Inside David Copperfield’s Secret Magic Museum

A promotion for THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE brings Devin inside the famed magician's private collection of magical artifacts and David Copperfield memorabilia.

David Copperfield’s magic act has a new trick that involves email. At the beginning of the show an announcer encourages you to whip out your smartphones and send and email to a email address. Later, the magician claims to travel into the future to see the outcome of a bit of audience participation; after returning from his trip he holds up a poster to an assistant, who photographs it. Now everybody in the audience is asked to check their email, to see a message from Copperfield that we’re not supposed to open, just note the time stamp. The subject line is “Message from the future,” and it has an attachment.

The poster is then hung above the stage, far from human hands. Next is the participation - a lengthy, alternately amusing and tedious bit of patter where Copperfield gets some basic information out of randomly chosen people. Then he has a woman come on stage and name a dead, iconic film actress of her choice. At this point the poster comes down, and it’s got a picture of Marilyn Monroe, just like the lady from the audience said! And her face is covered in writing, and when Copperfield’s cameras zoom in on the writing, the audience sees that the words include the names/nicknames of the audience participators, as well as details about them. And, if that’s not crazy enough, we’re told to open that message from the future and there, in our email, is that same poster, with a timestamp from before Copperfield began the audience participation!

Here’s the thing, though - it’s pretty obvious that the image in the email is loading from a URL. Yes, there’s an attachment, but it’s a 1x1 blank pixel. The poster is, without a doubt, the work of a backstage assistant busy on Photoshop. The copy that hung above the stage is out of sight long enough that it could easily be switched with a newly printed version.

Of course I didn’t believe that any of Copperfield’s illusions were real magic, but this particular one illustrated exactly the kind of crossroads at which magic finds itself, and which is the central conflict in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. I was at Copperfield’s show as part of the junket for the Warner Bros comedy, and all through the act I couldn’t help but notice the remarkable similarities between Steve Carrell’s character and the real life Vegas legend.

First the conflict: magic has moved away from a traditional sense of showmanship and big illusions (making the Statue of Liberty disappear, walking through the Great Wall of China) into a street-oriented, mindfuck sensibility mixed with feats of personal endurance. It’s worth noting that the history of magic has always accommodated both these styles; Houdini himself took part in stunts that had no sleight of hand involved, like an event where he was buried alive without a casket. The great magician almost died digging himself out of the ground that time.

That email trick was Copperfield trying to figure out how to move into the modern day, how to spice up his act for an audience that, increasingly, understands it’s mirrors and trapdoors that make up a huge percentage of illusions. An attempt to move with technology puts Copperfield in a tradition of great magicians stretching back to Robert Houdin and beyond, but this attempt was ham-fisted at best. I guess it works with your standard blue-haired Vegas crowd (the same crowd who probably laughs at the ‘ching chong’ Chinese language jokes in the act), but for anybody familiar with how the internet and smartphones work, this trick was totally transparent.

In The Incredible Burt Wonderstone the old fashioned, glittery, dance-fueled Vegas types - the David Copperfields and Siegfried and Roys - are represented by the title character and his partner, Anton Marvel (Steve Buscemi). The new style of magic is personified by Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a street magician who is one part Criss Angel and one part David Blaine. The film is much more sympathetic to the old school guys (even if Wonderstone is a sexually harrassing, self-centered asshole for most of the movie), painting Gray as a complete and total douchebag.

Maybe that’s why Copperfield helped on the film. He cameos and contributed an illusion that Wonderstone and Marvel perform, the Hangman (it’s a pretty good one, too). And he took a whole bunch of us journalists on a tour of his private magic museum, which was simply incredible. Watching The Incredible Burt Wonderstone it was hard not to see this weird, very self-obsessed magical icon getting pretty savagely lampooned.

But for Copperfield maybe any attention is good attention. His magic museum is divided between a totally astonishing, overwhelming collection of magical history and artifacts and a whole warehouse dedicated to himself. Walking into the David Copperfield offices means being greeted by dozens of paintings and pictures and busts of Copperfield, a shrine to a boy from New Jersey who grew up good.

And it’s a shrine, make no mistake. There are two entrances to Copperfield’s office - there’s a regular, boring door and there’s a secret door. The secret door is inside a recreation of his father’s menswear shop, complete with homemade signs his folks hung in the shop window to boost their boy when he first appeared on TV. This is where Copperfield begins the tour of his museum, with a full blast of patter about his family and his budding interest in magic. He leads you into a changing room where you tug on a tie hanging from the wall and - voila! - the mirror swings open, revealing the secret world beyond.

Copperfield collects movie memorabilia as well as magical history; his warehouse includes the figurehead from the Black Pearl (Pirates of the Caribbean) and the flying machine from Hudson Hawk. Tucked away in the back are statues from Xanadu, the estate in Citizen Kane. That Copperfield is a movie buff is no surprise; the connection between movies and magic goes back to the beginning of motion picture technology, with film pioneer George Melies getting his start as an illusionist.

The goal of magic and movies is one and the same - to show you something incredible and to fill you with momentary awe, to take you outside of yourself and transport you into a sense of wonder. There’s something starkly different about how the two forms achieve that, though, something that can rub audiences the wrong way. Jim Carrey summed it up in the press conference for The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, saying that a magic trick always carries a sense that the magician is saying ‘You’re too dumb to understand what I just did!’

There’s a prank sensibility to all magic. Copperfield has it. The tour of his museum featured two different moments where he pranked the guests - one was a doll in a glass case that, on his command, came flying out at us, and the other was an old chair that was rigged to collapse and have a gunpowder explosion go off. Both were very funny, and they were the moments when Copperfield seemed really most alive (in all fairness, the guy does three shows a night and also spent the entire day repeating this tour, so a touch of boredom wasn’t out of line for him). He had a young boy sit in the collapsing chair, and the kid didn’t seem terribly pleased with it, which made the joke all the better. 

That collapsing chair was in the ‘magic history’ part of Copperfield’s museum. After you tour his warehouse of David Copperfield memorabilia, he ushers you through a series of extraordinary exhibits. He has collected magical artifacts from all throughout history, and his collection of Houdini’s stuff - keys, locks, the milk jug, the water torture chamber, his scrapbook, letters - is absolutely astonishing. Copperfield has a whole bunch of beautiful automatons that play music and grow flowers and even perform the ball and cup magic trick. He has a room dedicated to ventriloquist dummies and puppets, including an original Howdy Doody and an original Charlie McCarthy. It’s stunning, and I was often overwhelmed with sheer nerdy excitement to be in the presence of this incredible history.

I was only in the presence of this history by dint of my job, though. You cannot visit Copperfield’s museum. When he dies, he’s arranged to have his collection remain together, which I suspect means it will not be on public display. That’s fitting - magic is a secret society and tricks are its currency. I appreciate the elitism inherent in Copperfield’s private museum - this is some real FUBU shit, from a magician’s point of view.

Should this stuff be public? It’s hard to believe Houdini’s straightjacket should be locked away from all eyes. That feels wrong. It speaks to what Carrey said about magicians, the feeling that a trick is a way of distancing you from them. When movies make magic the intention is to fold you up inside of it, to make it real and complete. Movies are on your level. Stage magic stands above you.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that Copperfield’s collection of magical history stops right at Doug Henning, Copperfield’s predecessor. It’s as if magic history stopped the moment Copperfield stepped on stage for the first time, as if it had reached its peak. Maybe, for the guy whose office has a bust of himself on a shelf and a temperature-controlled fire-safe room full of every time he's been in the papers, it did.