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David Copperfield Reveals the ‘History of Magic’ — but Keeps Plenty of Secrets

The famed illusionist shows us his private museum and explains why magic matters

David Copperfield has been wildly successful over the past five decades, and is now one of the most famous magicians of all time, known for performing stunning illusions — like making the Statue of Liberty appear to vanish before a live audience, among many other feats.

Now he wants to pay tribute to the magicians whose work he built upon, in the form of a new book, David Copperfield’s History of Magic, cowritten with Richard Wiseman and David Britland. It recounts the remarkable stories behind 28 groundbreaking magicians, plus photos of some of the tools they used in their acts, including Houdini’s straitjacket, handcuffs and water-torture chamber.

All are from his impressive personal collection of magic props, costumes, photographs, books on witchcraft and conjuring (some hundreds of years old) and more, which he keeps in Las Vegas at the International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts.

Though he offers private tours, his fantastic museum is not open to the public. Why? It’s full of the secrets behind the magic.

But he offered to show AARP around the museum, and talked to us about his collection, new book, remarkable career and why he has devoted his life to creating illusions.   

The greatest magician of all time

My answer will surprise you, because it's not a name that you may be familiar with. It's a gentleman named Richiardi Jr. [a magician from Peru who performed in the mid-1900s]. He didn't move the art forward by inventing new technology, like I make a big effort to do, but he was a performer who took classic magic and performed it amazingly, and brought it to a very, very high level. Also [the 19th century French magician] Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, who invented a lot of technology, but also took magic off the streets and put it in a respectable setting. Houdin was so good and made such an impact that Houdini took his name and put an "i" at the end.

What quality a magician needs to be great

I think it's curiosity. I love learning. I love sponging ideas, and people that are good at my job have that same [desire]. I think also being likable: You don't want your audience to hate you. The audience has to be amazed by you, but at the same time they have to be able to welcome you in. And three Ps: passion, preparation and persistence.   


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Why preserving the history of magic matters  

Like all art forms, magic evolves and improves over time. We look at our past masters to build upon their ideas. But it isn't just for furthering magic, it's also for humanity. A lot of technology we have in our lives today started as magic effects — optical principles, electronic principles, robotic principles, cinema. All started as a piece of magic to amaze audiences.   

Whether he wants people to believe he’s actually performing “magic”

I have two types of audiences every night at my show. One section folds their arms and tries to figure out the puzzle of the magic. And that's fine. I'm happy that they're there, and they usually come to the shows multiple times because they're trying to dissect what I'm doing. But the other half of the audience allows the magic to wash over them, to kind of believe in it, or at least want to believe in it. Of course, they know it's an illusion, but they really sit back and are transported, and that's the best audience for me.

Illusionist vs. magician

Well, my joke is, if you call yourself an illusionist you get paid 20 percent more. And it's true.

Why magic is hard

To create music you compose on a piano, and that's hard work. But imagine having to create it where you have to invent the piano each time. And that's my challenge. Every single illusion uses new technology that I have to start from scratch. After all that hard work, you end up with a product that looks easy and effortless. It's much like Fred Astaire dancing: It looks effortless, but you don't know about the broken toes and the little callouses on your feet. Magic's very much like that. There's so much hard work and so much failure along the way to finally get to a beautiful, simple, elegant result.

How he does 640 shows a year

I'm crazy. But my show is actually designed to keep me as fit as I can be. I actually planned illusions that has me jump and move and run, all these things so every night in my show I do kind of a mini workout, and it's really helped me.

And I always remember: It's an honor and a privilege to do what you love.


Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and
AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.  

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