Oz Pearlman Can Read Your Mind, but Is He the Next Great Jewish Magician?
Marathoner, former Wall Streeter, mentalist, the entertainer builds from Jesus’ initial trick of turning water into wine
The magician and mentalist Oz Pearlman has been running since high school, but back then he was his cross-country team’s worst asset. Years later, not long after he quit Merrill Lynch, he ran the Philadelphia Marathon, intent on qualifying for Boston. But he’d been clueless about training strategies and race tactics, and he exhausted his legs by mile 21. Nonetheless, he was hooked.
Investing in running the same vigor he had invested in magic, he researched aerobic base training and tracked his fitness with a heart-rate monitor. Within two years, he’d won a marathon and, inspired by Ultramarathon Man, a motivational memoir by ultrarunning super brand Dean Karnazes, signed up for a 50-mile race, which he won by 26 minutes. He then took up the triathlon and qualified for the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. On the way, he won more regional marathons, setting a personal record of 2:28—a pace of 5:39 per mile—and in 2009 in Chicago he posted the fastest 50-mile race time in the world for that year. To maximize his potential, he undertook unconventional training methods: specialized bike pedals to target neglected hip and leg muscles, a portable electrical muscle stimulator to work on planes and at his desk, a hypoxic mask to simulate the thin air found at high altitude, a nearly all-fruit diet to shed pounds. In preparation for next week’s Badwater ultramarathon, a 135-mile race from Death Valley to the Sierra Nevada—where, to avoid the asphalt bubbling from the 120-degree desert temperatures, runners step on the white road lines—he’s been drastically ramping up his weekly mileage.
On a recent warm and rainy day, Pearlman and I were jogging through Central Park, when we exited into Harlem, ran through Columbia University and along Riverside Drive, sidestepping puddles and dodging delivery trucks, and then retraced our route. Back in the park, I asked Pearlman if spectators ever refused his magic tricks. He said they did.
“Some people just don’t want to feel stupid,” he explained. “That’s kind of not the point of what I’m doing.”
“But you understand why they feel that way,” I said.
“I do, but it’s an insecurity of theirs. Few people have seen enough mentalism to know they hate it. Unless they’re very religious and they think I’m possessed.”
“Do you have those interactions?”
“Some people are like, ‘Is this black magic’? And I’m like, ‘Uh, no, I’m a Jew.’ ”
“Why is it that so many Jews have been great magicians?” I asked him.
“We’re all going after Jesus’ initial trick of turning water into wine,” he deadpanned. Then his tone became pensive. “Why are there so many Jews in finance, in Hollywood? But I guess that’s different than being a magician. If you look at entertainers, there aren’t that many Jewish singers. The most famous magicians have almost all been Jewish, except for maybe Siegfried & Roy.”
“Do you know other Jewish magicians?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah. A lot of them.”
“Do you ever talk about this?”
Pearlman was born in 1982 in Israel and lived there until he was 3, when his family moved to the United States for his father’s engineering job. He grew up in Farmington Hills, Mich., a northwest suburb of Detroit, in a Hebrew-speaking, secular Jewish home. He played recreational soccer, swam competitively, read science fiction, and attended summer camp at the Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth; at age 12, he scored an 800 on the math portion of the SATs.
The next year, on a Bermuda cruise that was his bar mitzvah present, he discovered magic when an on-board magician asked him to assist with a sponge-balls routine. The magician handed him a ball, multiplied it into another, and then made it disappear. Enthralled and bewildered, Pearlman, with the help of his dad, composed elaborate theories to explain the trick—the heat from his hand had split the ball into two, the balls were made with NASA space-age technology. They stalked the magician to a meet-and-greet, where he showed a Pearlman a few card tricks.
The day after he returned home, Pearlman went to the library and checked out every book on magic. A month later, his parents drove him to a magic store, where a salesman put a deck of cards in his hand and made a card rise out of it. “I just went, whoa,” Pearlman says. He bought the trick and started practicing magic every day. When he learned that his classmate in freshman English, Ryan Hertz, was a magician, he peppered him with technical questions about “really cumbersome sleight-of-hand tricks,” Hertz told me during a recent phone conversation.
A lot of kids get into magic for the camaraderie with fellow magicians, but beyond networking with professionals at magic seminars that Hertz took him to and studying with his mentor, a magic hobbyist named Bruce Kessler who steered him toward the pertinent industry literature (like Jean Hugard and Frederick Braue) and luminaries (Paul Harris, David Williamson), Pearlman says he was a “lone wolf” obsessed with magic’s intellectual properties. He considered magic “an elaborate problem to be solved—the problem of how to fool an audience” and quickly landed a steady job as the in-house magician at an Italian restaurant, where learning how to approach strangers and deal with rejection boosted his confidence. He also picked up other income, even talking his way into a gig for National Tire and Battery, which hired him to perform at store openings for fans waiting for autographs from Detroit Red Wing players. When performing, he had a knack for drawing attention. “I remember the 45-year-old adults clamoring in amazement,” says Bruce Wright, a local businessman who’d hired Pearlman to cruise around the neighborhood with him in a 1966 Maxim “F” fire truck and perform at kids’ birthday parties.
Pearlman graduated high school when he was 16 (he skipped fourth grade) and contemplated moving to Israel, where his mom had returned after a divorce, before ultimately deciding his future lay in the United States. After being rejected from one Ivy League school and wait-listed at another, he enrolled at the University of Michigan to study computer science, since his older sister told him there would be jobs in the field, only to learn he hated coding. He switched his major to electrical engineering and performed magic to pay his tuition.
In June 2002, the summer before his senior year, two recent UM grads, Maxwell Murphy and Acar Altinsel, started an e-commerce venture called Penguin Magic, in an Ann Arbor apartment. In order to entice online shoppers to buy tricks, Penguin created demonstration videos. Since Murphy had almost no conjuring experience, the role of performer went to Altinsel, but even he was an amateur. One day, the guys received a visit from Pearlman, who’d heard of the company through a roommate. Murphy found Pearlman skillful and entertaining, but something else impressed him. Working magicians, he knew, didn’t like to perform in front of other magicians. But Pearlman, who’d just come from a gig, was actually doing tricks.
“Oz loves magic so much he always has something new he’s excited to show,” Murphy told me over email, adding, “the moment I met him I thought he had the potential to become massively famous.”
The next week, Pearlman returned to shoot demo videos. With his cogent, methodical teaching style and ebullient persona, he became a user favorite. He urged Penguin to shoot more, and when the company moved to Las Vegas, it frequently flew him out for shoots. Penguin also produced his second instructional DVD, Born To Perform Card Magic, which contained an arsenal of foundational effects. Traditionally, a novice magician would have to learn such effects from arcane texts, or from dozens of expensive videos. Penguin priced the DVD at less than $30, and since its release it has remained one of the top-three best-selling products Penguin has ever sold and garnered the most five-star reviews. Most important, for Pearlman, it made him a household name for tens of thousands of aspiring magicians.
By this point, Pearlman had graduated from Michigan with honors and moved to New York City, where he worked for Merrill Lynch, running the UNIX and Dell servers for day traders. But he felt like he was coasting through his professional life aimlessly. His passion was still magic, and so he set up a solo Off-Broadway show called Watch Magic, which sold out three runs (and earned favorable write-ups in the Times and Post), and networked so vociferously with restaurants and event planners that soon his nights and weekends were filled with gigs. Eventually, Merrill Lynch hired him internally, for a party for James Gorman, the bank’s CFO at the time. Strolling through the event, Pearlman approached Gorman and did a trick where he turns one-dollar bills into hundreds. Gorman ate it up.
“Oh my God, we need you working for us!” he said in his Australian accent.
“I do work for you,” Pearlman replied. Everyone laughed, thinking he was joking. “No, seriously,” he continued, “I work in your Technology and Services department.”
Now everyone went quiet. “What are you doing working here?” Gorman said.
“Something clicked in my head,” Pearlman says. He didn’t have a family to support, and, in April 2005, the economy was strong: If he failed to make a living, as many magicians do, he could always return to the corporate world.
Pearlman is not explicit about his gambit to become the next great and famous magician who happens to be Jewish. He is married now (he met his wife on JDate) and knows that potential familial obligations will force him to reduce his “breakneck” performance pace. At the same time, though, he is “striving to be with mentalism where David Copperfield is with illusions, where David Blaine is with stunts” and, in addition to working his usual spate of high-end celebrity parties, is in talks to host a show at an Atlantic City casino. Anyway, he says, in one of his many garrulous moments, there’s no longer any “magic bullet” for becoming famous. “Twenty years ago, if you were on TV, holy shit, you were huge. Now you need a Twitter following, a Facebook following.”
At the crowded cocktail hour of a bar mitzvah party at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, I watched a group of boisterous and elegantly attired older men and women become enraptured by his act. His job that afternoon was to entertain with a strolling show, which meant he would canvass the guests and engage them for close-up tricks. The bill switch was one of the few traditional magic tricks in his repertoire; 90 percent of what he does now is mentalism. The two are distinct disciplines—magic effects are rendered with physical objects (cards, coins, cups, balls, bills, ropes), whereas mentalism relies on the manipulation of thoughts—but their tricks’ believability is contingent upon the same formula: 1 percent the performer’s skill, 99 percent presentation.
Pearlman is an expert in deception and misdirection (his card sleights were featured in a Chinese Mohegan Sun commercial). Today he is one of the most successful and in-demand mentalists in the country—Maxwell Murphy, co-founder of Penguin Magic, says that in comparison to his contemporaries, Pearlman ranks “at the top”—someone who enjoys (and is comfortable) performing for celebrities like Bill Clinton and organizations like the New York Yankees as much as for charity donors in places like Vancouver, Wash.
Pearlman pulled a big black wallet out of his suit jacket, extracted a few one-dollar bills, and, counting them off, asked his audience to agree that they were authentic. Everyone nodded; each individual bill looked and felt real. Approved, Pearlman now began feeding his audience a narrative about his financial proclivities.
“My problem isn’t collecting money,” he said, and, with the bills stacked in his hands, he gave them a hard flip. Suddenly, the ones had turned into $100 bills. To demonstrate that they were real, Pearlman flipped them over and shuffled through them. Eyes bulged.
“My problem,” he continued, his voice clear and commanding, “is reporting it to the IRS.”
He flipped the hundreds, and they reverted to ones. The grandparents gasped, and as Pearlman put the bills away, his wallet caught fire, and he smiled, the right side of his mouth opening widely, the left corner curling into a natural sneer that might have seemed mischievous if it weren’t so subtle.
But the grandparents barely noticed the smile or the flames. They were gossiping about the bill switch. “Isn’t he something?” a woman remarked, almost to herself.
It is not uncommon for magicians to perform the same successful routine for 30 years. But Pearlman had always been wary of magic’s negative cultural connotations—“People think Burt Wonderstone, cheesy stuff,” is how Adrian Saint, a part-time mentalist with whom Pearlman consults, puts it—and after turning pro he began studying mentalism. He devoured classic texts, like Tony Corinda’s Thirteen Steps to Mentalism, and to design routines he “backtracked,” meaning he’d conceive a premise—say, guessing the contact name that an audience member had scrolled to on an iPhone—and then devise a process by which he could ascertain that information, which would fool the spectator into thinking his mind had been read. “There are very sneaky ways of doing it,” Pearlman explains. “It’s like psychologically manipulating people.” In 2008, he formed a duo called The Unseen with Ken Salaz, a fellow New York City-based magician and mentalist; they sold out clubs and appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. For each routine, Pearlman made them rehearse at least 15 times.
“That’s how Oz builds his show,” Salaz told me. “He’s very precise.”
Salaz then went on about Pearlman’s professional humility (“He doesn’t hog the stage”), sense of humor, and “kind heart,” mentioning how Pearlman mailed him a thank-you card after they completed their run. Such traits can be rare in the industry, where the ability to fool a person can render performers haughty. But Pearlman believes the “key” to his profession is “the ability to connect with different audiences and morph into who they want you to be.” Often he’ll get calls from people who will recount every detail of a mind-reading prediction he’d done for them in the past and then hire him for a gig. “All the magic Oz does is fun and entertaining,” Murphy told me, “but the mentalism tricks he does stick with people for years.” Still, Pearlman enjoys subverting audience expectations. “People will tell me, ‘I don’t like magicians,’ ” he says. “And I’ll tell them, ‘I don’t do that. Let me show you what I do.’ ”
An hour before the bar mitzvah, Pearlman and I had been standing next to a baby grand piano, in a nook of a mezzanine, when I asked if he could perform a trick on me. He gladly obliged, and suddenly his disposition changed, from the energetic informality of our discussion about running, to the eye-piercing focus of one who casts a spell. He asked me to think of a trip I’d taken and a person I’d taken it with. The premise sounded familiar; I’d seen online videos where he uses it to fool people. I was skeptical, however, that it could apply on me, if only for the fact that the premise always seemed to lead to a conclusion so baffling as to be impossible.
But I complied and, for some reason, began to think of college road trips with friends. But nothing coalesced into specifics. Then my mind flashed to a cross-country trip I’d taken as a 13-year-old, with my family. That trip happens to hold particular significance—it was the first time I’d seen the eerie, splendorous Rockies; and it contains my earliest memory of panic, when, for a few minutes at our campsite at dusk, my dad and I couldn’t find my little sister. But none of that registered, and I simply did what Pearlman had instructed: wrote down “Rockies, 1997, Doug” (my father’s name) on a note card he had handed me, and folded it in half twice.
He, meanwhile, had turned away, beyond the piano. When I finished writing, he returned and, looking elsewhere, helped me rip up the note card into a dozen tiny pieces. Then he asked me to think about what I’d written, while he would ask me questions. Was the trip a long time ago? Was the person a man or a woman? I answered each honestly, while he scribbled on a notepad.
In some mentalism routines, what Pearlman jots down is what the audience member is thinking. This time, however, when he ripped off the paper, rather than showing it to me, he crumpled it up. Then he reached into his pants pocket and pulled out two note cards that were attached with a perfectly straight line of staples around their perimeter—an impenetrable envelope. He handed it to me. On one side, in a thick, black, printed font, was the word “Prediction.”
As I examined the staples, he asked me to agree he didn’t have a stapler on him. I had been watching him the entire time; he never stapled anything. He asked me to agree he never saw what I wrote. I glanced at the note card, in pieces on the piano, and agreed. Finally, he pointed out that there was no way he could have known about my vacation. This, too, was correct; there are only a handful of people in this world who could recall it. Anyway, the choice to think of it, as opposed to any other event, was entirely my own.
“Rip it open,” he said, nodding to the envelope.
I did. Inside, on a folded scrap of paper, written in blue ink, in generic male handwriting, was this: “I am picking up a vacation to the Rocky’s that happened in 1997 and another person there, named Doug.”
I have no idea how he did it. But he did.
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The versatile artist’s summer exhibit at the Skirball Center welcomes visitors into the lost world of his Holocaust survivor parents