Take Two #5: David Roth
So far in Take Two I’ve looked at a lot of vintage video, along with a piece about Lance Burton who is now retired. But I also hope to focus the lens on some of my contemporaries, and to begin that approach, I’m going to show you magic performed by the man who is universally acknowledged as the finest coin magician (yes, there is such a thing!) of our time, and quite likely, of all time: David Roth.
No less than Dai Vernon said, “David Roth is, flat out, a great magician, and the best coin magician I have ever seen …” And Vernon knew all the others who had been recognized as such before Roth came along and transformed coin magic.
David and I are about the same age and we first met when we were perhaps 17 or so. That’s a very long time ago, and back then I remember seeing him perform his breakthrough coin box routine, that would eventually see publication in 1973 in “The New Stars of Magic” series—a coin box routine without turnovers, a radical idea at the time. I saw his revolutionary DB Coins Across, which fried anyone who saw it, and is still deeply influential decades later (serving as the basis of much of Homer Liwag’s “Four”).
The first time I saw the Hanging Coins, as circumstance would have it, I didn’t see David perform it, but rather Lenny Greenfader, a New York City police detective and enthusiastic amateur magician who was a regular presence at the cafeteria gatherings in Times Square after Tannen’s Magic closed every Saturday afternoon. I saw Lenny do it at the Magic Towne House in the 1970s (Manhattan’s unique close-up magic venue in that era, owned and operated by Dick Brooks and Dorothy Dietrich, who now operate the Houdini museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania). I distinctly and viscerally recall how badly it fooled me.
Cut to several decades later when I was at the first Coinvention gathering in Las Vegas, September 17, 2003, where I roomed with my friend Geoff Latta, an underground legend who was making a return to the magic scene after having gone completely underground for some years. There was a lot of anticipation around Geoff’s appearance, but that’s a story for another day (and, as I write this, Stephen Minch and I are pushing the Latta book of coin magic to the finish line). But the night of the big show at the end of the day-long convention, David Roth sat down to do a formal close-up act of coin magic—in fact, the signature act that he had debuted at the Magic Castle decades before. I knew that act more or less by heart, but the younger crowd in the room, universally caught up in flashy coin-fu magic, exotic concealments, and endless variations on Three-Fly and other fingertip coin work, had never really given this material much of a look, and Roth rocked the room. There were gasps, and cheers, and finally a lengthy standing ovation as a roomful of young coin freaks got set back on their collective heels with an up-close look at the Real Work.
In between, David Roth changed coin magic for all time. Before, there really was only one book about coin magic that mattered, that had taught and influenced us all: The New Modern Coin Magic by J. B. Bobo. I had pored over every page since my teens—and then Roth took all those fundamentals (along with a heavy dose of influence from John Ramsay), flipped and twisted and reshaped and reprocessed them, and turned them out in newly minted form, for a new time and all time to come.
The Utility Switch became the Roth Shuttle Pass, a one-for-one coin switch that is undetectable when properly executed, and is a fundamental tool in the toolkit of anyone who does magic with coins. The coin box had an entire repertoire of new sleights attached to its use. The Vernon Retention of Vision Vanish was refined, standardized and popularized. Unknown and lost concealments were dug out of the literature and re-engineered with a wealth of new applications. Slydini’s signature One Coin Routine was turned into a standup standard. The standard coin assembly was turned into an eye-popping hands-off mystery, a new standard for the ages.
And as if that wasn’t enough, there were more than a dozen formal routines that took the basic effects of coin (and indeed all) magic—vanish, appearance, transposition, transformation—and added new plots to disguise the repetition of these fundamental effects, and to amaze and delight audiences with imaginative leaps and the addition of novel and charming props.
The signature piece of these routines is probably The Portable Hole, first described in Coinmagic by Richard Kaufman in 1981, and while endlessly varied since then, it’s never been improved upon. In this, the magician removes coins from an imaginary purse—a metal snap purse “frame” that lacks a bag—and drops them into a “portable hole”—namely a three-inch circle of black felt—into which they simply and absolutely disappear. Ludicrous as this may sound, this is exactly what he does, with three coins; then he finds the coins back in the invisible purse. He now drops the three coins into the hole a second time, one at a time—and the coins end up in an even more surprising place. The brilliance of this routine lies not only in the remarkable conception of the hole—an entirely different take on making a coin disappear—but also on its utterly ingenious technical construction. It is a Loony Tunes cartoon brought to life, before your eyes: Just as when Wile E. Coyote paints a tunnel on the side of a mountain, only to see the Road Runner run right through the tunnel, so does David Roth lay a portable hole on the table, only to drop three-dimensional objects directly into it.
Unfortunately I could not find a clean version of this routine online that I was satisfied with showing you here. But that’s okay, because I have two videos for your enjoyment, which include several other Roth masterpieces.
This first video is David’s guest spot on the David Letterman Show. Letterman wasn’t very kind to variety acts in those days—he got a little better, at least to some of them, after moving to CBS—and mostly seem to treat variety acts as food, or more precisely, prey. However, despite Letterman’s going for laughs during the spot, Roth remains on track, and as the appearance unfolds, Letterman realizes that he is being repeatedly fooled, and badly, and gives Roth the respect and regard he earns and deserves.
There are three routines here, and while all are influential and included in my already-mentioned inventory of some of Roth’s lasting contributions, the middle piece—the Chinese Coin Assembly—is not only a standard today, but will doubtlessly remain so long after its creator eventually shuffles off this mortal coil. Please, put aside your multi-tasking for five minutes, expand the browser, turn up the sound, and try to imagine you are right there at the table, watching this happen.
If I had to name a personal favorite of all of David’s more elaborate formal routines, besides the Portable Hole, it would be this, The Tuning Fork. The entire conception is as fanciful and captivating as magic can possibly be. For these marvelous four minutes ahead, if you can feel the surrealness of this in your skin, you’re getting the idea.
MORE: TAKE TWO ARCHIVE