My Visit With David by Doug Thornton
Our hero, my hero, everyone’s hero in magic, David Copperfield, probably works as hard as the combined SAM membership. Maybe that’s a big statement but there are facts that back it up. David performs 15 shows a week, including three on Saturdays, without a day off. (OK, he does take 10 weeks off from performing on the MGM stage in Las Vegas.) He has an incredible museum that covers the history of magic. He is always updating it. Plus he has not ten, but eleven islands in the Caribbean where he also works creating new effects and experiences for the vacationing visitors.
Passion, Preparation, and Persistence. That’s David’s mantra and from that he does not waver. Your humble scribe (that’s me) followed those steps to arrange and participate in a Zoom chat with David.
First, a little background. SAM 161 was originally subtitled “Cards, Coins, and Crystal.” In 1998 our fearless President Jim Flood mailed a letter (young people, google it) to David asking if we could use his name for our club. Why? A number of the old-timers from the club were friends with David from his days growing up in Metuchen, New Jersey. They knew him from the SAM Parent Assembly as well as other magic gatherings. A Saturday or two later, Jim’s phone rang (his landline - again, Google will clarify) and Jim’s daughter answered. “Dad, it’s David!” “David who?” “David Copperfield!” David thanked Jim and said he'd be honored to have his name associated with our assembly. Months later, David was appearing at the NJ Performing Arts Center in Newark. We chartered a bus and when we picked up our tickets, ready to sit in the fourth tier, we were happily surprised that David had upgraded our 50-plus group to the tenth through twelfth rows downstairs on the Orchestra Level! Near the end of his fantastic show, just before his Flying illusion, David took a couple minutes to talk about SAM 161 and he thanked us by having us stand and wave to the crowd. Afterwards, David took time to chat and take photos with all of us, and we presented him with SAM 161 David Copperfield Assembly Certificate Number One (which Jim had created).
Over the years, I’ve been Vice-President and President of our club and I’ve kept in touch with David and his staff, seeing his show in Las Vegas and Atlantic City as well as in Tokyo when I lived there. When I go to MAGIC Live in Vegas I always stay a few extra days to see David’s and others’ shows. This year the get-together was moved from August to May, but David was scheduled off that week. I asked David if we could Zoom a week before and he agreed to do it in his museum.
I took an Uber to his gated warehouse, which is a short ride from the Orleans Hotel & Casino, and after ringing the bell I was happy to see my friend John Signa appear from the front doorway to allow me inside. By the way, I took the tour many years ago, conducted by David and Chris Kenner, but it was before some of the exhibits were there: Tannen’s, the library, as well as the puppets and magic sets rooms (both of which are still being fine-tuned). On that day, it was an honor to see Marvyn Roy admiring the homage to him, the Mr. Electric display. Paul Kieve and Dale Hindman were also in our group. I was amazed seeing the Singing Lesson, uncovered, inches from my gaze. Houdini’s Water Torture Cell and other items fascinated me.
But this year I was not there for a tour. David’s tour has evolved into a unique experience, with lights, music, and story, just like his shows, so that full experience will wait for another day. I respect that David likes to create a special experience. Still, as I walked up the staircase in the two-level Golden Age of Magic room, I think I did hear music, perhaps magical angels beckoning from another world…ethereal music perhaps emanating from a past performance of Robert-Houdin’s Ethereal Suspension. It’s astonishing to see so many beautiful and elegant pieces from the past. And it is impossible to take them all in at once, but the feelings of joy and the thought of these pieces from these great magicians entrancing audiences all over the world for a couple centuries is remarkable. (Alan Howard has more details about the museum in the December 2021 M-U-M.)
OK, so let’s say you love rock and roll, your heart is hungry for it, and you’re visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and you sit and chat with Joan Jett for an hour, or with a Jersey kid like Bruce Springsteen. You want the time to last longer but you give it your best and enjoy the moments of that hour. And that’s how the hourlong chat with David went. We sat side-by-side in the Robert-Houdin room, surrounded by the Frenchman’s marvelous creations. David first spent a couple minutes directing his two assistants as they set the laptop camera and lighting to be precisely right, asking me to move my chair up a couple times. David has Zoomed before and has performed in countless TV appearances and TV specials so he’s the man you want for the perfect setup. We talked a little about the questions I’d prepared, although I kept a few under wraps so we could have a few spur-of-the-moment laughs, like when I asked him how different David Copperfield would be if he instead had the voice of Al Flosso. David laughed and said, “I’d be better!” Soon it was the top of the hour, 4 PM Vegas time, 7 o’clock in New Jersey, time for these two Jersey kids to have a conversation. David first talked about doing card flourishes in his school hallways and about taking the bus after school to New York – a 45-minute ride – to visit Tannen’s Magic Shop on 42nd Street.
Some questions I asked were about stories I’d heard before – the Temple Screen disappointment at Tannen’s when he was a youngster, and Oprah Winfrey asking about the 10 – no, 11 - Musha Cay islands and his This is Spinal Tap reference, with a second reference I’d never known about (but is just as hysterically funny).
David is very smart as well as quick-witted and came up with some funny quips throughout the hour. And I don’t think there’s ever been an interview where he sang a snippet of karaoke!
To our right, but offscreen to our Zoom viewers, was the Georges Méliès exhibit. There are no coincidences in life, and I had brought David a gift – a small flipbook version of some of Méliès movie clips. It was special to be in the presence of the full circle of magic through film reverted to a simple flipbook. David said when director Guillermo del Toro visited, he was brought to tears looking at the Méliès section.
It was a freewheeling conversation with great stories, laughs, and many pop culture references, including James Bond, Wayne Newton, Charo, Ed Sullivan and Topo Gigio, Cary Grant, Orson Welles, Buddy Greco, Carol Lawrence, and Truman Capote. (Somehow we never had time to mention Totie Fields.) (Yes, google her name.) I barely mentioned his book, David Copperfield’s History of Magic, or details of his museum. There was not enough time, but he’s discussed them in other interviews.
David talked about creativity and stated that magicians should be very proud of their creative energy. “I’m very proud to be a magician because I see the work that someone will take to get things as right as they can get it. And how we have to think should be championed.” David is real. He is kind and certainly inspirational. He has always remembered his Jersey and NYC beginnings. For the final minutes, David answered questions from the Zoom participants.
That was Monday, and on Thursday I saw David’s show and marveled at it all again. (Get yourself a plane ticket and see it!)
Oh, one more thing. I was given a bottled water before we began the interview. I finished drinking it on the way back to the hotel and nearly placed it with other recyclables but then decided to pack it in my suitcase. I just want to be able to always say I have something from David Copperfield’s museum!
Thank you, David, for your time.
(Here’s the link to the chat, or just search YouTube for SAM 161.)
Also see the Assembly 161 report.
From the July 2022 issue of M-U-M. Republished here by permission.