Putting Audiences to Sleep Has Made Hypnotist Tom Deluca the Year's Big Man on Campus

updated 12/01/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/01/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Most stage magicians want you to believe what they're doing is real," says hypnotist-magician Tom DeLuca, 34. "I come out and say, 'This is fake, so let's have a good time.' " And do they ever. Witness a recent overflow crowd of 800 enthusiastic students at Georgetown University who awaited DeLuca's shenanigans by clapping, stomping and chanting "TOM!...TOM!...TOM!"

Such rock-star frenzy is triggered by DeLuca's ability to hypnotize audience volunteers into doing loony things, such as slipping into Michael Jackson moon-walks or speaking in a language from another planet. The enthusiasm has earned DeLuca the title of Campus Entertainer of the Year for 1986 by the National Association for Campus Activities, whose members represent such heavyweights as Linda Ronstadt, Kenny Rogers and Robert Klein. The award is not a frivolous one: The 1985 winner was Huey Lewis and the News, and in 1984 the Police collared the honor.

Audiences know better than to look to DeLuca to do something as mundane as pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Despite his teddy bear looks and soft trust-me voice, he is someone to be reckoned with onstage. After warming up the crowd with a mix of card tricks and comedy (funny slides from his travels or some ventriloquism), DeLuca gets down to the highlight of his 2½-hour act: He plucks about 20 volunteers from the crowd, hypnotizes them and turns them loose to follow his suggestions. By the end of the performance at Georgetown, for example, the students have gone fishing, forgotten their names, huddled together because they imagined cold, tried to peel off some of their clothes because they imagined heat and regressed to the age of 5 to sing theme songs from their favorite TV shows. ("Yabadabadoooo..." yells out one man, while a girl imitates Barbara Eden squirming out of her I Dream of Jeannie bottle.) "What I do is get people to use their imaginations," explains DeLuca, who avoids embarrassing his volunteers. "Hypnosis relaxes them, and the unconscious mind kicks in." Indeed the reviews from participants are top-notch. "It's like I've just had a great massage," says a Georgetown coed who was hypnotized by DeLuca. Adds a male student: "It's like a daydream."

A native of Clifton Park, N.Y. and a University of Miami graduate, DeLuca was out of work in 1975 when he took up hypnotism for a job running a weight-loss and quit-smoking clinic in Decatur, III. (He left his parents a note that read, "Have moved to Illinois to hypnotize people.") Within two months DeLuca's clinic had the highest success rate in the chain. One client, a local hotel owner, enjoyed DeLuca's comic banter and offered him a job performing. Soon he was moonlighting at clubs around the Midwest. (He worked with a theater group at Second City in Chicago but gave it up after his instructor said his gentle voice was putting audiences to sleep.) In 1979 he started appearing before college crowds and decided he preferred the campus atmosphere. "You can't hypnotize drunks," he says of his early club days. "They can't concentrate."

Still there were some outings that are unlikely to land on his résumé. At a university in Wisconsin two years ago, he performed in a cafeteria where hungry students were more interested in their lunch than in his act. He stopped the show and gave them their money back. At another cafeteria show, students began throwing veggies at him. "That's the worst," he says. "Trial by watercress."

Now that he is a big man on campus he isn't suffering such indignities. He earns about $1,500 a performance and has already made about $250,000 this year. DeLuca hopes soon to cut back on his grueling 250,000-mile-a-year schedule; he's hoping to land more work closer to Brooklyn, where he and fiancée Lori Sanchez, 23, a sales representative, have just purchased a condo. "With all of the traveling, he's learned to sleep sitting up," notes Lori. "He came to visit my mother in the hospital, sat in a chair and fell asleep."

Luckily audiences don't have that reaction—except for his hypnosis volunteers. "Freud said hypnosis isn't real," DeLuca says. "He'd put people under and they would lie to him. I think hypnosis is real, but Freud was a bad hypnotist."

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