Now You See Him, Now You Don’t

Magicians occupy a peculiar place in American pop culture. Logically, they should be an anachronism, an antiquated relic of a time when simpletons were easily duped by non-digitally enhanced sleight-of-hand, a time when minstrel shows and vaudeville competed for ye olde American’s hard-earned entertainment dollar. After all, who could possibly be duped by an old-fashioned rabbit-in-the-hat act in an age where television and film can create entire universes out of cyber-scratch?

Yet magic has not only survived but thrived. Blockbusters like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and the Star Wars series all draw heavily on magical forces, while David Blaine has unsuccessfully attempted to make magic cool by dating Fiona Apple and hanging out with Leonardo DiCaprio. Blaine, like many of his peers, has thrived largely because he’s working a niche—in his case as the world’s only “street magician,” a patently ridiculous title that conjures up images of B-boys pulling alley cats out of trash cans and gangsta-ass magicians capping their enemies with elaborate card tricks.

Blaine’s street magic has admittedly breathed new life into the field, but he’s only one of a number of magicians who’ve discovered and cultivated a marketable, magical niche. Smart asses Penn & Teller have cornered the market on hip, ironic anti-magic, while their ideological opposite, Siegfried & Roy, dominate the über–kitschy world of tiger-enhanced, Vegas-style conjuration. Harry Blackstone Jr., Doug Henning, and Harry Houdini all have that “dead” thing working for them, which leaves only David Copperfield, perhaps the most famous solo magician of them all. But what is the secret to his appeal? Unlike Blaine, he’s never canoodled with Fiona Apple or kept it real with his street magic, and he doesn’t possess the hipness and credibility of Penn & Teller, or the camp value of Siegfried & Roy. Yet he remains a pop-culture fixture and one of the highest paid entertainers in the world. Why?

Like all inquiries into the strange, unfathomable, and extremely dorky, mine began with a search on the web. And like nearly all web searches, mine yielded a bizarre web of exhibitionism, broken links and dreams, emotional neediness, and paranoia. My journey into the unknown began, naturally enough, with Copperfield’s own site, a clean, minimalist site distinguished only by its unintentionally revealing “rumors” section. In it, Copperfield addresses the various rumors that have plagued him throughout his career. The rumor that ruffles him the most, of course, is that he’s gayer than Siegfried & Roy on a Judy Garland-themed float on Gay Pride day in San Francisco. “Of course not!” begins Mr. Copperfield’s amusingly defensive response, the exclamation point seemingly intended to illustrate just how not gay he is. Elsewhere, Copperfield refutes the rumor that his marriage to Claudia Schiffer was a sham. “She doesn’t need the dough, and frankly, I don’t need to pay a woman to be seen with me.” Presumably this means his leggy female assistants are volunteers, or at least fans whose payment consists of getting to bask in their idol’s reflected glory.

As a source for advertising about herbal viagra and penile enlargement, the internet is, of course, priceless. As a conduit for other kinds of information, however, it’s extremely limited. So The Rake decided to go straight to the source and attend a David Copperfield show in advance of his appearance here. More specifically, we attended the seventh of eight shows the highy virile magician played over four nights at the Rosemont Theater in Rosemont, Illinois.
As befits a decidedly non-homosexual performer, Copperfield made his grand entrance on a motorcycle. Granted, he wasn’t actually riding the motorcycle, but merely sitting on such a masculine machine was enough to assuage any lingering doubts about his sexuality. He then began his show in earnest, mixing Catskills-style banter with vague new-age talk about the importance of escape and fantasy (the loose theme of the matinee show) and magic tricks that felt uncannily like slight variations on tricks he and every other magician have been doing for years.

And though Copperfield’s dark good looks have won him a reputation as the Fabio of magic, onstage he’s disconcertingly life-sized, less romance-novel hero than reasonably handsome Jewish dentist, right down to his George Hamilton-like perma-tan. Copperfield’s onstage patter is similarly humanizing: He might be able to walk through the Great Wall of China, but he has considerable difficulty getting his audience helpers to do what he tells them to. At one point, Copperfield grew visibly irritated by an especially confused senior, but later tipped the moral scales back in his favor by magically reuniting a sad-sack grandma with her estranged granddaughter through a “portal” connecting the show with a tropical island. It was pure, unadulterated cheese, but at least it was cheese of some scope and vision, which is more than can be said of nearly everything that preceded it. At another point, Copperfield brought out a clown for some urine-related comedy, followed by a barrage of Michael Jackson jokes that so amused the pair that they giggled for more than a minute, making only the feeblest attempt to muffle their guffaws.

By the time Copperfield finished sleepwalking through his final trick, it was difficult to conceive of anyone, no matter how devoted, being impressed by the show. Walking out of the magic man’s schlockfest, I was confused. Copperfield’s appeal still eluded me. I have faith though that fans will keep coming, fattening up Copperfield’s bankbook and ego, and making sure he retains his vaunted thirteenth place on the list of the world’s highest paid entertainers. That, perhaps, is the most impressive trick of all.

David Copperfield appears at the State Theatre, April 26-28, 2002.