In a world where David Copperfield makes the Statue of Liberty disappear and David Blaine survives being entombed in a block of ice, Steve Cohen is just a man in a nice suit. But that’s all he needs to make magic happen.
For 16 years, Cohen — also known as the Millionaires' Magician — performed his show Chamber Magic inside a 35th-floor suite at the Waldorf Astoria (which had a magician in residence since 1902). He doesn’t advertise, but about half a million people have seen his act, including Warren Buffett and Stephen Sondheim. Now that the hotel is closed, he’s moving to the Lotte New York Palace beginning this weekend.
Cohen may have gone to sleep-away magic camp with Blaine, but his act is all about involving the audience, modeled after the illusionists who entertained wealthy European socialites back in the 19th century. It’s intimate, with fewer than 50 people (required to dress in their cocktail party best) seated just feet away from Cohen; by the end of the 90 minute-show, nearly everyone is called on to assist somehow. His tricks focus on sleight of hand and mentalism — what most of us call "mind reading."
Sound too simple? Try not to be impressed when two decks of cards, shuffled by audience members, turn out to be in identical order. Or when Cohen pinpoints a continental U.S. city that a random audience member is thinking of. (How do I know it was random? I chose him.) Or when he tells an audience member her blood type, or recounts a story about another once swimming through a pool of mac ‘n cheese. What physics account for fusing together three rings by simply swirling them in a glass? (“It’s scary,” said a woman in the audience when shown her diamond ring linked with another man’s wedding band.)
And then there’s his signature trick, guaranteed to keep you up at night. Think-a-Drink involves five audience members picking their favorite drinks and Cohen pours them, like a clairvoyant butler, from a silver kettle into a shotglass, then presents it to them.
Yes, people try to trip him up — one man chose butterscotch beer, admitting that “It’s actually my least favorite drink, I was trying to throw you off.” But out of that kettle came bourbon, an apple martini, a Mai Tai and Vitamin Water — only after the woman chose her preferred flavor (dragonfruit) and, finally, Yoohoo. That one might be real magic.
As for how his illusions work, well, Cohen has been in the magic game since age 6. He earned a degree in psychology from Cornell University, and learns many of his secrets at the Conjuring Arts Research Center, a library of magic just off Herald Square — access by appointment only to approved researchers.
But there was little appetite for skepticism in the face of Cohen’s charm and showmanship. As the saying goes, “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not, none will suffice.”
The experience also had the effect of uniting the audience, who filed out in little groups chatting with people they’d been connected with through the tricks or quietly exclaiming about how unbelievable this or that moment was. Turns out there’s still something that can surprise and delight even New Yorkers.