In a well-appointed suite within the Waldorf Towers Hotel, Steve Cohen is proudly in charge of one of New York City's best-kept secrets. He might not have the same name recognition as Penn and Teller or the Davids (Copperfield and Blaine), but Cohen, a master of the Sleight-of-hand, and his weekly show Chamber Magic, routinely manages to boggle the minds of the rich, famous, and powerful. Dubbed the "millionaires' magician," his work spans unique card tricks to what looks like the impossible: pouring a variety of beverages, from Long Island Iced Teas to chocolate milk, from an empty tea pot.
TheaterMania sat down with Cohen following a recent performance to discuss Chamber Magic and how the chance to delight skeptical audiences is his dream come true.
What exactly is Chamber Magic?
It's an all-engaging, physical experience…I start off the show with some Sleight-of-hand magic, then it goes into magic that's all about us. Everyone is involved; you start at one part of the room and end up somewhere else. As [it] morphs into a mind-reading show near the end, everyone realizes that they are the show….The most important part of the show, I think, is that it's in a venue that is not traditional for theater. This is a private parlor room inside the Waldorf Towers, the private residential section of the Waldorf Astoria.
Woody Allen came with his family and after the show, he wrote in my guest book, "This is like a religious experience." You come in as a stranger and walk away as a believer.
Do you prefer audience members who are skeptical?
I like skeptical audiences. They come in here looking at the spots where they think they shouldn't be looking. They think, I'm going to figure this guy out. They don't realize that I've dedicated my entire life to this particular craft. If you come in here for the first ten minutes thinking, I'm going figure this all out, the odds are against you. I've got so much more experience than your ten minutes thinking about it. The years of practice and training are just going to dwarf your attempts at figuring out how this is done.
Why does the show have a dress code of suits and dresses?
People secretly love to get dressed up. The theater ought to encourage people to get dressed up, just to make it an event — something special. Since we do have a dress code, people walk in and have been planning for this all day. They're in their bedroom and thinking about the magic show. And when you get here, look around, and see everyone all dressed up, you think, oh, this is a grown-up event.
Some of the tricks you do seem like they could go awry very easily, especially Think-A-Drink. Do you get nervous?
The only time I get nervous is if I'm trying out material that I haven't perfected yet and am still modeling it in front of an audience. My favorite trick is probably Think-a-Drink. I feel most like Harry Potter when I perform that — like a grown-up Harry Potter. I started that in 2003. I researched it for another two years prior.
What are your research techniques?
I have an extensive library of magic books that I research from. Here in New York City is the Conjuring Arts Research Center. They have thousands of books. They have digitally scanned over two million pages of text about magic and related arts into searchable PDFs. Anyone in the library there as a researcher can type in "rope trick" and every instance of the rope trick is now on your screen.
Is this your dream job?
Oh, absolutely. I feel like one of the luckiest men in the world, for sure. I started doing magic when I was six years old. I always knew I wanted to do magic as a profession, but my parents wanted me to go into a more traditional career. I started out as a struggling artist and as time went on, the show started to pick up. Then I was on a television show; they did an eight-minute segment on me. The moment that it aired, we were suddenly sold out for a year, and it hasn't stopped. The show has become a self-perpetuating machine. We don't advertise anything; it's all word of mouth. We're sold out two months ahead of time, consistently throughout the year. For me this is the dream come true. I talked to all my magician friends in Las Vegas and they said, "you have a better job than we do, for sure."
What do you hope audiences take away from their Chamber Magic experience?
You can come in here as skeptically as you like, but you're going to walk away thinking, I have no clue. That's what's fun. Everything I'm using features natural means. I'm not a wizard. I'm using all the theatrical training I have and all the magic training I have to make it look as real as possible. When people walk out, they say, "There's no other solution but magic."