Thursday, February 22, 2018

Into The Copperfield Zone, Part I

Last week I had the extreme honor of visiting David Copperfield's International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts in Las Vegas. David's collection is staggering. Imagine the world's largest magic collection, and then triple it. And when it comes to Houdini, two hours I saw more authentic Houdini props and memorabilia than I've seen in my lifetime. But to share this experience right, I need to share it from the beginning.

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.

Show time came and I took my excellent seat inside the MGM's David Copperfield Theater. Now, David's Las Vegas show requires a full blog in itself, so I'm not going to be able to do it justice here. Suffice to say, it was awesome! The last time I saw David perform live was in 1997, so I was struck by the evolution of his show. It was surprisingly informal and very interactive--almost every trick involved the audience in part or whole--and even downright raucous at times! The pace of the show was breathtakingly fast and David's team of assistants were a marvel to watch. His climatic BLU production was quintessential David Copperfield in its mix of storytelling, magic, music and emotion. This is the stuff I really love. And, of course, there were several jaw dropping moments that have to be seen to be believed. A full alien spaceship appearing in the center of the showroom? Yep, that happened.

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).

After dinner, I was in place at the statue, and with the same clockwork precision I enjoyed watching during the show, one of David's assistants whisked me back through the now empty theater and out through a stage door. There I joined David and Mikayla for the short drive to the museum. Along the way, David and I talked Houdini (what else!?). He asked how I became interested in Houdini, and we chatted about various collectors and collections (anyone's ears burn?). We discussed the merits of various biographies, and even some of the questions of the day, such as the notion that Houdini may have worked as a spy. I gotta say, I was instantly comfortable with him. He's a Houdini guy!

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 gibbet, 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.)

The Water Torture Cell looks much like it did when I saw the unrestored original at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in 1990. That's because after buying the restored cell at auction, David and his team stripped it back to its original surviving elements (namely all the metal) and rebuilt it using antique wood and period accurate hardware. They also aged it so it appears exactly as if it had never been cleaned since Houdini's final performance. David and I seemed to share the philosophy that it's not always necessary to restore things to look brand new. Age and signs of travel are part of their stories.

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).



  1. What a fantastic experience John; something you will never forget.
    Here in the UK I am so pleased you got this opportunity and that David Copperfield acknowledged you as a fellow student of magic history and more particularly of the great Harry Houdini :-)

    1. Thank you, Roger.

      I encourage everyone to come back for Part II. As David said, I hadn't seen anything yet! Will do my best to get that up this weekend.

  2. Wow! What a thrill! Can't wait for part two....

  3. All I can say is: You earned it my friend!

  4. Holy cow! Awesome! I want part 2, 3 and 4.

  5. Wow that is amazing John! Looking forward to reading about the rest of your wonderful experience!


  6. John, it is so exciting to read this (envy notwithstanding!) -- I am delighted for you and so grateful that you are sharing the experience. I'm definitely feeling those vicarious chills and thrills! Can't wait to read the next part. Best, Tom

  7. Fantastic. Richly deserved as Leonard said above. Many thanks for being our eyes and ears. Kudos.

  8. WOW John, what an experience! One of the best written blogs I have ever read. Makes me so proud of you. Can't help thinking that what you took away from your time spent at USC Film School shines thru here together with your love of writing. Can't wait to read next installment. DAD

  9. Amazing write up and you are very lucky to experience the delights of the museum. David is such a nice guy and has done such a fantastic job keeping the items alive before they get lost to time. I look forward to part 2

  10. What a thrilling experience. Thanks for sharing it. And as for the, "We then entered the warehouse itself via the tailor shop's dressing room" how Man From U.N.C.L.E. can you get?

    1. DC actually said UNCLE was the inspiration for that. He's a fan.

  11. So envious. Amazing. Absolutely amazing.

  12. Thanks for all the kind words everyone. PART II is up now!