On a warm March night in 1973, David Roth, a lanky twenty-one-year-old Brooklyn native with dark eyes, light-brown hair and a prominent forehead, stepped for the first time onto the stage of the Magic Castle in Hollywood, California. Roth was the youngest magician ever to work the venue, magic’s equivalent of Carnegie Hall. Shaking slightly, he sat down behind a felt-covered table and scanned the audience. His eyes landed on an old man in the front row, and his face flushed with recognition.
Dai Vernon, an elegantly clad eighty-year-old Canadian with soft, white hair, a trimmed mustache, and faded blue eyes sat there staring at him from a table supposedly reserved for non-magicians that night. Defying a tradition meant to soothe the nerves of greenhorn performers, the most influential sleight-of-hand artist of the twentieth century had decided to closely observe Roth’s presentation.
Roth opened up a leather pouch and laid several glistening half dollars over the table. Summoning confidence, he grabbed a small brass box and opened it while addressing the audience.
“This is a real magic box with four coins inside,” Roth said, his voice a deep baritone. He threw the four coins across the table and invited a spectator onto the stage to check for smoke and mirrors. “This is the top of the box. This is the bottom. This is the top of the bottom, and this is the bottom of the bottom. And these are the four half dollars that go inside. One…two…three and four… Now watch.”
Roth closed the container. He pointed to his open left hand and clenched it into a fist. With his right hand, he plucked an imaginary half dollar from inside the box, and threw the ethereal coin across the air towards his closed fist.
“The idea is simple,” Roth told the audience, unfurling his fingers, one at a time. “To take one coin out of the box and put it into my hand.”
He opened his fist and a half dollar now rested in the center of his previously empty palm. The audience was transfixed. Roth went on to materialize the rest of his coins from the box to his hand and back again to the box. It was magic.
After a rousing ovation, the audience stood up and began to leave. Vernon, known amongst magicians as “The Professor,” rose to his feet and commanded attention. “Wait!” he shouted, his voice raspy and hoarse, the decades-old product of smoke and drink. “Wait. There’s something I have to say.”
Vernon hailed the New York born magician, calling him the best coin manipulator he had ever seen. In a speech to no one in particular, Vernon cemented Roth’s reputation, comparing him and lifting him beyond other experts he had known throughout his lifetime.
The event marked the beginning of a relationship that would last until Vernon’s death eighteen years later—with Vernon as the teacher, someone who could expand Roth’s knowledge of magic and transform the way he performed it, and Roth as the prodigy, a pupil to whom Vernon could transfer his skills through centuries-old tradition. Together, they may have proved one of the last great examples of what a magician’s mentorship can accomplish.