Pictured above: Hot Springs magician Maxwell Blade has a trick or two up his sleeve when it comes to entertaining audiences. Photos provided by Gabby Blade.

 

Maxwell Blade is many things — an illusionist, a musician, an Elton John enthusiast, a collector of oddities. In all of these things, he is an entertainer and still more besides. Based in Hot Springs’ Historic Malco Theatre, which he himself owns and renovated, Blade has mystified and amazed audiences for decades through misdirection, sleight of hand and good old-fashioned showmanship. 

 

A native of Fort Smith, Blade’s love for the art of illusion began around age 12 while watching Mark Wilson, the first major television magician. Blade remembers the multiplying billiard ball trick as the first trick he ever saw, and he still performs his own version.

 

“When I saw that, I thought, man, I have to learn how to do this stuff,” Blade said. “I was just very intrigued by the world of magic and the art of it all. So I began to learn, and I performed magic all through my young adult life, but I really pursued the music business first. As soon as I graduated, I hit the road. I played [keyboard and vocals] for nine years in the ’80s in a band called Shark Avenue.”

The transformation of the Historic Malco Theatre has been one of Blade’s greatest tricks to date.

When the members of Shark Avenue decided to go their separate ways, Blade went full steam ahead into the magic business. He put together his first magic show in 1993 and made his debut in 1994 at the King Opera House in Van Buren. It was about this time that the name “Maxwell Blade” actually came into the picture. 

 

According to the man himself, Max Blade was the imaginary spy who he would pretend to be while playing make-believe as a child. He took it as a stage name while putting together his first magic show, and his manager from the agency he worked with suggested the current iteration as the ideal name for a magician. 

 

The Maxwell Blade one sees on stage is, in some ways, almost as much of a make-believe character as the original spy from his childhood. 

 

“I think onstage, I become more of a confident character than in everyday life,” Blade said. “I command the audience; this is my stage and you’re here to see me, so let’s go have some fun. I can be one thing off-stage, but people know once I get on that stage, I’m a little bit different. You have to captivate an audience. You have to own the room, but I’m by no means arrogant, which is sometimes the consensus when people have never met me.

 

“I’m blessed to be able to do this, and I’ve been very fortunate in this deal, but I think anyone who’s a stage performer changes once they’re on stage and the lights and the sounds come on. It’s just a different feeling. You become this bold, confident character, this ‘super-you,’ and of course, the longer you’re in this business, the more confidence you get because doing the tricks is sort of second nature for me by now.”

Seating 290, the main auditorium hosts audiences year-round and on all holidays.

Blade described his first show as a goodbye to his mother, who was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The show sold out through the weekend, and his mother died a week later. Following that bittersweet success, the show traveled across the southwest, performing in clubs, restaurants and small theaters. 

 

“I don’t do anything small,” Blade said. “I never really have done things on a small scale. So as the show progressed, it became larger until we decided to start looking for a place to put a permanent show. We visited a few cities, and my wife at the time, her parents lived in Hot Springs. So we hung out for a few days and actually watched a film here in the Malco Theatre. I think it was part of the Documentary Film Festival. I thought, we’re going to have this theater right here — this is the one.

 

“How we made that happen is sort of a miracle in itself. We didn’t have a ton of money, but we sold our home and moved here. I had about $10,000, and we struck a deal with the film-festival folks and the owner of the building in 1996.”

Blade is one of the few magicians in the world who owns his own theater.

Blade performed at the Historic Malco Theatre for 12 years before he was forced to leave the building in 2008 and downsize, building a smaller theater further down Central Avenue. In hindsight, he said, this may have been a blessing in disguise. 

 

Not only would maintaining the revenue needed for the theater have been unrealistic given the economic crisis, but a smaller, more intimate theater forced him to abandon some of the things Blade had previously relied on, such as live animals, large set pieces and assistants, to instead do a one-man show. In their place, he had to further develop his character and lean into comedy, which has remained an essential part of his act. 

 

Blade performed at the smaller theater for 10 years before he was able to return to the Malco in 2018 and give it a significant renovation, making him one of just a handful of magicians in the world who owns his own theater.

 

The Malco itself deserves some background, being no less storied or interesting than the man who now owns it. Built on the foundation of the Princess Theatre, which was destroyed by a fire in 1935, the art-deco building is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was frequented by future President Bill Clinton during his youth, and during the Cold War, the building’s 14-inch-thick concrete walls and thick steel-beam construction led to the theater being declared a bomb shelter in case of nuclear attack.

 

Perhaps the structure’s most notable historic feature is that it has one of only two preserved black-only theater entrances in North America, left as a reminder and proof of the state’s segregated past. 

 

Being not only a magician and a musician, but also having a background in construction, Blade handled much of the Malco’s renovations himself. 

 

“The restoration took 14 months, which is four months longer than what I anticipated,” Blade said. “We actually started the construction without a full set of plans. We had enough planning where we knew what we needed, but a lot of decisions were made spur-of-the-moment on the spot. It was a big undertaking, and we received a couple of awards around the state for what we’ve done. This will be here long, long after I’m gone, and I’m proud to have my name attached to it in some way.”

 

The main theater area of the Malco seats 290, while a smaller parlor theater seats 50. The building also includes a lounge and bar area, and Blade’s personal collection of oddities. Some of his favorite items on display are mutated animals such as a two-snouted calf, which has two mouths, two noses and three eyes, and a two-headed pig with five legs. The upper floors of the Malco, which were once home to a bordello hotel and a radio station, remain unused and have become a popular destination for ghost hunters.

 

During peak times in the summer, Blade performs shows four to six nights a week. Though he cuts back to weekends-only during the fall, the constant stream of tourists to Hot Springs makes it worthwhile to keep the show running year-round, and he performs on every holiday.

 

“There’s always something going on in Hot Springs, be it festivals or whatever else. There’s plenty of things to do that attract people, so we just go with the flow,” he said. “The theater’s not always full, I can tell you that. It’s not always 300 people. There’s many nights I may have 60 to 100 people, but it’s always fun. Sometimes they can be more lively than a sold-out crowd.”

 

The show itself is many different things, and music, comedy and audience participation are just as important to the experience as sleight of hand and misdirection. Blade’s fingers can play a piano just as well as they can draw a card from thin air, and audience members can expect to hear him perform songs by his greatest idol, Elton John.

 

“People claim I’m obsessed with Elton John. Maybe I am a little bit,” Blade said. “I’ve loved him since I was about 10, when I first heard ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ on the radio. I’ve made it on stage with him three times just by being in the right place at the right time. He’s a musical genius. When you hear a song from Elton John, you can go back in time and remember that era. He’s a good human being and a great songwriter.”

 

All that being said, magic and illusion are the stars of the show, and Blade has plenty of tricks up his proverbial (and literal) sleeves. With decades of experience in on-stage magic, a viewer can do their very best to see through the misdirection and still have no clue how the deed is done. At times, one might even think they’ve figured it out, only to have the next stage of the trick prove them wrong. 

 

“I just love the art of magic,” Blade said. “I like what it does to your brain. It doesn’t matter if you’re 5 or 90, people of all ages come to enjoy the show, and I just love to perform it. I’ve never had a moment on stage where I wanted to be somewhere else. It’s never boring for me. There’s no barrier of language either; I’ve done shows in other countries where I don’t speak the language.

 

“It’s a very unique way of entertaining people. People know it’s not real, but I make it look real. That’s why they come to see me. There’s a cognitive disconnect in your brain when you see a trick. Some part of your mind says, ‘No way. This can’t be happening,’ because we’re conditioned to believe that if I put something here, it’s going to be there. When it’s not there, that brings the impossible into being possible.”

Maxwell

Blade is one of the few magicians in the world who owns his own theater.

The world of magic has changed a great deal since Blade learned his first tricks. Where major productions, television and Las Vegas shows by figures like David Copperfield were once the name of the game in magic, street magicians and the internet changed everything. Everyone has heard the old maxim that a good magician never reveals his secrets, but that is exactly what many of these new magicians did. Many thought it would be detrimental to the art, yet that has not been the case.

 

“With the use of the internet, we can promote. We can get ideas. It’s brought people back into the theaters, and I think magic is meant to be seen live,” Blade said.

 

Though “Maxwell Blade” is the name on the marquee, he is eager to share the credit and give others their moment in the spotlight, ending his shows with a shout out to the cast and crew who make it all possible. The show has become something of a family business: his oldest daughter, Courtney, is vice president of the corporation and handles ticket sales, payroll and other essential operations. His middle daughter, Lexi, deals with inventory and auditing, and his youngest daughter, Gabby, does photography, printing and photos.

 

Blade also frequently welcomes guest performers, either as part of the main show or to perform on their own. One repeated guest is ROKAS, a Lithuanian magician that Blade brought to America at the age of 16. Now a professional magician in his own right, ROKAS holds multiple Guinness World Records for card throwing, has performed in numerous countries and is even the host of Lithuanian television singing competition, I Can See Your Voice. 

 

“I’m very blessed and fortunate to be in this business and have people come year after year,” Blade said. “We appreciate every customer that ever comes to that door more than they probably know. I hope to keep doing this for a long, long time. We’re here, we’re happy, and we invite people to come over and bring their family. I promise you, you’ll have a good time.   

 

READ ALSO: Arkansas Hangover Alan’s November Live Music Calendar