In 1981, magician David Copperfield made a Learjet vanish. In 1983, Copperfield, née David Kotkin, disappeared and reappeared the Statue of Liberty. The Metuchen, N.J., native has also walked through the Great Wall of China, levitated over the Grand Canyon, escaped Alcatraz, and sawed himself in half.
Copperfield also owns 11 Bahamian islands and a major private museum of magic memorabilia in Las Vegas, where he has a residency at the MGM Grand.
On Saturday, the world’s richest illusionist and his industry predecessor Harry Houdini will join Golda Meir, Albert Einstein, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Barbra Streisand, Irving Berlin, Emma Lazarus, and Steven Spielberg in the National Museum of American Jewish History’s “Only in America” hall of fame.
A free virtual gala will livestream at 8 p.m. Eastern time from Philadelphia and Vegas (details at nmajh.org), where Copperfield and some magician buddies will induct Houdini and perform a trick or two. He spoke to The Inquirer this week.
Congratulations on becoming the newest member of the National Museum of American Jewish History’s hall of fame.
Why, thank you. It’s humbling. It makes me think: Maybe I’m on the right track. Maybe my mother was wrong.
What did your mom want you to be?
You know: a doctor, a lawyer, someone that could put food on the table. She was OK with me pursuing magic when I was 18, when I was a star for a year in Chicago. Then, of course, I starved. I had a year of success before reality set in.
My father had wanted to be an actor, and my mother kind of talked him out of that. So, I’m living my father’s dream in my own way. I’ve never had another job outside magic.
Did you always want to be a magician?
Growing up, my idols weren’t other magicians. They were Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, Frank Capra, Walt Disney.
Magic came very easily to me. When I was 12, I invented a magic encyclopedia. But I loved the cinema and I loved Broadway: That’s what really moved me.
Growing up in Metuchen, N.J., was a great combination of being in Mayberry and getting on the bus to go to New York to catch the second acts of Broadway shows and go to Andy Warhol parties. My teen years were an eclectic education.
You have the world’s largest collection of Houdini memorabilia, and you’re inducting him into the hall of fame on Saturday. Was he an idol too?
Houdini was part of that same world of entertainers and artists I admired. He devised a kind of magic that hadn’t been done before: escapology, which is incredibly relatable. People don’t wake up in the morning and think: Today I’m making an elephant disappear. They do wake up and think of being free, of not being bound. That’s what Houdini’s act was about. Escaping has resonance.
I’ve done many homages to Houdini, including going over Niagara Falls and escaping from a straitjacket above burning spikes.
Will you be doing any magic at the gala?
I have a couple little surprises. I also invited some friends to perform. Asi Wind, an Israeli magician, is one of the great, great sleight-of-hand performers. Lucy Darling does a very, very innovative show with a character that she plays. She’s wonderful.
I want to promote having more female representation in my art. Magic should have more women in it. In mythology, there were women with magical power. Think of Elsa in Frozen. It’s amazing that not more women are doing it today.
How has your heritage impacted your career?
A Jewish upbringing, like any upbringing, certainly affects how you behave. Growing up Jewish, it was drummed into your head: You have to survive, and there are going to be all kinds of problems and people who aren’t going to like you. You have to rise above.
My kids have been bar and bat mitzvahed because I felt it helped give them a sense of where they came from. My mother was born in Israel. My father was born in Russia. My parents experienced a lot of suffering. They faced a lot of challenges.
Another hall of fame member is Emma Lazarus, who wrote the poem “The New Colossus” which is excerpted on the Statue of Liberty — which you famously made disappear and reappear.
I lived in the base of the statue when we were doing the illusion. For two weeks, I slept beneath Lazarus’ plaque. The whole statue illusion was really about freedom, about taking liberty for granted.
What would you like your legacy to be?
I am constantly asking myself: How can I make a difference in things that the world needs right now? How can I reach an audience that might not pay attention?
Here in America, we’ve always known how different we are from each other. But over the past four years, we’ve never seen a division like the one there is now.
My job is to unite people in a sense of wonder and discovery. Every night in my show, I look out on an incredibly diverse audience. I see people whose countries are at war, but there they are, laughing, hanging out together. When I bring these audience members onstage, all of those divisions go away because of their shared experiences.
If I’m lucky, if I do my job right, my magic is not just to fool people. It’s to show limitless possibilities. I want to have people’s perspectives change so they can bring possibility to their own lives. It’s exactly what a screenwriter does, what a poet does. It’s my art.