April 18, 1983 12:00 PM

David Copperfield, 26, the master illusionist, can bewitch audiences by levitating bosomy brunettes. Now he has a less lightweight but more significant scheme up his sleeve: a program to help rehabilitate the disabled. He calls it Project Magic.

The plan, to teach simple sleight-of-hand tricks to people with damaged motor and cognitive skills, took shape in 1981, when Copperfield realized that a magician with whom he had been corresponding was handicapped. “He had never referred to the fact that he was in a wheelchair,” David recalls. “I began thinking about the role magic might play in the lives of the disabled.”

Collaborating with occupational therapist Julie Dunlap, of the Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Inglewood, Calif., Copperfield conjured up a series of simple illusions—how to suspend a knife in midair, tie a knot that disappears or make a pencil turn by itself. Gradually, Dunlap began instructing her patients in the course of routine therapy. “The magic helps them wake up, move around, and get excited about something,” she explains. “And when families see a patient’s joy, it buoys them as well.”

Copperfield estimates that magicians are working with therapists in rehab centers in 30 states and four countries. He promotes Project Magic through lectures and monthly columns in major magic magazines and is publishing a series of magic-trick books that will be distributed to therapists. “The beauty of the magic is that it gives disabled people skills that the able-bodied don’t have,” says David. “This enhances their self-esteem.”

The New Jersey-born illusionist lives in Los Angeles with his former assistant, dancer Sarah Miles, 24. He headlines in Las Vegas, pitches instant cameras for Kodak, and this month starred in his fifth CBS special.

While Copperfield’s tricks comprise only a fraction of the routine hospital therapy for the disabled, sometimes the results can be, well, magical. An auto accident left aspiring actress-model Carol Smeltzer, 21, partly paralyzed and slightly brain-damaged. But after 13 frustrating months, she mastered the “dissolving knot” trick and was invited to demonstrate it with Copperfield on a local TV show. Now she is polishing her repertoire and plans to join an acting program for the disabled. “It took a magician to bring back Carol’s sense of self-worth,” says sister Becky, “and she found him in David Copperfield.”

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