You can use your illusion, let it take you where it may
We live and learn, and then sometimes it’s best to walk away
But me, I’m just here hanging on, it’s my only place to stay
At least for now, anyway
I’ve worked too hard for my illusions just to throw them all away
–Guns N’ Roses
The magician needs volunteers for his next illusion. Rather than asking for a show of hands, he’s decided to toss a number of over-sized silver beach balls into the crowd; those holding one when the music stops get to participate. But this trick isn’t for everyone, he warns. “If you’re a lawyer,” he says, “sit down.” Some laughter from the audience. “If you’ve had too much to drink, sit down.” Some more chuckles. “If you’re the Masked Magician…” The magician pauses, and a note of not-that-well-hidden resignation creeps into his voice. “…kiss my ass.”
Very few television stars can be said to have become synonymous with their art forms. Even the very best among the best have competitors, challengers to the throne, an up-and-coming threat on another network. But for quite a long time, starting in the late 1970s and continuing into the early ’90s, when you thought of magic on television, there was only one name that came to mind: David Copperfield. Copperfield was magic in that era, a time when his almost-yearly The Magic of David Copperfield specials were anticipated, important television events. But as the ’90s drew to a close, the master illusionist found his art under attack from all sides: by an audience who found his act passé, by newcomers who adopted a far more stripped-down and personal style, and, of course, by that Masked Magician. The Copperfield that entered the 21st century did so with too much to prove, and found the new television landscape very unwelcome.
Copperfield first arrived on television in 1977, as the star of ABC’s The Magic of ABC, which the network used mainly as a way of previewing their upcoming fall schedule. In between revealing each night’s lineup of new and returning shows (and a musical performance by Donny Osmond), Copperfield performed a few illusions and interacted with lots and lots of ABC television stars. It’s pleasant enough for what is literally an hour-long commercial — the actors are pretty game, Copperfield is clearly having the time of his life, and it’s all so seventies it’s a pure joy to see — but it’s not really worthy of Copperfield’s talents. Rival CBS certainly saw him as destined for greater things, and they gave him his own special on their network the next fall, this one no commercial. Orson Welles — a master magician himself, of course — introduces the piece, telling the viewers to get used to the name of the star, because it’s one with which they’re going to become very familiar.
It’s here that the David Copperfield trademarks began to emerge. Watching one of his specials now, it’s easy to be surprised by how the tone can shift from segment to segment. Copperfield always felt the magician should have access to all of the tools of any other storyteller — comedy, drama, mystery, romance — and developed each illusion as its own mini-production. Some tricks are small and intimate, some are large and ornate. One illusion will present a tone of awe and grace, eschewing any traditional patter for elaborate lighting effects, smoke machines and dramatic Peter Gabriel songs, and the next will feature Copperfield chatting affably with the audience, peppering the magic with the same kind of corny jokes your uncle might tell. Each installment of The Magic of David Copperfield very much has a variety show appeal, catering to all ages and tastes.
As the series evolved, it began to highlight Copperfield’s love for spectacle above all else. Each special was capped off with one grand illusion, a fantastically elaborate moment built up to for the entire hour. It’s here Copperfield truly became legendary — his spectacular disappearance of the Statue of Liberty in 1983 is likely his signature illusion, a magical performance that has never quite been equaled in the public mind. In other years, he performed similarly majestic tricks, such as walking through the Great Wall of China or disappearing one of the cars from the Orient Express. In leaner years, he instead wove chains of illusions into greater narratives, such as in 1987, when his “Escape of Alcatraz” was an expertly constructed series of magic displays told as a gripping story. The grand illusions tended to the be the tails that wagged the dogs as the ’90s dawned, but Copperfield never allowed them to overshadow the rest of his show, the whole of which was always immaculately produced.
In 1992, with Copperfield at the height of his powers, CBS aired the fourteenth Magic special, subtitled Flying–Live the Dream. Co-hosted by James Earl Jones, the evening capped with Copperfield stunning the theater audience by apparently flying above the stage through sheer force of will. The illusion itself is quite impressive on its own, but even more so by the way the entire hour builds to the moment when he finally leaves the ground. In between acts, Jones will appear to remind the viewer of what’s to come, interspersed with short films on the human dream of flight. In another of his trademarks, Copperfield leads into the illusion by telling a story of his own childhood dreams, engaging with the audience on an emotional level before they even see the trick itself.
Flying is Copperfield’s finest hour, and still holds up as one of the greatest television specials ever produced. While the tone changes with each illusion, Copperfield manages to stick to a consistent theme of youth and wonder. In one segment he’s performing close-up magic at the foot of the stage; in another, he’s doing card tricks with Orson Welles, apparently from beyond the grave; and in yet another he reads the minds of the television audience, performing a bit of mentalism that encourages those at home to participate themselves and be dazzled. But in each act, that sense of amazement is all around, that childlike belief that anything and everything is possible. Even in the show’s sillier moments, Copperfield is getting at the viewer’s sense of nostalgia, priming them for the big finish. This is even true when he turns to full-on comedy, as he takes the ages-old trick of predicting random audience members’ reactions to predetermined questions to an entirely new level.
With a performance as brilliant as Flying, a downhill turn was inevitable. Copperfield returned the next year with Fires of Passion, a by-the-numbers affair that lacked both the wow factor and thematic depth of the previous year’s show. He took the next year off, airing instead a clip show hosted by then-wife Claudia Schiffer. The 1995 special Unexplained Forces continued the downward momentum, a so-so collection of tricks that concluded with his most uninspired grand illusion yet. And then: a hiatus. Copperfield concentrated on his stage performances, taking up residency on Broadway for the rest of the decade and all but vanishing from television.
He wouldn’t stay away forever, of course, returning to CBS in 2001 with his seventeenth special, Tornado of Fire. But Copperfield returned to a TV landscape that looked at magic with a much different eye than before. Where Copperfield traded in majestic spectacle and melodrama, the newly cynical crowd eyed such an act with suspicion and dismissal.
For that, you can largely thank that Masked Magician. In 1997, Fox began what would be a series of four specials, titled Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed. Hosted by X-Files alum Mitch Pileggi and starring a Vegas performer named Val Valentino as the aforementioned Masked Magician, the specials set about revealing the truths behind many classic stage magic acts, adopting a they-don’t-want-you-to-know-this tone that suggested the producers thought a magician’s mafia might be coming for them at any moment. Which may have been accurate, actually: while Valentino’s stated goal was to encourage children to get interested in magic, the result was a lot of angry magicians performing to crowds who were more interested in figuring out the secrets than suspending disbelief. Dozens of classic illusions became practically useless overnight.
Even worse for Copperfield, a new breed of magician had arisen in his absence, and they didn’t rely on smoke machines or bombastic music to get their points across. David Blaine first appeared on television in 1997, utilizing an entirely different style. Blaine’s special, appropriately titled Street Magic, featured the illusionist simply walking up to strangers with a handheld camera, performing simple but incredibly effective tricks mere inches from his audience. The focus was turned from the performer — who often came across as a zoned-out junkie, with dead eyes and a flat voice — and onto the spectators, who regularly reacted to his illusions with something approaching religious fervor. And while Blaine also used grand illusions to finish the show, it was nothing so ostentatious as the vanishing of a national landmark; instead, Blaine would perform some supernatural feat of endurance, such as burying himself underground or freezing himself in ice. This was the magic America wanted in 2001, and Copperfield had no choice but to try to compete on Blaine’s turf. Unfortunately, Tornado of Fire revealed that Copperfield was possibly a relic of a time gone by.
On the whole, Tornado is a tonal mess. Copperfield keeps his ornate and melodramatic touches for his stage show but no longer seems confident in his own act, choosing to spice up what would be otherwise standard Copperfield illusions with heavy doses of sexual comments and over-the-top humor. Even worse, Copperfield also feels the need to take to the streets as Blane did, resulting in unpleasant and uncomfortable sequences where Copperfield is shown repeating his stage tricks in what would appear to be a random alley for a few passersby. Like Flying, the show builds to a grand moment, an illusion bursting with emotion, but it falls flat. The illusion itself, commonly called “Portal,” is stellar, but with the rest of the hour lacking Flying‘s earnest tone, the payoff comes as more cheesy than powerful.
And, in the final disaster, the climax of the show, the titular tornado of fire, is not an awe-inspiring act of superlative misdirection or levitation; instead, it’s a mere endurance trick. Copperfield stands inside a wind tunnel, wrapped in flame retardant foil, and is fired upon by assistants with flamethrowers. Afterwards, he collapses to the ground, exhausted by unharmed. His only reaction? “It’s hot!” The credits roll.
This 21st century style of magic did not suit Copperfield at all, clearly, and it’s no surprise that Tornado of Fire was his final CBS special. Instead, he went back to the stage, where his act will always feel at home. And maybe, really, it’s better that way. So many of Copperfield’s finest illusions traded on nostalgia for better times; now, that very emotion is built into the act itself. Television may have left Copperfield behind, but for the audience willing to find him, he will always reappear.
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