|Eric Dittelman of Westborough has been a guest on David Letterman and is now a contestant on “America’s Got Talent.” (TAMIR KALIFA FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)|
This mind reader’s got talent
Eric Dittelman has a knack for knowing what people think. It may end up netting him a million bucks.
WESTBOROUGH — People always want to know whether Eric Dittelman can predict the future. One thing he will say: He has no idea whether he’ll win the million dollars.
After quitting his job as a music teacher a couple of years ago to pursue a full-time career as a mind reader, the 27-year-old Westborough native has sailed through the opening rounds of this season’s “America’s Got Talent,” on NBC. He’s dumbfounded the judges by correctly identifying their sketches while blindfolded and guessing the name of Sharon Osbourne’s first crush. Given the fact that Howard Stern, who joined the judges’ panel this season, has made it plain he would like to see a magic act win the million-dollar competition, Dittelman feels his time is now. He will appear on tonight’s live quarterfinals episode.
“It’s a risk,” Dittelman said recently of his career decision as he sat sipping a draft beer in the bar of the local pizzeria where he watched his first “America’s Got Talent” appearance with friends and family. “But it’s worked out so far.”
Like a lot of children, Dittelman grew up enthralled with the mystery of magic. He was raised around the stage: His father, a local actor, is still on the board of directors for the Westborough Players’ Club, and his mother helps backstage and with set design. (Dittelman recently moved back home with his parents.)
His older brother, Mark, was the captain of the Westborough High School Improv Troupe, and Eric, four years younger, held the position for three years. In his biggest role as a student actor, he played Snoopy in a production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” And he continues to pursue acting gigs: Dittelman shows up as an extra in “Ted,” standing next to Mark Wahlberg during a party scene.
His childhood interest in magic tricks was piqued by the high-profile career of the illusionist David Copperfield and the internationally televised stunts of the escape and endurance artist David Blaine. “It was not like little kids’ magic, with the sets they sell,” said Eric’s father, Lewis Dittelman, in a recent phone call. “He was doing some impressive stuff at a young age.”
When Dittelman began learning about the art of mind reading, he knew he wanted to carve his own path.
“The biggest difference is that in magic you go in knowing nothing’s real, and you’re willing to suspend your disbelief,” said the affable performer, whose smiling face is framed by hipster glasses and a dark goatee. “With mind reading, people aren’t so sure.”
In fact, as Dittelman takes pains to note, he makes no claim to any sort of supernatural ability. “I personally don’t believe in that,” he said.
Contractually forbidden by the producers of the show to demonstrate his mind reading talents with a reporter, he does allude to the fact that the skill, like other forms of magic, is a matter of “misdirecting, and controlling the audience.”
“I always have to remind people this is just for entertainment,” he said.
In his first appearance on “America’s Got Talent,” which aired in early June, Dittelman nailed his audition in Austin, Texas. Looking more than a little like Osbourne’s son Jack, he wrapped duct tape around his eyes, then asked the judges to make quick drawings on pieces of paper.
They looked astonished when he accurately described each of their pictures: Stern’s scribbled self-portrait, an ear for Howie Mandel, and Osbourne’s doodle of a pair of little round glasses (like her husband, Ozzy, wears).
On a subsequent show, Dittelman asked Osbourne to think of the name of her first boyfriend, which she wrote on a piece of paper. When Dittelman guessed the name, she mock-scolded him: “Reading my mind — that’s private business!” Afterward, she told Stern she had made up the name. “I didn’t go [out] with any guy called Robin,” she said, mystified.
As Dittelman left the stage, show host Nick Cannon joked that if his stage act doesn’t pan out, he should go to work for the CIA.
While greeting acquaintances at his local watering hole, Dittelman recalled his first appearance on national TV.
“I’m glad Howie made the point, just like I do in my live shows, that we did not predetermine anything,” he said. “I don’t use stooges, plants, or confederates. It’s all ‘What you see is what you get.’ ”
He works diligently on his craft. At one point he mentioned he had been reading pop psychology “for fun.”
When he was at Ithaca College, Dittelman built on his improv background to establish a standup comedy act at local open-mike nights, which eventually gave way to the development of his “mentalism,” as his brand of intuitive performance is sometimes called. Like any comedian, he had to figure out his strengths and weaknesses on stage.
“The tricky part is finding a place to be bad,” Dittelman said.
To this day he prefers to cater his act to college students. “I think I just relate to them,” he said. “My humor is kind of geared to them.”
Not that he is rowdy or raunchy: He’s a “Seinfeld” fanatic, and his favorite comedian, he said, is Jim Gaffigan, the droll joke-teller who doesn’t work “blue.” Though many of his magician friends share tales of their nightmare gigs at children’s birthday parties, his own act doesn’t really work with kids.
“My whole philosophy is that things are already magical to kids,” Dittelman said. “It’s adults who have lost the sense of wonder.”
When he’s not on the road, Dittelman performs in the Worcester area with the ensemble show Disillusioned Magic, which he cofounded. The ultimate payoff for the exposure he’s getting on “America’s Got Talent” would be a Las Vegas residency. As he said during his second appearance on the TV show, which took place in Vegas, it’s “really the magic and mentalism capital of the world.”
“It’s a tough town, I know,” Dittelman said. “You’d be competing with David Copperfield and Penn & Teller.”
Yet when he performed at Jeff McBride’s Wonderground, a monthly Vegas variety show held in a Mediterranean restaurant, he found himself welcomed into the magic world’s inner circle, rubbing elbows with Criss Angel (A&E’s “Mindfreak”) and Vegas headliner the Amazing Johnathan.
Dittelman has “a really natural, quick wit about him, a hip joviality,” said McBride on the phone from Mexico, where he was traveling with an illusionists’ tour that featured a couple of past “America’s Got Talent” contestants, Dan Sperry and Kevin James.
“He’s a strange combination of old school and new school. He’s like the Drew Carey of mentalism.”
If Dittelman is lucky enough to be crowned this season’s winner on “America’s Got Talent,” he will probably put the prize money back into his act, he said. That, and pay off the student loans “and other fun debt” he’s accumulated.
Though the response to his act has been overwhelmingly positive, there have been a few spoilsports who have tried to expose the secrets of mind reading, Dittelman said. He’s learning to deal with it.
“I’m just out there to hopefully put on good quality entertainment for regular people,” he said.
“As long as people are talking about you,” he added, “it’s a good thing.”
James Sullivan can be reached at