Mitchell's magic

Mitchell performs at a New Year's Eve show. YouTube has provided a community for would-be magicians.
Mitchell performs at a New Year's Eve show. YouTube has provided a community for would-be magicians. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)

A 13-year-old from Haddonfield amazes audiences with his sleight-of-hand. Magic's popularity with young people is no illusion.

Posted: February 07, 2013

When he was 11, Mitchell Rothstein got the Hanukkah gift of his dreams: a custom-fitted straitjacket.

Not a typical gift, of course, but then neither is Mitchell a typical young man: Soon he was publicly demonstrating his escape technique for his awed classmates.

But that Houdini-like tale is only the beginning. Mitchell has perfected hundreds of other tricks that he shares with audiences at school, in restaurants, at parties, at shows, on tour. And he's all of 13.

There he was on New Year's Eve at one of Haddonfield's popular First Night events, playing to a capacity audience, some who had seen him open for Kreskin - yes, the Amazing Kreskin - the year before and were back for more.

With an easy charm, a natural gift for performing, and Justin Bieber sideswept hair, Mitchell's vibe is decidedly cool - but what about the magic? It wasn't too long ago that kids who did card tricks were deemed nerds or attention-seekers or just plain weird.

Things have changed.

Thanks to a decade of Harry Potter fandom, and the ubiquitous YouTube, which makes those seemingly impossible tricks accessible, presto change-o!, magic's got a second act.

Just ask the audience that watched an hour of Mitchell's legerdemain in December - which, he emphasizes, uses no trick decks or trick props.

Or check in with the most likely critics - other 13- and 14-year-olds.

"Mitch's magic is so cool!" insists Haddonfield middle schooler Donny Siok, 14. Donny, who knows "Mitch" from classes and sports, sees his friend as an inspiration to his classmates. "He does stuff that older magicians do - and he's amazing. Everybody looks up to him."

That includes girls. Katie Pileggi, another classmate who takes honors classes with Mitchell, says: "Magic is the coolest thing ever. And Mitchell is 10 times cooler because he does magic."

What Mitchell does is "close-up" magic, which involves true sleight of hand and is skill-based. His abilities come from study, endless practice in manual coordination, and yes, the ability to distract people for one or two crucial seconds without detection.

How does a king of clubs become an eight of hearts in an audience member's hand? Like a true professional, he'll never tell. As to how he can pluck objects from places they weren't just seconds before? No explanations.

So how did all of this begin?

Blame it on the fog that kept the family indoors during a vacation on Nantucket Island back in 2009. Mitchell, then in fourth grade, didn't know a single magic trick.

But he was definitely bored.

"To pass the time, my dad taught me a couple of card tricks and I got pretty good at them," Mitchell said. "Then I just couldn't stop. I wanted more."

So his dad, well-known antique rug importer Richard Rothstein and a magic fancier himself, took his son to the little Nantucket library, where Mitchell took out every book on magic in the place and devoured them all. It was like Helen Keller finding her voice.

"I realized that I could do the unexpected and amaze people," Mitchell said.

It definitely helps that magic is on the upswing.

At Tannen's Magic Shop on Manhattan's West 34th Street - arguably the mecca for magic since 1925, and a favorite haunt of novice and veteran magicians alike - general manager Jared Molton can attest to the big uptick in kid interest.

"Accessibility to YouTube is absolutely one of the factors that's sparked the current craze in magic for kids," Molton said. "It's a way for kids to access magic because on YouTube, professionals - and 10-year-old kids - share what they know. So it creates an instant community."

The Philadelphia division of the Society of Young Magicians encourages and mentors magicians from 7 to 17 years old and has witnessed more girls becoming members.

"When I first began with the group, typically a girl would show up and find herself the only female," said magician Arlen Solomon, who has led the group since 1991. "But now, at a typical meeting, we might have an almost equal number of boys and girls in our 15-member group."

Molton himself got into magic at 15, right at the start of magic's resurgence. He reports that while some young magicians drop out in their late teens, many go on into adulthood, as he has. And, reports Molton, youth sales at Tannen's are at an all-time high.

So is enrollment for this July's unique Tannen's Magic Camp, held every summer since 1974 on the campus of Bryn Mawr College. Campers from 12 to 20 gather for one week to celebrate their joint passion for making things disappear, reappear, split in pieces, and generally do the unexpected.

The schedule includes stage or close-up magic, magic as an art form, the psychology of magic and, of course, tricks and illusions. The fee is $1,295 for the week, and campers come from as far away as Spain, India, Korea, Germany, and Mexico.

While Mitchell would someday love to attend, he has his own summer ritual at Camp Manitou in Maine, a general-interest camp where he has semi-celebrity status as the kid who can do magic.

So can his friend, Keith Rothschild, of Roslyn, N.Y., another teenage magician at the camp.

Keith, 16, notes that Mitchell is far more advanced than he was at 13. "Mitchell won't give up - he really works at it, and isn't the least bit intimidated by performing magic for adults."

T.R. Mansfield, assistant general manager of On the Border Restaurant in Princeton, has seen that quality firsthand after Mitchell approached him at the company's Mount Laurel franchise a couple of years ago. He wanted to perform for dining customers.

"He was only 11 years old, and I was a little skeptical," said Mansfield, "until I gave him a chance."

Mitchell went from table to table, astonishing patrons with his sleight-of-hand - and his comfort level. "He's been up here to the Princeton restaurant, and we really want him back."

But there are other pulls in this young magician's life, hockey being one of the most persistent. As goalie for the Philadelphia Little Flyers, Mitchell has practice at least three days a week, and two games most weekends.

Still, he manages to get in magic practice most days, often with his two younger sisters, Raquel, 12, and Mia, 8, as his practice audience.

That's what allows him to do at least 10 to 12 shows a year at bar mitzvahs and parties. He gets his bookings via his professional businesses cards, his website (, and a booking agent.

But it's not always at celebrations that he performs. The young magician does his magic for charitable causes and organizations, and makes that a priority.

His father tells the story of how Mitchell taught a very curious 10-year-old staying at the Ronald McDonald House in Camden to master a trick that involved a double lift, an advanced method of hiding a card.

"Mitchell was very moved by her, and he wouldn't leave until she could perform the tricks on her own," said his father proudly. "And when she could, they both felt wonderful."

Says Richard, "When I watch people watching Mitchell perform, I realize that the ability to amaze is - well, pretty magical."

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