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Feature story: Modern-day magician

Budding mentalist -- and Googler -- puts on a show in Palo Alto

Seasoned performers know that a quiet audience is not always a bad thing. The people out there in the dark may be rapt, or stunned, or just listening too hard to make a sound.

Stage magician David Gerard strives for a particular kind of silence from his audiences, composed of "the moments of pure astonishment, like when you're a kid again."

The fleeting instants are "a lifelong challenge to achieve," he says. "I may have one of those in my shows."

Most weekend nights, Gerard is out in downtown Palo Alto trying to find those moments. On University Avenue, he'll stop passers-by for an informal sleight-of-hand show, the sort he also does at corporate parties, perhaps with a deck of cards or a book as a prop.

Lately he's also been doing stage performances at the little Dragon Theatre on Alma Street. These hybrid shows mix sleight-of-hand with "mind-reading," or "mentalism."

Mentalism shows were all the rage in the 1800s, with mustachioed men claiming telepathic powers or performing flashy feats of hypnosis. Today, the term might elicit thoughts of the TV shows "The Mentalist" or "Psych," in which witty guys solve crimes with their finely tuned powers of observation -- and they don't mind if people think they're genuine psychics.

As for magic tricks, everyone can conjure up their own image of a rabbit or a lady in a flashy dress who gets cut in half.

Gerard, though, bills his show as "modern magic," more cerebral than sequined, but still decidedly entertainment. So how does a 23-year-old kid who works at Google craft a magic show for the contemporary crowd?

He started out on a traditional path, asking his dad to buy him magic tricks at FAO Schwarz. By the time he was a student at Penn State, he was joining a juggling club and putting on his own shows. After graduation, he headed west for a sales and marketing gig at Google in Mountain View.

He's a member of the Society of American Magicians, where, he says, the local folks all know each other. When asked whether he knows of Kim Silverman, a dramatic-looking bearded Mountain View magician, Gerard responds right away. "He works at Apple."

Gerard is a smooth talker, and -- fittingly for someone who works in marketing -- he's very interested in his image. David Gerard is his stage name, which he preferred to go by for this article. He models himself more in the style of contemporary illusionist and daredevil David Blaine than the 1800s mentalists.

While the traditional mentalist or magician was an arrogant fellow, ready to make audiences look like dupes, Blaine is more laid-back. Gerard says he likes to connect with watchers, whether they're members of a stage audience or guests at a party where he's strolling around doing close-up tricks. He keeps a careful eye on how his audience reacts to him.

That intense observation is key for a mind-reader who freely admits he doesn't have any psychic abilities. When he asks an audience member to randomly choose a word from a book and then figures out what the word is without looking, he's not using telepathy. He's watching the person's body language, eye movements and reactions to things he says.

For instance, when Gerard asks if the last letter of the word is a vowel or consonant, a person can't help but smile or rock back and forth a little if it's a Y.

"There's different schools of thought (on mentalism shows)," Gerard says. "Mine is a combination of psychology, body language and misdirection. A magician does tricks with objects. I do tricks with pieces of information." He grins. "You shouldn't know when it's real or when it's an illusion."

On a recent evening on University Avenue, Gerard stops a young couple walking by, offering to do a few tricks. Giggling, they assent and introduce themselves as Pat and Michelle. Gerard figures out their word from the book, and finds their chosen cards in the deck more than once.

"Not bad at all," Pat says.

"Not too shabby," Michelle agrees.

Sometimes Gerard gets something wrong in a trick, or sometimes an audience member is an excellent liar and stumps him. That's all right, he says. Mistakes let the audience know he's using his human ability -- which is fallible -- rather than some kind of plastic parlor trick.

"It's not YouTube," he says. "It's different every time."

What: Shows of magic and mentalism by David Gerard

Where: The Dragon Theatre, 535 Alma St., Palo Alto

When: Gerard's Dec. 9 shows just sold out. He's planning two more on Jan. 13, at 7:30 and 10 p.m.

Cost: $15

Info: Go to davidgerardlive.com.

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