David Seth Kotkin
are the newest inductees at the National Museum of American Jewish History’s Only in America Hall of Fame. If they don’t sound familiar, you may recognize their stage names: David
It’s the latest honor for Copperfield, who’s won 21 Emmys, received a Living Legend Award from Congress, and has sold more tickets than any solo entertainer in history.
But it all started in Metuchen, N.J., where
overcame his shyness through magic—and parlayed early success as a performer into a world-conquering career as an illusionist. Copperfield’s wealth has been reported anywhere from $875 million to $1 billion.
Copperfield, 64, spoke to Penta from Las Vegas, where his sold-out shows at the MGM Grand went on hiatus after a crew member tested positive for Covid-19 on Nov. 16. Performances are scheduled to resume Dec. 17.
PENTA: You were inducted into the “Only in America” Hall of Fame. Does that name resonate with you?
David Copperfield: I made the Statue of Liberty disappear once, and brought it back. It was a lesson in freedom. At the time, I wrote a whole dissertation about how important our freedom is, and how we take it for granted.
the great director, wrote it with me.
I talked about my mother [who emigrated from Israel at age 5] being on a boat and seeing the statue for the first time. It was the classic immigrant story. In a nice way, it drummed into my head the struggles and opportunities that existed. My mother wasn’t such a big fan of me doing magic. She was afraid I wouldn’t be able to feed my family. But it made me stronger. Where else in the world can you be fortunate enough to have a career and a business that’s off the beaten track? America provides that window of possibility you have to embrace. But you have to work hard.
How does your Jewish background relate to your work as an illusionist?
It’s like the old joke: “Every Jewish holiday has a theme—they tried to destroy us, we survived, let’s eat.” There’s actually an important lesson in there. The world is full of “you can’t do that,” or “you’ll never succeed.” That’s what life is. All of the people honored in this Hall of Fame—and it’s an amazing group of people—had lives filled with roadblocks they had to get around. That part of our background is a helping point to remember and embrace.
You’re inducting Harry Houdini yourself. Did the Hall of Fame accolade take on deeper meaning because of that?
He wasn’t actually an idol in my beginnings. It was people like
—people who weren’t in magic. But Houdini set a style and a kind of magic—escapology—that didn’t exist. I tried to replicate and improve on it, whether escaping from Niagara Falls or from an exploding building. If not for him, I wouldn’t have had that idea about freeing yourself. His life was a metaphor. No bonds can keep us bound. It was hopeful and superhero-like.
You’ve built your success on live performance. How has the pandemic affected that?
If I can put it this way, work was actually great during the pandemic. We developed protocols and programs that I’m proud of. The safest place to be was in that theater when I’m doing shows—the room’s disinfected, everyone’s wearing masks, there’s social distancing. That room was a safe place.
We were promised we’d remain open because we were doing the right thing, but the numbers went up, and they had to make a point, so I got lumped in with people who weren’t behaving. I got to do 28 shows, and the audience loved it.
Do audiences have a different appreciation of magic since the pandemic started?
I think we all need to escape, forgive the pun. We need to know there’s more to life than what’s in the news every day. Magic provides in a profound way, along with art, poetry, and music, to take reality and turn it upside down. I’ve never tried to fool anyone. I try to show limitless possibilities and give people a new perspective on the world.
After so many decades of performing, how do you top yourself?
Covid created enormous possibilities for me in that respect. I’ve been working on new illusions and new technology. Magic isn’t just taking old stuff and doing it again. You can’t just play a song on an old piano. You have to create a whole new piano.
What can business people learn from your practice as an illusionist?
I speak about this a lot. Everything I’m doing works in business. It takes a lot of detail and effort to make things look easy and effortless. Every lighting cue, word, and movement is how I guide the audience, and it’s similar in business. You want your messaging to resonate with what people need to hear. I do a lot of listening. I tune in to what people are thinking about. In business, you can have great concepts, but you have to look at the entire picture of who you’re talking to.
You launched Project Magic nearly 30 years ago to use magic as a form of therapy for people with disabilities. It’s now active in 30 countries. What was the “aha” moment for that initiative?
It was letters from a young magician. In one letter, he sent a photo, and he was in a wheelchair, which he’d never mentioned. The empowerment of doing magic made him feel on equal ground with able-bodied people. I realized that to learn magic, you have to have dexterity, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, memory, sequencing. I got together with some medical professionals to track, rate, and grade people’s progress if they did it over and over again. Some people don’t want to relearn getting dressed. But they can learn a rope trick. Then they can learn tying their shoes, and you take it from there.
What advice do you give young magicians?
I do 15 shows a week, and I learn with every show. Listen to the audience, all the time. Do lots of shows, listen, and learn. The audience votes. Make them feel special. They will guide you if you keep your ears open.