Marc Salem can “read” the serial numbers on a bill in your wallet, stop his own pulse and guess a word you’ve picked from a book.
Striding about the stage with a mischievous smile, eyebrows waggling, he seems to pluck audience members’ names and personal information out of thin air. He knows your dog’s name, where you’ve been on vacation and exactly the sights you’ve seen. With large coins and four layers of surgical tape shielding his eyes (plus a blindfold thrown in for good measure), he identifies items audience members hold under his hands.
One elderly man gaped when the performer guessed he was visualizing his fancy new cane.
“Salem is able ... not only to identify an object as someone’s driver’s license or business card, but correctly identify the owner’s address,” The New York Times said in a review of his show, “Mind Games,” which comes to Seattle’s Moore Theater on May 17 and 18. “The audience gasps in astonishment. The whispers of ‘How, How?’ bounce off the walls.”
What sets him apart from fellow mental conjurers such as Derren Brown, other critics have noted, is his unassuming manner, his ability to deflect errors with a joke and his sense of humor. (“Focus on the middle of my forehead,” the portly artist tells a woman during a recent show. “It’s connected to the back of my neck.”)
Avuncular and balding, he seems more like your favorite Jewish uncle than, say, a flashy magician like David Copperfield. But his confidence is unabashed as he offers $100,000 to anyone who can prove he “cheats” by using hidden cameras or audience plants.
So far, not even “60 Minutes” host Mike Wallace — America’s grand inquisitor — has snagged the cash. On a 2005 segment of that show, Wallace appeared chagrined, then amazed, as Salem moved the newsman’s watch forward a half hour.
“Damn, you got me!” Wallace blurted.
A physician from the audience appeared befuddled while checking Salem’s pulse: “You’ve just passed away,” he said.
Wallace finally concedes that Salem’s tricks are “mind-boggling,” a description that has been used by critics from the Daily Telegraph to the Washington Post.
Just don’t call the performer, who is an observant Jew, a “mind-reader.”
“That implies what I do falls in the realm of the supernatural or the occult,” Salem told Jewish Family magazine from his Manhattan home, sounding more serious than his stage persona. “But my primary goal is to entertain. I’m not a psychic or seer. I don’t levitate, hypnotize or go to the dark side. I don’t predict the future or talk to the dead. I don’t think those things even exist.”
Has he ever worried that his act ventures into the realm of ruach hatumah (evil spirits)?
“I neither place it in the realm of good or bad spirits, but in the arena of science and psychology,” he says. “So the question is irrelevant.”
Salem can’t pry secrets from one’s unconscious, but he can focus on a thought a person is having, and even manipulate that thought using natural means, he says.
The 50-something performer is a trained psychologist with a doctorate focusing on nonverbal communication. He’s so good at it he trains police and FBI agents how to tell when a suspect is lying.
“Every thought has some kind of physical manifestation, such as gestures, posture, facial expressions, tone of voice, the silences between words,” he says.
His skills are hardly magic, given that just 7 percent of human communication is accomplished through words (body language and characteristics of the voice constitute the other 93 percent, Mele Koneya and Alton Barbour wrote in 1976’s Louder Than Words: Nonverbal Communication). Salem says he can pick up an expression that lasts just a fraction of a second.
“But there’s nothing I do that can’t be accomplished by a 10-year-old with 30 years’ training,” he says in his show.
Salem (born Moshe Botwinick) has been tuning in since he was a yeshiva bocher, the son of an Orthodox rabbi who led a Conservative synagogue in Philadelphia. He says he always knew where the afikomen was hidden on Passover and the contents of Hanukkah gifts before he unwrapped them.
He once found his mother’s red hat amid piles of boxes when the family moved to a new house on the shul’s property:
“She subconsciously knew where it was, and she must have given off a nonverbal cue when I touched the right box,” he explains.
Salem believes his father used the same hypersensitivity to counsel the congregants who streamed in and out of the family home. “But he couldn’t shut it off,” Salem recalls. “He constantly felt other people’s pain, and ultimately it killed him.”
Rabbi Botwinick died after suffering his third heart attack at 41, when Moshe was just 16.
A red flag went up for the teenager. He says he, too, had been exquisitely aware of others’ angst and felt exhausted by his sensitivities, which “created this buzzing, blooming universe, perhaps not unlike the discomfort experienced by people with Attention Deficit Disorder. I knew I had to learn to tune out or I would get sick or go insane.”
Rather than following his own calling to become a rabbi, he decided to channel his skills — and his fascination with the human mind — into the less personal arenas of theater and academia. He is still an observant Jew who keeps kosher and attends an Orthodox synagogue.
He worked his way through graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and New York University by performing at parties.
“I changed my name because I didn’t want people asking me to find their lost husbands or lost dogs,” he says. “I became a psychologist, but I’ve never taken a patient. I do no guidance or counseling.”
Instead, he served as a research director for “Sesame Street,” taught at several universities and continued to perform at private and corporate gigs. It was at one such event that he was “discovered” by a producer who brought his show, “Mind Games,” off-Broadway in 1997, to critical and popular acclaim. When a New York City police commissioner saw the act, he hired Salem as a consultant.
The performer went on to serve as a human lie detector for legal firms, the FBI, police and media outlets, between theatrical appearances. While consulting on the O.J. Simpson case, he noted that the accused murderer closed his eyes while stating he was “1,000 percent not guilty.”
“That’s an infantile response to lying,” Salem says. “The tell-tale shuttering of the eyes is not unlike the child who often feels if he can’t see you, you can’t see him, either.
“With even the most practiced liar, there is going to be some nonverbal leakage,” he adds. “But the cues must be read together, as a language. Placing a hand over one’s mouth could mean someone is lying, or it could mean he feels he has bad breath.”
Salem easily caught Wallace in a lie on “60 Minutes.” He had asked the host and five other audience members to draw a picture and to shuffle them, as he turned his back and merrily said, “mix, mix, mix, mix.” He then selected one of the images, a nuclear explosion, and asked each participant to deny having drawn it. When Wallace looked about and said “uh-uh” instead of “no,” Salem declared him the artist.
The nonverbal communication expert also found an envelope the newsman had hidden in Central Park, in part by feeling the resistance in Wallace’s hand as they traversed the area.
“Whoa,” Wallace said.
“You helped more than you wanted to,” Salem replied.