This year’s holiday shopping suggestion is one of my favorite stores in New York, and I highly recommend a visit to everyone, especially if you’re searching for a one-of-a-kind Christmas gift.
Located in the shadow of the Empire State Building, Fantasma Magic is tucked away on the third floor of 421 Seventh Avenue, and other than a small awning, you could be forgiven for having never noticed it.
But take the elevator up to the third floor…
…walk past the mechanical fortune-teller…
…and you’ll find yourself in one of the most magical places in New York City.
There are three reasons I recommend stopping by Fantasma to tourists and locals alike. First, it’s stocked to the brim with literally thousands of magic items, with display case…
…after display case…
…after display case straight out of the magic shop of your dreams, each filled with the promise of mystery and surprise.
But what sets Fantasma apart from rival magic shops is that it’s more than just a store – it’s also a museum dedicated to the master magician himself, Harry Houdini.
Occupying roughly one half of the store is an incredible collection of items from Houdini’s career, including a staggering number of stage-used tricks – and it’s all free to see for anyone who visits the store!
This isn’t just a collection of nondescript handcuffs and keys. For example, this is one of Houdini’s original canvas mail bags from which he’d escape:
The bag was given to a Philadelphia barber that Houdini used to frequent while in town. Houdini left the bag with the barber one day stating he would be back to pick it up later – and never returned.
Beside it is a “Punishment Suit” from which Houdini escaped in 1916 after being challenged by an Ohio sheriff.
One of my favorite items is on Fantasma’s stage, where magicians occasionally perform…
…a coffin used for Houdini’s Sealed Coffin escape.
In 1907, Houdini was challenged by the Boston Athletic Association to escape from a coffin nailed shut while manacled, a feat he pulled off in 66 minutes (the cuffs and manacles were found inside the coffin, which was still sealed with six-inch nails). This beautifully illustrated coffin, identical to the one he escaped from, was used as a display on stage while the act was performed.
Honestly, the first time I visited Fantasma, I assumed all of this was the sort of fake/recreation stuff you usually find in magic shops. In fact, it’s all real, on loan from private collectors. I love the Metamorphosis Substitution Trunk, in which Houdini would magically trade places with his brother Theo.
Beside it, a Vanishing Birdcage.
And of course, there are the handcuffs:
“McKenzie Prisoner Mitts”:
One of my favorite bits is a frame featuring items Houdini would use to debunk self-proclaimed psychics and mediums:
The museum’s collection is so wide-reaching, it even includes the bust that was stolen off of Houdini’s grave in Queens, which I wrote about in 2010.
There are also several non-Houdini items on display, like this straitjacket worn by David Copperfield…
…and this fantastic mechanical Mickey Mouse…
…who performs a great little cup-and-ball routine at the push of a button:
Fantasma’s most haunting item is this robe once worn by magician Chung Ling Soo, who infamously died on stage while performing his trademark “Bullet Catch” magic trick.
Chung Ling Soo was actually American magician William Ellsworth Robinson, who adopted the Chinese persona to add an exotic flair to his act.
In 1918, Robinson was killed when a gun actually fired during his famous Bullet-Catch routine. His last words were, “Oh my God. Something’s happened. Lower the curtain.” These were reportedly the first and last time Robinson spoke English in public after taking on the Soo identity (used as inspiration for the film The Prestige). This was one of his robes.
The items on display are the kind of thing the Discovery Museum would set up in Times Square, then charge $35 a head – and yet you can see them all for free just by visiting the store.
Finally, there’s one more reason I recommend a stop into Fantasma: the magic.
I stopped by to take a few pictures last Friday night and ended up watching what amounted to a full 30-minute magic show as employee/magician Magick Balay demonstrated trick after trick for a customer, from ropes and coins to cards and fire. He never slowed down, and there came a point where a quarter levitated across the room that my brain simply gave up trying to explain it and accepted it as pure magic.
What I love about Fantasma is that it doesn’t matter if you’re a magician stocking up for your next gig, or a tourist poking their head in out of curiosity – they work equally hard to thrill and wow everyone who comes through the door (something I can’t say for all of New York’s magic shops).
Fantasma makes a line of beginner magic kits for kids…
…but if you’re looking to be that super cool gift-giver, I’d suggest the gift actually being a trip to the store to pick out tricks with your son/daughter/niece/nephew/etcetc in person. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what you want – just name a price range or a type of trick, and the employees will do the rest, thrilling you until the right one comes along.
And of course, just because you’re an adult doesn’t mean you’re too old to learn a little sleight-of-hand. Surrounded by the tricks that made Houdini a legend, it’s hard not to be inspired to try a little magic out for yourself.
PS – Be sure and say hi to the store’s new magic rabbit!
PPS – And don’t forget last year’s suggestion, The Compleat Strategist!
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