LAS VEGAS — 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.
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.
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.