Curator Copperfield

Times Staff Writer

It's the middle of the night, and David Copperfield is exploring the rooms where the ghosts live.

It often happens when Copperfield, arguably the world's most famous magician, is staying at the massive industrial warehouse that serves as his headquarters and home when he is not on his relentless international touring schedule. He will find it hard to sleep, and, wandering around in his robe, he winds up in an immaculately designed room filled with strange wonders.

Inside, an animatronic figure -- a wind-up mechanical man in a glass case -- begins to silently wave his small baton without warning. Shadows seem to move in and about the hundreds of framed vintage posters of legendary magicians hanging on the walls. As Copperfield moves around, Charlie McCarthy, the wooden partner of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, sits in a chair, taking in the eerie atmosphere.

"I don't know why these things seem to move just by themselves," Copperfield says. "They just do."

Though Copperfield is best known for his glitzy stage shows and the elaborate live TV productions in which he made the Statue of Liberty, an airplane and a 70-ton Orient Express train vanish, it is in these hidden and locked rooms where the more introspective and private artist finds sanctuary and inspiration.

These rooms contain possibly the world's largest magic museum, filled with priceless and irreplaceable artifacts on the history and art of magic from around the world. More than 80,000 items are housed in the private museum, which Copperfield has christened the International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts.

Among its more valuable pieces are Harry Houdini's Metamorphosis Trunk, the first ever employed in the illusion of disappearances; coins that Wyman the Wizard used to pass through President Lincoln's hands; the Chung Ling Soo rifle, believed to be the weapon used when the Chinese magician performed his notorious bullet-catching trick one too many times; and props used by Channing Pollock, the magician frequently featured on the Ed Sullivan show who would produce doves out of thin air. Also included in the museum are 15,000 magic books, some from the 16th century.

The museum is off-limits to all but the magician's admired colleagues, fellow magicians and serious collectors. But this month, Copperfield is taking some of the ghosts on tour.

When Copperfield performs this weekend at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre, he will be bringing dozens of his most prized museum pieces with him for display in the lobby. Though a few of the items have been shown at other Copperfield engagements, the Kodak display is much larger and will mark the first -- and only -- time most of the pieces will be available for public viewing.

"The idea of the Kodak came because it's such an amazing place," Copperfield said recently between shows at the MGM Grand, where he performs several times a year. "I haven't played Los Angeles in the middle of the city for more than 10 years, so I thought this might be good for the return. Plus it's Hollywood, and I will be bringing several pieces that are directly linked."

The display will include Orson Welles' buzz-saw illusion, which he designed for Rita Hayworth and used in a live performance with Marlene Dietrich. A few Charlie McCarthys will be present, including a frowning dummy from the film "Fun and Fancy Free."

The Houdini trunk, the Chung Ling Soo rifle and artifacts from Dante, Wyman Hermann and several other legendary magicians will also be shown. The display is expected to take up most of the lobbies of the theater, which is best known as the home of the Academy Awards.

Said Copperfield: "I want people coming to see my magic, but that there is also a historical background that is very rich." But he is a bit uncomfortable about taking many of the priceless pieces out of their controlled environment.

"I have a great deal of fear about this," said Copperfield, only half-jokingly. "Many of the larger pieces, like Orson Welles' saw, are not going to be under glass, just behind a velvet rope. We are moving them very, very carefully."

The image of Copperfield as obsessive scholar and magic historian runs a bit counter to his image as a slick, modern-day conjurer and jet-setting celebrity who romances glamorous women such as ex-flame Claudia Schiffer. But his devotion to preserving the history of magic is one of his primary obsessions. He has spent millions of dollars purchasing and housing entire collections, including the private Cole Collection, the largest in the United Kingdom, and constructing the museum, which is climate-controlled and meticulously maintained.

As Copperfield gives a tour of his museum, his enthusiasm is infectious, his demeanor closer to that of a hyper schoolboy than a magician known for his no-nonsense perfectionism. He started collecting about 10 years ago. "I've become quite passionate about it," he says. "I have always been interested in pushing magic forward. But when I began to see how these guys were all trying to do the same thing, I just fell in love with it. I really appreciate the legacy."

But the history also informs him and fuels his desire to innovate.

"I'm really trying hard not to do anything that has been done before," he said. "So knowing everything I can about the legacy of magic challenges my team and I to invent new illusions. For me to grow, I have to know about the foundation that came before."

Asked what his most prized treasure is, Copperfield referred to a three-year series of letters exchanged between Houdini and fellow magician Harry Kellar, known as the Great Kellar, in which they traded barbs, concepts and opinions. He finds them particularly insightful and exciting.

He still covets a few items, one of which he'll never get. He says he really wanted Houdini's Water Torture Chamber, which had been housed in Paris, but the contraption was destroyed in a fire.

There is another treasure so prized that Copperfield will not even reveal what it is: "It's in Paris, and that's all I want to say, because I don't want to tip anyone else off."

The magician is continuing to tour and develop new illusions for stage and a TV special. And when the time comes -- if he wishes -- Copperfield will be able to build a museum devoted to his own career.

In another part of the vast Las Vegas warehouse are several large rooms where Copperfield keeps all the props, wardrobes, illusions and machinery used in his shows. Each of his stage performances over the last 15 years is on videotape, and his fan letters and other memorabilia are carefully categorized and preserved.

But for now, his magic museum remains a priority.

"It's just like the legacy of cinema, with people like Victor Fleming and Orson Welles," he said. "It's good for us to know the history and to appreciate the richness of such a unique past. It is truly exciting to me."

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'Magic of David Copperfield'

Where: Kodak Theatre, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: 8 tonight; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 4 p.m. Sunday

Price: $55 to $75

Contact: (323) 308-6300

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