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.
Recently, due to the unfortunate passing of Professor Bobby Baxter last year, we were lucky to receive a large collection of his handwritten letters, notes, etc. which we have been carefully going through in the hope of staging an exhibition on this great master of comedy and magic. Currently, however, we thought we would whet your appetite by disclosing a few of the jokes we have discovered, while going through everything, that we thought were particularly humorous. We are not sure if they are all original with Mr. Baxter, but hopefully they may provide a laugh or two:
- What is a royal flush? A drink made of Royal Crown and Prune Juice.
- I’ve reached an age where my back goes out more than I do.
- I tried to write a song about drinking, but I couldn’t get past the first two bars.
- At the hotel I called down for some Southern Comfort, and they sent up a maid from Memphis.
- Been thinking of buying an expensive see through shirt, but it seems a shame to spend so much to see so little.
- If you cross a fly with an elephant you know what you get? A zipper that never forgets.
- If you’re old try to live til Tuesday.
- Make old age fun, share your teeth with a friend.
- Remember, you don’t have to be an elevator to get the shaft.
Okay, hopefully those were enough to brighten everyone’s day. Please check back from time to time to see what other gems we have managed to locate.
*Photo by Bill Wadman at Bobby Baxter’s apartment; http://www.billwadman.com.
Best wishes from Conjuring Arts,
I recently had a spirited conversation with a group of magic collectors over the pros and cons of our very own database: Alexander – The Computer That Knows. Some suggested that any publisher who allowed his books to be scanned and uploaded onto the data base, was diluting the value of his books. The thinking being, if the information is available on line, why would anyone purchase a hard copy of the book? Others believed that the availability of this wealth of information far outweighed the potential loss of revenue to the publisher. As the owner of a niche publishing house myself (Mike Caveney’s Magic Words) it might surprise some to learn that I came down firmly in favor of the fattest possible Alexander. To my way of thinking, it’s a no brainer.
Fortunately for me, people who collect books on magic have an inherent flaw: they like the way books feel in their hands. Of course they enjoy the information these books contain but they also like the dust jacket, the gold stamping, the printed end sheets, the feel of the paper, and they enjoy seeing the spine of that book as is sits on their bookshelf. All elements that are not provided by a database. The fact that every word of these books is now on line does not change the fact that they enjoy holding that bound volume in their hands.
You might also say that with the advent of the Alexander database, I can take my entire collection of periodicals to the paper mill and have them pulped. Why not, its all on line anyway. Think of the space you’d save.
The truth is that Alexander has made my periodical collection even more valuable to me. There is nothing I enjoy more than finding numerous obscure references to some arcane subject on the Alexander database, then walking downstairs, pulling the original magazines off the shelf and settling into a comfortable chair to peruse magic history in its original form. Alexander has directed me to magazines that I haven’t peeked into for years and for that he has my undying gratitude.
And lastly, the number of people who are willing to join the Conjuring Arts Research Center so they can gain access to our wonderful pool of knowledge is not that large. I imagine they are mainly people actively engaged in the writing of a book or article about a subject that I will most likely enjoy reading. If having my books included in this pool of knowledge assists them in their task, and ultimately results in a more complete article, then we all win. And if that researcher finds him or her self reading a digitized book filled with interesting text, they might just decide to buy a copy. All of a sudden, instead of losing a customer, I just gained a new one.
If there is a down side to the Computer that Knows, I just don’t see it.
Having been studying and writing about magic history for over 30 years now, it has been remarkable to witness the changes that technology has brought to the task of research.
As a teenager, in about 1975 B.C. (Before Computers) I would spend hours in the downtown Seattle Public Library pouring over old copies of the New York Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, looking for ads and stories about the great magicians of the past. In those days, the Periodical Desk at the library would hand you huge bound volumes containing real, honest-to-goodness copies of the newspapers. I remember well the musty smell of ancient newsprint. I also remember reading the stories about the death of Houdini, looking at the same newspaper that someone else had, a half century before me. A few years later, when the library converted their files to microfilm, all of these wonderful bound volumes of newspapers vanished. Visits to the library were never quite the same again for me. I missed the smell of history.
Most serious magic historians own complete files of Sphinx, Genii and other periodicals, as well as libraries filled with the most popular books on the subject from the past 130 years (if one uses Hoffmann’s Modern Magic as the starting point for popular magic literature.) While that great smell of history is there, the real key in research is in finding the material when you need it.
Jack Potter made the Herculean effort to index and cross reference every popular trick and effect published roughly from 1876 through the early 1960’s, sharing his results serially as Potter’s Bar in the Linking Ring, and later as a series of volumes from Micky Hades. Potter’s index was an amazing feat in itself during those pre-computer days. However, Potter was interested only in documenting references to tricks and methods, not news and personalities from the magic world. This was in keeping with the times, when most magicians were primarily interested in the techniques and not the people who made the magic.
The magic historian was left with the task of sorting through thousands of pages in books and magazines, literally one line at a time. Hour upon hour could be spent searching for one reference. At times it was akin to looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
With the advent of the computer age, and the OCR software necessary to scan printed pages and convert them to pixels, a whole new world has opened for the magic researcher. Bill Kalush and Conjuring Arts have certainly led the way in our field.
No longer is it necessary to sit cloistered in a library. Now, with a laptop computer and an internet connection, one can relax at their local Starbucks with a cup of coffee and watch as the history of magic unfolds before them.
My latest project is writing the definitive biography of Harry Willard, and the saga of those who performed as “Willard The Wizard.” While I have accumulated many great stories about Willard, due to the nature of his traveling life many of the dates and places of those events have fallen through the cracks. So recently, I called upon the Ask Alexander database for help. Within seconds of typing “Willard The Wizard” on my keyboard, the search engine found 152 references to Willard among 62 documents in the Conjuring Arts collection.
Besides the usual magic publications, it was interesting to find references from non-hobby sources, such as The Billboard magazine. For example, in his January 17, 1948 Magic column, Bill Sachs wrote: “Caught Willard the Wizard in Carmine, Texas. He carries seven people and 16 illusions and gives a two-hour show. Well timed and perfect.” Sachs was a seasoned theatrical reporter, who had seen all of the greats of the era, which makes this short notice especially interesting. Two weeks later, in the January 31st column, Virgil wrote to Sachs: “One who has never caught Willard’s performance can’t conceive of the magnitude of the show. Willard has most all of the big illusions that have been done by other magicians plus a few of his own creation. The numerous trucks and trailers he uses give his show the appearance of a circus.” These notices are just two examples of the type of material that one could have previously spent days searching for, but is now available in just seconds via AskAlexander.org.
So what does this technology hold for the magic historians of the future? Much like television was in 1948, we are just beginning to unravel the potential of internet-based research tools. No doubt new research could be done on just about any figure in the history of magic and today you’d find more information than even one year ago, thanks to the databases now available. For the first time to the magic historian, the future is starting to look as interesting as the past. Now if they could just bring back that great musty smell….
My wife, Tina Lenert, and I were recently invited to perform at a magic festival in Badalona, Spain, a suburb of Barcelona. It was not a magic convention, but rather a festival geared to the lay community. We did three shows in a beautiful, hundred-year-old theater and the sold-out audiences were great.
Before leaving the States, I was told that this festival was honoring that great magician from the past – Chang. Upon hearing this, I was immediately transported back to age thirteen when I attended my first real magic show: Milt Larsen’s It’s Magic. The closing act was Chang – Latin America’s Greatest Magician.
I thought it a bit odd that a festival in Spain would be honoring a Panamanian illusionsit but that didn’t stop me from pulling a number of posters, programs and photographs out of Egyptian Hall Museum and carrying them with me to Spain. I thought I would surprise them with a nice display.
Every night after the show the entire cast enjoyed a huge dinner that never ended before 1:00 am. On the first night we were joined by Joan Maria Forns, the son of Chang. He was anxious to see what I had so I ran back to the theater to retrieve my treasures. Upon seeing the first photograph Joan said, “That’s not my father.”
Now it was my turn to be surprised.
To make a long story short: there were two Changs. The man that I saw in my youth was Juan José Pablo Jesorum and he was indeed born in Panama on December 2, 1889. Early in his career he used the name Li Ho Chang, later shortening it to simply Chang. He enjoyed a very long career that took him to Australia, China, Africa, India, Europe and America but his greatest success came in Central and South America where he lived and worked most of his life.
When I saw him in 1963 he was well past his prime at the age of 74. Being the first great illusionist I ever saw, my memories of him include gorgeous costumes, beautiful girls, well-trained assistants and huge illusions. Many years later, Milt Larsen told me the real behind-the-scenes story.
Milt had been instructed to meet the Great Chang at the bus station in downtown Los Angeles. There he encountered an old man carrying two battered suit-cases. Milt looked around for the truck carrying Chang’s show.
He soon learned that the suitcases were filled with costumes and a few tricks. That was the show.
Springing into action, as he had so many times before, Milt rallied the forces. Bob Towner, Bob Fenton, Bev Bergeron and George Boston were enlisted as assistants and there were always plenty of pretty girls around the newly opened Magic Castle. Some illusions were trucked in from Dante’s ranch. Having spent his entire career presenting a full-evening show, Chang was in no way intimidated by the props and people that now swirled around him. His vast experience and abilities as a showman would serve him well. To a wide-eyed, thirteen-year-old kid, this master mystifier commanded the stage and did not disappoint.
The father of the man I was dining with in Badalona, Spain was named Joan Forns and he also enjoyed a long career performing a Chinese magic act as Li-Chang. As a young man he had seen Fu Manchu’s spectacular show and by 1933 he had assembled his own show and was performing at Circ Olympia in Barcelona. It would appear that most of his career was spent in a circus ring. Europe has always been home to dozens and dozens of small, one-ring circuses and they often featured a magician. Of course Li-Chang’s act had to be carefully constructed to safely work in the round but once that was accomplished, he found plenty of work on the “sawdust circuit.”
It would also appear that the majority of Li-Chang’s career was spent performing in Spain though he did make limited forays into France (at the Moulin Rouge in 1956), England (Bertram Mills Circus 1964), Italy, Portugal, Germany and North Africa.
In 1947-48 Panama’s Chang was appearing in Barcelona, Spain and it was here that the two Changs finally met.
Juan Pablo Jesorum was still performing at the age of 82 when he died in Yucatan, Mexico in 1972. Joan Forns died at age 81 in Barcelona, Spain on January 12, 1998.
Before leaving Badalona I was given a full-color book published by the Badalona Museum in 2004 on the life of Joan Forns: Li-Chang. The text is written in Catalan (a language spoken in the northeast region of Spain) but it is filled with beautiful graphic images from througout Li-Chang’s long career.
Returning home, I checked the usual sources (David Price, Milbourne Christopher) and found no refrence to Spain’s Li-Chang which led me to suspect that I was not the only one who believed in the one-Chang theory.
Having recently examined a number of photos, programs, letters, Christmas cards, newspaper reviews and posters, I now believe that Panama’s Juan José Pablo Jesorum was always called Li Ho Chang early in his career and Chang later on. Spain’s Joan Forns always used the name Li-Chang.
Egyptian Hall has a number of Li-Chang posters subtitled El Demonio Amarillo (The Yellow Demon). I always assumed that these advertised Panama’s Chang but I now believe that they were printed for Joan Forns in Spain (perhaps Valencia) in 1946.
I would like to thank Enric Magoo for inviting us to Spain where this entire mystery was ultimately solved. And thanks also to Joan Maria Forns, son of Li-Chang, who spent years working as an assistant in his father’s show, for a wonderful evening of stories that brought another small piece of magic history into clearer focus.
During the first couple of decades of the twentieth century “ask Alexander” meant drop a question (along with a dollar bill) into an envelope and send it to 239 South Oxford Avenue in Los Angeles. By return mail your question would be answered by Claude Conlin aka Alexander the Man Who Knows.
These days, to magic historians around the world, “ask Alexander” are the words spoken just before you sit down at your computer and type a name into AskAlexander, the Conjuring Arts Research Center’s massive data base. Claude Conlin pretended to have all the answers but AskAlexander seemingly does have all the answers.
A few months back I needed some answers about Alexander the mentalist and instead of visiting my favorite web site, I turned off my computer and actually visited The Man Who Knows. OK, it was the son of The Man Who Knew but at this late date, that was as close as anyone was going to get to the man.
In 2004 I published David Charvet’s book on Alexander and it proved to be the fastest selling book in our series of Magical Pro-Files. Within eighteen months, it was out of print. During that time, Alexander’s son, John Conlin, moved from Arizona to within a half-an-hour drive from my house. David Charvet and I joined him for dinner one evening and we soon learned that he was indeed a chip off the old block. The stories were unceasing and each one was more incredible than the last.
I believe John Conlin is the only person I’ve ever met who can say he shook hands with Harry Kellar. When John described a photo he had of a Pantages Theater with crowds of people lined up outside and a huge Alexander billboard visible above the entrance, I said we would love to see it. “Sure,” John said, “it’s up in my room.” Later that evening he pulled four huge scrapbooks out of his closet and said, “Here, it’s in one of these.” David and I sat there slack-jawed as we paged through the mother lode of Alexander memorabilia.
Any thoughts I had of merely reprinting the Alexander book vanished in an instant. Anything less than a whole new book would be an insult to this wonderful archive. With the generous help of John and his son, Alexander Patrick Conlin, these scrapbooks traveled to the Magic Words office where dozens of images were scanned. And just when David thought his days of researching the life of Alexander were over, he was back in the thick of it.
Since the publication of the first book, I have come to know Cathy Stevenson, granddaughter of Alexander’s brother, CB Conlin, and the Conlin family historian. Cathy agreed to organize the results of her considerable research into an appendix. Here we learn that CB Conlin starred as Psycho in his own mind-reading act and experienced adventures that rivaled those of his infamous brother.
The new expanded edition of Alexander – The Man Who Knows is now available at Mike Caveney’s Magic Words