BOOTLEG FILES 550: “The Magic of David Copperfield” (1978 TV special featuring Orson Welles and Sherman Helmsley – and, really, when did you ever expect to see those two names together?).

LAST SEEN: The show is on YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The production vanished after being broadcast.


This week saw the 58th birthday of illusionist David Copperfield, and this seems like a good time to resurrect one of the productions that put the former David Seth Kotkin of Metuchen, N.J., on the magic map.

Copperfield first caught the attention of television viewers in 1977 as the host of “The Magic of ABC,” a one-shot special designed to introduce the network’s fall programming. Copperfield performed some mild illusions with the help of the then-reigning network stars, and he made enough of an impression to be wooed away by rival CBS to headline his own variety specials.

For those who only know Copperfield as the somewhat pretentious master of oversized illusion, “The Magic of David Copperfield” is a pleasant surprise because it finds the star as a still-awkward 22-year-old – something of a work-in-progress rather than a seasoned performer – performing tricks that are anything but spectacular. There is something weirdly endearing in watching this skinny young man with oversized 1970s hair attempt to be a suave and sophisticated entertainer, despite having an act that was fairly limited and unoriginal.

CBS might have realized Copperfield’s limitations, too, which may explain why no less a figure than Orson Welles was brought in to introduce the special. Welles – who, at the time, incorporated magic acts into his numerous appearances on TV talk shows and variety programming – promised the audience that Copperfield was “fantastic, flamboyant, entirely flabbergasting,” adding that the young man was destined for stardom.

The special first introduces Copperfield with a series of photos from his youth, including the obligatory baby picture, before the star appears in a set resembling a rundown apartment, where he is reading a book titled “How to Do Magic.” An unidentified actress playing his landlady (a young woman dressed up like an elderly nag) shrieks when Copperfield makes a mouse appear in his hand. The landlady jumps on Copperfield’s bed and pulls a sheet up to cover herself. Copperfield then pulls the sheet down to reveal Valerie Bertinelli.

Next up is a production number where cheesy dancers twist and turn to modified disco music while Copperfield makes a variety of playing cards appear and disappear in his hands. The magic itself is fairly elementary, but the disco vibe helps contemporary viewers enjoy a thick slice of vintage cheese.

Following this is something a bit more original, with Copperfield and Cindy Williams doing a mini-tribute to MGM musicals with something called “A Date with a Magician.” The pair perform an engaging dance to “The Trolley Song” and then Williams sings “It’s a Most Unusual Day” as Copperfield locks her in a cabinet and divides her with blades into three parts.

Then, Copperfield does levitation tricks, first with a cane and then with an unidentified starlet. Again, the magic is nothing that hasn’t been done before – but Copperfield adds a surplus of dance movements and hand flourishes that try to rise this above the quotidian.

At this point, the special is hijacked by Carl Ballantine, an old-time comic whose shtick was incompetent feats of illusion. Displaying a sign that identified himself as the “world’s greatest magishen,” Ballantine fast-talks his way around a series of comically misfiring tricks and exits before wearing out his welcome.

After Ballantine, Coppefield returns with Valerie Bertinelli and Sherman Helmsley for an extended magic act inspired by the film “Psycho.” Bertinelli dresses up like Norman Bates’ mother while Helmsley takes on the Janet Leigh role (huh?) and disappears behind a large curtain in a shower. A large cutout photo of Hitchcock is wheeled in the middle of the act (an obvious yet amusing tribute to the director’s legendary cameo appearances) and the sequence ends with Helmsley disappearing into thin air from his shower while Copperfield magically appears in lieu of Bertinelli in Mrs. Bates’ costume.

From there, the special aims for a lower level of extravagance. In a brief pantomime skit placing against Frank Sinatra’s “All the Way,” Copperfield loses a girlfriend at a restaurant and gains a flying handkerchief as a companion. Things then pick up when Cindy Williams returns with the plan that she wants to be the world’s first great female magician. Copperfield gets placed in a box on an elevated platform and is sawed in half – Williams announces, “Let’s get ready to slice this ham!” But when the box opens, another man is inside. (I won’t say who – the surprise is the funniest part of the show.) Copperfield is revealed to be the cameraman videotaping the sequence.

Another guest star, Bernadette Peters, appears for a non-magical musical number. After that interlude, Orson Welles comes back for the most memorable part of the production – ironically, with no input from Copperfield. Welles brings up audience members to participate in a complex exercise involving phone calls, choosing numbers and picking a book from a stack of dusty volumes. The point of this endeavor is to match a seemingly random word in a page of a book with a word printed on a piece of paper that is sealed in a jar at the center of a block of ice. Although Welles is not credited with directing this part of the show, the visual look is so radically different from the earlier segments – darker lighting, more intimate camera angles and mature editing that builds a sense of nervous energy – that it is easy to assume the great actor/director played some role in determining the style of the segment.

But how can you top Orson Welles? In this case, a disco magic number with Bernadette Peters singing “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” while Copperfield makes her disappear and reappear.

“The Magic of David Copperfield” was broadcast on CBS on October 27, 1978. Audiences enjoyed the program, and CBS kept bringing Copperfield back for more specials. As the years passed, Copperfield set his sights on grander illusions – the clowning with Cindy Williams was replaced by making the Statue of Liberty vanish, walking through the Great Wall of China and escaping from Alcatraz. Thanks in large part to the popularity of these TV specials, Copperfield has become one of the most successful men in the history of magic.

Sadly, “The Magic of David Copperfield” was never released in any home entertainment format – most likely, the clearing of music and performance rights is the hang-up here. But decent bootleg copies of this show can be found on collector-to-collector DVDs, and there is an unauthorized posting (minus the original commercials) on YouTube. So while this magic revue from bygone years may not truly levitate to levels of greatness, at least it hasn’t vanished into the mists of oblivion!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. BCE says:

    Very timely Bootleg Files entry, what with a very good (not great) magician winning America’s Got Talent this week and more magic on TV than ever before. And, yes, David Copperfield has something to do with that. Thanks.

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