David Copperfield's new book brings magic history into the present

One of the greatest living magicians talks about the past, present and future of the craft.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
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  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
12 min read

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

Homer Liwag

I grew up mystified by David Copperfield, the magician on my TV who flew through the air and made coins pass through glass. I saw him perform in person a few times, and even met him after a show. He sparked my interest in magic, which brought me to shops like the famous Tannen's Magic in New York.

David Copperfield grew up in New Jersey, where I live, too, and he spent his childhood in Tannen's Magic. In fact, he re-created the entire shop as it used to exist, and it lives as just one of many exhibits in a massive private magic museum in Las Vegas. David Copperfield's recent book, a History of Magic, is a tour and series of journeys through some of this museum's many collections. I got to speak with him over Zoom, where he called in from his re-creation of Tannen's Magic.

His book, broken up into small biographies of famous and obscure magicians, reminded me that magic and technology are often interlinked. From watchmaker-inventor Robert Houdin and early magician-filmmaker George Méliès to Instagram and TikTok-based illusionists such as Zach King, magicians evolve alongside technology. I asked Copperfield about the past and future of his work, Las Vegas and why magic still works. 

Watch this: David Copperfield tells us why magic still works

Going to magic shops was a big part of my childhood. Your tribute to Tannen's is astounding. I have vague memories of it in the '80s. And I've been there since.
Copperfield: It's a re-creation of the 42nd Street one, a little before your time. 120 West 42nd Street. It was the Wurlitzer building in New York, where it doesn't exist anymore. In 1970 they moved it, and you saw it there.

I have a lot of magic that I collect and books that I read. But this book was special to me in a way that I didn't expect, because I hadn't appreciated the scale of the museum that you've made, that I've never been to. It reminded me of Guillermo del Toro's house, 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 Méliès display that we have, because Méliès is a big influence to me. His impact on movies, and helping to create storytelling, movies, his Trip to the Moon and all that stuff that Méliès has done. But I think we're of like mind in the sense of wanting to share these ideas and these feelings. He has an amazing house, amazing museum stuff, and books that he creates about that. And it's taking things that are offbeat, unusual, and making them presented in a way that's acceptable. My whole life is that: It's taking magic, which wasn't as respected as music or dance or theater -- and it was a form of theater. I really wanted to try to present my magic to be acceptable to our Broadway audience, or just to 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 resonate? I bought a collection of apparatus from Robert Albo, a great doctor and magic collector, and I didn't understand why I bought it. Then I put it into a magic shop setting, and suddenly, wow, it made sense. It kind of told the story, people could really relate. They were objects that could transport you in a very special way.

How you frame things is very, very important. The book is the same thing. We frame the stories about these individuals. It's not about the props or the artifacts, it's about these stories, which are very relatable: People who did very bad things, people that inspired people, women magicians who gave women opportunities to do things that they weren't supposed to do: Adelaide Herrmann, Dell O'Dell. I love sharing these things, framing them in a way that gives them clarity.

How do you actually attend the museum? Is it invitation-only?
It's not just for us to keep and hoard. We do exhibitions outside, to the New York Historical Society and various different places. We really do love sharing it. To have people come here, it's difficult because there are so many secrets involved here. Everything is very touchable, accessible, except for this magic shop, everything is not behind glass. Because of the secrecy part, we decided to do exhibitions outside of it. And the book is a product of that: this book is a way of sharing this museum, and saying why it's important, why magic is important. They can come to this place by flipping the pages.


A complete re-creation of the original Tannen's Magic Shop, inside Copperfield's museum.

Homer Liwag

I'm very focused on things like VR and AR. Have you ever thought about a way to visit the museum virtually, or build a scan of it?
That will come. I'm still trying to get the museum right, I'm always continuing to build. There's going to be a plateau where I will have finished two more rooms that have to be done right now. We just finished the library. COVID-19 helped us create the library. We kept my staff employed, we built this amazing library -- you can see it in the book -- that wouldn't exist if it wasn't for this horrible pandemic. We keep expanding. There's two other things I want to do: the puppet room, because I was influenced in a very big way with puppets, puppetry and ventriloquism, and also all the magic sets that we're still working on.

I think about how theater has been transforming as well, or had to transform in the past couple of years. Where do you see magic now, in 2021, from where you are in Vegas? What do you see our understanding of magic being now, compared to when you started?
I think the internet is a rebirth of magic of a certain kind. And there's been a lot of street magic, closeup magic, things that you do in this frame, on the phone. And I think it's great. I've tried to move magic forward in the live-theater way. Mostly, that's where magic thrives. You can see it's real. It's not a filter, it's not an app, it's really happening live. I do 500 shows a year, but I'm trying to move it forward to be a different kind of language. It's not about card tricks, which are great. It's about 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 take magic to.

Homer Liwag

You mentioned a lot of filmmaking being your inspiration. I think about your TV specials having played a really formative part of my growing up. It was something that felt as magical to me as Spielberg. Do you see magic playing a really big role in evolving what the next medium, the next media, are?
I'm very fortunate to see technology before anybody else. I see it very, very early, people bring me things all the time. And it gives me a chance to take that technology before people are aware of it and use it in my magic. It's all indistinguishable from magic, as Arthur C. Clarke said. I love to take that new technology, kind of reinventing it and presenting it as magic. And then five years from now, it's all yours, folks! You can do whatever you want with it, it'll be in your home. But for the time being, I get a chance to do that. And in the process, I'm inventing new technology myself, which is really rewarding, that hopefully will do somebody some good.

We're still listening to people, what they're doing, how they're seeing the world, and that keeps changing little by little. Like how we're seeing movies. Movies are nine hours long now, streaming. Even so, I think we're not going to lose that big-screen experience. I think we love that. It's a really important thing, to be consumed in the world. I hope that doesn't go away. There are these events, people come dressed up to the movie theater and see these big events that have an intermission in the middle, you'd feel you're part of this almost Broadway experience in the theater. I think that's great. I hope we don't lose that. I love that people are fighting for that, too. While still embracing the fact that we're getting so much content here, like this [on your screens], and we're seeing so much like that, it's easy. I like watching content like that. But there is a spectacle that I also enjoy. I think both are valid. And we'll see what happens.

In your book, what really struck me was realizing how much the art of what these magicians were doing was about the time they were in. Why the automatons, or why the parlor performances, things that seem magically out of place now. It made me think about the sort of ongoing conversation between magic and the current moment.
Like my old haircuts! They were part of the time. You know, I think you're right. Automatons at that time were like a cellphone, people would talk about it. Ether, a chemical. Magicians using those things was "of the time." Unfortunately, in magic, people copied other magicians. Robert Houdin dressed in a tuxedo, because that's what sophisticated people were dressing like. A lot of magicians didn't have the kind of foresight to say, well, he was doing that because they dressed in tails at the time. I wanted to dress like... like you, right? We're dressed in pretty much the same clothes right now. I think that makes my magic more magical, because I'm not costumed up. My show has cellphones, 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 pretty big challenge, because that's a very high bar. We keep working on trying to take that language and interpret it into my show and magic in general.

What do you think it is that makes magic still work?
Because we need it. Like we need movies. Like we need movies, and music. It transports you. Magic does it in a very profound way. You know it's not real, but you still want to see it as real. It's showing the future possibilities, the infinite possibilities that hopefully we possess in our future for real. And I think that's what it is. We enjoy that. We're doing likable puzzles. People shouldn't like this stuff, you know -- we're doing stuff that they don't know. But if I'm likable enough, and I'm telling you in a compelling way, I think that it's not a puzzle. It's not an off-putting thing, it's an involving thing. And I work really hard at that.

Las Vegas during the pandemic: What's it been like out there?
It's been about a year or so. They shut us down for a while because people weren't behaving properly. But we kind of set a standard, my show, disinfecting my hands, and wearing a mask and taking off the mask, having distancing. I mean, we had a whole system and everybody started copying what we did, because we kind of thoughtfully devised a very safe show for the audience. But people weren't behaving at all, so they shut the whole town down for a few months. And then we came back. But I think it's getting back, more and more normal every day. People are taking things seriously. I'm having a really good time at the shows. And I do 15 shows a week, with no days off, and then go off on vacation for a week, and then six weeks more, I'll do that 15-show-a-week schedule. I wouldn't do it if I didn't like it.

Have you ever thought about doing virtual shows online? Or, totally different thing, I'm obsessed with immersive theater. I don't know if you ever thought of doing things like that. I mean, you're in the most incredible immersive space right now.
Well, my whole show is immersive. I take great pains in having magic happen over people's heads, magic happens on their table. I'm going to the back of the theater, the middle of the theater -- I make a big effort to have the magic happen immersively around you the whole show because I think it's worth doing, it's worth experimenting with.

I didn't devise a Zoom show -- I've got plenty of ideas for a Zoom show, and people did do it. It's an interesting frame: It's very similar to a frame that I worked in when I was doing television shows. Also when I was doing Kodak commercials, I used that frame in a very unique way. And now people are doing it -- not copying it, but I think they're discovering the same thing that I discovered 30 years ago.


A recreation of Martinka's original magic theater, inside David Copperfield's museum.

Homer Liwag

You're sitting in a magic shop, and it makes me think of other magic shops. In your book, you mentioned Martinka. And you have this incredible re-creation of the Martinka theater there. I had a weird experience when I was in New Jersey about five years ago, I found that last vestige of Martinka, when the new owners had acquired it and moved it out to a little shop in a strip mall out in New Jersey, and I visited it. Now it's closed. What do you think about the nature of the magic shop in the modern era?
I hope they all hang in there. As good as the internet is for sharing ideas and finding out things, and the immediacy of that, having a personal contact in an environment like this with other likeminded people, people that can mentor you and so forth, there's just nothing like it.

That's why I re-created this. It's getting less and less ... the brick-and-mortar store in general is getting less and less. But I think it's important to try to maintain it at all costs. That shop you went to in the strip mall, the good news is those objects and cabinets that came from the original Martinka shop that Houdini owned are now here. So I got them from that place, and those things have been re-created. We found all the old antique things, and put those antique things in those actual cabinets that existed 100 years ago.

The experience of this [Tannen's Magic Shop] when I was a kid, in the real world, not this kind of re-created one, was incredible. Seeing Johnny Carson on one side, you see Orson Welles working on magic, Muhammad Ali learning something. You thought you were in heaven. It was an amazing feeling.

Do you have anything to recommend for someone who's starting to learn about magic?
I have a website where we use magic as a form of therapy. But it's got some very beginning pieces of magic you can start learning from. It's called Project Magic. You'll see a bunch of magic that was meant to be used in hospitals, but without the hospital component, they're still pretty cool. This book actually has lots of recommendations in the back pages of where the information came from, which you can go to. It's a great resource.

Have you ever thought about creating magic in VR?
We're going to work on that. See, you're a mind reader!

What do you think the biggest changes in your magic are now, or has it been a continual change?
It's gigantic changes. Back when you were seeing me as a kid I was doing these MTV-based dance pieces, escape from things, and now it's all about time travel and spaceships and dinosaurs, really trying to change the language of the art of magic, and very, like you said, immersive -- it's all around you. I'm in my own theater, the MGM Vegas. We are able to create a show where I don't have to move from city to city staff. I used to have to tour, I had to move all this stuff. And we did it really well, we had a big spectacular show. But now I'm really locked into a place where I can make it truly environmental.

Do you have any advice for somebody starting to think about making a magical collection for themselves?
No matter what you're interested in -- magic, sports -- you want to preserve that history, it fascinates you, there's a way to get into that in a way that's affordable. Find things, even clippings and stories, and maintain those things that tell that story. You don't have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on things to begin with. Find something you really love and are passionate about. And start collecting those things as well. For me, it's not about collecting the things. I have something to share, to tell stories with. You bring people to another place. It's not showing off, it's about sharing something you learned, whether it's about physics, or magic, or movies, there's always an entry-level way of getting into that. And it's about sharing those things.

I used to come out to Vegas every year for CES, and I'm probably going to resume doing that someday. I hope to visit.
I love CES, by the way. I spend so much time there. I have a group of friends, we go around, and people show me tons of amazing things. I get to involve those new thoughts, new approaches to thinking, in the magic. And I love it. It's gigantic, CES. A little less, now. But finding the good stuff is really fun.