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Inside David Copperfield’s holy grail of wizardry in Las Vegas

David Copperfield

Illusionist David Copperfield in 2002.

Coming Sunday: A tour of David Copperfield's Musha Cay resort in the Caribbean.

When The Beatles wrote “Magical Mystery Tour” in 1967, they must have guessed that incredible illusionist David Copperfield would take their lyrics to heart to tackle the two biggest challenges of his career. Not onstage at MGM Grand’s Hollywood Theater, where he regularly headlines, or touring arenas around the globe to present his magnificent magic, but off-stage on a private hideaway Caribbean island and at a secret museum of the world’s largest private collection of magic memorabilia at an unmarked fortress location here in Las Vegas.

“Roll up, roll up, for the magical mystery tour, step right this way. Roll up, and that’s an invitation, roll up to make a reservation. Waiting to take you away, roll up for the magical mystery tour. Roll up, got everything you need, roll up, satisfaction guaranteed. The magical mystery tour is coming to take you away.”

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David Copperfield

David Copperfield's Magic Collection

David Copperfield's magic collection at a secret location in Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

David Copperfield

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Regis Philbin, David Copperfield and Kelly Ripa record an episode of Live! With Regis and Kelly at Encore Theater in the Wynn on Nov. 28, 2010.

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NASCAR driver Tony Stewart, David Copperfield and the street-legal Mobil 1 Chevy stock car on March 2, 2011.

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Claudia Schiffer arrives with her boyfriend David Copperfield for the 68th Academy Awards at the Music Center in Los Angeles, Monday, March 25, 1996.

I’ve known David, a Las Vegas resident, for many, many years. In fact, when he was dating supermodel Claudia Schiffer, they were dinner guests at my home in Antigua. We’ve met many times since for interviews and at openings and showbiz parties.

But in all the years, I’ve never been able to talk him into opening the doors of his secured museum for me to take the ultimate magical mystery tour -- until a few weeks ago. I’m an unabashed magic fan, a one-time honorary member of London’s Magic Circle, so this was to be nirvana and the holy grail of wizardry and conjuring wrapped up in one.

Every miracle that he performed in 23 hours of TV specials is stored alongside more than 80,000 pieces of the ultimate history of magic: posters, props, magic kits, illusions and thousands of individual rope card ball tricks from prestidigitation performers through the ages. It’s a jaw-dropping, mind-numbing hike through the aisles sprawled over two floors of an anonymous Las Vegas warehouse from by-gone days of Houdini to David’s own up-to-the minute creations.

We met before midnight after watching his acclaimed residency show An Intimate Evening of Grand Illusions at the Hollywood Theater, and at 2 a.m. with electrified energy, we were still exploring his collection. As I marveled at the extraordinary scope and extent of the museum, David must have read my mind and told me, “Nothing is ever finished. It’s always a work in progress.

“I rescued a collection of magic back in 1991 -- that’s just one-quarter of what’s now here. I wasn’t a collector, but that’s what started all this. It’s become the largest collection of its kind in the world. Whenever anybody serious wants to do research on the history of magic, they come here. We’ve had Hollywood writers and directors here when they wanted research on Houdini for their movies. I have big plans for it all eventually, hopefully the Smithsonian. I’m putting together a fund to keep it all together. I just added another 30 pieces last week. Every single piece has a great story to go with it.”

Until now, the museum has been under wraps and tight security, but for the first time, David revealed that he will open the museum in the future for a limited number of select charity fundraisers. The items -- none really under glass or lock and key -- are too antiquated and precious to let hoards go romping through. David gave me his OK for my own digital camera amateur shots for our readers.

The building also houses his video archives. He records every show he performs around the world so he can review them later. It’s also home to his own Magic Factory, where he builds the mind-blowing illusions. He explained: “In magic, it takes two or three years for me to create a 5-minute illusion for me to get it to the level I want. Before I shot any TV special, I would spend a year testing that material out on the road. Before I walked through The Great Wall of China, I did that illusion 500 times using a steel plate. So when I went to China, instead of using the steel plate, I did it through The Chinese Wall.”

Those TV spectaculars have won David and his team an astonishing 21 Emmy Awards -- that’s more than The Sopranos. The Guinness Book of World Records has recognized him with 11 entries and calculated that he has sold more tickets than any other entertainer in history, more than Michael Jackson, Madonna and Elvis Presley.

David still holds the record for the most Broadway tickets sold. He was the first magician to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and is the only living magician to appear on postage stamps in six countries. He created Project Magic, a program that uses magic as therapy in hospitals in 30 countries, and wherever he travels, he goes to hospitals to demonstrate its values.

After I’d marveled long enough at the highlights of the huge collection, we sat down to chat.

Robin Leach: Where did you get the dream or the idea for the museum?

David Copperfield: My role models weren’t other magicians because I mastered the art really naturally, easily and quickly. I was 12 years old as the youngest magician in The Society of Magicians. At 16, I was a professor at New York University , a nerdy kid teaching magic to students older than myself. I couldn’t find enough challenges with it, so in my formative years, my idols became film directors Orson Welles, Victor Fleming, then Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Walt Disney. I wanted so much to move people, to take them on a journey, to achieve a level of excellence for magic that hadn’t been done before.

I wish I could dance as well as Gene Kelly. I wish I could sing as well as Frank Sinatra. God didn’t hit me with that stick, but I could perform magic really well. So, I took that and focused it into storytelling challenging with a level of excellence that hadn’t been seen before. I didn’t look backwards. I didn’t look at what Houdini or Thurston Keller achieved. I was focused on Walt Disney’s achievements, and the history of magic came later. I was 15 TV specials into it, but all that time you and I knew each other, we won Emmy after Emmy because the level of excellence was very high quality.

Long story short to answer your question, one day someone called me and said there is a bunch of historical magic, and it is going to be split apart. It’s better to keep it together -- will you rescue it? That’s what I did. It was going to all be auctioned off, but I kept it together and fell in love with it. It was known as the Mulholland Library of the Conjuring Arts owned by a kind of CIA operative who was once Houdini’s friend. We have the letter when Houdini reached out to him and was going to give half to the Library of Congress and the other half to Mulholland because he was a historian who cared about the history of magic.

So now I possess half of Houdini’s library, and the other half is in Congress being preserved, as well. But it’s only a quarter of what we have here now. I fell in love with this idea, I had never paid attention to it because I was always trying to make history, not trying to preserve. I have quadrupled the stuff, not heavy on props, but more posters and books and so forth, but I do have the props of Houdini, Thurston and all those guys.

All the pieces of the puzzle fit together and it is now basically its own Smithsonian of Magic -- the biggest and finest collection of magic that exists. When anyone does a book or a movie about magic, this is now where they come to get all their research from our files that we open for them. For me, I’m using it as an amazing resource, which I never did before, but I always try to push the envelope on new stuff. It’s always good to look back and you find out that the stealing of magic existed back then.

RL: Is it possible to have one favorite piece in this extraordinary collection, and have you ever used that favorite piece as a starting place to create a David Copperfield illusion?

David Copperfield

David Copperfield's Musha Cay

David Copperfield's Musha Cay in the Caribbean. Launch slideshow »

David Copperfield

DC: There are many, many amazing pieces in there I have used for inspiration. For example, we have Houdini’s Water Torture Cell. I did one on an early special. I went over Niagara Falls. … I always pushed it a few notches out of respect, but also to move it forward a bit. We had a special called “Unexplained Forces” based on some of the posters here with their ghosts and devils. It was inspired by a spirit cabinet illusion that Dante did that I have here. You take some of the thematic roots, and you try to modernize them in a cool way -- and we did, and it was extremely successful.

RL: Do you spend time in there daily or weekly just perusing, going through things in bigger depth?

DC: Sometimes when I’ve been really busy making new illusions, I try to make a concerted effort to not look back when I’m creating them. I’m still the kid in the magic store, went to the library, read the magic book, read the effect of what the audience is supposed to see. I would refuse to look at the method in the book of how the trick was done. So I was a 12-year-old kid forcing myself to come up with three different ways of doing it. After I had written those three things down, I would remove the card from the book and see if I came up with anything as good or better or if it was the same. In doing that, I invented new things that I hadn’t thought of. So that same theory I did as a child, I do as an adult.

“I will pass through the museum, see a poster of a theme or a scenario. I won’t look at how it was done. I will take myself and my team, and we will see how can we make something out of it. That way we move the art forward as opposed to replicating what has been done before. The net result is, there is truly game-changing technology that hasn’t existed before. The theme of predicting things has been done before obviously, but when you see the lottery pick in my live show or the car appearance, it’s all-new with the method and technology. On top of that, you add story, content and emotion, and it becomes my signature.

RL: When you said you admired Orson Welles did you realize that he, too, was very into magic?

DC: I saw the Lucy show where he floated Lucille Ball. I was aware that he loved magic, but his best work was as a director and storyteller. He actually hosted my first TV special. He wanted to perform magic. I was 18 years old when I wanted to be like him as one of the great filmmakers of all time, and I think he fantasized about being recognized as a great magician. The thing that I was good at was the thing he desired most. There he was in the studio talking about me onstage, it was so amazing. He was a steamroller of force getting stuff done -- a filmmaker who said “screw the rules -- I’m going to do this.”

RL: You’ve been a very busy headliner at MGM. You haven’t been on tour for quite a while, and you know that your fans around the rest of the world are as big as in the U.S. Do you take a break from Vegas and go off on tour? How do you balance it?

DC: I tour everywhere in the world, I play real arena shows just like rock acts. I do 15 shows a week in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing or South America or Germany. Next year, after this current run here at MGM, I’m taking a couple of world tours around Europe and Southeast Asia playing only arenas. This has been the first time in my life I’ve committed to Las Vegas for 40 weeks. Until this year, I’ve always toured. I wanted to be home in Vegas this year because it’s easier to create new material when I have all of my stuff in one place. After January, we’re looking into taking two separate tours in 2012.

RL: Do you love the road?

DC: It is very different than Vegas. In Las Vegas, people come to us, they make a choice, they see me, they see Celine, or they see a Cirque show, but on tour when you play Chicago, for a month beforehand, they plan their babysitter and they plan their carpool. It becomes a real event. When you go to Chicago or Beijing, it’s only your face in that town for that night. When you walk down the street, Beijing is your city for that week. The audience on the road is an amazing, committed audience. Here, you have your fans for sure who are committed and then you have other people who have the option of seeing your show or another. You have to work a little bit harder because you want them to love what you do.

RL: Are the illusions that you do in an arena much grander than you do in a theater?

DC: I’m actually doing my big stuff in a very intimate room at MGM, which works really well for the audience. They get to see it just 2 feet in front of them. It is really fun and challenging for me: I do 15 shows a week with no days off. I can see the audience appreciating every thing that I’m doing, so I have a love affair with them every night. I found a way of doing very big illusions in a transportable way thanks to an amazing team of people with me.

RL: When you’ve vanished The Statue of Liberty and you’ve made the most extraordinary things disappear under the most improbable circumstances, how do you push yourself to magnify that experience even more? Is the art of self-challenge magic in itself?

DC: I’m a human being who goes through different periods just like everyone else. I’ve learned I need to focus on other things for a while sometimes. I did 20 years of television before all of a sudden there was a bunch of shows copying what I was doing. In television, that’s kind of normal, as you know yourself. For me, though, it was really painful because every little 5-minute thing on screen, I’d have spent two years developing. When a crappy version gets put out there, that’s years of my time being homogenized a bit.

I became unmotivated to do new things because of that, so I turned to developing an entire island of magical wonders. I decided a different palette for a little while. I focused on learning a new business -- hospitality -- and putting what I’d do magically into that business.

Now we’ve created Musha Cay in the Bahamas, and it’s like every single Robin Leach show you’ve ever done. Everywhere you look there is like all of your shows. It is the playground for people who have seen it all, a billionaire’s playground. I’ve spent the last five years of my life on it.

RL: Are the islands of Copperfield Bay finished? Will they ever be finished?

DC: You know me, I have all these other plans. It is like Disneyland, but without the theme park. Of course, I’ve got 20 other dreams for it that would be incredible. The island is actually done after 5 years while I was off the radar magically. It’s on the cover of many magazines. We’re still doing 20 other things with it, but it’s open for business. Now I'm trying to focus on the Copperfield brand because I’ve been building the hospitality business on steroids.

I’m still researching the ultimate magic key to longevity that we talked at length before. The water on the island has done amazing things with the foliage and the leaves. We still have no concrete evidence on the effect on humans, but we’re working on it. I want to get it all right before I take it on to the next step.

When I acquired these islands, I made a personal commitment to transform the already perfect place on Earth into the most magical vacation destination in the world. Life is really good. We’re working on so many things. There’s lots of exciting stuff going on.

Next week, we’ll take a closer look at David’s $50 million magical Caribbean island of 500 acres on four islands with 25 white sand beaches. David can host 24 guests at a time, and, even though strictly private, word of mouth has spread of the picture-perfect paradise through the ranks of the rich and famous.

David won’t divulge any names, but my travel spies tell me Bill Gates booked it for $37,500 a night, Oprah Winfrey and John Travolta booked separately, Google co-founder Sergey Brin was married there, and Oscar winner Penelope Cruz arrived there in a wedding dress by jet ski.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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