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Vol XXXV No. 124

Monday, April 15, 2002

The magic of David Copperfield
World famous illusionist gives South Bend a lesson in the impossible with "The Portal"
Scene Editor

   South Bend will witness a bit of the impossible today. And, no, the University has not changed its mind on the alcohol policy. Tonight, world famous magician David Copperfield will perform his latest stage show, "The Portal" at the Morris Performing Arts Center. And while many recognize the magician from his many television appearances, few know the fascinating life that he leads off camera.

The man now known as David Copperfield was born on Sept.16, 1956, in Metuchen, N.J., as David Seth Kotkin. When Copperfield was seven, he learned his first magic trick from his grandfather, "The Four Ace Trick," an illusion that Copperfield will often still include in his shows.

But, Copperfield originally aspired to be a ventriloquist; but when he visited a prop shop that also doubled as a magic shop, he ended up buying a bag of magic tricks rather than a vent dummy. It would be the beginning of a career that would eventually make him a household name and even get him officially mandated a living legend by the U.S. Library of Congress and knighted as Chevalier of Arts and Letters by the French government.

By the time he was 12, the young magician was already performing professionally as "Davino, the boy magician," in his hometown. In fact, he was and is the youngest person ever to be admitted as a member of the Society of American Magicians, one of the three major fraternal organizations for magicians. By the time he was 16, he was teaching classes on his art at New York University; his title: Professor of Magic.

At 18, Copperfield enrolled at Fordham University in New York, but was cast in the lead role of the Chicago-based musical "The Magic Man" three weeks into his freshman year. Adopting the stage name of David Copperfield from Charles Dicken's novel of the same name just because he liked the sound of it, the young magician left Fordham to work on the show. Copperfield was the show: he sang, he danced and he created most of the original illusions it used. "The Magic Man" put Copperfield's name on the map; in fact, the show became the longest running musical in Chicago's history.

Though Copperfield had made a name for himself with "The Magic Man," he had not yet become the celebrity that he is today. Copperfield returned to New York at 19 after leaving "The Magic Man" and spent an impoverished year in an apartment creating magic and sending résumé tapes to agents. After a year of barley being able to pay his heating bills, Copperfield received an opportunity of a lifetime: ABC wanted him to host its upcoming magic special "The Magic of ABC, Starring David Copperfield."

The success of the special landed Copperfield a contract with CBS to produce "The Magic of David Copperfield" series. It was Copperfield's fifth installment of the series that rocketed him to super-stardom when he vanished the Statue of Liberty in front of a live audience. The illusion reportedly cost over $500,000 to create and Copperfield had to get special permission from the White House to use the national monument.

1984's "The Magic of David Copperfield VI" topped the ratings for its time slot and won two Emmys. Out of the 16 specials, the series has won a total of 19 Emmys. The specials have been the cutting edge of illusion technology. Some of Copperfield's most memorable feats are: vanishing a Lear jet, levitating over the Grand Canyon, walking through the Great Wall of China, riding over Niagara Falls, levitating and vanishing the Orient Express, escaping from Alcatraz, escaping from an imploding building, standing inside of a tornado of fire and his signature stage effect, flying.

While Copperfield is best known for his television appearances, which have aired in over 40 countries and reached and been seen by an estimated 3 billion people, his live stage shows are a phenomenon unto themselves. In fact, Copperfield performs about 550 shows a year.

His latest production, "The Portal," has been touring for almost two years and features the famous illusion of the same name. In the illusion, Copperfield selects 12 members from the audience, vanishes them and has them reappear in impossible places like across the country or even the globe. The rest of Copperfield's show varies at each venue at which he performs. He even claims to have multiple methods to perform some of his illusions so the audience will not be able to figure out the tricks.

Of course, figuring out the trick is not the purpose of going to see a magic show. Copperfield and other professional magicians ask their audiences to suspend their disbelief to witness the impossible, not create an "I know how to do this and you don't" kind of atmosphere. Even so, audiences can't help but scratch their heads when Copperfield completes and illusion.

But performance isn't all Copperfield is interested in. Copperfield heads a program called "Project Magic," which teaches magic to patients who need rehabilitation. Teams of magicians and occupational therapists use various magic tricks to help patients regain some or all of their dexterity, coordination, special perception or cognitive processing.

Copperfield started "Project Magic" in 1982 after receiving a press clipping of a young magician with whom he had been corresponding. Copperfield was astounded to discover that his acquaintance was in a wheelchair. He realized that magic had helped shape the young man's self-image. Copperfield could relate: As a boy, he had used magic to help him feel more self-confident in social settings. He began to wonder whether magic could be used to help other disabled people gain the same type of self-image.

Copperfield pitched the idea to Memorial Hospital in Inglewood, Calif. The staff was receptive to the idea and had positive results; the American Occupational Therapists Association has even approved "Project Magic" as an authentic therapeutic treatment.

Today, "Project Magic" is used in over 1,000 hospitals worldwide. But, Copperfield wants to extend the program with other performing arts, including: dance, music, photography and puppetry. Furthermore, Copperfield participates in the program whenever he has time between tours.

Copperfield also has an interest in giving back to the magic community. His house in Nevada is home to the International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts, a collection that preserves antique magic props, books and other artifacts from the world of conjuring. Eventually, Copperfield would like to create a monument that celebrates magic as a performing art.

Of course, Copperfield dreams big. In the mid '90s he announced plans for a magic-themed restaurant called Copperfield Magic Underground to be opened in Times Square and Disney World. Although plans for the restaurant aren't in the near future, Copperfield is hopeful to get the project off the drawing board. That is, of course, after he completes designing his wanted illusions of putting a woman's face on Mount Rushmore and straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

But, the man who has so much mystery around him has also been chased by rumors. Copperfield, a very private man, has said little to the media regarding these tales except to succinctly deny them. Among favorites are that he and his ex-wife, supermodel Claudia Schiffer, had a contract to fake a marriage to cover up the fact that Copperfield was secretly gay. In fact, the rumor was started by the French gossip magazine Paris Match after receiving photos that they believed were incriminating. Copperfield sued the magazine for defamation and won.

Some rumors, however, have a little more truth to them, such as the story that Copperfield's illusions were held hostage by the Russian Mafia during his tour there last year. Copperfield has declined to divulge the details of the incident, but allegedly Copperfield paid a very large bribe and received a favor from higher ups on Capitol Hill to get the equipment returned.

In the end, Copperfield has led a magical life in every respect. His art has touched the lives of almost half the globe. Now if he would just make the new alcohol restrictions vanish, he'd be the best magician in history.

David Copperfield's "The Portal" will be performed tonight at the Morris Performing Arts Center in downtown South Bend (211 North Michigan Street). There will be two shows beginning at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. respectively. Tickets range from $42.50, $32.50 to $22.50. Seniors, students, military personnel and children under 12 get $5 off with proper identification. Children that are three and younger can sit on laps and don't need tickets. Call the box office at (574) 235-9190 to reserve tickets.

Contact C. Spencer Beggs at beggs.3@nd.edu.

All Scene Stories for Monday, April 15, 2002