Eugene Burger: An Inteview with Max Maven

[On June 1, 2003, Eugene lectured to a packed house at the Magic Castle. After performing and discussing four routines, and explaining one of them, he introduced Max Maven, who conducted an on-stage interview. This was transcribed by Robert Charles, and then trimmed by Maven’s heavy editorial hand.]

EUGENE BURGER: When I was thinking about this lecture I said to Max, “You know, you interview all these people, but you’ve never interviewed me.” I think I’ve done a dangerous thing…

MAX MAVEN: As I think most of you know, I’m very interested in magic history. And as it happens, this is an important date in magic history, because 64 years ago Eugene Burger was born. So, Happy Birthday! [Applause.]

Thank you.

We’ll use that as our starting point. Let’s get a little biographical information. You started in magic as a kid, but there was a period when you drifted away from magic, and then came back into the game—surprisingly late. Run us through that.

I got interested in magic when I was eight years old. I saw Jack Gwynne at the Oriental Theater in Chicago. Right there and then I knew that I wanted to be a magician. And then I went to college and they convinced me that I should do something “worthwhile” with my life. So, I did “worthwhile” for a period of time. I taught philosophy and history of religions, and then I became the director of welfare in Evanston, a suburb north of Chicago. At that time I was living with some friends, and they kept saying to me, “You don’t like your job; you should quit it and be a magician.” We put together a séance show in our attic, just for the fun of it. And that kind of got me back into magic. I started going to the magic store, then I started with the magazines and then the books. And they kept saying, “Quit your job!” And I would say, “Too much LSD for you guys!” [Laughter.] And then one day I did. I just quit my job. And I was terrified! I spent two months thinking, “Omigod, I’m going to become a client at the welfare office where I used to work. At least I know how to fill out the forms!” Then an acquaintance said to me, “I’m going to be the manager of this new restaurant that’s opening up on Oak Street, and you’d be great.” So he set up an interview with the owner. I did a little show and I became a restaurant magician without any job description.

So there’s always hope…

Bert Allerton gave me hope. I never met him, but I know that he didn’t really get into magic until he was in his forties. A few years later both his mother and wife died. And to deal with his grief he became, according to Robert Parrish, the first full-time close-up magician in America. Bert Allerton lived in the apartment building I live in, and many times when I go through that front door I think about him going through it…

You’ve had a wide range of experience. For quite a while, you pretty much stuck to restaurants; you always had one where you were working regularly. It took a long time to let go of that safety net. But, even before that you were taking frequent hiatus periods of travel to do conventions and start performing around the world.

But I was always very conscientious. One year I did six trips to Europe without missing a Wednesday night at that restaurant. I would leave town on Thursday and I would get back in town on Tuesday. One restaurant I worked at on Friday nights. I used to turn down much higher fees for parties because I had made a commitment to be at that restaurant. I never dumped a restaurant to get a higher paying job. I dumped the higher paying job to be where I promised I would be.

Until the higher paying jobs outnumbered the weekends at the restaurants.

I was in England once and I said to myself, “You know, I could stay here for another couple of weeks and be a houseguest and I’m going back home to make $250 at this restaurant? There’s something wrong here.” I realized that it was time to move on.

Most people start in magic around the same time that you did, somewhere in that seven-to-ten-year-old range. But if they’re going to become professionals they usually know it, or at least try it, by their late teens or early twenties. Whereas you came at this as an adult with some career experience in the real world. Did that give you some perspective that is perhaps different? I’m saying this particularly for the younger members of this audience, who may be considering whether or not they want to go into a performing career.

I think so. I think that at 38 I was able to get a quality of attention from people that I could not have gotten at 25. When I was 28, in fact, I took a year out of graduate school and went to San Francisco. And that was very interesting. I stayed with a friend and he said, “You’re doing this all wrong. You’re getting the coat and tie on. This is San Francisco. You don’t need a job; you need a scam. You should be a magician.” I looked at him like, “You’re nuts. I could never do this.” And at 28 I couldn’t. Because it was hard even at 38. It took at least ten years before I really felt on top of the restaurant game.

Okay, now to quibble for a moment: I was asking for advice on behalf of the younger people, but if we extrapolate from what you just said the advice is: Wait twenty years. I presume your advice is not to give up for twenty years, but rather something else.

I’m not sure. Two of my friends are Lance [Burton] and Jeff [McBride]. I spend a lot of time with Jeff, who has never had a real job. And I’m awed by that. Because I don’t think I could have. Maybe I needed that time to mature a little bit as a person. And also, I think it was smart. What I tell kids is to get as much education as you can. Because education is the ace up your sleeve. You know, I can go into any group and not be intimated, because I’ve got as a good education as anybody in that room. And that gives me an inner confidence that I wouldn’t have had. So I wish I did have a word of hope for the twenty-year-old who wants to become an instant magician, but I really honestly don’t. Because I do not believe that I could have done it.

Ok, now that we’ve crushed the aspirations of the younger members of the audience, let’s speak to the late bloomers… [Laughter.]

I guess that’s me!

One of the things that I think is remarkable about Eugene Burger is not so much that he’s a late bloomer; it’s that he continues to bloom rather than wilt. And at the age of 64, which is a time when most people are kind of winding down and planning for their retirements.

My game is to drop dead in a card trick. “Here. pick a card…” “Judy, I think the magician just died.” [Laughter.]

At an age when most people have found their act and are on a comfortable autopilot, and they’re just putting away the money for the condo in Florida or something… The last ten years have probably been the most adventurous of your career.

Absolutely. Because I became a stage magician. I never believed that I had that ability. It was Max and Jeff who convinced me to do this. When I was out for [the Los Angeles Shakespeare Festival in 1998], Max said, “You can do it.” And he came to almost every rehearsal. And the Broadway director they brought in kept no notes for me ever. And Max, every night we’d go out after rehearsal or after the show. And he would give me endless notes. And then Jeff said, “You were really good in that show. Let’s do a show together.” Yeah, part of the problem in life is not getting caught in ruts. As [George Bernard] Shaw said, “The difference between a rut and a grave is depth.”

So the idea of being a stage magician was really scary for to me. First of all, I prided myself on being a full-time close-up magician. It was a little badge of honor I imagined wearing. And then this opportunity came up and I’ve been very lucky, because to have someone like Jeff McBride say, “Why don’t you be in a show with us.” Or to have [Max] say, “Let me write a show and you can be in it with me.” I’m one of the luckiest guys in this room. Because I’ve got friends who have stood by me and who have encouraged me and when I got scared, which happens, they were right there saying, “No, you can do this. You can have a personality that will work on stage.” And that was something I did not believe for a long time. It took a while for me to get that confidence.

Now, I love doing stage magic. If you had told me ten years ago that I would do nine weeks in a show room in Atlantic City in a casino show, and that the show would open with “Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva”… I mean, I would have said you’re nuts. And yet, that’s what happened. So part of it, I think, is that it’s important to be alive, to always push yourself. And to strive for a certain amount of excellence. You know, when I read the magazines I get depressed sometimes. I really do. Because there’s all this stuff about how to market your third-rate act. And there’s very little in the magazines about how do you pursue excellence in this thing. That’s really what I’ve always wanted to do, to be excellent at magic. Because I loved it. And I always wanted to be magician. And then one day I did it, and now it was time to be excellent at it.

Well, let’s talk about excellent magicians for a moment. When you were a kid you were first exposed to seeing magic through Jack Gwynne. But obviously, although that influenced you as far as capturing your imagination, you didn’t start doing Jack Gwynne style magic. For one thing, as a nine-year-old you didn’t have the budget. But, I don’t think you started off doing card magic or close-up magic either.

No, I was “Blue Phantoms,” “Rice, Checkers and Orange,” “Flip-Over Boxes.” “Mutilated Parasol” was my signature piece.

And then you discovered one guy…

Don Alan. This [television] magic show started in Chicago on Sunday afternoons. and they had a junior magician and an older magician. And I would watch it. And after three weeks I came home from school one day and my dad said, “Oh, we called the station and you’re going to have an audition on Sunday for that show.” Whoa! I did the “Mutilated Parasol,” thank you very much. And then I met Don Alan, who woke me up to so many things. His routines were crafted and they were beautiful. And he was really nice to me. We would go to Schulien’s where he worked every other Friday. And he would show me things and tell me little secrets. He was really great.

Just for clarification, there were actually several Magic Ranch series. Several shows from a season that was national from circa 1960 to 1961 have been restored and marketed as videotapes.

I was on the original Don Alan series. Fortunately, no copies exist. Thank you.

There is a photograph.

Yes, but that’s about it. When I was sixteen I could channel Don Alan at family parties. You know, just like people who channel Jeff or Lance. Or mentalists become Max Maven. I could become Don Alan. I knew all of his lines. I really studied this guy; I knew the tricks and just became Don Alan for my family and friends. It’s sort of beautiful and pathetic at the same time. This little kid pretending to be somebody he’s not. But I guess that’s how we learn, in a way. Because most of us start out by imitating somebody, and it’s only when you get into this a little bit that you say to yourself, “Do I really want to be a bad Don Alan.” No, I could be a halfway good Eugene Burger. Why not do that instead?

I think most would agree that it is almost inevitable when people start out in any kind of field, particularly in performing, that they wind up deriving from those they’ve seen. It’s almost a necessary phase. But, what about the people who don’t stop that? What about the person who is an adult, who has appropriated your style (or tried to)?

I kind of ignore it. Because I don’t see it so much. Maybe I can’t see it because I’m too close to it.


But, like Jeff… When I first met Jeff McBride, the first thing I wanted to do was get away from him. Really! Because he was an angry person. He was pissed off at everybody stealing from him, and he looked like he was going to explode at any moment. I didn’t want to be near it. And it was seven years until we met again, and he was a different person, and we became friends. And this might sound totally superficial and silly, but in part he drummed a lot of that anger out of himself.

You’re being literal here.

Absolutely. Drum, drum, drum. It was a way of getting rid of some of this anger. And now we are very close friends. But at first I thought, “This guy is going to flip out at any time now.” Because he was angry. He had done something so original. Maybe I never felt I had ever done anything that original to get angry when someone copied it.

Let’s take you out of the equation in terms of imitation, because it’s hard to grow that big beard… There are still people cloning Jeff McBride or Lance Burton or whoever. And you’re friends with the originals. How does it make you feel on their behalf? Do you shrug that off as easily as you do people who are imitating you?

I just think that’s kind of sad. Because I think each one of us is really unique. In Buddhism the belief is that we’re all Buddhas already. We don’t have to fix anything to get there. And what that translates to me, psychologically, is that every person in this room has gifts that no one else has. You have a perspective that other people don’t have. And if you can tap into that, then you know you can be you.

In my teaching with Jeff we have a thing called “Passion Pieces,” where we have the students make a list of things that they like to do outside of magic. Cooking—what kind of cooking? Go to movies—what kind of movies? Listen to music—what kind of music? These are passions that you have outside of magic. And on the other side of the paper you make a list of tricks that you like to do. Now you try to draw some lines to see if you can take a trick that you like to do and use that trick to express a presentation of a passion. Now, the tricks that people identify with me, the thread trick with the Hindu gods, that’s a Passion Piece, my friends. I’ve been fascinated by Asian philosophy since I was in college. The “Inquisition Card Warp.” That’s another Passion Piece. So, my most successful routines are the ones that I’ve been able to take out of my life. And if I was still imitating Don Alan, there wouldn’t be any space for me to do that. And that’s the wickedness of imitation: It takes away the space for you to be creative in yourself. To me, magic is a voyage of self-discovery. I find out who I am by doing this magic trick. And you do, too, if you think about it.

Well, you introduced several topics that I want to join together. A little more than a dozen years ago you and Jeff, with the influence from others like Robert Neale, started something called Mystery School. Many people have heard of Mystery School, but are perhaps uncertain as to what exactly went on. I mean, they know it was an annual event with a relatively small group of people who gathered together in some rural area and sacrificed animals. But they don’t fully understand the details past that point. [Laughter.]

Well, goats bleed better than rabbits. Ok, Mystery School was interesting…

I made up the animal sacrifice part.


As far as I know…

Mystery School was interesting because there were no drugs, there was no alcohol, nothing. In fact, in the beginning there was no red meat. We were asking people to join up for a week and become a vegetarian. Which was very hard to do. They would start out the week with tofu shaped like a fish. Awful.

Anyway, the idea was to get people who wanted to talk about the symbolism of magic, some of the metaphors and some of the history of it. And to do this in a safe and supportive setting. That’s the key. We were able to create a space where you could come and try a routine that you were working on, that you knew wasn’t finished. And people were not going to laugh at you. They weren’t going to be… I mean, let’s be realistic. We’ve all sat at the magic show and just not been engaged, sitting there doing bitchy little comments. But the idea of Mystery School was to break through that, so that people could come and do things — works in progress — and get feedback. At one of the Invocationals that Tony Andruzzi did. Kirk Charles came…

Let’s explain: Tony Andruzzi was a wonderful guy from Chicago, who was editing and publishing a magazine called New Invocation devoted to Bizarre Magick. Which is to say, basically, magic involving dark Lovecraftian themes. And he started doing annual conventions, which he did for about eight years. And those were called Invocationals and they didn’t involve real animal sacrifice, either.

Kirk Charles came one year and did this routine where it was sort of a Polynesian mystical thing, and took his shirt off, and people were giggling, and it was really disappointing. Because it was like people weren’t able to rise to the occasion. And what we wanted to do — Jeff and I and Bob Neale — was to set up a situation where people could feel that they didn’t have to be careful, because otherwise they would be judged and laughed at or something goofy. I think that was the heart of Mystery School. And then it got bigger and bigger…

What was the largest number of attendees?

About a hundred. And that was too big, because the people who’d come from the beginning said, “Well, when we first started this we could talk to everybody, and now you don’t know half the people.” Also, Mystery School never made any money. No one ever got paid. And Jeff would have to kick in a couple of thousand dollars every year just to pay for it. He was doing it because of the love of it. A lot of people never understood that. We did it because this was something we had to do. It was an inward thing. It wasn’t an outward thing of getting cash.

Mystery School was finally retired. Not so much because of the finances, but because it was time to change. It had gotten too large and unwieldy. And out of the ashes of Mystery School rose…

Well a lot of things. Master Class grew out of Mystery School.

Explain what Master Class is.

Well, Master Class is what they do in music conservatories where, say, a piano student will come up and play a piece. And then the teachers will comment on this piece in front of an audience that is just watching the process. Master Class is a chance to come and do ten minutes of close-up or stage. And we videotape it, and then we videotape Jeff’s critique and my critique. And then that night, Jeff and I will sit up until three or four [A.M.] and go through every student, so that when we come back the next day we have even more critiques that we put out for you, when we’ve had time to think about this and let things settle.

Typically in a Master Class, how many students are there?

Eight to twelve.

And this is over a period of…

Oh, three very full days. Friday and Saturday from noon until ten or eleven at night; Sunday from noon ’til five or six. And on Sunday we usually have a guest come in, and we’ve been very lucky. We’ve had Teller, Siegfried… Lance has done it many times. He’s been exceedingly supportive.

Speaking of being supportive, how does one find out about Master Class and the other events at Jeff’s Magic School? will get you there.

And we might as well plug your website…

Mine is Years ago, Max called me up and said, “I’ve got a great e-mail address for you, but you’re too chicken to use it.” And I said, “What is it?” And he said, “You’re too chicken to use it.” So we went back and forth as Abbott and Costello for a while, and finally he said, “MagicBeard.” And there was a long pause on my end of the phone and I said, “Well, I’m going to run that by some people.” So that’s my web address, and if you go there, there are a lot of essays that you might enjoy reading.

Obviously, a great deal of what you’re doing in recent years, in addition to performing and lecturing, is teaching. Jeff likes to use the word mentor a lot. Do you want to speak to that? Is mentoring necessary for magic?

No, I think that a lot people learn magic all by themselves as lonely children. Or as children who appreciate solitude. When I was a kid I was never very lonely, because I had solitude. The happiest moments I had were when I had to do my homework after dinner. And then once I did that, I could clear off my parents’ dresser, because that had the biggest mirror in our apartment. And I would practice my Ireland Cups and Balls routine. I was so happy. And I think if you don’t enjoy just being alone with your mirror and your magic you’ll never be any good at this thing. Because magic doesn’t happen by committee. No, I think magicians are created one trick at a time. Out of care, of love, and solitude. Solitude is important, I think. When solitude gets freaky then it’s loneliness. If it’s not freaky then it’s solitude.

You mentioned committees. Who’s your favorite member of the Magic Castle Board of Directors?

My favorite? Oh, it would be a tie between Billy [McComb] and Irene [Larsen].

Come to think of it, Billy is here.

[Inaudible comment from McComb at the back of the room.]

Thank you for the compliment.

[Inaudible comment from McComb at the back of the room.]

We shall now, slowly but surely, climb our way back to civility. I’ve got a question for you. At this point you’ve drawn a very large house here which speaks well for you. It also speaks well for the membership of the Castle that this many would come out to see Eugene. Obviously, at this point it has dawned on most of the people here that the one trick you taught [preceding the interview] is the only trick you’re going to teach today. And I sense that for most people that’s okay. But I’m also assuming that probably some are a little irritated, because they expected to get the normal complement of six to twelve tricks that most lecturers do. What would you say to the person who’s feeling irritated right now, but is embarrassed to acknowledge it?

I would say that most of us are drowning in magic tricks. And teaching another magic trick is like giving a drowning person a glass of water. Because you already know the trick that can make you a star. And now you just have to do it. And that’s the end of it. I mean, sometimes when I do lectures where I do teach tricks, later I’m completely depressed, because all I’ve done is make a bad thing worse. No, magicians are created one trick at a time. And if you took the trick that you love to do the most, you could make that trick your masterpiece. And I think that’s what being a magician is.

And this is where I was very lucky as a kid, because on those Friday’s when my parents didn’t take me to Schulien’s to see Don Alan, my dad and I would go to this bar called Dix and Norb’s Magic Inn. There was a guy there named Alex Berezz. You’ve never heard of him, but he was my other mentor; someone who took an interest in me. And I knew that he cared about my magical growth. Well, this guy had a repertoire of eleven tricks. That was it. But he had mastered every one of them. And you could watch it over and over. And that’s when I realized that it isn’t the number of tricks that I could bungle my way through. It’s, “Can I do just one or two or three tricks as well as anybody on this planet?” Like for me, “The Deck That Cuts Itself”—the Al Baker trick. That was like a meditation, and it still is. Just watching the deck move on my hand and being able to keep it in balance and to have this thing look like magic…

I have heard you make the “drowning” comment before. It’s a provocative comment, in a very good way. But it is worth mentioning that behind this blue curtain there’s a table festooned with things you’re selling, and those are tricks. How do you live with yourself?

Well, I’m as happily schizophrenic as anybody in the room! I think that’s the paradox isn’t it? As I’ve grown older I’ve begun to see that there are two different paths here. And they’re both great paths, but not the same. One path is staying up with what’s going on in magic; what’s new. I’m not putting that down. But, it’s not the same as becoming a magician. I think that there’s a connection between that and learning a lot of magic. I’ve added stuff to my repertoire lately. Sure, I like to learn new tricks too. And I do keep up. I read the magazines.

But, you have an interesting piece of advice that I’ve heard you give. In terms of a ratio…

Oh yeah, what I tell people is: For every book you read published after, say, 1960, read two books that were published before 1960. That’s where you’re going to find the tricks that no one is doing. Because otherwise were all just doing the same tricks! That’s why video is so wicked in its own way. Video is good for learning sleights. If you want to learn a Shuttle Pass you could read David Roth’s book until you can memorize it and you won’t get the timing that you will get by watching him do in on a videotape. But, if you buy my videotapes and just learn these routines the way I do them, then you’re not putting much into the process of you. See magic to me is —

So why on earth should they buy your videotapes?

Well, I’m not sure you should! It’s worshiping the god of commerce and the god of art. Sometimes they’re on the same platform, and other times there not. And I’m as much a problem in this thing as anybody. I’m not saying that I’m beyond all of this. We’ve taken magic in the twentieth century and just merchandised it into something unbelievable. And I’m just as responsible as anybody.

Well, in fairness, I think you’ve done a little more than just merchandising.

Hopefully, but you never know. That’s really true. In the same way you never know what influence you have.

Then, let me ask you. Obviously, you don’t know for sure what influence you’ve had on magic. You can see some of the specific influence on students that you’ve worked with. But there are a lot of people who have connected with you by reading your books or articles or watching you on videos, and you clearly have had an influence. You must in some way imagine what that is, or at least what you hope it will be. Speak to that. Assuming that decades from now that there is a civilization left for other magicians to talk about, what do you hypothesize will be the conversation in the year 2050 when people are talking about magic’s “golden era” back in the aughts? What do you hope they’ll say about you?

I was thinking some time ago about a take off on a zen tombstone that I read about years ago. It would go, “If he had just a few more years he might have become a magician.” What would I like for my influence to be? I would like that some people thought more about their magic because of my writing. And that they wanted to be excellent.

One of the images that keeps cropping up in your writing is the image of paths and journeys. The most recent set of videotapes you did is Eugene Burger’s Magical Voyages. This is a reoccurring theme with you: the idea that you are in a process of traveling and evolving, rather than having reached a goal. Is there an endpoint? Or do you really want to just keep going until, as you mentioned earlier, you keel over in the middle of a card trick?

I was a guest on [an Internet] chat board last year and one of the questions was, “Okay, you must absolutely make a decision between performing and teaching. What would you choose?” And I said, “That’s like, ‘Should I cut off my right leg or left leg?’” Because I can’t imagine life without either of those elements. Teaching has always been important to me. There’s nothing quite like having a student’s eyes light up because they suddenly get it, and that’s really rewarding. But I’ve always loved performing, I guess because I love showing off, ever since I was a little kid. And I guess that’s how a lot of us come into magic. And magic is a great vehicle to do that.

I think the important thing, just to change the subject little bit, is to always perform things that are absolutely in your range. When people ask me about the Masked Magician my comment is, “Yeah, but there’s more magic exposed in the Close-Up Gallery at the Magic Castle by inept people.” And that’s kind of a flippant comment, I know, but I also kind of believe it. There’s no point in me trying in performance to move beyond my skill level. That’s what I have to do in practice, but in performance I want to stay within my skill level. Because magic is about deception. And why wouldn’t a trick be fooling? Well, we can find this out by watching other magicians; people who are trying to do something that they are not yet able to do well. So I think part of this is to go through your repertoire and make a list of the tricks that you like to do, and ask yourself really honestly, are these tricks that you can do deceptively?

This ties in with what you said earlier about finding tricks that represent your interest, and the larger question of performers figuring out who they are. Again, we were talking about people imitating and so forth, and finding out who they are. You mention twin paths of teaching and performing. You’ve done both of those this afternoon. And it’s quite clear from both of those—don’t prepare an answer, I’m wrapping this up—it’s quite clear from both of those that, a rarity among magicians, you know who you are… and we like you for it.

[Applause, then the curtain is opened and the audience swarms locust-like to the sales table.]

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