NEW YORK – Although magic is often associated with robes, wands and witchcraft and wizardry schools like Hogwarts, the setting for British author J.K. Rowling’s wildly successful Harry Potter series, New York City has long been a pioneer in the art of illusion and remains so in the era of social media, streaming video and e-commerce.
The Big Apple has been home since 1902 to the Society of American Magicians (SAM), the world’s oldest organization of its kind and one that has transformed itself with the latest technologies and a new, more diverse membership, including higher numbers of women and young people.
George Schindler, the group’s “lifetime dean,” told EFE Thursday, the International Day of the Magicians, that magicians used to be considered occultists but that it’s now clear to most people that they merely seek to entertain.
He said social-media sites like YouTube have been good for magic in some respects, allowing magicians to watch and learn from their peers.
Although SAM’s dozen initial members included some professionals, many were amateurs who worked as doctors or lawyers and saw coin and hat tricks as an enjoyable way to relieve stress.
The society’s popularity was given a big boost when Harry Houdini, who was born in Budapest and became famous in the early 20th century for his death-defying escape acts, became president in 1917.
Schindler said many of the myths surrounding magicians can be traced back to Houdini and the films made about him, though noting that he “actually died of peritonitis.”
Long before American illusionist David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty “disappear” in front of a live audience in 1983 and endurance artist David Blaine hung upside-down for nearly two days in New York’s Central Park, SAM’s founding members were already meeting at the Martinka & Co. magic shop on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.
Although that business once owned by Houdini is still operating, it no longer has a physical location and currently sells its products exclusively online.
The oldest brick-and-mortar magic shop in New York is now Tannen’s Magic, which was founded almost 94 years ago and is located on West 34th Street in Midtown Manhattan.
The establishment goes unnoticed by most, occupying a single room on the sixth floor of a bland office building.
The walls are covered with contraptions, ropes, coins and magic books for professionals and amateurs alike. A table sits at the center of the store, where a man in his 20s who had been learning new magic tricks gathers his things and prepares to leave.
“I want to take everything home with me,” a 14-year-old Argentine boy who is visiting the Big Apple with his family said while observing the different items and performing a card trick for the sales person, who applauded his expertise.
The teenager says that he has been practicing magic tricks since he was 11 and that Tannen’s Magic, a store whose ceiling is dotted with playing cards signed by visitors, became a can’t-miss destination for him after he learned about it on the Internet.
Amazon and eBay, however, are providing stiff competition to Tannen’s and other magic shops.
Magicians used to have to search classified ads in the back of magazines to find their supplies but now can do so more easily by using the Internet, Schindler said.
With wands and other tools of the trade now available via home delivery, more young people and women are encouraged to try their hand at the art of magic and join SAM, an organization that has nearly 300 assemblies worldwide.