Welcome to MAGIC MENTOR MONDAY. In this weekly series, I will introduce you to my magic mentors – people who have inspired me to become a better magician. Each Monday you’ll meet someone who has offered advice, or acted by example, to help steer my career.
Some of these people are alive, others no longer with us. Some are famous, others not so much. The beauty of mentorship is that you don’t necessarily have to meet your mentor face-to-face, nor even live during the same time in history. Many of the people who inspired me were alive a century before I was born! By reading classic books, old newspapers, and magazine articles, I’ve tracked down stories about their lives and work that continue to motivate me to become a better entertainer.
My “big three” mentors are Max Malini, Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser, and Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. Each of these giants will be featured in coming weeks. You’ll also read about contemporary figures like Harry Lorayne and Albert Goshman, non-magicians Danny Kaye and Sammy Davis, Jr. and even fictional characters like Willy Wonka.
How do mentors inspire? They set examples, helping us imagine how we too might solve a particular problem. By seeing the world through a mentor’s lens, we can learn more about them, and about ourselves, at the same time.
Ready? Let’s begin with my number one greatest inspiration:
Broadway star Sutton Foster (two-time Tony Award winner) sat in the front row at Chamber Magic earlier this year. We had a great chat afterwards – her pal and Younger co-star Hilary Duff recommended me as a “must-see.”
In a recent Huffington Post interview, Sutton was asked to name her favorite date night idea in New York City…
Chan Canasta (1920-1999) is one of my heroes in magic. In front of live audiences he took major risks that are breathtaking to behold. Sometimes a trick wouldn’t work and his entire presentation failed. Unlike a traditional magician, Chan Canasta was fine with that. Failure was an acceptable outcome. But when he succeeded, ah! The outcome was gloriously impossible. This was part of the public’s fascination toward Chan’s brand of psychological illusion – they were keenly aware that his experiments could fail, so they believed he was real. His approach elicited empathy, and audiences earnestly wanted him to succeed.
Later in life, he left the world of public performance and focused on another lifelong passion – painting. As artists evolve, they often find new outlets to express themselves. Chan put down the deck of cards and picked up a paintbrush to stimulate audiences in a fresh way. His paintings presented the world in a dreamlike fashion, challenging viewers to discern the difference between reality and illusion.
Today Chan Canasta paintings are seldom seen – most are held in private collections spread across the globe. I encountered my first Chan Canasta painting in 2004 hanging on the wall of Derren Brown’s flat in London. It made an impact on me because I knew that the canvas behind the plate glass had been personally touched by our mutual hero. Although Chan died in 1999 and I had never met him in person, I felt his presence while standing in the same room as his painting.
Years later, I chanced across an eBay auction containing twenty Chan Canasta paintings. At the time I wasn’t in the market to purchase art, but I felt a sudden inspiration to create screenshots of each painting. I saved those digital files and later posted them in a blog post on my website, dated April 13, 2010. The dealer selling these paintings was located in Brussels, Belgium, and I instructed my blog visitors to contact this dealer via eBay if they wished to purchase an original Canasta.
After a week of being listed on eBay, something magical yet disturbing happened. Not only did the auction listings end, but the Belgian art dealer himself had vanished. There was no way to track him down on eBay, since he had used an untraceable screen name that didn’t correspond to any known galleries.
I continued to host the twenty images on my blog. Five years passed.
On January 9, 2015, I received an email from a lady named Renata Kadrnka who explained that she was Chan Canasta’s widow. The day she wrote would have been Chan’s 95th birthday and she was reminiscing about life with her late husband. Renata had searched the Internet for articles about Chan, and stumbled across my blog post.
On June 2, 2013, I took the stage at the 92nd Street Y in New York City for a memorable evening of magic. The program featured a screening of my History Channel program “Lost Magic Decoded” as well as a lively question-and-answer session, and a live performance of magic. Moderating the discussion was my pal and fellow magician Dick Cavett, the legendary talk show host, and we were joined by Robert Palumbo, the director of my program.
Here’s the introduction that Eric Lange read to the sold-out audience heard before we walked on stage:
“Welcome to a magical evening at the Y!
“Tonight we’ll be “Looking for Magic with Steve Cohen,” who has delighted and mystified audiences all over the world. He’s the star of Chamber Magic, the longest-running solo magic show in New York, presented each weekend in an elegant suite in the Waldorf Towers. His audiences include a who’s who of celebrities, royalty, and other notables. A media favorite, Cohen was also the star of a sold-out solo show at Carnegie Hall and a TV special you will see excerpts from tonight, Lost Magic Decoded, that premiered on the History Channel in 2012.
“Cohen will talk about the making of the film with the film’s writer, director and co-producer Robert Palumbo, whose credits include documentaries for HBO, Showtime and National Geographic. Steve and Robert traveled the world on their magic quest, so they have a few stories to tell!
“We’re honored to welcome back famed talk show host and author Dick Cavett, who will moderate their discussion. […]
Join us for a private screening of my History Channel special, “Lost Magic Decoded,” that follows my journey across three continents in search of some of the most puzzling illusions of all time.
“Lost Magic Decoded” was praised by The New York Times (“baffling”) and USA Today (“jaw-dropping”).
The screening will be hosted by legendary talk show host Dick Cavett (click on his name to read his NY Times blog), and will include a discussion with the film’s writer/producer/director Robert Palumbo. I also plan to perform some live magic after the screening.
If you are in the New York area on June 2nd, I hope to see you there. [Click for more…]
Roberto Giobbi is an extremely talented magician from Muttenz, Switzerland. I hold him in the highest regard as a sleight of hand expert, and have learned a great deal about card magic through his book series, Card College. It’s a testament to his ability as both a teacher and a writer that even professional magicians refer to his books to acquire nuances and touches on material that they’ve used for years.
Another book that Giobbi released recently – not in the Card College series – is titled Secret Agenda. It’s an unusual book because it contains 365 pages, one for each day of the year. The reader is encouraged to read one page daily, and not skip ahead. Giobbi wants the student to reflect on the daily lesson, to savor it, and not burden himself with information overload. Some days he introduces a clever card magic sleight, on other days a poem.
The December 29th entry was meaningful to me, and I wanted to record the action steps that I’ve taken as a result of reading this book.
Giobbi encourages magicians to prepare a Utility Bag that is brought to every show. He writes:
“This bag is a lifesaver for any performer traveling to a booking. […]
As a boy growing up in the 1980s, I eagerly anticipated each year’s David Copperfield special on television. I even convinced my parents to take me to his live theater show as a graduation gift. Copperfield has been an icon in the magic world for as long as I can remember, and I’ve watched every one of his television shows multiple times.
What an honor, then, to have David Copperfield visit my show at the Waldorf-Astoria this past weekend. It was thrilling to see him in the audience – this time watching me!
I was elated.
After the show, we went downstairs to the Bull & Bear restaurant and spent an hour talking about […]
As readers of this blog know, I am somewhat infatuated by Max Malini, the extraordinary magician who entertained celebrities, tycoons and aristocrats. I’ve modeled my career on his, and have been tracking down Malini stories for years. Many of these stories are chronicled throughout this blog.
I recently acquired Malini’s advertising booklet at auction (circa 1926) and was delighted for two reasons simultaneously. First, it is an honor to own this historic memorabilia of a prominent magic figure. The booklet is in very good hands.
Second, the text of the booklet has confirmed that Max Malini stayed and performed regularly at the hotel where I’ve presented Chamber Magic for the last decade: the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.
In his advertising booklet, he includes laudatory letters from prominent figures, including President Harding. Here is one of the inside pages, containing personal notes from General Pershing and Vice President Charles Dawes […]