Saturday, February 24, 2018

Into The Copperfield Zone, Part II

On Tuesday, February 13, I had the extreme honor of visiting David Copperfield's International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts in Las Vegas. In PART I, we went as far as the famous Houdini display, and this is normally the grand finale. But then David said, "Just wait. You haven't seen anything yet." He was so right...

Leaving Houdini behind (not an easy thing to do!), David and I entered what is to be the expansion of the museum. Here two assistants and the tireless Mikayla were at work sorting what appeared to be a recently acquired magic collection (or perhaps just unsorted items of David's own collection). Racks of magic books stood on one side of the room and select piles of ephemera covered the floor. This was the "mess" David had warned me about, but I thought it was glorious! I was seeing items being discovered and shown to David on the spot. One item that caught his eye was a program for Man of Magic, which he directed to the "Houdini stuff." There was also an original UK playbill featuring the Water Torture Cell, and David was excited to point out that the illustration was unlike any other -- the monster holding down the stocks was not the "giant" we normally see.

David then showed me where the new Houdini area will be. It's probably three times the size of the old section. He pointed out where Houdini's bookcase and "ice-filled" bathtub from 278 will sit (these are not yet in Vegas). Sitting against that wall at the moment were several gigantic Houdini posters, including the only known Overboard Box Escape poster, which came from the Norm Nielsen collection. This is a poster that has never been reproduced in color and it's a beauty! There was also a gigantic straitjacket poster [remember David Copperfield has a big one], a poster for The Grim Game, and a French poster for The Master Mystery. There may have been more which I overlooked, if you can believe that!

Also sitting against the wall was something I noticed was conspicuously absent from the Houdini display; the Double-Fold Death Defying Mystery chest. Next to the Water Torture Cell, I'd rank this as the most important piece of surviving Houdini escape apparatus. But unlike the USD, it's all still original! David acquired the chest at auction in 2014 for a cool $55,000. I was dying to see inside, so I asked David if this was possible. His answer: "Of course!"

David called over Mikayla and she and I lifted the heavy lid. Inside was the canvas transport sack. There was also a ring stain on the bottom where Houdini's Milk Can once sat. This was exactly what I had hoped to see. (I still contend the Double-Fold Milk Can is currently sitting in an uncaring Santa Monica coin shop.)

Now, I have to be careful because I don't reveal secrets on WAH, but I explained to David that while I knew in principle how the effect worked, I didn't know how it worked in practice (and if that's confusing, good!). We were missing a certain something that would help reveal the secret, but certainly we could discover it on close examination, right? Well, David, Mikayla and I poked and prodded and searched all sides, turning everything upside down and sideways, and we could NOT discern any means by which Houdini escaped from the chest, let alone a Milk Can at the same time. We were all on our hands and knees at one point! We actually had to give up, and this delighted me. Here a 108-year-old piece of Houdini-Collins apparatus had held its secret against the ultimate committee. Bravo!

During the tour, David hadn't told me what I would see. I simply followed him room to room. Now I followed him beyond this work area into a private office, and then beyond that into a small side room. In here were several huge safes, the kind Houdini himself would escape from. This was by no means part of the normal tour, and I held my breath as David stepped up to an enormous vault door at the end of the room. He didn't even ask me to look away as he keyed in the combination, but I looked away anyway--I don't need to know such things!

The vault door swung open and we stepped inside. Now I understood why David kept saying, "You haven't seen anything yet." Here were racks filled with foot high stacks of original Houdini posters, photos, and challenges. I recognized one photo that had recently sold in auction sitting on top. Rows of file boxes filled an entire wall, each neatly labeled with their precious contents: "Houdini Letters," "Houdini Scrapbooks," "Houdini Bibles", "Conan Doyle Correspondence", etc. Somehow I wasn't able to commit to memory, or even read, all I was seeing. I was just too overwhelmed. Houdini's own words came to me when he described seeing the collection of Henry Evans Evanion: "I remember only raising my hands before my eyes, as if I had been dazzled by a sudden shower of diamonds."

I now kick myself for not taking a photo, even just one to illustrate this blog or to later read what was written on those file boxes. But one doesn't take photos inside Fort Knox. And I was clearly inside a Fort Knox of magic.

David then pointed to a small square black box sitting in the corner and asked if I knew what that was. The first thing that leapt to mind was De Kolta's Cube (a.k.a. The Expanding Die). But just as quickly, I dismissed that as impossible. If David Copperfield owned De Kolta's Cube, we would all know about it. It would be discussed in the same breath as the Water Torture Cell and written up in magic journals. And it would not be in here. It would be sequestered in it's own isolation chamber, guarded like Hannibal Lecter or the Hope Diamond. Far too dangerous and valuable to be within the reach of humans. So this was not De Kolta's Cube. But it would be something cool. So I answered, "No."

"It's De Kolta's Cube," said David.

Remember that scene in Jaws when Sheriff Brody sees the Kitchener boy eaten by the shark in one bloody gulp, and Spielberg uses a special camera move called a dolly-counter-zoom that warps the world around Brody and isolates him in a vortex of pure and utter shock? That was me.

Okay, time out for a quick bit of history. Buatier de Kolta was a French magician and a brilliant illusion builder who died in 1903. One of his last creations was an effect in which a cube (or die) would be sat on a table, and then on command would instantly and visibly expand to many times its size. De Kolta would then lift the cube to reveal his wife inside. By all accounts it was a masterpiece in both presentation and construction, and it became a legend in it's own time. Even today it is praised as one of magic's finest creations.

Houdini purchased De Kolta's Cube in 1913 to feature in his Grand Magical Revue the following year. It would be a standout effect of his first attempt to get away from escapes and establish himself as a master magician -- "The Supreme Ruler of Mystery." But Houdini only performed De Kolta's Cube a few times (Gresham claims only once). It isn't exactly clear why, but the complex mechanics took a full hour to prepare, and if not prepared precisely right, it might not expand. Or maybe it would expand when you didn't want it to! Still, Houdini kept the effect in his collection as an important piece of magic history. I like to think of it as the trick that even intimidated Houdini. And now here it was in front of me.

"You can open it if you want," said David.

The idea of opening this Pandora's box spooked me. If it was unpredictable when new, what would it be like 100+ years later? But how could I not! So I got down on my knees and flipped open the latch and lifted the hinged lid. Inside was a leather case nested tightly within. There was a handwritten note sitting on top saying the case was made by Houdini himself. I wasn't sure how best to get that out, but David said to just lift it by the handle. A new wave of apprehension came over me as I could imagine the aged handle ripping off in my hand. But I took hold and lifted. One revelation I'll share about De Kolta's Cube, it is HEAVY!

I had to turn around in the small space and sit the case down on the floor between David and I. I was a bit too timid with the hasp on the front, so David knelt down and undid it for me. The case is made in such a way that the lid lifts and the front falls forward, so you can see the cube without having to extract it fully from the case (thank you, Harry). I folded it open and there before me was De Kolta's Cube, black with white dots, held in its tightly compressed state by a few old straps and hatpins. Who knows how long it had been since this had been opened, and I had a real fear that it would suddenly expand, crushing both David and I and destroying all the precious Houdini artifacts in the room. I looked up and saw David's eyes were as big as mine, and I had a feeling he might have been thinking the exact same thing! I asked if he had ever performed it. He just shook his head and said he hadn't, he was too afraid it would "blow apart."

With some relief, I closed it back up and returned it to its case. (A full explanation of the cube and its workings can be found in Will Goldston's Exclusive Magical Secrets, the publication of which infuriated Houdini.)

I was still reeling when David reached up and plucked down a file box from the shelf. He opened it and slid from within a smaller box containing a spirit slate complete with a chalk written message in Houdini's own hand. I just couldn't handle it anymore and I blurted out (hopefully not too rudely), "No way. That can't be real!" David just smiled and returned it to its box and said, "There's a whole story behind it."

We then started sifting through the stacks of posters, retrieving a beautiful poster for the Grand Magical Revue to see if it included a mention of De Kolta's Cube (this one did not). David then said he'd be happy for me to come back sometime so I could go through all this vaulted material. He'd even set up a few tables for me out in the work area.

Once again, I was Sheriff Brody.

Oh, did I mention the bound set of all of Robert-Houdin's personal diaries and Michael Curtiz's Oscar for Casablanca? Yeah, those were in here too.

After locking up the vault, we returned to the normal museum and David showed me one last surprise. Until his show, I didn't know David had started as a ventriloquist. "A bad one," he admits. Now we entered a room filled with vintage ventriloquist dummies, some of which were quite famous, such as Edgar Bergen's Charlie McCarthy and Wayland Flowers' Madame. But what really caught my attention were the original dummies from one of my favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone. It's the episode in which a ventriloquist played by Cliff Robertson is driven mad by his own dummy, and in the end he becomes a dummy himself. David not only has the abusive dummy, but he has the dummy that Robertson became in the end. The artist forever imprisoned within his obsession.

So there I was, standing in a Las Vegas warehouse at 1:30 AM beside the world's most famous living magician, surrounded by hundreds of grinning ventriloquist dummies. I had truly entered...The Copperfield Zone.

I woke up the next morning in my room at the MGM Grand, with the massive visage of David Copperfield staring in at me through the window. Was it all a dream? It very well could have been! But now it was time to get back to the real world.

As I showered, all I could think about was De Kolta's Cube. That seemed to sum up the whole experience for me. I was allowed to go as deep as I dared into a special world of magic and mystery to see something very few have ever seen. I still don't know what I did to deserve such trust from David and his team, but I'm eternally grateful.

I fired off a short thank you email to David and Chris Kenner, then packed up my computer and bag and left.

But I had one last stop to make. I had resolved to visit the "showroom" location of Houdini's Magic Shop on Dean Martin Drive. Inside was a display case of nice Houdini artifacts, including a letter from Hardeen talking about Bessie's funeral (finally I was able to add that date to my A.D. chronology). But not unlike my visit to New York and 278, after being inside Houdini's bathroom, there wasn't much that could wow me the next day.

After taking a few photos and chatting with the friendly magician at the counter, I climbed back into my car. But before hitting the road for the drive back to L.A., I quickly checked my email and saw I had received a reply from David himself. It was just a single line...



    1. Wow! Thanks for letting us into the Copperfield Zone. What a dream come true.

    2. Incredible! Thanks for sharing the sights of those amazing relics!

    3. Wow, absolutely incredible!

    4. This was fascinating, and to your credit, you didn’t need to apologize for not taking pictures, your words alone were riveting and I’m sure I also would have been too awed to dare pull out my phone to snap any pics if I had been in your shoes (and now I guarantee every AMA member like myself wishes they had been.).
      The fact that you have no idea why you were so fortunate to have had this experience shows me you were the perfect person to be there for the rest of us. Extremely well done!

    5. Wow! A great read! Much deserved.

    6. Thanks, John, for your detailed account of your visit. You probably could go on for pages - and hopefully you'll add more while it's fresh in your mind. David Copperfield is a true gentleman and it's thrilling how the museum is growing.

    7. Thank-you, John, for the tour inside the tour! How marvelous that David has such a love for magic and collecting. He has worked hard in his career to become the premier magician that he is. Doing so has rewarded him financially and he has reinvested that back into acquiring and preserving our magical heritage. Thank-you Mr. Copperfield! Houdini would have been proud that you have continued in a tradition he practiced all his life of collecting and preserving all things magical. Had I been you, John, I don't know if I would have been able to grasp wonder after wonder, especially of Houdini's, without having to stop and catch my breath! You have been to the inner sanctum that most of us magicians have never even heard about. What an honor, indeed! I do not want to detract in any way from the "ultimate committee" and it's examination of the Double-Fold Death Defying Mystery Chest but you have admitted to me that you are not a magical/technical gaff expert but a magical history expert. I'm not sure of the mechanical expertise of the others on the committee but it sounds like a mechanical technician with a magical background is needed to root out the secrets of this escape built by Jimmy Collins. I have to believe that, with the keys in hand to the built in locks in the box lid along with the freedom to examine and touch and gently push and prod, the expert technician would be able to root out the 108 year old secret. Can I volunteer?? What an opportunity that would be! I do so look forward to the " to be continued" part of the tour. Mr. Copperfield has obviously withheld nothing from you and has even more planned. You must take and publish here as many photos as you can for those of us who will never visit the museum or see what you have seen. Thanks for sharing and enriching our knowledge of all things Houdini and thanks to Mr. Copperfield for having made these 2 posts about your visit to his museum possible. I intently look forward to posts about future visits to this wonderful place!

    8. Still feeling drowsy, I read your account just a few minutes after I woke up this morning. As I did, I could feel my eyes getting wider and wider like I was reading a great mystery novel. I woke up fast! Just amazing, John, and so well done! Thank you for sharing in such vivid detail - and how extraordinarily kind and generous of Mr. Copperfield!

    9. Just one thing after another. I'd be numb at this point.
      Thanks again for sharing.

    10. I’m speechless. It all sounds too good to be true! Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to part 3. ;)

    11. What a great exsperance, congrats and thanks for the great read.

    12. So, you and DC, together, were on your hands and knees trying to figure out an original Houdini illusion. Holy smokes. Did you ever imagine this would happen?

    13. John Hinson great nephew of Bess and Harry HoudiniFebruary 25, 2018 at 12:25 PM

      Looking forward to part 3 and beyond.


    14. Wow John,
      Thanks for this.You are the Man!

    15. Thanks everyone for all the kind words. Glad I was able to capture and share what this was like.

      Know that when I was leaving, I asked David what was on or off the record, what I could share or what he would prefer to keep private. He just waved his hand and said I could say and share anything I wanted. I think maybe one of the reasons he invited me in was precisely so I could share this with all of you.

    16. In the 80s I built my own DeKolta's cube. I called John Gaughan for some technical advice and he said, "Well, I have the original one here in the shop if you want to take a look." I dropped everything and headed over to take a look. When I arrived John pointed me to a side room where a tangle of pipe and springs was hung on a wall. It was wonderful. I had no idea that Houdini performed it. The trick is a real challenge to wrangle but a great piece of magic history. I wold LOVE to visit the Copperfield museum and see the original. Copperfield is doing such an incredible service to the art of magic.

      1. That is great that you built one. :)

        I didn't know John Gaughan ever owned it. I thought I knew the progression of owners. Maybe John didn't have THE cube. Apparently there were a few copies. Chug Ling Soo famously performed a version.

        I've been De Kolta's cube obsessed lately. A deep dive post might be in order.

      2. Gaughan never owned the cube.

        Recommended reading for the complete history of the cube can be found from three sources.

        1. Buatier de Kolta - Genius of Illusion by Peter Warlock

        2. Milbourne Christopher The Man and His Magic by William Rauscher

        3. Magical Masterpiece & More, M.U.M. January 2017 - by David Haversat

        Dave Haversat

    17. John--did DC mention anything about having been inside 278 himself?

      1. He didn't, but that would have been an interesting thing to know. I didn't think to ask. We didn't talk much about 278, apart from me saying I wished he would have bought the house and moved the entire thing to Vegas. :p

      2. It would have left an empty spot on 113th street.:)

    18. What a great night you had! When I real that David told you that that was the DeKolta’s cube I started to giggle like a schoolchild and think “¡Hijo de p***!”

      Congratulations! That visit is well deserved!!!! And thank you very much sharing it!!!

    19. Awesome article, when I originally read this article I did not imagine that a few months later I would also be stepping into the Copperfield Zone. Last week, my wife Rebecca and I also had a tour by David around his museum. I am still lost for words and feel so honoured to have experienced such a magical evening. All I can say is WOW

      1. So glad you both got to experience it! Congrats.