One of the most magical evenings you can spend in New York City, is also one of its most secret. Imagine walking down one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city, the famous Thirty Fourth Street, making your way past tens of thousands of people, who every day come to visit some of Manhattan’s most iconic destinations, Macy’s Department Store and the Empire State Building. You end up at an anonymous office building, where hidden away up six flights of stairs, and with no sign post at street level to give you a clue, is the oldest operating magic shop in the city.
Since 1925, Louis Tannen’s has catered to the somewhat peculiar and unique needs of professional and budding amateur magicians alike. But on Thursday evenings, the secretive ambience of Tannen’s Magic Shop is taken a step further; for after the store is closed, the lights are dimmed, and faint sounds of New Orleans jazz are accompanied by flutes of champagne.
Amidst an atmosphere redolent of one of the most exclusive and secret of speakeasies, an after hours intimate magic show is hosted by one of the city’s premiere professional magicians, Noah Levine…
“A piece of magic is the contrast between an initial situation and a final situation and the lack of a causal relationship between the two.” – Arturo de Ascanio,
Tannen’s magic shop started in a suitably magical way; the young Louis Tannen was walking down Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn and found a $1 bill on the pavement. He brought two tricks, and sold them on for a profit, and just like that, Tannen’s Magic was born. Starting as a street vendor, Tannen’s would move through several locations in the city, but always hidden from public view, with no signs at street level to let passers-by know it is there.
When the shop was buried away on the 12th floor of 120, West 42nd Street, the New Yorker magazine dropped in to explore one of the cities most unique stores:
“Marvelously cram-jammed with silken bombshells, golden pails in which to catch coins raining out of heaven, artificial roses that bloom all the more furiously for being picked, and empty glass bowls that glitter with living fish at the merest flick of a wand, this tiny arcanum is known as Lou Tannen’s Magic Shop.”
From the shelves of his shop and his magic catalogue, Louis Tannen would sell everything from children’s magic tricks that mysteriously change dollar bills into hundreds, to the grander needs of the professional stage magician; tricks with exotic and mysterious sounding names such as The Siberian Chain Escape, The Vanishing Princess of Thebes, and The Mysterio Golden Cage…
If this reads like something from one of the great novels about New York, Michael Chabon’s ‘Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay’, that’s because it is…
“The unofficial capital of conjuring in America, a kind of informal magicians’ club where generations of silk hat men….had met to exchange information, to cadge money, and to dazzle one another with refinements too artistic and subtle to waste on an audience of elephant gapers and leerers at sawn-in-two-ladies.”
For Tannen’s is not just a place to stock up on collapsing birdcages, multiplying coins and disappearing silks….(although elephant gapers are in fact catered to…you can see a giant stage elephant the moment you walk into the shop), but just as importantly, is it’s role as a meeting place for magicians.
One of the trickiest things about being a magician, is not being able to talk about what you’re doing. The age old code of never revealing secrets is a serious business. I am myself a member of the Society of American Magicians, the oldest magic fraternity in America, and one of the most important by-laws is never telling how tricks are done unless you want to be expelled.
Tannen’s has always served as an unofficial club house for magicians to gather around the central table, swapping tricks, learning new techniques, and practicing this most secret of arts.
“I came here when I was a kid,” explains Levine, whose grandmother first brought him to the hidden magic shop. “Lots of magicians are lone guns, so having a community is amazing. It is a weird thing to know about. Say you’re eleven, and you know two tricks that can make grown people lose their mind. It’s really important to be around other people in the same boat as you.”
The communal character of Tannen’s is also one of its charms. Starting in 1974, Louis Tannen started an annual magic camp, which Levine not only attended when he was eleven, but now teaches a class at.
In the shop there’s a free lending library sponsored by the Conjuring Arts Research Centre. But above all, the atmosphere at Tannen’s is fun, as magic should be. Whether you know everything about magic or nothing, all are welcome.
It also provides a unique backdrop for Noah Levine’s close up magic show; “the history of Tannen’s is really special and not separate from the magic…it is very romantic.” With only room for a small audience, the behind closed-doors aspect of the show, adds a secretive ambience to the magic being performed by Levine.
One of the most engaging parts of Magic After Hours is the sense of history Levine brings to the show. As he tells the story of Tannen’s, you get the sense of how, by just by walking into the store, you’re following in the footsteps of modern magicians such as David Copperfield and David Blaine, both of who came here as young, aspiring conjurors, to the legendary, evocative names of the past.
A pair of Houdini’s handcuffs, from when he was thrown manacled into the East River, decorate the walls.
The history of magic is largely the passing down of secrets from one magician to the next, with personal tweaks, improvements and subtleties adding along the way. “Old magic is very strong,” says Levine, “because it had stood the test of time. The real challenge is to find a way to work with the classic material and bring it to the present day.”
Magic After Hours not only provides the delightful opportunity to step inside Tannen’s famous doors once the shop has closed for the night or to see close up magic expertly executed by a professional magician, but it is the chance to experience a hidden, little known part of New York history.
“I keep thinking how I can do this trick differently to anyone else, like something no one has done before”, explains Levine. “But you realize the better question to ask is, how can I make this live up to the first memory I have of seeing this trick, when you’re a kid you see a magic trick like a ball that disappears.”
“A good magician must possess a sense of melodrama and a talent for misdirection,” Louis Tannen once told a visiting reporter. “The difference between good magic and bad, is the difference between a mere puzzle and entertainment.” It is worth noting that whilst imparting this piece of wisdom to the reporter, the magic shop owner somehow caused five lighted cigarettes to suddenly appear in his clenched fist.