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One of Las Vegas’ under-the-radar treasures is famed illusionist David Copperfield’s private magic museum, located in a warehouse off the Strip, which has been visited over the years by the likes of Taylor Swift, Guillermo del Toro, Hugh Jackman and producer Jason Blum.
Now, Copperfield has published a book that documents his immense trove of memorabilia, from Harry Houdini’s Water Torture Cell and Richiardi Jr.’s rotating buzz saw to the rifle that killed magician Chung Ling Soo after a failed attempt to do his famous bullet-catching feat.
In David Copperfield’s History of Magic (Simon & Schuster, $35), he uses the objects in his collection as jumping-off points to tell tales of the fascinating, sometimes diabolical and ever-inventive magicians who preceded him and why they are worthy of attention.
Among other items, his collection contains a dress said to have been worn by Adelaide Herrmann, the self-proclaimed Queen of Magic in the 1800s; Buatier de Kolta’s Expanding Die, a “fiendishly difficult feat to perform … which really does grow from eight inches to three and a half feet in the blink of an eye”; Howard Thurston’s “The Disembodied Princess,” a trick in which his assistant’s head and legs would remain in place while her mid-section vanished.
Copperfield spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his future plans for the museum, including its long-term preservation, why he’s never attempted the bullet-catching trick, and how his own magic secrets ended up on the moon’s surface.
What’s a holy grail object that you’d like to obtain for the museum?
The holy grail would be the conversations with those people. The objects open the doors, but the stories are the point.
You famously made the Statue of Liberty disappear in 1983. In recent years, a number of people have attempted to explain how you did it, including by having the spectators all stand on a sort of giant lazy Susan that turned so slowly no one noticed. What do you say to that?
Well you know, it’s amazing. There are so many versions of how I do my things out there and people are surprised when they go on the internet — “Well somebody is revealing your secrets.” Guess what? You know who made that? I made those misdirected method videos. People actually believe that those methods were real when actually they are kind of a fantasy thing to throw people off.
Have you ever wanted to do the catching bullets trick?
No, because you don’t want to have some kid copy you. I’ve done a lot of dangerous things. I escaped from an imploding building, but that’s a hard thing for a kid to copy. I did an underwater escape in a tank of water and a performance in a straitjacket and went over Niagara Falls. Hard to duplicate.
It’s amazing to me that you have pennies in your museum that President Lincoln held in his hand.
They went through his hand. It’s a classic of magic. It is not done that much today, where you do a penetration of going through objects. In this case, it’s through someone’s hand. It went through Lincoln’s hand. Lincoln liked magic, and I loved that.
Have you made any changes to the magic museum recently?
It’s gotten amazing. We built a whole library, a whole research center. We just did a tour last night for a guy who worked at the magic shop Tannen’s as a 14-year-old back in 1954. I re-created the shop at the museum. People start crying and getting very emotional. It’s kind of a lost world that really shaped a lot of people’s lives. So much of culture has been informed by the idea of shared wonder.
Your whole museum started because of one collection of items you were offered, right?
At the very beginning, there was a guy named John Mulholland. He was a friend of Houdini but [also] a magic historian and a performer. He also worked for the CIA on using magic techniques during the Cold War and even earlier. His collection was sold, was given to the Players Club in New York and kind of sat there. People kept secretly taking things out of it. Eventually, another guy bought it. He got into legal trouble and it was put up for auction by the government. What happened was I was brought in to buy it. It was going to be split up. Somebody said to me, “You can’t let that happen. The collection is a very important thing.” I bought it, and I really didn’t look at magic history that much at the time. I was really inventing new illusions. I was going forward. I never looked back.
So, what changed in your outlook?
In retrospect, I really should have looked back. After I bought the collection to rescue it, I learned about the stories of all these individuals. It’s all about these incredible stories of people who really changed history and changed the world using technology and using techniques that didn’t exist before. They first existed as magic effects, and society benefits by using them in everyday life.
What sort of inventions?
The first smart home to exist was by magic effects. Now every grocery store, the door opens by itself. That started as a magic effect. Movies, cinema was magic effects You’d go and watch a train coming at you and it was magician George Méliès who decided we are going to tell stories with this. He bought the theater of Robert Houdini and performed his magic and then embraced this new technology. If you saw the movie Hugo, it tells the story very well.
One of the first illusions to be created was by Houdini, which was called the Ethereal Levitation. Ether, the chemical that can put you to sleep, was a brand-new thing in the 1840s and people were talking about it. “Wow, a chemical you can put up to the nose and people fall asleep!” Oh my God. An incredible thing. He incorporated it into the show by levitating his young son and wafting ether through the audience. He layered that idea onto the levitation to give it current conversation. Twenty years ago I was in France and some French historians put the gimmick for that Ethereal Levitation in my hand, the original one made by Houdini, and I began to cry. It was the beginning of everything I was involved with. Much like Guillermo del Toro came to the museum a number of years ago and he saw all the Méliès stuff. He got very emotional and he said, “Well, it’s the very beginning of everything. It’s why I do what I do.” Because Méliès started that whole culture of using film technology to tell stories.
Any plans to keep expanding the museum?
The next steps are all the magic sets. I have the most amazing collection of magic sets. We’re going to do a collection of those and of puppetry, all of the things owned by Edgar Bergen and Shari Lewis and Paul Winchell, who was the voice of Tigger, and more. I have all of those things.
How will you preserve the collection long-term?
I’ve spent three decades putting these stories together and my goal is to endow it, to make sure there’s enough money to create a foundation that preserves it. And to make sure people can come through there on a basis that will preserve its secrets. I can’t really have public tours of the museum. There are so many secrets involved.
So you’re saying there are secrets of other magicians that you don’t want to be revealed that are in the museum?
Thousands and thousands of them. It’s all that. There are more books on magic they say than on everything except medicine. That’s how much literature there is. Magicians love preserving their legacy and their secrets through books, and those things are held very precious and maintained.
And are all of the secrets to your illusions also somewhere in the museum?
My stuff is actually in a very special place. We put all of my secrets etched into nickel discs which will last forever. Nickel will last for billions of years. It’s all miniaturized and you need a microscope to see it. And we blasted it off in space and it actually crash-landed on the moon with a lander last year. And so my secrets are literally on the moon. That package of knowledge might be found someday. It’s pretty amazing to walk out of your house and think, “My stuff that I touched and worked on my whole life, I preserved in a non-degradable form on our moon,” which is pretty incredible.
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A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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