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Corporate 'Mentalist' Keeps Them Guessing

by Chris Baker

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If you don't believe in magic, you haven't met Dick Steiner.

Mr. Steiner is a professional "mentalist." He makes his living by making people believe he can "read" their minds and performs other magic tricks.

"I have the best job.  I never get tired of seeing how much fun people have," he says.  Businesses hire Mr. Steiner to perform at corporate retreats, holiday parties and other meetings.  He also performs at some private parties.

Last Tuesday, Mr. Steiner entertained a group of executives from Pepsi Bottling Group, a subsidiary of software drink maker PepsiCo Inc.  This meeting took place at the University of Maryland University College Inn and Conference Center in Hyattsville.

At 6:30 p.m., the mild-mannered Mr. Steiner - clad in a beige sport coat and a necktie that resembles an old-fashioned, glass Pepsi bottle - begins strolling around the dining room where the executives munch on chicken and sip beer.

He stops at each table and does a few tricks - or as he likes to call them - "effects."

For one trick, Mr. Steiner shuffles a deck of playing cards in front of a woman.  He asks her to pick a card but not reveal which one it is.  Then Mr. Steiner flips the cards over and shows that he has written the name of a famous couple in a marker on each card, including Bonnie and Clyde, Fred and Ginger, and Lucy and Ricky.

Mr. Steiner then correctly guesses the card that the person picked and flips it over to reveal the name of "the most famous couple of all" - Pepsi and Diet Pepsi.

"When I can, I like to customize an effect, to make each audience feel special," he says later.

One trick always get the biggest reaction.  Mr. Steiner asks an audience member to hold a small toy rabbit made out of a spongy material and squeeze it tight.  He instructs the person to say the magic words and then the person opens their hand to find the rabbit has turned into a litter of smaller, "baby" bunnies.

One woman screams when the trick is played on her. "How'd you do that?" she asks.

"Magicians never tell," Mr. Steiner replies.

Mr. Steiner uses the strolling magic to determine which audience members will make good participants for his stage show, which begins at 7:15 p.m.

He steps onto a small stage at the front of the room and performs a series of tricks, each one designed to be more outlandish than the last.

A copy of USA Today is shredded, and then appears in one piece again seconds later.  He passes around a book and asks a man to randomly pick a "challenging word" from a page.  Mr. Steiner "reads" the man's mind and correctly guesses the word.

Mr. Steiner passes around a book of Top 40 hits from the 1950s until today and asks another man to pick out a song title at random.  Mr. Steiner correctly guesses the title and the artist. ("Chain Gang" by Sam Cooke)

Perhaps the only thing more enjoyable than watching Mr. Steiner perform is watching his audience watch the show.

The reactions are the same, trick after trick.  Mouths drop.  Foreheads are slapped.  Words like "unbelievable" and "amazing" are muttered.  People gasp.


Mr. Steiner does about three shows a week.  He performs primarily in the Washington and Baltimore areas, although his work sometimes takes him to other cities.

He has performed at the White House, the Vice President's residence, the Australian Embassy and for the Baltimore Orioles, the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs.

Among the celebrities he has entertained: actors Halle Berry, Tom Selleck and Shirley MacLaine.

Magic is Mr. Steiner's second career.  He was always interested in it as a kid, but he didn't pursue it professionally until he completed a 21 year career in the Army in 1989.

"The difference between an amateur and a professional is an amateur does a lot of tricks for a few people.  A professional does a few tricks for a lot of people.  The amateur's friends always ask them 'Don't you have any new tricks?'  The professional goes all around the country entertaining different groups."

Mr. Steiner, 56, who lives near Annapolis, says his career as a magician has made him popular with his daughters, who are 8 and 11.

Mr. Steiner finishes packing up his belongings at the Pepsi event about 9 p.m. when one of the executives who missed the show approaches him and asks if he could do a few tricks.

It's a minor hassle, but Mr. Steiner says he doesn't mind.

"This really is the best job.  I want to keep going until I get tired.  Quite frankly, I can't conceive being tired of it," he says.