MAGIC’S BIG­GEST FAN

David Cop­per­field wants to con­jure more re­spect

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - South Broward - - CALENDAR - By Amy Kaufman

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.

ANDREW TOTH/GETTY

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