A Brief Walk Down Magic Lane


Abak Hussain

In November of last year, American illusionist David Copperfield in a television interview revealed his next big plan: Making the moon disappear. He plans to do it this coming February. Copperfield reveals that this was a project 30 years in the making, and one that carries an inspiring message: “If one person can make the moon disappear from the sky, imagine how together we can make poverty and hunger and danger disappear for our children on Earth.” 

To many, this may sound a little nutty to say the least. But to those who have followed his work, this is simply the logical destination of a career that has always moved towards bigger and bigger effects. In Copperfield’s “golden age” (if I may call it that) which lasted throughout the 1980s and may be said to have sputtered out some time in the early to mid-90s, he released highly anticipated television specials at a regular pace, each revolving around a big draw – walking through the Great Wall of China, making the Statue of Liberty disappear, making a carriage of the Orient Express first float up and then vanish completely, enacting a daring escape from the Niagara Falls, and of course, flying across the stage like Superman. The question was always on everybody’s lips: What on earth will David Copperfield do next?

But times change, and the popularity of certain formats rise and fall. At one point, Copperfield stopped doing those TV specials and slowly stepped out of the glare of the spotlight. Of course, I am speaking here from a very specific point of view, one coated with childhood nostalgia for broadcast television. The truth is, though, that Copperfield is having the last laugh. His current performance schedule at his Las Vegas show is jaw-droppingly hectic, his shows are still getting sold out, and at a net worth estimated to be close to a billion dollars, he is richer than ever – by the far the richest professional magician to ever walk the Earth. And now at last, those of us who were fans of his in our childhood get to brace for his comeback. Vanish the moon? That’s pure Copperfield.

The peak of Copperfield, I would argue, was the “Flying” illusion he released in 1992. Something happened to the public’s appetite after that. Maybe these big illusion on the TV screen were not quite cutting it in the same way? Perhaps improved special effects in the movies made people want something more direct, more upfront. And then, later in the 90s, with Copperfield’s star already on the wane, a fellow called Val Valentino using the moniker “Masked Magician” started doing a TV special explaining the secrets to all manner of large illusions. This killed a lot of the fun, took away the wonder for many people, and put any would-be Copperfields at bay. This was not a happy time for many magicians. Perhaps this change paved the way for the popularity of the David Blaine-format of street magic. 

Walking around the streets of New York and other cities, followed by a handheld camera, Blaine stopped random people saying, “Can I show you something?” He performed card tricks, mentalism effects, and neat pieces of close-up, and the effect was explosive, breathing new life to a trade that was in danger of falling into the realm of cheesy. There is actually a lot of ire and resentment towards Blaine in the magic community, especially among older veterans of the field. This is understandable, many have been performing these effects, maybe with even more finesse, in close-up halls and small venues since before David Blaine was born, and now this New Yorker kid with a simple bag of tricks is being touted as the biggest thing since Houdini. But it is what it is – the in-your-face TV format was a hit, the audience reactions and gritty feel amplified it all, and David Blaine struck a nerve. Whatever the elders may think, Blaine’s style inspired a whole generation of kids to pick up a deck of cards and practice sleight-of-hand, and that, I think, is an absolute good for which we must give him credit.

But one may argue that even the David Blaine phenomenon reached saturation point. For a good long while, street magic was all the rage, with not just Blaine, but others of similar style dominating the scene: Criss Angel, Dynamo, Cyril Takayama. But this style’s best days were already behind it, and at the same time, the rise of YouTube and the internet demystified a lot of street magic and sleight-of-hand the way Valentino had demystified big illusion. Where was magic to go now? What would be the next big trend?

Quietly, behind the scenes, young magicians were beefing up their skills to the most incredible levels. I would argue that with a lot of the former mystique gone from certain types of performances, a lot of the focus came back on ability and execution. Inside the magic community, competitions such as FISM helped give the impetus to magicians to hone their craft to crazy new levels, and talents shows such as America’s Got Talent, and – at a somewhat higher level – Penn & Teller: Fool Us, gave them a platform. These days, look at the magic and performances of the likes of Shin Lim, Eric Chien, Horret Wu, or Shoot Ogawa. Their sheer skill so astonishing – the result of untold hours of obsessive practice – that with these performers, the secret, or the “how?” factor is almost an irrelevant detail. We watch them the same way we watch a virtuoso pianist, or a great athlete at their prime. It is almost as if these performers are saying: The method doesn’t matter, just watch the skill. If you are an ordinary viewer, even if Shin Lim were to explain to you every piece of sleight-of-hand that he does, you would never be able to do it. 

Shin Lim often encourages his fans to look up magic content of interest on YouTube. A millennial himself, he is well aware viewers might stumble upon methods and secrets. Shin seems completely unbothered by this sharing of knowledge. There’s a wonderful sense of community and mutual support among these young magicians, but let’s face it, there’s also that charming self-assuredness about their own Zen-master skill level that is hard to look away from.

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