The Insider | Max Maven
By Damian Jennings - Monday, May 20, 2019
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Happy Mondays to one and all.
Today, I'm chuffed to bits to be sharing a chat I had last week with none other than Mr Max Maven. Max stayed up late in LA to chat with me about the importance of preserving the history of magic, what makes a perfect mentalism effect, what The Castle was like back in the day, what he thinks about performers who pretend to have powers they do not possess and his favorite pizza topping. (Spoiler: it's a much more vanilla answer than you might expect). Enjoy.
Oh, and here's a link to the Conjuring Credits website we discuss in the show: https://www.conjuringcredits.com/doku.php
The Insider: Hello and welcome to this week's episode of The Insider, brought to you, as ever, by Vanishing Inc. Today on the line, all the way from Hollywood, at ten to two in the morning, we have Mr Max Maven. Max, how are you this morning?
Max Maven: I'm fine. How are you, Damian?
The Insider: I'm lovely, thank you very much. But this is a 30-minute show, so no pleasantries. We are cracking straight on. What's your origin story? And because it's you, you've got 56 seconds.
Max Maven: My origin story.
The Insider: Yes.
Max Maven: I once read about a guy, I can't find his name, I've been looking, who was on contract, on payroll at MGM Studios during their heyday. He had no job description and he was, by all accounts, relatively unpleasant. Walked around smoking cigars and had no great acumen at anything except that, every once in a while, he would make a comment to a producer or a director. He would say something like, "I'm envisioning Tyrone Power as a bullfighter." They would follow that idea, and the movie that came forth would be a hit.
The Insider: Okay.
Max Maven: And so, just for those suggestions, he was paid to exist. I've always felt that was my dream job. What I do is as close as I've been able to come to that.
The Insider: Perfect. Now, obviously, you think, and you said that it's important to preserve the history of magic, but how can people listening, what can ordinary non Max Maven people do to help preserve magic history?
Max Maven: Well, the first thing is just to be aware of the need. If someone performs something for you, if a friend of yours, not a magician teaches you a trick, I would guess that most people in that situation don't say, "Oh, where's that from?" They just want to get their hands on the secret.
The Insider: Sure.
Max Maven: If you just remind yourself to wonder, and to ask and to seek out, "Where did something come from," that by itself changes-
The Insider: Yeah, that's a great starting point.
Max Maven: ... the way you approach things.
The Insider: That's a great starting point.
Max Maven: There's a wonderful, wonderful resource that I would like to tell your listeners about, because they all have access to the internet. There is, and has been now for a number of years, a website called conjuringcredits.com.
The Insider: Indeed.
Max Maven: The way this came about, one of my closest friends is Stephen Minch, the prolific author and splendid fellow. Whenever I would come upon a new piece of credit information, all the more so if it was obscure and unexpected, I would send it to Stephen in an email, and he would do the same. If he came across something, he'd send it to me. And then we had just a file that kept getting updated and larger, holding onto this information. One day, Roberto Jobi was visiting Stephen, and Stephen showed him this file. Roberto said, "Well, that should be accessible, that should be a website." Of course, he was right. So, we pulled in a few other people, most notably Dennis Bear, from Germany, who already had a website regarding card information.
The Insider: Indexing and stuff. Yeah.
Max Maven: Yeah. He knew how to be a webmaster, how to put together a site. We gave all this information to Dennis, who put it together in a very user-friendly format, so you can go on there, and you can search any words. It'll show you, if you're curious as to where a given trade comes from, it's very easy to search for it. There's no guarantee the information will be there, it's by no means complete, but it's pretty full of information. It is free for the using. So, making use of resources of that sort takes no money and precious little effort, and if people were more in the habit of, again, thinking in those terms, I think that would be a good thing for the history of magic.
The Insider: You've published more magic than probably anybody else alive. What drives you to continue to create, Max?
Max Maven: I used to have a rather flippant answer to that, and then I found that people got angry at me for giving it. I'll tell it to you, but hopefully, your listeners will understand that I'm trying to be amusing.
The Insider: Okay, got that caveat in place.
Max Maven: The reason I have published so many tricks is because I'm always looking for new materials for myself. I find that if you push yourself to be creative and to come up with new things, that creates a flow of more creativity. So, the more you work on creating, the more you will actually produce. Now, for my own repertoire, I keep very high standards. Not everything I create is good enough for my repertoire. The stuff that I hold on to from my repertoire is of a certain level, and the rest of it, I publish for you.
The Insider: Well, thank you for your crumbs, Mr Maven. What do you think is the perfect mentalism effect, and how does that compare to the perfect magic effect?
Max Maven: Wow. Boy, is that a difficult question? I don't know that there are such things as "perfect" effects in magic or mentalism. I can say that what they share is that the audience member gets at least a moment and, ideally, more than just a moment, of really feeling engulfed in something impossible and mysterious and head spinningly strange, that they have changed. That moment, now, they'll never look at the world precisely the same way again. Now, that sounds terribly lofty and I'm willing to work toward a very small version of what I'm saying.
The Insider: Sure.
Max Maven: But I do think that a great magical moment will stick with you forever.
The Insider: Absolutely.
Max Maven: I've experienced moments of magic that I can vividly recall, and it's now six decades later.
The Insider: Sure, sure.
Max Maven: I think with magic and mentalism, that's the goal. What would make a perfect effect, and I'm using that word really loosely only because you brought it up.
The Insider: Put it in air quotes.
Max Maven: But I like doing mentalism that doesn't rely heavily on props or preparation, which is not the same thing as the ... There's a current goal among young mentalists of doing-
The Insider: I know what you're going to say.
Max Maven: ... propless mentalism. And, frankly, most of what I've seen, I appreciate the value of the goal, but the results don't hold up.
Max Maven: Because there tends to be a great deal of failure, and mentalism allows for a certain amount of failure, but after a certain point, they say, "Oh, you're playing 20 questions," or whatever the British version of that game is.
The Insider: Yeah, yeah. I know, that translates.
Max Maven: Most of these things, the so called propless mentalism, involves no props, but it does involve massive amounts of procedure with undependable results. I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I don't want to say that it's all terrible, because that's unfair and not true, but I do think that a lot of it is wishful thinking. And it seems to work when you're imagining doing it sitting at home, and doesn't carry on in the real world, particularly in a formal presentational circumstance where you're in either a night club or a theater of a [inaudible 00:09:06] or what have you, and doing a show for which you're being paid money by an audience that is committed to the time. One of the things that I did a lot this week, I was doing three 45-minute shows a night and I changed material around. I didn't do exactly the same set each time, just because that keeps me-
The Insider: Yeah, of course.
Max Maven: ... interested. But one of the pieces that I was having fun with, because I hadn't done it all that much recently, so it was sort of fun to bring it back up to a prominent role, was a book test that I've been doing for about 40 years or so. I have, in my library, a large and deep shelf that is filled with book tests. Some of them exceedingly clever and I don't use any of them, because I don't want to lug a book around and then I have to put it away quickly and then carry it home.
Max Maven: So I do a book test that involves two cheap paperback books that are kept by audience. I get about 10 minutes of mind reading out of this particular thing, and I think it's extremely strong and convincing. I think people really get that kind of chill of, "How did he know that and how did that information move from that person's mind into his," and all of that stuff. And the books become very extraneous. They're means of getting to a random word and then they take them home.
The Insider: So it's actually unimportant, for the trick?
Max Maven: Right. I wouldn't say it's a perfect piece of mentalism, but it's up there. I mean, it's really strong. It's not about the props, it's not about the procedure. It's about, after the preliminary stuff, we finally get to the part that the person is thinking about a word, and I'm telling them, not simply blurting out the word, but telling them how they're thinking about the word. And I'm breaking down their thought process, and I'm composing in my own head, "How do I assemble this information to find out eventually what their word is?" Then I ultimately do. That's a good story.
The Insider: That's interesting. I don't need to go into the trick or the method, but the performance of it has some aspects of improvisation in it, from your point of view? You're creating a story around ...
Max Maven: Well, yeah, because I'm having an interaction with a member of the audience who I don't know. I mean, that's the story.
The Insider: Yeah. Yeah. Who inspires you, Max?
Max Maven: Oh boy. I'm tempted to just sort of brush that aside by saying, "Anyone good," because there is some truth to that. I've always tried to remain open to being inspired and to learning from people in other fields. It's not simply watching other mentalists or magicians, but I have learned many things from watching actors and actresses in film, in live performance, watching singers, watching comedians, watching how someone connects with an audience in telling a story, in using timing, in using silence, in using movement. All of these are things that have inspired me and continue to do.
The Insider: You were at The Castle at what many considered to be it's heyday with Jennings and Vernon and Servon and Carlisle and so many more. Can you paint a picture for us about what an evening at The Castle was like then?
Max Maven: Well, I first came to The Castle in 1977 at the start of that year, and I moved to LA in late 1978. When I moved here, in part because I had just jumped 3,000 miles across the country, I didn't have a lot of work set up. It was a new territory for me. So, initially, I had lots of free evenings where I didn't have bookings, and I lived down the street. So I would come over to The Castle just about every night. Well, Dai Vernon was there just about every night. I met Dai Vernon in 1974, and I was thrilled. I mean, it was barely a conversation. I shook his hand and complimented him, and I thought to myself, "Well, he'll be dead soon, but at least I'll be able to say that I met him."
The Insider: Yeah, I shook his hand, yeah.
Max Maven: Instead, we wound up becoming pretty close friends. We spent a lot of time together, sometimes just the two of us, and sometimes in groups of interesting people. On any given night, the odds that if I walked into The Magic Castle, that Vernon would be there, the odds were very high. I started developing other friendships, some of which had been on I moved to LA, and some of which came after. One person I became quite friendly with was Albert Goshman. And Albert would call the club and have me paged. I would come to the phone, and he would say, "Hello, it's Albert. Other than you, is there anybody there I'd like to see?" That was our relationship. And Albert really liked having me in his audience.
The Insider: Why?
Max Maven: Because he knew that I'd seen the act so many times that if he made a slight change-
The Insider: You took it.
Max Maven: ... or if he had to maneuver around a minor technical foul or something, he knew that I was following that in a way that the rest of the audience wasn't. So, whenever he was performing, and he did a lot of shows at The Castle, not just the ones where he'd be booked for a week, but in those days if you were dining in the restaurant area and you said to your waiter, "I'd like to see a magic show," they would find someone to come to your table and perform.
The Insider: Oh, well. I didn't know that.
Max Maven: If Albert was around, he had his act in the trunk of his car. And, believe it or not, you could get Albert Goshman to come-
The Insider: Table side.
Max Maven: ... to your table and do a private show for $35.
The Insider: Oh my god, wow. Wow.
Max Maven: Because he just loved performing. I mean, that was [crosstalk 00:16:23] relatively cheap even then, although not as minuscule as now. So, whenever he had a show that he was going to do of that sort, if I was in the club, he'd find me and say, "I'm doing a show [inaudible 00:16:35] 15 over in this such and such room." He just liked having me in the audience, so I got to see him work hundreds of times.
The Insider: How wonderful.
Max Maven: I don't know. I mean, there were lots of different people, some of them stranger than others, some of them nicer than others, or vice versa. But overall, there was this fascinating community, as the 70s turned into the 80s, there was this really amazing community of LA magicians, most of whom didn't start there. They came from all different places. Gradually, the old guard, and in the case of people like Dai Vernon, I'm using the word "old" very meaningfully, of course they eventually died. Some of them just sort of disappeared from sight and others literally died. By the time we were into the 90s, there was a new face to the club in the 90s and the 00s. There are certainly people who have complained, saying, "Oh, the good old days are gone. The [inaudible 00:17:55] is not what it used to be." And that's true, but that doesn't mean we can't make the good new days.
The Insider: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Max Maven: At the risk of sounding horrifically optimistic, because there are a bunch of new and interesting people doing really, really good work. We've lost Charlie Miller, let's say, but coming up through the ranks in LA was Derek DelGaudio.
The Insider: Yeah, I was just about to say, DelGaudio. Yeah.
Max Maven: Who went on to do this extraordinary show in New York. He's now relocated to New York, but he came up through The Castle. There are people out in LA right now. I mean, Mike Pisciotta. I don't know if you know that name.
The Insider: I do. We've just booked him for the session, for 2020.
Max Maven: Well, thank goodness, because I was pushing Josh and Andi to do that.
The Insider: Yes, done deal.
Max Maven: It's interesting that they didn't bother to mention to me that they'd booked him.
The Insider: We haven't announced yet. We haven't announced it yet.
Max Maven: Okay. Well, then we've ruined it. We've ruined the surprise. I think Mike is terrific. A splendidly nice fellow, but also just a solid performer who was mostly doing close up. But in the last couple of years, he's really started pushing standup as well. He won Closeup Magician Of The Year two times in a row at The Castle. This past Saturday night they gave out the awards, the AMA awards.
The Insider: Yeah, I saw some photographs.
Max Maven: And he won the Parlor Award, so the standup is clearly working.
The Insider: Absolutely.
Max Maven: I mean, it's really good. He's a guy who is not well known outside of the LA area, but that's changing as he gets bookings such as ... If he's coming to London next January, that's wonderful.
The Insider: Yeah, I know. I can't wait.
Max Maven: My guess is that he will, as you folks say, storm it.
The Insider: I think he probably will.
Max Maven: I think he will, and deservedly so. He's a terrific guy. There are younger people who are coming up in magic and doing really valuable, interesting work. In fact, at the session, I've been to the last several of the sessions, and some of the noteworthy Americans have been booked at previous sessions. The last session Jared Kopf and Ben Seidman were both there. These are two young guys who are out there in the real world working and who have some really strange, in a very good sense, strange ideas and they're growing. They're good to begin with, but each time I see either of them, they've taken another step forward.
The Insider: Yeah, I know. Both are astonishing performers. Times change.
Max Maven: One could sit around and dwell on the fact of how many people are gone, but I'm not sure that accomplishes a great deal. When I was coming up in magic, they were a whole bunch of people who are already gone. I never met [Ottaman 00:21:15]. He was dead before I was born. Well, I could sit around lamenting that, or I could study as much about him as I possibly can, in a sense, form an active relationship with him despite his-
The Insider: His death.
Max Maven: His lack of being alive, but at the same time, I did get to spend quality time with Dai Vernon or with Fogel or with ... just a whole bunch of people. A whole bunch of people who I wasn't too late for, but the people who are a generation or two past me, they missed those people, but they've got other people. I feel bad for the young ones today, because when I was young, I had Vernon to look up to, and Jay Marshall. The equivalent younger people today, they're stuck with me. So I feel bad for them, but it's nothing I can do about it.
The Insider: We joked a little about, not necessarily what's wrong, but some issues with some aspects of mentalism. Can you tell me what you think is right with mentalism today?
Max Maven: Not very much.
The Insider: Okay.
Max Maven: Here's the deal. Mentalism is really, really hard to do, partly because it's not about any of the things ... most people do it. The problem with most mentalism, in a way, is the same as the problem with most magic, they're more similar than people realize. Most magic and most mentalism are completely self referential. They're only about themselves. In other words, mentalism and magic turn out to be demonstrations of a proclaimed skill or ability.
The Insider: Yeah.
Max Maven: Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with that, except that it doesn't extend very far. A prime example of this sort of self reference is juggling. I love juggling. I love watching a good juggler, and most juggling is only about a demonstration of a proclaimed skill. It's great, but there's a reason why most good juggling acts are only seven minutes long, because that seems to be about the limit that that story of, "Let me show you what I can do," that's about how long it takes, and then the audience's interest starts to wane. Well, of course, in mentalism, which is so often procedurally obliged to go through steps before getting to mentalism, it can take far more than seven minutes before the effect starts.
The Insider: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Max Maven: Most of the mentalists I see, and I'm not purely criticizing young mentalists, because I see this in most of the older mentalists as well. Mentalism has this reputation among non-mentalists being boring, and it's a well earned reputation. It mostly is boring. Now, there are obvious exceptions to that, and I would hope that I'm one. I'm certainly not alone in that category, but I would say it's a minority. Most mentalists really are boring and the show isn't about anything but, "Look what I can do," a story that gets old very quickly. I'm not terribly impressed with what I'm seeing these days.
The Insider: Last thing, how do you feel about people claiming to have real powers when performing mentalism?
Max Maven: Boy, that's a really complicated question, and one that I could spend far too much time discussing, far more time than we have. I will simply make the following observation. When a mentalist performs, the nature of that performance affects the way people interpret how the world works. That means that, sometimes, someone's going to see a mentalism effect and not even necessarily a good one, but they're going to go, "Oh, I guess there is such a thing as ESP. I guess this was a genuine demonstration of ..." whatever. That means that a mentalist has a certain amount of responsibility baked into the performance.
Max Maven: To me, what's important is that the mentalist understands that responsibility exists and, in some way, address that responsibility. But I'm not the one to tell them how to address it. If someone has seriously addressed that, and has said, "And I'm perfectly fine in convincing people that I possess powers that I don't possess," I'm okay with that ethical and moral choice. I may not be all that comfortable with that person's choice, but I will respect it for having been thought through, as opposed to someone who doesn't think about it, but just happens to fall into a morally respectable point of view.
The Insider: Okay, I'll take that.
Max Maven: That's the simplest thing I can say. I mean, the clear thing is that people who say, "Oh, I've got a disclaimer, therefore, I'm morally clean," are fooling themselves.
The Insider: Full quick-fire questions, Max. Nothing to do with magic.
Max Maven: Yes, sir.
The Insider: Your favorite movie?
Max Maven: All About Eve.
The Insider: Favorite band/musician/composer? They're "all" questions, not "and" questions. Favorite person that makes music.
Max Maven: Yeah. Boy, it's hard to get it down to one.
The Insider: You have to.
Max Maven: Can I tell you an anecdote?
The Insider: Sure.
Max Maven: All right.
The Insider: This is going against the idea of quick-fire questions-
Max Maven: I know. I know.
The Insider: ... but let's go with it, Max.
Max Maven: Plus you can edit this later. A lot of heads were turned at last year's session because the last night Neil Gaiman came to the show as my guest, because Neil likes magic and we are friends. Some years ago when I first met Neil, we were having dinner and we hit it off and we were learning about each other. He mentioned that his wife is a musician, and I said, "Oh, would I know of her?" And he said, "Well, she's not a superstar, but she's got certainly a bonafide following. Her name is Amanda Palmer and she used to be in a group called The Dresden Dolls and she's out there performing and recording." I said, "Okay." I said, "I've vaguely have heard of The Dresden Dolls, but I'm not sure I know their music. I'm not positive I've heard of your wife, but in fairness, she doesn't really fit the demographic of what I listen to because she is neither black nor dead." So, that will be my answer to what's my favorite musician.
The Insider: Okay. Black and dead music. That's cool. Favorite pizza topping?
Max Maven: Either a plain margarita or maybe, pepperoni.
The Insider: Okay. Who would you rather fight? 100 tiny Joshuas or one massive Andi?
Max Maven: Oh, dear God. I would fight the massive Andi.
The Insider: Okay. Max Maven, thank you-
Max Maven: Because I-
The Insider: Oh, go on. You were going, "Because ..."
Max Maven: Because I think I could take him.
The Insider: You think you can take a giant Andi?
Max Maven: I think I can take him. And if I did, then I'd be done with it. Whereas the tiny Joshuas would never-
The Insider: Keep coming. Keep coming.
Max Maven: ... ever stop.
The Insider: Max Maven, thank you so much for staying up late and talking to me.
Max Maven: Nice talking to you, Damian. Be well.
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