Monday, Aug. 18, 2014 | 12:46 p.m.
Joanie Spina, longtime assistant to magician David Copperfield, died Sunday at a Houston hospital while awaiting lung and liver transplants. She was 61.
Spina, a Las Vegas resident who also coached young magicians and was an aspiring filmmaker, suffered from pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable lung disease. She also had been treated for cancer.
She left Las Vegas this year for Houston for the planned replacement surgeries.
A fundraiser to defray Spina’s mounting medical costs was held in Las Vegas in September and attracted a number of luminaries from the magic community, including Lance Burton.
Since 2009, Spina had penned the Directions column for Las Vegas-based Magic magazine. She gave tips to aspiring magicians on stage presentation and technique to help them fine-tune their acts.
“She is a remarkable lady and is beloved in the magic community,” Magic magazine Publisher Stan Allen told the Sun in a Sept. 26, 2013, story about Spina’s struggle with her disease. “She always opened her heart to every person who has ever crossed her path.”
Spina served as Copperfield’s on-stage chief assistant for 10 years, including his headlining performances at the MGM Grand. She also served as Copperfield’s artistic director, choreographer and lead dancer.
She choreographed 10 of Copperfield’s CBS TV specials from 1986 to 1995 and co-directed several of Copperfield’s live shows.
For the last three years, Copperfield has provided spiritual and medical support for Spina, who had been on 24-hour oxygen therapy because of her respiratory ailment.
Spina also choreographed the successful Broadway show “Dreams and Nightmares.”
As an associate illusionist to English illusion designer Paul Kieve, Spina, in February of 2012, helped open Broadway’s “GHOST: The Musical.”
Teaming with Mark Kalin, Jinger Leigh and Jeff Hobson, she helped develop the “Carnival of Wonders” show. She also was involved in that show’s 2009 revival at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City.
Spina also collaborated with Franco Dragone, the original artistic director of Cirque du Soleil, serving as a researcher and casting director for Dragone’s “The Circus McGurkus” and “Kung Fu Panda.” Spina also helped cast the Dreamworks touring show “How to Train Your Dragon.”
As a magician, Spina performed in Atlantic City, South America, Europe and the Bahamas in the 1990s and early 2000s. Once, for a CBS sports television show, Spina made then-women’s world figure-skating champion Michelle Kwan disappear.
Spina also was a lecturer and conducted performance workshops.
As a magic coach, Spina’s students included the rotund Sir Pat Trick (real name Patrick Thernes), who credited Spina with turning around his career by teaching him stage presence, better eye-contact with his audience and to take advantage of his huge physique to endear himself to the audience.
She also changed the mood of his act from dark and somber to upbeat and jovial — all via Skype, as Sir Pat Trick was based in Cincinnati and Spina was unable to travel from Las Vegas because of her illness.
Spina’s teaching came to fruition last year when Sir Pat Trick, who resembles Oliver Hardy, made a memorable debut at the “Magic Live!” show at The Orleans, where he received a standing ovation. Spina was called on stage at the conclusion of his performance to be recognized for her coaching.
Spina also was an animal rights activist whose moving 19-minute documentary “Born to Die” about the overpopulation of discarded pets in Las Vegas debuted at the 2004 New York International Independent Film and Video Festival.
In the film, Spina focused on the Heaven Can Wait Sanctuary and the Las Vegas Valley Humane Society and their efforts to spay and neuter cats in low-income areas using a mobile veterinary van and volunteers to trap animals, particularly feral cats in mobile home parks.
One of the more heart-wrenching scenes in the film is when Spina interviewed euthanasia technicians at a Las Vegas animal shelter that had no choice but to euthanize dozens of animals each day because of the overpopulation of abandoned or unwanted pets.
Spina’s other documentary films include “Doctor Death.” Her films also have been shown at, among others, the CineVegas Film Festival and The Dam Short Film Festival.
Spina was born Aug. 4, 1953, and grew up in Woburn, Mass., near Boston.
She began dancing at age 11. In her mid-20s, she moved to New York to pursue her career as a performer. In 1985, Spina went to work for Copperfield and became his chief assistant on a number of Copperfeld’s trademark illusions, including the flying illusion and the water levitation.
Services for Spina have yet to be announced.
Ed Koch is a former longtime Las Vegas Sun reporter.