New York’s Oldest Magic Show Almost Didn’t Make It

October 24, 2017

Off-Broadway shows come and go in New York with roughly the same frequency as the G train. To stay open longer than the latest designer popup shop, a show has to pull off a nearly impossible balancing act: delighting both locals and tourists, while keeping prices just low enough to entice passersby, and just high enough to turn a profit.

Enter Monday Night Magic: a prestidigitation performance that has kept audiences glued to their rickety, West Village seats since 1997. Billing itself as “New York City’s longest running Off-Broadway magic show,” Monday Night Magic has entranced theatergoers for 20 years, hosting some of the finest magicians from all around the world to kick off (almost) every workweek in the calendar.

I attended two Monday Night Magic performances (Oct. 2 and Oct. 9, 2017) in order to see for myself what it takes to keep a magic show up and running each week in one of the most demanding cities in the world. Although the mysterious tricks onstage threw me for a loop, the show’s appeal is easy to figure out. It’s simply a gathering of incredibly talented, enthusiastic individuals who can’t wait to share their considerable skills with an eager audience.

Four magicians, one night

For those of you who have never attended a Monday Night Magic show, the format is pretty simple. You’ll see four magicians perform over the course of about two hours, and each one brings something a little different to the proceedings.

One magician acts as a host, performing a few simple tricks between acts, in addition to opening the show, closing the show and hawking souvenirs (and candy) in the lobby. Two magicians perform for 30 minutes apiece in the first act; a third magician gets a full hour in the second. A handful of close-up magicians also perform all around the theater during intermission, giving people something a little more interesting to stare at than their phones.

“I’m proud to say that it’s as hard to perform at Monday Night Magic as the most difficult place you could think of in the country,” said Michael Chaut, one of the show’s founders—as well as a frequent performer. “New Yorkers will not stand for [a subpar show]. If you don’t deliver the goods within the first three minutes of your performance, they’re gone. Whether they get up and walk out—which we’ve seen—or in their heads, they’re gone.”

Both weeks I was there, the entire cast was a veritable Who’s Who of New York magicians, including David Oliver, Todd Robbins, Harrison Greenbaum and Chris Capehart. It’s not easy to find a Monday Night Magic performer who hasn’t already wowed audiences on America’s Got Talent, The David Letterman Show, Last Comic Standing, The Today Show, or the live-performance circuit in Las Vegas.

Even the show’s organizers are full-time magicians. When they’re not planning Monday Night Magic, Chaut and his co-creators perform for private audiences, country clubs, TV programs and, of course, other magic shows. The trick, according to Chaut, is that Monday Night Magic is more interested in covering its costs than making a huge profit. Even the performers are mostly there for the love of the art.

“Most of the shows like this, they pay an honorarium,” said Todd Robbins, another Monday Night Magic founder and performer. “What we pay, we don’t even call it an honorarium; we call it a dishonorarium.”

Having four magicians in a single show also helps ensure that no two performances are ever alike, even though some magicians come back to Monday Night Magic again and again. Chaut realized early on that this would be a way to keep the act fresh, for both the performers and the audience.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Chaut performed at the now-defunct Magic Towne House—at the time, the longest-running, most popular magic show in NYC.

“They had five or six performers, and they would add extra acts at the end of the night,” Chaut explained, “but for the most part, the show was the same until they changed up the roster.”

To plan his own show, Chaut looked westward, to The Magic Castle in Los Angeles: an exclusive club that features an ever-changing variety of magic acts. Chaut’s vision for a magic show combined the unpredictability of The Magic Castle with the populist appeal of the Magic Towne House.

A savvy audience

Over the course of just two weeks, I was able to see Monday Night Magic’s philosophy in action. Both shows I attended featured an entirely different set of performers, even down to the close-up magicians during intermission. I also saw a staggering variety of magical and magical-adjacent disciplines: card tricks, juggling, handkerchiefs, acrobatics, linking rings, escape artistry, levitation, prediction, rope tricks, mentalism, sleight of hand and vanishing.

In other words: Monday Night Magic includes a number of variations on some of the best-loved magic tricks of the last century. But to see them performed with such skill, in front of a breathless audience, can make even something as simple as guessing a card pulled at random into a thrilling spectacle.

“If you have great performers, you’re covered,” Chaut said. “People are coming out, wanting to be entertained. As long as you keep the quality of the performers as high as you possibly can, they will be entertained.”

Chaut cited Harrison Greenbaum as an example: a New York-based performer whose unique combination of magic and stand-up comedy wowed both audiences and judges on America’s Got Talent. When I saw him on Oct. 9, Greenbaum asked an audience member to remove a card from his back pocket, then warned him that it was the most dangerous card trick ever attempted. 

Greenbaum himself is very well aware of both the prestige and the pressure that accompany Monday Night Magic.

“It’s one of my favorite places to perform ever,” he told me. “I’ve known so many of the people involved in the show my entire life, so when I’m at Monday Night Magic, I feel like I’m with family…[But] it’s a New York audience, which means they’re very theater savvy, so you definitely have to be at the top of your game.”

Living in New York isn’t the only thing that could make an audience feel a little skeptical about stage magic. The meteoric rise of magic on YouTube and popular TV shows like Penn & Teller Fool Us has produced a whole generation of amateur sleuths. I asked Chaut whether a perceptive audience has any tangible effect on the show.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think an educated audience member is, in a way, better. It’s good for us. Because they understand that they’re seeing a great show. There are people that will see a great magician the first time, and that’s the only experience they have. But there are others that may not have seen a top-level performer, and that’s not really good for anybody.”

Ultimately, he said, if seeing magic on TV or online inspires audiences to go out and see live magic shows, that’s a great thing for both parties. And if that means they see tricks or magicians they’re already familiar with, so much the better.

“People would go see Frank Sinatra perform year after year. Why?” Chaut asked. “Because they love seeing Frank Sinatra. I think it’s the same in magic.”

Two decades, six venues

Even so, quality alone won’t save a show in New York’s high-stakes, cutthroat world of theater. Monday Night Magic has run for 20 years; the average Off-Broadway show runs for about four months.

One of the reasons why Monday Night Magic has survived when so many other shows have gone dark is because of its willingness to change venues. The show debuted in 1997, the brainchild of the aforementioned Chaut and Robbins, as well as Peter Samelson, Jamy Ian Swiss, and the late Frank Brents. (“If he were still alive today, he would be one of the most knowledgeable magicians alive,” Chaut posited.)

In the late ‘90s, New York was safer and more prosperous than ever before, but not yet so prohibitively expensive that only mega-hit shows could survive for more than a few months at a time. Monday Night Magic debuted at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village, and ran there for four years.

After Sept. 11, 2001, times got a little leaner, and the act had to relocate to the McGinn/Cazale Theatre on the Upper West Side.

“It was the smallest theater,” Chaut said. “It only sat 101 people. On slow nights, we got clobbered because the rent was higher than we’d ever paid. On busy nights, we got clobbered because we couldn’t get enough people in.”

The arrangement didn’t last long. After that, show pinballed up and down the island of Manhattan for most of 2010 and 2011, which almost proved to be its undoing. Whenever audiences knew where to find Monday Night Magic, it had a consistent audience; whenever they didn’t, financial disaster wasn’t far behind.

“We worked five theaters from October 2010 to November 2011,” Chaut said. “When you do that, people don’t know where you are. Trust me, [if] you go to the wrong theater on a Monday expecting to find Monday Night Magic and that theater is dark, you’re not going to make that mistake again.”

Not every venue is ideal for a magic show. Some, like the McGinn/Cazale, were too small. Others, like the Theater at 80 St. Marks, were located in neighborhoods that New Yorkers didn’t associate with stage magic. As Monday Night Magic struggled to find the right venue, its coffers drained rapidly.

“In October 2012, we had lost $16,000,” Chaut said. “I wrote a note to the partners saying I think we should consider closing. Our bank account was almost empty; you know, we did it for 15 years.” Ultimately, Swiss convinced the partners to stay open through the end of the year. The show had settled at the Players Theater, Swiss argued, and if audiences knew where to find Monday Night Magic, they’d come flocking back.

The plan worked. Not only did December 2012 put the company back in the black, but fans knew where to find New York’s longest-running magic show once again. Monday Night Magic still performs at the Players Theater at 115 MacDougal St—interestingly, just three blocks from its very first location.

See for yourself

As for where the show can go from here, Chaut wants what he’s always wanted: excellent performers and engaged audiences.

“The underlying purpose of the show was to create a place where people could come to see great magicians, and magicians would be able to do great magic,” he said. “At this point, it’s like Cheers for all of us…There’s something special there, the camaraderie and being part of that.”

Indeed, I saw it for myself after the Oct. 2 performance. All of the magicians, as well as a handful of audience members, gathered at a nearby diner to get some late-night Greek food, bottled beer and house wine. The restaurant quickly became another magic show, with magicians wandering from table to table, making cards disappear and steel rings pass through one another, just as they’d done onstage. This wasn’t a special occasion; this is something the performers do every week.

“You don’t have that [connection] in the other art forms, as much,” Chaut said. “There’s something special about being part of the world of magic.”

Getting a ticket is extremely easy, although the price may not be easy for locals to stomach: $42.50 for a seat near the back of the house, going up to $79.50 for the front-row treatment. It’s not as pricey as a Broadway show, but considering that there seem to be two free comedy shows on every surrounding block, Monday Night Magic might be a tough sell for a weeknight amusement.

Still, the price didn’t seem to deter anyone I encountered. Both of the performances I saw were just about sold out—and this is the show’s quietest time of year.

As such, if you’re looking to get tickets now, you’ll probably have to fight some crowds. The Monday Night Magic crew are experts at vanishing coins, cards, and ropes, but fortunately, the one thing that won’t disappear is a loyal audience.