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Marc of Genius

Our own Ben Winters goes one-on-one with Marc Salem, the Michael Jordan of the mind.

By New York City
Marc Salem
Marc Salem
When university professor Marc Salem was ready for a change of pace, he did the natural thing: He started reading minds for a living. An expert in non-verbal communication and a former research director at Sesame Street, Salem eschewed any claims of occult or supernatural powers and focused instead on the hidden potential of the human mind. His first show, Mind Games, was a hit; so was his second, Mind Games and All That Jazz.

Now, Salem is back, ensconced at The Duke on 42nd Street with Mind Games, Too. The show is an hour and a half of intellectual pyrotechnics, astonishing mentalism, and the professor's other specialty: self-deprecating humor. Salem is a bearded, bald, and roly-poly man of middle age who looks much more the professor than the man of mystery. Yet, in Mind Games, Too, he divines where dozens of strangers went on vacation with nary a hint; he has someone concentrate on a word and then knows what it is; he announces what objects are being held under his hand while he is completely blindfolded.

He also cracks a lot of jokes--necessary, he says, to keep the atmosphere from getting too oppressive. "What I'm doing is both invasive and non-invasive," Salem explains. "What could be more threatening than going in and taking out thoughts? So I have to work to keep it light, to keep it fun. It's a juggling act--to be able to reach levels of intensity without scaring people. I have to make sure I bring it back with enough humor." Perhaps the best example of this is the show's opening moment: Blackout...ominous music, building to a crescendo...the lights come up on a lone man on stage who looks up, smirks, and says: "It's just me!"

"I really believe that if you did this show with darkness, intensity, and a sonorous voice, people would be giggling all the way through," Salem says. In another time, he feels, that sort of brooding atmosphere worked, but today's audiences are too ironic and self-conscious for such an approach. He recalls the work of magician and mentalist Joe Dunninger, who mesmerized early radio audiences with on-air displays of hypnotism and mind reading. "That level of intensity today would be totally uncomfortable," Salem figures.

Hence the effort to keep the show's tone light. The set is a recreation of Salem's own Upper West Side house, so he'll be comfortable along with his audience. And he keeps the jokes coming, even when they might interfere with the impressiveness of a given trick. "I'm very much about the non-threatening nature of this kind of theater," he stresses. To that end, the genial mentalist eases into the truly eerie stuff--of which, rest assured, there is plenty in Mind Games, Too. Salem's first trick, for example, is a numbers game that gives no evidence of psychic powers...just hyper-intelligence. "I do want to represent Everyman," he explains.

Does this mean that anybody, given enough training, could pull off his tricks--even the one at the end of the show where a blindfolded Salem plunges his hands down onto paper bags, each containing either a tube of paper or a butcher knife, and avoids serious injury through his apparent psychic powers? "Well..." he says. "In a sense, sure. Like I say in the show, any 10-year-old with 30 years of practice could do this. But just as anybody can learn to play basketball, not everyone can be Michael Jordan. Still, [what I do] is accessible, and it's important to make that clear."

Though he's now a professional mind reader, Salem is still every inch the professor. "As a teacher, I wanted to teach and entertain," he tells me. "As an entertainer, I want to entertain and to teach. People's minds are capable of far more than we use them for. There's that old thing about how we only use 10 percent of our minds, but that's ridiculous. Since no one uses his whole mind, how can anyone know how much we're not using? The point is, few of us are using [our brains] to our best potential. We could have better relationships, be more perceptive to others' needs.

"If you leave the show entertained but also thinking, wanting to read something, that's exciting to me," Salem smiles. But he hastens to add that Mind Games is not just an excuse for him to teach us some lessons: "I'm in a venue where people are paying for tickets, so I have to keep the entertainment level high. As Marshall McLuhan said, if someone is trying to teach without entertaining, he doesn't know anything about either."

Salem's plans for the future include a special on the SciFi channel that will hopefully lead to a series of specials and, in an ideal world, a talk show that would investigate the mind and all of its startling possibilities. But, for now, Marc Salem is enjoying his life in the theater. "I love this," he enthuses. "I sit backstage and think, 'I wonder what the audience has brought tonight?' For me, it's always fresh--because it's always a different group of minds."


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