The Pursuit of Magic in Manhattan

For $125, plus a $7.50 convenience fee his eager guests spend to secure a ticket in advance online, expectations are high Saturday evening at Chelsea’s The McKittrick Hotel for 35-year-old Matias Letelier.

To get to The Club Car in the hotel where these ticketholders are told to go, you must walk upstairs, yet upon arrival through a velvet curtain the room has an underground feel. Inside, the dim, candlelit room casts shadows on the brick walls as a jazz pianist sitting atop a small stage transports guests to a railroad car-esque experience reminiscent of the prohibition era’s “Roaring Twenties” where one may fancy a Bourbon from a passing waiter with a cocktail tray. The host of the evening is renowned magician, Todd Robbins.

Letelier begins his night sitting at one of the nine tables fit intimately in this old-world lounge. Promising “a night of up-close and personal prestidigitation featuring the best magicians in NYC” (as The McKittrick Hotel’s web site states), this is Speakeasy Magick.

The first of the nine tables Letelier chooses to sit at is in the front of the room opposite the small stage. But by the end of the night he would have awed 100 or so guests as he and eight other magicians rotate from table to table in speed-dating style magic.

To Letelier’s right sits a couple on one of their first dates, who followed the Speakeasy Magick show that evening with a visit to Scores strip club across the street. To Letelier’s left sits a couple on their thirteenth year of being together, 10 of those married.

When Letelier speaks, his hands move fast and his Chilean inflection – a reminder of where he is from and what he dotes as a “charming accent” on his business web site – accentuates. Fluent in Spanish, English, and Portuguese, Letelier is in the process of learning French and Hebrew, a friendly nod to the 40 percent of his clients who are Jewish.

Back at Letelier’s table, in a room full of laughter, clapping, and exclamation against the upbeat music of the jazz piano, he says as he fingers a dice in his hands, what he calls the Speakeasy Cube, “Someone choose one of the sides.” The woman volunteer takes the cube, clasping it in her hands once she has decided on a side for Letelier to guess. The side she chooses, which Letelier closes his eyes and guesses correctly to the table’s amazement, says the word “Mentalist.”

“I call myself an illusionist, a mentalist, not a magician,” Letelier says in his carved-out office of his Manhattanville apartment. People often associate magicians with “kids party magic,” as he describes it. Although he can make his rabbit, Gafas (translated “glasses”), appear during his shows and while he used to create colored balloon animals from a couple squeaky twists and ties, Letelier today works more with adults. His company name, Fun Corporate Magic, reiterates that belief.

With corporations paying $990 to $5,000 per event, and with much larger staged productions pricing anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000, Letelier manages to scrape up enough money to make being an illusionist and a mentalist his full-time job in New York City.

Letelier has performed at birthday parties, baptism dinners, and cub scout banquets. He has performed for companies like McKinsey & Company, Capital One, KPMG, Airbnb, Pinterest, and WeWork. Businesses hire him to perform at their office holiday parties, luncheons, and happy hour fundraisers. They hire him to see a table float, to watch his assistant, Coni, disappear, or to witness an employee’s wristwatch mysteriously go missing. According to Matias, some hire him simply to ask, “Can you teach me a trick so I can get laid?”

Letelier creates the image of himself as an illusionist and as a mentalist because he believes magicians abuse the word “magic” to fool people, to create an “I win, you lose” subconscious fight between the magician and the spectator when the trick cannot be figured out.

“The spectator feels like they lost this fight with the magician and the magician is seen with some type of power and knowledge, he becomes this superpower,” Letelier says. “I don’t want people to think I have magic powers. We are common people. I just tell them it’s an invitation to explore the impossible and let it amaze us. For me, one of the things that I like to show my audience is this sensation.”

Those competing for this same audience’s attention are no stranger to the competition. A niche industry already, magicians are classified into one of the three unofficial groupings: amateurs, professionals, or celebrities. Spectators can use these classifications to distinguish the quality, more artful shows from those that lack money and the time to rehearse.

Magicians get paid for their shows, but often not for the time they spend preparing. Naturally, the bigger the show the longer the prep time. Something such as a $15,000 show could have as long as a two-month rehearsal leading up to it.

For Letelier, who is always developing new tricks, rehearsals can take anywhere from one to two hours per day in a busy week of other meetings, to four to six hours per day when prepping for a big show. His rehearsing partner is Coni, his assistant and friend from Chile who he pays anywhere from $300 to $500 per show.

“Sometimes my wife will leave and I’ll open up the whole living room to play,” Letelier says, adding that he practices his stunts both in front of the mirror and in front of a camera, perfecting his timing and angles. “We’ll rehearse and I’ll put everything back before she returns or she’ll get mad at me.”

He can’t help but laugh a little as he says this. He had shared earlier that the two of them were in the process of Marie Kondo-ing his carved-out office in the apartment, leaving lots to be donated to The Salvation Army.

Letelier estimates that a professional magician, if good at marketing (creating a web site, etc.), can make more than $100,000 per year, whereas a less business-savvy magician, between $30,000 to $60,000 per year. Of the 1,000 total magicians Letelier approximates are in New York, about only 100 would be classified as professionals, he says, where he also categorizes himself.

Letelier was just 14 years old when he learned his first magic trick, influenced much by his Uncle Jorge Barriga, a practicing magician at the time. But it wasn’t until his uncle passed away, leaving Letelier his library of 300+ magic books, that he really got into it.

“I get swept up in his beautiful magical world all the time,” says Marlana, his wife and partner of more than 10 years. The two met as she was studying abroad in Chile. Marlana is American, from Texas; her name, a blend of her two parents’, Mark and Lana. “I come home and he has what I call his magic face where you can just see that he’s off in his magical universe.”

Marlana, who is pursuing her PhD in Education at Columbia University, less than a 20-minute walk from their home, says, “Matias is in love with two things: magic and me. I’ve told him, the second he loses his love and passion for magic, it’s time to move onto something else. But honestly, I don’t think he’ll ever lose it.”

Like at any other show, Letelier is donning his signature navy blue suit from Topman with its contrasting burgundy bow tie and J.Crew shoes, belt, and dress shirt all handpicked by his $150 per hour stylist, Rachel Levin – Levin’s web site says, “Her talents transcend price points: Rachel dresses clients from Fifth Avenue to Flatiron, and Park Slope to Carroll Gardens.” Letelier smells of his Polo Black by Ralph Lauren cologne and wears his bareMinerals foundation from Sephora proudly.

“Unfortunately, I can’t,” says Letelier when asked about disclosing how the Speakeasy Cube dice trick works. Earlier at Letelier’s table at the front of the room opposite the small stage, in a midst of card tricks he guesses correctly a man’s Two of Spades and, separately, a woman’s Queen of Hearts.

“Have you ever seen a card that changes from the Two of Spades into a Queen of Hearts?” Letelier says. “Have you ever seen something like that before? Do you know why not?” As he lifts a woman’s hand and shows the Two of Spades she once held now replaced with the Queen of Hearts, he says, “Because they don’t exist. They are just in your imagination like everything else that I do.” 5;\lsdpri