/Film Visits David Copperfield’s Secret Warehouse/Museum to Learn The Magic History Behind ‘Burt Wonderstone’
Posted on Thursday, March 14th, 2013 by Peter Sciretta
When asked if he believes that magic is art, David responds “If its done right, I think it is.”
“If it moves people and is done right… Is movie art? Sometimes not at all, but sometimes it really is and it touches us. Its about the level of craftsmanship you put into it and how it effects people.”
He walks us into another huge room of the warehouse which contains isles and isles of crated boxes. Think about the last shot in Raiders of the Lost Ark… if not quite as big.
“This is where we store all the things. This is 20 hours of material. 20 hours of material for a magician is ridiculous. Houdini had about an hour of material. Contemporary magicians who are famous probably have an hour and a half of material. This is 20 hours of material, that I was forced to do for television. I wanted it all to be really good, its really rehearsed. I once heard a story about Irving Thalberg, he was the head of MGM and Louis B. Mayer was his partner. He ran the studio very artistically and died in his 30′s. He pushed the Marx Brothers to go on the road with the material for their movies. Do it in a theater, find out whats funny, whats not. Work at it, and then we’ll shoot it. I loved that, so every single special I’d take on the road before any cameras were even involved. I’d do it, and it would suck, it would become okay, then good, and finally I’d learn what worked. I would make it review-proof. And this represents 20 hours over 20 years of that stuff.”
He points to a giant old couple crates containing statues. They’re movie props, not Copperfield illusions. He asks if we can figure out where these were from. Met with silence from the group, he looked over to me and said, “King blogger, where would you say these are from?” I guessed “Not Raiders of the Lost Ark?” David responded “A very good guess, as it took inspiration from this movie. AFI Top 3 movie…”
“Citizen Kane” I quickly responded. Yes, David Copperfield owns some of the crated statues from Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu estate in the ending of Citizen Kane. “Orson Welles was a real inspiration to me,” says Copperfield. Many of you might not know, but Orson Welles was also a magician. A couple years ago Copperfield was outbid for Welles’ 1942 Oscar statue. Welles appeared in one of Copperfield’s first tv specials and assisted David with a trick in a tv special taped after his death:
In this corner Copperfield performs a bit of close-up magic. He hands a journalist a bolt and a nut and tells the journalist to examine them and then twist the nut on the middle of the bolt. He puts the bolt on a table and covers it with a plastic drinking cup and explains that he is going to turn back time. He then asks another journalist to slowly pick the cup off the table, revealing that the nut is no longer on the bolt.
As far as I can recall, David Copperfield has never played around with time travel in his magic. But as I mentioned earlier, we saw a new illusion at his Vegas show that involved traveling to the future and brining back a prediction. Time travel is something he’s been thinking about recently for sure. As we walk to the other side of the warehouse, David is asked if he would like to time travel.
“Yes, wouldn’t you? Well you saw the show and saw that piece where I went forward in time and came back, its only part of something we’re developing. But I would love to go back in time and meet Da Vinci. So I’d probably want to go back. The future we build…” David stops himself as he realizes he was beginning to go into a line from his show. “If you could go back in time with the knowledge you have now, it would be really cool and probably unfair — you could take over the world. But… let me take you back in time.”
Copperfield then guided us into his personal museum of magical history. He started collecting and preserving about a quarter of a century ago, and has been preserving this history for future generations.
“These guys lived my life, the same stories. Just as there are writers out there before that had the same jealousies and problems that you had. The same magicians stole stuff from each other. Its not just objects to me — these are stories…”
Copperfield guided us through many rooms, each focusing on different eras or collections of different specific magicians throughout the history of magic. We start in a room which is wall to wall shelves of old magic sets from the early to mid twentieth century.
“I started as a ventriloquist, I was a very crappy ventriloquist. I went to Macy’s magic counter to buy a better ventriloquist dummy and I fell in love with magic. So I stopped doing ventriloquism and started doing magic. The Macy’s magic counter was on the fifth floor in the toy department. I bought my first magic trick… The guy who sold me my first magic trick came to my show 20 years later and gave me the counter that Macy’s gave him, the counter where I bought my first magic trick.”
“I like to do both. I’ve been doing street magic for years. On the China special, half the magic was done on the streets. But I think there is room for both of that. In my show I do close-up magic and I also do big magic. There is something wonderful about making magic happen in your hands, and there is also something wonderful about… you know my inspirations were the big directors and films, so using magic to move people… Doing close-up magic, you’re moving them just with wonder — ‘Wow, how’d you do that, that’s amazing.’ But I think Magic as a tool can be used for many more things — it can make you laugh, make you cry, can make you feel certain things. There is an illusion I do with the car in the show, for that one moment, I look in people’s faces, you could start a religion, a cult. And when the boy levitating in the audience, some totally brand new stuff… its very rewarding to see people react like that. It’s beyond just the wonder of it, its the journey that you can take with it. Films: It was a magic trick with the train coming toward the screen, but the storytellers took it further and thats my job. I took the trick that is magic, the wonder of Magic and add other stuff to it. That’s my contribution to it and probably why I’ve lasted.”
David’s ability to tell stories out of his illusions are certainly what drew me to his performances. He alluded to an illusion he performs now. In my opinion, it’s the best piece of magic in his current act. It is framed by a very personal story about learning magic from his grandfather. When he decided he wanted to make magic his profession, his grandfather stopped talking to him. His grandfather had dreams that were unfulfilled, and didn’t want his offspring to face failure. His grandfather never got his dream car, and never spoke to David before his death.
The story involves a set of license plates that his grandfather had for the car, which were found in his dresser after his death. Copperfield uses this set-up to randomly find audience members to choose numbers, a prediction that ends up being the numbers on the plates. And in the end, he impossibly makes his father’s dream car appear, while being surrounded by audience spectators both around and below.
I’ve seen this illusion a couple times in person, and Copperfield is right. Look around the theater and people are in tears. It’s a beautiful, touching moment. The illusion isn’t just a magic trick, its a combination of a few magical effects, structured in story, and rises to the level of high art.
“My parents told me I couldn’t do this. My mother said… you know the story about my grandfather in the show? It’s not about my grandfather, its about my mom. That piece was created while they were alive so I couldn’t really talk about her. My Mom was really tough with me, and said “You can’t do this” and it was the greatest thing in the world for me, because I wasn’t the type to get shot down with that. I had to prove to myself that I could do this, so I found ways of making magic current and I have to continue doing that.”
Copperfield told historical stories surrounding some of the items, relaying things he learned from this magic history. The deep concern to stay current and be relatable to his audience might stem from Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, widely considered the father of modern magic.
“Magicians use to be guys in wizard hats, but then Robert-Houdin said ‘lets dress like common people, so he dressed in a Tuxedo, he dressed like his audience. Magicians didn’t get that, so magicians kept dressing in tuxedos even though the guy in tails is based on Houdin. But Houdin’s point was to dress like you. … I don’t wear a tuxedo.”
We walk by 10 foot flat files of old magic posters, beautiful carny looking artwork, sometimes over-promising the spectacles.
(photo from WildAboutHoudini)
The highlight of the tour is Copperfield’s collection of Houdini items, an entire room upstairs.
“If Houdini were alive today he would see his entire life surrounding him,” Copperfield proudly exclaims.
Every Houdini movie or book has come to visit Copperfield’s collection for research. The room is filled with all of Houdini’s famous illusions, the metamorphosis trunk, the milk can escape, the water torture cell, the Daily Mirror handcuffs, Houdinis scrapbook with photos of him with all of the stars of the time, including Buster Keaton, Gloria Swanson, Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle and Cecil B Demille, Houdini’s first magic wand, and even his first baby show. David walks over to an old record player and plays us one of two known recordings of Houdini’s actual voice. David owns half of Houdini’s library of books, the other half is in the library of congress.
Another room houses a bunch of magical automatons, self-operating machines like the one you saw in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. One of the machines performs a “cups in balls” trick; another levitates a mechanical woman assistant in the air; and another performs a rising card trick.
Another upstairs level houses isles and isles of magic props. Because David started as a ventriloquist, Copperfield has a small room dedicated to ventriloquist dummies and puppets, including some famous additions like the dummy from the famous Twilight Zone episode “The Dummy.” He’s got Lamb Chop and Hush Puppy, a real Howdy Doody dummy, a replica used in the movie Man on the Moon, and many more.
David says he is currently putting a lot of money away to keep his magic collection for future generations.
“I’m going to create a center for all this stuff, from a legacy stand point I’m going to keep this all together rather than being sold off.”
When asked if he would ever house his collection in a public museum on the Las Vegas Strip, Copperfield quickly responds “No, but I would hold exhibitions.” I wish everyone had an opportunity to see this amazing collection, and that could happen some day. Copperfield told me that he might open sections of the material that don’t give away guarded magic secrets to the public, but there is still is still trying to catalog and organize this extensive collection.
I was only in the Museum for 45 minutes (we were on a marathon tour, David claims tours of his museum usually take at least 3 hours) but I could have easily spent the whole day looking at every item in every room. So much magic and wonder in one building, but alas, not enough time.
Our tour ended shortly afterwards with Copperfield signing photographs we took at the begining of the tour of us being levitated by the master illusionist — a fun illusion not created by a green screen or even photoshop.
You can view a couple more videos from inside David’s museum, from Copperfield’s twitter account: