August 23, 1986, Saturday
The Amazing Randi by Patricia Orwen Toronto Star
NEW YORK - His last great escape was freeing himself from a straitjacket while hanging upside down from a helicopter over Japan two years ago.
"I can't do that stuff any more though," said James Randi, aka The Amazing Randi. "The audience sees this guy with white hair, a white beard and they say
to themselves, 'Oh that poor old guy, he's going to have a heart attack or something'. . . that kind of takes away from the show."
So just when the Toronto native's life seemed destined to become more sedate, normal even - no more being frozen in a block of ice for 55 minutes or being sealed in a coffin under water for an hour and 44 minutes (Randi holds the Guinness record for these dangerous acts) - along comes the MacArthur Foundation to lay something called a "genius award" on him.
It's a prestigious, not to mention lucrative, cash award given each year to 25 people in the United States whose work the foundation's selection committee decides is worth supporting.
Normally, scientists and scholars are so honored. It's also been given to composers and poets. Once the genius-seekers even gave money to a mime. But
Randi is the first recipient whose talent lies in Houdini's venerable realm. He once had himself suspended upside down over Niagara Falls in a strait jacket in the dead of winter. Another time, he called his mother from a coffin sunk in Halifax harbor.
"We never knew quite what to expect from him," said his sister, Angela Easton of Toronto.
It wasn't so much that sort of prowess and daring which impressed the MacArthur selection committee, but rather Randi's work in exposing the magician's sleight of hand others use under the guise of religion. For years, Randi has waged a one-man war against faith healers and evangelists, particularly those who solicit donations over the public air-waves.
Now, with the $272,000 (U.S.) Randi will receive from the foundation over the next five years, he figures he can redouble his attacks upon such "flummery."
That is, if he ever manages to make a great escape from under the media crush.
"This," he sighed, apparently serious, ". . . is this what it's like being famous?"
First there were the satellite dishes on his lawn, then the scads of journalists wanting to broadcast his utterances to places all over North America and even Australia.
It's only natural that his award attracts more than normal interest. "But I can't believe what's been happening," Randi said. "One lady photographer came
and did three pictures, one for People magazine, one for US Magazine and one for Newsweek."
Time had a few paragraphs on him. The Johnny Carson show had already booked him: "I'm in very heavily with Carson," he said, recapping the exposing of
spiritualist table-tipping and Uri Geller spoon-bending techniques he demonstrated on his most recent Tonight Show appearance. One person Randi is out very heavily with is Geller. He calls the Israeli psychic a fraud. But more on that later.
Randi has a hard time confining himself to one conversational topic at a time.
One minute he's regaling you with how bending spoons "is like playing the violin - some people just know how to do these things, but it's all just a trick." The next, he's back talking about life in the fast lane of the talk-show circuit.
Some Chicago radio stations wanted him on the air, so he flew to Chicago. Then his agent in New York called because some New York producers wanted to take him to lunch at a nice Italian place called Tonino on Third Ave. According to Randi, they're thinking of perhaps a six-episode TV special on him, or maybe a two-hour made-for-TV movie. Or possibly even a whole TV series based on his life.
So Randi went to New York. Trouble was, a few days earlier he had agreed to an interview at his home in Fort Lauderdale the same afternoon with a Canadian
reporter, who was flying down from Toronto specifically for that purpose. He didn't cancel that appointment.
"I would have cancelled, but I couldn't remember the reporter's name," he later insisted. But then who said a genius has to be a nice guy?
"You learn in New York that you have to make your needs known, that you can't play shy," he said shortly after strutting ahead of 20 people waiting for taxis at New York's Laguardia airport, where the reporter has finally caught up to him. Dressed in Levis and a casual khaki shirt, this short, stacky man of 57 does not at first appear capable of spiriting a taxi out from under the noses of aggressive New-York travellers, but then the white hair is deceiving, and Randi is, after all, a magician. One quickly senses a Napoleonic air of authority about him. He moves like a small tank.
A few feet behind him, David Pena, a young man of about 20, struggles with three large suitcases. One is bright blue with the name "James Randi - The Amazing Randi" printed on it. Hiring Pena to carry bags, arrange appointments and run errands was one of the first things Randi did with his award money.
He admits with all of that, the small house in Leaside where he grew up seems far, far away. He was Randall Zwinge then, the eldest of three children of a Bell Canada executive and - as he recalls now - something of a "child prodigy . . . when I was nine, I invented a pop-up toaster."
His sister Angela, who is eight years younger, remembers him blowing out the floor of the breakfast room in the process of doing a chemistry experiment in the basement. Other times, when the family would be sitting around listening to a radio program, Randi would suddenly interrupt their reception and that of the whole neighborhood by fooling around on his short-wave radio. "The neighbors used to call and ask him to stop," she said.
Most vivid, however, are her memories of being woken up at 6 a.m. so Randi could try out yet another magic trick on her.
"He was unpredictable . . . you never knew quite what he was going to do," said Sophie Smith, who with her husband Harry ran the Arcade Magic and Novelty Store in the Yonge St. arcade which Randi frequented.
"He was always asking questions, always into things . . . we all liked him."
At 16, he moved temporarily to Montreal with his family and got a job in a test-tube factory. Returning to Toronto at 17, he attended Oakwood Collegiate, where he completed everything but the final exams. "I didn't like one of the questions," he said, "so I decided I wouldn't do it."
"It was hard for Randi," said Angela. "The family couldn't really understand him. At one point they took him to the Toronto General Hospital for
psychological testing . . . all we learned was that he was really bright." His IQ, it turned out, was 168.
Shortly after dropping out of school, Randi broke his back when he was hit by a car while riding his bicycle. The accident forced him to spend 13 months in a body cast. During this time, he read magic books, fiddled with locks and practised illusions. Though the doctors never expected he would walk again, Randi surprised them.
He went straight from the sick bed to the stage, or rather to the small carnival where for two summers he was a black-turbaned Prince Ibis in tours of Ontario and Quebec.
It was during one of these tours that Randi's career took a definitive turn. One night in Quebec city, he met two policemen who recognized him, showed him a pair of handcuffs and asked: "Can you get out of these?"
"I got in the squad car one side and came out the other with them off. The policemen were totally amazed. So they took me to the jail and I showed them that I could break out of a cell."
The jailbreak made headlines in the papers and Randi's career as an escape artist was launched. Over the years he has broken out of 28 jail cells in Canada and the United States. He had himself put underwater in a sealed casket for an hour and 44 minutes - breaking the late and famous Harry Houdini's record of one hour and 31 minutes set on Aug. 5, l926.
He also freed himself from a strait-jacket as he hung by his heels five storeys above Broadway. Somewhere along the way he had become The Amazing Randi because "nobody could pronounce or remember Zwinge."
In the late l950s, his offers of work began to come more and more frequently from the United States. He did TV shows called It's Magic and Wonderama. Within
a short time, he took up residence in New York and later in New Jersey. He now lives alone in a cluttered two-storey, four-bedroom house in a new development just west of Fort Lauderdale called Sunrise.
The United States "offered me more opportunities than I could have had in Canada," he said.
As his feel for magic deepened, he became more and more interested in the way it can be used for deception.
"I have 45 file drawers filled with everything from dowsing to vampires to psychic surgery: "Did you know that Peter Sellers died because he went to the
psychic surgeons in the Philippines rather than have a heart operation?" Randi asked. "These so-called surgeons are just charlatans, frauds, it's been proven that they claim to 'heal' people by extracting things like chicken livers, cigarette filters, even recording tape, out of their bodies . . . and people fall for it."
Gradually, Randi began giving talks on such subjects and pretty soon the talks became more popular and lucrative than his magic shows.
"I started to say what am I doing? Two girls in net stockings and a van full of rabbits and everything like that. What am I doing travelling with all this crap when carrying an attach case it just means showing up at the airport and they pick me up I do the thing and get on the plane and come back and get exactly the same money. And not only that, but I'm accomplishing something. I come away with the feeling that even if I didn't convince anybody I made them know there is an alternate point of view available to them."
His meeting with Uri Geller in l972 provided added incentive to do more such investigation.
"I could see that Geller's techniques of misdirection were pretty crude," said Randi who wrote a book exposing Geller titled The Truth About Uri Geller.
"I thought this guy was going nowhere. I was absolutely wrong. I didn't realize the naivet of the scientific world. Their careers were going down the drain because of all this. One scientist, a metallurgist, wrote a paper backing Geller's claims that he could bend metal. The scientist shot himself after I showed him how the key bending trick was done."
Another of Geller's deceptions is the old change-the-time trick, continues Randi taking the watch off the wrist of a female producer seated at the restaurant.
He has each person at the table note that the watch reads 2:25 p.m., then he places it on her palm.
"Geller would say 'change' but I'll say brocolli or zucchini with hollondaise sauce," said Randi to the amusement of onlookers.
He then picked up the watch which, to everyone's amazement, read 1:25 p.m.
"How did you do that," someone asked.
"Very well, I thought," he replied.
He is equally secretive about his plan of attack for "disassembling and exposing the flummery" of a group of TV evangelists.
"It works better if they don't know who you are," he said, adding that he sometimes conducts on-the-scene investigations while wearing a disguise, which
includes a dark beard, dark contact lenses a wig and, of course, the appropriate cane and limp.
Randi has been "healed" by some of the big names in the business, including Peter Popoff who broadcasts healing sessions continent-wide from Upland
California. Popoff, whom Randi refers to as a "squeaky-voiced preacher," also solicits donations from the public to purchase and send bibles to the Soviet Union. His goal: $3 million. There's also W. V. Grant and Ernest Angley. Grant broadcases his show Dawn of New Day from His Eagle's Nest cathedral in Dallas and his show reaches viewers of 300 TV stations across the continent. Angley broadcasts the Ernest Angley Hour and the Ninety and Nine Club throughout the United States, in parts of Canada, the Philippines and Africa. His Grace Cathedral is in Akron, Ohio, where he also owns a TV station.
Why go after Popoff, Grant and Angley rather than the more widely known evangelists like Pat Robertson, Herbert Armstrong and Billy Graham? The former are more accessible and their claims of healing are more specific than any of the others, said Joseph Barnhart of North Texas State University, one of a group of investigators including Paul Kurtz, editor of Free Inquiry magazine, in Buffalo who has recently been working with Randi on the investigations.
So far, they've found lots of tricks, but no evidence of anyone having been healed.
The most blatant deception occurs at Popoff sessions where before mass healings, Popoff's wife circulates among the audience gathering information from various individuals. Then, when her husband is on stage, she relays the information to him via a mini-receiver and an earphone.
Other evanglists may not use this technique but they do such things as having those attending services fill out donation cards listing their problem, then
line up and present the cards. The evangelist simply memorizes the names and faces and later calls them out. In some cases, they provide able-bodied people
with wheelchairs from which they later rise apparently cured.
The "healers" Randi observes, also usually choose people with either psychosomatic ailments which "by their very nature are going to be susceptible to the ministrations of the faith healers" or those who have such things as arthritic conditions, diabetes or heart trouble, all of which are afflictions
which may appear to improve.
"Even those who return home to discover that they have not recovered will bear false witness," said Randi. "I tracked down one person that Grant advertised as having kept a healing of diabetes. He insisted he was healed and that he had been healed for two years. Only by careful questioning did I learn that he knew his doctor would deny that he no longer had diabetes. And he admitted that he
was still taking his insulin although he 'knew' it was only a matter of time before he would give that up."
Some of the people who come to these meetings are just doing it for a social occasion, Randi said, "but it's the others. It's the parents you see crying at the elevator because they couldn't get their child anywhere near the healer that make me want to expose it.
"At one of Popoff's sessions there was this Oriental kid on crutches with his legs all twisted around. A filmmaker there asked him: 'Why are you here?'
" 'To see Popoff, he can heal me,' the boy replied.
"But the boy never made it anywhere near the front. At the end of the session the filmmaker saw him with tears streaming down his face."
The TV evangelists, meanwhile, are living in style. There is no way of knowing how much Popoff raises, (because TV evangelists are considered charitable
organizations they do not have to make their donations public) but it's in the millions of dollars a year. An estimated 30 per cent comes from Canadians, Randi said, "and people don't really know what they're paying for."
Randi wants to change all that. He has written extensively on Popoff, Grant and Angley for the Buffalo-based Free Inquiry magazine. He went on the Tonight Show with a videotape showing how Popoff works.
At one point, he and his co-workers even handed out flyers at a Popoff session detailing how Popoff performs his "miracles."
"Popoff announced that these were the work of the devil and that everyone should crumple them up and throw them in the aisles. But no one did . . . and his congregation has dropped off by one third in Chicago and Philadelphia, because of it. Randi, meanwhile, is writing it all down in a book.
None of this impresses the evangelists - Popoff calls him "a dried-up old magician," Grant refers to him as a "bald runt of a bearded magician who goes on late night talk shows." But the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation believes their money will be well used.
Randi was selected from among "hundreds of candidates nominated by a group of anonymous leaders in the arts, sciences and humanities. Then, a 13-member selection committee which is also anonymous, chose the recipients on the basis of their creativity, dedication, need of money and the benefit of their work to society.
"He is our most interesting selection," said Foundation secretary Ruth Ordonez, adding that he was nominated by three different people from different parts of the country. The award has no strings attached. The foundation asks for no
reports, no accountings of how it's to be spent.
"We know of his background and think his work will benefit society," said Ordonez.
"Randi has more insight into how people can deceive others and themselves than almost anyone else alive," said Ken Frazier, echoing her praise. Frazier is an editor who works on the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of
the Paranormal, (CSICOP) which Randi helped found in l976, This group sees no evidence that anything even vaguely paranormal really exists.
They can't even buy the evidence. For the last 22 years, Randi has carried with him a cheque for $10,000 to be given to anyone who can prove a paranormal occurrence. Even a healing would count. To date, 600 people have applied; 75 have submitted to Randi's scientific testing. Randi still has the cheque.
"The media," said Randi with disdain. "That's the reason people tend to believe in all this. The media haven't bothered to differentiate between fact and
fiction; if a boat is lost in the Bermuda triangle and found six hours later because they never took off in the first place (the media) never bother to
report the finding because it's a non-story.
Religious teaching, however, is equally to blame, he said. "People have also been raised to have religious beliefs with no evidence whatsoever except it's in this book . . . why shouldn't people believe something else for which there is no evidence?"
Though raised an Anglican, Randi now has no religious affiliation and compares believing in God to believing in Santa Claus. As for life after death: "I figure this is all there is . . . and I'm going to make the best of it," he said.
Thanks to the MacArthur Foundation, that "best" includes expanding his computer system, enlarging his office, writing more articles, giving talks: "I've got so many bookings, it's amazing."