With David Copperfield

August 6, 2010

Beginning at midnight and lasting for two spellbinding hours (in the early morning of July 12), I was treated to a very rare experience: a tour of David Copperfield’s wonderous International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts in Las Vegas. The tour was personally conducted by the world-class storyteller-illusionist himself.

For the privilege, I am indebted to my longtime friend André Kole—an evangelical Christian who is also a master magician and designer of many of David Copperfield’s stunning illusions. André arranged the tour, which was strictly limited to a handful of conjurers and skeptics (including of course André, magician and president of the James Randi Educational Foundation [JREF] D.J. Grothe, and the noted sleight-of-hand artist Jamy Ian Swiss, among others.) Most of those present were attending the 2010 Amaz!ng Meeting, sponsored by the JREF. (Randi had to cancel at the last minute after an exhausting schedule that would have done in a man half his age.)

The entrance to Copperfield’s wonderland is itself magical. One begins in a replica of his father’s Metuchen, New Jersey, haberdashery, steps into a curtained-off little changing room, and tugs on a tie, whereupon the full-length mirror swings open, and one steps, as it were, through the looking glass into Copperfield’s world of wonder. From a warehouse featuring his sensational illusions, sets, props, costumes, and more, one ventures into rooms filled with magic memorabilia and is thus transported back in time.

Before one’s eyes are such treasures as sixteenth-century conjuring texts, a magical automaton from nineteenth-century magician Robert-Houdin (from whom Ehrich Weiss would take his stage name, Houdini), coins that Wyman the Wizard passed through the hands of Abraham Lincoln, the costume of “Chung Ling Soo” (William Ellsworth Robinson) and the rifle with which he was killed in a performance of the bullet-catching trick, plus many thousands of other items of memorabilia (tricks and props, rare books, original letters, restored posters, etc., etc.) of Herrmann the Great, Madame Adelaide Herrmann (his widow who succeeded him), “Okito” (Tobias “Theo” Bamberg), Keller, Thurston, Houdini, Channing Pollock, Dai Vernon, and so on and on and on. Occasionally a mechanical wonder was set in operation, or an illusion—like the “Decapitated Princess”—was actually brought alive (so to speak).

Several items were of personal interest: a Gilbert magic kit like one I had as a boy that sparked my own career (David was kind enough to humor me by posing beside it for a photo); my friend Doug Henning’s magical trunk, whereby, ca. 1969, I saw him and his girlfriend, a young couple billed as “Henning and Mars,” magically change places on the count of three; and escape artist Houdini’s famous Chinese Water Torture Cell—which, as I got David’s attention by saying, “I used to see every day.” (For three years—1970, 1971, and 1972—I was Resident Magician at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame, and I remember well when Sid Radner, who owned the item, installed it on loan in the museum in Niagara Falls, Canada, with much fanfare: accompanied by Walter B. Gibson, the magic authority and creator of The Shadow , with whom I spent some entrancing time, and James Randi, who performed the upside-down straight jacket escape while dangling from a crane over Centre Street). The historic item has been restored after a fire destroyed the museum at its later location.

Finally, the late soiree ended. We received our own autographed photo, each showing one of us being “levitated” by the remarkable illusionist (can a magician’s photo lie?), and then stepped back out into the real world. And yet, for me, the spell was not broken.