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September 20, 2011

The suite magic of Steve Cohen

by Jesse North
steve cohen magic magician chamber waldorf astoria hotel

Photo: Clay Patrick McBride

Most people want to separate their work environment from their home, but most people are not Steve Cohen. Cohen, his wife, and two children live in the Waldorf Towers in the same suite where he works, inviting over 200 strangers in every weekend. Cohen is known as the Millionaires’ Magician, and he performs his acclaimed show, Chamber Magic, five times a weekend in his residential suite. Yet Cohen’s is drastically different from the popular magic acts found in Las Vegas; he performs in front of no more than 50 people at a time, with close-up tricks steeped in Vaudeville culture.

And he’s made it into a multi-million-dollar business.

Cohen looks the part of a Waldorf resident. Dressed in tails with a yellow vest and thick-knotted necktie, Cohen, 40, not only appears dapper, but as if he’s not of this period. Even without him admitting so, it’s clear from his act that he has an affinity for old world style. Audiences of Chamber Magic are required to wear cocktail party attire (don’t even think about wearing jeans). Between the formal dress of the audience and the performer, the elegance of the setting, and Cohen’s charming delivery, Chamber Magic transports to a much older era. Yet Cohen delivers with boyish wonderment in his eyes.

That look is something that has never left him. Cohen began performing magic when he was 6 years old, growing up in Chappaqua, New York. His great uncle was an amateur magician and taught him card and coin tricks. Cohen was hooked. “That’s 34 years of a lot of magic,” Cohen said.

In 2001, Cohen commandeered a friend’s Greenwich Village apartment a few nights a week for one of the first iterations of Chamber Magic. This engagement didn’t last long, however; the friend’s wife got tired of constantly rearranging the furniture for Cohen’s magic shows. So it was off to the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park, where Cohen performed for a few months. It was there that Cohen made connections that lead to the Waldorf and it wasn’t long until he took up his current residency.

Cohen refers to the kind of tricks he performs as “thinking-man’s magic.” “If I’m just doing fancy flourishes and random rolls of coins across my fingers, you enjoy it while you’re watching it, but then it’s over and it doesn’t leave you with any impact,” Cohen said. “My design parameter when creating a magic show is to make magic that lasts in your head longer.”

VIDEO: Steve Cohen talks about wooing his wife with magic, and one of his biggest fans—Stephen Sondheim.

The tricks seen in Chamber Magic are basic. There is minimal set up to the trick, and that’s what makes the results so incredible—that what you’ve seen is so simple, yet it defies logic. For one of his classic tricks, Cohen collects three unique wedding rings from audience members, swishes them around in a wine glass for a few seconds, and suddenly, the three bands are interlocked like a chain. He clenches the linked rings in his fist and lets them drop out one by one, unattached once again.

If that sounds impossible, Cohen has been able to turn the toughest of critics into believers. While earning his undergraduate degree at Cornell University, Cohen received an invite from famed astrophysicist Carl Sagan to perform for a group of colleagues at the university’s Space and Science Center. “Talk about people who are logical and practical; it doesn’t get any more so than a physicist,” Cohen said of the experience. Yet he won them over, garnering a standing ovation. Cohen notes it as one of the highlights of his career.

If Cohen could make a group of astrophysicists get to their feet, you can bet he’s had some pretty profound effects on people. Cohen said he’s seen audience members fall out of chairs in shock. While performing at the New York Stock Exchange, former Intel CEO Andrew Grove was so stunned by one of Cohen’s tricks that he stumbled backward and nearly hit his head on the floor. Yet personal injury aside, there is one reaction Cohen doesn’t know how to interpret. “I sometimes don’t know how to handle silence,” Cohen said. “I don’t know if the audience likes the trick or if they’re just stunned. It always turns out that they’re stunned.”

Astrophysicists aren’t the only notable audience members Cohen has left with their jaws hanging open. He’s entertained Michael Bloomberg, Martha Stewart, Michael Eisner, and even Stephen Sondheim. (See what Cohen has to say about Sondheim in the embedded video.) Who is the one celebrity guest that’s taken Cohen by surprise? “There was one time when I got cotton balls in my mouth, and that was when Woody Allen showed up,” Cohen said. “He was sitting in the front row with his wife and two daughters. I walked out and I didn’t freeze, but I did get nervous. When he started clapping and laughing at all the right points, then I just relaxed and the routine took over. But seeing a hero in the front row was spectacular.”

So what’s next for the man who has stumped the likes of Woody and Sondheim? Where is there to go once you’ve secured a permanent gig at the Waldorf (and residence there, to boot)? In January, Cohen will accomplish one of his dreams when he performs at Carnegie Hall. The evening, entitled “Theater of Wonder,” will be a compilation of Cohen’s favorite tricks, rewritten for a larger audience of approximately 300. Cohen even has a TV special in the pipeline.

Yet for the man who has made over a quarter of a million jaws drop with his magic tricks, what is it that amazes him? “The most amazing thing ever was seeing my children being born. I think there’s nothing more magical than that,” Cohen said. “That’s the moment you ask the questions: why and how. Not knowing the answers is very unsettling.” Well Steve, now you know how your audience feels.

What do you think of Steve Cohen’s magic act, Rushers? Are you a skeptic of his conjuring or a believer? Do you think Cohen’s biggest trick was managing to score a residence at the Waldorf Towers? While you ponder those questions in the comments below, tune into this week’s episode of Stage Rush TV, in which Cohen performs a logic-defying trick! Trust me, you won’t want to miss it.

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