Spotlight: Adam Blumenthal Keeps Magic Alive at 91-Year-Old Tannen’s
At a time when the inner workings of so many things have been demystified, magic still has the ability to stump us. But for magicians to make tricks look seamless, a tremendous amount of time is invested in perfecting the craft and engaging with colleagues who can help them grow and develop their skills. And in New York, magic is cultivated on a daily basis above the hustle and bustle of 34th Street at Tannen’s Magic.
The business has been serving the magic community since Louis Tannen opened a street stand in 1925. He later took the business indoors, where it became a gathering place for magicians of all ages and skill levels to purchase and practice their tricks. The current keeper of Tannen’s tradition is Adam Blumenthal, who fell in love with magic at a young age, in part thanks to the store, and is now responsible for ensuring its legacy and introducing it to a new generation of magicians. 6sqft recently spoke with Adam to learn more about magic, Tannen’s, and New York’s magicians.
Tannen’s has a long, rich history and is the oldest magic store in New York. Can you fill us in on this?
Tannen’s was started by Louis Tannen in 1925, originally as kind of a stand on the street to sell magic. Very quickly, within five or six years, he decided that wasn’t an easy or enjoyable way to sell magic. Magic was obviously very popular at the time, and so he moved the store into an office building off the street, and since the 1930s, Tannen’s has never been street level.
When did you become interested in magic?
My great aunt got me into magic. She somehow knew about Tannen’s and was purchasing things there for me. And then in the first grade we had to write a little research paper on anything we wanted, and I chose magic. Our school actually took us on field research trips, and so [I went] to Tannen’s. It made a major impression on me obviously, as a really overwhelming and wonderfully magical place. My research paper was the first time I performed a show as opposed to just studying and learning magic.
How did you take this interest and develop it into a career?
I studied magic pretty seriously as a kid and young adult. At some point I found Tannen’s Magic Camp and started going there every summer, and I met a gentleman who was on staff and one of the directors at the time named Bob Elliott, who became a mentor. It just kept growing from there, and at some point when I was actually on the West Coast going to school, Tony Spina, who was the owner of Tannen’s when I was growing up (he worked for and bought it from the founder Louis Tannen), was looking to sell. I didn’t know how I would pursue it, but I certainly wanted be part of history and the sculpting of the what the current Tannen’s is and should be in the future so I jumped on it.
Since you purchased Tannen’s, how has the store evolved?
My passion for it has been to both preserve and grow what it is and also bring back the communal aspect that was so important to its starting. I think there was a period of time when it wasn’t as exciting or even as friendly of a place to spend time and chat with other magicians and learn. As someone who grew up with the Tannen’s Magic Camp, that learning atmosphere was something very important to me.
We have a free lending library for magicians that was started in part by Conjuring Arts Research Center, a non-profit magic library that’s not public. They helped us set up an area in the shop where magicians come in and browse the books and sit at the central table we have to read. That table has become our central gathering place. It sounds very simple, but I was proud to bring it to the store. A lot of people come in exclusively just to sit there and session, as we call it, and learn and practice solitarily.
While we welcome absolutely anybody at any age who knows either nothing or everything about magic, it’s always a place that professionals feel very comfortable congregating and discussing what they’re working on, and I think that’s a culture that is very unique to Tannen’s among other magic stores around the world. It’s always been word of mouth to find Tannen’s.
How do you approach first-timers?
When a person visits Tannen’s to learn magic for the first time, we try to show them something easy and self gratifying that they can technically do and only need to practice the performance of, as well as something more technical perhaps found in a book that will allow them to more deeply explore the skill necessary to be a competent sleight of hand performer.
Who are New York’s magicians?
New York is home to a diverse community of magicians, amateurs and professionals alike. On the professional side, David Blaine calls New York home and produces most of his TV specials from his office in Lower Manhattan. Perhaps what really distinguishes New York’s magic scene is the number of high-caliber magicians who do not derive their income from magic, but rather have a day job and study and perform magic purely to nourish their artistic passions. These magicians are what really make up the core of the New York magic scene and Tannen’s customer base.
Has the digital age affected the magic community?
I think we are seeing a rise in the uptake of how many kids actually go from that first or second trick to coming back, and I think that’s due in part to a large amount of magic content in pop culture, like David Blaine and the reemergence on TV of live performances, as well as the internet and the dissemination of information, which is both a good and bad thing for magic. It’s good in that the viewing of magic is so much easier and a lot of eyeballs are on it, but the bigger challenge is that you don’t necessarily know who you’re learning from. And a lot of people who are truly interested in learning magic, especially young kids, can sometimes pick up bad habits. But there’s some wonderful companies out there that really focus on tutorials and teach the right way.
In terms of your own magic, what are you performing these days?
I don’t really anymore. It was something that I thought maybe would be a career at one point, but I realized my interest in magic lay in other avenues, in the community building and the educational side of it. Also, kind of paralleling my interest in magic and probably growing out of it, is the fact that I’m a lighting designer for theater. That’s what I went to school for and in the last handful of years, the majority of my work has shifted from traditional theater to lighting for magicians and magic, working with magicians in a theatrical way and helping to aid and grow the theatricality of it.
What does sharing the joy of magic with New Yorkers mean to you?
To me, sharing the joy of magic with New Yorkers means sharing an art form that most people are aware of, but have little personal experience with. It’s surprising how few people have seen a live performance of magic. Tannen’s, as a New York institution since the 1920s, allows me to give a tangible and historical angle to sharing my love of magic with New Yorkers and allowing them to peek into a piece of New York history that has been under there nose all their lives.
5 West 34th Street, Suite 608
New York, NY 10001
Each summer, Tannen’s hosts an overnight magic camp for magicians ages 12-20. For more information, click here.
[This interview has been edited for clarity]
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All photos courtesy of Tannen’s Magic unless otherwise noted