Steve Cohen has performed feats of legerdemain for audiences around the world for 20 years. While he usually performs his show Chamber Magic each weekend at Lotte New York Palace, the closure of performance spaces in New York City has left him with time on his hands—which he promptly turned into a mini history lesson on once-popular magician Charles Hoffman and his claim to fame: magical cocktail making.
While the “Think-a-Drink” act is rarely performed by modern-day magicians, I have made it a featured item in my own weekly show, Chamber Magic. If you’d like to see “Think-a-Drink” in person, be sure to have your favorite drink in mind! Thanks to Charles Hoffman, "Think-a-Drink" is magic that's as close to real wizardry as you may ever see.
Here is the origin story of this amazing trick, and its now-forgotten creator.
At the peak of his career, Charles Hoffman (1896-1966) was the highest paid magician in the United States. This is a remarkable accomplishment considering he had almost died just a few years earlier. While recovering from tuberculosis at Sunmount Veterans Administration hospital in Tupper Lake, New York, Hoffman gave his first serious consideration to magic. Using magic as a beacon to lift himself back to good health, he created a rigorous personal recovery plan that required patience, attention to detail, and painstaking effort. Later he would apply the same principles to his magic act: upon his release, he created a highly polished and meticulous routine that set him apart from all other magicians.
Picture it. 1939. You’re seated in the swankiest supper club in town, and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra plays their newest hit, "In The Middle of a Dream." As the musicians hit their final notes, tonight’s MC introduces the headliner act: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the highest paid bartender in town, the doctor of deception -- Think-a-Drink Hoffman!” A handsomely tuxedoed gentleman walks to center stage, claps his hands loudly several times, and shows them undeniably empty. He brings both hands together, and magically produces a large fan of real bills from the U.S. mint. What an entrance!
Hoffman walks to the standing microphone and introduces himself. He instructs everyone in the audience to think of their favorite drink. Any beverage at all. He points to a woman in the front row, and seems to “read” her thoughts. Hoffman lifts a cocktail shaker and martini glass from the table. He concentrates for a moment, and then fills the martini glass with a Pink Lady cocktail (gin, egg white, and grenadine). As he hands her the drink to taste, he asks, “Is that a genuine Pink Lady? More importantly, is that the exact drink you were thinking of?” She answers “Yes!” to both questions, bringing the first big applause of the night.
One after the next, Hoffman proceeds to pour more drinks from the same cocktail shaker: beer, whiskey, peach daiquiri, Coca-Cola! Each drink looks different from the previous one— some are clear, others colored; some are carbonated and others are not. More importantly, each drink tastes different from the last. Hoffman’s two female assistants walk into the audience with serving trays, distributing the beverages to each spectator who had requested a drink. They taste and confirm that these are, indeed, their favorite drinks.
Someone asks for coffee. Hoffman immediately pours hot coffee from his magic shaker, then reaches into the air to produce sugar cubes and a creamer.
Finally, he walks to a young man in the front row and says, “Young fella, you look like you’re ready for dessert.” Hoffman then pours the final drink: a chocolate soda with ice cream. He produces a spoon from his bare hands, drops it in the drink, and takes a final bow. So what lessons have I learned from “Think-a-Drink” Hoffman?
SPECIALIZE TO STAND OUT
Early in his career, Charles Hoffman performed a relatively generic magic act with an abbreviated “bar” act, pouring various fancy drinks from an apparently empty shaker, in between standard tricks. At the behest of his often haughty colleague, Burling Hull (snarkily nicknamed “Hurling Bull”), Hoffman focused exclusively on developing a bar act, spending three hours preparing the props and refining his presentation before rebranding himself as “Think-a-Drink” Hoffman. Although the act was only 12 minutes long, his career began to take off. He found steady work in the top venues in every major American city.
Before specializing in a narrow field, Hoffman was indistinguishable from other working professionals in his market. Talent bookers could price-shop for magicians, since they all presented roughly the same material. Once he narrowed his focus to one specialty, however, Hoffman created his own category. The novelty of his act stimulated demand, and the lack of competition meant that he could command higher fees.
TACKLE SOMETHING OTHERS WON’T
Charles Hoffman traveled with 225 pounds of equipment packed into five crates. For a 12-minute act, he had a lot of stuff! Before each show he required a 30-minute orchestra rehearsal, and after the show he needed to clean all of the glasses so they’d sparkle for his next venue. All told, he needed to mold his life around his act. In addition to his splendid showmanship onstage, he required dogged determination offstage to schlep his props to each show.
By tackling something that others would not, Hoffman stood out in the competitive field of legitimate show business. He was cast in the Broadway revue The Streets of Paris at the Broadhurst Theater, starring Abbott & Costello, Carmen Miranda, and Gower Champion.
I was fortunate to meet lyricist Stephen Sondheim on several occasions, and he told me that he saw “Think-a-Drink” Hoffman perform his act in The Streets of Paris. Although he was only 9 years old at the time, Hoffman’s magic made such an impact on the young Sondheim that he remembers it to this day.
As Hoffman’s fame and success grew, so came the imitators. In 1943, he battled someone nicknamed “Have-a-Drink” Count Maurice in court, and won an injunction against the copycat act.
By dedicating his life to something unique and difficult that would deter most others, Hoffman ultimately reaped the benefits of his hard work.
MAKE THE SMALL PLAY BIG
In 1941, “Think-a-Drink” Hoffman played the Loew’s State Theater, located at 1540 Broadway, a building that later became the home of Tannen’s magic shop. Despite being in one of New York’s largest theatres (3,327 seats), Hoffman confidently held the huge audience in the palm of his hand. People seated in the rear seats were unable to see the small glasses that Hoffman held, but they didn’t care because of his superb showmanship. (Other famous magic acts who performed at the Loew’s State include Paul LePaul, Ade Duvall, Dunninger, and Cardini.)
When Houdini performed in New York’s Hippodrome theater (5,300 seats), people seated in the balcony were unable to see the sewing needles he pulled, threaded, from his mouth. The audience could readily understand what was happening on stage, however, due to Houdini’s confidence, energy, and sheer personality. I believe that Charles Hoffman did the same. He became a star by specializing in a singular branch of magic that most others found cumbersome. He worked extremely hard, and discovered how to dovetail both his skill and his charming personality into a commercial act.