For His Next Trick, David Copperfield Will Put the Country Back Together

David Copperfield Headshot - Publicity - H 2019
Homer Anthony Liwag

The legendary illusionist is mounting a "metaphor" at the Smithsonian, reuniting the long-lost 15th star with the Star-Spangled Banner on Flag Day.

In a 2016 episode of the The Americans, the Cold War action unfurls as actual footage of David Copperfield vanishing the Statue of Liberty — a stunt that aired live April 8, 1983 — plays on TV sets in the background.

It was as audacious a magic trick as ever has been attempted, and one whose potent symbolism was not lost on the show's writers. Thirty-six years later, Copperfield, now 62, says the symbolism was the point.

"The whole piece was based on a lesson on freedom, and how important it is," notes the famed illusionist, who collaborated with director Frank Capra on the script for the performance. "I love doing things that have resonance and inspiration."

Now Copperfield — who grew up in a Jewish family from New Jersey and by age 12 had gained admittance to the Society of American Magicians — is tackling another iconic totem of Americana: the Star-Spangled Banner. 

The massive American flag was raised by U.S. soldiers Sept. 14, 1814, at Baltimore's Fort McHenry to celebrate a key victory over the British during the War of 1812. It's the same flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen an ode to its "broad stripes and bright stars" — what would eventually become the U.S. national anthem.

The flag now hangs in a temperature-controlled chamber at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. And to celebrate its 205th birthday June 14 — Flag Day — the museum has asked Copperfield to conceive an illusion around it.

His idea was to finally reunite the flag with its missing 15th star, which was snipped off long ago and given out as a gift. Like the Statue of Liberty, it vanished — only this time permanently. Copperfield thinks reuniting the star with its 14 siblings after centuries apart will serve as a "nice metaphor." Just don't call it political.

"It’s about things that are undeniable," he says. "Freedom is undeniable. The sum of all of our parts, of who we are, what America is made of, is undeniable. The talents, the ideas, the perspectives of people from all over the world, make our nation a more hopeful nation. Hopefully people on both sides are OK with that idea."

The illusion will take place in front of an audience of 15 brand-new American citizens naturalizing at the museum on Flag Day, in keeping with a Smithsonian tradition. And that's it. Only the invited guests will see the illusion happen live. Camera crews will not be invited in. But video of the illusion will be distributed to media about an hour after the 15th star "reappears."

"We have not seen any rehearsal at all," says Jennifer Jones, chair and curator of the museum's Armed Forces History Division. "But we're really excited."

As for the priceless, gauzy artifact at the center of this event, not to worry: The original, 30-by-32-foot flag will remain in its low-oxygen viewing room, untouched throughout the illusion.

"Only four people have access to that chamber," Jones assures. She is one of them. Copperfield is not.