Is David Copperfield staring at me?
No. That’s ridiculous. He’s in the middle of performing a show for 740 people at the MGM Grand. I’m just so close to the stage that it’s probably difficult for him to avoid making eye contact. I mean, his publicity team seated my friend — a fellow journalist — and me so near the action that we can read the cue cards taped to the ground.
Everyone around us is really into this. I think I saw the lady next to me shed a tear after he dedicated an illusion to his late father. This isn’t the place for two sceptical journalists.
Whoa: He just made a car appear, seemingly, out of thin air. I’m legitimately impressed. But OK, now I’m positive he’s looking at us. He’s looking at us at the end of every illusion! It’s like he’s trying to gauge our enthusiasm, or something. And my buddy isn’t clapping. At all.
Oh. My. God. Copperfield noticed he wasn’t clapping. Copperfield just looked at me, pointed at my friend, then mimicked a yawn. In the middle of his show! In front of the entire crowd!
If only I knew how to vanish into thin air.
A MAGICAL TREK
I’ve just been picked up in a van and dropped off in front of a nondescript factory building about 10 minutes from the Vegas Strip. Copperfield comes outside to greet me in the parking lot. It’s very hot, and he is wearing all black.
For the last 13 years, he has performed 15 times a week at the MGM. I will be attending one of these performances the following evening, but first I’m here to tour Copperfield’s International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts. That’s what the 59-year-old calls his private collection of more than 80,000 magic artefacts, which includes Harry Houdini’s straitjacket, water torture chamber and mirror handcuffs.
He’s spent the last two decades — and hundreds of millions of dollars — amassing the collection, which is not open to the public. Tours are mostly reserved for other magicians or filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro and Louis Leterrier, the latter of whom directed Now You See Me. The magic heist flick — which took the industry by surprise when it grossed $351.7 million (Dh1.29 billion) worldwide in 2013 — included an illusion inspired by one of Copperfield’s. Accordingly, he was brought in as a co-producer on the sequel, Now You See Me 2, whose screenplay he consulted on.
But more on that later. Copperfield is eager to begin the tour, which he clearly has down pat. No less than a minute after we’ve been introduced, he launches into a back story that explains why this place exists.
“So my particular contribution to magic is to combine magic with story,” he says. “And this is a story — my story.”
He points to a sign overhead that reads “Korby’s Men’s Shop.” That was the name of his parents’ clothing store in New Jersey, where he’d hang out as a boy — he was born David Seth Kotkin — practicing magic tricks and helping stock shelves. To pay homage to his late mother and father, he replicated the store in the museum.
He instructs me to walk into the dressing room of the “store” and pull on a tie. A door slides open and now we’re in what looks like a living room. There’s a big leather couch and a table with dozens of artefacts on it; these are items he’s recently won in an auction — at a cost of more than $300,000 — that have yet to be catalogued.
“As a storyteller,” he says, “this is part of how you can inspire other people. Yeah, I got a bunch of stuff. Islands. But I think these things are different. I have an obligation, with these things, to keep magicians’ stories going forward.”
And yes, by the way, Copperfield does have islands. The Islands of Copperfield Bay, otherwise known as Musha Cay, where he stays 10 weeks a year. The rest of the time, he rents out the plush Bahamas digs for $39,000 a day. Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem got married there, he tells me. “On Pinterest, it’s one of the top 20 pinned places in the world,” he says.
Copperfield is rich. Forbes estimates his fortune to be $800 million, making him the highest-grossing entertainer behind only Oprah Winfrey. I know this because he tells me.
“I’m a magician, but on the Forbes list, I’m No. 20,” he says. “And that’s pretty good. Beyonce is not 20. I love her. But Tom Cruise, Beyonce — I’m doing as good if not better than them with a magic show.”
Despite his financial success, it’s obvious that Copperfield wishes magic were more respected. He spearheaded the movement that led to Congressional Resolution 642, which would make magic recognised “as a rare and valuable art form and national treasure.” In practical terms, the bill would allow money from artistic grants to go toward magic as it does for painting, dance or music.
“The art form [of magic] is one that has done a lot of good,” he says. “It’s the snickering that makes me work so hard. ‘Oh, did your mom give you a ride home after your magic show?’ Or people making funny gestures mimicking me. I think that stuff is fun. This is not a story about David Copperfield fighting — well, isn’t the analogy Star Wars? Who are the fans of Star Wars, classically? Nerds. But it makes a billion dollars. Mine is a similar situation.”
In fact, part of the reason Copperfield wanted to be involved with the Now You See Me franchise was because he thought the first film succeeded in helping to make magic “cool” again. The first film followed an elite group of magicians called the Four Horsemen who pull off elaborate stunts that often end with the crowd being showered with money. The sequel — which stars Jesse Eisenberg, Dave Franco, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo and newcomer Lizzy Caplan — follows the Horsemen as they globe-trot, trying to evade the FBI and still impress the public with their illusions.
HOLLYWOOD LOVES MAGIC
Hollywood, at least, has certainly taken an interest in magic. Ridley Scott recently announced plans to make a movie about Los Angeles’ famed Magic Castle, which itself is being franchised to venues in China, the Middle East and Europe. And recently, the trades reported that Sacha Baron Cohen would star in Mandrake the Magician, an adaptation of a comic book strip about an illusionist who defeats evil through hypnosis.
“After Now You See Me, so many people came up to me and said, ‘Oh, I went to see a magic show’ or ‘I went to the Magic Castle,’” recalls Leterrier over the phone. (He served as an executive producer on the sequel, directed by Jon M. Chu.) “It’s not just for nerds. When you do a magic trick well, it’s the best feeling — like telling the best joke in the world.”
Copperfield was unable to visit the set of Now You See Me 2 during production because of his Vegas performance schedule. Instead, he spoke extensively to screenwriter Ed Solomon on the phone for a month, offering advice on how to make large-scale illusions seem plausible.
“We talked a lot about perspective — how no matter what seat you’re in in the house at his show, you get a different show,” recalls Chu, a director best known for G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Step Up 2: The Streets.
“I realised what we do is very similar, except that we’re placing perspective on different things.”
Copperfield understands that as much as he is a caretaker of magic’s legacy, he is also an entertainer. Before we start the tour, he plays a promotional video that touts his 24 Emmy Awards (“More than Saturday Night Live!”) and that he’s sold more tickets than Michael Jackson, Madonna and Elvis.
Copperfield lingers in the section where most of the Houdini stuff is. Sometimes, he admits, he gets in the water torture chamber, just to feel what it must have been like. “I’m a lot taller than him, so my head is kind of curled up,” he says. Houdini, of course, is one of Copperfield’s heroes — mostly because of his marketing savvy.
“Why is he famous today?” he asks. “He’s famous because he did things people could really relate to. He wasn’t famous for doing magic. He was famous for getting out of things. That’s a handy skill. I’d like to get out of that safe, or I’d like to be able to free myself from chains. Easy messaging. Great branding.”
We make our way through the remainder of the museum. Beyond all of the magic memorabilia, he has some funky entertainment items, like the masthead of the Black Pearl ship from Pirates of the Caribbean, Shari Lewis’ actual Lamb Chop and a creepy room full of ventriloquism dummies.
As we near the exit, he hands me a signed photograph — my own piece of memorabilia. At the beginning of our three hours together, he’d asked me to pose for a photo in which it appeared he was causing me to levitate.
Straight out of the Houdini playbook.
OUT OF THE BLUE
“Amy? It’s David Copperfield!”
I’ve been back from Sin City for a few days now, and he wants to check in. Out of the blue, he’s called me three times, and we’re now finally connecting. He’s eager to know: Have I seen Now You See Me 2 yet? Did I get enough material during our interview? And what did I think of his show? You know, the one where he kept clocking my friend and me?
“It did affect me a little bit to see you getting excited and then looking over at your friend to say, ‘Oh, this is so good,’ and seeing his reaction,” he admits. “But please thank your friend for me. Because that’s what inspires me and empowers me to be better. That’s the person that really changes my life.”
MAGIC IS HAVING A MOMENT
Prestidigitations are showing promise this year. And it’s not simply thanks to a group of sexy dudes (plus one Lizzy Caplan) transforming into a puddle in Now You See Me 2 — the sequel to Now You See Me that was oddly not called “Now You Don’t.”
True, the rogue magician troupe can take some of the credit for pushing the narrative back into a discussion about sleight of hand, but really this whole year of culture has been enchanted by the act of illusion. Magic is definitely having a moment, behold!
Syfy’s TV translation of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians novels was received with applause. Penguin Classics released The Book of Magic: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment, an anthology on the many forked roots of the occult.
The boy who lived lives on again in Los Angeles with the construction of yet another “Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” and onstage in London where Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is in previews. L.A.’s Cinefamily is also embracing the magic with its All of Them Witches movie series running throughout June.
And the magic shows no signs of stopping. Marvel is prepping its first magical superhero with the fall premiere of Doctor Strange starring Benedict Cumberbatch. The Magic Castle, inspired by Los Angeles’ secret club for the incantation inclined, has long sat in development purgatory, but now the mysterious feature has been goosed by interest from Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions.
Earlier this spring, Helder Guimaraes amazed Los Angeles audiences with his intimate magic act held in secret locations that were revealed to ticket holders only on the day of the performance. Notable industry magic man Derek DelGaudio has a show at the Geffen Playhouse that among other things features deft card tricks projected on a wall of the theatre. And Neil Patrick Harris is planning an immersive, magic experience in New York.
That’s not to say magic was ever out of public favour. The popularity of this world comes in waves. At the beginning of the millennium, the world of the occult veered slightly away from classic illusions and focused more on large-scale endurance acts. David Blaine was buried alive, encased in a block of ice, shut away in a suspended, see-through box, and submerged for seven days inside a globe full of water. Goth street magician Criss Angel also turned to large stunts to propel his image, and his Mindfreak series aired on A&E for five years.
Lately, the movement seems to have swerved away slightly from the elaborately produced feats of mystery and has re-centred back on the timeless classics and questions... “Is this your card?”
Horror movies like Robert Eggers’ The Witch aren’t a blast of wands and sorcery but rather an organic dissection of old-age mysticism. And for every green-tinted Houdini TV series that fails, eventually one will succeed because the world is thirsty for antique mysticism. Why else would Bette Midler still be fielding questions about a Hocus Pocus sequel 23 years after the original? Truly now is the moment for that old-time magic.