IT'S 3 A.M. Those damn sleeping pills just aren't cutting it anymore. You stumble out of bed. Perhaps you light up a cigarette. Maybe you pop a brew or head for that pint of Haagen-Dazs. But no matter what else you do, you almost certainly turn on the tube. If so, it's a cinch you've seen Sam Meranto's Mind Power!, local TV's most hypnotic infomercial. Literally.

You think you've got problems? Get a load of the characters who routinely roam through Meranto's video den of dysfunction. Woe is we!

"They told me I'd never work again!" crows a 79-year-old man recovering from recent knee-replacement surgery. The studio audience breaks into wild applause when the spry septuagenarian reveals that thanks to the miracle of Mind Power, he's just landed a job--as a cowboy on a Mesa ranch.

The parents of a Bad Seed, meanwhile, describe how the rotten apple of their eye very nearly drove them crazy with her antisocial antics. Happily, after several Mind Power sessions, the 6-year-old kid has zoomed to the head of her class and won a kiddie beauty pageant to boot.

And on another show, a Vietnam vet with 50 arrests on his rap sheet attributes his violent temper to the fact that he was "programmed to kill" during the war. However, the onetime killing machine now leads a rich, rewarding and pacifist lifestyle after being "deprogrammed" by Sam Meranto's hypnotic audio tapes.

Life's biggest losers emerge as winners on Mind Power!. Alcoholics jump on the wagon. Drug addicts shrug off those monkeys on their backs. Wife-beaters hang up their gloves. The chronically depressed put on happy faces. Somewhere out in TV Land, no doubt, a nail-biter discovers quick relief.

And they owe it all to an ex-vacuum- cleaner salesman.

ON A RECENT weekday morning, a handful of Sam Meranto's followers has come to a modest stucco building on East Indian School Road for a dose of "mind power." Sporting headsets, they're lying on recliners in the Mind Power nerve center, a room that looks like a cross between a La-Z-Boy showroom and (thanks to a huge South Seas mural) a tanning-salon lobby. But right now all lights are extinguished, save for tiny disco lights flickering across the ceiling.

"I don't know who we've got in here today," says Meranto as he strains to identify the semi-slumbering bodies. "I think we've got a weight-loss over here," he says, indicating the snoring inhabitant of one chair. The person--apparently a heavyset woman--wears twinkling electric goggles said to increase relaxation. Prerecorded relaxation, it seems, appears to be a key element of Meranto's "mind power" therapy. Following a one-on-one evaluation session (a meeting which may or may not involve live hypnotism, depending on the problem), Meranto selects audio tapes from a vast library covering everything from fear of flying to bed-wetting. While soothing sound effects and music lull listeners into a daydreamy state believed to "open up" the subconscious mind, Meranto's prerecorded voice guides the subject through a variety of visualization exercises, dropping hypnotic suggestions and power-of-positive- thinking maxims every step of the way.

Well, not every step of the way. Clients who opt to listen to tapes at home also may wind up hearing a rather jarring reminder regarding copyright infringement. "I want no one to copy my tapes," commands Meranto's taped voice midway through the Re-Program From Womb audiocassette. "It's illegal. Thou shall not steal--it's written in the Bible. If someone wants my tapes, let 'em get 'em like you did . . . . If anyone gets 'em illegally, they'll work reverse for you. That's a good suggestion, right?"

If a lot of Meranto's patter has a religious ring (insomniacs are told there's no sleeping pill on earth "stronger than your faith in the Lord"), that's because Sam Meranto claims to work closely with the Man upstairs. "I believe I have what all churches dream of," says Meranto, who says he is an ordained minister in the Community Church of Truth. "All churches dream of getting their members to control their lives, to be closer to God and to lead better, happier lives. And I believe that's what I'm doing here."

If nobody knows the troubles Sam Meranto has seen, they're just not paying attention.

"Lemme tell you, the world is really in sad shape these days," says the 59-year-old Meranto, a Tom Jones look-alike with a heavy East Coast accent. "People today have got problems like you wouldn't believe."

Believe it.
To walk through the cramped offices of his Mind Control Faith Center is to be reminded of every misery that could possibly test the human spirit. A photograph of Meranto with Donny and Marie Osmond triggers a tale of stage fright. Another pose, this one with Yancy Derringer star Jock Mahoney, spurs memories of the actor's struggles with a stroke. A life-size statue of Meranto carved from a 400-pound tree trunk prompts a story about the sculptor, who suffered from chronic migraines. A terse label on a videocassette box ("SMOKER/RAPED DAUGHTER") provides a sordid clue to another client's demons. And everywhere there are photocopied testimonials, some of them more heartfelt than logical ("Since attending your office . . . I have made a complete 360-degree turnabout in my entire life.").

"I'm not a brilliant person," says Sam Meranto. "I've never even studied a book on psychology or psychiatry. The book I study is the Scriptures in the Bible."

How does a guy sell religion and hypnotism? Meranto says he downplays both of them.

"One of the downplays is the word `hypnosis' because people get confused," he says. "Actually it's just a Greek word meaning sleep that's been artificially induced.

"Mothers can rock their babies and make them fall asleep. They'll take a child who's hurt and say, `Mommy will kiss it and it will go away.' And it works because that's a hypnotic suggestion. But God forbid you have a mother who's stressful, who's negative or who's sick a lot, because she can actually program her child into having these same psychological problems. `I have headaches. Grandma had headaches. You'll have headaches.' And she will."

A very real headache to Meranto, he says, is religion, especially the brand practiced by televangelists.

"Religion today has taken a kick in the pants like you wouldn't believe," moans Meranto. "Just look around. You've got the Bakkers, you've got the Swaggarts, you've got the . . . " At a rare loss for words, Meranto rolls his eyes heavenward as he gathers another head of steam. "Listen, all I've got to do is start getting real heavy on religion and I'll be laughed out of town," he says. "Sure, I'm trying to reach people and bring them closer to the Lord, but I'm not doing it like most of the ministers you see on TV. I'm not into that `Hallelujah, brother!' Today, most people are really turned off by that.

"If I go on television and say, `Come to the Lord!,' I'd have a small group. Instead, I go on television and say, `Hey, you got a weight problem? Come and see me.' People will bang the door down to get in." SAM MERANTO'S biggest success story--all 290 pounds of her--came barging into his office in early 1977, shortly after he'd hung up his shingle in Phoenix. The client was Carol Ford, a zaftig, local quasi-celebrity of the era known for impersonating Mae West at Rawhide.

Eight months, twelve dress sizes and umpteen trances later, the newly svelte Ford shared the story of her dramatic 150-pound weight loss (along with a startling pair of before-and-after pictures) with the Arizona Republic. A mere shadow of her former self, the grateful Ford turned the spotlight on Meranto, the man who'd cooked her up a heavy diet of hypnotism. Of her mental mentor, Ford averred, "He just turned me off food." Fourteen years later, Meranto is still dining out on that story--even though he confesses that he has no idea whether Ford's wonder weight loss was permanent or simply gone-today, here-tomorrow.

"She lost the weight, she stopped coming around," shrugs Meranto. "I will tell you one thing, though." He thwacks a finger across a reprint of the newspaper article, which continues to be the crux of his advertising brochures. "This little lady really put us on the map. After that story came out in the paper, we had to bring in extra girls to handle the phones. Business went through the roof. It was unbelievable--we had people coming in for sessions practically here around the clock."

Or at least they used to.
Apparently, an ailing economy is one of the few problems over which the mind of Sam Meranto is powerless.

"People are really hurting financially," says Meranto, who adds that his center is in similar fiscal straits. "Ten years ago, we had so many people coming through here that I needed a wheelbarrow to get the money out. Today I could do it with an eyedropper."

Could it be that a newly discerning public has grown skeptical of mind salons like Meranto's?

Not likely, says Joanne Babich, a Phoenix psychologist who sometimes uses hypnosis in her practice. "People are always looking for quick solutions to their problems."

Although Babich admits that listening to tapes such as Meranto's might be beneficial to smokers, overeaters and others with bad habits who are seeking "a booster shot or reinforcer to get them thinking on the right track," the psychologist says the success or failure ultimately falls back on the patient.

"It reminds me of an old joke," she says. "How many people in a behavior- modification program does it take to change a light bulb? Only one--if he's willing to make the change."

But Babich is among those who have strong reservations about the use of those tapes to treat people who may have deep-rooted psychological problems. "Hypnosis is just one tool," says Stuart Litvak, a Phoenix psychologist who says he also uses some hypnotherapy. "And if you've got one tool and it's a hammer, what do you do? You treat every problem like a nail. That's a mistake."

But how do you explain away Sam Meranto's legion of satisfied customers, those talking billboards who regularly pour their hearts out on his TV show? "There's going to be a certain success rate associated with anything you do," insists Litvak. "No matter what you do, there are going to be a certain number of people who'll respond to it. But what about the failures? You rarely hear anything from them. That's the problem here. You can get a testimonial from anybody about anything and it doesn't mean a damn thing if you don't know how that percentage relates to the number of failures."

Meranto has heard it all before. "Yeah, well, what do you expect those guys to say?" asks Meranto. "For starters, they're jealous--they don't want the competition. Let's put it this way: Suppose that you're a psychiatrist and you've got Mrs. Johnson giving you $200 a month and she's been coming to see you for three years. She's a steady customer. The average psychiatrist, according to the 1978 American Medical Association Journal, has less than 300 patients in his whole career! Me, I wanna get people well right away. I don't wanna be a crutch. I wanna teach them how to be what they really want to be."

(In return for that, Meranto says he charges $15 per 45-minute session. Depending on what ails 'em, he says, the total cost could range from $300 to $1,500.)

Meranto appears to delight in skewering his more sheep-skinned brethren.
"People come to me as a last resort," he explains. "I've had people who've been to the some of the most famous hospitals in the world. They've been to this doctor, they've been to that doctor, and they still got the pain. That's where my work comes in."

Hold your applause, please.
"I believe, really believe, that God gave me a calling to help these people," Meranto contends. "I wasn't meant to make them act like chickens or dogs, or have them put on glasses and see nude people. I believe this gift was meant to be used for a more constructive means."

Meranto says he first took the wraps off his gift while working as a teenage door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesman in Worcester, Massachusetts. An amateur hypnotist, Meranto decided to see whether he could boost his sales through self-hypnosis. Using an old wire recorder that continues to occupy a hallowed spot in Meranto's office, the fledgling messiah recorded a series of pep talks that he later listened to while he slept.

Although some studies have since suggested that the only people who really benefit from sleep-learning recordings are the people who market them, Meranto says he was too busy selling vacuum cleaners to notice.

"I had this recorder on a timer and every night after I'd fall asleep, I'd listen to myself," he explains. "I'd tell myself, `You're gonna be more assertive, you're gonna be more aggressive, you're gonna be the best salesman who ever worked for Electrolux.' And you know what? It worked! I could sell like nobody's business. Here I was driving around in a brand-new 1952 four-door Plymouth and I was a kid--19 or 20 tops. Before I knew it, I was making more money than I knew what to do with."

Meranto didn't mind sharing the secrets of his wealth. Having advanced to the position of assistant manager of the Electrolux office in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, he began conducting daily hypnotic powwows for his sales team. "Every morning I'd say, `Close your eyes. Relax. Open your mind.' Then I'd tell 'em what super salesmen they were--how they were going to sell the pants off everyone. There were about 23 of these men, most of them in their 40s, 50s and 60s, most of them just average salesmen."

Meranto leans forward in his chair before delivering the punch line. "You know what happened? Every one of those men became sales champs. In seven months, we won five national sales contests against 10,000 other people. We won so many sales banquets, the company got tired of throwing 'em. And we got tired of going to 'em." Punching doorbells may have proved to be a financial gold mine for the young supersalesman, but Meranto claims that the real payoff came from helping the folks who answered those chimes.

Describing a memorable sales call of nearly 40 years ago, Meranto remembers being berated by a distraught homeowner who had more important things on his mind than buying a vacuum cleaner. Pointing to the vacant-eyed woman sitting motionless in the living room, the hubby explained that his wife had been nearly catatonic for days following the recent death of their child.

"That woman was in bad shape," recalls Meranto. So bad, he says, that the woman hadn't even bothered to get to the bathroom when she needed to. Ignoring a golden opportunity to demonstrate his product, Meranto instead offered his services as a hypnotist. "I asked the husband if he minded if I talked to his wife a moment. He didn't seem to think it would do any good, but he was so desperate to get his wife up and functioning he told me to go ahead. It took a while, but I finally brought her around."

A natural disaster further convinced Meranto of his higher calling, he says. In 1953, he was driving out of Worcester on a sales call when one of the worst tornadoes in U.S. history struck the town, killing 90 people. After hearing of the tragedy on his car radio, Meranto says, he immediately drove back to the scene of the disaster and used hypnotic suggestions to pull survivors out of shock. "I missed that storm by about 15 minutes," says Meranto. "It's as if the Lord had spared me so I could help others."

Perhaps realizing that it would take more than an Electrolux to clean up the world's problems, Meranto teamed up with a medical doctor in 1969 and opened a hypno-clinic in Massachusetts. "He'd send all his patients over, but I did all the work," recalls Meranto. "Then the people would have these fantastic results and the doctor would take all the credit. Bad mistake."

Meranto didn't repeat that error when he opened shop in Phoenix in 1976. Whenever people talk about Mind Power, rest assured the name Sam Meranto is not far behind.

Just ask the 36-year-old Phoenix shoe salesman we'll call Norm, one of Meranto's biggest boosters of recent years. Prior to making an appointment to see Meranto four years ago, Norm says he spent about seven years battling anxiety, depression and a strange obsession with cutting his own hair, a fixation that ultimately led to repeated bouts with complete baldness. Disillusioned by more traditional psychiatric methods (including hospitalization and antidepressant drugs), Norm eventually found his way to Sam Meranto's recliner.

Like seemingly everyone else who's ever lent a name to a Mind Power testimonial, Norm says he was initially "very skeptical" about Meranto's "first-aid kit for the mind." "I'd heard people say Sam was just a fast-talking huckster," says Norm, who watched Meranto's infomercials for nearly a year before making an appointment. "Like a snake-oil salesman, he's got a way of encouraging you to believe that he's got the greatest solution in the world. But I found that not only could he sell--he could deliver."

And what is it exactly that Meranto delivers? Norm pauses thoughtfully before answering. "I think it's probably just common sense," he says. "Sam tells people basic truths that they need to hear in this society, things that most people don't hear today. `Your mind really IS the most powerful thing you have. You really ARE capable of changing yourself. You are NOT totally helpless or at the mercy of other people's point of view.'"

Norm describes Meranto as "just a guy with a lot of street smarts who's got the ability to communicate in a direct way some very common-sense things that a lot of us need to hear in this world of fancy talk."

One man's down-to-earth talk is another woman's heavenly inspiration. "I truly believe Sam has been sent here from God," says Brenda, a 32-year-old widow who credits Meranto with helping her young son overcome traumatic nightmares about his father's suicide several years ago. "It's nothing less than a miracle. Sometimes I feel as if an angel is over me when I walk into that office."

Never mind if Meranto's own followers can't agree on what he's doing. Firmly convinced that Mind Power has the potential to wipe out drive-by shootings, conquer Alzheimer's disease, empty mental institutions and otherwise get the world back on track, Meranto outlines plans for a campaign to elicit corporate donations. "People donate to animal rescue--well, that's great. A lady just gave $1 million to the zoo--that's wonderful. But think what I could do with a million dollars."

Lie down. Close your eyes. Think about it.
The mind boggles.

"I believe I have what all churches dream of," says Meranto.

"Since attending your office, I have made a complete 360-degree turnabout in my entire life."

At a rare loss for words, Meranto rolls his eyes heavenward as he gathers another head of steam.

"I wasn't meant to make them act like chickens or dogs, or have them put on glasses and see nude people. I believe this gift was meant to be used for a more constructive means."

"We won so many sales banquets, the company got tired of throwing 'em.

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Dewey Webb