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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, August 17, 2001

Master of illusion

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Editor

Magician David Copperfield, who launched his career when he was a boy, says the essence of his craft is about dreams and emotions. "It's never been about cutting someone or myself in half," he says. "It's all about an amazing journey." In his new show, "Portal," Copperfield transports someone somewhere, a feat he has perfected after months of planning. Aside from his magic shows, Copperfield enjoys restoring and collecting antique arcade machines.

David Copperfield

8 p.m. Saturday, 5 and 8 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. Monday through Aug. 24; 5 and 8 p.m. Aug. 25 and 26.

Blaisdell Concert Hall

$85 and $60 for evening performances, $70 and $55 for matinees; $5 discounts for children 12 and under, seniors 62 and older and military with ID, exclusive of Saturday evening performances; at the box office and Ticket Plus locations, including Foodland, Sack 'n Save and military locations; 10 percent discount for group sales of 15 or more.

526-4400; group sales, 732-7733

Note: The 5 p.m. performance this Sunday will be signed for the deaf and hearing-impaired.

The Honolulu Advertiser is a sponsor.

David Copperfield seldom relaxes.

The master illusionist, 44, is back in Hawai'i for 12 performances of his new "Portal" show, beginning Saturday and continuing through Aug. 26, at the Blaisdell Concert Hall. This is the production in which he transports someone somewhere, a feat he has perfected after months of planning.

He's such a workaholic, with lots on his mind, and he commonly juggles two cell phones at a time, contemplating how or what he can do to top his last illusion, checking on details for his next gig.

Because he's on the road (he was in Japan, before Hawai'i), he has precious little time for leisure.

But catch him in repose, when he isn't chatting on his cell(s), and he'll bend your ear about his consuming hobby, one which occasionally grounds him and enables him to "take five."

"I restore and collect antique arcade machines," Copperfield said. In T-shirt and shorts, and cavorting in bare feet, he is unrecognized by other beachfront sun-bathers on an overcast afternoon.

"I buy those old machines, like the fortune teller thing in the movie 'Big,' and I restore them," he said, eyes wide with enthusiasm. "I find the real stuff, which tells your fortune and tests your strength, and even gives you an electric shock. I have about 100 of these machines now ... and I love them. They're like big toys for me."

The hobby is his "portal" or gateway to leisure. His great escape. His comfort zone.

His New York apartment is crowded with these collectibles, he said, and he scours old catalogs to locate these art treasures. And there's the Internet.

"I'm not talking contemporary Nintendo or Atari things," he said of the collectibles. "These are the real stuff, made from wood and brass, but often in need of repair. So I collect them and fix them and they're great, because people can play with them; they're not sitting there, like stamps, doing nothing. It's fun to watch folks having fun playing these old toys."

Catalogs, he said, enable him to determine how a particular machine must be restored. Often a piece is missing from a treasure he discovers; with the photograph, he can better work on completing the restoration.

He gets some assistance. "An artist works with me on my hobby," he said. But for the most part, it's a hands-on, partly therapeutic spare-time medicine for Copperfield. "I get to work on some of these things when I travel. It has been the subject of magazine articles because it's so rare. But it kind of relates to my magic because there's always a bit of history involved."

One of his prize finds, he said, is an African American statue, with a pad you punch to determine your strength. "It originally was inside the Statue of Liberty, and when I got it, it was dirty and rusty. In the leg of this statue, I found a bloody knife. So imagine the history."

He has a particular fondness for the Statue of Liberty, because the historic site was one of the first "objects" he made disappear — and reappear — on his journey to superstardom.

Copperfield also acquired a gun, dating back 100 years, attached to a target depicting a bullet hole.

"It's all weights and levers, inside the gun, but it's missing a bell. So I have to find that bell. There are only three known guns like this in existence today. If I find the owner (of another gun), I can compare notes to discover how the bell rings."

The difficulty in tracking down these mementos, said Copperfield, is that these relics were created by another generation of artists. "And there have been two world wars since, so all the steel went to the war drive," he said. "Yet, these collectibles often are sitting in somebody's garage, in a junk pile."

The hobby, he said, has two edges. "The good news is that it's a real stress releaser. The bad news is that it distracts me from my work — I really get involved."

Dubbed by the New York Times as "our era's giant of magic," Copperfield remains a show biz staple, playing all over the world, including Las Vegas, one of his perennial stops.

Of the changing clientele in the gambling capital, he said: "I think it's fun; Vegas will never be a ghost town. Just as there's been a Disneying of New York, we're now into the Steve Wynn-ing and Disneying of Vegas, attracting families, competing with places like Orlando, and very different from the time of Bugsy Siegel (who opened the first Vegas casino)."

Of his "Portal" production, during which he transports people and himself to distant places, he said the bottom line is to provide "an amazing live experience."

"Sometimes, it's an emotional thing, sometimes it's funny," he said. "But that's what I do — base the magic on emotions. It's never been about cutting someone or myself in half. It's all about an amazing journey."

Copperfield, who launched his magic career as a youth, performing at the C'est Si Bon supper club at the Pagoda Restaurant and Hotel before making the Big Time, said the essence of his craft is about "dreams and emotions. We've all dreamt about flying as a kid; I've dreamed about seeing snow and what that felt like. I try to do things that touch real emotions, and so many people dream about coming to Hawai'i, and of course, that's been one of my dreams, too."

The flipside of dreams — nightmares — has challenged him, too. "My magic often means facing my fears, with peril around the corner. Going over Niagara Falls was kind of my fear of drowning; hanging over spears was the fear of heights. My tornado of fire thing (his last spectacle on his last TV special) was the fear of being burned alive."

Reach Wayne Harada at wharada@honoluluadvertiser.com. or 525-8067.

• • •

Believe it or not

Magician David Copperfield has gone well beyond the rabbit-out-of-the-hat trick into the realm of dreams and nightmares.

Ten of his popular feats:

  • Made a Lear jet vanish
  • Made the Statue of Liberty disappear
  • Walked through the Great Wall of China
  • Made the Orient Express disappear
  • Escaped bondage before an oversized saw split him in half
  • Tumbled over Niagara Falls — and survived
  • Escaped death in a Tornado of Fire
  • Freed himself while suspended in mid-air before a burning rope vanquished him
  • Transported an audience member to a far-away portal
  • Flew as audience watched

• • •

David's a Goliath

  • Real name: David Seth Kotkin
  • Born: Sept. 16, 1956
  • Birthplace: Metuchen, N.J.
  • Early show biz name: The Boy Davino, at age 12
  • How he got his billing: Borrowed the Charles Dickens character's name when he had the lead role in a Chicago musical, "Magic Man"
  • Star quality: Only living magician to receive his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
  • Knight and day: Only magician to be knighted by the French government, becoming a Chevalier of Arts and Letters
  • Little-known fact: While predecessors Kellar and Houdini have been influences on his career, show-biz legends such as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly shaped the way he stages his "choreographed" magic.
  • Proudest achievement: Founding Project Magic, a program installed in 1,000 hospitals in 30 countries, which helps stroke victims and the physically impaired retain their manual dexterity through sleight-of-hand feats
  • Tube credits: Completed 20 magic TV specials, the most by a magician (and earned Emmys in the process)
  • Money talk: Forbes lists him as the sixth-highest grossing entertainer in the world, ahead of Madonna, Kevin Costner and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
  • Favorite food in Hawai'i: Teriyaki steak
  • Favorite comedian: Mel Cabang (honest!)
  • Favorite pastime: Collecting arcade games and objects
  • Feats he still wants to do: Place a woman's face on Mt. Rushmore, straighten up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, make something (like Diamond Head?) disappear in Hawai'i
  • Notable 'n' quotable: "The secret is to consider nothing impossible, then start treating possibilities as probabilities."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave a wrong price for evening performances of David Copperfield's magic shows.