[Grand illusions]

by Skylaire Alfvegren

Copperfield became reticent when asked about The Amazing Johnathan Collection.
David Copperfield preserves the myths of magicians' past in his personal museum

When David Copperfield first began performing in Vegas at the Hilton in 1983, he stayed at his secret warehouse, which he has since transformed into the International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts. Founded by Copperfield after he purchased the 15,000 volume Mullholland Library collection in 1991, he has continued to add to it. It now includes the Cole Collection, over 5,000 cubic square feet of magic paraphernalia Copperfield liberated from Sotheby's storage in London, and the Dr. Robert J. Albo collection, considered the most important private collection of antiquarian magical props ever assembled.

Copperfield has exhibited part of the collection in New York and L.A. "We take this stuff (on tour) and show the history of magic," he says. Filled with scrapbooks, stage clothes, props and playbills, he flits from Professor Hoffman's cups and balls to Dante's Spirit Cabinet to nine years' worth of correspondence between Houdini and Kellar, to Alexander's trick turban and the ornate mystery clocks of Robert Houdin (from whom Houdini took his name), "The best magic mind of two centuries," says Copperfield.

"These copper pennies were used by a magician named Wyman the Wizard in a performance for Abraham Lincoln," he says. "Ironic that that very coin would eventually feature Lincoln's face on it!"

The collection of priceless prestidigitation features nearly 100,000 individual pieces; "All the greats of magic, their ghosts are here," Copperfield says. Pieces belonging to Heller, Bosco, Dante, Thurston, Herrmann, Blackstone, Chung Ling Soo. "He was killed trying to catch a bullet -- this is perhaps the gun that did him in," Copperfield says before pointing to a poster from the failed 1918 performance.

Copperfield is genuinely enthusiastic about the museum. He acquired the crowning jewels -- six important pieces from the Houdini Museum in Niagra Falls, New York -- just last year. "Everything that Houdini is famous for is here, pretty much. He was famous for doing the substitution trunk," says Copperfield as he taps on the object of which he speaks.

"This is his set of master keys," he says, continuing the tour. "He could open any handcuffs of his generation. The most famous pair of cuffs, the mirror cuffs, took seven years to make and 70 minutes to escape from." Houdini's Iron Maiden, his baby shoes and his first magic wand surround the famous Chinese Water Torture Chamber, the Museum's costliest piece, inarguably the most priceless item in the history of magic.

The museum is "a very special place," Copperfield says. Open to scholars with an interest in the conjuring arts, there are a few pieces in the museum which Copperfield keeps away from the prying eyes of the press. "They're for my brethren," he says.

Among the highlights of the museum are its antiquarian books, including the first tome on magic: the first edition of Scott's The Discovery of Witchcraft, written in 1584 to stop "people from burning magicians as witches!"

"In none of those books will you find an explanation of what we're doing," he says of the new illusions his team is currently working on. "We're actually creating new magic, and I'm very proud of that."

The Vegas resident is performing 10 weeks at the MGM's Hollywood Theatre this summer, the most summer shows he's ever done in his adopted home city. "I'm working on a lot of new illusions right now," he says, at least one of which he hopes to debut during his Vegas summer shows. "I'll give you a hint: these are dangerous things."

Each of Copperfield's illusions are tested out, not unlike previewing a movie with test audiences, before they make it into the show. "It's about a two-year process, generally," Copperfield says, and involves audience feedback and trial and error.

Copperfield's current show "is about making people's dreams come true. People dream about the perfect car; I make a car appear. People dream about traveling around the world, people dream about being reunited with loved ones. My ideal is to have people suspend their disbelief."