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Cover Story : Sorcerer’s Apprentice No More : David Copperfield, at 37, comes into his own as a master of illusion; he has a 15-year CBS retrospective Thursday and a new jet-set status with his engagement to model Claudia Schiffer. Now, for his next trick . . .

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Not far from the madding crowds pushing their luck on casino slot machines and keno here is a large industrial warehouse with an unbelievably clean floor. The outside of the pink building describes it as a bra and girdle establishment, but the interior is filled with various large implements of destruction that have nothing to do with underwear.

Near the center stands a massive Death Saw, its silver blades bearing no evidence of the man it has severed in half numerous times. Close by is a bed of tall, uninviting spikes that once sat hungrily under the same man as he dangled precariously above from burning ropes. A glass case contains a 500-pound spike that could pierce a person in two.

All around the warehouse, as if warily watching all comers, are the brooding eyes of David Copperfield, their hypnotic gaze topped by impossibly dense eyebrows as they stare from large billboards and posters advertising “The Magic of David Copperfield.” The facility is the disguised headquarters where the magic profession’s most prominent practitioner keeps his more elaborate illusions and a secluded bachelor lair for the rare occasions when he isn’t on the road.

Even more eerie are the two rooms hidden in the bowels of the warehouse that are filled with the ghosts of wizards and conjurers past: Harry Houdini’s Metamorphosis trunk, the first trunk ever used in the illusion of disappearances. The Chung Ling Soo rifle, believed to be the weapon used when the Chinese magician performed his famous bullet-catching trick one too many times. Dante’s Spirit Cabinet. Maskelyne’s Decapitated Princess Chair. Orson Welles’ Buzzsaw Illusions. Hundreds of ancient volumes of witchcraft and magic.

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In these rooms of mysteries and nightmares, David Copperfield finds solace and comfort.

“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and come in here, and I feel all right,” the master magician said quietly, sitting in a chair amid the priceless collection. “I don’t feel like it’s ghostly. In fact, it’s a rather peaceful place. And it makes me feel peaceful knowing I’ve carried on the tradition of the people here, and that I’ve become a part of a very rich tapestry of artists who deserve a lot of respect.”

*

As he spoke, several magicians honored in the rooms--Channing Pollock, Jack Kodell, Norm Nielsen--wandered with wide-eyed admiration through the collection, known as the International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts.

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Copperfield calls it the world’s largest repository of antiquarian books, magic, illusion and other works on magic. He bought much of it in 1991 from the Resolution Trust Corp., an agency appointed to clean up the nation’s savings-and-loan debacle by selling some of the failed thrift companies’ assets. The collection had been formed by Carl M. Rheuban, an amateur magician and former chairman of the now-defunct First Network Savings in Los Angeles. (The exhibits can be viewed only by guests of Copperfield and are not open to the public.)

While Pollock, Kodell and Nielsen, elder statesmen in the world of magic, marveled at the artifacts, it was clear from the chatty enthusiasm toward their host that they not only value Copperfield’s respect for their craft but also are in awe that this 37-year-old multimillionaire with sculpted cheekbones, matinee-idol looks and a tan that would turn George Hamilton brown with envy has elevated magic to a mainstream popularity they never dreamed possible.

“Copperfield is the king,” said Pollock, who used to produce doves out of nowhere in his appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” “He’s reached a much wider audience than any of us combined. I’ve never seen a magician that is so universally loved.”

Indeed, no other magician has hosted high-rated annual network specials for 15 years, the latest of which is a retrospective, “David Copperfield--15 Years of Magic,” airing Thursday at 8 p.m. on CBS. Or has made the Statue of Liberty, an airplane and a 70-ton train car from the Orient Express vanish in front of a live television audience. Or has escaped from an imploding building to appear moments later nearby in the middle of a solid sheet of steel. Or has appeared on the cover of Forbes as one of the world’s richest entertainers.

And while prominent magicians such as the self-proclaimed “bad boys of magic,” Penn & Teller, and the Las Vegas magic kings Siegfried & Roy have their own set of impressive tricks up their sleeves, even they have never accomplished what many consider to be Copperfield’s greatest feat, the trick that has gotten him a higher profile than any of his other spectacular illusions: getting engaged to German super-model Claudia Schiffer.

The coupling propelled Copperfield instantly into jet-set status: He was a recent cover boy for Esquire (along with veteran cover girl Schiffer, of course), and they have been photographed at the Academy Awards and many other paparazzi -heavy happenings. He presented an award Wednesday to singer Gloria Estefan at the World Music Awards in Monaco after performing 12 sold-out shows at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. In Monaco, he stayed with Schiffer at her home there as he filmed promos for an extensive European tour.

His engagement also has made him the butt of jokes, as evidenced by a comic sonata a few weeks ago by the “Saturday Night Live” character Operaman:

“Copperfield, Coppa-feelo. Operaman no comprendo. Il Dorko has hot girlfriend-o.”

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“Oh, you mean that joke on ‘Saturday Night Dead’?” Copperfield retorted when asked about the barb. “I don’t really mind. It’s not like that show has a whole lot of viewers anyway. And when you’re going out with the most beautiful girl in the world, there are some guys who are going to take shots at you.”

In the end, it’s not the higher visibility but the magic that matters to Copperfield. He seems to be vying for the title of “the hardest-working magician in show business,” playing more than 500 shows a year all over the world in addition to putting together his television specials. He wants not only to amaze the audience and overcome their preconceptions of what magic is but also to arouse them, make them fear for him, appreciate the art, even move them to tears.

“People think of magic and think of their uncle doing bad card tricks,” Copperfield said.

“You have to see my work to respect it.”

He paused. “But you go to any Broadway show--'Phantom,’ ‘Les Miserables'--and then come straight to my show, and, I’ll be real cocky right now, my show will make you cry just like ‘Les Miz.’ My show will make you laugh more than ‘Les Miz,’ ” he said, adding the last comment with a chuckle.

“I want to involve audiences, make them feel for me. I want to make my shows romantic and passionate. It’s a theatrical experience. Magic can do that.”

*

Only a few hours after escorting the magicians through the archives, Copperfield pops up before an enthusiastic sold-out Caesars Palace audience to perform his brand of very theatrical magic. The show, titled “Beyond Imagination,” contains elements that might make many a more traditional magician want to pull a hat over him. Influenced by the showmanship of his idols--Gene Kelly, Walt Disney, Fred Astaire, Steven Spielberg--Copperfield fills the performance with large-scale effects like a major rock concert: chest-pounding music by Genesis and other artists, blinking lights, posing and dancing, elaborate special effects, slinky female assistants who eagerly wrap their taut bodies around Copperfield’s lean physique and rub him suggestively.

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During a variation on Houdini’s Metamorphosis trick, even a subtle touch of S&M; enters the mix, as one of the assistants binds Copperfield in a silky, cocoon-like enclosure, looking at him lovingly as she ties his wrists. The cocoon lifts off the platform and the woman quickly lifts a sheet in front of her. Then a shattering boom, the sheet comes down and Copperfield is standing where the woman had been. The cocoon is uncovered and the woman stands smiling, bound at the wrists. The audience, composed of both the MTV crowd and older out-of-towners, goes wild.

Among the viewers cheering the loudest are a couple sitting near the middle of the showroom who have seen Copperfield perform hundreds of times. They bounce to the ear-pounding music, laugh at his every joke and marvel at each trick as if they were seeing it for the first time.

They are Copperfield’s parents, Hy and Rebecca Kotkin. Hy Kotkin runs his son’s fan club, David Copperfield International, which publishes a quarterly newsletter, “Backstage With David.”

“We never get tired of seeing him,” said Rebecca Kotkin, shouting to be heard above the din. “We see it through other people’s eyes. We like to see how everyone responds to him. But don’t ask me how he does this stuff. I don’t know and I don’t want to know. I just want to enjoy.”

As the show progressed, Copperfield paraded through his various personas--a sensual sorcerer, a charming flirt who enjoys bantering with women in the audience, a storefront magician who still has his sleight-of-hand chops and can conjure a real red rose out of a paper rose with a snap of his fingers and a burst of flame, and the innocent, adolescent only child from Metuchen, N.J., named David Kotkin, who dreamed of escaping his loneliness and insecurities by flying like a bird.

Near the end of “Beyond Imagination,” Copperfield lives his dream: He flies, apparently without the aid of strings or wires. He glides back and forth across the stage, turns a graceful roll in midair, flies in a large plastic case that has a lid on top. He even takes a female audience member up in the air with him, playing Superman to her unwitting Lois Lane.

Flying also marks the big finale for this week’s TV special, which co-stars Schiffer as a miniskirted reporter who stumbles across Copperfield in a fictional studio/warehouse. After showing clips from his previous specials, Copperfield escorts Schiffer to high atop the building, where he lifts her in his arms and they fly off.

He calls flying his most difficult illusion, explaining that it took seven years of training to perfect. Other tricks--such as the Fires of Passion, in which he escapes from a straitjacket while dangling from burning ropes 100 feet above a bed of flaming spikes--took a year of training. “I would go out after my shows and just work on getting it down,” he said.

It’s the big set pieces for which Copperfield is most famous: making the Statue of Liberty disappear, walking through the Great Wall of China, plunging over Niagara Falls, levitating across the Grand Canyon. His trademark is proving that all the tricks are done live in front of spectators at the scene and the television audience without camera cutaways or gimmicks. Many of those clips are repeated in the CBS special.

“I was doing a lot of smaller-scale, emotional things on my specials, then I decided to do something a little different on my earlier specials and made a car and airplane disappear,” Copperfield recalled. “All of a sudden I got all this added attention. Those big tricks became the illusions that I could hang my hat on. But I found that bigger isn’t necessarily better. My whole show now is based around flying, which is a big emotional thing.”

Despite the extravagant scale of his illusions--"Beyond Imagination” costs millions, and Copperfield’s elaborate sets and props require a separate jumbo jet to transport--touching the audience emotionally remains a primary goal of Copperfield’s magic.

“It’s important for the audience to put themselves in my position,” Copperfield said as he relaxed backstage following one of his Caesars Palace shows. “Every three years or so, I put myself in a dangerous spot. Through it, I--and they--can see that they can conquer fear, conquer panic. I want to take the audience with me. When I fly, hopefully they’re flying with me. I try to be every man and woman so that the audience can live through me.”

Copperfield still appears driven to the point where it seems his greatest trick is finding time to sleep. While on the road, he often performs as many as three shows a day. In one recent stretch, he spent Wednesday filming commercials all day at the warehouse for his upcoming TV special, performed “Beyond Imagination” at Caesars that night and then was driven to Los Angeles immediately afterward so that he could spend Thursday editing the TV program. He flew to Las Vegas that evening for “Beyond Imagination,” then did a media interview after the show, which ended at 2 a.m. He did interviews with “CBS This Morning” and other reporters a few hours later Friday. Then there were two more shows that night, and two on Saturday.

His parents said their son’s frenzied pace is no surprise to them. The couple, who now reside in San Diego, recalled how the young David Kotkin used to entertain himself. “He was always very precocious, looking for things and small magic tricks to do with his hands,” said Hy Kotkin. He was performing professionally at age 12. By 16, he was teaching magic at New York University. He took the name David Copperfield when he was cast in a Chicago musical, “The Magic Man.”

Even with the hectic work schedule and lifestyle, Copperfield said he keeps trying to top himself. “Many magicians work their whole lives trying to get 15 minutes of material, but I have to come up with a new hour of material every year for my TV special,” he said. “It’s like my record album. It forces me to come up with new stuff. I don’t really have a choice.”

Peter Tortorici, president of CBS Entertainment, described Copperfield as “the ultimate showman. You can’t be a master illusionist without having every possible detail taken care of. He has that undefinable something. You can’t take your eyes off him.”

Copperfield, however, is keenly aware that more eyes are on him these days because of his relationship with Schiffer. He says the added attention doesn’t bother him.

“None of this is a problem--although it is sometimes inconvenient,” he said. “I mean, that’s why they call it a private life--because it is supposed to be private. I’ve always had a girlfriend over the years, but it was always kept quiet. I never went to premieres. I was always working. Maybe because I kept my lifestyle private for so many years, I didn’t appear on as many magazines. But my ratings were never a problem, and my ticket sales were never a problem.

“However, when the woman you become engaged to is on the cover of every magazine around and is the most beautiful woman in the world, people are naturally interested. So it’s a new concept for me.”

He’s not dismayed that discussion of his magic disappears in the media spotlight: “If you go to the magazine stands and see all the articles about actors and actresses, about 10% of the story is about the art of acting, and about 90% is about who they’re married to, who they’re dating, who they’re breaking up with. It’s rarely about the work, and mostly about the lifestyle. I just have to keep it all in perspective.”

Copperfield met Schiffer last year during a tour of Germany that was front-page news in newspapers around the country before he played a single performance. He picked her out of the audience at a gala performance for a trick in which he “predicts” what kind of graffiti audience members will write on a wall. When the pair started dating, the German media reacted with a frenzy.

Now that he has wealth, fame, security and “the most beautiful girl in the world,” Copperfield stressed that his life will not change all that much.

“I will slow down a little, but I love doing what I do and will not change all that drastically,” he said. “Also, my fiancee loves what she is doing.”

How about having a family? “I hope so,” he said softly.

*

When off stage, Copperfield can seem distant and, some say, aloof. Performing seems to be the aspect of his life in which he finds most comfort. “It’s really my sanctuary,” he said in explaining why he keeps up such a relentless touring schedule. “I love interacting with the audience. It’s different each night.”

Having a television retrospective at age 37 is a bit unnerving: “It was the furthest thing from my mind. I’m always looking forward, so it’s strange to look back--especially at some of the haircuts I’ve had.”

Even more spectacular magic is in store, he said. “I want to straighten the Tower of Pisa. I want to make the moon disappear. I want to put a woman’s face on Mount Rushmore.”

But, as he stands up, ending the backstage interview, Copperfield knows he has many more performances of “Beyond Imagination” to do before undertaking his next spectacular trick. No more time for talking. Time to fly.*


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