Since childhood, Steve Cohen has been attracted to the allure of magic. He started performing at children’s birthday parties and other small celebrations soon after entering middle school.
His immersion into the art led him to look for ways where he could make his livelihood through magic as an adult.
After graduating from Cornell and several unsatisfying jobs later, Cohen found what he was looking for. The Yorktown native, who is fluent in Japanese, had spent a few years in Japan teaching English, but he made sure to bring along his magic tricks.
He found a way to get booked at the Park Hyatt Tokyo and for two years worked every weekend. But Cohen, who specializes in close-up magic, which is also called parlor magic that was popular in New York City about 100 years ago, is essentially surrounded by his audience rather than on stage in an auditorium or other large venue.
“The problem is how do you perform for eight or 10 people in front of you and turn it into a viable business?” Cohen explained. “But I realized that I had to ramp up my performance from close-up magic that you might see in a bar or intimate spaces.”
After returning to New York and working as a translator for a time, in March 2000 Cohen was able to be booked in space at the old Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue, for his production that he called Chamber Magic. He tailored his 90-minute shows to allow for 50 to 60 people to attend, turning the show into a full-time business.
All shows are presented in cocktail attire; Cohen is dressed in a coat with a tail white shirt and bow tie, looking like he stepped out of 1919 instead of 2019. The audience is also expected to wear formal eveningwear. Cohen, who performs only for adults, said occasionally a boyfriend or husband might complain to their partner or spouse about the dress requirements, but it’s part of the ambiance that he has tried to create.
He said he always thanks the audience for following the dress code.
“We’ve kind of cheapened the experience of magic,” said Cohen, a Horace Greeley High School graduate whose father taught for many years at Robert E. Bell Middle School. “Magic is equivalent to going out to Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center or to the Metropolitan Opera House. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t have the equivalent stature. So that’s why I work really hard to make the whole experience a perfect night.”
Cohen performs conjuring, mind-reading, sleight of hand tricks and other baffling feats that only he knows how to do. The show may be in a formal setting but the references are 21st century.
“It’s not like going to a Renaissance festival where performers are speaking in Olde English and trying to make you feel as if you were back in the day,” said Cohen, who currently lives on the Upper West Side. “The trappings are very old school but the show itself is modern and I think that’s part of what makes it appealing to people.”
He schedules five shows a week – on Friday and Saturday evenings at 7 and 9 p.m. and a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m.
A few years ago, he was forced to move his show when the Waldorf Astoria announced remodeling plans and the famed hotel would be closing for about three years. Cohen had seven top-of-the-line New York City hotels reach out to him in hopes of being able to have them host his show.
Chamber Magic is currently performed in a salon in the New York Palace Hotel on Madison Avenue.
“It’s very genuine,” Cohen said. “The last thing you expect a magician to be is genuine.”
For more information and for tickets, visit www.chambermagic.com.