While many of New York’s newest magic shows are shiny and polished, some underground shows trade in buzzwords like “experiential” and “immersive” for the experimental and the intentionally imperfect. As a professional mind-reader and a comedian based in New York, Eric Dittelman wanted a way to test out and refine new material in front of a live audience, without the pressure of having to his very best for paying clients. “My main goal was to have a place to be bad and try things out,” Dittelman tells GeniiOnline. “A lot of people only test out stuff during their paid show, but I always felt guilty doing that. I want to put my best stuff out there if I’m doing a paid show.” He needed a different way to work out the kinks of what’s new and unfinished on a friendly stage.
Dittelman came up with the idea for Amazeballs, a homegrown experimental magic and comedy show that runs once a month at The Creek & The Cave in Long Island City. Dittelman originally conceived of the show as a “playground” where he could test out new material he’d eventually put in his stage show, but he typically shares the stage with three other performers also working out their newest routines, jokes, and inventions. At last month’s Amazeballs, magician Mark Calabrese opened, Dittelman’s set was next, followed by comedian Meaghan Strickland (host of A Late Night Show that is Also Live at The Brooklyn Comedy Colective), and a closing set by magician David Schwartz.
Dittelman started doing improv in middle school, and his fascination for comedy led him to want to use it as the premise for his magic and mental effects. The element of surprise is what draws magic and comedy together for him: “They both set up an expectation and then go somewhere unexpected, whether it’s to a punchline or to an amazing impossibility, whether it’s a trick or a demonstration of mind reading,” he says. Dittelman has been on Ellen and America’s Got Talent, and regularly performs at Monday Night Magic when he’s not traveling the world with his comedy mind-reading act.
Accolades aside, Amazeballs is as laid back as a show gets. Dittelman’s no-stress approach stems from its function as more of a passion project than a job, but he’s also intentional about Amazeballs’ casual, unpredictable feel. “I want it to have an underground feel, like an if you know about it, you know about it kind of thing,” Dittelman says. “I don’t want it to be this big production show.” The location at The Creek & The Cave also contributes to the vibe, since Long Island City keeps it removed from the Manhattan mainstream (but still accessible by subway). And because The Creek is a known comedy spot, Amazeballs benefits from lingering comedy fans that stick around after the 7pm or 8pm show on a Thursday night, wondering what this magic stuff is all about.
Dittelman says he also wanted Amazeballs to be a little more R rated. “Magic has this wholesome feel to it now. Magic is an art form and there’s lots of ways to express yourself using that art form, so I wanted to be able to explore that kind of edgier, raunchier side as well.” Performers call out to Dittelman from the stage asking if they can curse at Amazeballs. Dittelman says at the first ever show, Calabrese was trying something new and the spectator he picked ended up stripping on stage. Todd Robbins fired a gun once (“but they were blanks”) when Dittelman was out of town. There’s also been fire juggling, which may or may not have been legal at the venue.
Dittelman considers the show a booked open mic, which gives him a little more control over performance quality than would a standard open mic where anyone can show up. When he first started Amazeballs, he was reaching out to friends in the New York area, but as the show has grown, performers reach out when they’re hungry for a longer slot to try out something new. “I try to find people that are going to be good for the venue and for that kind of crowd,” Dittelman says. “I only give three performers a shot on each month’s show because I want to give them ample time to try stuff out.” Typically, Dittelman and two other magicians will each get 20 minutes and one standup act will get a 10 minute set, “to break things up a bit and keep it in the comedy world,” Dittelman says.
The longer time slots are just one of the ways Dittelman gifts from the comedy world to the magic world. “In comedy, you can go to an open mic and try out stuff, in magic, there’s not as many places to do that,” he says. “I tried going to open mics when I was just starting out, but you only get a couple minutes and that’s not enough time to do pretty much anything in magic.” In aiming to recreate the alt scenes, friendly venues, and workout rooms where comedians went to break in new material, Dittelman says Amazeballs was largely inspired by Whiplash, a beloved NYC standup show. “There isn’t really isn’t a community like that in magic where all the fans can go, and people geeking out in magic who want to be part of the process.
It’s not by accident that Amazeballs is a friendly room, either. Dittelman makes it very clear to audiences that everyone on stage is talented and highly professional, and is also going to be risking their own egos to try out new things that may not work. “Don’t be an asshole” is the general guiding advice, but Dittelman says audiences are usually on board from the get go. That opportunity to be a part of the process is exciting for an open-minded audience; Amazeballs is free, and they get to see material in its infancy that will one day be a part of the high-paying shows that are par for the course in NYC. “Usually when you go see a magic show, you expect everything to work,” he says. “At my show, if half the things work that’s amazing.”
Some performers focus on a single new effect at Amazeballs, while others power through all their best new ideas. When something doesn’t go according to plan, Amazeballs magicians are experienced enough to seamlessly switch into A material if they need to. David Schwartz says that at last month’s show, he was working out the details of a routine he planned to perform at the FFFF Convention. “It was material that I had done for a while, but I was making changes to it so I wanted to work it out a little bit,” Schwartz says. “I’m always making changes, we’re all always making changes.” Mark Calabrese says he usually aims to present a full 20 minutes of new and in-the-works ideas when he’s at Amazeballs. “I’m working on new material all the time, every day, every breathing moment,” Calabrese says. “But I don’t really have the venue to perform in front of an actual live audience. I need something like Amazeballs that allows me to do real material in front of a real audience and work out the kinks of those pieces.”
At last month’s Amazeballs, the audience seemed to be happily along for the ride. The comedy environment keeps the show light-hearted even when a trick doesn’t work, and hecklers are rare. Dittelman packs his own sets with new material, putting his money where his mouth is and setting an example for the community. Beyond the comedy fans who stick around for the free late night show, Dittelman hopes Amazeballs will become more of hangout for that magic community, from fans to amateurs and enthusiasts to professionals. “I want more magic people to come because I think they can get a lot out of it, and learn that there’s more than one way to do magic.”
You can catch Amazeballs’ three-year anniversary show this month at The Creek & The Cave on May 17. It breaks all the rules as Dittelman invites every past Amazeballs performer to return to do one trick or two minutes of standup.
The world of Harry Potter has already conquered the page, the screen, and the amusement park, so perhaps it fated for the wizarding saga to one day take over the stage as well. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has just opened on Broadway in New York City after a smashing success in London. The first reviews are in, and American muggles have been delighted by the show.
“…when you get a load of the illusions pulled off right before your eyes — mostly with old-fashioned sleight-of-hand and crafty lighting; only occasionally with more elaborate techno-trickery — it’s not hyperbole to call the show sheer magic.” – The Hollywood Reporter
“With every magic trick — a phrase that feels reductive and yet, is precisely accurate for the dozens of casual illusions that populate the stage — the crowd bears witness to something spectacular, something that dares you to challenge your expectations of what’s possible to be done in the theatre.” – Entertainment Weekly
“The Cursed Child is a triumph of epic proportions, not only heaven for Potterheads, but a marvel of stagecraft that will soon be the stuff of legend.” – Rolling Stone
“…what happens includes some of the most eye-boggling illusions you’ll ever witness, without a visible wire or trap door in sight.” – The New York Times
“[Director John] Tiffany spares no indulgence as his lavish production unfolds, giving us acrobatic wand fights, polyjuice transformations, flying Dementors, and a stunt involving water that still has me boggled.” – Vanity Fair
“The show is filled with triumphant theatrics and adventurous action. It’s suspenseful and exciting in ways that plays rarely are. Plus it’s still got the heart, humanity and warmth of a Rowling novel.” – People
Given the hype and popularity of the show, acquiring tickets might take a magic act of its own. The five-hour stage performance is happening at the Lyric Theater in New York City, and tickets will cost you more than a few galleons. Check the official website for more details.
Joshua Jay is trying something different this summer. He’s putting on a brand new, limited-run show in his home town of New York City called Six Impossible Things. It’s an immersive take on close-up magic that’s part illusion, part escape room, part interactive theater show, and all extremely cool. Both the magician and the audience members will move together from one part of the venue to the next, and each of the rooms will feature one of Josh’s original magic creations.
Performances of run from June 1 through July 28 on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at The Mist. Each night will have shows at 7:00 pm and 9:30 pm. Only twenty people can attend each show, and because of the unique experience, guests are only admitted to see it once. Tickets cost between $106 and $136. The official website has more information.
To get a sneak peak into what guests can expect, and into the thought process of the brains behind the ambitious project, we asked Josh six questions about Six Impossible Things. He not only gave us some incredible insight into the creative process, but also shared some as-yet unpublished photos of the show. Read on to find out how he’s bringing the impossible to life.
This show is a reaction to my previous work. My career has been about doing magic that is easily accessible. At some point, I began to explore this vision for a magic show based more on experiencing magic than watching it. I saw potential in putting magic in different environments, and making each audience member take risks with me, outside their comfort zone. I heard Bruce Springsteen in an interview say an amazing thing. He said, “As a creative person, you build your box, and then you escape from it.” I have found that to be very true. I built a box as a smiling, happy magician that entertains audiences 8-80. Now it’s my turn to escape from that mold.
Nine years. Three years. Six months. I say nine years because I moved to New York right after my first show, Unreal. And I’ve thought about doing a show in New York every day since then, but just never got around to it. I let a lot of things–exciting things in many cases–get in the way. I say three years because I have been outlining a section of my notebooks called “Six Impossible Things” for three years. And for the last six months, this has been my sole focus; just bringing these many disparate ideas together.
My team or I visited over thirty venues. We were very close to pulling the trigger on a pretty big room to do a kind of huge stage show. But when I toured The Mist, I turned to our producer and said, “This is it. I hope we can afford it.” The space is TINY, so immediately I knew the show would be intimate and unprofitable. But I also knew it was an opportunity to do something really, really special. The space is owned by two really talented, young architects: Jae Lee and Yvonne Chang. And they’ve become active in the creative end of the show. We’ve reimagined one of the rooms entirely, and altered the other rooms to fit the subjects of each experience.
The one I struggle with the most is the lack of applause. I’ve spent my whole career gauging a trick’s worth by the applause and reactions. But when there are twenty people–standing or with things in their hands–the end of these experiences often end in silence. Stunned silence, I hope, but silence. My director, Luke Jermay, keeps encouraging me to let go of this need for audience vindication, and to accept that there are more powerful ways to appreciate the impossible than applause. So I’m trying my best.
It’s fascinating to develop magic without the usual constraints. Imagine putting a show together and saying to yourself–you know what the best angle for this would be? If everyone stood against the wall. So, I can line up everyone against the wall. Or I said to myself at one point, “This trick really only has impact one on one.” And guess what? I was able to design a segment where each participant enters an environment alone, with me, to experience a very special moment of magic. Alone.
Sensory Magic Show.
Newburgh, NY magician Chris Dare will be returning to his roots on January 25, performing for a charity event hosted by Abilities First, a non-profit assisting disabled individuals in all walks of life, how ever they may need it.
The event, called Magic With a Mission, will see Dare perform his “Dare to Believe” show, which combines an inspirational message with sleight of hand and the power of suggestion.
“Chris’s mission is to inspire others with the belief that anything is possible is in line with the Abilities First mission of providing people with disabilities and their families the support to help them reach their greatest potential,” said Melissa McCoy, Chief Advancement Officer for Abilities First, via press release.
General admission tickets are currently on sale for $20 until January 15, when the price goes up to $30. VIP tickets are also available for $40, which includes a meet-and-greet, an autographed souvenir, and complimentary hors d’ourvres and beverages.
New York has long been a thriving hub for the development of American magic. You can chalk it up to the city’s reputation for entertainment and theater, or write it off as just another feature of the modern metropolis. But zoom in a little closer on Brooklyn, and the very first spark of New York’s magic scene unfolds all the way out in Coney Island over 100 years ago. Coney Island was one of the first places in the United States that audiences could regularly see and appreciate magic, but Brooklyn wasn’t exactly the seat of glamor. In fact, East Coast magic’s gritty reputation—as compared to the glitz of the West Coast, Vegas world—traces all the way back to Coney Island at the turn of the century.
It’s said that in New York’s early days, back in the days of New Amsterdam, the strip of undeveloped land we now know as Coney Island was overrun with rabbits. The island was named for konijn, the Dutch word for rabbits and probably the only future early New Yorkers saw for an island way out there at the edge of nowhere. But by the late 1800s, Brooklyn had become a whole new world. Coney Island was a burgeoning destination, a beach escape for local residents and even the brave Manhattanites who would take the ferries or later the overground train out to Brooklyn. Clam bars lined the beach, three independent music halls drew huge crowds, and the Elephant Hotel stood tall.
In the late 1800s, standalone rides like the carousel and the Razzle Dazzle paved the way for the full amusement parks that solidified Coney Island’s reputation. Sea Lion Park started it all in 1895, followed by Steeplechase Park in 1897. By 1903, Luna Park revived the land and attractions where Sea Lion Park once stood. By 1904, Dreamland was up and running with a mission to compete with the glory and appeal of the sparkly new Luna Park. Both on the stages of these early major theme parks and in the space created by the conversation they started, magic flourished.
When Sea Lion Park opened in 1895, it was the first enclosed amusement park in North America. Founder Paul Boyton (occasionally seen as Boynton) built a fence around the park and charged an entrance fee, establishing his intentions to create a permanent space in contrast with the one at a time, pay-as-you-go attraction booths that were more popular at the time. Boyton worked hard to keep up with the changing times of Coney Island by adding rides like the Water Chute and a rollercoaster called the Flip Flap Railway, which was closed down when its upside-down loop was deemed too dangerous for riders. Boyton even acquired a well-loved Elephant named Topsy in the hopes of boosting attendance, but much like Sea Lion Park itself, Topsy’s enduring fame was mostly born of her untimely death.
Eventually, Boyton admitted he couldn’t keep up and sold Sea Lion Park to new owners, who quickly reopened the newly renovated park as Luna Park. And although Sea Lion Park didn’t last, all the amusement parks that followed managed to incorporate magic effects and illusion shows into their success. Luna Park co-owner Elmer “Skip” Dundy got his start as a magician while working as an assistant to Frederick Eugene Powell. Illusion shows like “Trip to the Moon” made Dundy’s name as a magician, and were all founded by his Luna Park partner, Frederick Thompson. Branching out from their rapid magical success in Luna Park, Dundy and Thompson later went on to found the New York Hippodrome, where Houdini would go on to make his 10,000 pound elephant disappear, among other world-famous illusions.
Dreamland Park was an idea with magic at its very core. British magician Roltaire created the park, promoted it widely, and also performed his own illusions on the main stages of the park. Roltaire’s illusions included acts called “Pharaoh’s Daughter” and “The Creation”, complex theatrical presentations that would hold audiences for half-hour long seated magic shows. Positioning himself as a headliner, Roltaire’s auditorium shows stood under the spotlight in contrast with Dreamland’s Temple of Illusions, where spectators would walk through a series of booths or rooms, each displaying a single illusion. “Those who know say that the amount of plate glass and mirror glass used was measured in acres,” wrote Arthur Leroy of the Temple of Illusions in the August 1950 issue of The Sphinx. The “Midget Village” in Dreamland Park also featured magic, where at the “Midget Magic Theatre” a “Midget Kellar” and his fellow “midget” assistants presented their own takes on famous illusions and popular tricks of the day.
Beyond the enclosed amusement parks that featured magic as mere aspects of their overall alure, the Illusion Palace on Surf Avenue offered a rotating cast of illusions as the main event. As many as 40 illusions featured at a time, on a roster that was updated every season to reflect new technologies and spotlight talented performers. Pepper’s Ghost was on display, groundbreaking as it was at the time, and big-stage classics like the Sword Box, levitations, and the Blue Room drew huge crowds. Meanwhile, appearances by the Four-Legged Girl and the Two-Headed Girl heralded the golden age of the sideshow.
While a “Midget Village” certainly wouldn’t pass muster today and the sideshows that do still exist are met with plenty of external resistance, this kind of entertainment was par for the course in Coney Island. Take Martin Couney, for example, who struggled to raise funds to finance his commitment to nurturing and caring for babies born premature. Forced to find another way to realize his vision, Couney’s Infant Incubator operation ran from 1903 to 1943 as just another Coney Island attraction. Audiences paid 25 cents to enter the facility and coo over the tiny, fragile babies encased in cutting-edge incubators that Couney imported from Europe. The “attraction” was so successful, not a single family had to pay for the neonatal care their premature babies wouldn’t have been able to access anywhere else.
While “Midget Villages” and “Infant Incubators” were the amusements audiences craved at the turn of the century, magicians were forced in many ways to adapt to the demands of the times. Coney Island was quickly becoming a haven for magic, serving performers and fans alike. But what must it have been like to entertain an audience that smelled bad? How could magicians pull crowds when preemies and bearded ladies were the dominant trends?
Certainly no history either of magic or of Coney Island would be complete without Al Flosso, who played a crucial role in shaping the New York City magic world both in Brooklyn and beyond. It was in Coney Island’s seedy underbelly environment that Flosso got his start, blossoming in front of audiences who wanted to see horrific, disturbing, just-plain-wrong experiences and converting those crowds into magic-lovers.
Flosso worked the sideshows and performed the hugely popular Punch and Judy puppet shows of the day, touring his acts all over New York. For his magic act, Flosso was first known as “The Boy Magician”, and later, when his world-famous Miser’s Dream routine put him on the map, as “The King of Koins”. But it was the almost accidental moniker of the “Coney Island Fakir” that stuck—an MC introduced him with the name before a performance at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, and from then on, it became his identity. Flosso had become famous as much for his quirks as for his strict magical skill, quirks like his brash attitude, handsy approach to volunteers, and penchant for eating lunch while performing on stage. While less polished than the white-gloved stage spectacles of the day, Flosso’s grittier, straight-to-the-point style of magic won over audiences of laymen and impressed generations of magicians. Perhaps it was precisely this roughness that allowed Flosso such incredible mastery over randomly selected audience members and enabled him to draw huge crowds (and a following of devoted magicians that has far outlived him) during the darkest, seediest days of magic at Coney Island.
“By the 1920s, magic was a bedrock part of Coney Island,” said Richard Cohn in the New York Sun. As a popular summer retreat dedicated to entertainment, Coney Island touched the up-and-coming careers of plenty of early magicians whose names today are legend. David Bamberg (perhaps better known by his stage name, Fu Man Chu) appeared in Coney Island, as did Louis “Pop” Krieger and the “Queen of Magic,” Adelaide Herrmann. Dai Vernon was cutting silhouettes on the Coney Island boardwalk for 50 cents a piece in the 1920s (two silhouettes would cost you a whopping 75 cents), when he met his wife Jeanne Hayes. Jeanne herself was in Coney Island that summer after being recruited by an outside talker to work in Jean Hugard’s illusion show as part of his Sawing a Woman in Half act, so in a way, it was magic that brought them together.
Harry Houdini’s love for Coney Island has also been well documented. His brother Hardeen lived near Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue at the time, just a short distance away from the magic and wonder in the neighborhood’s amusement parks and attraction tents. The Brothers Houdini were playing Coney Island in 1894, the same year that a young woman named Bess was performing with a singing and dancing troupe called The Floral Sisters. After Harry and Bess were married, it’s said that they visited Coney Island every year on their anniversary to walk the Boardwalk or pose for a photograph on the beach.
Today, Coney Island’s farflung location feels like a mere echo of its rambunctious past. It’s no longer an island, first of all, and the subway makes a day trip or even an afternoon at the beach an easy adventure. Although many reminders of Coney Island’s magical history remain, much has changed. The smiling cartoon face of Tilley that hangs over the entrance to Luna Park these days is a stylized caricature of George C. Tilyou, who first founded Steeplechase Park more than a century ago. Performers of all kinds stalk the boardwalk—some even use shills to sell souvenirs and draw crowds. In homage to the history of the place, Coney Island USA hosts regular magic shows in their upstairs museum space. And if you listen closely, if you wander the side streets and alleys of Coney Island and squint just right, you might even glimpse the shadow of the giants who paved the way for the magic of today.
New York City has long been home to many kinds of odd regulations. For instance, in the 1930s, the city was subject to a Statute of Prediction that prohibited accepting money for telling fortunes. That law led to a fascinating wave of police crackdowns on innocuous-seeming tea rooms were fortune tellers often worked.
Atlas Obscura has an incredible write-up of this sliver of history, which shines a spotlight on women of the time. Every element of the story is intriguing. Tea rooms were mostly feminine spaces, so the busts were almost entirely carried out by New York’s female officers and detectives. The rise in interest for cracking down on the tea rooms stemmed from complaints by husbands who said the predictions were causing marital strife. The American Society of Magicians refused to give any support for the fortune tellers, and in fact helped the New York police to expose the practitioners. Whether that was an act of self-preservation or a racially-tinged dismissal of the fortune tellers, many of whom were of Romani descent, as a lesser art that conjuration, we may never know for sure.
Read the whole article over at Atlas Obscura.
A handful of tickets are still available for Asi Wind‘s single night at The Slipper Room in New York on November 16. The reserved seats are all gone, but you can still snag general admission tickets for a mere $30 each.
In case you’re not familiar with Asi, here’s an excerpt from the April 2015 issue of Genii Magazine, which featured Asi on its cover:
He loves magic that is risky, “jazzy,” and spontaneous. He likes not knowing where it’s going. It’s exciting to him, and the audience can feel that excitement. As he puts it, “Since I don’t know where it is going, I have a similar experience to what the audience is going through. And when everything hits, and you create a miracle because of all the scenarios falling into place, you can’t help but feel great about it. Whereas with the ‘Invisible Deck,’ which is a great trick, you’re going to do the exact same thing every time. You know exactly what the peak is going to be.”
He also had a few things to say about the way closeup magic is typically done:
I’m a big believer in restrictions. I’m very comfortable with a deck of cards. I can do hours of magic with a deck. I thought it would be an interesting challenge to go to a gig without cards and see if I can pull it off. I did it and I really struggled. I felt like somebody had just chopped my hands off. I felt like I was fighting. And I had to improvise so much. As I was driving back home, I realized it was exactly what I had in mind when I came up with the idea of restricting myself. I did it for a month and a half, and then had a bunch of routines that came from improvisation, from adlibbing, from surviving. Nothing super brilliant, but things that were good. Upon approaching a group, instead of saying pick a card, I’d start with, “I want you take objects out of your pockets.” And it’s really interesting, it’s so personal. The symbolism of walking up with a deck of cards to me is so tiresome.
To get your tickets, visit The Slipper Room’s site.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.