David Kotkin was a shy and somewhat awkward ten-year-old boy from Metuchen, New Jersey when he found himself rapt by a magic trick for the first time. His mother had taken him to Macy’s in Manhattan, where the department store’s resident magician made a coin disappear and reappear on a small wooden board. The young Kotkin swiftly abandoned his ambitions to become a ventriloquist and instead saved up to buy more tricks – often at Tannen’s, a midtown shop that has been catering to magicians since 1925. Soon he was performing around the neighbourhood as Davino the Boy Magician. By age 12 he became the youngest member of the Society of American Magicians.
Now, as David Copperfield (the stage name he adopted after dropping out of college to perform), he is one of the wealthiest entertainers in the world, with a net worth that exceeds $900m. He is also one of the hardest-working, delivering over 500 glitzy performances a year at the MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas. This gruelling work schedule hardly seems to leave much time to actually spend the money, but somehow Copperfield has also amassed the largest and most significant trove of magic memorabilia in the world. He calls his collection of over 200,000 artefacts, books, posters and ephemera the International Museum & Library of the Conjuring Arts, and he keeps it locked away in a windowless warehouse in Vegas that is not open to the public.
Copperfield is not quite a magician’s magician. A flamboyant performer whose idols and influences are mostly from the film and theatre world (Gene Kelly, Orson Welles, Bob Fosse, etc), he is best known for jaw-dropping stunts that aired live on primetime television in the 1980s. For example, he made the Statue of Liberty disappear during the height of the cold war in 1983, which he said was meant to show “how precious liberty is and how easily it can be lost” (making it a feat that would be just as appropriate now). The fact that this popular entertainer has amassed a private collection of nearly every historical treasure in the world of magic has not pleased everyone. “David Copperfield buying the Mulholland Library is like an Elvis impersonator winding up with Graceland,” complained one critic in the New Yorker in 1993.
Yet Copperfield is clearly willing to share. The New-York Historical Society has secured a modest array of his rarely seen relics for its exhibition “Summer of Magic: Treasures from the David Copperfield Collection”. This nostalgic show pays tribute to the “golden age of magic” from the 1880s to the 1930s, when death-defying illusionists and mystifying magicians – many of them recent immigrants to America and living in New York – attracted crowds of families to vaudeville performances. Moving pictures would ultimately steal most of these audiences away.
Broadside showing the Houdinis performing the Metamorphosis (1895)
Born Erik Weisz to Jewish parents in Budapest in 1874, Harry Houdini settled down in Harlem, New York City after becoming famous as an escape artist. He took the name Houdini in tribute to Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, a 19th-century conjurer who is considered the father of modern magic. He began his magic career working with cards, but he reportedly lacked the finesse to be a sleight-of-hand expert. Instead, he discovered ways to wow audiences by wriggling out of traps. He met his wife, Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner, when they were both performing in Coney Island in 1893, and they married weeks later. For the Metamorphosis trick, which they performed together until 1904, Houdini stepped with tied hands into a sack that was knotted closed and then placed inside a locked trunk. His wife would then draw a curtain closed and clap three times. By the third clap, Houdini would draw open the curtain himself and Bess would emerge from the box, in a knotted bag with her hands tied. This trick got them their first big tour with the Welsh Brothers Circus in 1895. Bess worked as Houdini’s stage assistant until he died in 1926, aged 52.
Regulation straitjacket used by Harry Houdini (c. 1920)
By the early 1900s Houdini began touring Europe as “Handcuff Houdini”, challenging policemen to keep him locked up. When escaping from handcuffs started to seem a little too easy, Houdini began branching out to other forms of bondage, such as straitjackets. (He claimed he was inspired by the sight of an asylum inmate struggling inside one.) It initially took him at least half an hour to free himself, but eventually he was able to writhe out of the jacket in less than three minutes. Often he performed the trick while suspended from cranes or tall buildings, many of which not coincidentally housed major local newspapers.
A playing cards display from Martinka Magic Shop (1880-1910)
Francis and Antonio Martinka, brothers who had emigrated from Germany, opened Martinka Magic Shop in midtown New York in 1875. As the city’s first magic supply store, it became a popular gathering place for magicians, both amateurs and professionals alike. It was where performers would try out new tricks and younger aspirants would seek out lessons from veterans, including Henry Kellar and Harry Houdini, a part owner of the shop for several years. These regulars went on to establish the Society of American Magicians in the back of the store in 1902. Despite changing owners and names (it became Flosso-Hermann Magic in 1939), the shop remained a central gathering site for illusionists until it closed in 2000. These days it is mainly an online retailer and auction house.
Kellar’s New Wonder, Oh! (1897)
Before he was Harry Kellar, the so-called “Dean of American Magicians” and one of the most successful illusionists in the world, he was Heinrich Keller, born to German immigrants in Erie, Pensylvania in 1849. Kellar’s fame came from his elaborate performances involving large stage sets and intricate machines. His most popular act involved making a woman – “Princess Karnak” (ie his wife Eva) – levitate in the air. He became so well known that he delivered a show for President Theodore Roosevelt and his children at the White House (“Kellar Fools Roosevelts!” announced a New York Times headline in 1904; the nesting boxes he used for the illusion are on display here). But for all of his renown, much of what we know about Kellar today comes through Houdini, who idolised and often corresponded with the performer and conducted several interviews with him for posterity.
Dress probably worn by Adelaide Herrmann (c. 1900)
Women in the world of magic tended to be wives and assistants, distracting sidekicks in outfits of flowing fabrics that could hide any number of things. The English-born Herrmann assumed these roles as well, but she eventually became the “Queen of Magic” when she continued performing after her famous husband, Alexander Herrmann, died suddenly in 1896. She travelled America and Europe with her own act, even performing the notoriously dangerous “bullet catch” trick, which involves catching a gun-fired bullet in one’s mouth and has reportedly killed at least 12 magicians. (Kellar apparently dissuaded Houdini from performing this trick himself, warning in a letter “no matter how sure you may feel of its success. There is always the biggest kind of risk that some dog will ‘job’ you. And we can’t afford to lose Houdini.”) She continued to perform into her 70s, even after a deadly fire in New York City in 1926 destroyed her props and costumes and killed her animals.
Summer of Magic: Treasures from the David Copperfield Collection at the New-York Historical Society until September 16th