Interview: In Confronting Magic, Steve Cohen Looks Back on 20 Years as the "Millionaires' Magician"
Cohen's new book is out now from Assouline.
For nearly 6,000 performances, Steve Cohen has made magic in a hotel suite in Manhattan. Dubbed the "millionaires' magician," Cohen is the man behind Chamber Magic, a masterful and intimate weekly show that mind-boggles its well-dressed audience with unique card tricks, sleight-of-hand, and, perhaps most delightfully, the Think-a-Drink, where he manages to pour a variety of beverages requested by the audience — which could range from hot chocolate to a frozen margarita at the same performance — from an empty teapot.
Cohen has resisted the urge to take his show online during the pandemic; instead, he's penned a book about his experiences. Confronting Magic explores the history of his show and shares some of his favorite stories; but mostly, it's an outlet for some of the most amazing photos he's collected over the two decades of Chamber Magic, all of which feature audience members in various states of excitement and confusion.
How did this book come about?
I realized that I was at the 20-year mark of doing my one-man show in New York. Very few productions can last that long in such a competitive theater town, and I wanted to do something special to commemorate two decades of performances. A friend of mine said that I should do something that would be a tangible product, not just an event, almost like a legacy for your children. At first, I was tentative about the idea of doing a book, but I've had so many beautiful photos taken over the years, not just of me, but the audience. Those shots are really gold, especially at a time like now where we can't gather with an audience. I've also been collecting artwork of the show that has been commissioned over the years, so I have all these beautiful works that are either in my closet or on a hard drive, and would they be better served to put them in a place where people can actually see them, instead of wasting away in the dark?
Along the way, I realized I had great stories about performing at Carnegie Hall, and on the David Letterman show, and going to India and performing the Bullet Catch, and all the notable people who've come, including Nobel Prize winners, elite athletes, and movie stars. I realized I had an interesting enough career to put into a book. But even more than the stories, the photos are really what remind us of what theater and magic are all about. It's that instant when your jaw is dropping that is so fascinating.
When was your last live show, and how do you expect to be able to start up again?
The last show as the first weekend of March 2020. Fortunately, my show is nimbler than Broadway productions. My whole show can fit in my pockets – it's a two-hour show that creates something from nothing. As soon as we're legally able to reopen, I can start up immediately. I don't have stagehands, I don't have designers. I've done the show around 6,000 times now, so I pretty much know it. All I need is the audience to stand in front of.
So many magicians have turned to Zoom these days to continue with their work, but you've resisted that.
I don't really believe in that style of performance, because you're just performing in front of a camera. The reason the book is called Confronting Magic is because you're confronting something you can't understand right in front of your eyes. You can't say, "Maybe he did something with a camera." There's something really beautiful when you're confronting an impossibility. It forces people to be present, here and now. When you're confronting magic, you can't ignore it, and I love watching people wrestle with that. There's no denying it. A live stream is a different experience. You can't pour a drink through the screen, that's for sure.
I asked you this question many years ago when we spoke for the first time: After so many performances, do you still enjoy it?
Absolutely. Without a doubt. Ever since I was a little boy, I've dreamed of becoming a magician. My old joke is – my last name is Cohen, I'm Jewish, my parents wanted a physician, but they got a magician. But the fact is, it really is my dream job. When you're standing in front of an audience and you know they came to see you and what you have to share, you really can't find anything that beats that. Being an artist, and being a beloved artist to boot, is something that you really can't put money on. Even if I wasn't getting paid, I'd still want to do this job.