In the mid-1930s, New York City was struggling through the Great Depression. Unemployment was high, the local economy was floundering, and kids had little in the way of entertainment outside of school. The city’s mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, recognized the need not only to find jobs for the city’s adults, but to find a way to keep the weight of the Depression off of children’s shoulders, so he turned to city recreation director Abraham Hurwitz for help.
Hurwitz was a government employee with a PhD in educational guidance, but he was also a magician. For years, he'd been using magic to get kids excited about learning, incorporating magic tricks into his lesson plans at the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphanage, where he worked as a guidance counselor.
La Guardia noticed the work Hurwitz was doing with children and decided a bit of magic was exactly what the kids of New York City needed, so he appointed Hurwitz the official magician of New York City.
For 18 years, Hurwitz performed magic for the children of New York, traveling to schools, recreation centers, and parks where he’d lead magic classes and put on shows. He founded a program for young magicians, called the Peter Pan Magic Club, later renamed Future American Magical Entertainers (or F.A.M.E.) in the 1950s.
Hurwitz saw magic classes as the ultimate learning tool, and developed a series of programs tailored to kids' specific needs. He used magic to help shy kids with public speaking, created sleight-of-hand lessons for blind children, and even made up a magic act to teach kids the rules of grammar. The New York Times called him “The Magic Man,” and noted in 1945 that he'd already performed for over a million children.
Though Hurwitz eventually retired from the New York recreation department, he continued to put on volunteer magic shows for many years. He also passed on his love of magic and education to his daughter, Shari Lewis, a ventriloquist who went on to host the beloved children’s show Lamb Chop’s Play-Along.