Martha Stewart’s favorite magician, Steve Cohen, may not have been able to make her stock rise or her files disappear, but his unadvertised show, Chamber Magic, has managed to convince some of the city’s greatest skeptics to believe in magic.
What distinguishes Cohen from other well-known wizards like Ricky Jay is that the intensely intelligent, petite redhead (think George Stephanopoulos meets Richie Cunningham) doesn’t go for what he calls “tricks”—or mere sleight-of-hand illusions. Instead he is a “conjurer” who believes in the power of the psyche: manipulating watches, binding rings, and, of course, reading minds.
Chamber Magic has been discreetly selling out since September 2001 and, starting this month, will have an unlimited run. It’s based on an antiquated style of entertainment called “parlor magic,” which was popular in mid-19th-century Europe, when Houdini’s namesake, Robert Houdin, performed for wealthy, frequently drunk patrons in their parlors. Cohen is the only magician in the world still utilizing this technique. In his version, a small audience lounges on cushy sofas in a Waldorf-Astoria suite while the tuxedo-clad Cohen does his thing.
Cohen has been seriously practicing magic since he was six. “In school, all these big football players would gather around me,” recalls Cohen. “I wasn’t necessarily popular, but everyone knew who I was.” At Cornell he majored in psychology, which is an important component of his magic. “Most people,” Cohen has learned, “are open to suggestions that I plant in their minds.”
His success scheme is equally clever. Although his $52-a-seat Friday-night shows almost always sell out, Chamber Magic is not the main source of Cohen’s awe-inspiring income. Instead, he uses the Waldorf gigs to expose himself to connections for potential, higher-paying events. Clients who met him through Chamber Magic include Phil Donahue, Soupy Sales, and Al Hirschfeld. He has also performed privately for Robin Leach, Carl Sagan, Alan Greenberg, members of Monty Python (who called his performance “surreal”), Michael J. Fox, Mike Bloomberg, the former president of Intel (who nearly had a heart attack after one card trick), and, of course, Martha Stewart.
Cohen fondly recalls the guest appearance on Stewart’s show when he performed an act that very appropriately blew her mind. First, he told her to look at a random page in one of her books and to think of an image. Then he told her that he would project the image she was thinking of into an empty basket hanging over her head. When the basket was lowered, she peeked inside. Then she laughed. “I was thinking of thread, not bread!” she said, holding up a fresh loaf.
“Actually,” Cohen said. “I made that bread last night, and I was using it as a container for something else.” When the perpetually poised Stewart pulled the bread apart, she gasped. Baked inside were several spools of thread.