Setting the stage
Las Vegas, Nevada, comes alive at night with light, sequins, music, and magic. A place redolent of magical thinking, steeped in show business razzle-dazzle and the dubious promise of opportunity, luck, and a big win.
The first professional magician to perform in a casino on the Las Vegas Strip was Gloria Dea at the El Rancho Vegas in 1941, when she was only 19 years old. Once the casinos discovered that guests who experienced emotionally uplifting and impossible things happening onstage tended to drop more money in the slot machines and on the table games than those who did not see a show, they kept the magic flowing and growing until the city became the magic capital of the world. Today, there are 20 different magic shows and countless other performances that audiences can choose from, all presented within a glitzy three-mile radius.
Magic is what first called me to Vegas decades ago: I came to see performance magicians live and in person, including the opening of the sixty-million-dollar immersive magic experience Caesars Magical Empire. Back then, the Darwin Magic Club met weekly on Wednesday nights. It was named after the local magician Gary Darwin, its unofficial motto “Magicians and humans welcome” a joke from topologist and close-up magic afficionado Looy Simonoff. Siegfried and Roy, David Copperfield, Doug Henning, Lance Burton, Harry Anderson, and all the working pros would drop by after their shows to share stories, take photos, and trade secrets. There were around 150 unofficial members in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The regulars ranged from multimillionaires to professional card cheats to amateur magicians like me who just loved being a part of it all. It was not unusual to see someone in a two-thousand-dollar suit sitting next to someone who was bruised after being caught cheating in a game, both laughing and learning from each other.
A museum near my apartment was dedicated to preserving the rhinestone-encrusted cars, gemstone-caked costumes, and mirror-covered pianos of the highest-paid entertainer of the 1950s through the 1970s—Liberace! And, one week in 2003, it became the epicenter of the magic world with an auction of the largest-ever collection of Harry Houdini memorabilia. Amateur Sidney Radner had acquired many of the artifacts from the superstar magician’s show from the early 1900s, including his water torture escape trunk, his milk can escape, and straightjackets, along with many locks, picks, keys, books, and other ephemera. Most of this collection Radner originally purchased directly from Houdini’s younger brother Theodore Hardeen in 1941, inheriting the rest after Hardeen’s death in 1945.
Magicians flew in from far and wide. Luckily, I barely had to cross the street, as I was living almost next door while teaching at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The History Channel was there filming a documentary about the auction. Representatives from the Smithsonian Institution were bidding on items, seeking something great after Houdini had previously escaped their curator of physical anthropology, Aleš Hrdlička, who had plans to acquire and study Houdini’s brain in 1926. Even the world’s most commercially successful magician, David Copperfield, was there to procure an exquisite piece of magic history. The items sold for over one million dollars. The documentary, Houdini: Unlocking the Mystery, is still available online. You might catch me as a young anthropologist interviewed on the topics of Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle, and spiritualism.
There I was, thrilled to be sitting between the world’s largest rhinestone and a collection of handcuffs once worn by Harry Houdini. I, too, wanted to possess some of these magical memorabilia.
Cabinets of curiosities
In the years since the Houdini auction, I have been invited to some of the greatest magic collections and museums in the world, including the Houdini: Art and Magic exhibit and Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, and Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic at the Wellcome Collection in London.
Some magicians’ organizations have their own collections, such as the members-only library at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, which has first-edition books on magic in English dating back to 1584, original magic effects used to design the apparitions in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, and magical tools used in performances by Hollywood celebrities including Johnny Carson, Orson Welles, and Neil Patrick Harris. The Magic Circle in London boasts Stephen Fry and King Charles III among their members and has in their museum collection the cups and balls the former Prince of Wales used when he auditioned for the club, practical magical apparatus filmed in the Harry Potter movies, and items from the shows of magicians who famously lost their lives onstage. Other magical apparatus and secrets lie deep within their special collections and are accessible only by members of the distinguished Inner Magic Circle.
David Copperfield offers private tours of his personal museum in Las Vegas. The journey begins with a perfect reproduction of Tannen’s Magic in New York City, just as the shop appeared when he would visit as a boy. It continues into several breathtaking displays of many of the most celebrated items used by the great magic luminaries. When I asked him about magicians and their affinity for accumulating magic-related objects past and present, Copperfield said, “I am troubled by the term collecting. For me, this process isn’t only about buying and selling objects; it is about human stories. Very little in human nature has changed over time: deep in all of us, we all have the same wants and struggles. The museum tour is presented as a narrative which shares personal stories that focus on the essence of the emotional lives of human beings who also happened to be magicians. I want to preserve and share stories from individuals in the past that reflect our reality today.” Director J. J. Abrams also has a love for Tannen’s and has collected a Mystery Box, which sits unopened in his office.
Magicians and mentalists collectively spend millions of dollars collecting and displaying illusions, hand props, tricks, apparatus, fekes, fakes, gimmicks, ephemera, signatures, books, posters, artwork, and all manner of unique items that were once a part of a magic act. They collect through conventions, clubs, auctions, online sites, meetings, catalogs, at shows, and between friends. After its initial acquisition, magic is then passed on in still more conventions, auctions, on eBay, on Facebook forums, at swap meets, and sometimes in an almost potlatch-style giveaway during a visit to a local magic club.
A contagious collection
I have been performing magic since I was eight years old. I own thousands of books, periodicals, lecture notes, and secrets collected from magic and mentalism performers around the globe. Many of these were printed before I was born, and sometimes only a dozen copies exist. I hold onto them with the hope that an idea hidden within will inspire something that I can use onstage or on TV, something that will delight an audience member, or, better yet, fool a magician peer. I dig through these pages looking for creativity, solutions, and secrets. I also trade them with other magicians, to share ideas and to build camaraderie. My favorite books are those with handsome bookplates from previous owners and those with elaborate signatures and self-drawn caricatures of famous magicians and authors. These allow me to share a moment in space with the previous holders and protectors of these incredible works.
Jeff McBride, the founder of the McBride Magic & Mystery School in Las Vegas often teaches his students to resist buying extravagant props that they are not going to actively use in their shows: “Magicians often buy expensive props as if they are life rafts with the hope that they can hold onto them tightly and be saved. They will not save you.” In my basement are hundreds of magical props and apparatus that I never use. Tubes that can produce rabbits on command; trays that transform gloves into living doves; silk scarves that materialize endless flowers, streamers, or bottles of wine; and bookcases filled with a variety of vases that can produce flowing water on command, just as when similar vases were used in India, Egypt, and Peru hundreds of years ago. Most of these were purchased with the dream of one day performing with them. Yet I do not own rabbits or doves. In my garage, I even have an illusion from which a live tiger has once appeared, although I lack the ability or the interest to own or care for a 500-pound exotic mammal. These pieces are merely dream-fulfillment objects.
My collection is also home to hundreds of signatures from Thurston, Vernon, Foo, Houdini, Slydini, Shimada, Dunninger, Adelaide Herrmann, Uri Geller, Blackstone, and many more. When I hold a signed book or prop, I feel connected with the person who signed it. I have tangible proof that they once held this same item and gave up a moment of their life to sign it. These signed items feel more like contagious magic.
In my collection, I have a wooden lathe, a nail, and a brick from Houdini’s home in Harlem. The current owner has been selling pieces of the original structure to pay for remodeling and refurbishment. The lathe has a thin splatter of white paint, indicating the exact color of the bathroom where Houdini practiced his famous escapes in a bathtub filled with icy water. I steam my suits in hotel bathrooms and practice close-up effects in front of my mirror at home, so when I hold this lathe, I imagine the intimate moments, both mundane and creative, that took place in Houdini’s home. The red brick from the exterior of the house reminds me both of photos of Houdini at his home, bound in rope in front of the wall from which this came and of my own visit there. Some magicians have purchased pieces like these and made wands or pendulums from them. Many magicians have also collected wands made from trees grown at the homes of celebrated mystery artists. Similarly, a magician who once ran a barbershop had a large collection of hair that he cut from the heads of famous magicians who frequented his salon, and some of this hair has now started to appear on the market. A shoulder bag used by magician Max Malini to transport the props he used to perform for US presidents and European royalty recently sold for $17,000 to an unknown collector.
Since becoming a respected professional performer in this art, I am increasingly greeted by amateur magicians and collectors after my shows and lectures who want to offer seemingly inordinate sums of money for me to sign and give them the cards and props from the evening’s performance. They want to capture that moment in time and hold onto a piece of the magic. They tell me that they want something to look at and be reminded of how the show made them feel.
Magicians have room in their collections for sympathetic magic too. Gary Darwin, who ran the magic club in Las Vegas for over 50 years, famously performed in the Lido de Paris at the Stardust and was also a part-time bellhop at the Riviera Casino across the street. Before he passed, he owned a magical prop called an attaboy, which looks like a little wooden bellhop that can predict your card. I had to have this magical bellhop that had been owned by a magical bellhop. How could I resist?
Why do magicians collect magical things?
Neuroscientist Shirley M. Mueller writes, “The reason we collect art is simple. It makes us happy.”
Earlier this year, Gabe Fajuri, owner of Potter & Potter Auctions in Chicago, auctioned off the collection of film actor and magician Ricky Jay for almost a million dollars. The prices of magic collectibles have increased dramatically in the last few decades and spiked at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the advent of virtual magic inspired people to take up performance magic as a pastime. For Fajuri, “The impetus for collecting magic memorabilia—or anything, really—is multifaceted. From recapturing your youth or buying things you could never afford as a child to assembling an archive of documents for the purposes of research to decorating your home, or even as an act of hero worship, there are probably as many reasons to collect as there are individual collectors.”
Theologian and magician Eugene Burger said that the decision to be a magician is “like a calling to the priesthood”—you just know.
Seven to eight years old seems to be a uniquely magical age. Every successful and celebrated magician I have asked has told me that they were first inspired to become magicians at this age. The age at which a child begins to realize that just because they know the punchline to a joke or where the ball is hidden in the magic trick, does not mean that everyone else knows. They begin to understand concepts like reversibility: some things can be sawn in half and restored; others cannot. They can grasp magic’s false (but fun!) cause-and-effect relationship that hides the real cause and effect: the wand waves and the ball vanishes. Many magicians have also told me that they became interested in magic because they felt they were socially awkward and magic helped them to connect with their peers.
For me and many magicians I know, today and every day is show-and-tell. The magicians have worked hard on their talents, and they have brought their favorite things to share. They are worried that no one will like them; they are hopeful that everyone will.
Magicians collect in part because they want to experience connection and love. Some pursue the things as adults that they dreamed of in childhood but could not afford. Others collect the things that made them happy, physical tokens of moments they want to recapture and share with others. Magicians also collect things that connect them with their heroes via sympathetic or contagious magic to help cement emotionally fulfilling parasocial relationships. They collect to come to a greater understanding of their art and their fellow artists: just as they did in their youth, they collect in the hope that they can use their collections to grow closer to others by displaying, teaching, performing, posting, trading, or talking about their acquisitions. They collect for the joy of the hunt and the victory of bringing the object home to share with their family and community. Magicians collect to personally experience or share with others those all-important moments of magic, surprise, and wonder.
A man in Alaska named Gerry Snow dreamed of visiting the immersive magic experience Caesars Magical Empire, which opened at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. He never made it, but over the years he has collected items from the Empire to experience it vicariously. He interviewed people who worked there, hired them to perform for him online, and got to know them. He has built relationships through his collecting and become a caretaker of these magical treasures. Snow has sent me priceless pieces from his collection—precious, one-of-a-kind objects—because he wants me to care for them for the next generation. We both consider ourselves lucky to be able to appreciate these pieces, protect them, perform with them, and preserve them for the delight of collectors and audiences long after we are gone.
Artist bio: Charlotte Corden is an illustrator and fine artist whose work often centers around what it is to be human. She has an MA in anthropology from University College London and has studied at the London Fine Art Studios and the Arts Students League of New York.