Full mental racket 

Mentalist Marc Salem brings his mind-blowing act to San Francisco

He’s not a mind reader. He’s a mentalist.

A what?

A mentalist.

It means Marc Salem, who does indeed describe himself as such, is able to read the thoughts of perfect strangers, by zeroing in on and processing their nonverbal communication signals.

In his upcoming performance of "Mind Games," Salem goes into the minds of his audience (only if they’re willing) and plucks even the most complicated thoughts right out of their heads.

"How we make meaning and the meaning of everything has always fascinated me," Salem said.

Salem got his degree in developmental psychology, taught for 20 years and worked as director of research for "Sesame Street."Now, he splits his time between performing, working as an analyst for the FBI, CIA and Court TV, and writing a soon-to-be-released book, "Six Keys to Unleashing the Power of Your Mind."

He likens his ability to an early 20th-century horse named Clever Hans, whose owner claimed Hans could solve complicated arithmetic problems and stomp out the answer with his hoof.

Rather than being a mathematician, research suggests that Hans was really a very good psychologist — he would stop tapping his hoof at the right time because he could sense the relief his questioner felt when the tapping horse had arrived at the right answer.

"It’s simple stimulus and response," Salem said. "I’m just as smart as a horse."

His joke is self-deprecating, but his talent is extraordinary.

Salem picks up a phone book and begins flipping through it, asking me to tell him arbitrarily when to stop.

I do. Salem winds up stopping at page 162.

He tells me to then take the White Pages I am holding and to flip to 162.

He is going to guess the name that’s located at the very top of the page, which subsequently is Moss.

Staring intently, he begins to go through the alphabet.

When he reaches M, he confirms that’s the first letter in the name I have just committed to memory.

He begins the process again, and when he hits "O," and names second letter, I become acutely aware that my eyes have ever so slightly flinched.

Salem then begins naming off letters of the alphabet, each time he approaches the name’s next letter, my eye flinches, Salem knows he’s on the right track, and eventually spells out the listed name correctly.

Even the most hardened skeptic can’t help but be fascinated and persuaded by Salem, probably because he is so insistent that what he offers isn’t supernatural; rather, he’s very good atpaying attention.

But the best part of the afternoon comes when Salem asks me to produce a dollar bill to prove an earlier point he is making about memory, or rather the lack thereof (he’s asked me to name what’s on the back of a dollar bill and I can’t).

No dollar bill, but I do produce a $2 bill.

"You really have a $2 bill," Salem said, smiling in a way that makes me think he gets as excited about these obscure pieces of currency the same way I do.

What’s making Salem smile goes back to the regular mental exercise he practices each morning. He writes down between three and five thoughts that pop into his head.

Today, the list reads: Ian, visit to a sister, blue sock, spilled coffee and — what else? — $2 bill.

The other four items had yet to reveal themselves, but Salem was confident they would by day’s end.

It becomes crystal clear through the course of the interview how appreciative of his audience Salem is. He continually expresses his gratitude for them, describing them as his directors for each show, and describes the "Mind Games" audience as "people who like to think."

"People leave the show seeing the world in a different way," Salem said.

And as far as what he gets out of it: "It is the most intense high of my day. I have such a good time on stage. It is the most free that I feel. I become almost humorously possessed."

Stage Preview

Mind Games

When: Today through Nov. 19

Where: Post Street Theatre, inside the Kensington Hotel, 450 Post St., San Francisco

Price: Tickets are $35-$85

Info: Call (415) 771-6900 or visit www.poststreettheatre.com

About The Author

Staff Report

Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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