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Sep 10, 2009

By Vickie Karp

One of New York City’s most magical attractions can’t be found in any theater on Broadway. Yet it takes place, same time every week, right in the heart of the theater district.

On Fridays at half past noon, a dozen or two veteran and inveterate performers meet at the Café Edison on 47th and Broadway for matzo ball soup. Any given Friday, you might find George Schindler, who made Woody Allen’s mother disappear in the movie, New York Stories, talking card tricks with Eric DeCamps, one of the best “close-up magic” pros in the business.

They are members of the Society of American Magicians, whose fifth and most famous president was the great Harry Houdini. Death claimed Houdini 16 years before this weekly ritual began, but he has been present in spirit at every lunch since the first, which took place in 1942.

During its 67 years, the Magicians’ Table has had five homes—all in the theater district, where the best magic shops and shows have always been—and three official Hosts, charged by the group to guard its archives and institutional memory. “The Hosts of the Table were Joe Barnett and Mike Bornstein,” says the third, Tom Klem. “The members elected me as Host after Mike passed away.” Mike Bornstein was hit by a truck as he left the lunch a few years ago. Like Houdini, Bornstein is still there in spirit, too.

Most of the diners at the Table these days are old timers. Magic, like classical music, seems to encourage longevity in its practitioners. About the time Bornstein died, the New York Times published a piece headlined “Shaking the Last Cards Out of Their Sleeves.” In it, the reporter mourned the death of magic, its dwindling presence in theaters and on long-gone television shows like “The Ed Sullivan Show.” “They just didn’t know where to look,” says Klem, still peeved at the piece’s inaccuracy.

It’s hard to tell when Klem is angry. He turns slightly pink and gets a little less polite, but not by much. At the time, though, he fired back with an op-ed that made his feelings very clear. “There are more magicians in New York than ever,” he wrote. “The Society of Magicians is an international organization with thousands of members…I have met people from around the country and some from Europe who still come to the society’s Magic Table…I have watched a rabbi do a trick for a Muslim, joyfully sharing this love of magic.”

A Place at the Table

Lunchtime conversation at the Magicians’ Table revolves around certain themes, from the universality of magic to the diversity of those who practice it. This lunch group seems to live on the far side of diverse, including not only professional entertainers of every specialty and background, but also wannabes and groupies (yes, magicians have groupies).

One recent Friday afternoon, guests at the Table included Michael Woolf, the managing editor of New Zealand’s Magicana Magazine; Richard Bossong, amateur magician and licensed group therapist; Rabbi Jack Glickman, head of the Kew Gardens Jewish Center in Queens, N.Y.; Jerry Oppenheimer, a retired court reporter; and an unnamed cab driver who introduced himself as an admirer of David Mamet and Ricky Jay.

“The escape artist wanted to be here,” Schindler noted, “but he couldn’t get out.”

During the lunch someone raised the religion question, remarking to Schindler that all the real magicians seem to be Jewish. “Only the good ones,” he said.

Character Building

Neil Simon wrote a play about the restaurant called 45 Seconds from Broadway. During a meal there in 2001, he said “there is something magical about this place.”

The cashier, who’s been at the Café Edison for over 30 years, demurs when asked to define that magic. In fact, she declines to be interviewed about anything at all. “The News and the Post are in here all the time and always asking to interview me,” she says. “I say leave me out of it.”

Her reticence is not shared by the magicians, to put it mildly. But along with one-liners and million-dollar bills, they dispense more than just entertainment. Eavesdropping on talk about everything from tough audiences to the positive effect that magic can have on families, a visitor is given to understand that magic is serious business, not just a matter of pulling doves and bunnies out of a hat.

“Magic teaches you problem solving,” says Professor Bob Friedhoffer, who uses magic to demonstrate the principles of physics (and whose wallet somehow catches on fire whenever he pulls out a card). “It builds character, discipline and dexterity. If you really love magic and want to be any good at it, you don’t fool around.”

“If we wanted to fool people,” Schindler agrees, “we would have gone into politics.”


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Thank you for this wonderful article about the S.A.M. Magic Table.

Tom Klem
Sep 26, 2009