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December 20, 2014

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David Copperfield switches homes, reflects on career

If You Go

What: David Copperfield.

When: 9 p.m. Thursday; 8 and 10:30 p.m. Friday, through Aug. 29; 9 p.m. Aug. 30.

Where: MGM Grand Hollywood Theatre

Tickets: $95.

Information: 891-7777.

Neil Sedaka once sang "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do."

In David Copperfield's case there was little choice.

After a 15-year relationship with Caesars Palace hotel-casino, the world-renown magician found himself without a partner when the hotel announced earlier this year the closing of its showroom, scheduled for Sept. 3.

Not to worry. Copperfield found a new steady in the Hollywood Theatre at the MGM Grand hotel-casino, where he'll debut his new show, "Unknown Dimension." The production begins Thursday and runs for six nights.

Although it's not a permanent home ("We'll see how it goes," Copperfield said), the illusionist is already excited about one aspect of his new venue: the size. Although at 630 seats the theater is nearly 400 seats smaller than Caesars' showroom, Copperfield insists he's not altering his production, which will translate into a more personable presentation.

"The MGM room is more intimate, but I'm doing an arena show," he said in a recent phone interview from Lake Tahoe, where he was performing. "It's a great opportunity for the audience."

It's also a chance for them to see a production of largely new illusions, including one in which he and members of the audience will be "transported" from the MGM stage to a beach in Hawaii. A Hawaiian crew is at the beach filming the scene, which will be broadcast back to the theater audience via satellite.

The illusion has never been done before, and Copperfield said it was three years in the making. Even he is impressed with this feat of magic.

"I actually devised a way I can be on the other side of the Earth," Copperfield maintained. "I have to convince people of that by having people sign things that I can bring them along, and have Polaroids of the audience that I can take along and show all of that on satellite on the beach of Hawaii.

"It's a very simple effect," he said, with no high-tech gadgetry.

Still, the use of a camera and satellite -- something Houdini never had -- does raise the question: Is technology changing the face of magic today? Copperfield quickly dismissed that notion by saying technology is not part of his illusion, but a means to share it.

"Technology allows the theater audience to appreciate that I'm travelling to the other side of the Earth," he said. "I'm not using the technology to take you there. That would be way too easy and it would look obvious, I think."

Having illusions that are never obvious is how Copperfield made his career.

In the beginning

Born David Seth Kotkin on Sept. 16, 1956, in Metuchen, N.J. (an accent that still creeps up occasionally, despite his world travelling), Copperfield first began to perform professionally in 1968.

That same year he became the youngest person admitted to the Society of American Magicians, and four years later he was teaching a course at New York University.

A stint as the lead in the Chicago musical "The Magic Man" while he was still in college got Copperfield noticed by network brass, and he landed a job as host of "The Magic of ABC" special in 1978

One year later CBS signed him to a series of specials, beginning with "The Magic of David Copperfield." He has had 14 more specials since, with a new one scheduled for 2001. ("It's going to be great," he opined.)

A two-video collection of those performances, "David Copperfield: Illusion," incidentally, is now available at cbs.com. The videos offer more than a chance to see some of his famous illusions, such as making the Statue of Liberty disappear, Copperfield said. Fans can also remember and revel in some classically bad hairstyles he has had over the years.

"It's a salute to bad haircuts," he joked.

And oh what haircuts they are.

The Sun maintains a file folder full of old publicity photos of Copperfield: there's the bushy look; the feathered style; a John Travolta, circa "Saturday Night Fever," coif; and head shots where he's wearing enough mousse for a small army of hairstylists. These days, however, the dapper magician is sporting hair cropped closer to the scalp with just a hint of tease and a five o'clock shadow, perhaps to add a bit of "toughness" to his facade.

Whatever his past styles, there's no denying the fact it worked well enough for him to land supermodel Claudia Schiffer, to whom he was at one time engaged.

The illusionist now has a new girlfriend -- unidentified -- whom he presumably sees between his constant world touring; Copperfield estimates he performs 500 shows a year worldwide.

If that doesn't keep him busy enough, there are the illusions themselves.

During his life the magician estimates that he's developed more than 20 hours of material so far, compared to someone during Houdini's time, who would have one hour to last a lifetime.

And with television, and now the Internet, allowing people all over the world to see many of his illusions, there's no sign of it letting up.

"It eats up a lot of your material," he said. "So you're obliged to have new ideas all the time."

Nothing up his sleeve

Consequently, he spends a great deal of his spare time developing more acts, especially in finding ways to perform the same types of magic -- such as disappearing -- but in different ways. ``I've vanished every big object there is to vanish; I've escaped from everything you can escape from and went over Niagara Falls. I did a lot of stuff,'' he said. ``How do you keep yourself interested? You really work hard to find something unique, and travelling to the other side of the planet is something I haven't done.'' Then there's Fox's "Magic Secrets Revealed" specials, where a masked magician showed the reality behind the magic. Although the highly-rated shows drew the ire of many magicians for ruining the illusion, that didn't bother Copperfield.

For every illusion he performs, there are at least four different methods to the trick, he said. It's a strategy designed to throw off people when they think they've discovered the secret behind an illusion. "So if somebody starts to make a guess at how we do it and starts to get close, no problem. I'll keep the illusion. I'll just change how I do it. So they can knock themselves out."

Despite his nonchalance over the lack of an impact the magic-revealing specials had on his career, he does get upset when he discusses how the shows affected others.

"What bothered me was for my friends," who are also magicians, he said. "A lot of them don't have the resources to have four or five methods or more material or whatever. And when the Fox special revealed something, these guys were losing work, people who are trying to feed their wife and kids.

"It really angered me because they were hurting people I really care about whose situation I was in years and years ago."

One of those situations from his past was "Terror Train," a 1980 horror film starring Ben Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis and Copperfield.

Like his '70s and '80s hairstyles, consider "Train" a subtle reminder that there are a few skeletons in Copperfield's closet -- albeit more for embarrassment than anything else.

When asked if he'd taken a stroll down memory lane with "Train," Copperfield was ready with an answer, given both to explain his feelings about the film and his myriad performances all over the world.

"The reason I do so many shows -- people think I'm crazy -- is that every city I go in I go to the video store and I rent their copy of 'Terror Train,' and I don't return it," he said. "I've calculated if I keep doing this for 20 more years I will have covered the world enough times to eliminate 'Terror Train' and my performance."

Now if only he could round up all those publicity photos.

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