There is a long tradition of Jews as magicians, illusionists and mentalists. The most famous of the 19th and early 20th centuries was Harry Houdini, a rabbi’s son born Erik Weisz. Israeli psychic Uri Geller became famous in the 1970s for bending spoons, presumably by merely looking at them. Most people are familiar with David Copperfield (David Seth Kotkin), who continues to draw audiences for his shows where he can make an elephant “disappear.”
This past January, PBS’ American Masters featured a program about Ricky Jay (Richard Jay Potash), who amazes with his sleight-of-hand magic. Others include Abraham Hurwitz, named New York City’s “Official Magician” by former Mayor La Guardia, and Max Maven (Philip Goldstein), an innovator of mentalism and host of a variety of TV shows abroad.
Not to be outdone, Arizona can boast its very own Jewish mentalist: Brett Barry. “My roots are in magic and there is some crossover,” Brett explains. “But, although we’re often lumped together, mentalists are quite different than magicians, in that we mentalists don’t use tricks. We use techniques and skills that are both inborn and developed.”
By age 8, Brett was fascinated with magic. He grew up in Beverly Hills, and his father would regularly take him and his brother to the local magic store at the original Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles. He and his brother put together a group called the Hocus Pocus Brothers and would entertain for neighborhood birthday parties. And he would listen to the stories of Papa Dave, his grandfather Dave Barry, who started as a Borscht Belt comic and performed with all the greats of his day, including Milton Berle, Frank Sinatra, Shecky Greene and Don Rickles.
Brett graduated from Emerson College in Boston with a speech and communications degree and was involved in radio programming. His first job out of college was as personal assistant to Norman Lear, the famous TV producer/director. “The job wasn’t as great as it sounds, though,” he admits. He also spent some time in a coveted position in a mailroom of a large talent agency, but he found himself disillusioned with what he saw of show biz.
Reality led Brett to a career in real estate, at which he has achieved great success for the last 25 years. But as his 50th birthday approached last month, he was excited and eager to turn the page to the next chapter of his life, to his real passion – performing as a mentalist. “It’s a giving thing,” he says. “I am able to give a sense of wonder to the audience, something we don’t get a lot of these days. I’m able to give them smiles and make them happy. It’s a great feeling.”
As his bookings increase, Brett foresees giving up real estate completely within a year or two.
“My real estate career has actually reinforced some of my mentalist skills,” he explains. To be a mentalist you have to be able to read people well, noting body language, speech rhythms and such. There’s personality profiling that comes into play. “Working so closely with people in real estate helped to hone my observation skills. Plus I learned how to close the deal, an important aspect of the business side of this work.”
He restarted his performing career in 2006 when a friend saw him bend a coin and asked him to perform for a company holiday party. It was then he realized how much he enjoyed performing and bringing joy to so many. “I love being able to recreate myself. And I’m lucky that while there are at least 100 magicians in town, there are only a couple of people who can do the types of things I do (as a mentalist).”
Members from both branches of Brett’s family tree come from Minsk. Brett grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in LA, becoming a bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Am with the well-known Rabbi Jacob Pressman. He married his wife, Lise, who converted to Judaism, in 1992. His work brought him to Scottsdale, where the family, including daughters Tira, 16, and Lindis, 18, each became a bat mitzvah at Har Zion Congregation. “I love that I am carrying on the long tradition of Jews being involved in magic and the mystical arts,” he says.
Brett is concentrating mostly on corporate events at this time. His performances range from the “strolling magician” type to parlor style to full-stage entertainment. “I even did my first bar mitzvah in April,” he says with a smile.
He finds that word of mouth is his best agent and proudly points out that he is the #1 rated local magician/mentalist on the online review site Yelp. And we doubt there’s any way he could have magically manipulated that!