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David Copperfield's new book opens a window into the world of magic


Illusionist David Copperfield's museum of magic is somewhere on the outskirts of Las Vegas. It's only open to scholars and historians of magic and now to you - sort of - by way of his new book "David Copperfield's History Of Magic." It includes pictures of hundreds of magic artifacts and the stories of magicians who used them. Copperfield is very protective of his collection, and he told us that it includes some of the all-time greats.

DAVID COPPERFIELD: All of Houdini's things, all of Robert-Houdin's props, manuscripts, letters, amazing sawing-in-half illusions by Dante and Richiardi and Slydini, all kinds of incredible artifacts. And also, a magic store that inspired me and J.J. Abrams and Orson Welles - Tannen's Magic Shop in New York - I recreated it here in the museum. Pretty awesome.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow. You recreated that magic shop from your childhood, from your youth and put it in that museum.

COPPERFIELD: Yeah. And people get very emotional when they come in here. They see this. It's a part of the world that was very, very important - you know, the camaraderie and the association with artists and the mentorship that existed in the brick-and-mortar magic shop, yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: David, how long have you been building this museum? And where on earth have you gone to find things? - because I'm imagining an Indiana Jones of magic in a way.

COPPERFIELD: It is. It's the Smithsonian of magic. It's been called that. It's gigantic. And it's an amalgam of many collections. It was the Mulholland Library, which is an amazing collection of history. Half of Houdini's library was given to John Mulholland. The other half is in the Library of Congress. We just got the actual cabinets from Houdini's house, and we brought it here. And other books which were once in those cabinets are now back into the cabinets again. So after, you know, a hundred years (laughter), we have all those things have come together again.

MARTÍNEZ: So you have all these things. Why did you decide to put the book together? Was it a way to give just the public a window to this museum?

COPPERFIELD: Exactly - because there's so many secrets involved in this museum that I can't really do public tours. So what we do is we take exhibitions out from the museum, and we put them into museums around the world. But the actual museum itself is something that only scholars can see and filmmakers and authors that - because there's so many secrets involved. So it's my way of sharing it with the public.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, the chapters in your book name an illusionist with an object they may be known for, and then you intertwine stories for both. Before we get into a few of them, David, in magic, just how much are the person and the tool dependent on each other?

COPPERFIELD: You know, sometimes it's just pure sleight of hand. There is no props. But if you go about the apparatus invention, it's an amazing legacy of creation, of technology that has, you know, become part of our daily life. The first smart home was created by a magician. You know, a door would open up to your house. That technology is now used in every grocery store. But it started as a piece of magic. Movies - the cinema was a magic effect. You'd go to see a magician. You'd see a movie, a train coming at you. And Georges Melies, if you saw the movie "Hugo," took it and told stories with it and invented special effects and had the wisdom of taking this magic effect, magic trick of the cinema and actually using it as a storytelling device.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. OK. So my eyes, David, are always drawn to more gruesome things - Dell O'Dell's guillotine and Richiardi's buzzsaw. So tell us about those two items and the magicians behind them.

COPPERFIELD: Well, you know, the sawing-in-half idea or decapitation idea has always been a staple throughout history of magic. The idea was P.T. Selbit, and that got modernized by Horace Goldin, who had a big circular saw. Richiardi took it and put blood and guts falling out of the woman's body. He wouldn't even restore her. She was left dead on the table. Dante had a sawing in half where the pieces got separated. I took that, and I made an illusion called the death saw, which combined all those things with new principles and new technology, where I was a victim as part of escape gone wrong. And when I failed to escape, I got cut in half. And the audience, when I did, was very upset (laughter). And then the pieces of my body would be on either side of the stage. And eventually, I've got to get put back together to do this interview, for example.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah (laughter).

COPPERFIELD: So I ended up turning back time as a device of that. So it was many, many layers of new invention and new technique and technology.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, when I watch magic, one of the things that makes it fun for me is listening to what the magician or the illusionist is saying leading up to the trick - I mean, the story that goes along with the illusion. Is that some of what you're trying to do with this book?

COPPERFIELD: You know, I really didn't understand in the beginning. I wasn't a magic historian. I was more of an inventor and creating new things. But when I acquired the Mulholland Library, I found out these stories of these men and women matched mine - all the struggles that they went through, all the challenges they had. And then suddenly it became very interesting to me. And the book is that, telling these stories. They're just crazy - I mean, just amazing things through the eyes of a magician.

MARTÍNEZ: The book is called "David Copperfield's History Of Magic." David, thank you very much.

COPPERFIELD: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILIP GLASS' "THE ILLUSIONIST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.