Anyone with a handheld device is a magician of sorts. So how to explain the resurgence of old-fashioned magic in popular culture? Why are people falling for a brand of entertainment that seemed at its height a hundred years ago, when Harry Houdini was all the rage? Haven’t we moved beyond that?
Apparently not. In a private suite at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria, Steve Cohen, known as the “Millionaires’ Magician,” presents a stately 90-minute illusionfest, Chamber Magic, five times a week. Last year he became the first magician in nearly four decades to appear at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, and his refined act has impressed guests at the homes of Barry Diller, Martha Stewart and Warren Buffett, among others. And maybe that’s the role of magic these days – to provide a dash of wonderment for those who have seen it all.
A cluster of of well-to-do couples huddle in the lobby of the Waldorf Towers in New York City, buzzing with anticipation. At the stroke of 8:45 p.m. on Saturday evening, a tall man in a tailored suit ushers everyone into a gold-plated elevator – the same one that the President of the United States rides when he stays in New York. Primping and fidgeting, the group lines up at a suite at the end of a hallway on the 35th floor. 58 people file in for tonight’s magic show in Steve Cohen’s living room, run solely by word-of-mouth.
Cohen’s “Chamber Magic” shows inspire an intimate, old-timey parlor feel. Attendees, many of whom have purchased tickets months in advance, are expected to dress well. He doesn’t bother with hats, rabbits, or sleight-of-hand tricks; instead, he uses one gleaming tea kettle to produce five different drinks at the audience’s request.
At age 10, Cohen worked the elementary school circuit, appearing at kids’ birthday parties and Cub Scout meetings. Now, he brings in about 300 viewers each weekend – including high-profile guests like Martha Stewart, Barry Diller, and David Rockefeller – and a seven-figure annual income. “I put people in an environment where anything can happen,” Cohen says, pausing to sip Kombucha tea (the ginger helps his throat). “People start thinking, Maybe there’s another force in the world, and this guy has control over it.”
We all know New York can be a magical place. But did you know that there’s real magic happening here? You only have to know where to find it.
Back in the 1800s, parlor magic was all the rage. European aristocrats would invite conjurers to entertain their guests with sleight-of-hand. Today, the tradition continues, and you don’t have to be a Vanderbilt to be invited. You do have to dress up, though.
Steve Cohen is “the Millionaire’s Magician” — he’s performed for Warren Buffet and the queen of Morocco, even at […]
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 […]
Magicians and secrets have a funny relationship. The normal people who comprise our audiences watch us perform miracles and cannot begin to imagine how a person might learn the requisite techniques and other arcane knowledge to accomplish the impossible. Magicians on the other hand know all about the vast oceans of literature (in print and on film) obsessively detailing and documenting the history and lineage of all these bizarre, clever and wonderful ideas. They know you can walk into a magic shop and buy whatever you like without having to fight a dragon or some other kind of mystic wizard’s trial. They worry that their audiences will run home after watching a performance and look for the explanations on YouTube. The “secrets” are out there, if you care enough and know where to look. And yet, magicians and laymen can look at the same “miracle” and both be mystified—if for different reasons.
For example, many close-up magicians know the story of Max Malini’s famous production of a brick or a block of ice from under a hat as recounted by Dai Vernon in Stars of Magic. Vernon was tasked with watching Malini over the course of an evening’s dinner performance to try to pin down the little man’s sleight-of-hand secrets—in particular the the block-of-ice-under-the-hat trick. Throughout the full evening’s meal, Malini never left the table. Malini then proceeded to perform the trick and “…when Malini lifted the hat, a block of ice the size of four fists lay in the center of the table […] Vernon swears to this day that ‘The little bugger had no time to load up.’” While the regular audience members wondered how the ice got under the hat, Vernon was dumbfounded as to how the ice got to the table at all. A bribe to the waiter proved unsuccessful, and they never found out from where Malini had procured the ice.
On the other hand, whenever Steve Cohen performs the trick as the opener of his exclusive Miracles At Midnight show, the source of the block of ice is somewhat less of a mystery. The show is his second as part of his residence at the über-opulent Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan. The kitchen at the Waldorf-Astoria is located on the second floor and takes up the area of a full city block. “They have a huge walk-in freezer, and they’ve let me have a whole shelf in there just for blocks of ice for this trick. I used to go down myself to fetch the ice, but it gets so cold in that freezer that our arrangement now is that I simply ring down to the kitchen and they run one upstairs for me at the beginning of each show.” Of course. Everything’s easy once you know the secret.
But while Steve’s audiences—like Malini’s—are astounded at the appearance of the ice under the hat, magicians marvel at something else. They don’t marvel at how the ice appeared under the hat or how the ice got to the table, but at how Steve Cohen himself has managed to “magically appear” in residence at the Waldorf-Astoria with not one, but two elegant, high-end magic shows—one of which costs $250 per person. For close-up magic! And coming this January, Steve will be premiering a stage show at a local Manhattan venue named Carnegie Hall. Compared to those “miracles”, blocks of ice and bricks under hats might as well be the old stretching thumb trick your uncle does […]
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 […]
By Graeme Wood, THE DAILY
On Feb. 6, 1922, 27-year-old magician Dai Vernon broke this rule before the toughest of audiences: Harry Houdini. The bold gambit was one of the most storied events in the modern history of magic. Houdini, 47, was not only the world’s most famous magician but also its most famous debunker. He bragged he could figure out any illusion he saw three times, and he repeatedly proved second and third demonstrations unnecessary. Houdini had an enviable reputation as a card manipulator, and after diversifying into escape artistry, he had begun a third career exposing so-called “spirit mediums,” conjurers and seers. Some of the conjurers used elaborate setups, but Vernon challenged Houdini with nothing more than a blue-backed deck of Aristocrat playing cards. […]
“For the uninitiated layman, everything Steve Cohen presents in “Chamber Magic” must seem totally impossible and could easily convert anyone to believe in the paranormal.
“Other mentalists and all magicians should watch Steve carefully. Not so much for the actual effects but for his superb patter, timing and presentation. Few other entertainers are able to create the kind of intimate and mysterious atmosphere that this evening offers and, in the best show-business tradition, he leaves them wanting even more!”
I was honored to receive this praise from David Berglas, one of the living legends in magic. David and his wife Ruth visited my show in London, and we’ve remained in touch over the years. A few years back, they visited New York City, and I organized a lavish luncheon in David’s honor at the Waldorf-Astoria. Here is the personalized menu from the Peacock Alley private dining room […]
I had an uncanny out-of-body experience this week. A gentleman from England sent me his uncle’s scrapbooks from the 1930s and 40s, and they were filled with memorabilia of a famous magician who worked for 18 years at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York. The magician’s name? Dr. Sydney Ross PhD.
He entertained aristocrats, dazzled celebrities, and stumped politicians – even several US presidents. For all intents and purposes, he was “The Millionaires’ Magician” of his day, and even worked in the same hotel as me!
Going through his clippings, photos and promotional material felt like I was reading about myself from the future. What a mind-trip!
According to his nephew, Dr Ross jokingly told people that his PhD was in “phinagling.” He must have been very good at it, since he was invited to entertain Franklin D Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House. More on that in a moment. […]
Way back in 2002, just a couple of years after starting up my show, CNN correspondent Jeanne Moos came to visit me at the Waldorf. She brought her camera crew and did a feature story about Chamber Magic. The show has changed a lot since then, but it’s fun to see what she found interesting enough to discuss with Anderson Cooper, Jack Cafferty and Paula Zahn, in a roundtable at the end.