Dollars and No Sense
There are two Marshall Sylvers onstage in front of 500 rapt fans in a high-ceilinged ballroom at the Adam's Mark hotel. One Marshall Sylver is on a larger-than-life poster, posed in front of a Rolls-Royce, its hood ornament perfectly in focus. This Sylver wears a tailored suit and a shiny watch displayed prominently on his wrist. Sunglasses sit low on his nose, and Sylver is pointing his hands at the camera in mock gun positions, looking directly at the lens and arching one eyebrow.
The other Marshall Sylver is the real thing, a 6-foot-tall guy with slick brown hair and just a little more paunch than can be seen on the Rolls poster. His suit is pinstriped, and his shirt is purple. The initials "MS" are embroidered on his cuffs. Marshall Sylver is proud of his name—gather silver,get it? He jokes about it to his audience, all of whom diligently take notes on little yellow pads.
According to Marshall Sylver, Marshall Sylver is "the greatest hypnotist of all time." He has appeared on the Late Show With David Letterman and in his own hypnotism revues in casinos all over Las Vegas, where, he makes sure to note for his audience, he owns a $12 million mansion. He'll show them a slide show presentation of his pad in a few hours, because this weekend isn't really about cool hypnotism tricks and Vegas stunts. It's about generating "MASSIVE WEALTH!" Presumably for attendees. Very presumably.
I'd come across a Craigslist ad in early June. If I could scare up $1,500, some guy would sell me a couple of tickets to the weekend Turning Point Seminar, a two-day session led by Sylver. There, I would learn how to be happy "ALL THE TIME," which sounded like a steaming "CROCK OF SHIT." But if he's dealing some good stuff, why not see if I could take a hit? A couple of phone calls later, I was Sylver's personal guest to the Dallas seminar, gratis.
I take my reserved seat at the front of the room as a Will Smith hit plays over the loudspeakers. Mostly white and middle-class couples chatter excitedly.
Behind me, a woman tells her neighbor she's from Tampa. "I had tickets to this thing an hour away in Orlando," she says, "but I couldn't make it there."
Admission to Turning Point is supposed to be $3,000, but most of the eBay and Craigslist ads I found offered a 50 percent discount. Looking around at the dirty tennis shoes and worn handbags around me, I'm guessing these attendees were glad for the break.
Sylver opens with a series of clips from The Karate Kid, walks onstage to rousing applause and launches into a three-hour empowerment super-talk punctuated by mottos such as "be in the here and now." He pulls out $100 bills from the inside pocket of his suit jacket, paying people to talk about their greatest hopes and fears. Around me, I hear awe-inspired whisperings about Sylver's generosity. A middle-aged woman gets $100 for singing onstage; figure 250 couples at the seminar, and Sylver gets $375,000 for smarming onstage.
His first piece of concrete advice: hire domestic help. All millionaires have maid service; even if you're not blinging yet, why not live like you are? Don't waste your time doing "MWAs" (minimum wage activities) when you could be figuring out how to pay Marshall Sylver to tell you to pay someone else to vacuum the La-Z-Boy.
Sylver tells his life story: Once, he was a dirt-poor kid—born Marshall Sylwesterzak—with nine siblings, eating peach cobbler for dinner because it was the last food his mother had in the house. He became a teenage cocaine addict who pulled himself out of addiction by learning hypnotism, then putting on his own shows. At lunch, I ask Sylver how a hypnotist decides he's going to tell people how to get rich.
"I know about stage presence," he says, and "I know how to run a business. I can promote." He started off doing corporate seminars for Kentucky Fried Chicken more than 20 years ago, and that blossomed into the programs he runs today. Soon, he tells me, he'll be doing that right here in Dallas, hosting Turning Point Seminars monthly. He thinks we are a prime test market for his wealth-building gospel.
The basic message of Turning Point? Work hard and do your homework, something Sylver clearly does himself. A couple of days earlier, Sylver left me a voicemail; he'd read my recent article about how I'd started performing stand-up comedy. He'd started out in comedy clubs with his hypnotism shows, too, he said. He knows how tough those crowds can be. I am impressed. The quickest way to get thick with a comedian is to do a little ego-strokage.
Throughout the seminar, Sylver calls me out of my seat, telling the crowd I am a stand-up comedian who understands what it's like to try and impress an audience. He even has me stand up and wave. Sylver knows just how I like it. And, skeptical though I was going into the seminar, he seems like an OK, if schmoozy, ego-driven guy. If these people want to pay to be told to work hard and invest, who cares? It's not like he's begging for their money. Until he starts begging for their money.
During the afternoon session, Sylver holds out his arms, saying, "I believe all I have to do is hold my hands out and people will give me money." To my left, a woman whose husband had testified in front of the group about how Sylver's next-level seminar, the Millionaire Mentorship Program, had helped them find hope after the death of their 8-year-old son, reaches into her purse. She is one of the first to put a bill in Sylver's hands. Soon, much more than half the room, including teenagers and kids, are running toward the front with cash. An Asian woman pours the entire contents of her billfold into Sylver's arms. Several $100 bills fall out. Smiling, with cries of "This is fun!" these people are clamoring to give money to Sylver, owner of a beach house, a $12 million mansion and a private jet. I've never seen such blind dedication. I half expect to see Jesus Christ himself sitting in the back, taking notes.
Sylver tells us he'll give the money to a California charity and hands the Asian woman a fresh $1,000 in cash from his pocket. We get a couple of hours of playtime before Sylver plies us for cash once more.
With his deep, smooth voice, Sylver spends 35 minutes hypnotizing everyone at once, making us giggle and raise our arms before snapping us to consciousness. Then, he shows us how to inhale all the oxygen from our mouths and quickly fill them with flaming cotton balls on the end of a stick. Five or six at a time, nearly everyone at the seminar gets onstage and eats flames while the rest cheer. But soon, the fun part is over. Sylver starts his hard sell—merely suggesting people give him money was plenty effective, but things work just as well when he tells them to, under the guise of hinting that they may win an oh-so-fabulous prize.
The first person in the room to get four people to sign up for his next Turning Point Seminar will win a free mentor lunch tomorrow with Sylver—a service normally worth $30,000. Even if you aren't the first in line with the appropriate credit card numbers in hand, he says, you can get a discounted admission to the next-level Millionaire Mentorship Program—regularly an $8,000 value—if you're still able to get four people to commit. Before he's even finished his spiel, people jog to the back of the room, cell phones in hand, to call friends and family.
These folks really want that free lunch the next day—Father's Day—with Sylver. But I skipped the next day of the seminar and ate lunch with my dad. We had Boston Market, and it was priceless.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.