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The Houdini of the Hoi Polloi

Though he's best known for his high-profile stunts of endurance, David Blaine feels the true magic happens when he connects with the man on the street.

November 19, 2000|MARNELLE JAMESON | Special to the Times

NEW YORK — David Blaine is browsing at a major auction house here, and he's got a problem. All sorts of magicians' memorabilia is going to be auctioned the next day, but he can't make it back. "I have a real problem," he explains apologetically to the woman at the front desk. "I want to bid on some of this stuff, but I'm going to be in a block of ice all day tomorrow, 12 to 18 hours."

She's unfazed. Perhaps she recognizes the 27-year-old as the street magician and performance artist who last year earned international fame when he emerged unscathed from a box that had been buried 6 feet beneath the ground for seven days. She doesn't let on. They work it out so a friend of Blaine's can bid in his place--the magician's heart is set on an array of Harry Houdini memorabilia, including a huge poster of the master escape artist, some news clippings and a letter to Houdini from another magician.

Houdini is an inspiration to the young magician. Indeed, it was Houdini's "Buried Alive" stunt--which the master never performed because he died first of a ruptured appendix--that Blaine re-created last year.

Outside the gallery, Blaine's tall figure cuts easily through the crowded sidewalks. Looking unassuming in a long-sleeved gray T-shirt, baggy black cargo pants and black athletic shoes, his melting-pot looks--his father was Puerto Rican and Italian, his mother a Russian Jew--blend easily into the crowd. As he walks, he holds a cell phone to his ear like a permanent accessory. Though he has an office uptown, Blaine does most of his business producing and directing his shows and stunts on the go.

Off the phone, he talks about his art: "Magic is the ability to take people out of their boring, problematic day and give them a moment where they completely forget about everything past and present, and leave them in a moment of astonishment," he says. Those moments have been the subject of two ABC-TV specials featuring Blaine's street magic. ABC plans to air a third Nov. 29, which will culminate in Blaine's emerging from a block of ice after being enclosed inside for 72 hours.

A feast of contradictions, Blaine may be best known for his spectacle of entombment, but his reputation initially stemmed from performing card tricks on the streets before unsuspecting pickup audiences. And while he lives in an unpretentious three-room Greenwich Village apartment, he runs with an A-list crowd--Fiona Apple is a former girlfriend and Leonardo DiCaprio is a good friend.

On this day, he's letting a visitor tag along on a relatively normal, haphazard day--a day that mixes magic and everyday errands. Tomorrow, he'll be rehearsing for his ice stunt. His training for the feat has included taking frequent ice baths in a special tank at his gym and confining himself in ice blocks for increasing periods of time. He'll execute the ice event later this month in front of the ABC building at 44th Street and Broadway. Blaine says future stunts may include taking a bullet in the chest and doing "something" off the Brooklyn Bridge.

In order to survive, Blaine gets air and a minimal amount of water during the stunts--but no food. He says he doesn't suffer panic, boredom or even hunger: "You lose track of time, because you're delusional," he says. "You don't sleep much, maybe one to two hours a night, because you're not active enough to be tired. Instead, ironically, you're restless."

What carries him through is mental stamina. "The most important way to achieve any goal is to accept that you have the ability to endure what lies ahead from that point, enter willingly and openly. There's no reason to fear. Fear doesn't help."

His documentary-style TV shows mostly feature him engaging people on a street or in a bar, and these effects can be just as astonishing as his endurance feats. Participants react with screams, curses and sometimes even tears. In one act, Blaine took a folded piece of paper from a woman on which she had written down the name of someone dear to her. He lit the paper on fire, tamped it out on his sleeve, then revealed the name she'd written--inscribed in charcoal on his own arm. In another, a woman signed her name on a playing card from a deck Blaine offered up. He then threw the cards in the air and an instant later her card--signature and all--appeared inside the beer bottle she was drinking from. In his upcoming show, Blaine takes a baseball cap off a young boy on the street, reaches inside and pulls out a large snake. If it weren't for the reactions, you'd swear these people were set up.

"For me it's more about the people than the effect," says Blaine, who calls his brand of magic "intimate," because he usually works one-on-one. "My favorite part is when I connect. If there's no connection, there's no magic."

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