David Roth: Master in Residence
by Noah Levine
Imagine a magician who drops coins into an ACME style portable hole only to remove them from a bagless change purse. Imagine a magician who ties a Japanese coin to a string and uses a paper fan to make the coin fly like a kite on a beach. Or imagine a magician who can pour the sound of jingling coins from a glass, with empty hands, before turning the sound into solid silver coins. David Roth’s presentations with coins are technically innovative, playful, and exquisitely beautiful.
Roth’s influence on coin magic has been so profound and sprawling that it is hard to precisely quantify. The majority of professional close-up magicians carry at least one change purse filled with four, four-and-a-half, or five half-dollars. Most magic shops sell dozens of slick new DVD’s on how to make those four coins vanish, change, and teleport themselves. YouTube features hundreds of young magicians performing with their coins. All of these performers, whether they know it or not, are standing on the shoulders of a giant.
Not including his own television appearances, Roth’s creations have been performed on Las Vegas stages, on an episode of The X-Files, and even during other magicians’ lectures. In Spain, magician and comedian Luis Piedrahita has presented a number of Roth’s routines on national television (acknowledging David by name as the creator). David’s work is not simply impressive, it is a reminder to other magicians of the lasting impact that they too can have on their craft.
COINS BEFORE 1976
Before delving into the life of David Roth, it is worth taking some time to look at the state of coin magic before him. T. Nelson Downs became famous, in the very beginning of the twentieth century, performing the classic Miser’s Dream; he would stand on stage and produce handfuls of coins from the air. Downs made his coin productions interactive. He famously said that the secret to the Miser’s Dream was to “pull the coins from their whiskers,” meaning that instead of simply producing coins from the air he was willing to invade their personal space, reaching behind men’s whiskers, their sleeves, ties, and handkerchiefs. Downs also had great skill and his own specialized techniques. Readers can look up his “Eureka Pass” in Modern Coin Manipulation (1900) for an impressive example. Also, he was a naturally gifted showman whose feats of dexterity were interwoven with a running line of topical humor, political commentary, and bizarre non-sequitors.
At this same time, most likely because of Downs’ tremendous popularity, many similar acts began appearing on vaudeville. Mercedes Talma, “The Queen of Coins” performed a coin manipulation act from 1899 until retiring in 1930. She learned sleight-of-hand while working with Servais LeRoy, gaining a great deal of experience as a part of the trio “LeRoy, Talma, and Bosco.” Houdini said, “Talma is without a doubt the greatest female sleight of hand performer that ever lived.”
Allen Shaw was a contemporary of Downs who frequently performed his 6-minute coin act on the same bill as the great Okito. Shaw opened with the words, “The dream of a miser . . . Money . . . How to get it . . . At my fingertips . . . Watch! . . . Look! . . . Listen!” And while the most familiar way to close a Miser’s Dream act is to produce an exceptionally large, loud volume of coins, Shaw ended his routine by quietly leaning against his table and rolling a coin across his tightly clenched knuckles at increasing speed. This might be why Arthur Buckley described Shaw as an artist “whose presentation of magic with coins reminds me of a beautiful poem.”
One common theme among all three performers (and many similar acts) was the element of dexterity. Shaw closed his act with a flourish. Downs was open in the press about his use of palming and the development of the muscles in his hands. And much publicity was made of Talma’s ability to palm 30 coins despite her 5.5 glove size. Audiences knew that they had been fooled by sleight-of-hand and more specifically the performers’ ability to palm.
Aside from this particular time period and this Downs’ inspired style of performance, most coin magic since 1900 existed in units of tricks. Many coin effects that were put into print in the early twentieth century were quick, casual pocket tricks. There are many great examples: the Stack of Quarters (a favorite of Nate Leipzig) in which a stack of quarters is made to penetrate a spectator’s hand; the Expansion of Texture, where coins were made to penetrate through a handkerchief held fast by a spectator; and Paul Rosini’s A Novel Vanish and Reproduction in which a coin disappears from the performer’s hands, which are shown empty, before the coin reappears. Modern Coin Magic (1952) or “Bobo” (to those in trade) is still considered the great text in coin magic; aside from the Rosini routine it includes sections on Downs, Shaw, Han Ping Chien, Expansion of Texture, the Stack of Quarters and hundreds of other items that are equally powerful. One possible reason that these routines were short was that the performers wanted to receive credit for performing magic and not for skill or for palming. A long coin routine has more of a risk that the audience will start to think about palming (especially if there are extra coins involved), unless it is particularly well constructed.
Han Ping Chien’s Coins Through the Table, published around the time of Downs, provides a notable exception. It is a miniature close-up act that requires the performer to be seated at a table with a tidily arranged audience sitting at the table. The Han Ping Chien move allows a magician to press a handful of coins through a hard table surface. This technique is so powerful that many magicians use it to this day. However, Han Ping Chien was primarily a vaudeville performer who toured with the Peking Mysteries Troupe. His coin trick was an unusual change of pace in relation to the rest of his repertoire.
Other similarly exceptional coin masterpieces took shape in the middle of the century. Slydini used the Han Ping Chien move to create a complete routine in which coins repeatedly traveled through a solid table under increasingly stringent conditions. This routine culminated with a short sequence in which a single coin seemed to teleport itself a dozen times in one minute before vanishing completely. Dick Cavett had Slydini perform it on national television.
In John Ramsay’s Cylinder and Coins (1948), a sliver cut from a wine cork was placed on the table, on top of which was placed a 6-inch cardboard cylinder. Four silver dollars were vanished individually with the aid of a wand and reproduced beneath the cork. (This routine has clear roots in the previously mentioned Stack of Quarters). Ramsay was famous for fooling other magicians with this routine.
There is also Albert Goshman’s Salt and Pepper Shakers (inspired by Downs’ “Free and Unlimited Coinage of Silver” Published in The Art of Magic 1906): two coins repeatedly vanish and reappear underneath a saltshaker or a peppershaker. Each time a vanished coin turned up underneath one of the shakers, the audience members would swear that they’d catch him the next time, yet they never did.
All three routines were interactive showpieces meant to dazzle the eyes of the audience members while also engaging them psychologically. Most importantly, each of these routines featured a high level of construction rarely seen in coin magic at the time; the performer was always three or four steps ahead of the audience, this allowed him to present a long multi-phase routine without getting caught.
Each of these performers was skilled with coins; Ramsay in particular created a great deal of coin magic. Nevertheless, these routines were unlike anything else in their repertoires, and did not represent a specific effort to explore the possibilities of coins. None of the three were specialists.
All three of these routines were tailored to the persona and eccentricities of each performer. Slydini concealed his sleight-of-hand in the shadows provided by his own body language. Goshman had a naturally impish way of speaking to his audience that gave him great opportunity to sneak coins wherever he wished. And Ramsay provided false trails to insure that the audience couldn’t catch on to the real method. While many contemporary performers have worked on these routines, it is still rare to see them performed. This is probably due to the stylized quality of all three routines; regardless of one’s skill with coins, the only way to truly perform the Goshman Shakers is to be Albert Goshman.
This same logic might explain why a coin giant like Ross Bertram (Magic and Methods of Ross Bertram 1978, Bertram on Sleight of Hand 1983, Stars of Magic 1945) didn’t have the widespread influence one might expect, despite dozens of technical innovations (including an important precursor to Al Schneider’s Matrix). It is hard to watch footage of his coin work without being fooled repeatedly. This is particularly surprising because many of his effects were simple and impromptu looking pocket tricks that didn’t rely on heavy misdirection, construction, or extra props. His primary strength was the ability to create and master natural and delicate sleight-of-hand. Like the previously mentioned performers, Bertram’s work may have failed to gain greater influence because it was incredibly personalized to his style of movement, the shape of his hands, and even his style of clothing. Additionally, it may simply be too difficult for most mortals.
DAVID ROTH BEFORE 1985
To understand Roth’s importance among these masters, it is useful to imagine seeing him perform before his work became the status quo. The late sleight-of-hand master Geoff Latta described the experience as follows:
I was 16 or 17, . . . Had been working hard through Bobo, Buckley, Downs etc. Had some chops, but old school . . .
I was in Tannen’s, the old shop on 47th Street, when Bob Elliot (wonderful guy, taught me my first real coin trick, Spellbound) grabbed Roth and “persuaded” him to do a few things for me . . . David was like, “Aw, Bob, you know I don’t do coin magic.” Bob pressed a little. “C’mon Davie, these guys are serious, show them something.” “Ah, ok.”
Now, you have to remember, back then, coin tricks were onesies and two-shots, exceptions to that only proved the rule. A routine that used a utility switch was sophisticated. No one did palm-up work. Get the picture? We didn’t expect much. And then Roth unloaded both barrels right in our faces.
His hands were always empty of the coins we knew had to be there. Palm up, palm down, at the fingertips at eye height, jumping around, totally natural, utterly convincing, baffling. In the middle of a trick he’d slip, and a coin would be wrapped around his finger, then pulled off, no hole, then explode (that’s how I saw it) into a thousand fragment that reassembled themselves into a coin too big for anyone to palm. Insane, totally insane. Our minds were blown. I had never even imagined that sleight of hand could look that good.
I went home that night and cracked the books, reeling from what I had seen. And that was the real beginning for me.
Roth’s own leap into coin magic also started at 16 when his parents gave him a copy of Modern Coin Magic for his birthday. To use his own word he “devoured” the book and decided to focus exclusively on coins. He spent so much time reading the book that the spine eventually came off and he used it as a bookmark.
In addition to this lucky and well-chosen gift by his parents, Roth also benefited greatly from the rich New York magic scene of the 1960’s and 70’s. While in High School he became close with Darwin Ortiz and Pat Cook. Bob Elliot – who nicknamed the group the “brat pack” – played the role of mentor to all three (as he did for countless young New York magicians). Roth recounts a particularly telling example of the group’s bond and Elliott’s support:
The three would meet every Saturday at Pat Cook’s house for what they called “Spaghetti sessions.” While many people came to these sessions, Roth, Ortiz, and Cook were the core participants.
It was during this time, Roth’s late teens, that he began creating routines and techniques for the Okito Box. This was his first big chunk of creative work, and it accounts for a third of the material in David Roth’s Expert Coin Magic. Roth’s innovations with this little box help explain, in a more general sense, his contribution to coin magic as a whole.
The Okito Box was invented by the great stage performer Okito (Tobias Bamberg). In the classic handling, one or more coins were placed inside of a small metal pillbox, the box was placed on top of the performer’s hand, and the coins penetrated through the box and the hand. A perfect illusion, especially since the box and coins were examinable. But, as with previous examples, the routine was short and informal, and there was only one move associated with the box. Roth’s primary goal was to make coins vanish from the box individually. To do this he created dozens of different moves and routines (“Out in Out” using a slot box seems to be Roth’s favorite).
Through his work with the Okito Box, Roth built something of a system for performing and presenting coin magic. If a student masters “Out in Out” he or she will have mastered many of the moves in other David Roth routines and will also be able to start inventing his or her own routines. This is one of the most important reasons for Roth’s lasting influence: he built a toolkit. All this from an antiquated pillbox.
In 1972, Irv Tannen got a then 20-year-old David a job in Las Vegas as a demonstrator at the Magic Mansion in the Circus Circus Casino. This was David’s first time out of New York. While there, he met a great number of Vegas legends including: Siegfried and Roy, Johnny Paul, Jimmy Grippo, and Shimada. At this time he also met Michael Skinner. After a few months, still armed only with Okito Box material. Roth moved back to New York.
The years from 1972-1974 in New York may well have been Roth’s most important creative period. He invented most of his important routines including the Portable Hole, Tuning Fork, and Purse and Glass. Naturally, Darwin Ortiz and Pat Cook were the first people to see these routines.
In 1974, armed with a powerful repertoire of original coin magic, Roth moved to Los Angeles to be close to the Magic Castle. In the same month, two young sleight-of-hand students named Steve Freeman and Jeff Altman also moved to Los Angeles. The three became close, echoing Roth’s friends in New York. All three lived on a property called the El Cerrito apartments (other residents included Michael Skinner, TA Waters, Earl Nelson, and Ray Grismer, they became known as the “El Cerrito Seven”). All of those performers went on to gain reputations for performing different forms of magic; one can only imagine the sessions that took place at this apartment complex.
Roth’s act at the Castle consisted of: The Portable Hole, Purse and Glass, Tuning Fork, Coin Box, and Coin and Salt Shaker routines. By 1976, Roth had already explained many of his signature routines during lectures and his reputation began to spread. During this time David became close with Ricky Jay, though the two had been friends for many years previously. At this time Roth also became close with Dai Vernon who would go on to say:
First let me state that David Roth has an amazing ability when performing with coins. 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. T. Nelson Downs, Allan Shaw, Manuel and Welch Miller all specialized in this branch of the magical art. To the very best of my judgment, David’s ideas and execution far surpass any one of them. I feel quite certain that if they could witness his performance they would not only be astounded but also realize that they had seen the master.
In 1974 he won the Academy of Magical Arts’ award for visiting magician of the year, and in 1977 he won close-up magician of the year.
The same year David had a particularly strong impact while in attendance at the exclusive Ramsay Reunion convention in 1977. At this convention (held in celebration of John Ramsay’s birthday) Roth was able to spend time with an international array of magicians like Juan Tamariz, Gaetan Bloom, Bob Read, and Patrick Page, as well as living legends like Fred Kaps, Andrew Galloway, and Dai Vernon. Conjuring Arts has found a series of photographs from this convention. In the following slideshow, you can see David performing in front of the group, getting his silhouette cut, and even being surprised with a birthday cake. Coincidentally (or not) he shares the same birthday as John Ramsay. There are also pictures of Dai Vernon and Fred Kaps.
At this time, most of Roth’s material was unpublished and highly sought after. His publications begin with a trickle. His first items appeared in 1972 in the Tarbell Course in Magic Volume 7. In the first issue of Apocalypse (Jan. 1978) he published a handling of the classic effect “Chink a Chink” using coins. This effect had started with coins (“The Yank Hoe Coin Assembly”) but Nate Leipzig began using sugar cubes so that he could exclude the use of playing cards as covers. While many performers turned this into a miracle (including Albert Goshman) Roth’s handling (which uses a concept from Jacob Daley’s “Motile” routine in Modern Coin Magic) allowed the effect to once again be performed with coins, and it also made the routine appear almost as if the performer wasn’t touching the coins at all. When the routine was published in his book, Roth added a final grace note to “Chink a Chink” by getting rid of the outdated title and calling it “The Chinese Coin Assembly.”
In June of 1978, he published the “Hanging Coins Routine” in Apocalypse. This plot was based on a sequence from John Ramsay’s “Three Coins and Hat” (The Ramsay Legend 1969). By modernizing a rarely used palm known as “edge grip,” Roth created a miracle in which three coins vanish from the performer’s fingertips, with the sleeves rolled up, while the audience is looking as closely as they like. Years later, Roth used this vanishing sequence in his own version of another Ramsay miracle: the Cylinder and Coins. This proves that one of David’s great strengths is his deep knowledge of coin magic and his ability to deconstruct and recombine plots, methods, and routines to produce magic that is powerful and fresh.
In 1982 a large section of Richard Kaufman’s book CoinMagic was devoted to David’s magic. In 1985 Kaufman published the tome David Roth’s Expert Coin Magic that detailed the great majority of Roth’s contributions to coin magic. These two books, along with Modern Coin Magic, are considered the three great texts necessary for the mastery of coin magic.
Since that time, David has lectured all over the world and released numerous videos. He has appeared on television programs including: The Late Show with David Letterman, HBO Magic Moments with Dick Cavett, The Robert Klein Show, and The Discovery Channel. He played an important role offstage in Ricky Jay’s Obie Award-Winning 52 Assistants and onstage in Ricky Jay’s On the Stem. His videos and lectures often contain updated handlings of old routines and new creations including: the Rubber Coin, Coins and Silk with Edge Grip, and even a Three Ball Routine. In 1997 he won the Academy of Magical Arts Lecturer of the Year Award. And in 1999 he won the Academy’s Creative Fellowship as well as the Medal of the Inner Magic Circle from London’s Magic Circle.
In 2004, along with Geoff Latta, Mike Gallo, and Michael Rubenstein, Roth organized the New York Coin Magic Seminar – a specialized workshop for coin enthusiasts that occurred once a year from 2004-2011. In the videos from these seminars, one can see traces of Roth’s influence in his colleagues as well as the newer generation of coin magicians such as Eric Jones, Kaino Harbottle, and Giacomo Bertini. Other notable guests included Bob Fitch, Scotty York, Eric DeCamps, and Tim Conover.
Roth is largely responsible for the great number of magicians who now specialize in coin magic. As coin magic grows in popularity, it is interesting to hear Roth’s thoughts about the direction it is going in: visual and fast fingertip coin magic, particularly the Three Fly effect. He discussed this in a brief interview at Conjuring Arts.
Today he is actively booking lecture tours all over the world and continues to create material. He has been flown to London three times in recent years to perform at an exclusive regular dinner party, and he recently performed formal close-up shows for 12 days on a luxury cruise from Athens to Istanbul. Most importantly, he is the currently employed as the Master in Residence at Conjuring Arts and as teacher with the Hocus Pocus Project. As with any great artist, however, all of these biographical details are unnecessary. The work speaks for itself:
Bobo, J.B. Modern Coin Magic. Carl Waring Jones, 1952.
Caveney, Mike; Rauscher, William. Servais Le Roy: Monarch of Mystery. Pasadena, CA: Magic Words, 1999.
Downs, T. Nelson. Modern Coin Manipulation. New York: T. Nelson Downs Magical Co 1900.
Downs, T. Nelson. The Art of Magic. New York: Downs-Edwards Co, 1906.
Farelli, Victor. John Ramsay’s Cylinder and Coins. 1948.
Galloway, Andrew. The Ramsay Legend. Goodliffe Publications, 1969.
Goshman, Albert; Page, Patrick; Diamond, Kathy, ed. Magic by Gosh: the Life and Times of Albert Goshman. 1985.
Kaufman, Richard. David Roth’s Expert Coin Magic. New York: Kaufman and Greenberg. 1985
Kaufman, Richard. CoinMagic. New York: Kaufman and Greenberg, 1982.
Latta, Geoff. The Magic Cafe. June 2003. http://www.themagiccafe.com/forums/search_post.php?topic=37656&forum=3&post=304685
Lorayne, Harry. Tarbell Course in Magic Volume VII. New York: Louis Tannen Inc, 1972.
Lorayne, Harry. Apocalypse. Volume I. New York, 1978.
Vernon, Dai. “The Vernon Touch.” Genii Magazine. June 1969: pg 399.