work, because he confessed, he didn’t want to leave my cats!!

In recent years, due to my own health issues, we didn’t see each other much. In earlier times we toured the world together, lecturing through Europe, Japan, Malaysia, and the Philippines. We traveled together just because we enjoyed each other’s company, and had a blast promoting our shared love of coin magic. Often, after our lectures, we would get together with the attendees and David would wow them with incredible card magic! Yes, David had some of the best teachers in card magic like Marlo, Jennings, Ortiz, Dingle, and others, who shared secret stuff with David because he wasn’t a card guy!

Together with Mike Gallo (and initially Geoff Latta), we held the famous New York Coin Magic Seminars. The first was held in a hotel in Manhattan, one was held in Las Vegas, and the rest at Marc DeSouza’s magic theatre. The work we created, a DVD series consisting of over 34 hours and over 225 routines and discussions on all aspects of coin magic, have been called by Bill Wells “the video Bobo for the 21st. century.” Of course, his own work, preserved in Kaufman’s Coinmagic, his own 1985 book David Roth’s Expert Coin Magic (also written by Kaufman and considered the modern bible of coin magic), as well as his numerous video and DVD sets, are classics and will be in themselves lessons for generations to come. His favorite quote was, “The hardest thing in magic is to forget what you know and see an effect the way someone would see it if they didn’t know how it was done.”

David was always so supportive of my coin magic, and his advice made me a better magician. From David I learned about how to build a routine, the importance of patter, and how to make magic look as clean as possible. I always tell the story that after seeing David perform for the first time as a teenager at Tannens Magic Shop in New York, I changed my entire philosophy of coin magic and developed my own retention and fingertip style. To be more like David. After all, he was the BEST.
The first time I really got to know David, however, was some years later when I found him sitting at a table in the NY Saturday magician hangout with Richard Kaufman and Geoff Latta. I took a deep breath, approached the table and showed them a few things. He liked what he saw and invited me to his house for a session. He used to kid me that when I went to his apartment, I brought a box of fresh rugelach. The way the afternoon went, was that I performed, and he watched. I guess I passed the test because we became friends for life.

There comes a point in the life of a magician when you see the greats of the generation before us begin to pass on. And David realized that we, and all the great magicians of our age group, were the people that everyone now looked up to, as we had once looked up to the Vernons, the Slydinis, the Kaps, and the New York guys like Ken Krenzel, Gene Maze, Derek Dingle, Herb Zarrow, Al Flosso, Sam Schwartz, Russell Barnhart, and so many more. With David’s passing it seems like one more reminder that our generation is now passing down the torch to a great new group of young, talented magicians, who will at some point become the older generation, and so it goes. The changing of the guard. But no one will ever be able to replace my friend David Roth, who has impacted the lives of magicians the world over, now, and for generations to come.