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Magician Knows the Trick to Pleasing a Crowd

Steve Cohen uses simple gimmicks and charm to bewitch people. 'It's not about the props; it's about a connection with the audience,' he says.

June 15, 2003|Lukas I. Alpert | Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK — Since the days of Harry Blackstone, putting on a magic show has grown into an enterprise with casts of thousands, elaborate sets, pyrotechnic displays and laser light shows.

But all Steve Cohen needs is a mind to read and a deck of cards.

Turning the larger-than-life approach on its head, Cohen has reached back to the style of the parlor magicians of the 19th century to create his intimate "Chamber Magic" show.

"It's not about the props; it's about a connection with the audience," said Cohen, 32. "Am I able to reach as many people as David Copperfield? No. Do I speak to people more directly? Perhaps."

In a lavish suite at the Waldorf Towers, the twice-weekly show has clearly struck a chord, selling out performance after performance for the past year and a half, its popularity spread mainly by word of mouth.

"I thought he was amazing," corporate event planner Brittany Scott, of Manhattan, said after a recent show. "He's so engaging; he really makes you feel like you're part of the show."

At $52 a ticket, the tab is high, but Cohen says the attraction is his parlor room style. With simple tricks and the intimacy of a room that seats only 50, Cohen is able to have the crowd participate in nearly every part of the act.

"People don't mind being fooled as long as they're being fooled by a gentleman," Cohen said, quoting what he said was the favorite saying of one of his heroes, Nate Leipzig, a parlor magician from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

At one point, he pulled Scott and another woman from the crowd. He had them close their eyes and -- magically -- made Scott believe that he was touching her arm with a feather.

In fact, he was touching the other woman's arm.

"I really thought he was touching my arm," Scott said after the show. "I have no idea how he did that."

Another trick called "Think a Drink" involved making drinks appear out of thin air and astounded everyone in the room.

Cohen had audience members write their favorite drink on an index card. After the cards were passed around and shuffled several times, Cohen had an audience member pick five. As each drink was read aloud, Cohen took a tea kettle and in some inexplicable way made what was read pour into a shot glass. If the card said pink lemonade, he poured pink lemonade. If it said a dry martini, that's what it was.

"During Prohibition, a magician ran the risk of being arrested for this trick," Cohen said.

His fascination with magic started at age 6 when his uncle, an amateur magician, would visit the Cohen home in Chappaqua, N.Y., and perform tricks.

"At all the family parties, he would do magic and all the children would sit around and watch, but I was the only one who would pay attention," he said.

As he grew up, he started developing his own act, performing for his well-heeled neighbors. While attending Cornell University, he studied psychology and became interested in the power of persuasion.

"I realized that psychology and magic really went together hand-in-hand," he said.

Cohen periodically takes the show on the road to high-end hotels around the world. He sold out for a month at the Langham Hilton in London's West End last year. He is scheduled to appear at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco this month.

In between the hotel shows, he works consistently, doing corporate events, where he earns between $8,000 and $15,000 a show.

Despite the lucrative nature of the magic trade, Cohen says it's not about the money, but the love of entertaining.

"Magic works for everybody, from the poorest guy out there to the richest guy on Wall Street," he said. "I feel like I've been called to do this and, most importantly, my audience thinks it works."

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