Places that Matter

Magic Table at the Hotel Edison Cafe

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Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
Hotel Edison. Elis Shin, 2012
Elis Shin, 2012
Gathering place for magicians for a half century
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Adapted from David Hochman's article in Hidden New York (2006)

Every weekday around noon, for almost thirty years, Mike Bornstein's thoughts turned to scrambled eggs and magic. Fortunately, he could satisfy both cravings at the same time. 

He strolled the two short blocks from his ancient apartment in the Broadway theater district to the Hotel Edison coffee shop, where he took his familiar corner seat at the head of the magic table. As waitresses glided past, juggling plates of knockwurst and pancakes, Bornstein and his venerable colleauges in the New York magic community turned nickles into dimes, plucked silk flowers from plastic tubes, and summoned the ghosts of long-gone friends like Cardini, Slydini, the Coney Island Fakir, and even Orson Welles and bandleader Richard Himber. Bornstein presided over the Magic Table four days each week until, tragically, he was killed by a truck on his way home from the cafe at the age of eighty-three. Currently, Society of American Magicians member Tom Klem presides. 

Vegas may have David Copperfield and Lance Burton, but the Edison Hotel, from noon until two on Monday through Friday, is the magic world's undisputed spiritual hub. The cafe is nicknamed "the Polish Tea Room," and has a section for the many Broadway theater folks who also gather there. Neil Simon wrote a play about the place called Only 45 Seconds from Broadway

For the past seventy-two years, the Magic Table has served as a gathering place for coin snatchers, shadowgraphers, levitation aficionados, and generations of shell-game wizards. "It's a depot, a stopping-off point for magicians from all over the world," said Bornstein, who was known on the vaudeville circuit as Kolma the Magical Mandarin. "We don't really have to be anywhere, so we come, we sit down, break bread with fellow magicians, discuss magic, talk about where you've come from or where you're going, and maybe see a new trick or two."

On a good afternoon, fifteen or more magicians might show up, filling two or three long tables in the back of the coffee shop. Those who come are an eclectic bunch. On the day we visited, a retired federal judge pulled an oversized deck of cards out of an invisible change purse; a porter, on his half-hour lunch break, responded by making a salt shaker disappear. A few minutes later, Bob Friendman, a world-traveling lawyer who commuted two hours that morning from the suburbs, showed the group how to cheat at poker. Afterward, Jerry Oppenheimer, a former court reporter, turned an ordinary deck of cards into a bouquet of wildflowers. 

Over a side order of French fries, Jerry Oppenheimer, the court reporter, recalled the Magic Table's history. "Most of the major magicians -- and then some -- have been to the table," he says. "Slydini, Copperfield, Chinese magicians, magicians from Texas, magicians from Germany, kid magicians, women magicians, clown magicians, they've all been here. Magicians are part of a family, and when they're in New York, they know there's always a place for them to come home to."

"Since a member of the Society of Americans Magicians swears an oath to hold on tight to the secrets of the craft, " Tom Klem told us, "magicians naturally seek and enjoy those who share the same passion of a life in magic and its secrets." Over the years many places have become the focus of these activities and are cherished and loved by this magic community. One of these is the S.A.M. Magic Table that first met in 1942 in Times Square, in a different location from the current one. The founders described their first Table in this way: "S.A.M.'s Parent Assembly Number One reserves a regular table at lunchtime daily for its members and friends at the famous Terrace Dining Room of the Dixie Hotel. Visiting magicians are always assured of a hearty welcome and fine food in friendly company at the Magic Table, Forty-third Street west of Broadway. They will be very glad to see if and swap gags and magic news and views."

Over the years, the group moved from place to place -- the Dixie Hotel coffee shop, Rossoff's restaurant, the Gaiety restaurant, the finally the Edison -- but the meetings were always in the theater district, close to the major magic shops like Tannen's, Holden's, and Robson's. Bornstein, who sold magic in Times Square, remembers the table in the 1940s and 1950s as a natural meeting place for busy people in the trade. "We'd go over to Lou Tannen's on Forty-sixth Street and see some new vanishing wands or whatever," he says. "Then Lou would say, 'You going to lunch? Let's all go together." And off they'd go. 

The years after World War II were literally magic ones in Manhattan. Bornstein estimates that dozens of shops, many featuring demonstration counters open to sidewalk shoppers, dotted Broadway and Eighth Avenue, from Times Square to Fifty-second Street. At Holden's, customers were enthralled by "shadowgraphy" performances -- expert shadow puppet shows in which Holden himself would create silhouettes of camels, birds, donkeys, and celebrities like Jimmy Durante. At the Flosso Hornmann Magic Shop, the Coney Island Fakir, a fast-talking coin magician (who happened to be Al Flosso), performed close-up magic routines and sold packs of tricks for ten cents apiece. And at Tannen's, on Forty-second Street, magicians came to buy live canaries and turtles, Svengali decks, vanishing milk pitchers, and both disappearing and reappearing canes. 

Today, nearly all the great magic shops are gone, except for Tannen's, which has moved several times since Lou Tannen passes away. The community still endures, however, as magicians from around the world baffle each other and expose their secrets by distributing homemade video cassettes, many of which find their way to members of the Magic Table. 

After a vew visits to the Edison Hotel coffee shop, you start to see some of the old routines over and over again. A newcomes is traditionally shown the salt trick. Bornstein would open the salt shaker on the table, make a fist, pour some into his hand, and - puff! - it vanishes. The visitor is asked if he knows where it went. Suddenly, fifteen magicians simultaneously empty a handful of salt onto the table. But every once in a while, a fresh gag or inexplicable new trick will surface. Even some of the old-timers seemed genuinely impressed when a twelve-year-old boy showed up at the table a few years ago, mesmerizing the group with close-up card tricks and a few ball-in-cup routines. "There's nothing better," Bornstein says, "than seeing a young magician who's continuing the tradition."

After a little midday magic, the group dissolves, as people head home or back to work. A heap of folded and crinkled dollar bills, used in countless tricks over lunch, is left for the waitress. Even after years of practice, there's one trick no one's been able to master. As Bornstein puts it, "You can't make the check disappear."

As of November 2014, the magicians and their supporters are conjuring all of their powers to ensure that Cafe Edison, and the beloved Magic Table, are allowed to remain in the Edison Hotel. In early 2014, the cafe's current manager, Conrad Strohl, received notice that the cafe would not be given a new lease for 2015. Strohl searched for nearby locations, but has not been able to find anything affordable. The cafe is scheduled to close on December 31st. 

Please consider signing the Save the Edison Cafe petition on change.org to help save the Cafe Edison, where the Magic Table has convened since 1986. 

The meetings at the Magic Table are still underway. If you wish to visit, try on Fridays between late morning and about two o'clock. (July 2012)