The evening began well enough, with a stroll through the magic history exhibition. Several dozen pieces from Copperfield’s massive personal collection were on display in the museum’s lobby area. Along with Houdini classics such as the Metamorphosis Trunk and Milk Can, were other crucial historical objects from magic’s golden age, including Thurston's playing cards, Kellar’s Nest of Boxes, and one of Chung Ling Soo’s Bullet Catch rifles. There was even Alexander’s (“The Man Who Knows”) turban. Though small in scope, the exhibition provided an amazing (and rare) glimpse into what is purported to be the largest and most important magic history collection in the world, and privately owned by Copperfield.
A nice touch was a separate “magic shop” area containing a re-creation of a magic display counter that would have existed during Copperfield's youth. Also on view was a balsa wood Floating Cane, made by Fantasio, that was Copperfield's trademark trick when he was a youngster performing as “Davio.” There were even some of his early business cards he used as a kid.
Last, but not least, on display, was Copperfield's imposing Buzzsaw apparatus from one of his TV specials - the circular blade slowly turning and threatening a cardboard cutout of the magician.
The talk with Copperfield was held in an intimate theater with a full house of about two hundred people. The audience seemed a mix of wealthy New York museum circuit-goers, Copperfield fans, (both young and old, including a few fathers and sons), and general interest magic history buffs. Before entering the theater I met an elderly gentleman who told me he had seen Blackstone Sr. perform! He was delighted when I informed him that I had seen the son, Blackstone Jr.
The stage was the usual interview set-up with two-chairs and a small table. An associate of the museum introduced the moderator, “Congressman Mark Pocan, who represents Wisconsin's 2nd District, has performed magic since the age of 8 and, most recently, has worked with David Copperfield to pass a “Magic as an Art” resolution in Congress.” I knew that Pocan would be moderating, and it was one of the reasons I bought a ticket to this event, thinking that the two of them would discuss this fascinating new magic resolution.
A small red flag of what was to come occured when the museum associate described Copperfield as having sold, “billions of dollars” worth of tickets. She laughed, and said, “I guess that’s history, in a way.” Pocan then came out and said some kind words about Copperfield before showing a little video meant to illustrate how David Copperfield's name has entered into the pop cultural lexicon. There were a few clips from movies (Ant Man) and TV where an actor said something along the lines of, “He pulled a f*cking Copperfield!” or “He Copperfield the sh*t out of it!” I don’t know why, but several of the clips used foul language in conjunction with the lines. There was even a clip from an Apple developers conference where Jony Ive, or one of those guys, said, “I’m gonna pull a Copperfield here,” as he whisked away a cloth to reveal an Apple product. The whole video seemed kind of like a tacky way to begin the talk. Just as it was ending, Copperfield himself bounded onto the stage as (some) people cheered.
Without being prompted by Pocan, Copperfield launched into a monologue about being happy to be here, and some generalities about magic. And then began what would turn out to be the format and content for the entire talk - Copperfield bringing up one of his famous illusions, and then narrating over a video of the illusion from his TV special or Vegas show. At first, I thought, “OK, we’re going to get some background on Copperfield and see a few of his illusions - this will probably last for twenty minutes or so” (of the one-hour talk). For instance, clips from the famous Disappearing Statue of Liberty illusion were shown, including also, ones from The Americans TV show, where an entire episode was based around the trick. Copperfield was rightly proud of this homage, and he told the story of how he co-wrote the “liberty” speech from that trick with Frank Capra (no mention of the illusion’s creator, Jim Steinmeyer).
There was a lot of what seemed like name dropping, including mentioning how Copperfield met with the actor Christopher Reeve to ask him for tips on “flying” for his upcoming TV special (The crucial tip: know how to “land” properly), and how Ronald Reagan gave him permission to vanish the statue. Other tricks Copperfield narrated over included the “One” illusion from his Vegas show, a motorcycle disappearance, Snowstorm in China from a TV show, the Buzzsaw illusion, and of course, his famous Flying illusion. All of these were interesting to some extent, but as the evening progressed, it became clear that this was the talk. At some point, Copperfield did speak a little about the treasures he brought for the exhibition, but even then, it seemed more about him than the artifacts or history. For example, in talking about the Houdini memorabilia in the museum’s lobby, he brought up that Houdini’s house in Harlem was recently sold, and that he, Copperfield, had purchased Houdini’s bookcases from the home. He said that was “cool” because he also owned Houdini’s books, and that once the refurbishments on the bookcases were finished in a week or so, the books would go back onto their original bookcases. He received a smattering of applause for that.
At no time during the entire hour was the “Magic as an Art” congressional resolution even mentioned. And after the “Flying” illusion and narration ended, so did the talk, with no question and answer period.
When the lights came up, I turned to the two gentlemen who were seated next to me. Before the talk I had learned that one of them was a magic collector and fan of Copperfield, and his friend was a professional magician who worked in Long Island and Queens. They were as shocked as I was, with one mentioning, “It was a history of Copperfield rather than a history of magic.” Indeed it was, and that wouldn’t necessary be a bad thing, except that this was the opening talk for a summer-long historical magic event at the New York Historical Society. It was just outright odd and awkward for the talk to be completely centered on Copperfield himself. After all, the description for the talk was described thusly in the museum’s brochure and website:
“Magic has the power to inspire, amaze, and make the impossible a reality. How did sleight of hand and grand illusion evolve into one of the most fascinating and intricate performance arts in history? In an illuminating conversation with Congressman Mark Pocan, the world-renowned magician David Copperfield uncovers the history of magic from its origins, including well-known figures such as Georges Melies and Harry Houdini.”
Finally, I don’t want to judge Copperfield’s character or motives, but I would be remiss not to mention that everything that came out of his mouth sounded practiced and staged. It was kind of eerie. Every story seemed like he had told it a million times before. What should have been a casual conversation came off as a performance. I’ll just say it: Copperfield seemed very vain and fake. It was uncomfortable to watch, and you could feel the uncomfortableness in the audience as well, especially during the second half of the hour when it became apparent that this was the Copperfield show, not an intellectual discussion of magic history or magic’s place in the arts.
I have seen David Blaine being interviewed live at the New York Public Library, and Ricky Jay being interviewed live at the Paley Center for The Arts. Both were sincere, thoughtful and spontaneous (and both performed magic, by the way). Copperfield, speaking at an event with a clear historical theme, was the opposite of those magicians. Sadly, he comes across as a very wealthy, kind of over-the-hill, highly vain entertainer, who still performs, “660 shows a year,” including, it seems, this one.