David Blaine interviewed for Time Out (New York)
April 1-8 1999
As final preparations are made for him to be buried alive, Magic Man David Blaine rolls the dice with TONY
By Brett Martin
He can levitate. He can raise the dead-or at least resuscitate squashed flies. He even dated Fiona Apple. But it’s going to take more than that to win over an Atantic City blackjack dealer.
David Blaine and I are playing the high-stakes room of the Claridge Casino, just off the boardwalk. Blaine has a stack of chips in front of him worth several thousand dollars; I have three black $100 chips he’s tossed my way. The 25-year-old Blaine is wearing a dark overcoat, khaki corduroys and sneakers. The dealer, a craggy-faced Jackie Mason look-alike, gives him a disapproving raised eyebrow.
A Hispanic man and his girlfriend sit down to Blaine’s left and stare at him. “You look familiar,” the man says coyly. “I’ve seen you on TV” “Yeah,” Blaine admits. “I’m a magician. But maybe we should keep that down around here.” At this, the dealer looks up and shakes his head with all the weariness of a man who’s seen a thousand “magicians” pass through every week for the past 50 years. “Nobody cares,” he mutters. “Nobody cares.”
He’s wrong, of course. Ever since his first ABC special, Street Magic, aired in 1997, more and more people have been caring about David Blaine – and that number should increase once his new show, Magic Man, is broadcast April 14. Both shows present Blaine as a kind of wandering, mysterioso hipster strolling into towns across America, dressed in T-shirt and jeans and blowing the minds of ordinary passersby with intimate, close-up effects. Street Magic’s capper was Blaine’s levitation-during which he appeared to elevate several inches above the ground and hang there for a few moments.
“Everybody used to talk about the levitation,” says Blaine. “Now they’re going to talk about the coffin.” Five hours before we reach the blackjack table, Blaine and I are standing at a windy construction site that overlooks an elevated stretch of the West Side Highway and slopes precipitously toward some railroad tracks by the Hudson. A couple of yellow bulldozers are pushing at a patch of muddy earth – the future site of a Donald Trump development. “This is where we’re going to do it,” Blaine says.
“It” is a grand stunt Blaine is planning – partially to get a buzz going before Magic Man airs. On April 5 at 10am, he will be buried alive in a specially designed coffin for seven days, with an air supply but no food or water. The coffin will be transparent and situated beneath a container of water, allowing viewers to see Blaine lying there at all times (see “Pull a Houdini,” page 12). In its mixture of brash self-promotion and genuine danger, the stunt brings to mind Harry Houdini; in fact, it was inspired by a feat the master showman was planning at the time of his death. Blaine insists there’s no secret involved in his version. “It’s not a trick,” he says. “It’s a test of endurance – of what the human body and mind can stand. It’s going to be sick.”
Throughout our conversation, Blaine, as usual, is talking on his cell phone. The phone, with a mouthpiece dangling from his ear, is practically a feature of his face. Although he now lives in a plush midtown townhouse he shares with fellow magician Bill Kalush, the cell remains his only phone number. “It’s my office,” he explains. Blaine has an uncanny memory for phone numbers, and the headset makes him look as if he’s speaking into thin air.
Blaine, who admits to being something of a control freak, is wrangling out the details of constructing the water container that will be placed above him. The question on the table is whether it’s worth an extra $10,000 to make the case three feet deep rather than two. “What we’ve got to figure out,” he says, “is what two feet of water is going to make me look like. Is it going to look unbelievable?” (He eventually settles on two and a half.) When the conversation turns to the possibility of constructing a canopy to keep rain off the grave, he says, “Down and dirty is always better for me. It’s more credible.”
As we climb into our rented car, Blaine explains that he plans to spend five days, starting tomorrow, in a coffin he has at home – a kind of trial run. In preparation, he’s been fasting, and he’s now in need of a shot of wheat-grass juice, which we pick up on 23rd Street. Reinvigorated, Blaine climbs behind the wheel and switches on a hip-hop station at blaring volume. “The trick is to get down to Atlantic City, win fast, then get out,” he says as we weave through traffic toward the Lincoln Tunnel. “How much money do you want to win?” he asks. I randomly choose $400, but I warn him that I’m not a very successful gambler. “Your luck is about to change, my friend,” he says, fixing me with his Rasputin gaze. The phone rings, and Blaine tells the caller, “I’m going into the coffin tomorrow night, but maybe we can do some kind of lunch thing.” I’m beginning to realise that, for Blaine, this does not represent an unusual statement.
Blaine’s rise to fame was well documented around the time of Street Magic, though the magician admits to a certain looseness about the biographical facts he’s divulged. “I get tired of reading the same stories about people over and over again,” he explains. This much is consistent: Blaine was born David White (Blaine was his middle name) in Brooklyn to a single mother who later remarried and moved to New Jersey. Blaine never met his father and knows only that he was in Vietnam and was “very charming.” He has a 14-year-old brother he calls “my pride, the coolest brother you could ever want.”
Depending on which of Blaine’s accounts you choose to believe, he started doing magic at the age of four, when his mother bought him a cheap magic-store effect or when, at the same age, he was inspired by his grandmother, a tarot-card buff. Early on, he learned the power of cultivating a mystique. The sloe-eyed stare, for instance, came early. “I started with that when I was 11 or 12,” he remembers. “My friends would say, ‘You’re so weird. Why do you look at people like that?’ Because it’s like I’m looking into people.” In high school, he was an outsider who felt compelled to hide his academic skills and continued diligently practicing magic on his own. “It was like an addiction,” he says. “An obsessive-compulsive disorder.” His mother died when he was 19, an experience he describes as “like being in a tornado spinning round and round with nothing to hold on to.” When I ask when he pulled out of it, he says, “I haven’t pulled out of it.”
After high school, Blaine moved back to New York, briefly studied acting and began performing magic in public, most noticeably in downtown celebrity circles. Running with the likes of Lukas Haas, Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio (who appeared on Street Magic), he became a fixture on Page Six. The ranks of the impressed grew at venues like the Bowery Bar and included Madonna, Robert De Niro (who optioned Blaine’s life story for his film company) and Spike Lee. Blaine also developed a reputation as a ladies’ man, suggesting that those of us who thought we could get girls by spending hours learning “Stairway to Heaven” on guitar would have been better off practicing our sleight of hand.
Although he acknowledges that his boldface credentials and high-profile posse may have hastened his way to stardom, Blaine says that he’s avoided the scene for more than a year. In fact, the association of his name with DiCaprio’s clearly irks him. “I just don’t want to be connected to anybody-anybody-right now,” he says. We’ve just stopped at a rest stop, where Blaine eyes my Burger King cheeseburger covetously while settling for a small dish of frozen yogurt. The sugar acts on his nutrient-depleted body like a shot of crystal meth. Hanging out with famous people, he continues, is “like being a kid with a rich dad: Before people ask how you are, they want to know about your father.”
Still, Blaine probably remains better known for the company he once kept than for the magic he performs. “I think the new show is going to change that,” he says. In form, Magic Man is very similar to Blaine’s first special: It features the magician traveling across America and Haiti and spending time with a native tribe in the Amazon, working intimately with regular people. Most of the card tricks of his first special are gone, replaced by psychic effects inspired by Israeli-born mentalist Uri Geller, whom Blaine describes as “brilliant.” Like Street Magic, the show is enjoyable as much for the flabbergasted reactions of Blaine’s subjects as for the effects themselves. The people hoot and holler. They burst into tears. They flee screaming. “I’m interested in magic creating an emotional transition,” Blaine says. “I like to make a person question what they believe is real.”
Blaine has little truck with the glitzy, circus version of magic practiced by people like David Copperfield. “If they make a boy disappear out of a box, people are not worried that the boy’s not coming back,” he says. “If they were really concerned that the boy had disappeared, then you’d be making them believe.”
Blaine’s role models are of a different ilk – including such disparate figures as Gandhi, J.D. Salinger (he owns a collection of rare and first editions and can quote pages from Catcher in the Rye verbatim) and Orson Welles (“He broke down barriers; he thought like a magician”). Then there’s Jesus. “I think what Jesus did was the ultimate magic,” Blaine says. “He would appear out of nowhere and show people things that would make them reevaluate the way they saw life.”
“Talk about your least likely to succeed.” A few days before I meet Blaine, I’m talking to a former classmate of his from the Neighborhood Playhouse acting studio. “All he would do is stare at you. Of course, there was that time that he killed a pigeon with his mind.” Wait-what was that about a pigeon? “We were just sitting around in a classroom one day,” he explains, “and David pointed to a pigeon sitting on a windowsill about 20 feet away. He said, ‘See that bird? I’m going to make its heart stop.’ And a few seconds later, it just fell off the sill, dead.”
When I ask Blaine about the incident, he replies cryptically, “That pigeon didn’t die. It just appeared to be dead. The way I do magic is to wait for the moment to exist. I don’t create the moment.” In any event, some people, among them ardent admirer Jonathan Demme, are convinced that Blaine is indeed a magic man. “He’s probably literally magical,” says the director, who met Blaine as a result of their shared interest in Haiti. “I think he’s the most exciting thing going on in America – and I’m not just talking about entertainment. “
Most of Blaine’s fellow magicians are decidedly less enthusiastic. The success of Street Magic was met by a fierce backlash from the magic comrnunity. Blaine, many said, simply performed store-bought tricks and effects that any student could pull off. (Indeed, a quick perusal of the Internet reveals that many of Blaine’s effects are well known and their secrets available.) Magic magazine, the industry’s largest independent publication , received as much angry mail about the special as it did about Fox’s controversial Masked Magician shows. “The rank-and-file magicians who watch David’s shows look at what he’s doing and say, ‘Hey, I can do that,'” says the magazine’s tricks editor and columnist Jon Racherbaumer. “What they fail to realise is that (a) obviously they’re not doing it, and (b) the fact is that all performance is really about the audience, not you.”
As far as Blaine is concerned, the controversy is beside the point. “I’m not claiming to have powers,” he says, somewhat exasperated. “Magic is not about having a puzzle to solve. It’s about creating a moment of awe and astonishment. And that can be a beautiful thing.” People intent on revealing the secrets behind effects, he says, “just ruin it for everybody else.”
But even if Blaine does do relatively simple stuff, he does it exceedingly well – well enough, at least, to elicit the kind of shocked, overjoyed reactions captured on tape in his two specials. The magician’s voice-mail message is a good example: It consists of Blaine pretending to pick up the phone. “Hello?” he says. “Hello?” It’s the oldest one in the book – a gag your parents might have tried when answering machines were invented. It also gets you every time.
This is not the kind of casino at which I like to gamble,” Blaine says as we make our way across acres of deep purple carpeting in the Trump Taj Mahal. “If we start to lose, we get out quick.” This resolve is put to the test several minutes later, as about 1,000 of the magician’s dollars disappear without so much as a puff of smoke. Blaine shrugs as we head for the door. “Trump gave me the coffin site for free,” he smiles. “Now he gave it to me for a thousand.”
Down the boardwalk, at the Claridge, Blaine lays a stack of $100 bills on the table and settles in. Over the next 45 minutes, Blaine plays intently, watching the cards and advising me on how much and when to bet. Soon, I’ve made my $400, and he’s recovered the $1,000 and gone up another grand. As we head back to the car, it occurs to me that Blaine hasn’t done any tricks for me yet. When we reach the garage, I ask Blaine if he could do something for the parking attendant. He hesitates for a moment, then walks to her booth. “Can I show you something?” he asks, holding out a deck of cards. “I’d rather you didn’t,” the woman says, drawing back. “C’mon,” Blaine says. “Just one quick thing.” The woman’s having none of it. “I’m going to close this now,” she says, sliding the window of her booth closed.
“That’s why I always do magic under my own circumstances,” Blaine explains as we’re walking away. “Not when somebody says, ‘Hey, trick monkey, perform.'” (Trick Monkey, in fact, is the name of the semiautobiographical film Blaine’s been developing with De Niro.) I feel chastened, but I’m still hungry for a chance to see him at work.
I get it soon enough. Back in New York, we drop off the car and head across the street to the bar at the Rihga Royal Hotel. Blaine is still feeling the effects of his fast; as we walk past the tables filled with tourists and businessmen, he glances at the snack bowls on the bar, stops between two tables and shouts, “God, I want a peanut!” We sit, and Blaine produces the deck. “Ready?” he asks.
Then he proceeds to coldcock me.
He pulls a red card and a black card out of the deck and places them, face down, on the table. Then he asks me to shuffle several times and randomly deal the rest of the deck out into two piles, using my intuition to tell me which cards are which color. When I’m finished, I’ve somehow dealt out two equal piles-one all black, the other red. I reach for my notebook. “Don’t even start writing. We’re goin’ on and on,” he says, on fire, no peanut needed now. He makes cards flash to the top of the pile, telling me to “Watch the move, watch the move,” though I never can. “These are my all-time favorites,” he says. He takes a card, puts it inside the empty card box across the table, then has me choose my own card from the deck; after a series of maneuvers, my card disappears and somehow reappears inside the box.
Between effects, Blaine holds half a deck in each hand and, with barely perceptible movements, makes the top cards jump from one pile to the other, passing in midair. “See this?” he says. “This is when I’m in the zone. I’m an addict. I love this stuff.” That much is clear, and it’s a joy to watch.
Earlier, Blaine explained his interactive philosophy of magic by paraphrasing something Henning Nelms, author of the classic Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers, once wrote: “If a magician does a trick for someone, that’s nice,” he said. “But if someone says they’re hungry, and a magician produces a sandwich, that’s something different.” As Blaine and I are about to part, I remind him of the $300 he fronted me in Atlantic City. I tell him that I can’t keep it, but he refuses to take it back. Well, what’s your favorite charity? I ask. “Just give it out on the street,” he tells me. “Give it to homeless people.” So I do this, in $20 increments, over the next few days-a simple enough trick, but the response is amazing. It’s like magic.
David Blaine: Magic Man airs April 14 1999 at 10pm on ABC.
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