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  • Mixing magic and mentalism

    I’ve been a member of a local mentalism club for nearly a decade. Over the years, numerous effects have been discussed, but a few of these had me puzzled. Since magic and mentalism shouldn’t be mixed, as we all know, I asked myself, why would mentalists talk about the Linking Finger Rings, Ring Flight, and the Torn and Restored Cigarette Paper? And not only did they discuss these tricks, they admitted to performing them, without the slightest hint of shame or guilt!

    Unable to come up with an answer, I asked why — rather sheepishly, since I was sure that the answer was so basic that I risked expulsion from the club, just for asking. But no. I was told that it was because of the presentations. PK, collective illusion, mass hypnosis and the like could all be invoked to explain these effects.

    That made perfect sense to me. These explanations certainly justified including these effects in a mentalism program.

    But it didn’t explain why so many hundreds of other effects that could be presented with similar explanations were disdained. After all, no self-respecting mentalist would even dream of performing the Linking Rings, the Twentieth Century Silks, or the Torn and Restored Newspaper, even though these tricks are essentially the same as the ones mentioned above. But, so be it. I’m not a mentalist, so mine is not to wonder why.

    A few years later, I found an answer. These particular tricks have one thing in common: they are all described in the book “Al Koran’s Professional Presentations” ! Could this be the reason they’re generally accepted in the standard mentalism repertoire? I asked a few mentalists; I got a few blank stares and a few uneasy smiles, but no replies.

    I have no idea whether my assertion is correct or not, but I am certain of two things:

    1. there are a few magic tricks that are generally accepted as having a place in a mentalism act;
    2. there is no logical reason for these particular tricks to be acceptable while others are not.

    Fast-forward to last week. While doing some research for a possible future project, I looked through some mentalism books in a friend’s library. One of these books was “Al Koran’s Legacy”. To my great surprise, I discovered that Al Koran didn’t perform just a few magic tricks, he did loads of them! And many were even card tricks!

    Now, Al Koran is not a name to be dismissed lightly. He was one of Britain’s top ‘mindreaders’ — a mentalist who was highly sought after and who appeared frequently on television there, and later, after moving to the USA, on the Ed Sullivan show. Yet, being a renowned mentalist did not prevent him from performing magic tricks, and even inventing a few (e.g., Ring Flight, which he called ‘The Flying Ring’).

    Here’s another example. I know a magician, mentalist and hypnotist who also does readings. When he works at a psychic fair, to drum up business, he rents a room in the exhibition hall and puts on… a magic show! Yes, pure magic — no mentalism, no hypnosis, nothing even remotely psychic. And it works for him; it helps increase his readings business. He sees nothing wrong with it, and obviously, his clients don’t either.

    I once asked him to explain his thinking. He believes that the contrast between the two is so great that people automatically separate the two skills and don’t see them as overlapping.

    I can’t help but wonder if this performer knows something from having watched — and met — Koran and the other top British mentalists of the day, Berglas, Fogel, and Canasta.

    So, what’s my point? There are lots of good reasons to keep magic and mentalism separate: personal style, preferences, personality, audience, venue, and so on. But, from what I can tell, it does not seem that the  usual reason — that performing magic leads the audience to believe that the mentalism is also accomplished by trickery — is one of them. And even less so when the mentalism is presented in the modern ‘psychological’ style.

    Update, Aug. 31, 2013: How could I have forgotten… Kreskin! If ever there was someone who mixed magic and mentalism blithely, it’s The Amazing Kreskin, perhaps the most famous mentalist in North America of the last few decades.






    4 Responses to “Mixing magic and mentalism”

    1. James Nelson Avatar

      I believe that an audience wants to believe that there are true mentalists with powers. The psychic industry is alive and doing well. What I could never understand is how the audience doesn’t associate trickery with billets, question and answer cards, certain book tests…. props associated with mentalism. I had a discussion with Richard Osterlind about billet work, he likes it and I don’t. I think the strongest of all mentalism are the coded acts…. and I really enjoy Osterlind’s Break Through Card System (Even though when a deck of cards are introduced by a mentalist a siren should go off in peoples minds). Lately I have been in to math magic which also gets great reactions. But a true mentalist should not need a billet to tear up or a question card held to his head or for his “powers” to work. Just my opinion.

    2. Todd Landman Avatar

      I agree with you Ariel. I do straight magic shows, straight Mentalism shows and mixed shows…in the mixed shows, the audience cares not a jot, they like being entertained….for me it is all about premise and context, and of a mixture fits the premise then its fine….

      See here:


      Often times magic offers a gentler entry point for some audiences and then the performance can move into Mentalism and even readings ….

    3. Robert Lamar Avatar

      As always, Ariel, great article!

      For many years I was of the camp that the two – mentalism and magic – should never mix. Over the years, though, my views have changed, in no small part based upon your revelation within your update – Kreskin. Let me explain.

      Many years ago I saw a performance that would dramatically change my perspective on this matter. In the mid ’90’s I witnessed Kreskin perform the Lota Bowl – yes, THE Lota Bowl – during one of his television programs, and it quite literally broke the shackles from my mind on this whole debate. He did it and he made it work. The solution? Creativity. He had a presentation for a prop that I’m sure no mentalist (or magician, for that matter) would ever think would have a place in a mentalism performance. But he made it work.

      The old adage “Rules are made to be broken!” has been proven time and time again, especially in the field of entertainment. Look at Slydini. As magicians it’s drilled in our heads from early on in our development to “never repeat the same effect for the same audience.” Slydini did. Or, “never tell the audience what you are going to do ahead of time.” Slydini did. Or how about, “never direct the audience to watch your hands closely.” Again, Slydini did. And he did it effectively. Very effectively. He broke THE rules and despite this, became, arguably, one of the best close-up magicians…ever.

      The bottom line is, with enough forethought, with enough planning, with enough creativity, it is possible to meld two apparent disparate fields – magic and mentalism – into an effective, mysterious, believable (if you’re into that) and entertaining piece. And if you don’t believe me, you haven’t seen Mr. George Kresge perform the Lota Bowl.