Max & Dian's obituary
Marvin Wendroff, who also went by Max, Phenious, Phinny and Lucky, was many things. He was an Air Force Veteran, an entrepreneur, a magician, a ventriloquist, a fire eater who set the world fire eating record in TK by eating 18,320 torches in two hours, a showman, a publisher, a documentary filmmaker, a cannabis activist and grower and more. The one thing he never was was ordinary. Ever.
After leaving the Air Force in TK he enrolled at Rutgers majoring in engineering only to drop out six months later and move to Spain where he matriculated in the Universidad de Valencia, majoring in English. Why?
“Because I wanted to learn Spanish and it made more sense to move to the country that invented the language versus wasting time learning it in an American university,” he said.
In four years he became fluent in Spanish, traveling throughout Spain and Europe with his first wife Carolyn and graduating the Universidad de Valencia with honors.
In TK, he moved back to Miami where he began selling footwear door to door for Knapp Shoes, quickly becoming the top salesman in the country because he could easily sell to the city’s large Latin community in fluent Spanish. One week after winning the award, he quit the job.
“I loved selling shoes, but if I was the top salesman in the country and I wasn’t making any money,” he said. “It was time to go.”
After briefly starting a diving business and working as a paramedic, he found his true vocation, which he’d do for the rest of his life. The gumball vending machine business. Those small quarter vending machines gave Max the thing he always wanted - The chance to be his own boss. But more accurately, freedom.
“People would laugh at me and assumed I was some schmuck with all those quarters,” he said, “But it was the perfect business for me. People work for 40 hours a week to pick up a check at the end of the month. I picked up my check every time I worked. And those quarters add up.”
Originally focusing on South Florida, Max eventually expanded throughout Florida. And so it went that New Jersey native and world traveler discovered another great passion - traveling small town America. While most vending machine operators focused on big cities, Max preferred small towns with less competition and traffic - and more interesting people. Max would go on to establish one of the largest privately owned vending machine routes in the Southeast, putting out thousands of quarter gumball machines throughout small towns in Florida and Georgia.
It was during one of these trips through small town America that Max discovered his version of heaven: Dunnellon, Florida, a town with a corner store and one stop light. He bought 15 acres next to a lake and state park, and him and Carolyn packed their two kids into their Ford Pinto and made their way to the middle of nowhere.
Max’s two sons Darren and BJ missed their father tremendously during his trips to service the gumball machines. He’d spend days on the road servicing the route, and they loved his return home not only to see their dad but also because he’d bring presents like an Atari 2600 or VCR. On one trip he returned with a seemingly innocuous gift that would set Max down an entirely new life voyage, a 101 trick E-Z Magic set.
Even though Max had found his vocation in the vending machine business, he was seeking a way to express himself. The vending machines gave him freedom, but once he had charmed shop owners and put out the machines all that was left to do was pick up the money, which was actually kind of boring. Max, the son of a postal worker and homemaker, was actually bursting with creativity, and he found an outlet in that E-Z Magic set.
When servicing his gumball machine routes throughout Florida, Max would stop in every magic store he could find and chat for hours with the magicians. They actually had a lot in common since they both had to talk to strangers and were constantly selling. Max was in love with showmanship and considered magic his next great adventure.
He started small, learning card and coin tricks and sleight of hand, but soon graduated to bigger stage magic with the name Marvelous Marvin (Marvin was his original name). Max took his show to camp grounds where he could vacation with his family and have a built in audience. He also loved mingling with the campers as he shared their adventurous hearts. As his skill as a magician grew, so did his ambition. No longer satisfied with just doing magic tricks, Max wanted a cabaret style show with magic, juggling and music. He also changed adopted a new stage name: Phenious Top.
“That name was was one of my greatest creations,” he said. “I wanted people to hear the name Phenious and know they were about to see a showman.”
By now Phenious had taken the Pop Top Cabaret on the road performing at state fairs across Florida for hundreds of spectators at a time. He had also added ventriloquism to the cabaret as well as his family: Carol would do face painting between shows, Darren wrote his ventriloquist jokes and BJ danced after the show for tips, sometimes earning a couple hundred dollars.
Fairgoers loved the Pop Top Cabaret and Max was a regular on the fair circuit, with people returning year after year to see the show, but he wanted to stand out. He wanted a show stopper. And one day while while clearing some brush on his land in Dunnellon and nearly burning down his entire property, he found his show stopper: fire.
Max was intrigued by the danger of fire, the threat, the showmanship. Even among the lights and sounds of a state fair, fire would cause people to take notice. And they did. Max began to acclimate himself to the ancient art of fire eating, learning to extinguish small torches in his mouth and put out torches by hand.
But this is what others had done, and Max didn’t want to be like anyone else. Max wanted to do what no one had ever done, a “trick” that would stop people along the busy midway in their tracks. That trick didn’t exist, so Max invented it: The Coffin of Death.
The Coffin of Death was pretty simple. Max would get an audience member to inspect a 10x4x4 steel frame to make sure there were no trap doors or escape. He would give the audience member a bucket of unleaded gasoline and together they would douse the coffin in gas. The volunteer would light it on fire, so the entire structure would be engulfed in flames. Then Max would enter the coffin with a thick juicy steak and wouldn’t reopen the door until it was cooked well done. It didn’t matter what ride you were heading to, when Max lit the Coffin of Death on fire, people stopped to see what this maniac was up to.
People had never seen anything like the Coffin of Death and the Pop Top Caberet was booked solid at state fairs across the Southeast. The Late Show with David Letterman even called to feature Max on Stupid Human Tricks but ultimately deemed the Coffin too dangerous. But it still wasn’t a calling card Max was looking for.
“I wanted something with as much showmanship as the name Phenious,” he said. “Something that made people take instant notice.”
Max felt he was a great fire eater. But what if he was the best in the world? In the 1984 Guinness Book of World Records Reg Morris of Great Britain was the record holder having eaten 7,225 torches in two hours. Next to the entry, the Guinness Book of World Records listed a warning that fire-eating was a highly dangerous activity. Max hatched a plan to become the world record holder and began training.
Fire eating is extremely dangerous. A torch is built by tying cotton to a straightened metal coat hanger with thread (nylon mono-filament gets molten). Then it is dipped in kerosene (Coleman’s camping fuel works best) and lit on fire. Kerosene when ingested can produce at best extreme nausea and migraines and at worst a fatality. During each act of fire eating the performer must train their mouths to produce a specific ample amount of saliva to buffer against the flaming torch as one pushes it past their lips deep into the mouth to swallow the flame.
This can become strenuous after 5 or 6 torches much less the 7,225 in two hours Max would need to break the record. He gave himself six months and trained the same way a world class runner would train for a marathon, slowly building his tolerance and skill level over a certain amount of torches and time. Max burnt himself many, many times and ingesting that much kerosene could not have been good, but he preserved.
Darren remembers watching the 1985 Chicago Bears with his father, who had one of the most dominant defenses in NFL history.
“See those football players Darren. I’m as strong as any one of them,” he said. “Because when I put my mind to something I can accomplish it.”
On October 4, 1985, 30 years after Abraham Lincoln, a hero of Max’s, gave his first political speech at the Illinois State Fair, Max set out to break the World Fire Eating Record at a Winn Dixie Parking Lot in Dunnellon, Florida. With the local news and a large crowd present, he set up an assembly line to dip, the light, then eat his torches. Before the show, BJ, his youngest, danced for tips on the stage, and his wife Carol painted children’s faces.
Then the show began and Max started off on a tremendous pace. Knowing that addreneline would kick in, Max had focused mainly on technique during his training, confident in his endurance, but having set a perfect assembly line of torches, he knocked them out quicker than expected. Within 10 minutes, he had eaten more than 1500 torches, and within 30 minutes, he was halfway to the record. He had expected success, but not this much. Within 45 minutes, he had broken the record and was in a zone. By the end of the two hours, he had eaten 18,320 torches, almost three times the previous record. In an unremarkable supermarket parking lot, in a town with one stoplight in front of his family, the local news and about 100 by spectators Max had set out to become the World’s Greatest Fire, and he did. Resoundingly.
The record, which was first featured in the 1986 Guinness Book of World Records, stood for several years before it was finally removed from by Guinness. Why? Because they deemed fire-eating too dangerous a record to pursue.
In just a few years since that 101 E-Z Magic Trick Set, Max had accomplished much. He was the world’s greatest fire eater, a staple at state fairs and one of the largest vending machine operators in the country. However while his professional life had reached the highest highs, his personal life and marriage were unravelling. Max and Carol were two amazing people who’d met at a critical point in both their lives, traveling Spain and Europe together, starting several businesses and raising two boys, but their lives had begun to move in different directions. Max preferred the solitude rural Dunnellon, and Carol wanted to move to the city to raise the kids. There were other things, but the fact was that Max and Carol were two dynamic people who had met at a young, pivotal time in their lives looking for the same adventure. Upon returning from Europe, Max set out to realize his goal of becoming a successful entrepreneur while Carol dreamed of being a mother. Once each had started down their own road, the paths diverged until they couldn’t ignore it longer.
Max had since slowed down working at fairs and had begun to focus on the vending machines and a new publishing venture called The Florida Singles. To help his loneliness, Max had begun taking a correspondence course for writing. He romanticized living in the country working on his stories, and enjoyed the writing community that came with course. He threw himself into writing, joining clubs and looking to get his articles published. After a few tries, Max decided that submitting one’s work for publishing consideration was for the birds and did the most Max thing he could do and started his own newspaper.
The Florida Singles was filled with stories of Max’s own life told through fiction. Whatever he was going through at the moment he would write about, whether it be a story collecting rocks and their history (Max had taken another correspondence course on Geology) or how to organize your own divorce (Max had taken a legal correspondence course and was representing himself in the divorce). Max also took a correspondence course in photography and would publish his own pictures in the Florida Singles when he couldn’t find the right stock photo.
To make it look like the Florida Singles was a large operation, he would write under a pseudonyms like Steve Hearing, Richard Chester, James C. Bente and his two favorite, Willy Wackle and Narly Noodleman, the two dummies from his days as a ventriloquist.
His article titles were a picture into his life:
Get a college degree without the drudgery of studying
Should parents stay together for the sake of the children?
Improve your lifestyle - Find a gimmick
Max had also turned the paper into a thriving business. Max had set up a route on the interstate following his gumball machine route and sold papers for $1.50. However the real money was inside the paper as Max forewent selling advertising to others and sold ads for his own businesses, from treasure maps to business gimmicks. The Florida Singles was both a thriving newspaper and mail order business.
And then there were the singles ads, which sold for $25 for a 5 line description and led to much more than extra income.
Sigmund Freud once said, "Love and work..work and love..what else is there really?" Max had work he loved, and in through the Florida Singles he found a person he loved even more.
Max had met Dian Lola Grogan through a singles ad in his own newspaper. As he loved to tell the story, he got a letter from Dian on Monday. On Tuesday they went out for coffee, and Max dropped Dian off at her home that evening.
“We met again for lunch on Wednesday,” he’d remenisse. “And that day between when I dropped her off on Tuesday and when we met up on Wednesday was the last time we’d ever be apart again.”
And that’s when Max’s great adventures truly began. In Dian, a devout Baptist Christian from Coon, Missouri, this agnostic Jew found his soulmate. Max used to say that he didn’t know women like Dian existed. It’s not that his former wife Carol was lacking in any way, in fact they had accomplished so much by having such complementary strengths and Carol enjoyed Max’s eccentricities. But Max was always an explorer, while Carol wanted more stability to raise their children, and the two journeys weren’t compatible. In Dian he found a travel partner who also enjoyed his unique nature.
Max and Dian were inseparable, traveling thousands of miles through the Southeasts small towns servicing the gumball machine route and collecting stories for the Florida Singles. Dian had also taken a writing correspondence course and began publishing her own stories, especially about gardening and butterflies, which was another correspondence course she took. Eschewing convention, they closed the Florida Singles official office in Ocala and built a 2 room office right next to their house, embracing teleworking before it was even a concept. They had added a pool, a butterfly garden and hot tub to the property and after work they hiked the state park next to their house with their beloved chow Satin.
“We didn’t want to wait to die and go to heaven, so we built our heaven in our backyard.” he wrote his mom, Alice. “ Our heaven is a dream world far from the hustle and bustle of the city.”
They even changed the paper from the Florida Singles to Adventures with Max.