MAGIC’S BIGGEST FAN
David Copperfield wants to conjure more respect
Is David Copperfield staring at me?
He’s in the middle of performing a show for 740 people at the MGMGrand. 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.
This isn’t the place for two skeptical 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. 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.
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 59year-old calls his private collection of more than 80,000 magic artifacts, 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 worldwide in 2013 — included an illusion inspired by one of Copperfield’s. Accordingly, he was brought in as a co-producer on this weekend’s sequel, “Now You See Me 2,” whose screenplay he consulted on.
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.” “The art form (of magic) is one that has done a lot of good,” says David Copperfield, shown with partner Chloe Gosselin at the “Now You See Me 2” premiere in New York.
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 artifacts 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 cataloged.
“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 highestgrossing 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 recognized “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.
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.