The Greenhouse Effect: David Kotkin’s Early Magic Exposure and Performances

By Tom Interval

With temperatures a bit below average for a February evening in Metuchen, New Jersey, frigid weather was probably the last thing on nine-year-old David Kotkin’s mind.

David, a member of Metuchen Cub Scout Pack 70, received an award that night at the pack’s annual Blue and Gold dinner, held at the Presbyterian Social Center on Monday, February 21, 1966. But there was more in store for David than just the award.

David Kotkin, aspiring ventriloquist, circa 1966

David Kotkin, aspiring ventriloquist, circa 1966

At the time, David was practicing ventriloquism, inspired by his television-ventriloquist hero, Paul Winchell. However, sometime within the next year, he developed a serious interest in magic.

The stories of his magical origin vary depending on who you ask, but the one his mother, Rebecca, told was that she and David’s father, Hyman (known as Hy), brought him to Louis Tannen’s magic shop at 120 West 42nd Street in New York City to buy him a new ventriloquist puppet. During that first visit of many, David succumbed to magic’s enchantment and, within a few short years, would perform magic routines, such as the Dancing Cane, better than many professional entertainers, ultimately becoming a household name and the most commercially successful magician to date.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m talking about David Copperfield, whose real surname is Kotkin.

Jack (left) and Ken Greenhouse. Clipping from The Sunday Home News, May 8, 1966.

Jack (left) and Ken Greenhouse. Clipping from The Sunday Home News, May 8, 1966.

Despite Rebecca’s claim, David’s earliest live exposure to magic might have been at that 1966 Cub Scout dinner, most likely before his visit to Tannen’s. The evening’s entertainers were two 13-year-old boys from nearby Perth Amboy, New Jersey: magician Jack Greenhouse, aka “The Great Jaquini,” and his twin brother, Ken, a ventriloquist who called his act “Ken and Clark” (Clark, of course, being the puppet).

I found no written account of which magic routines Jack performed that particular evening, but it’s fascinating to visualize young David—a future magic superstar—in the audience watching the magician instead of being the magician. The Central New Jersey Home News, dated Thursday, February 24, 1966, reported the dinner a few days later, mentioning not only the Greenhouse boys but also David.

It’s not clear what effect the Greenhouses’ performance had on David or if he was friends with them, but it wouldn’t be too long before he, himself, would entertain publicly as a magician. According to John MacIver, a Clementon, New Jersey, resident who grew up in Metuchen the same time David did, Hy’s friend, Mr. Webb, drove David to his first show at the Kiwanis club when David was around 11 or 12.

Although John doesn’t remember more precisely when that show occurred, on February 22, 1969, 12-year-old David performed as “Davino the boy magician” at Watchung Hills Regional High School for a program called “Magic and Movies,” sponsored by the American Field Service (AFS). Here’s an announcement in The Courier-News of February 17, 1969:

While David must have done several more gigs throughout 1969 and 1970, the next record of Davino performing appears in the same newspaper almost two years later, announcing a show he would give on December 5, 1970, at Metuchen’s Franklin School, now the site of a residential development:

Seven months after his show at Franklin School, “the Great Davino,” now 14 years old, performed at Port Reading School #9 in nearby Woodbridge Township, as recorded in this Courier-News clipping from July 19, 1971:

Four months later, on November 21, 1971, “Davino and his Magic Doves” performed pro bono at the Rutgers College Student Center for a charity hosted by a local Kiwanis club. The Sunday Home News announced it two weeks earlier:

I assume the paper copped the phrase from the business card David used around that time: “The entertaining magic of Davino and his Magic Doves.” Here’s an image of the card, courtesy of MacIver, who recently sold it:

The following year, David, a 15-year-old junior member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians (IBM), attended Ring 200 meetings between at least January and June at a church located at 1212 Livingston Ave. in North Brunswick, New Jersey. (For the uninitiated, a “ring,” derived from the classic magic trick, the linking rings, is the IBM’s term for a local branch or chapter of its organization.)

Davino, boy magician, would later become David Copperfield, world-renowned illusionist.

Davino, boy magician, would later become David Copperfield, world-renowned illusionist. Circa 1972.

Between April and September, David’s name appeared in Ring 200’s ring reports, published in The Linking Ring, the IBM’s membership journal. His ring performances included such feats as “a flashy ‘rope to cane’ effect,” a murder-mystery routine by Tony Spina called “Room for Doubt,” a comedy routine called “W.C. Fields Does A Card Trick,” the “Gypsy Thread,” and Karrell Fox’s “The Magician’s Helping Hand.” David’s performances at the ring prompted Jim Angelo, Ring 200 secretary at the time, to write, “Very ingenious, these young [magicians]!” and “A very funny idea, presented well,” referring to the Fox effect.

So it’s easy to see that even from his earliest days as a teenage magician, David preferred doing magic routines with stories—a performance style he honed to perfection and ultimately parlayed into artistic and financial success. However, for the time being, he would continue as Davino, but not for very long. The final published announcement I could find of him performing under that name appears in The Courier News of December 10, 1973, a few weeks before his library “Christmas magic show” on December 28:

Only a few months after that holiday show, in the spring of 1974, 17-year-old David placed an ad in Variety as “Magician-Actor David Copperfield,” probably one of the first printed uses of his new stage name, borrowed from the Charles Dickens character. That ad would lead to his first big break.

Clipping from the Echoes Sentinel, September 5, 1974

Clipping from the Echoes Sentinel, September 5, 1974

A producer in Chicago needed a young magician to play the lead role in a new musical called “The Magic Man.” He saw the ad and auditioned David. Before graduating from high school in June, David negotiated the part. Later that year, after teaching “The Art of Magic,” a class for the Watchung Hills Adult School enrichment program, he moved to Chicago to begin rehearsals.

The musical, in which David sang and danced as he performed a variety of original illusions, opened on December 12 at the First Chicago Center. During this time, the show was well-received, and David even attracted the attention of producer Norman Lear, who expressed interest in having David play the part of a magician in a sitcom, which apparently never materialized. “The Magic Man” ran for eight months, and David returned to New York, where he “starved for a few years,” as he put it in one interview.

David Copperfield (Photo: ABC Television)

David Copperfield (Photo: ABC Television)

That was probably a slight exaggeration because less than a year after “The Magic Man” closed, he starred in his first prime-time television special, The Magic of ABC, appearing with celebrities as they promoted the ABC lineup for 1977. The rest of David’s career is, as the idiom goes, history. For those too young to know that history, David went on to make a total of 18 annual prime-time television specials from 1977 to 1995, star in his own nightly show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, assemble one of the largest magic collections in the world, purchase 11 resort islands in the Bahamas, earn 38 Emmy nominations with 21 wins, and become one of the highest-earning celebrities in the world.

David Copperfield (Photo: Homer Liwag)

David Copperfield (Photo: Homer Liwag)

Whether or not David’s first exposure to magic was Jack Greenhouse’s performance at the Cub Scout dinner on that cold February night so many years ago, one thing is clear: He spent unfathomable amounts of time during his early years honing his unique style and working harder and smarter than most magicians of his day. While he’s done everything from performing film-inspired vignettes to making the Statue of Liberty disappear, David’s greatest feat of magic was transforming himself from a shy, lanky, adolescent ventriloquist into arguably the world’s finest modern illusionist.

 

 

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Blogcast #11: Dinner at the Magic Castle with Kristen Connolly

By Tom Interval

About six years ago, I wrote a blog about the night John Cox and I had dinner with actress Kristen Connolly (The Cabin in the Woods, House of Cards). Kristen was researching the role of Bess Houdini, whom she played in the History Channel’s Houdini, starring Adrien Brody. That’s what Blogcast #11 is all about. Please check it out below or directly on YouTube.

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Easy Impromptu Spell Card Trick

By Tom Interval

You don’t have to be a good speller to do this easy, impromptu spelling trick with a borrowed deck of cards.

Someone shuffles the deck and names any card. You start dealing cards one at a time to the table: one card for every letter of their card spelled out (example: T-H-R-E-E  O-F  C-L-U-B-S). The last card dealt is their card!

Of course, as in most descriptions of magic effects, I’m leaving out a presentational aspect that makes the trick work, but the effect on the audience is exactly as I’m stating it.

The following video previews the tutorial, but you can gain full access by supporting me on Rokfin or Patreon.

 

 

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Easy Cups and Balls Tutorial

By Tom Interval

The Conjurer, Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1500)

The Conjurer, Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1500)

One of the oldest, if not the oldest, magic effects is the cups and balls.

While some magicians still believe it dates back to around 2500 BCE—based on a simple painting on the wall of a burial chamber in Beni Hasan, Egypt—most historians today believe the image depicts two people playing some sort of an ancient game with four bowls.

In his Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium, written more than 2,000 years ago, Seneca the Younger described in Letter 45 a magic trick that somewhat resembles that of the classic cups and balls: acetabula et calculil (Latin for “dishes and dice”).

Seneca’s letter may very well reflect the origin of the cups and balls, but a more modern version was unambiguously depicted in Hieronymus Bosch’s painting, The Conjurer, circa 1500. Bosch’s depiction is probably much closer to the beginning version I teach in my recent 40-minute video tutorial for people who support me on Rokfin and Patreon.

Please watch the following 10-minute preview, like it, share it, and support me on one of the platforms I mentioned. Thanks, and enjoy!

 

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Shoelace Rope Trick Tutorial

By Tom Interval

The first trick I ever learned was to tie my shoes. But I wasn’t very good at it, and the ends always got caught inside the loops, ultimately leading to knots that were impossible to untie. Fortunately, even as a young boy, I loved the mystical arts, and I was able to conquer the shoelace problem with a magical wave and a whisper to the God of Tight Knots. Behold! The entanglements were forever in my control.

Of course, everything I just wrote is a lie, but it makes for good patter (the words that accompany a trick). And you can use that patter effectively while performing the Shoelace Rope Trick. I’d call this tutorial somewhere between beginning and intermediate level. Check out the preview below and support me on Rokfin or Patreon if you want to watch the full video with explanation.

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Magnetic Attraction Card Trick Tutorial

By Tom Interval

We magicians have enough card tricks under our belts to last us ten lifetimes, but it’s always fun to play with new effects even if we don’t need them. Although someone had to have thought of this simple idea, it’s a beginners’ trick I came up with a while back to teach my students. Have a look at the following preview video. If you like it and want to watch the full tutorial, please support me on Rokfin or Patreon.

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Say Stop Card Prediction Tutorial

By Tom Interval

Usually when an audience member says “Stop!”, it’s not a good thing. Unless you’re doing the card trick I’m previewing in the following video (below). Someone stops you at any one of 52 cards. Example: jack of clubs (J♣). “Before we even began,” you say, “I wrote down the name of one playing card on this folded piece of paper.” You unfold it to reveal the jack of clubs! This is a beginning-level tutorial, but experienced magicians can dress it up so it’s more of a professional piece of magic. To access the full video with the explanation, please subscribe to Rokfin or become a patron on Patreon.

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