At last, Todd Karr has published the revised and expanded edition of Martin Gardner’s seminal book, Encyclopedia of Impromptu Magic. He asked several magicians to comment on the importance of this book, for a feature story in Genii Magazine (November 2015). I was honored to share my thoughts in this feature, alongside Eric Mead, Joel Hodgson, Paul Daniels, Levent, Christopher Hart, Quentin Reynolds, Jade, and John Fisher.
MALINI-ESQUE IMPROMPTU MAGIC IN GARDNER ENCYCLOPEDIA
In the early twentieth century, Max Malini made his reputation performing impromptu tricks for members of the upper class. He sidled up to socialites and policy-makers in upscale hotel lobbies and presented a cascade of off-the-cuff miracles that compelled them to visit his ballroom show.
As I’ve modeled much of my own career after Malini (he too performed at New York’s Waldorf Astoria), I often hunt for quick Malini-esque tricks and stunts that make a strong impact on discerning crowds. Martin Gardner’s Encyclopedia of Impromptu Magic is full of such items, and I’ll share a few that have served me well.
Welcome to MAGIC MENTOR MONDAY. In this weekly series, I will introduce you to my magic mentors – people who have inspired me to become a better magician. Each Monday you’ll meet someone who has offered advice, or acted by example, to help steer my career.
Some of these people are alive, others no longer with us. Some are famous, others not so much. The beauty of mentorship is that you don’t necessarily have to meet your mentor face-to-face, nor even live during the same time in history. Many of the people who inspired me were alive a century before I was born! By reading classic books, old newspapers, and magazine articles, I’ve tracked down stories about their lives and work that continue to motivate me to become a better entertainer.
My “big three” mentors are Max Malini, Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser, and Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. Each of these giants will be featured in coming weeks. You’ll also read about contemporary figures like Harry Lorayne and Albert Goshman, non-magicians Danny Kaye and Sammy Davis, Jr. and even fictional characters like Willy Wonka.
How do mentors inspire? They set examples, helping us imagine how we too might solve a particular problem. By seeing the world through a mentor’s lens, we can learn more about them, and about ourselves, at the same time.
Ready? Let’s begin with my number one greatest inspiration:
Since I began performing “Chamber Magic” at the Waldorf Astoria 15 years ago, many of the world’s top magicians have visited me during their trips to New York. It is always an honor to look into the audience and see my personal heroes looking back!
Here are some quotes from names you’ll be sure to recognize: David Copperfield, Juan Tamariz, Derren Brown, Andy Nyman, Teller, Siegfried, Eugene Burger, Jeff McBride, John Carney, Richard Kaufman, Roberto Giobbi, Dick Cavett, Patrick Page, Derek DelGaudio, Jon Racherbaumer, Simon Aronson, David Ben, Levent, Daryl, David Regal, Milt Larsen, Dani DaOrtiz, Richard Wiseman, Ken Weber, Harry Lorayne, Pit Hartling, and David Berglas.
“A masterful performance. You can’t write a show like this. It can only come from performing night after night, listening to the audience. I loved it.” – DAVID COPPERFIELD
“I loved your act at the Waldorf-Astoria – especially the elegant atmosphere and classical style of the performance, not to mention the very strong magic!” – JUAN TAMARIZ
“Aside from his success, it is Steve’s charm and elegance which separate him from all but a tiny elite of world-class magicians. However, Steve is the only magician from that elite and highly-select group to take his show to an elite and highly-select audience. It is a true one-off: an intimate caprice of parlour diversion by an enthralling and consummate master.” – DERREN BROWN
Magicians and secrets have a funny relationship. The normal people who comprise our audiences watch us perform miracles and cannot begin to imagine how a person might learn the requisite techniques and other arcane knowledge to accomplish the impossible. Magicians on the other hand know all about the vast oceans of literature (in print and on film) obsessively detailing and documenting the history and lineage of all these bizarre, clever and wonderful ideas. They know you can walk into a magic shop and buy whatever you like without having to fight a dragon or some other kind of mystic wizard’s trial. They worry that their audiences will run home after watching a performance and look for the explanations on YouTube. The “secrets” are out there, if you care enough and know where to look. And yet, magicians and laymen can look at the same “miracle” and both be mystified—if for different reasons.
For example, many close-up magicians know the story of Max Malini’s famous production of a brick or a block of ice from under a hat as recounted by Dai Vernon in Stars of Magic. Vernon was tasked with watching Malini over the course of an evening’s dinner performance to try to pin down the little man’s sleight-of-hand secrets—in particular the the block-of-ice-under-the-hat trick. Throughout the full evening’s meal, Malini never left the table. Malini then proceeded to perform the trick and “…when Malini lifted the hat, a block of ice the size of four fists lay in the center of the table […] Vernon swears to this day that ‘The little bugger had no time to load up.’” While the regular audience members wondered how the ice got under the hat, Vernon was dumbfounded as to how the ice got to the table at all. A bribe to the waiter proved unsuccessful, and they never found out from where Malini had procured the ice.
On the other hand, whenever Steve Cohen performs the trick as the opener of his exclusive Miracles At Midnight show, the source of the block of ice is somewhat less of a mystery. The show is his second as part of his residence at the über-opulent Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan. The kitchen at the Waldorf-Astoria is located on the second floor and takes up the area of a full city block. “They have a huge walk-in freezer, and they’ve let me have a whole shelf in there just for blocks of ice for this trick. I used to go down myself to fetch the ice, but it gets so cold in that freezer that our arrangement now is that I simply ring down to the kitchen and they run one upstairs for me at the beginning of each show.” Of course. Everything’s easy once you know the secret.
But while Steve’s audiences—like Malini’s—are astounded at the appearance of the ice under the hat, magicians marvel at something else. They don’t marvel at how the ice appeared under the hat or how the ice got to the table, but at how Steve Cohen himself has managed to “magically appear” in residence at the Waldorf-Astoria with not one, but two elegant, high-end magic shows—one of which costs $250 per person. For close-up magic! And coming this January, Steve will be premiering a stage show at a local Manhattan venue named Carnegie Hall. Compared to those “miracles”, blocks of ice and bricks under hats might as well be the old stretching thumb trick your uncle does […]
As readers of this blog know, I am somewhat infatuated by Max Malini, the extraordinary magician who entertained celebrities, tycoons and aristocrats. I’ve modeled my career on his, and have been tracking down Malini stories for years. Many of these stories are chronicled throughout this blog.
I recently acquired Malini’s advertising booklet at auction (circa 1926) and was delighted for two reasons simultaneously. First, it is an honor to own this historic memorabilia of a prominent magic figure. The booklet is in very good hands.
Second, the text of the booklet has confirmed that Max Malini stayed and performed regularly at the hotel where I’ve presented Chamber Magic for the last decade: the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.
In his advertising booklet, he includes laudatory letters from prominent figures, including President Harding. Here is one of the inside pages, containing personal notes from General Pershing and Vice President Charles Dawes […]
Have you ever wanted to see the inside of the legendary Friars Club in New York City? It’s a private members-only club with rich show business history. Then read on, and enjoy a few in-action photos from my recent induction ceremony, held on September 20, 2011. The ceremony was held in the Frank Sinatra dining […]
Before serving dinner at a dinner party in Manhattan, my host asked that I do “a little something” for the guests. I declined politely — I don’t like to perform when I’m not actually working — but when people hear that there’s a magician at the table, they expect to see a trick. These were not children, mind you, but some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in New York.
I turned to the woman next to me and asked for one of her earrings. She was hesitant to remove one of her diamond studs for a magic trick. She thought I might damage it. But when our host nodded his approval, she allowed me to remove it.
“The Flying Earring Trick!” I announced, holding up my hand to silence the guests. The glittering diamond earring rested in my left palm, shining in the light from the chandelier overhead. I slowly closed my hand into a fist, and explained that I would make the earring fly – invisibly! – from one fist into the other. All of the guests looked at me with skepticism as I opened my left fist: empty. They craned their necks in closer. I then opened my right fist: also empty. The lady’s face turned pale.
“If the earring didn’t fly into my other hand, it could only have gone one other place.” I pointed to […]
Thank you to Richard Hatch for finding this article online and bringing it to my attention. I particularly enjoy the reporter’s description of the tricks Malini performed for the Police Chief, detectives, and judge. The article gives a glimpse as to how Malini marketed himself. He would roll into town, perform for dignitaries and other […]
One of my heroes is legendary magician Max Malini. This morning I made a pilgrimage to his house in Honolulu, met the current resident, and was invited onto the property to take photos and stand in the Malini garden. It was, quite simply, a sublime experience.
Together with local magician Curtis Kam, I retraced the steps to many of Malini’s old haunting grounds.
Here’s a photo of us in front of Malini’s house […]
I received a Hollywood welcome when I arrived in Los Angeles last week. Actors Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, How I Met Your Mother) and Chris Williams (“Krazee-Eyez Killah” on Curb Your Enthusiasm) both came out to my show at the Beverly Wilshire hotel, and director Steven Spielberg even bought tickets for himself and his […]