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November 23, 2000|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Master magician David Copperfield is flying high--in more ways than one.

He's getting ready to hit town with a new magical production that features his trademark "flying" feat. He's also planning future television specials, working on new epic stunts and sketching out other large- and small-scale illusions for future projects.

Copperfield is arguably the most popular magician in the world and definitely the richest, earning $50 million last year.

Success seems to be driving him more than when he was starting out as a struggling magician in New Jersey. His schedule includes about 500 shows a year, and he often performs three or four in the same day. His pace and schedule are relentless.

What makes Copperfield run? Or rather, what makes him disappear?

"I'm driven by fear, driven by the fear of failure," he says just before a sold-out performance of his new stage production, "Unknown Dimension," which hits Southern California this weekend for several dates in several cities. "I'm also driven by the fear of not staying relevant. I've been getting a lot of honors and awards the last couple of years, and I'm not sure how deserved it was. I feel I'm still trying to get it right. In that way, fear turns out to be positive.

"There just is never enough time to get everything I want to accomplish done," he adds. "Mainly, I'm searching for ways to make magic relevant, to touch people in a way that makes them go on a journey."

He's literally taking audience members on a journey in "Unknown Dimension," which kicks off its U.S. tour Friday in San Diego and continues in Pasadena, Costa Mesa and Santa Barbara. During each performance, Copperfield and 13 randomly chosen audience members vanish on a platform suspended overhead. Then the magician and one of those audience members appear in a remote "dream location," like Bora Bora, Tahiti or Hawaii. They are shown on a live satellite hookup.

"It's very cool and very emotional," says Copperfield, explaining that the concept is in sync with his mission to use magic to provoke awe and wonder instead of befuddlement. He wants to give his audiences a complete emotional experience.

'The Wonder Factor Is Very Important'

"My magic has never been based on an effort to fool people," he says. "The wonder factor is very important. That's what I based 'Flying' on. This concept in the new show, like when I fly, is based on a dream of mine--closing your eyes and being anywhere you want to be. Everyone has a perfect place that you dream or think about, away from troubles and worries. For the audience, this provides wish fulfillment--and fulfills my wish as well."

At this point in his career, one may wonder what more Copperfield could wish for. He consistently sells out his performances and is as adept at tricks of epic proportions as he is at sleight of hand. He still has regular television specials, and he staged a record-breaking Broadway show, "Dreams and Nightmares," 3 1/2 years ago, in which Francis Ford Coppola served as creative consultant.

And his personal life is not too shabby either. He is dating Belgian model Ambre Frisque. His six-year engagement to German supermodel Claudia Schiffer ended last year.

But all the accolades, awards and jet-set romances haven't made Copperfield slow down. He still feels he has something to prove as an artist and magician. Copperfield is obsessed with getting it right. It took seven years of training for Copperfield to perfect the flying routine, one of his most difficult feats, which became a staple of his live shows. Other large-scale illusions have taken several months or a year to nail down.

Now he's developing his most dangerous feat: walking into a tornado.

"It's about walking into a real tornado that appears on stage, and surviving," he says. "It's very powerful and very dangerous. It's not a special effect. We create an actual tornado. The audience would have to be strapped in their seats. Some people in my crew have gotten hurt pretty bad. We're having some setbacks, but we're still working on it and determined."

That drive is symbolic of the many paradoxes of Copperfield. In conversation, he sprinkles deadpan humor with constant self-deprecating pokes, yet has a perfectionist's approach toward his craft and honoring the tradition of magic.

He jokes and flirts during his live shows but is rarely photographed smiling, his image dominated by his searching, brooding eyes. He is the no-nonsense head of his own magic empire but has a little boy's appetite for bizarre toys and contraptions that fill his Manhattan penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park.

"Yes, I have a Peter Pan complex," Copperfield says with a chuckle. "I live in this Legoland of contraptions. And I'm constantly playing psychological dramas with people. The bottom line is I never grew up."

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