Sitting down to interview hypnotist Marshall Sylver in a darkened corner of the Laff Stop--after one of his Tuesday night performances there--the first two things you notice are that he is still wearing his sunglasses and that he is tape-recording the interview.
Perfect, telling details. Both neatly encapsulate what Sylver appears to be all about: building a hugely successful career, and jealously--or zealously--protecting that career along the way.
Why does Sylver, who isn't exactly a household name, use the recorder when even the superstars rarely feel the need to do so?
"I tape every one of my interviews," said Sylver, who bills himself as "the world's fastest hypnotist."
"It's just a habit of mine that I've had for a long time."
Long time? The guy is 26. True, he started performing magic when he was 7. Maybe he was the subject of a nasty profile in Highlights magazine? Perhaps he was severely misquoted in Boys Life? Sylver makes no mention of problems with the press or inaccurate quoting, but the implication is clear: He can't be too careful.
And what about those sunglasses? It is understandable that he would use the slick dark specs on stage to help him project that image of an unctuous, frequently posing lounge lizard. But considering that, at the moment, Sylver was sitting in a section of the club that is virtually pitch black, sporting the shades fell somewhere between unnecessary and ridiculous.
"Well, they have three real uses," he explained. "No. 1: They are a press tool, kind of like Michael Jackson's sock. (Sock ? ) . It's just a trademark. No. 2: They are not only a trademark, they make me very easily recognizable. And No. 3: They really enhance trance. You see in hypnosis, many of the principles boil down to what people believe (is) true. In other words, if people believe the moment I take off my glasses that they will relax in hypnotic relaxation, they will. . . .
"At the beginning, people told me that the glasses wouldn't work, that people would be taken aback by the glasses. What I would rather develop is almost a hero for people that helps them believe in themselves. Someone who can go: 'Look, this is you, this is your life! Take charge of it!' "
Sylver seems unfazed at the dichotomy of a man espousing belief in oneself, not to mention being yourself and the attendant openness, while wearing shades during a one-on-one conversation in a dark corner of a nightclub.
"You think it's guarded; I'm not talking to a lot of other people right now. . . . Honestly, there's nothing being hidden because my eyes are just like yours. . . . Because I've just (finished) the show, I'll keep the glasses on till the night's over. That's just the way I work."
"I have actually three areas of focus," Sylver continued, again breaking into his verbal packaging mode. "Area No. 1 is the shows. We do the shows as an entertainment and as an advertising tool. Second area of focus for my company, which is called Sylver Enterprises, is wellness programs.
"We do corporate wellness programs and programs for the private sector: weight loss and nonsmoking, stress reduction, creative release, athletic performance wellness programs. Third area of focus is sales training."
But everything in the Sylver empire seems to spring from area No.1--the stage persona. "I am portraying a character," Sylver said, "and that's all that it is: a character of the world's fastest hypnotist."
In talking with Sylver off stage, it is difficult to determine just where the portrayal of that character starts and stops. Officially, of course, the character starts when the show does.
Another episode of the "Sylver Hypnotic Revue," which has been running at the Laff Stop virtually every Tuesday since February, 1987. . . .
Wending his way through a predominantly teen-age crowd, Sylver--wearing black pants, white shirt and, of course, those shades--takes the stage with a big flourish. A smoke bomb booms and he immediately introduces the slick deejay voice (he was in fact a disc jockey in San Diego), phony chuckle and cornball posing that both characterize his performance and make him a contender for the Lounge Lizard Hall of Fame. He will demonstrate more posing in the next 90 minutes or so than most rock stars do in 10 years.
Two dozen audience members scamper to the side of the stage in the hope of winding up among the eight subjects Sylver will select for the show. After hypnotizing most of these candidates on stage (some don't go under, though some folks sitting in the audience do ), Sylver picks his eight co-stars. What follows is an entertaining, innuendo-laced evening.
Early on, each subject receives a "magic peephole," a small piece of paper with a hole in the center. Through Sylver's suggestion, the subjects believe that the peepholes enable them to see people without their clothes. But since Sylver has included the suggestion that they are not to use the peepholes when he is facing them, there is some amusing visual business as he turns back and forth, and the subjects are alternately getting an eyeful or trying to hide their peepholes in the manner of very guilty-looking little kids.
Moments later he has them believing that they are all naked--some quickly retreat behind the curtain, others calmly remain seated. Sylver also directs specific suggestions toward single subjects, which will be triggered by a word or phrase.
After he has done this, for example, the words safety belt cause the guy seated on the end to leap across the laps of the other subjects; cartoon prompts another gent to declare, "My name is Tinkerbell, and I'm the world's biggest fairy." One woman gives Sylver a big hug each time he asks, "Are we having fun?"
Collectively or individually, the subjects engage in several other activities, some racy, some silly, some downright impressive. Sometimes, Sylver will turn one of the male subjects into a fire-eater. He typically closes by making the body of one of the female subjects so stiff that he can place her across two supports and stand on her.
But he doesn't leave the stage before touting the wares on sale: various hypnotic cassette programs and single tapes, as well as videotapes of that evening's performance. (A single cassette on, say, "Power Programming," goes for $12.95, while the video costs $35.)
Throughout the evening, whether tossing out hypnotic suggestions or pitching his products, Sylver comes across as smooth, in control and supremely confident.
"I have a lot of fun on stage, and sometime I'm arrogant," Sylver said. "I'm the first person to tell you I'm egotistical."
In a different part of the conversation, he acknowledged that these very traits probably contributed to making his two appearances a couple years ago on "Late Night With David Letterman" so disastrous. Any regular "Letterman" viewer knows Dave has particular contempt for phonies and/or "show business weasels."
Sure enough, when he joined Letterman, wearing those sunglasses, talking with that affected speech and reflecting that oily manner, Sylver was hit with a barrage of biting sarcasm. "I was cocky. . . . I set myself up to be ripped apart, and I take full responsibility for it."
Though his "Letterman" debut was unpleasant and unsuccessful for both parties, Sylver returned to the show a few days later--he says the return appearance was due to mail response from viewers; Letterman implied it was under the threat of legal action--and things didn't go any better. He hasn't been on since, spending time lately in the more appropriate setting of "The Late Show."
In his last "Late Show" performance, he hypnotized a whole section of the audience; Laff Stop regulars might have recognized a "Hypnotic Revue" subject and a Laff Stop employee among the entranced whom Sylver subsequently singled out to carry out his suggestions.
Probably just coincidence.
Meanwhile, Sylver continues his Tuesday night appearances at the Laff Stop while trying to expand his budding empire. He says he is currently negotiating to mount a larger version of his show in a Las Vegas casino lounge. This ongoing engagement would be attractive to him not only because it would involve a big production in a big room, but also because it would allow his other "areas of focus" to flourish.
"I'm very excited about it because Las Vegas is the convention capital of the country. . . . We can do our sales training, our motivational programs and our wellness programs all day long and do our performances at night."
His idea for the design of a Vegas set for his show?
You guessed it.
"A giant pair of glasses."
Marshall Sylver appears each Tuesday at the Laff Stop, 2122 S.E. Bristol St., Newport Beach. Show time: 8:30 p.m. Tickets: $7.50. Information: (714) 852-8762.