The hypnotic rock star

Mike Mandel is widely regarded as one of the world’s best hypnotists, with a career that spans decades and includes run-ins with some of Canada’s top music and comedic talents. He is now getting ready to take the stage for the last time. (Photos submitted)

By Joel Wittnebel

For about 45 years, Mike Mandel has been travelling the world, putting people under his spell.

With a few words, he can lock your hands together. A few more and you could be completely gone, you could forget your name, or shovel non-existent snow, or even drive in an invisible car, usually to the delight of a laughing and clapping audience.

Widely regarded as one of the world’s best hypnotists, with a career that spans decades and includes run-ins with some of Canada’s top music and comedic talents, Mandel has made quite a name for himself, a name that has been immortalized in song, and appeared on CBC, YTV, W5, Discovery and Bravo.

Now, Mandel is getting ready to take the stage for the last time, to thrill a final audience of people with his wit and hypnotic skill.
And how does one learn such a skill?

Well, for Mandel, it all started above an animal clinic in Toronto.

Mike Mandel during a gig in the 1980s.

The start of it all

Mandel’s story began on Walbeck Avenue in Chatterton, a town in Manchester, UK. Mandel was born in the home, similar to many children in those days. However, Mandel wasn’t long for the UK, as he only spent a few years there.

When Mandel was young, his father took advantage of a Bell Canada advertisement seeking qualified engineers to come work in Canada. So, his father sailed off to North America, shortly to be followed by Mandel, his sister, and their mother. The family immediately settled in Toronto.

When he was eight-years-old, Mandel says his fascinations began to turn to everything magic, starting with card tricks and sleight of hand. However, it wasn’t until the age of 12 when he first discovered hypnotism, and the innate talent that he seemed to possess for the skill.
It was in 1965, during a trip to a Cole’s book store, when Mandel’s father told him to pick a book, any book, and he could have it. He chose a book on hypnotism, and took it home with greedy intent.

“I took this home and learned all the contents,” Mandel recalls.

At this point in his childhood, Mandel’s family had moved to their second home in Toronto, this one along Victoria Park Avenue, and sat next to a veterinary clinic.

Above the clinic lived a family with two young kids who Mandel had made friends with. These two became his first hypnotic subjects.

“The one, it was just a big joke to him, but the other, the older brother, I got him into hypnosis and cataleptic, and made his hand go numb, stuck pins in his fingers and he couldn’t feel it,” Mandel recalls. He was hooked.

“That was really the start of it as a kid, I got fascinated by hypnosis and found out I was pretty good at it pretty quickly.”

Mike Mandel has done a show at McMaster University.

Finding his path

Despite his seemingly ingrown talent for the hypnotic arts, Mandel learned early on that school just wasn’t for him.

It wasn’t for a lack of good grades though. In fact, the hypnotic prodigy skipped Grade 4, jumping from Grade 3 to Grade 5. However, this was no blessing in disguise.

Being lumped into a split glass of Grade 5 and 6s, Mandel was forced to work at a Grade 6 level by a teacher who, he claims, just had it out for him.

“I just lost interest in school,” he says. “I hated it. I thought this is what it’s like.”

After school, Mandel worked odd jobs, and for a time, worked as a telephone operator for Bell Canada.

It wasn’t until 1975 when Mandel would connect the dots that would lead him to a career on stage.

In November of that year, Mandel went to see the Amazing Kreskin, a popular mentalist at the time and upon returning home from the show, he realized something.

“I came home and I was able to duplicate a lot of the things he did,” Mandel says.

Not long after, a friend, working as a booking agent for a number of Canadian bands, asked him if he wanted to book a gig. It was a talk-show, and it would be the beginning of it all.

“I was terrified. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but somehow the bug bit and that was it,” Mandel says. “I said goodbye to my job at Bell and I’ve been on the road doing this and doing hypnosis, in one form or another professionally for 44 years now.”

And as successful as he would go on to become, those early days were a grind. There was dealing with drunks in bars that wouldn’t listen to his gig and there were corporate acts filled with old businessmen who didn’t take the 21-year-old Mandel seriously.

However, there were some bright spots in those early days. There was the time he headlined a show alongside Jim Carey. The two of them flipping a coin to see who would hit the stage first. Carey won, and after the show, gave Mandel his number telling him to call if he ever wanted to go bowling. There was also the time he hypnotized Alanis Morissette on the stage of her Ottawa high school.

“They were the best of times, they were the worst of times,” Mandel says with a laugh.

However, using youth to his advantage, Mandel began to perform at universities and colleges across the province, and it was there, in front of willing kids only a few years younger than himself, that he learned the ropes of being a performer.

“That’s where my talents were able to be honed,” he says. “I was getting a lot of really good subjects and I was beginning to determine my own sort of routine and what was my own style at that time.”

However, early on, Mandel says he was taught a valuable lesson, a lesson that may still be kicking around inside his head even now, as he prepares to leave the stage for good.

It was in Palmerston, Ontario, 1975. Mandel was performing at the district high school in the small town about an hour outside of Guelph. The place was packed with kids, with about 25 to 30 volunteers filling the stage, ready to fall under his spell.

He started them off easy, perhaps the easiest hypnotic trick in the book, as he asks them to grip their hands together, and gives them the suggestion that they’re stuck, and can’t pull them apart. It’s an old trick to help identify who will make the best hypnotic subjects. This time though, it didn’t work.

“Every single one of them get their hands apart, immediately,” Mandel recalls, laughing at the memory. “It wasn’t even a challenge.”

And while he laughs it off now, it made him truly reconsider his act and how he thought about the profession he was getting into.

“The thing was, I realized I hadn’t studied hypnosis formally. I was somewhat of a hypnosis prodigy,” he says. “The problem with that was I had not yet ascertained what were the essentials of the art and what were the theatrics of the art. The two had become blurred in my mind.”

And now, as Mandel prepares to leave the theatrics behind him, the essentials are all that’s left, and he prepares to share them with the world.

However, that’s getting ahead of the story. First, Mandel needs to become a rock star.

Blasting off

It was 1978, three years into Mandel’s budding hypnosis career, his “kill rate” (the amount of subjects he was successfully hypnotizing on stage) was through the roof, and the interest was phenomenal. Right from the start, people were lining up to see his show.

Then, a chance meeting in the Sunshine State, between Mandel’s manager and another hypnotist would change everything.

It was an ambitious plan, one that was trying to tap into the mania surrounding space, and everything Star Trek and Star Wars. The idea, to create a travelling stage in the likeness of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, then hypnotize the audience and “take” them into outer space.

And so, they ran with it. A firm from Las Vegas was hired to design the set, a pyrotechnics company that did work for Kiss and Rush were brought in to formulate the indoor fireworks (fireworks that would explode and break apart over the crowd) and suddenly, Mandel went from performing for college and university students to shows in Vegas with an entire road crew and a manager.

“That’s what turned me into a hypnosis rock star,” Mandel says. “It was a blast at the time.”

Mandel’s show also benefited from the fact that he travelled with, and opened for, a lot of successful bands, which gave him access to a wide array of potential fans.

And he looked the part with his curly, shoulder-length brown hair, thin build, and intergalactic space suits he wore on stage. He was becoming quite the performer, touring extensively in the 1970s with bands like A Foot in Cold Water, Lighthouse, Max Webster, and Teenage Head and is immortalized in the Goddo song “Pretty Bad Boys”. “I ain’t no Mike Mandel, but I can read your mind,” the lyric goes.

However, after a couple years of the performance, anyone reading Mandel’s mind would have known that he was getting tired of it. Not only was it the extensive set-up and take down surrounding the show, but he was also locked in a creative box.

“I went from being able to improvise at will on stage for 90 minutes, to doing two and a half hour shows that I would have a grind three hour set-up and then an hour and a half tear down afterwards,” he says. “It just ran me into the ground. I just got sick of it.”

In the years that followed, his gigs would highlight his disdain for the props, as he left it all behind, sticking to simply an empty stage, and his uncanny ability to draw people in with only his voice.

“That’s the challenge I like, to create an event of entertainment with no props,” he says. “I like to just take the challenge and create everything in everyone’s imagination.”

Needless to say, he’s been successful doing it, and has been trusted by many to use his methods to help them, including a number of music talents, some so famous he won’t name them.

With that aside, Mandel is officially putting the theatrics behind him, but it may not be the last time you see him, as he plans to turn his mind and energies toward sharing his knowledge and skills, in order to help others.

“I want the focus of whatever years I have left to be helping other people, therapists, hypnotists, councillors, whatever, replicate excellence, so that they can spread the love around and help other people too,” he says.

Australian tour, 1990s.

The hypnotic epicentre

Historically, hypnosis was met with skepticism, and put on the shelf as an unreliable practice in healthcare.

Yet, during World War I, hypnosis was used to treat shellshocked soldiers returning home. Hypnosis was very successful in assisting with these victims of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or what at the time was known as battle fatigue.

Today, Mandel says that there has been a real awakening around the benefits of hypnosis.

“The pendulum has really swung the opposite way,” he says. “The skepticism of hypnosis has really faded over the years.”

And now, Mandel says the technique is undergoing its biggest boom since the 1800s, and he plans to focus his energies on centring Toronto as the “hypnotic epicentre”, a go-to place to learn the skill.

In fact, Mandel, along with partner Chris Thompson, are already teaching sold-out classes and offering a number of workshops and resources on the topic, drawing in a massive audience from all backgrounds and professions.

“They come in because they’re open minded, and they come to see it works and it just blows their minds and they take it back to their patients,” Mandel says.

And the benefits? Well, according to Mandel, they’re bountiful, and it’s actually something many people do on a daily basis, perhaps without even realizing.

Entering a trance state, like when driving a car at night or watching TV, is along the same lines of the internalized trance of hypnosis, activating many different parts of our brain, Mandel says.

“When we do that, all these wonderful resources become available. That’s how we can erase phobias very quickly and make swimmers into better swimmers and all these wonderful things that hypnosis is great for.”

One of those great things, also being the ability to heal.

During a recent summer stint at his cabin, Mandel was cooking a tray of ribs when he distractedly gripped the handle of the tray after taking it out of the oven, forgetting he’d already removed his oven mitts. He burned a few of his fingertips pretty badly.

Moving quickly, Mandel says he isolated himself in the bedroom, laid down and quickly put himself into a trance state for 15 minutes.

During that time, he envisioned a tiny firefighter inside his hand, coating the burns with liquid nitrogen. When the one finger would go numb, he would switch to the other finger, continuing this process for the length of his trance.

The next morning, when he awoke, the burns were nearly non-existent.

“You couldn’t even see where it had burned,” Mandel says.

And in terms of the diversity of uses for hypnosis, Mandel says the experts haven’t even begun to scratch the surface.

“It is still a never ending fascination. We have still not reached the limits of this,” he says.

Mike Mandel has performed at the Flamingo in Las Vegas.

The final show

Speaking about the moment that he steps on the stage for the last time (March 3 at the Regent Theatre in Oshawa, Ontario), Mandel says he really doesn’t know what to expect. At first, the thought that he may get emotional never crossed his mind, but as the date looms closer, it’s starting to sink in.

“I thought I was going to be fine with it,” he says. “It’s like saying goodbye to a friend in a way. I’m assuming I’m going to be an emotional basket case.”

With that said, he has no plans on letting his final group of fans down, and has friends, family and supporters from far and wide coming out to see his final performance.

“Everything I have to say, everything I want to say, I’m going to say right at the top, before the show,” he says.

Even with all the emotion, one of those things Mandel will not be talking about is regret. Instead, audiences can expect to hear a man, grateful for everything that he’s had the chance to do during nearly 45 years in front of the crowd.

“I honestly believe I am retiring from the stage at the peak of my abilities as a hypnotist,” he says. “I’m so grateful to all the awesome Canadian musicians who let me be their opening act, so I could learn my chops in front of ready-made audiences.”

And for one final time, a ready-made audience, will get the opportunity to be put under his spell.