A few weeks ago I had a telephone conversation with David and his Executive Producer Chris Kenner about Houdini's bookcase from 278. [I shared details here.] During the conversation, David invited me to Las Vegas to see his collection. He warned me "it was a mess" because he's currently working on a major expansion. But he was eager for me to see it now, and then come back when it is finished. Well, you don't say no to an invitation like that!
So on Tuesday, Feb. 13, I hit the road to Las Vegas where a room had been arranged for me at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino. The view from my window was my first clue that I had entered The Copperfield Zone.
The plan was for me to attend David's 7:00 pm show. As I had a few hours to kill, I hopped over to the New York New York Hotel & Casino and paid a visit to Houdini's Magic Shop. This was the first store to carry the "Houdini's" name, and it's still my favorite. Not only do they have a life-size mannequin hanging from the ceiling in a straitjacket, but they also have Houdini (1953) playing on a loop out front. Houdini posters and photos cover the walls, and several display cases contain authentic memorabilia from owner Geno Munari's collection. Unfortunately, there's far less on display than in the past.
I was told by the helpful magician working the counter that the larger Houdini stuff was now at their main headquarters store on Dean Martin Drive. This was a location I wasn't aware of, so I resolved to see it before I left town. That's when I noticed high atop a shelf a slim wooden case stamped with Houdini's name. I was told this was the case that held the glass for the Water Torture Cell. It wouldn't be the only one of these I would see this day.
After the show, I went backstage with a small group of VIPs (you can get a ticket that allows you to meet David and take a photo). David's very nice assistant, Mikayla, told me to hang back, and after everyone left, I met David and Chris Kenner. Everyone seemed excited for me to see the collection, and the plan was for me to return to the theater after David's second show (meet at the lobby statue at 11:10 pm).
We arrived at the museum around 11:30 and entered via a false front made up to look like the tailor shop of his father. After seeing his show -- BLU is a moving tribute to his father -- I understood how much David loved his dad and understood the symbolism of how the entrance to his dreams would be via his father's work. That's when I realized how the museum itself was a massive David Copperfield production, combining magic with personal biography, meant to awe and inspire. Even more so than his show, I was entering a special world of his creation, and I understood why he's so proud of it and excited for someone to experience it for the first time. [The museum is not open to the public, but David gives private tours.]
Now, I should say up front that I took no photos inside (okay, one, but we'll get to that). This was not because I couldn't. I quickly discovered David would deny me nothing. I was able to handle and open anything I wanted (make sure you come back for Part 2 for more about that!). So I'm certain I could have taken photos had I asked. But I didn't want to. This was about experiencing the museum, not photographing it, and I wanted to give everything my full attention. But that means I have nothing to illustrate this blog going forward, so I've plucked down a few online photos to help, starting with one that shows the "shop" entrance.
We then entered the warehouse itself via the tailor shop's dressing room -- pull down on a shirt tie and the mirror pops open. Very cool. We then stepped into what could be considered the David Copperfield area. This is a massive open space housing all his famous illusions. Here stands the massive rack of spikes from his "Fires of Passion" escape. There's even a helicopter! The entrance to David's offices and museum are through an unmarked and innocuous side door. Inside I waited as David and Mikayla turned on the lights and display cases of the museum. Yes, this was all being opened just for me!
To explain all that I saw inside is just not possible, even in a two-part post like this. It was truly overwhelming! The entire museum is structured as a journey. It starts at the small magic counter from Macy's department store where David bought his first magic trick (which he performed for me). It then opens up and one travels deeper and deeper into the special world of magic. Room after room is filled with amazing artifacts. There's a room devoted to magic kits and apparatus in general, with ceiling high racks holding every version of every magic trick ever created by legendary magic manufacturers like Owens, Abbotts, and Thayer. I even spotted the magic table I had as a kid. There's a full size reproduction of the back room theater of Martinka's Magic Shop in New York with the original store cases filled as they were in the days of Al Flosso.
Every major magician is represented with displays made up of posters, props and personal memorabilia. David guided me through the worlds of Herrmann, Kellar, Thurston, Carter, Alexander, Blackstone, and even Doug Henning. Orson Welles has his own area, complete with the sub trunk he used with wife Rita Hayworth. The Chung Ling Soo display has one of the rifles used during his bullet catch. David doesn't know if it's the rifle that killed the magician, but it is one of them that Soo stood in front of on that fateful night in 1918. An unrestored 8-sheet Kellar poster bewitched me for some reason, and I was surprised when David told me it had belonged to Houdini and came from inside 278.
Robert-Houdin has his own standalone room filled with clocks, props, and automata from this earliest age of magic. I believe it's the only closed room devoted to one magician. This was one of my favorite rooms as it seemed to hold a special energy, not unlike how the Houdini Séance Room at the Magic Castle feels like a world apart. Here are the very seeds of modern magic; beautiful and exquisite apparatus that Houdini himself revered as treasures from the past. David said this will all be moved into an open area behind the new Houdini section, so I'm glad I got a chance to experience this room as is. There's something magical going on here.
Eventually we arrived at the famous Houdini area, and it's everything we've seen in photos and more. Here I was able to examine and touch Houdini's custom traveling library case, his Milk Can, Metamorphosis, straitjacket, Iron Maiden, and Water Torture Cell. I was inches away from the Mirror Cuffs and Houdini's baby shoe. A stage jacket worn by Bess is so small you'd think it was made for a large doll. One-of-a-kind posters towered over me, and David paged through a scrapbook filled with photos I've never seen. The famous Houdini-Keller correspondence are in a book that one can flip through. And here too was a case made to carry the Water Torture Cell glass, identical to the case in Houdini's Magic Shop. (This is explained by the fact that Houdini always traveled with an extra pane of glass.)
David then showed me a rejection letter sent to the young Houdini from John Nevil Maskelyne dated March 24, 1898. He also had a small display devoted to the artist who created many of Houdini's posters, including his beautiful but perplexing 1911 Buried Alive poster, which stands behind the Houdini exhibit (I didn't even know David owned this poster until that moment).
For whatever reason, I did not think to play the snippet of Houdini voice recording that David has set up beside the original wax cylinders and Edison player. But David and I had a conversation about the recordings. I learned that he has not yet transferred all the cylinders to another media, but he plans to. He actually wasn't sure himself what's contained on all six cylinders, and that made me wonder if there's content on these yet to be discovered? [Watch for a dedicated post on this soon.]
It was here I decided to be a fanboy and asked if we could take a picture together. How could I not? David was very obliging and even took the selfie himself, working to get a good Houdini image in the background.
Now, you might think this was the grand finale, and it typically is. But then David said, "Just wait. You haven't seen anything yet."
Yes, I was about to go off the normal tour and deeper into this very special place to see things very few people have seen. But I'm going to save that for PART II (GO NOW).