Malini: From the Saloons to the Salons

Ironically, one of the most important of all modern magicians has a very small internet footprint because he rarely performed in theatres, hence there are few posters, photographs or other memorabilia to circulate. His legend has been carried on through a combination of genuine history and oral tradition despite the fact that he lived and performed well into the 20th century. The gent in question was Max Malini (Max Katz Breit, 1873-1942).

Malini was a Jew from the Eastern European village of Ostrow, which was once on the Russia-Austria border, but is now on the border between Poland and Ukraine. It is not to be confused with the larger town of Ostrow Wielkopolski (formerly just called Ostrow), which is in the center of Poland. He moved to New York City as a kid with his parents. As a teenager he apprenticed under a retired magician named Professor Seiden, who operated a Bowery saloon. Malini worked at the saloon and entertained the bar patrons with his sleight of hand. He is said to have invented the trick of cutting open a lemon and retrieving money from inside, and to have also refined the old cups and balls routine so that he could do it with items that were already on hand rather than pre-prepared props. He was the master of jaw-dropping, improvised magic, performed with items borrowed from his audience, sending them into raptures of awe. How could he have done these things? He is said once to have produced a large block of ice from under his hat — after having sat in a hot room with people for hours. This as the climax to a coin trick. He could also fling a dagger into the air and make it land on a card someone had pre-selected when it was lying on a table amongst a scrambled deck.

Malini performed in saloons and at private parties for years, until 1902 when his career turned a corner. In Washington, D.C. he went up to a man, bit a button off his shirt, and then restored it. Luckily, the man was the powerful Senator and McKinley-Roosevelt ally Mark Hanna, one of the key organizers of the Panama Canal project. Through Hanna’s patronage, Malini ended up performing for all the Washington bigwigs, including President Roosevelt himself. From here, he went to London and performed at the U.S. embassy, which led to an introduction to the royal family, which led to performing for basically all the major heads of state in the world. When this is your constituency, you don’t really need to trifle with vaudeville and dime museums. Basically, Malini was doing the same act he had done in the Bowery — borrowing items from people’s pockets and doing incredible things with them. Part of his charm was that he still had a Bowery style — he spoke in a gruff, growly voice with a very thick accent, and wore very flashy, expensive threads which delighted the people who met him. The effect was very American. And he worked these audiences for over 35 years.

There are two great places to read more about Max Malini: Dai Vernon’s book Malini and His Magic (1961) and Ricky Jay’s Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, which devotes an entire chapter to the beloved illusionist. And English magician and TV personality Paul Daniels (1938-2016) re-created his act. There are clips of it on Youtube.

To learn more about the variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.