Think-a-Drink

Steve Cohen: The Da Vinci of Chamber Magic

Think-a-Drink

Conjuring is the only absolutely honest profession: A conjuror promises to deceive you and does. Karl Germain

Steve Cohen, professional magician, was performing at a birthday party for four-year-old Daniel. He’d reached into the air and pulled out an over-sized wand. Then, created a Hostess cupcake out of a flaming frying pan in which Daniel, wearing a chef’s hat, had placed powdered chocolate, flour and a cracked egg. The magic was visual and called for audience participation. Toward the end of his act, Steve put a live dove in a box, collapsing the container to show his dove had disappeared. He then shook the wand, which turned into a handkerchief reading “The End.”

“Where’s the bird?! Where’s. The. Bird?!” chanted the kids. To his chagrin, even Daniel’s mother was upset. While Steve was packing up, she approached him to ask where the bird had gone. Steve refused to tell her. “Well, I’m not going to pay you until I know that bird’s ok and I need to see the bird to know that,” was her concerned response. The performer stood his ground. “You hired me to come in and do magic and I did.” Magic gave him the ability to talk to adults, “because I could do things they couldn’t. It was actually a source of power.” He didn’t, however, have enough power to drive himself home. Steve Cohen was ten years old. His mom convinced Daniel’s mother to remit the $25 fee.

Dai Vernon, The Professor, one of the most respected close-up magicians in the country, learned his first trick at seven-years-old: I wasted the first six years of my life. Steve Cohen was about the same age as Vernon when his Uncle Nat, a sign painter and amateur magician, showed him his first “pocket trick,” an anachronistic term for close-up magic. Seeing enthusiasm, Nat bought the boy a copy of Professor Hoffman’s 19th Century volume, Tricks with Cards. The book is written in antiquated English with very few illustrations. Still, young Steve persevered. Uncle Nat was unwilling to tell him HOW the trick had been accomplished. The book, Nat said, would do that.

Practicing is a lot like a bank. If you don’t put anything in, you won’t get anything out. Dai Vernon. Steve practiced. He performed and practiced and performed and practiced. With the support and encouragement of his parents—how many parents gift live doves on request-– Steve worked at his craft. He haunted Tannen’s iconic magic shop (since 1925) in Manhattan and went to see every practitioner he could. Whatever money he made went back into the business. As an adolescent (7th grade), his father began to take him to Tannen’s Jubilees in the Catskills—a weekend of expert magicians featuring performances, demonstrations, and best of all-access. “I was in heaven.” There were other kids. Steve realized for the first time, a community existed.

YouTube Preview ImageHarry Lorayne, who ran Apocalypse magazine, a journal for close-up magicians, showed him card trick after card trick. In turn, Steve showed Lorayne one he’d come up with called “The Missing Middle.” Inspired by the sword cabinet: the magician’s assistant stands in a cabinet which is then run through by swords. A center section of the cabinet door is opened to the audience. No part of her body is visible— Steve devised a trick wherein the center section of a face card disappears with rubbing. Lorayne thought it was terrific and asked whether he might use it in the magazine. The boy said yes. “So he wrote it up and suddenly, I was a credited, published magician.”

The Jubilees were followed by Tannen’s Magic Camp, one week over each of several summers. David Blaine was a fellow camper. David Copperfield visited and Criss Angel performed. “Other kids in my generation were out playing Frisbee and running races. I was inside practicing card tricks.” At the end of the week, there was a competition. Steve won second place two years in a row. “I know exactly why. At the time, I was totally dedicated to technique, not presentation. Now, I’d lay money any day on a better performance than technique.”

“My first criteria is not to seem like a sleight of hand expert. I never want it to be about technique. It’s not personable.” People always applaud skill. If a dancer executes a terrific leap, he can do it, we can’t. The lay audience applauds. Other dancers wait for the challenging stuff. At the beginning of Steve’s act, he does something intentionally flashy, currently with card shuffling. That’s his leap. It qualifies his level of skill early on, so he doesn’t have to keep making a show of it. “I try to make it look effortless, though there is, in fact, so much effort. When I started, I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to do a show that appears as if it’s real magic?”

In 1870s Vienna, Steve’s hero, Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser, the Father of Card Magic, told stories with his tricks. Steve follows this tradition. His genial approach makes magic seem a part of the every day. He uses ordinary objects, not magical-looking stage props—playing cards, wine glasses, a road map, borrowed objects… By design, everything is familiar so that the magic is even more surprising. It works. Siegfried (Siegfried and Roy) told Steve he envied the magician because when he and his partner traveled, they needed the crew, the animals, sets and props, requiring tractor trailers; as does David Copperfield. It would, I think, surprise his audience to learn Steve actually travels with seven large bags. One sees none of this on stage.

You would think a young magician might aspire to sawing a woman in half or, in our day, making a tiger or airplane disappear—with dazzling effects, provoking thousands of dropped jaws. Even as a child, however, Steve knew he wanted to be a close-up artist. “A magician only performs certain times of the day, certain days of the week. I wanted to be able to perform all the time…if you do stage tricks, you had to lug those things with you.” The great Max Malini would walk up to a celebrity, bite a button off his coat or cuff, then magically restore it. His catchphrase? “You’ll wonder when I’m coming, you’ll wonder more when I’m gone.”

“Most close-up guys would do ten minute shows.” Steve credits Johnny Ace Palmer, a teacher and mentor he met at Tannen’s with showing him you could make a whole act out of close-up. Palmer, a gentleman performer, “had a script that was timed to the second, perfected. That’s where the artistry comes in—making every time seem like the first yet giving them an experience that’s refined…” Palmer called Steve on stage to do a single trick at a private club during Steve’s visit to Texas; management never knew. He stayed at Steve’s house when he worked in Manhattan. He went to his protégé’s graduation. Eventually, they followed one another on The David Letterman Show.

At seventeen, Steve won the close-up category award from The International Brotherhood of Magicians. The trick was a poetic piece involving time (a pocket watch) and money. At one point he dropped coins into a credit card, which he shook so that the coins would jingle. He flew to Japan at the invitation of one of the judges. Steve lectured (they even bought his notes), immersed himself in the culture, and began to learn the language. He appreciated “the Japanese daintiness towards constructing art…the tradition of doing things slowly …care, precision, grace.” Genuine magic demands perfect simplicity of execution. Jean Hugard. Steve meditated and learned Kendama juggling which improves hand-eye coordination.

Majoring in Developmental Psychology at Cornell, he continued his language studies, returning to Japan his junior year. While other kids taught English, he worked in a magic shop, becoming a real part of the community. After graduation, Steve and his new Japanese wife lived in Tokyo four years. (Steve was awarded highest honors in language by a Japanese governmental organization. The family speaks Japanese at home). Every weekend, he’d do close-up magic in the bars of The Park Hyatt and Ginza Lion, honing his ease with improvisational performance and mingling with future clients. It was time for a change. The magician wanted to start his magic career at home.

Back in Manhattan, Steve presented his show at corporate events and private parties while consulting for David Blaine. One day, running errands, he had an epiphany in front of the landmarked, Ansonia (building) at 73rd and Broadway. He’d always had a strong interest in 19th century parlor performance. Hofzinser, would gather a small audience for an hour of deception three or four times a week in his home salon. The shows were elegant, genteel, slow and intimate. “The audience could see everything, every little wrinkle. When you’re in a parlor, it’s very interactive.” Maybe, Steve thought, he could do a parlor style show in an apartment.

A fellow magician (and his magnanimous wife) in the West Village, who had “this really amazing Victorian loft,” allowed Steve to invite his clients on successive weekends. The show was called “Mystery Salon.” It was well attended and successful. An idiosyncratic style began to emerge. When Mrs. Magnanimous understandably said ‘no more,’ he moved to The National Arts Club.

Paul Harris, a well known modern practitioner, came to an early show. “I’ll give you a B plus, he said, which upset me.” At that point, Steve was wearing an Armani suit. Harris advised him to develop an image. If you go onto a talk show to sit there, be yourself and talk about magic you have to look like a magician talking about magic. After several false notes, Steve settled on custom Savile Row morning coats, inspired by the young princes of England. He began to shape his show with the help of a new best friend and advisor, Marc Levy. “His storytelling and my technique combine to make the evening what it is”  They still talk every day.

Eventually Steve moved to his current performance home, The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where he performs five shows each weekend for small audiences in a private suite. His wife and two children take up residence with him for two or three days. (The Cohens live elsewhere). “My family’s there, but in the background. They know I’m working.” (Needless to say, both children can do tricks. They even sit with dad and deconstruct an act they’ve seen. All three of them, together). For Steve, it’s one long show. He maintains his energy level from before the first show until after the last. “The moment you sit down and relax, you have to start yourself up all over again like a car in the cold.”

The art of the magician is to create wonder. Doug Henning. Steve is always exploring his own sense of wonder. He flew to Los Angeles to see a twenty minute version of The Hooker Rising Cards: cards rise and go back into the deck, turn, rise and go back down. Then they rise above the deck and float under a glass dome which has been placed over the deck. When the dome is lifted, the cards continue to float. Hooker evidently did the trick for an hour in different variations. There are many others, but none like this. Steve admits he has no idea how it’s done. And then, at the Waldorf, the first night Steve did a trick in which he calls to the ghost, Oscar, a wine glass snapped in half without provocation. “The audience thought I had planned it. I have no idea how it happened.”

What about a sorcerer’s apprentice? “Down the line, perhaps, if I find someone who doesn’t just want my secrets …” They say when a student is ready, the teacher will appear. “When I’m ready to teach, hopefully I’ll find students. I always take time to talk to young magicians. People have been good to me.”

Steve Cohen is currently working, with great zeal, on a one-night-only show to play in the Weill Concert Hall at Carnegie Hall in early 2012…as well as perfecting and performing his shows at the Waldorf-Astoria…arranging his children’s birthday parties, picking them up at school, reading Harry Potter aloud, teaching the children Japanese calligraphy…playing classical piano, making origami, collecting art and fine time pieces…flying off to entertain celebrities, tycoons, and aristocrats…

Avenue Magazine coined the moniker the Millionaires’ Magician in a review, as a reflection of Steve Cohen’s clientele. His show is entitled Chamber Magic, A Demonstration of Modern Conjuring. (Chamber Magic is a trademarked term) “I put the word modern in the title because ‘conjuring’ makes it sound antiquated. The setting brings back the past, but even though much of the magic is very old—I still read 200 year-old books—the show doesn’t have that feel. You don’t stop listening to Bach.”

This show will delight and astonish. A stylish, thoroughly entertaining evening. Highly recommended.

Photo credits, show: Rebecca McAlpin; poster: William Stout; Think-a-Drink & Rising Cards, Clay Patrick McBride

To buy tickets for the Waldorf-Astoria show, go to www.chambermagic.com

Alix Cohen is not related to Steve Cohen.

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