In 1977, ABC dominated American television with its killer line-up of sitcoms, cop shows and domestic dramas. As the 1977-78 season approached, the network chiefs decided to produce a variety special which would promote their highly successful programming while introducing six new shows being readied for fall premieres.

For no clear reason, the network opted to build this variety special around someone who had no connection with any of the ABC shows: an unknown 21-year-old magician from New Jersey performing under the moniker David Copperfield. The resulting program was “The Magic of ABC” and it served to introduce Copperfield to a national television audience.

Today, Copperfield is known (and in some circles, admired) for his flamboyant and melodramatic approach to magic. But way back in 1977, Copperfield was anything but flamboyant or melodramatic. In fact, he came across on “The Magic of ABC” as gawky and occasionally nervous. Whether mechanically reading his clunky, jokey dialogue from cue cards or snorting a horse-laugh at the vaguely witty remarks dropped by the guest stars on the program, Copperfield seemed like an ill-at-ease schoolchild thrust into spotlight against his will.

“The Magic of ABC” opens with a tacky, garish musical number with a half-dozen showgirls prancing about while Copperfield pulls an endless series of cards out of thin air. The number ends with a giant box descending from the ceiling, from which Hal Linden (“Barney Miller”) emerges. Apparently the idea of pulling celebrities out of boxes appealed to Copperfield, for he repeats this trick twice more: once with Donny Osmond emerging (he breaks into song, crooning “his new single” while the showgirls return to dance wildly) and once with Kate Jackson making a pop-up appearance (she does her lines and jumps back in the box).

The show is then divided into seven segments, each for a day of the week. Copperfield uses these segment to interact with the stars of that day’s programming. Sometimes the interaction is patently weird: Tuesday night divas Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams abruptly begin to flirt with Copperfield and inquire if they can tie him up and sit back to watch him escape. Clearly the idea of Laverne and Shirley putting Copperfield into bondage flustered the young magician, who reacts with shock to their knotty invitation.

Even worse is the time alloted to Abe Vigoda, star of the Saturday night sitcom “Fish.” Copperfield looks on in amazement as a rather pissy Vigoda reels off a skein of wisecracks about his advanced age. (“At my age, magic is being able to brush my teeth while they’re still in my head.”) Howard Cosell also turns up to enact his polysyllabic boor routine on the poor Copperfield, who obviously does not care that “Monday Night Football” is returning and has no idea what Cosell is babbling about.

Copperfield also stars in two elaborate but silly production numbers mixing classic movies with low-grade magic. There is a take-off of “Psycho” involving Cindy Williams as Janet Leigh and Penny Marshall as Anthony Perkins’ “mother.” The big trick is having Copperfield unexpectedly emerge from the shower rather than Williams.

There is also a spoof of “The Maltese Falcon” with Copperfield as a “private magician” (rather than a “private eye” — hey, I never said it was a funny show!). This segment doesn’t quite work since Copperfield keeps insisting that Kristy McNichol (“Family”) is a to-die-for femme fatale. Hell, Abe Vigoda is sexier than the tomboyish McNichol, and she gets upstaged by the much prettier Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson (“The Hardy Boys”). Everyone gets nudged aside when Fred Berry (“What’s Happening!”) shows up to wiggle his eyebrows and shake his hefty hips. Copperfield’s magic involves peeling an orange to reveal an egg, which is cracked to reveal a dove. And people complain about today’s broadcast offerings?

Strangely, most of ABC’s new shows receive a bare minimum of plugging. Outside of a lengthy ballyhoo of the saucy sitcom “Soap” (the jewel of the new programming), the network put forward a bunch of astonishing crap with quick-as-a-blink previews: “The Redd Foxx Comedy Hour,” “The San Pedro Beach Bums,” “Operation Petticoat” and “Carter Country.” There was also another new show that was being dropped on Saturday night with a sneery mention from Abe Vigoda, who gave the impression the program would die a quick death: “The Love Boat.”

“The Magic of ABC” concludes with a lengthy ballet which was meant to recall the Gene Kelly-Frank Sinatra musical “On the Town.” Copperfield, dressed as a sailor, pretty much jumps around like an idiot and levitates a young woman. Don’t ask and I won’t tell.

Throughout the hour’s program, Copperfield stops and looks into the camera to announce a new commercial from the wealthy folks at Pillsbury, who sponsored “The Magic of ABC.” Most of the commercials are standard issue Pillsbury advertisements, with silly people beaming with pride at how they “baked” cookies and rolls using Pillsbury’s pre-prepared dough. However, the commercials for Hungry Jack Biscuits are genuinely astonishing. A rambunctious old lady in a log cabin calls out for Hungry Jack and a 20-foot-tall lumberjack appears to grab a plate of biscuits from her hands. The exact nature of the relationship between the woman and the huge lumberjack is never clear (is he her son, grandson, husband, lover, gay best friend?), and it would seem Hungry Jack is not a carb-counter since his diet consists of nothing but biscuits.

“The Magic of ABC” was broadcast on September 7, 1977. The network brass was apparently not pleased with Copperfield, as they did not invite him to do another show. However, the folks at CBS were watching and they signed the magician for a long-term contract. CBS also encouraged Copperfield to polish his acting and stage presence. Today, the magician is eons removed from that awkward 21-year-old — to the point that “The Magic of ABC” is not cited in his Internet Movie Database biography.

As for “The Magic of ABC,” the network intended it only as a one-time-offering and the show was never rebroadcast. It was never released on home video and the bootleg videos floating around today were the result of prescient videoholics who set their Betamax machines to capture this rare television event. “The Magic of ABC” is not easy to locate on bootleg video, but as a curio time capsule it is more than fascinating to unearth.

Now if only Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams would tie up Abe Vigoda — that would be a TV event!


IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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