Few if any human beings have had as deft a touch as David Copperfield for turning magic into money.
Copperfield wasn’t the first post-Houdini superstar illusionist -– that would have been Doug Henning, whose “The Magic Show” played on Broadway for more than 4 1/2 years starting in 1974 –- but even big Broadway grosses can’t match the megabucks Copperfield has taken in.
By Forbes magazine’s reckoning, Copperfield’s incessant touring, Las Vegas appearances and television specials –- 17 on CBS yearly from 1978 to 1995, and an 18th in 2001 -– earned him an average of $66.5 million annually from 1994 through 1997, and $57 million annually in 2004 and 2005. Even in the terrible economy of 2009, the business publication marveled that Copperfield had “pulled the greatest trick of all: banking $30 million in the middle of a recession.”
The son of a clothing store owner, Copperfield had gone professional by the age of 10, earning $5 per gig doing magic tricks at birthday parties. At 12, he became the youngest member of the Society of American Magicians, and at 16 he taught a course at New York University, the Art of Magic.
Enrolled in 1974 as a freshman at Fordham University, he auditioned for a musical called “The Magic Man,” got the part and took a friend’s suggestion to adopt the stage name David Copperfield before joining the show in Chicago. It had nothing to do with the Charles Dickens character.
Among his spectacular illusions were levitating a Ferarri sport car, then making it vanish, making a Lear jet disappear at Van Nuys Airport, walking through the Great Wall of China and making the Statue of Liberty seem to disappear.
Copperfield had been an eager Broadway theatergoer as a teen, and his appreciation of stagecraft and his good looks helped him put together extravaganzas that pulled in crowds. Among his perks were a romance with supermodel Claudia Schiffer, whom he met on tour in Germany in 1993, and the dough to amass a personal magic archive of more than 80,000 items that he kept in his Las Vegas compound.
There was no sleight of hand in the healing effort, Project Magic, which he launched in 1982 after a young magician who’d corresponded with him sent him a news photo revealing that he had to use a wheelchair. Copperfield consulted with occupational therapists who helped develop a program based on magic tricks to help disabled people regain some dexterity.
One key to his success, he told the Times in 1988, was that “I’ve always seen magic as an art form.... I always felt that…music and romance and a great illusion would not only amaze the audience, but get them to relate to magic as an art form.” Also, he noted, “I’m not overly mystical and I don’t have a negative type personality. It sounds corny, but I happen to like people a lot. If you like them, they’re going to believe you.”