20 Questions With Max Maven

Max Maven Video Titles

VideoMind, Vol 1-3, $34.95 ea, $99.95 3-vol set
Nothing – $99.95
Multiplicity – $75.00

Max Maven Interview

Photo: Anne White

You said in an interview last year in Magic that your initial interest in magic was piqued by learning two card tricks from a cousin. Heres a memory test: do you remember what two tricks they were?

Yes.

Okay… What magic books were influential in your early development as a magician and mentalist?

Well, from very early on I was reading voraciously, and I learned from a wide range of sources—not all of them good, but sometimes one can learn even more from reading bad thinking. (That, of course, presumes one is able to discern what’s good and what’s not…)

If I had to list a single publication as having been profoundly eye- opening, it would be Annemann’s Jinx. The first time I read through the full file was probably when I was about 16 or 17, and I remember devouring every page. I’ve reread it many times since then.

Your interest in conjuring in most of its forms is obvious. What led to your decision to specialize in mentalism?

Mentalism was the branch of mystery entertainment that appealed to me most directly; it seemed to fit, like a tailored garment. And my feeling was that if it appealed to me, I ought to be able to convey that to my audiences, and thus make it into a good experience for them.

What, in your opinion, is the difference between mentalism and magic?

That’s a very complicated question, having to do with the nature of the perceived contract between performer and audience. The magician delivers illusions; the mentalist delivers something less clearly defined. Both forms deal in exploring the definition of what’s possible, using metaphorical demonstrations. In mentalism, the line between metaphor and literal example is somewhat blurred.

Regarding mentalism, there seems to be a difference of opinion among magicians. Some say that an occasional mental effect in a traditional conjuring program raises the “class level” of the performance while others say that the mental effect is reduced to a trick in the eyes of the audience when it’s in the context of a magic show. Any thoughts?

It is certainly possible to mix the two successfully. Well-regarded mentalists such as Dunninger and Koran incorporated magic in their shows, and top magicians such as Blackstone Jr. featured mental routines in theirs. However, it is not an easy thing to do, and I’ve seen it fail more often than not.

On the other side of the coin, there are a number of mentalists who combine “readings” and the like with mental effects, usually done as “demonstrations.” Any opinions?

That really warrants a very lengthy discussion. On the one hand, some magicians seem to feel that all readers are malicious felons whose sole motivation is to fleece the gullible. I know this is not so; there are readers— even some self-aware frauds—whose work is approached with a sincere interest in helping people, and whose advice is probably useful. Having said that, I must add that I am dismayed by the current trend in some mentalism circles to encourage private readings as an “easy” way to augment one’s income. This is generally approached in a cynical manner, ignoring the important point that this is something that affects peoples lives.

What is your take, as a working mentalist, on the public’s seemingly endless fascination with 900 psychic numbers and the like?

Obviously, a lot of people have questions about their lives, and the mundane resources don’t seem to be providing the answers. When L&L starts publishing philosophy texts, we can continue this discussion.

Your “Color” series, along with some of your other earlier works, seems to be in great demand on the used magic book market. Are there any plans to reprint this material?

No current plans; it’s too amusing seeing the prices those pamphlets command on the used lists.

Just a couple of things from the “Loose Ends” department. Since you were an integral part of the first Stewart James book (Stewart James In Print: The First Fifty Years), where is the planned second book in terms of production?

Hard to say. Allan Slaight is slaving away compiling the material, and I’m actively involved as the “Junior Compiler.” We’ve been working fairly steadily on this for the past seven years, and a great deal has been accomplished. Bear in mind, however, that there is more material than what appeared in that gigantic first volume. So, exactly when we’ll be finished is not at all clear. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, it’s just that we don’t quite know how long the tunnel is.

Is there any chance of Max Magic, the game you developed for the CD-i format, ever being ported over to PC or Macintosh format?

As you know, the Philips CD-i, despite being a very good system, failed to find its market position. Max Magic was very well received—it won six industry awards—so there is interest in reprogramming it as a standard CD- ROM release. To my understanding, that would not be terribly difficult to do; what’s holding things up is sorting out the rights, and that’s a situation for someone else to untangle.

This brings us to your current project for L & L Publishing, the VideoMind series. One has to assume that you’ve probably been approached a number of times to do an instructional magic video. What led to VideoMind?

I’ve turned down offers to do instructional videotapes for almost 20 years. I like the video medium; most of my income is derived from television, and back in 1984, I created one of the first magic-themed tapes for the home video market (Max Maven’s Mindgames, released by MCA).

However, I’m not crazy about video as a teaching medium for conjuring. I think, in most cases, that it is an inferior means of conveying this sort of information; books provide a far more efficient interface. Furthermore, watching a tape is more passive than processing text and illustrations. Therefore, the video learning experience often results in a shallow level of understanding, while encouraging bad habits such as mimicry.

Nevertheless, I finally decided to do this series of tapes. Louis Falanga made me a serious offer that included giving me a great deal of artistic control over the project. Even then, it took several months for me to make up my mind. Finally, I remembered the Lenny Bruce line: “There comes a time to grow up and sell out.” So, I did three tapes.

Do you really feel like you’ve “sold out”?

Actually, once I made the decision to do these tapes, I put a great deal of work into planning what material to include. I wanted to feature material that would be enhanced by the video medium, involving aspects of timing, spectator management and so on.

A lot of ideas were assembled and rejected before the final selections were made. Because so much work was done ahead of time, the shoot was very efficient. The capable crew from Sunrise Digital was very helpful in that regard, and I also had the benefit of having Stephen Minch and Eugene Burger on hand to make sure that the information came across in a clear fashion.

What made you decide to make mentalism the focus of the tapes rather than, say, the large body of card work you’ve developed over the years?

I like card magic a lot, but there are people far more qualified than I am to put out tapes on that subject.

Are you satisfied with the tapes?

I’m never fully satisfied with my work. But, for all the faults I could point out (and no, I won’t tell you what they are), I think these are pretty damned good. A person could actually learn something from these. And, if nothing else, the boxes look really nice.

There are a fair number of previously unpublished effects spread over the three volumes of videoMind. Are these items ones that you’ve resisted releasing up until now or were they developed specifically for this video project?

All of the previously unreleased material had been held back for various reasons, in some cases for as much as 20 years. Nothing was devised specifically for these videos. Frankly, I don’t think that would have been fair. Having waited so long to commit to a project of this type, I felt that the buyer deserved to get material that had been thoroughly analyzed, empirically tested, and then revised and fine-tuned. That takes time.

What criteria did you use in choosing effects for videoMind?

First, of course, I wanted good material—technically sound, practical methods intertwined with theatrical forms that are, hopefully, interesting. Also, as mentioned earlier, I tried to select effects that might actually benefit from being taught via the video medium.

Organizing the tapes by grouping venue-appropriate material (Parlor, Close-Up and Stage Mentalism) seems to be an obvious way to arrange the contents, yet it’s really the first time I’ve seen this done on an instructional video. Did you begin the project with this in mind?

I didn’t start with that concept, but fairly early on, as I was sorting through various ideas, this approach became rather obvious. What was a bit less obvious was deciding which routines to place in which setting. While some of the items are clearly designed for specific conditions, some are more flexible, and with minor adjustments, could have been grouped differently. Those decisions were eventually influenced by other factors, including the attempt to provide a reasonably balanced set of pieces for each video.

The two-person format during the explanation portions of the tapes was interesting. When did you decide on including Eugene Burger in the project?

Once the selection and arrangement of the material began to come into focus, I started thinking about the details to add onto that basic foundation to build a structure that would be both functional and appealing. Interacting with a second person on camera made it easier to frame explanations that were functional. Having that person be Eugene made it appealing.

Assuming that the experience was not as hateful as you anticipated, can we look forward to any more video projects?

Well, it took just under 20 years for me to agree to do these three tapes. Given the current statistics regarding life expectancy, the odds are decent that I’ll be around for another two decades —so a follow-up sometime near 2015 could be a possibility…

Are there any questions that we missed?

Yes.