David Copperfield talks about his new book on magic history

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David Copperfield inside his private magic museum in Las Vegas. His book is a tour of some of its contents.

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I grew up intrigued by my TV magician, David Copperfield, who passed coins through glass and flew into the air. I saw him perform in-person several times and even met him after a show. she sparked me interest in magic, which brought me to stores like the famous Tannon’s Magic in New York.


David Copperfield grew up in New Jersey, where I also live, and spent his childhood in the magic of Tannon. In fact, he rebuilt the entire shop as it used to be, and it remains on display as one of many in a huge private magic museum in Las Vegas. David Copperfield’s recent book, A history of magic, this is a tour and series of journeys through some of the museum’s many collections. I got to speak with him on Zoom, where he called from his recreation of Tannen’s magic.

His book, divided into short biographies of famous and obscure magicians, reminded me that magic and technology are often intertwined. From watchmaker-inventor Robert Houdin and early magician-filmmaker Jorge Melieso Instagram and TikTok-based illusionists like Zach KingMagicians evolve with technology. I asked Copperfield about his work, the past and future of Las Vegas, and why the magic still works.

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Nerdshala: Going to magic shops was a big part of my childhood. Your tribute to Tannon is astounding. I have vague memories of it in the 80s. And I’ve been there ever since.

David Copperfield: This is a recreation of 42nd Street a little before your time. 120 West 42nd Street. This was the Wurlitzer building in New York, where it no longer exists. In 1970 they moved it, and you saw it there.

I have a lot of magic that I collect and books I read. But this book was special to me in that I didn’t expect it, because I didn’t appreciate the scale of the museum you built, which I’d never been to. It reminded me of Guillermo del Toro’s home, his cabinet of curiosities. I want to hear about what inspired this museum.

It’s funny, you mentioned Guillermo del Toro. He was here, actually. He got very emotional. and he saw that [George] Melius demonstrates that we have, because Melius is a huge influence to me. His influence on movies, and storytelling, helping to make movies, his journey to the moon and all that stuff Melius has done. But I think we want to share these thoughts and these feelings, in the sense that we are like-minded. He has a wonderful home, wonderful museum materials, and books made about him. And it’s taking things that are unusual, unusual, and presenting them in a way that’s acceptable. This is what my whole life has been like: it’s taking magic, which was not revered as music or dance or theater – and it was a form of theatre. I really wanted to try to present my magic to be acceptable to our Broadway audience, or just be very sophisticated and very communicative and tell things that were very meaningful to me. The museum is a reflection of that.

The museum is, how do you take these objects and make them echo? I bought a collection of tools robert albos, a great doctor and magic collector, and I don’t understand why I bought it. Then I put it in a magic shop setting, and suddenly, wow, it made sense. It told the story in a way people could really relate to. They were objects that could move you in a very special way.

How you frame things is very important. Books are the same thing. We frame stories about these individuals. It’s not about props or artifacts, it’s about these stories, which are very related: people who do very bad things, people who inspire people, female magicians who gave women the opportunity to do things that made them should not have: Adelaide Herrmann, Dale O’Dell, I love sharing these things, framing them in a way that gives them clarity.

How do you actually get to the museum? Is this invitation only?

It is not our business to keep and deposit. We hold exhibitions outside the New York Historical Society and in various different locations. We really love sharing this. It is difficult for people to come here, because there are so many secrets attached to it. Everything is very touchable, accessible, except this magic shop, everything is not behind glass. Because of secrecy, we decided to hold exhibitions outside it. And the book is a product of that: this book is a way of sharing this museum, and saying why it is important, why magic is important. They can turn the pages and come to this place.


A complete recreation of the original Tannon’s magic shop inside Copperfield’s Museum.

I’m very focused on things like VR and AR. Have you ever wondered how to virtually visit a museum or create a scan of it?

that will come. I’m still trying to fix the museum, I always keep building. There’s going to be a plateau where I’ll build two more rooms that just have to do. We just finished the library. COVID-19 helped us build the library. We hired our staff, we built this amazing library – you can see it in the book – if it wasn’t for this terrible pandemic it wouldn’t exist. We keep expanding. I want to do two other things: The Puppet Room, because I was heavily influenced by puppetry, puppetry and ventriloquism, and also all the magic sets we’re still working on.

I think about how theater too has been changing, or has had to change, over the years. Where do you see the magic now, in 2021, where are you from in Vegas? How do you see our understanding of magic now compared to when you started?

I think the internet is the reincarnation of a certain kind of magic. And there’s a lot of street magic, close-up magic, things that you do on the phone in this frame. And I think it’s great. I have tried to carry forward the magic through live theatre. Mostly, this is where the magic flourishes. You can see that it is real. It’s not a filter, it’s not an app, it’s actually going live. I do 500 shows a year, but I’m trying to push it to be a different kind of language. It’s not about card tricks, which are great. It’s dinosaurs, and spaceships, and time travel, things that are part of our literature, part of our consciousness, taking those things and talking about my family, and all that. So that’s the direction I’m trying to spell.


You have cited your inspiration for a lot of filmmaking. I think your TV special played a really early role in my growing up. It was something that I found magical like Spielberg. Do you see magic playing a really big part in developing what the next medium, the next media, is?

I am very lucky that I got to see technology before anyone else. I see it very quickly, people bring things to me all the time. And that gives me a chance to take that technology, before people are even aware of it, and use it’s magic. It’s all indistinguishable from magic, as Arthur C Clarke said. I love taking that new technology, recreating it and treating it as magic. And then five years from now, it’s all yours, folks! You can do whatever you want with it, it will be in your home. But for now, I have got a chance to do so. And in the process, I myself am inventing new technology, which is really beneficial, hopefully someone will do something good.

We’re still listening to people, what they’re doing, how they see the world, and it’s slowly changing. Like how we are watching movies. Movies are now 9 hours long, streaming. Still, I think we’re not going to lose that big screen experience. I think we love it. This is a really important thing to consume in the world. I hope it doesn’t go away. There are events, people come dressed up in the theatres, and watch these big events with an intermission in between, you’ll feel like you’re part of this almost Broadway experience in the theatre. I think this is great. I hope we don’t lose it. I love that people are fighting for that too. Still acknowledging the fact that we’re getting a lot of stuff here, like this [on your screens], and we’re seeing a lot like this, it’s simple. I love seeing this kind of stuff. But there is one spectacle that I also enjoy. I think both are valid. And we’ll see what happens.

In your book, I really got the feeling that the art of what these magicians were doing was about the time they were. Why the automaton, or why parlor performance, things that seem magically out of place now. It got me thinking about the ongoing conversation between magic and the present moment.

Like my old haircuts! They were part of the times. You know, I think you’re right. Automatons at that time were like a cell phone, people used to talk about it. Ether, a chemical. The magicians using those things were “of the time”. Unfortunately, in magic, people imitated other magicians. Robert Houdin wore the tuxedo, because sophisticated people were wearing similar clothes. A lot of magicians didn’t have the foresight to say, well, he was doing it because they wore tails at the time. I wanted to dress like you, didn’t I? We are wearing almost the same clothes right now. I think it makes my magic more magical, because I’m not in costume. I have cell phones on my shows, I do stuff with phones in the audience. I do stuff with the internet, what’s relevant now. Pixar movies, trying to do Pixar movies live on stage? That’s a huge challenge, because it’s a very high bar. We keep trying to take that language and interpret it in our shows and magic in general.

what do you think…

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