New York’s most exclusive form of entertainment comes in an unexpected package, set in a sprawling private Waldorf Astoria suite and blanketed in an aura of mystery -- a most appropriate setting for the man known as the Millionaires’ Magician.
Guests are quietly greeted and seated in neatly lined chairs, anxious in anticipation of the host’s arrival -- and arrive he does, clad in a neatly tailored Savile Row morning jacket, his subtly formidable presence made immediately known as the room’s collective attention becomes his. An evening of enchanting grandeur unfolds at the hands of Mr. Cohen, leaving even the most dedicated skeptics wide-eyed and awestruck as the art of a bygone era is skillfully conjured before all. This is arguably the city’s best-kept secret, and a fraction of the allure lies in this alone.
We sat down with Steve Cohen himself for an inside look at the history of magic, his greatest muses, and what happens behind the scenes of his most celebrated show, Chamber Magic at The Waldorf Astoria.
LA: This setting is truly a unique one –but it’s the actual concept of the show that we’re curious about. How did the parlor idea come to life in this space?
SC: Thank you for asking that. When I was in my twenties, I was trying to find my place in the world, in my career. I knew I didn’t want to perform big illusions on a Las Vegas stage -- instead I liked the idea of doing close-up magic for a more intimate audience. I started reading about a man named Johann Hofzinser, a Viennese magician in Austria who performed in salons in the 19th century. He invited the high society of Vienna to attend and charged them what was essentially a Broadway ticket price, and he would put on weekly salon shows. He did this for about twelve or thirteen years. That’s how he made his name.
As I was reading, I could see myself doing that kind of show, too. I went to Vienna and visited the salon where Hofzinser performed so I could see how I felt in that setting. I also went to his grave and paid my respects to the master. I liked the idea of continuing his legacy and could easily imagine myself working in a salon environment.
I’d be performing for sophisticated people, inviting them into an exclusive private venue to experience magic up close. Attending my show would be an alternative to going to the ballet or the opera. It would be a new idea with a nod of thanks to the past. Watching live performers up close was how people used to be entertained before TV, before large-scale productions. I wanted to recreate that experience for a contemporary audience.
My first challenge was finding a venue in New York that looked like this picture I had of Hofzinser’s salon, so I showed the photo to everyone I knew...I showed it to my doorman, my dry cleaner, anyone I thought might help. I’d say, “Look, do you know of any place in the city that looks like this?” Finally a friend said, “Hey, my apartment just might work.” So he invited me in and I did my show in his apartment for a few months, which got me started.
Then I moved to a parlor in the National Arts Club, which looks exactly like Hofzinser’s salon. It was beautiful, but because it was a private, members-only club, we couldn’t invite the public to attend my performances. It became a difficult venture. So I was on the lookout for the right venue, the right opportunity. And what came along -- an opportunity to perform in the Waldorf Astoria -- was just too good to be true. They invited me in and I performed my first show in their royal suite. It was like a dream come true that left me asking, “Are you kidding me? I can do my show here?” I loved the space, the audience loved the show, and the rest is history.
I’m an entrepreneur, I’m an impresario. I started my business venture myself but I’ve had help from friends along the way, which I’m thankful for. I started as a single performer but my one-man operation has expanded to accommodate a growing business. Now I have a manager and various consultants who help with marketing, and of course a ticketing agency. Show tickets are sold out about four to six weeks ahead of time, which is really rewarding!
LA: Your moniker is The Millionaires' Magician...who coined that or came up with that for you?
SC: I was actually called that in articles in both Forbes and Avenue magazines. I would not have come up with that term myself; it’s a bit bold, though memorable. But since the media invented the term, I thought maybe it would be an interesting catch phrase. Indeed, when I went to London and did a month of shows at The Langham Hotel, right across the street from the BBC broadcasting house, the media loved the idea of the “Millionaires’ Magician” from New York! So I decided to run with it, and it has followed me ever since.
The show does attract an upscale audience -- we have a dress code (cocktail attire) and competitive ticket prices, though people often remark that it’s more reasonable than some of the shows on Broadway. I’m happy to say that at the moment on TripAdvisor, of all the 370 shows in New York City including Les Miserables, Jersey Boys, Book of Mormon, and the Lion King, Chamber Magic is number nine.
LA: Do you have any personal rituals in preparation for each show?
SC: I practice magic every day. At heart, I’m a card magician, but this show is not primarily card tricks because I don’t think my audiences really want that -- I do only two card tricks in a 90-minute show. There are magicians who have succeeded in that arena; Ricky Jay, for example, did a great job with a show made up primarily of card tricks. Guy Hollingworth and Derek DelGaudio did that too.
Preparing for my show, I often think of what Howard Thurston used to do. He’s a famous magician who was the rival of Houdini. Thurston used to stand back behind the curtain and would jump up and down and say, “I love my audience, I love my audience, I love my audience.” He convinced himself that he really, truly loved his audience. When he walked out on stage, he was radiating charisma, he was radiating energy, and just had a very approachable and agreeable face. That general concept works for me too. I don’t actually jump up and down (!) but I’m always in a good mood when I start my show.
LA: You’ve performed for some of the most well-known people in show business. I imagine you don’t get very nervous because you perform so many times and often with a prestigious crowd, but has there ever been any experience that really got to your nerves?
SC: Yes, when I performed for Woody Allen, who sat in the front row. (I did know he was coming because I had heard the news beforehand). I idolized Woody Allen growing up, watching all of his films. I was so nervous backstage before I walked on, it felt like I had cotton balls in my mouth -- you know that feeling, right? I had sweaty palms, too -- it was like this autonomic reaction to knowing that my idol was in the front row. I was worried that he wasn’t going to laugh; I was worried that he wasn’t going to respond. But actually he was the best possible audience member because he used to be a magician when he was younger. He did stand-up and he also did magic.
He came in with his family, his wife Soon-Yi and their two daughters -- he was laughing at all the right spots and applauding at all the right times. And at the end of the show, he told me, “This is a really religious experience” and wrote that comment in my guest book. That meant so much to me because though many people who come to the show are actors, directors, captains of industry, even billionaires, it’s different when someone who you grew up idolizing is sitting there a few feet from you.
I had the same feeling when David Copperfield came to the show. He’s a friend but I had never performed for him before, so when he was sitting in a second row center seat, it seemed amazing to me because I had watched his shows growing up. Suddenly there he was, watching me and applauding my work, and that was a thrill too.
LA: It almost seems to me that there’s some sort of spiritual connection with the idea of it, with the whole feel of magic in general, and I’m kind of just curious as to how magic makes you feel on a spiritual level. Is there ever that eerie feeling that you’ve had at some moments in your career, either in doing research or meeting someone or thinking of something particular?
SC: Well, magic has its roots in religion. The first magicians were shamans. And the first magicians in modern times used to use magic tricks to convince their followers that they had a connection to the gods. So they would use magic tricks, for example, to make a door to the temple open and it looked like it was opening by itself. In fact, there was a magic trick behind that, using boiling water to produce the steam that would turn the crank. It was kind of like The Great Oz, the powerful, mighty Oz. That’s where magic’s roots actually lie.
I’m a performer of theatrical magic. Magic has evolved from being something linked to religion and spirituality to a form of entertainment. Having said that, the roots of magic haven’t been lost in the mix; in other words, there’s still an elevated, seemingly spiritual element to seeing magic performed before your eyes...when people come to my show, many leave saying that the experience truly felt like it must have been real.
As a professional magician, I need to be an actor at times, presenting my craft. But there have been moments during the show when I’ve felt as if something was happening so beautifully that there was no technique involved. I sometimes feel like my work is a tribute to magicians who came before me, like Max Malini -- the man who did the brick from the hat. And Think-a-Drink Hoffman, the inspiration behind my signature Think-A-Drink routine. I’m keeping the spirit of those magicians alive by not letting their work be forgotten. In a way, working in the legendary Waldorf Astoria also helps to honor their contribution to the history of magic. Each week, I’m able to recreate the past, infusing it with my own modern sensibility and flair, at every performance of Chamber Magic.
Chamber Magic takes place every Friday evening at 7:00pm and 9:00pm as well as on Saturdays at 2:00pm, 7:00pm, and 9:00pm. Contact your Attaché for tickets and exclusive experiences.