Ross Bertram: Master Magician
STARS OF MAGIC
When Vernon returned to New York, he spread the word about Ross Bertram and his coin work to magic’s cognoscenti. Ross soon received a letter from George Starke informing Ross of his plans for the Stars of Magic. Starke invited Ross to contribute some of his pet coin effects to the series. Ross accepted the invitation and traveled to New York on three separate occasions to have his tricks photographed by George Karger. Ross’s good friend from Toronto, Norm Houghton, ghost wrote the text for the installment.
The material selected broke new ground. Ross developed Rub Down over dinner one evening when a companion asked him what routine he was currently working on. Ross pulled some change out of his pocket, set the coins in position and improvised the routine. Rub Down gave birth to a new principle in magic, that of having a hand appear to float above the table while concealing a coin beneath the base of the thumb, a move later popularized by David Roth in his Chink-A-Chink.
Ross’ Passing The Half Bucks also had some unique twists and technique. In many ways, it is the first “reverse assembly,” a concept later popularized by Paul Gertner, in that the coins travel from one hand to the other but, in the end, jump back to the original position to the surprise of the audience.
Although Ross was not happy with all of the selections—the Pourous Paw, for example, was included by Starke because of the unorthodox nature of the routine, the Stars of Magic did include Ross’ piéce de résistance—the Coin Assembly.
In 1938, Ross received a copy of Greater Magic. Hilliard’s writing inspired Ross to create a routine that became his calling card. The routine was the Coin Assembly. In The Art of Magic, published in 1908, Hilliard described Yank Hoe’s Sympathetic Coins5—a coin assembly using four coins, a handkerchief and two playing cards. In Greater Magic, Hilliard wrote of how pleased he was to have contributed a perfect trick to the magic literature. A perfect trick implied that it was a trick that “could not be improved.”6
Ross thought this a bold statement. It inspired Ross to create his assembly—really, the first modern matrix.
David Ben Performs Ross Bertram's Coin Assembly
Ross eliminated the use of the handkerchief and created a routine that incorporated three different vanishes. Each vanish was more mysterious that the previous. The routine became Ross’ entrée to magic’s Inner Circle. When Ross first demonstrated this routine to Vernon in 1948 at the combined SAM-IBM Convention in Chicago, Vernon offered Ross the substantial sum of $25 if he would teach him the routine. Ross declined the offer of money, ushered Vernon up to his hotel room and taught him the routine. Vernon, in turn, continued to promote Ross and his work, taking time to introduce him to the movers and shakers in the magic world. It was here that Ross was introduced to Faucett Ross and a lifelong friendship and correspondence would commence.
When “Ross Bertram On Coins” appeared as part of the Stars of Magic in 1951, Vernon included a remarkable letter of introduction. It is worth repeating today:
When I was a boy living in Canada, I met two of the most famous coin manipulators of the time—T. Nelson Downs and Allan Shaw.
Twenty years passed before I ran across anyone who could be compared with these two. Then, in New York City, I met Manuel and the old-timer, Welsh Miller.
Downs, however, towered over the others because he was the originator of this specialized type of act.
Again, over twenty years elapsed before I encountered anyone who stood out form the crowd. Then, in Buffalo, I met Ross Bertram. Here was someone who had made a decided leap forward. His whole approach to the subject was refreshing. His effects were startling and his methods, unique.
I feel he is doing a great favor to the magic fraternity in disclosing his favorite effects.
Ross’ exceptional ability, original thinking and endorsement from Vernon ushered him into the Inner Circle. Ross became friends with such luminaries in sleight-of-hand as Dr. Jacob Daley, Frances Carlyle and Charlie Miller. At Jean Hugard’s request, Ross contributed a series on sleeving to Hugard’s Magic Monthly. Hugard took a shine to the young man and also introduced him to the foremost magicians in New York. Ross fondly remembered Hugard and his kindness. One of the high points for Ross was a private session Hugard arranged for Ross to have with Emil Jarrow—a recognized master of magic and, in particular, sleeving. Ross contributed pet routines to a variety of magic periodicals including The Phoenix, The Sphinx, Genii, The Gen, and The Linking Ring, to name but a few.
Ross also performed at several conventions including the IBM convention in New York City, the first convention to broadcast close up magic through closed circuit television to the convention delegates. Also on the show were Slydini, Cliff Green, and Frank Garcia.
6—Under the title “Sympathetic Coins” in Greater Magic, Hilliard wrote, “Time has proved that Yank Hoe’s routine was perfect. In the years that passed since I gave this perfect trick to the conjuring world no one has added a cubit to its stature or changed its routine. It stands as one of the perfect sleight of hand effects with coins….It is not given to every magician to bequeath a perfect trick to posterity.”