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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
david copperfield, david kotkin magicians, illusionists, jack greenhouse, ken greenhouse, jaquini, metuchen