I’m sitting across from Max Maven at a tiny table in the parlor at the Magic Castle, and Maven – a legend in the magic world – is reading my mind. I’m staring at his third eye as he’s preparing to intuit exactly what I’ve drawn on a card tucked into a tiny envelope, sealed with tape and hidden inside a purse.
“I generally don’t use the word, ‘mentalist,’ to describe myself,” he had told me earlier in our conversation in advance of his one man-show, “Max Maven Thinking in Person: An Evening of Knowing and Not Knowing,” which will take place at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 28. “If pushed, I’ll say that I’m a theatrical mind reader. Often I will define myself as an artist who uses mystery as his medium.”
I experienced a sample of that mystery as Maven, donned in his signature goatee, all-black attire and a widow’s peak carved far into his forehead – instructed me to draw a picture on the back of a card (he wasn’t looking, having turned his back), which was, in turn, taped shut and placed in one of three purses that I mixed about on the table.
After eight minutes and sundry dramatic flourishes, Maven brandished a purple marker and, with broad strokes, sketched the exact image that I had drawn: a sailboat floating above a “sea” depicted by three wavy lines. “Deep waters,” he intoned, in a mellifluous baritone.
The routine is only a glimpse of the spectacle Maven presents onstage; his show is “a magic act woven into slivers of metaphysics,” the L.A. Weekly said; a “category defying mind-reading show that veers into conceptual art,” as The New York Times put it.
In “Thinking in Person,” Maven veers from haughty to self-deprecating to formidably erudite, exhibiting a lacerating – some have said, “serpent-like”—wit. His persona makes him appear larger than life, even though in his own words, “I’m not a tall man.” The show features ESP card tricks, drawings guessed even after Maven has been blindfolded with his eyes taped shut; Maven has even been known to guess the serial number of a dollar bill presented by the audience.
“I do what you loosely refer to as mind readings, and I also do the reverse: what I sometimes refer to as mind-writing, in which I steer a person’s behavior in ways they initially may not realize,” Maven told me of his show. “But intermixed, I do monologues, talking about people and historical moments that have had some impact on me.” He’ll demonstrate the stylized poses of Kabuki theater; refer to critic Alexander Woollcott of the Algonquin Round Table, or the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos. “Things that seem very far apart gradually fit together in a way that suddenly makes sense—and that’s another example of how the show attempts to make people look at things in a slightly different way.”
Can Maven actually read minds? “I sometimes liken my work to professional wrestling,” he said. “The audience knows some of it is real, some is fake, and they’re not entirely sure where to put the mark. What I’m doing is, [similarly] somewhere in the middle.
“I don’t claim any psychic abilities; to me, the word, ‘psychic’ is one step from claiming that aliens secretly control the government,” he said. “On the other hand, if I were to say that everything I do is a magic trick in the sense of slight of hand, or mirrors, or whatever else you associate with the term, that wouldn’t be accurate, either. I build upon psychological principles and a lot of experience with people, and it’s all theatrically embellished. At a given moment, my work might involve the use of nonverbal cues in both directions, plus some psychological management and maybe a sneaky bit or two ….It’s pretty busy in here when I’m working,” he said, tapping his head.
CAMERA WORK AND EDITING BY JAY FIRESTONE, WEB AND MULTI-MEDIA DIRECTOR
Now in his early 60s, Maven has been performing at the Magic Castle since 1977; walking with him through its ornate, Victorian-style halls, he paused by posters of Chung Ling Soo – actually an American from Scotland who performed in in the guise of a Chinese magician in the early 20th century. In 1910, Chung Ling Soo was one of five or six headliners among 31 magicians working variety clubs in London – all the others were Jewish.
Maven discovered this arcane fact while researching a lecture on Jews in magic he gave at the Skirball as an auxiliary program of its “Houdini” exhibition; some 30 percent of artists in the field between 1900-2000 were Jewish, he approximated. “The reason that magic has drawn Jews in particular is that it is such an intellectual style of show business,” Maven told me. “If you examine the noteworthy names, there are concepts involved; it’s not just about the flashy spectacle. With very few exceptions, Jewish magicians are talking magicians. There are styles of magic where the performer doesn’t talk at all – they’re called dumb acts. Some of the greatest magicians of all time chose that form, but the number of Jews who have chosen silence is relatively small.”
Maven himself (born Philip Goldstein, which he describes as “the Jewish equivalent of John Smith”) grew up in a Jewish home filled with books and with people who read them. His mother studied Chinese art; his father, an astrophysicist, taught at Brandeis University and was treated “like royalty” by relatives who revered him for his advanced degrees.
Older relatives taught Maven his first card tricks when he was 7; the boy was hooked. “One of the prevalent reasons that children get into magic is that it’s a coping mechanism,” he said. “My family lived in a particular suburb of Boston that was almost entirely WASP; all the other kids went to Sunday school, but I didn’t. I was this sort of strange, relatively swarthy little runt who didn’t quite fit in.
“If a child is bullied, and suddenly you can make a quarter disappear and the other kids are baffled, suddenly you have leverage, and the power imbalance shifts,” he said. “Of course, people who continue on in magic realize that it’s much more than power or leverage; it’s an art form that has as much depth as any other art form.”
Maven devoured books and magazines on all forms of magic and although he floundered for a while and was rather “vagabondish,” as a young adult, in the 1970s, he decided to turn his love for the field into a career. “It occurred to me that if my work was exploring fantasy, mystery, strange things, in a sense exploring dreams, then I ought to start with my own,” he explained of developing his “look.” “From an early age, I had been upset that I wasn’t born with a widow’s peak; Peter Cushing had one and I didn’t.” Maven convinced a hairdresser to shave one into his hairline: “When I think back on how radical my appearance was at that time, it’s a wonder that I wasn’t beaten to a pulp,” he said.
He chose the stage name, Max Maven, in part, because “maven” means “expert” in Yiddish, but can also refer, sarcastically, to a know-it-all.
Shifting back to the present, the magician emphasized that while he is now known as a mind reader, he does not call himself a mentalist—despite the term’s new popularity since the premiere of the CBS hit, “The Mentalist,” starring Simon Baker.
Maven also answered the question, “Is everyone’s mind readable?” “I can usually work with just about anyone,” he said, “although it’s a bit tough when you’ve got a drunk: Because they’re not organized, they’re not predictable. I’ve also had situations where someone doesn’t want me to succeed; sometimes I can handle that …by using their contrary attitude as part of my method.”
In his show, Maven tells a story about a critic who complained to Picasso that his canvases weren’t realistic. The critic showed Picasso a photograph of his wife as an example of realism: This is precisely, exactly what she looks like,” the critic said, to which Picasso observed, “She’s very small.”
Maven hopes to open viewers’ eyes to mysteries of all shapes and sizes. “You can live a life without mystery, but I don’t think it’s a life worth living,” he said.
For tickets to “Max Maven Thinking in Person: An Evening of Knowing and Not Knowing,” call (562) 467-8818 or visit www.cerritoscenter.com. The show is not suitable for children younger than 12. Below are excerpts from his show: