The Magical History of the Waldorf Astoria

The Magical History of the Waldorf Astoria

The Waldorf Astoria is a magical place, not only because of its rich and fascinating history as a Manhattan landmark, but also because it was the chosen venue for many famous magicians over the years. Happily, that tradition continues today with the presence of Steve Cohen, The Millionaires’ Magician, who has performed his weekend Chamber Magic show in the Towers of the Waldorf Astoria since 2001. Adding to what my colleague Melissa Howard posted earlier in the week about attending Steve’s show, this post will serve as the deuxième partie of the magical history of the Waldorf.

The Waldorf has always been a society favorite for discerning guests: our Fifth Avenue hotel, opened in 1897, was the most desirable place in the city to “see and be seen.” In the early 20th century, though motion picture films were still in their infancy, Vaudeville was a popular form of entertainment. Featuring acrobatics, dancing, juggling and especially magic, it was fun for all ages! Our very own “Oscar of the Waldorf” would often attend Vaudeville performances with his wife Sophie and sometimes invite the hottest acts to perform at the hotel.

The Waldorf has an impressive history as a venue for close-up magic, with performances dating back to 1902. From 1923 to 1926 in the Fifth Avenue property, the world-famous Mr. Max Malini was the resident magician; one night, he famously baffled five U.S. Senators in a private suite with his notorious card tricks. Newspapers the next day reported that Malini had made a playing card signed by all five Senators vanish from the deck and reappear stuck to the wall on the opposite side of the room.

The Great Max Malini

The Great Max Malini

Max Malini’s command of English was rough yet endearing, as evidenced by this excerpt from the book Peacock Alley by James Remington McCarthy (c. 1931):

“I make to appear,” said Malini, “an egg from your mouth. And he did. An egg was extracted from Oscar’s lips. But Oscar was not entirely surprised at this magic. “It is nothing,” observed the Waldorf’s maître d’hotel. “From the egg I will produce an omelet which cannot be rivaled in magic.” And he did. The magic of that omelet so appealed to Malini’s taste that he later wrote his own magic was as nothing compared with the famous Oscar’s!”

In 1936, Lucius Boomer, our famous hotel proprietor, was so entranced by another magician Dr. Sydney Ross, that he hired him to entertain hotel guests in Peacock Alley. For the next 17 years, Ross performed tableside magic for distinguished diners, baffling them with his engaging sleight-of-hand. After seeing him perform at Peacock Alley, Ed Sullivan called Ross “the greatest card entertainer in town” and Amelia Earhart remarked, “Performing your card tricks is certainly more difficult than flying!”

Advertisement for Magician Dr. Sydney Ross. (photo credit: Steve Cohen, Chamber Magic)

Advertisement for Magician Dr. Sydney Ross. (photo credit: Steve Cohen, Chamber Magic)


Fast-forward to the present – the talents of Steve Cohen and his weekly “Chamber Magic” performances remind us that the enchantment of magic at the Waldorf will never fade. Like Max Malini in years past, our “Millionaires’ Magician” attracts an impressive list of exclusive guests who come to the Waldorf to be entertained and amazed.

Steve Cohen performing his "rising cards" trick

Steve Cohen performing his “rising cards” trick (photo credit: Steve Cohen)


And there’s more magic here too, every day, in the hotel’s impeccable service and welcoming hospitality. From enjoying a flute of champagne and slice of our red velvet cake in Peacock Alley, to a gala in our Grand Ballroom, to a fun-filled evening with Steve Cohen – there is something for everyone here at the Waldorf Astoria!


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Erin Allsop, Archivist of the Waldorf Astoria New York



Erin is a graduate student in the Masters program of Library and Information Science at the City University of New York – Queens College, where she is focusing her studies on Archival Management and Preservation. You may contact her by email at with any inquiries or questions you may have.