Last year, I stumbled upon a fascinating article in The New York Times about Steve Cohen, a magician who offered exclusive shows out of a suite at the Waldorf Astoria and was flown around the world to give private shows for heads of state, captains of industry and celebs.
The story struck me because here was a guy making a serious living doing something very cool that most others would consider a hobby or a side-job. He’s a classic example of a Career Renegade.
So, I made a note to reach out to Steve to interview him. And, through an odd twist of fate (aka the Universe speaking up), we ended up being brought together in a completely different way and working together.
But, I’ve always wanted to share a lot more detail about how Steve transformed himself into the wildly successful Millionaire’s Magician and launched his now famous magic show in NYC.
As we all know, getting information from a magician is no easy feat (the old “never reveal your secrets” thing), but in the interview that follows, Steve was incredibly candid about his business journey. And his story is rich with lessons not just for magician’s, but for anyone starting any business built around a passion, especially one considered by many to be more of a hobby than a serious income.
JF: So, Steve, where did your interest in magic come from?
SC: The traditional answer to that question is, “I got tricked into it.” In my case, I had an uncle who was a talented amateur magician. He pulled me aside at Thanksgiving dinners and other family gatherings to show me his latest miracle. He was totally old-school — a rumpled mensch in clothes he probably bought at Alexanders, like a backroom character out of Broadway Danny Rose. He called his magic “pocket tricks” which is the antiquated term for what’s now called “close-up magic.” These are tricks that involve small props – a deck of cards, poker chips, folded slips of paper – but have huge impact because they’re so personal.
In junior high and high school, I used the tricks he taught me to perform at local birthday parties, school fairs, and Cub Scout Blue & Gold dinners. The audience feedback I received was very strong. And I got paid! This was certainly a motivating factor to keep practicing. I continuously performed throughout my teenage years, just about every weekend. At my uncle’s encouragement, I pumped all of the money I made from magic back into the business. I bought more tricks from stores like Tannen’s Magic in NYC, and mailorder operations like Hank Lee in Boston. Before long, I had all of the props and instruction manuals I needed.
In the summer, many teenagers go to soccer camp, basketball camp, or soccer camp. But (and I understand that I’m dramatically increasing my geek-ratio here) I went to a magic camp. It was like a miniature Hogwarts, and it was quite heavenly for a budding magician. The counselors were professional magicians, and the skill level was extremely high. Others who came out of this program include David Blaine and actor Adrian Brody.
I continued practicing difficult sleight-of-hand technique throughout my formative teenage years, and all through college.
JF: At what point did you say, “hey, I wonder if this could make me enough to live on?”
SC: My parents were very supportive of my home-spun magic career throughout high school, but encouraged me to go to college so I could get a “real” job. I was accepted at Cornell University (so I guess you can call me an “Ivy League Illusionist”), and continued performing through college.
After graduation, I moved to Tokyo and got married to my wife who is Japanese. We were invited to a party sponsored by the Cornell Alumni Club of Tokyo, where I met David Udell, the GM of the Park Hyatt Tokyo, and a fellow Cornellian. David liked the spontaneous performance he saw me put on that night at the Cornell Club and as a result, he invited me to become a regular contract entertainer at his hotel, which was a huge door-opener for me.
I was suddenly thrust into a world of high-falutin parties and luxury gala affairs, since the Park Hyatt is the white-hot epicenter of Tokyo’s upper crust. It was this experience that empowered me to think that I could make magic my main source of income.
After returning stateside, I looked to create a similar arrangement with a hotel in New York City.
JF: What was your approach to getting jobs and building your business in the early days? How did that work for you? Were you getting the traction you hoped for?
SC: My entire marketing approach was personal relations, what is now known as relational marketing. I’d strategically perform magic for the right people at a party, and those people would hire me for their corporate events. This cycle would continue at the next event – and it was always pretty evident to me where each job was coming from. I could trace each job back to a specific person who had seen me at a previous performance.
Being in New York City, the people who were hiring me often belonged to media or finance companies. And the guests at these parties were often very wealthy. It was during this time that I started performing at many corporate events for Bloomberg LP, and became friendly enough with Mike Bloomberg that he invited me up to his office for a one-on-one talk and private performance.
The best part of this style of relational marketing is that you meet a lot of people, press a lot of palms, and start to recognize each other. I’d see people at a members-only private club, and then bump into them again at an upscale restaurant. It helped to validate that we occupy the same “world.” Then, when those people were planning their social or corporate events, they’d give me a call because I was visible, and top of mind.
JF: At some point, you created your current brand, Chamber Magic, and positioned yourself as The Millionaire’s Magician. Tell me how that came about. What were you trying to accomplish? What did you change? And how did it change your business and it’s trajectory?
SC: The main problem I had was that my marketing strategy was limited entirely to how many places I could physically be at once. And although I’m a magician, the answer that question is sadly: only one. No matter how many people you meet on a one-to- one level, it’s not a blanket canvas of society. You’re limited to your own sphere of personal contacts, and physical proximity to those people. I felt the need to open up my approach, and broaden the spectrum.
Occasionally potential bookers would call and ask if they could see me perform someplace before committing to the booking. I always had to decline. One day, though, I had an epiphany – I should create my own showcase.
I began presenting shows in my friend’s apartment (charging a small entrance fee), and later at The National Arts Club. These were self-produced shows, and over the course of time, have grown into the lifeline of my business.
I hired a publicist who got me my first piece of press, a small article in the NY Post. Then, along with her efforts, the media feeds itself, and that first article provided validation for other media outlets to cover the show. Over the course of time my show, as its own entity, has become the topic of many news stories including a long television segment on CBS Sunday Morning, and a two page article in the New York Times.
The show has taken on a life of its own, and now acts as the open mouth of a marketing funnel that draws people into my other offerings. People first come to see my Waldorf-Astoria show, and then book me for private events (which are significantly more costly) and an exclusive midnight show I offer once a month.
My moniker, The Millionaires’ Magician was coined by Avenue Magazine in a review of my show. Shortly after the article appeared, my collaborator Mark Levy encouraged me to trumpet this name as my full-blown brand. He said that no magician has ever claimed the luxury market, and that I could put myself into my own category by doing so. He told me to print up business cards reading: “The Millionaires’ Magician, Entertainment for Exclusive Events.” I fought with Mark about this, because I thought I’d lose business. I thought it crass to explicitly state that I only work for people of means, and I also thought that I’d lose business.
“Yes, you’ll lose some business. But if you’re not ready to lose the $2000 jobs, you’ll never get the $20,000 jobs.”
I listened to him, and he was right.
JF: You now present exclusive shows every weekend in a private suite at the Waldorf-Astoria in NYC. Is this where you started the Chamber Magic brand? How important was this location to your business model and brand? How did you choose it? And…how easy what it to “get into” the Waldorf?
SC: I began my Chamber Magic show with an entirely different name. It was titled Mystery Salon. (I thought that sounded catchy.) However, there was an inherent problem with this title. It didn’t sound like a show, it sounded like a hard-to-find barber shop.
Mark Levy and I quickly retitled the show: Chamber Magic – A Demonstration of Modern Conjuring. At the time I was doing much research into the life and magic of Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser, a famous parlor magician from Vienna, Austria around the turn of the 19th century. My show was based on his style of intimate gatherings in the salons that Viennese intellectuals and socialites used to attend in that era. I felt compelled to find a New York City venue that harkened back to those yesteryears. After a short preview run at The National Arts Club, my manager introduced me to the Waldorf-Astoria. She had held several large-scale international conferences in the Waldorf, and knew the right people to approach. I gave a few sample shows that were attended by Waldorf top brass, and I’ve been there ever since.
It was not easy to “get in” to the Waldorf. This hotel hosts the world’s leaders – the King of Saudi Arabia, president of China, every US president since Herbert Hoover. They also host major social events throughout the year, such as the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction and, for many years, the annual award ceremony for NASCAR. Celebrities like Brad Pitt and Donatella Versace may be there on any given night, and billionaires like Richard Branson might be standing next to you on the elevator.
Fortunately, my work brings with it a level of excellence that meets the standards of the hotel. And that’s partially because I designed the show with this venue in mind. The venue helped create its own design parameters.
JF: You also do private shows for everyone from heads of state to A-list celebs. How did that start? Was it always part of your business plan?
SC: I grew up in an affluent suburb of New York City. My hometown is Yorktown Heights, and I went to school in Chappaqua, NY. Although my parents are retired schoolteachers and I don’t come from a wealthy family, I was always surrounded by wealth. I felt comfortable being invited to my friends’ three million dollar homes for playdates.
When I was accepted to Cornell, I was invited to perform at the home of the university president. The dinner guests were the university’s Board of Trustees and distinguished faculty members. One of the professors at that dinner was a colleague of astronomer Carl Sagan, and he introduced us. One night I received a phone call from Sagan, inviting me to give a private performance for him and a group of visiting physicists. These were some of the smartest people ever gathered in a single room. It was a bit hit.
This experience empowered me, reassuring me that my show was strong enough for the most critical thinker. Over time, celebrities started showing up to my Waldorf show. Amongst themselves, the right people were talking about The Millionaires’ Magician, and they wanted to know what it was all about. Woody Allen showed up (and called my show “a religious experience”) as did Stephen Sondheim. One week screenwriter William Goldman sat in the audience, and later wrote a very flattering review in Variety Magazine (“He’s as brilliant a magician as you’ll ever see”).
I was particularly thrilled to be invited to Omaha to perform for Warren Buffett. At the time, he was the richest man in the world, and I thought how apropos it was for The Millionaires’ Magician to be performing for him. (Insert your own Billionaires’ Magician joke here. It won’t be the first time.)
The Waldorf-Astoria has invited me to entertain their VIP guests, including royalty and well-known international dignitaries. However, my aim was never to become a “celebrity magician.” Yes, many notable people have visited my show, but it’s entirely open to the general public. Anyone who wants to buy a ticket and get dressed up is welcome.
It’s my hope that people attend Chamber Magic with the same anticipation as attending the opera or the ballet.
JF: You recently wrote a post (gentle rant) on your blog about what younger magicians trying to build a business should and shouldn’t take from your experience. What do you think is the biggest misconception held by people trying to break into this business and how would you address it?
SC: My blog post was meant to address the incoming emails I receive from magicians around the world who ask me to teach them how to replicate my career. They come visit my show, which is sold-out weeks in advance, and say, “I want that.” The problem is that they only see the final result. They do not see the years of struggle and creative thought that went into creating that result.
For instance, a person might walk into an attractive room in your house and think to themselves, “What a beautiful room!” As a longtime owner, you are likely aware of much more than the obvious surface level. You know where the electrician inserted new wiring behind the walls. You know about the water damage that caused you to replace the crown molding. You know that the piano didn’t fit through the doorway.
Your knowledge of this room, and every room in your house, is deeper than what is observable at a glance.
Magicians who email me for advice in creating a show like Chamber Magic sometimes wonder if there’s a secret formula they can follow to become successful. What they don’t see is that I’ve dedicated my life to the show. My entire lifestyle revolves around the show. The show affects my availability to my family, and prevents me from making outside commitments every single weekend. There’s no easy secret I can offer to up-and-comers who think it’d be fun to have their own show.
JF: You live in NYC, which means you have to earn enough to support a family. That’s not easy for anyone here. Were people around you supportive when you said, “magic can give me what I need to live well in the world and take care of my responsibilities?” Were there naysayers? How’d you handle this?
SC: My father told me that I should always have a skill that I could fall back on, in case my show business career didn’t work out. Since I enjoy linguistics, I trained to become a technical Japanese language translator. It’s a great job if you relish getting a suntan from your computer monitor. Fortunately I haven’t had to return to this sort of deskwork because magic has been very good to me.
I always knew that it’d work, and just needed to give it time.
Believe wholeheartedly in your personal vision and resign to achieve it slowly, in baby steps. Never stop until that vision is fully fleshed out. In my case, people at this point in my career don’t ever doubt that my previously unproven venture was impossible at all.
Learn more about The Millionaire’s Magician, Steve Cohen or visit his magic show in NYC. Steve also writes a great blog about magic and happenings around the city. Be sure to check out his recent post featuring 48 insanely cool things to do in NYC.
[Disclosure – As I mentioned up top, Steve is a client. He also is rumored to levitate in his sleep. Don’t believe it…everyone knows magicians never sleep, they just escape to other dimensions]
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