Q&A: Steve Cohen, “The Millionaires’ Magician”

(Originally appeared on Vanityfair.com, December 12 2008)

Since 1999, magician Steve Cohen, aka “The Millionaires’ Magician,” has been performing his sold-out show every weekend to small audiences at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City. A master at prestidigitation—meaning “sleight-of-hand,” or, literally “quick fingers” in French—Cohen has made a career (and a very good one, at that) entertaining with his “Chamber Magic” show: some of those he’s performed for include David Rockefeller, Martha Stewart and Barry Diller. During the week, when not at the Astoria, he can be found—true to his title—performing at resorts, private clubs, and on the occasional yacht.

If its Vegas-style magic you prefer—in the Criss Angel-vein—Cohen’s understated approach might not be to your liking. There are no special pyrotechnical effects, no lasers, no loud rock music with bands that have umlauts in their title; all that stands between the audience and Cohen is a few feet and a silver dollar, a tea kettle, or a single pack of cards.

VF Daily talked with Cohen during a rare lull in his performance schedule—close to 350 a year—about the history of salon magic, the connection between certain tricks and the internet, and where this ancient art might just be headed.

VF Daily: One of the refreshing things about your show is how understated it is.

Steve Cohen: There was a magician in the 1870s, in Vienna, Austria, named Johann Hofzinser who did exactly the type of show that I’m doing now, which is a salon show. Hofzinser performed for the upper-crust of society in Vienna. The audiences would attend a magic show in the same way that they would go out to the opera or to a ballet.

It worked in the 19th century because there were no distractions—such as television. What I realized was, Wouldn’t it be wonderful to re-create that world? And I found that audiences haven’t changed that much over the years.

Magicians may think that they need to put up pyrotechnics in order to bring magic into the 21st century, but, in fact, audiences have been very consistent with what they want. You can watch something as simple as a card trick and it’s still as effective as listening to a Mozart sonata. It still resonates—perhaps more so, because I’m performing these tricks right in front of the audiences’ eyes.

I’m assuming you could sell more tickets to these shows, but that you choose to keep the salon atmosphere.

It’s the law of diminishing returns. If you have more people, you can make more money. On the other hand, you would also disappoint people in the back row who would think, I can’t see what’s going on.
There is no barrier between me and the audience. Without the audiences, the show could never happen. Nearly every single person is involved with my show.

Do you follow the old axiom that all audiences are created equal?

Absolutely not. You get some audiences where, the moment they walk into the room, they are pre-sold and they want to see a great show and they want to be taken on a ride. And yet there are audiences that are just filled with skeptical people—and these people tend to be scientists and engineers.

I once performed in front of Carl Sagan and other astrophysicists, some of the smartest minds on the planet, and they would not crack a smile. They were upset. They figured that there had to be a rationale for the magic, which they couldn’t figure out.

Do you have any idea why more men than women are into magic?

It’s that power thing. Maybe the magic wand is an extension of something, if you know what I mean. But, surprisingly, some of the very first magicians, going back to ancient times, were women. Ancient shamans were often women. This would be in Europe and in Greece and Asia, and also in Native American societies. Remember, too, that the act of birth is one of the greatest magic acts that exists.

When women were using their will and their wands to act as shamans, there were clearly many followers. Their whole tribe believed in them because they saw that women were certainly able to create something from nothing. That’s what magic is in many ways—creating something from nothing.

It later became a male art-form, with wizards like Merlin coming into literature. Today, there are maybe a handful of women who are professional magicians. In many ways it’s a shame, because it would be wonderful to see a woman not acting as an assistant being cut in half, but doing the cutting herself. I actually despise the magician-in-tuxedo and woman-assistant-in-bikini dichotomy.

It’s degrading.

It is definitely degrading to women. Within the industry, these female assistants are called “box hoppers.” It’s an awful phrase and I never deem to use it, but that’s what they’re called.
I try to treat everyone equally. I treat not only the magic with respect, but the audiences, too.

I’ve always wondered what the link is between comedy and humor. Why do you think so many famous comedians—Steve Martin, Woody Allen, Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett—started off in magic?

There’s a whole tradition of people in the arts who have been also involved in the magic when they were young: Orson Welles and Danny Kaye, to name two of my personal heroes.

I think magic in itself is inherently funny; it will make you laugh simply because of the shock value.

Let’s face it: magic is not that hysterical. But audiences laugh almost as a defense mechanism. If I make a brick appear out of nowhere, everyone laughs. That’s not necessarily a funny moment; it’s more of a shocking moment. But our first response is to deal with that tension by laughing.

So, I think that the reason comics and humorists and magicians have a kinship is simply because we are all able to achieve that shock moment—whether it’s a punch-line or a visual punch-line. Both, in the end, give the audience a disconnect for a moment.

How many hours are spent practicing the tricks that you perform in your show?

I’ll put it this way: the show itself is my life work. I will be thirty-eight this year, and I have been imagining it since I was six. So, in a sense, that’s thirty-two years of practice. But to be specific, I add one new item every two years. Some of these tricks take that long to develop, to make them look as good as they can get.

Where do you learn these tricks? From other magicians? From books?

I typically read books from about two hundred years ago. There are some wonderful old volumes written on magic. I’ll rework or retool these old tricks. The tricks aren’t spelled out, but that’s where the ingenuity comes in. Did you see the movie The Illusionist with Ed Norton? Remember that workshop where he invented tricks? That’s sort of what I do. I work out these tricks and then practice them a tremendous amount—usually in the very venue where I will later perform them.

I wanted to talk to you about one trick that I found particularly astonishing. Five audience members write down their favorite drinks. You then produce these drinks from out of a small kettle. The night I attended, the drinks were a martini, a Manhattan, a cosmopolitan, a cup of coffee, and orange/mango juice.

That trick is called “Think a Drink,” and it was invented by a man named Charles Hoffman in the thirties. He used to tell audiences, “Okay, name any drink you like,” and he was doing this in front of five hundred people. He would say, “Oh! I think I heard someone call out malt whiskey!” He would end the trick by exclaiming, “Oh! Here is the malt whiskey” and he would hand out this drink.

When I read about this, I thought, What a great trick, and yet what a poor method! I felt, Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have people name specific drinks and then have them taste and confirm right away that that was what they had requested? And that’s what I set out to do.

It’s really the moment of the show when I most feel like Harry Potter.

I’ve never understood why people would want to know how a trick is performed. The real genius is in creating these tricks, not in giving away the methods.

Correct. As soon as you know the secret to a magic trick, it’s a big let down. I am not going to say that all magic secrets are simple, because many of them are not; many of them take incredible amounts of ingenuity. But there is a beauty in that simplicity.

And yet I’m assuming that many interviewers ask how your tricks are performed.

I always get that question and my answer is that I never entertain that question.

Is it harder to perform some of these tricks now in the Internet age compared with twenty, fifty, one hundred years ago?

That’s a great question. I often have a feeling that the young people in the audience are expecting a Criss Angel-type of a show; something rapid-fire, non-stop, music blasting. But that type of performance is entirely 180 degrees opposite of mine. It sometimes takes me a while to capture the attention of the younger people because their attention spans are so short. It takes a little time for them to understand that this is going to be an old fashioned show, and that they are going to have to pay attention.

Where do you see magic headed? Is it going in the direction of Cris Angel or in the direction of the salon?

My own goal, on a personal level, is to help audiences see that magic doesn’t need to be something that appears fake. It can be as simple as a trick done right in front of your eyes, with a single pack of cards.

From out of that simplicity can emerge great complexity and wonder.