The Night David Copperfield Made The Statue Of Liberty Disappear
David Copperfield and the Statue of Liberty. Sources: Photo by CBS via Getty Images; Wikimedia Commons
The greatest magic trick on TV? David Copperfield's disappearing Statue of Liberty, without a doubt. When Copperfield pulled off this vanishing act -- live -- in April 1983, millions of Americans tuned in to see an improbable feat that had been hyped endlessly with commercials. And yet, the young illusionist (Copperfield was then just 26 years old) seemed to accomplish the impossible. The massive statue was gone, or so the live audience of regular people who'd participated in the show believed. For more than 30 years, Copperfield guarded the secret of how he'd done the trick, then in 2017 he spilled the beans.
David Copperfield Was A Prodigy Of The Magic World
David Copperfield’s career began at the age of 12, when he became the youngest person admitted into the Society of American Magicians. Then at 19, he created the first “Magic of David Copperfield” show which he headlined at the Pagoda Hotel in Honolulu Hawaii. In 1977, his television career began when he appeared on ABC in The Magic of ABC, which was a preview for the network’s fall lineup. He performed illusions in between the previews of the upcoming shows. CBS, seeing the possibilities with his talent then gave him his own show, also called The Magic of David Copperfield, just like his original show in Hawaii. The Magic of David Copperfield became an annual event which audiences anticipated, and for which he is known. It was akin to a variety show, moving between each distinct magic act, and the acts did vary significantly, transitioning from a spectacle involving lighting effects, smoke machines, and dramatic music, to a more subtle chatty trick, which may have even included corny jokes. During the show in 1981, Copperfield made a Learjet disappear, which was the largest illusion to date, prior to making the Statue of Liberty disappear.
A Large Disappearance
The show was officially called The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears. The special was filmed in September 1982. In the special, the actress Michelle Lee explains that this is the largest disappearance performed by an illusionist, which is confirmed by the 2006 Guinness World Records. Prior to making the Statue disappear, he performs a few other illusions: “Shrinking Comedian,” “Linking Cards,” “Dancing Cane,” Levitating A Lady,” “Room Key,” and “Story of Emily.” These illusions leading up to the grand finale were ones that he had performed before and each one had its own distinct “hook”. For example, “Dancing Cane” involved levitation, and in “Story of Emily,” Copperfield told a dramatic story about a lonely woman who took care of children as part of an illusion where he made people appear behind a screen. To create the final trick of the show, he spent $500,000 and used 300 technicians. As much as the audiences are thrilled by the illusions, according to Copperfield, there is more to it than just the trick itself. When he creates an illusion, he puts it in a narrative context, and he performs it with theatrical flair. He has connected the tricks to stories with universal appeal, stories of longing and overcoming fear, and this big one was no different.
Loss Of Liberty
The trick was performed live in front of 20 tourists, while millions watched it on TV. The tourists were on a platform and there were two lateral scaffolds built on Liberty Island 200 feet away from the statue. As was the case in all of his tricks, he narrated before the illusion, and in this case, he told the story of why he decided to make the Statue disappear, setting up the anticipation of what was to come. Copperfield explained that his desire to make the Statue disappear arose from his mother, Rebecca Kotkin, who was an immigrant. She was the first to talk to him about the importance of the Statue of Liberty, impressing on him how easily liberty could be taken away. This inspired him to ask the government if he could perform the illusion. A sheet was strung between the two scaffolds, and as the trick began, he raised the sheet, hiding the Statue. Then, when he dropped the sheet, she had disappeared.
It's All In The Setup
Once she was gone, a helicopter camera crew showed spotlights beaming through the space where she had been. He used several other methods to convince the audience that the Statue had actually disappeared. There were cameras in locked boxes to photograph the event, and a “radar screen” that showed the Statue disappearing.
How Did He Do It?
Later, we found out how Copperfield pulled off this feat. While it was happening, the audience watching it in person was seated on a platform. While the sheet was up, Copperfield used loud music to distract them so that they did not notice the movement or hear the noise of the platform where they sat as he shifted it. When he shifted the platform, the audience’s perspective was changed and the statue was hidden behind one of the towers holding the sheet up. Those towers were so brightly lit that it was not possible to see the Statue behind it.
Copperfield also used props to complete the illusion. The radar was rigged, and he also set up an additional platform with lights to match the Statue’s platform. The lights on the Statue’s platform were turned off, and the lights on the empty Statue of Liberty platform were turned on. As he explained about his own reasoning for the illusion, “I thought that if we faced emptiness where, for as long as we can remember, that great lady is, lifted up our land, why then... we might imagine what the world would be like without liberty and we realize how precious our freedom really is.”
The Show Must Go On
This grand finale was not the finale of his career, as he has continued to perform his illusions, including walking through the Great Wall of China in 1986 and escaping for Alcatraz in 1987. In another astonishing feat, Copperfield romanced supermodel Claudia Schiffer, considered among the most beautiful women in the world, and married her in 1994.
Over his long career, Copperfield has won 21 Emmy Awards for his televised performances.
Tags: David Copperfield | Live TV | Magicians | Remember This?...
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