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 is seeking volunteers for his next illusion.
Instead of requesting a show of hands, he has opted to throw several oversized silver beach balls into the crowd, and those who hold one when the music stops will have the opportunity to participate.
However, he issues a warning that this trick is not suitable for everyone.
“If you’re a lawyer,” he says, “sit down,” eliciting some laughter from the audience.
He continues, “If you’ve had too much to drink, sit down,” which results in more chuckles.
Finally, he adds, “If you’re the Masked Magician…” The magician pauses, and a note of not-so-well-concealed resignation creeps into his voice. “…kiss my ass.”
Very few television stars can be described as synonymous with their respective art forms.
Even the most exceptional individuals in their fields face competition, challenges to their dominance, and emerging talents on other networks.
Nevertheless, for a substantial period, beginning in the late 1970s and extending into the early 1990s, when one thought of magic on television, one name invariably came to mind: David Copperfield.
During this era, Copperfield embodied magic, and his nearly annual specials, “The Magic of David Copperfield,” were highly anticipated, significant television events.
However, as the 1990s drew to a close, the master illusionist found himself under siege from various fronts: an audience that deemed his act outdated, newcomers who embraced a more stripped-down and personal style, and, of course, the Masked Magician.
When Copperfield entered the 21st century, he carried a burden of proof and faced an unwelcoming new television landscape.
Does anyone else observe that the flame resembles a miniature person?
Copperfield initially appeared on television in 1977 as the star of ABC’s “The Magic of ABC,” a program primarily used to showcase the network’s upcoming fall schedule.
In addition to unveiling each evening’s lineup of new and returning shows (and featuring a musical performance by Donny Osmond), Copperfield performed a few illusions and interacted with numerous ABC television stars.
While it’s a pleasant enough program for what essentially amounts to a one-hour commercial, with game actors and Copperfield clearly having the time of his life, it hardly does justice to Copperfield’s talents.
Rival network CBS clearly recognized his potential and granted him his own commercial-free special the following fall.
The legendary Orson Welles, a master magician in his own right, introduced the special and encouraged viewers to become familiar with Copperfield’s name, as they would soon be seeing much more of it.
It was during this period that David Copperfield’s signature style began to take shape.
Watching one of his specials today, it’s surprising how the tone can shift from one segment to another.
Copperfield firmly believed that a magician should have access to all the tools of any storyteller—comedy, drama, mystery, romance—and he developed each illusion as its own miniature production.
Some tricks were small and intimate, while others were grand and elaborate.
One illusion exuded a sense of awe and grace, forgoing traditional patterns in favor of elaborate lighting effects, smoke machines, and stirring Peter Gabriel songs.
The next segment might feature Copperfield engaging the audience in friendly conversation, peppering the magic with corny jokes akin to those your uncle might tell.
Each episode of “The Magic of David Copperfield” had a variety show appeal, catering to a diverse audience of all ages and tastes.
As the series evolved, it began to emphasize Copperfield’s passion for spectacle above all else.
Each special culminated in one grand illusion, a spectacular moment that had been building throughout the entire hour.
It was during these performances that Copperfield truly became a legend.
His awe-inspiring vanishing act with the Statue of Liberty in 1983 is perhaps his most iconic illusion, a magical feat that has yet to be surpassed in the public’s imagination.
In other years, he executed similarly majestic tricks, such as walking through the Great Wall of China or making one of the Orient Express cars disappear.
During leaner years, he wove chains of illusions into larger narratives, as in 1987 when his “Escape from Alcatraz” was a meticulously crafted series of magical displays presented as a gripping story.
While the grand illusions often took center stage as the 1990s approached, Copperfield never allowed them to overshadow the rest of his show, and the entire program was consistently well-produced.
In 1992, when Copperfield was at the peak of his powers, CBS aired the fourteenth Magic special titled “Flying–Live the Dream,” co-hosted by James Earl Jones.
The evening culminated with Copperfield astonishing the theater audience by seemingly levitating above the stage through sheer willpower.
The illusion was impressive by itself, but even more so because the entire hour was masterfully built up to the moment when he finally took flight.
Throughout the program, James Earl Jones made appearances to remind the viewers of what was in store, and there were short films about the human dream of flight.
True to his signature style, Copperfield led into the illusion by sharing a personal childhood dream, connecting with the audience on an emotional level even before they witnessed the trick.
“Flying” stands as Copperfield’s finest hour and remains one of the greatest television specials ever produced.
While the tone shifted with each illusion, Copperfield maintained a consistent theme of youth and wonder.
In one segment, he performed close-up magic at the foot of the stage; in another, he engaged in card tricks with the late Orson Welles, seemingly from beyond the grave.
In yet another, he demonstrated mind-reading abilities that encouraged viewers to participate and be awestruck.
Regardless of the act’s nature, an overarching sense of amazement prevailed, evoking a childlike belief that anything and everything was possible.
This feeling persisted even during the show’s lighter moments, such as when Copperfield elevated the classic trick of predicting random audience members’ reactions to predetermined questions to a whole new level.
Following such a brilliant performance, a downturn was almost inevitable.
Copperfield returned the next year with “Fires of Passion,” a rather routine affair lacking the wow factor and thematic depth of the previous year’s show.
He took a year off, presenting a clip show hosted by his then-wife, Claudia Schiffer.
The 1995 special, “Unexplained Forces,” continued the declining trend, offering a collection of so-so tricks and concluding with one of his most uninspired grand illusions.
Then came a hiatus. Copperfield shifted his focus to stage performances, establishing a residency on Broadway for the rest of the decade, virtually disappearing from television.
However, he couldn’t stay away forever. Copperfield made a comeback on CBS in 2001 with his seventeenth special, “Tornado of Fire.”
Yet, he returned to a television landscape with a markedly different perspective on magic.
Copperfield had excelled in creating majestic spectacle and melodrama, but the new, more skeptical audience viewed such performances with suspicion and dismissal.
The primary reason for this change was the Masked Magician.
In 1997, Fox launched a series of four specials titled “Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed.”
Hosted by Mitch Pileggi, known for his role in “The X-Files,” and featuring Val Valentino as the Masked Magician, these specials revealed the secrets behind many classic stage magic acts.
They adopted a tone suggesting that magicians’ secrets were being divulged, potentially leading to retaliation from a magician’s “mafia.”
Valentino claimed his goal was to spark children’s interest in magic, but it resulted in audiences more interested in exposing secrets than suspending disbelief.
Many classic illusions became almost obsolete overnight.
To make matters worse for Copperfield, a new breed of magician had emerged in his absence, and they didn’t rely on smoke machines or bombastic music to make an impact.
David Blaine made his television debut in 1997 with a completely different style.
His special, “Street Magic,” featured Blaine walking up to strangers with a handheld camera and performing simple yet incredibly effective tricks inches from his audience.
The focus shifted from the performer to the spectators, who often reacted to his illusions with something akin to religious fervor.
While Blaine also featured grand illusions to conclude his shows, they were nothing as ostentatious as the vanishing of a national landmark.
Instead, Blaine performed supernatural endurance feats, like burying himself underground or freezing himself in ice.
This was the kind of magic that resonated with America in 2001, and Copperfield had to adapt to compete on Blaine’s terms.
Unfortunately, “Tornado of Fire” suggested that Copperfield might be a relic of a bygone era.
“Tornado of Fire” was a tonal mess overall. While Copperfield retained his ornate and melodramatic style for his stage performances, he seemed less confident in his act.
He tried to infuse standard Copperfield illusions with heavy doses of sexual comments and over-the-top humor.
Furthermore, Copperfield ventured into the streets, a territory Blaine had already mastered.
This led to uncomfortable sequences in which Copperfield was shown performing his stage tricks in random alleys for passersby.
The show built to a grand illusion, “Portal,” which was outstanding, but it felt cheesy due to the lack of the earnest tone that characterized “Flying.”
Lastly, the show’s climax, the titular tornado of fire, was an endurance trick rather than a mind-bending act of misdirection or levitation.
Copperfield stood inside a wind tunnel clad in flame-retardant foil while assistants fired flamethrowers at him.
He emerged unscathed but exhausted, simply remarking, “It’s hot!” The credits rolled.
This 21st-century style of magic didn’t suit Copperfield at all, and “Tornado of Fire” marked his final CBS special.
He returned to the stage, where his act felt more at home. Perhaps, it was for the best.
Many of Copperfield’s most iconic illusions tapped into nostalgia for better times, and that very emotion is now ingrained in his act.
While television may have moved on from Copperfield, he will always reappear for the audience willing to seek him out.
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