Magin, comic and mentalist Jay Alexander. (Photo/Steve Marshall)
Magin, comic and mentalist Jay Alexander. (Photo/Steve Marshall)

Q&A: Sleight-of-hand artist Jay Alexander plays ‘Mind Tricks’

Jay Alexander plays mind tricks. The 53-year-old Sausalito resident discovered the art of magic as a boy, quickly became transfixed and pursued it as a career. Blending magic, mind-reading and comic antics, Alexander has taken his “Mind Tricks” show on the road for years — entertaining at corporate events, benefits and private parties, including for the Rolling Stones when he was hired to entertain the band during three U.S. tours. More recently, he’s settled down a bit and can usually be found onstage four nights a week at his own theater in San Francisco.

J.: You’ve been described as a magician, comic and mentalist. What is mentalism?

Jay Alexander: It’s a style of magic. It’s a little psychological — it mixes psychology with magic. I call myself a mental magician.

You started doing magic tricks as a child. What inspired you?

My grandfather took me to a magic show, then we went up to the attic in his house. There was a trunk with magical apparatus and escape illusions, and I started playing with it. It belonged to my great-grandfather, a vaudevillian out of Texas. “Gentleman Ben Darwin” was a strongman and escapist — part of it was real and part of it was magic to create an illusion.

How’d you learn magic tricks?

For my 11th birthday, my grandfather bought me a magic set. I had terrible dyslexia and a speech impediment as a child, but I read the instructions over and over until I got it. I would perform at a children’s shoe store in Houston, where I grew up. One day someone asked “Do you do children’s birthday parties?” and I said “All the time.”

You even performed at your own bar mitzvah.

All I wanted to do was perform!

Jay Alexander performing at his own Bar Mitzvah.
Jay Alexander performing at his own Bar Mitzvah.

Apparently you were pretty good, earning the Society of American Magicians’ Gold Medal of Honor at age 14.

The Society of American Magicians holds a competition every year. It’s done on a point system. I had a mentor I met at 13, an Irish magician who performed in the Catskills. He had a magic club for kids in Houston and helped me put together an act. I was the first person under 18 to get the gold medal.

After attending a high school for the performing arts and moving to San Francisco, you carved out a career entertaining a wide variety of clients, including special  shows for the late, great Robin Williams. What was he like?

Robin was always very kind to me. I would open for him at the Throckmorton Theater in Mill Valley. Once he brought Mort Sahl to see my show — I think that was one of the most stressful things for me — to be on stage, thinking this is a true living legend watching me. I felt like I was a kid again.

These days, you regularly perform at the 45-seat Marrakech Magic Theater in San Francisco.

Most of my career was spent doing corporate events and on cruise ships. I opened the Magic Theater five years ago. Most people have never seen magic up close and personal. At my theater they get to know the performer when they come in. I’m in control of everything. I do almost all the performances and try to learn everyone’s name.

Magic is about connecting with people, it becomes sort of a universal language. People feel this mystery and wonder.

Sounds like your grandfather helped get you started on your path in life.

We were very close. I spent every day with my grandfather. He was born in Houston. As he got older, most of his friends were survivors. He felt it was his place to tell the story of the Holocaust through his paintings and poetry. Every day he painted pictures about the Holocaust [scenes of ghettos, gaunt people wearing the yellow Star of David, etc.]. One would go under the bed, one would go in the closet … When he passed away at 96, there were 280 paintings. The whole family was in shock! No one knew there were so many.

What happened to the collection?

I photographed every one and took the canvases. They’re now in a warehouse in Virginia. This is a life’s work that I’d like to give to a Jewish museum.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.