NEW PORT RICHEY — For nearly 30 years, hypnotist Ken Whitener held audiences spellbound.
He could make a reserved 65-year-old man gyrate like a Chippendale dancer.
He convinced total strangers that they were long-lost friends.
If he said your foot was stuck to the floor, you couldn't move it.
As the "Wizard of Comedy," Mr. Whitener delighted and embarrassed audiences with his blend of slapstick and suggestion.
"He drew people constantly for us," said Bobby Jewell, owner of Side Splitters Comedy Club in Tampa, where Mr. Whitener performed more than 200 times.
"Once people heard he might be coming, they would say, 'Hey, when is Ken coming back?' " said Nick Sessa, an owner of the Palace Grand in Spring Hill. Over the last five years, Mr. Whitener consistently sold out 350-seat engagements.
Mr. Whitener collapsed on the golf course Wednesday. He died the same day of an apparent heart attack. He was 59.
A student of psychology, Mr. Whitener worked just as hard getting the right audience members to work with as he did hypnotizing them. He spoke clearly, his practiced baritone voice guiding the audience through a series of warmup exercises.
He asked them to reach their arms up in the air, as high as they could, said G. David Howard, a well-known local comedian who has booked joint appearances with Mr. Whitener for the last several years.
"He watched the room," said Howard, 70. "There were some skeptics who didn't participate. He wouldn't call on them. He asked them to lock their fingers. Some wouldn't. In his mind, he's weeding out who he's going to ask on the stage."
In a celebrated stunt, Mr. Whitener convinced petite radio host Nancy Alexander that she was made of iron, then stood on her stomach as volunteers held her rigid torso and feet.
The magic didn't always work. Once, audience members refused to perform a "hula dance" that conflicted with their religious beliefs.
Mr. Whitener grew up in Texas and entered college at age 16, studying theater and psychology at the University of Dallas. He went to law school but didn't finish, then sold real estate. All the while, he taught himself hypnosis, mostly by reading the encyclopedia and other books.
In the early 1980s, Mr. Whitener reinvented himself as a motivational speaker, though he went back to hypnosis as the market for motivational speakers declined.
He remained popular, and was booked for more than 40 appearances through November at fairs, colleges and comedy clubs in Florida and Texas. Along the way, Mr. Whitener managed to fool his subjects without humiliating them. Many bought videos of their own trance-induced antics.
"He sold the dickens out of the videos," Howard said. "All the people that were on that stage wanted a video of what they did up there."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2431.