Bob Garfield: This is Bob Garfield. Hey, listen up, next Tuesday evening from 8:00 Eastern to late everywhere, please join us for our video live stream on the media's imprecision 2020. Brooke and I will be hosting our usual astonishing array of journalists and scholars to help frame the swirling chaos, call out media blunders, and also just hold your hands during the Sturm und Drang on major spill kits on election night.
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Co-founder of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the amazing Randi tirelessly exposed the deceit behind as his New York Times obituary summarized spoon bending, mind reading, fortune telling, ghost whispering, water dowsing, faith healing, UFO spotting, and sundry varieties of bamboozlement, bunco, chicanery, flimflam, flummery humbuggery, mountebankery, pettifoggery, and out-and-out quackslavery.
Randy's lauded as a great debunker, but he didn't like that descriptor preferring investigator. If you didn't wish to be corrected, it was also wise not to call him a magician because magic isn't really magic, is it? Four years ago For The Genius Dialogues, my Audible.com podcast series of interviews with MacArthur Genius Grant laureates. I visited the then 87-year-old Randy in Plantation, Florida. Within moments I understood that the man born Randall Zwinge in 1928 earned his stature by being very particular about the facts. What was equally obvious was that he hadn't gained his stature from his stature.
James Randi: I'm a small guy, I always have been a small guy.
Bob: Now with your long, wizard-like beard, by the way, you carry a cane with a chrome plated skulls at the top of it.
James: Silver-plated, please.
Bob: With a silver-plated. I'm sorry, I don't want to cast any aspersions on your walking stick, and I apologize.
James: Quite all right.
Bob: You're practically at this age elfen. Now I'm projecting back to when you were a kid, were you bullied?
James: Oh, a great deal. Yes. The saving grace was that I could always do a trick or two with a deck of cards or with small objects or whatever, to amuse them and get them laughing rather than jeering. That gave me a certain edge. It was the only thing that really set me apart.
Bob: Do you remember the moment when you first did not believe?
James: Believe in the supernatural, you mean? Oh, yes. It was about the time that I entered Sunday school, sorry to ask the questions, and they didn't have answers for me. They just wrapped the Bible and said, "In here." And got very impatient with me. I didn't know there's because they couldn't answer my question. They just chose not to. That offended me. I thought, "Wait a minute. This is a racket of some kind. There's something going on here. It's a beautiful building. Look at all the benches inside and the beautiful organ music and great costumes and such." The head of the thing wears a dress, but that's okay. He walked around throwing water on people from a funny receptacle.
I had to start thinking seriously about that at that moment. It didn't take me long, I'm sure within 24 hours I decided, "Wait a minute. What is the Penn and Teller expression?" Oh, yes, bullshit.
Bob: When did you start picking up Condren?
James: Well, I was inspired. First of all, I was deemed a child prodigy as a kid. I was sleeping in class because I had already read the lesson and most of the textbook in advance, and I knew what was coming up and we had a bit of a conference. They decided that I would be dubbed a child prodigy. I was given a special beige card, the size of a regular business card, which had a number on it that any truant officer could call if they intercepted me during school hours. It was the police department and they would tell them, "Oh, no, he doesn't have to be in school."
Bob: You were like a documented whiz kid.
Bob: What was the first trick he ever learned?
James: Well, interesting question. I'm glad you asked that, sir. It was taught to me by Harry Blackstone Sr. the great Harry Blackstone.
Bob: Wait. I knew from Justin Weinstein's documentary about you on Honest Liar that you had been influenced by Harry Blackstone. He taught you your first trick?
James: Yes. He used to come to the casino theater on Queen Street. Since I had the freedom of the streets and I had my little truancy card in my pocket, I was able to go and see Martinez because they were only 12 cents. I'd never seen a magician before, never. I leaned on that balcony almost fell out of it. Harry Blackstone stood on the stage and gestures and a young lady walked on stage in beautiful robes. There was a couch there, and he caused her to recline on the couch. He said something like, "[unintelligible 00:06:46] rise, rise, and float."
She rose off the couch up over his head. He held his hands out and she stopped and the music stopped. He stepped forward. He said this awful corny thing, but it worked. He said, "That young lady stays suspended between heaven and earth. I could allow her to remain there for 1,000 years should I so desire. At the interest of your time and your patience, ladies and gentlemen, I will cause you to descend once more to the couch, from which she just rose."
Princess descend and music started up again. We had live orchestra sitting in the pit. Can you imagine a live orchestra in theater? Wow.
Bob: I'm still trying to get over the 12 cent ticket.
James: She slowly descended until she touched the coach. They both took a bow and she walked off stage. Oh, I was doomed to be a contrarer from that moment on. I went around the theater to the alley at the back. I saw hold Harry Blackstone with his wing collar open. He looked up and he smiled at me. I spoke to him and I said, "My name is Randall Zwengi." I shook his hand and he said, "Would you like to look backstage?" He led me through the myriad of props. I didn't know what I was looking at. I saw all the boxes and sights there. I couldn't understand anything. He took me to the dressing room and he taught me a simple trick, which doesn't work well over radio. Just a little thing with a swizzle stick. I learned it almost instantly.
Bob: The swizzle stick trick led to--?
James: Harry Blackstone directed me to the arcade magic and novelty store. He actually introduced me via a small note to Harry Smith, the proprietor, and that was all the password I needed. Of course, I was immediately a member of the magical fraternity there. I hung out there a lot. The proprietor Harry Smith taught me a lot of sleight of hand.
Bob: All your bios say that at 17 you quit school and run off to work for a carnival. Then the bio moves on to the next resume item. I'm thinking run off with a carnival. This is not a trivial life development. How long were you at carny and what number was that like?
James: Well, let's go back to how I left high school. I made my way through high school and had to write the final examinations and the first examination was in English literature. I sat down and opened the examination paper and I was told, "Begin," and everybody bent forward and started. The first question on the paper was, "Referring to Shakespeare's play Macbeth show that lady Macbeth was actually responsible for King Macbeth's downfall." I looked at the blank piece of paper in front of me. I wrote across it. This is a premise which I cannot support. I remember the exact words and I signed it Randall Zwinge, got up, and left the room. I never wrote my final examinations.
Bob: You are petulant little cuss even back then?
James: You bet. I determined at that point formal education is not for me. I had had an offer already to join Peter Marches Traveling shows and I was given an agreement with them, no formal contract or anything like that. I just joined the show as Prince Ibis. That was me. I put a black turban on, I was doing primitive levitation and suspension as well. If you paid another 10 cents you could go and see the beautiful dancer from someplace rather I've forgotten where we said she was from, she was accurate from Detroit, but we lied, we lied. There's a lot of lying goes on in this business.
Bob: Coming up, the amazing Randy's constant nemesis.
James: Spoon blending. What is of spoon blending to society?
Bob: But first, the seeds of debunkery. You did escapes, you did levitation, but at some point you added mentalism to your act, which was really a turning point because of the way the audience or at least some of the audience reacted.
James: They would say something to me. "Oh, I loved when you did with the young lady there, that was very entertaining." When you told that woman her telephone number without having met her before that was ESP. I would say, "No, no, no, no. There's a trick to that too. Of course. No, I can tell, come on now. I know what's real and what's not real." That was wrong. They didn't know they had taken one of my tricks as being the real thing.
Bob: What was the trick?
James: Oh, it could be anything. I would, for example, if people had sent their name in for tickets, I could simply look up the name and if I knew what sit they were going to be sitted in the theater, I would point down and say, "Anna," and she would meet totally surprised that I knew what her name was. She would be startled and look around. "Yes. How come I'm seeing two roses? I'm seeing two crossed roses." And then she said, "Oh my clock," I'd say, "Yes, the one with the broken hands."
Of course, that would stun her. The audience, almost a standing ovation at that point because they recognized that I probably had some sort of supernatural powers, but I had cased the joint. There's a cold reading and there's a hot reading. You see, a hot reading would be one where you have advanced information. I actually asked a friend of mine, TK Lawson, to case this particular street. That is we'll go down and start knocking on doors on this street because we knew at one of those addresses was somebody who had registered to be present the following night in a big hall Massey Hall in Toronto, Canada.
TK Lawson went from door to door, knocking on each door. He would say to each one of them, "I'm with the University of Toronto, I'm a student there and we have a brief savory here, just 10 questions." Most people would invite that pleasant-looking young man from the University of Toronto inside and they did. This particular address that I had, he recognized as soon as the lady came to the door that that was the woman that we wanted to get the information about. He was invited inside. He saw some details in the living room inside and that was what we needed.
Bob: What's a cold read?
James: Cold read is where you start with somebody you've never met before and you start with no knowledge whatsoever except the sound of their voice.
Bob: How in the world can you produce wonder from those circumstances?
James: [unintelligible 00:14:24] the line says you have a person in your life. I can't make a note. It's either an M or an L and I believe there's an S in it. Who is that? Everyone knows somebody with an M or an L or an S in their names and they'll name it for and say, "Oh, that must be Melissa. Yes. I knew there was a double letter. I saw a double letter. I didn't know that it was S, but thank you." They ask questions at that point and they're, "Oh, yeah. That's my sister-in-law. Yes. I knew it was an in-law, but I didn't know if he was sister or brother."
Bob: Desperate are we to believe that we are Confederates in the--
James: In our own deception.
Bob: Did you begin telling your audiences that, "Oh, by the way, what you just witnessed has nothing to do with ESP, nothing to do with the occult. It's just a trick?"
James: In signing off. I would always say that, "Nothing that you've seen on this stage is of any supernatural or paranormal nature at all. They're all tricks. You may find that hard to believe because I do it rather well, don't you think?" That always evoked a round of applause.
Bob: They didn't necessarily believe you?
James: That's true, but some people would get very angry. See now, I know what trickery is that wasn't trickery. That was ESP kind of thing. I would just have to let them go away with this delusion.
Bob: At some point something happened that made you nervous about what some of your colleagues were up to. Can you tell me what happened to turn you to the investigative track?
James: I saw magicians playing the part of real supernaturalists who were speaking with the dead and predicting the future and such selling their services as predictors of winning lottery numbers, for example, it wasn't the fact that they were making much, much more money than I was making. What annoyed me was that they were leading these people along a wrong path, a path of believing in this sort of thing.
That made them vulnerable for any fortune-teller or any quack who came down the aisle and wanted to sell them some magical medicine or whatever and how they can do that I don't know. I cannot stand in front of an audience and lie to them. It seems to be no problem for so many of them. It was very damaging to these people and that's why I wanted to expose it.
Bob: A lot of charlatans were exposed along the way, but permit me to fast forward a few decades to the apotheosis of your amazing randiness the con man was a revival tent healer named Peter Popoff, whose whole business was to separate, desperate, faithful from their money.
James: He's a blatant liar a fake and a thief. He steals money from these people hand over fist and he's still in business to this very day. I'm sure he'll go on to the very end of his life. He's had some reverses and one of the biggest reverses was James Randy.
Bob: He was bringing people to tears with personal information about their infirmities that he couldn't possibly have unless Jesus were whispering in his ear.
Speaker 4: Hello, Katie, can you hear me? If you can't, you're in trouble-- She has arthritis all over.
Bob: Handed to him from God or by his wife through a wireless, see your piece.
James: That's right. I exposed is his whole method on the Johnny Carson show.
Bob: Now this was remarkable for a couple of reasons. One is just the true schadenfreude bliss of watching this piece of shit be exposed on national television. That was great.
James: Oh, it was.
Bob: The second thing is what he was doing to con these poor believers. Was exactly the acts that you were performing 30 years by snooping on people's mantle clocks. Getting the information first and then pretending as though you had summoned it as if by miracle.
James: Had divined it in some way.
Bob: Yes, was this your finest hour?
James: Oh yes, look, Popoff was so obvious and so blatant and he was making money. We actually looked out the back window of the auditorium on one occasion and we saw him putting suitcases full of money and checks into the back of a limousine.
Bob: I hope there is a special place in hell reserved.
James: I'll give him my place.
Bob: Sometimes you're the revealer of the hoax. Sometimes you're the perpetrator of the hoax. Tell me about the miraculous Carlos and the Australian stunt.
James: Yes, it was, uh, it was carefully orchestrated. I was in my home and I got a call from Australia, this was a major television station. They asked me if I would be willing to go to Australia and work this kind of a hoax. They suggested it.
Bob: The idea they brought to you was to introduce to the Australian media market a channeler from abroad with the ability to speak to past spirit doctors or some such, right?
Bob: To see if the entire Australian public could be fooled?
Bob: Then you said, that's right in my alley.
James: I said, yes, I'll work up some questions for you. I immediately started to prepare a sort of script for them. They liked very much what they saw. The backstory was that he was a channeler. Channelers were very popular in Australia at that time. They could get away with almost anything. If people were just clamoring to him, they were coming in from all over the world, finding this as an easy market for them. They would speak with the voices of spirits, funny boys, like this kind of thing. I did that rather well. It was a matter of fact, maybe I should go into the business.
Bob: You arrived with your suitcase and your toothbrush and your passport and also a Confederate.
James: Yes. When he got off the plane and he just marched ahead and they saw him through outside to a limousine. I had to stumble my way through the Hoi polloi there.
Bob: He made live appearances and appeared on television?
James: Yes. He was on television at every opportunity they got. We even published the sayings of Carlos, a little booklet that we distributed to the press. We had to have it noticed. We had to have Carlos in headlines every chance he got, of course.
Bob: The Australian public just took this hook line and sinker.
James: Yes. There are all kinds of appointments. Then we were selling artifacts from Atlantis. As a matter of fact, we had bottles. Please don't laugh at science now. Now, this is not amusing, but we had bottles of water and ruby-colored liquids and whatnot. I have forgotten what the designations were, but they were selling for a fantastic price. We never sold one of them purposely. We didn't because we said, "Oh no, no, you have to pay the full price." The price was ridiculous, like $1,000 for a small bottle of the tiers of Carlos, for example. We made Carlos cry a lot so that he filled the bottle.
Bob: Carlos, whose name wasn't actually Carlos. His name was Jose Alvarez.
James: Jose Alvarez.
Bob: He was another professional actor. Yes. He rather warmed to the role.
James: Yes. He fell right into it and did it very, very well. And he hated public appearance and we had people sitting there entranced. They just had a faint smile on their and their eyes were just wide open and they were nodding every time he said something stupid. They would nod and say, "Yes, that's true. That's true."
Bob: What was the big reveal?
James: We went on Channel 9 and we separately made an announcement that here he is. Here's who he really is.
Bob: In another extremely complex fabrication, you used two young, sleight of hand magicians to fool parapsychologists at Washington University who were investigating ESP. This was called project alpha. It was also a humiliation for the researchers when, again, you had your big reveal and I guess a blow for any rational acceptance of ESP, but it didn't seem to have much impact on the irrational acceptance of ESP. At the time, the amazing Kreskin was filling showrooms. There's this other guy an Israeli performer who claimed to have psychokinetic powers. His name was Uri Gellar. He became a pretty big part of your life.
James: It was impossible and not to get to know about him because he became world-famous. Still is world-famous, of course, because he has a very wide reputation, as you know, as a genuine, so-called psychic, having mysterious powers that enable him to bend metal specimens, spoon bending. What is the use of spoon bending to society? Does that have any value whatsoever? "What do you do for a living?" "I bend spoons."
Bob: It was a multi-million dollar stick for him.
Bob: Always with the claim that he was doing this psycho kinetically or some such terminology.
Bob: He was sort of your lifelong nemesis. You excoriated him at every opportunity. He sued you in multiple countries and damn near bankrupted you. Now, they say revenge is a dish best served cold. You finally delivered him the whole deli platter, again, on an episode of The Tonight Show.
James: He was invited to appear on the show and he agreed.
Bob: You were not a guest?
Bob: Tell me what the trick was and how you went about helping to sabotage it.
James: Okay. Geller was going to appear on the show and he was going to do the same old act of making spoons bend and whatnot. I got a call from their producer and I said he should go ahead and be able to do his stick, but we can ensure that he won't be able to do it because to do it he has to prepare the spoons in advance. He has to get hold of them by some means really. He always had a couple of people working with him.
It would distract the prop man and whatnot. By preparing the spoon by fracturing it, by bending it back and forth until it was almost broken, that was very simple to complete the breaking process, you see. I told him, "I can tell you how to not prepare the spoons and not prepare the props at all, just use the props as he has asked for them exactly.
Put them in a central place that he can't get to them because it was always a case of one of his assistants dropping around and saying, "Can I see the spoons?" He wants to make sure they're good and strong kind of thing. "Oh, let me see that. The light isn't good here, can I step ahead?" He would step over to one side and he would prepare the spoon then put it right back in place.
I just told them, I said, "Lock him up. Put a padlock on the door, you lock it, and make sure that he doesn't touch the props before he actually walks out onto the set." Well, that's exactly what they did. The spoons were unprepared. They were sitting right there, but he knew that he couldn't do his routine and he failed. He had to back away from it.
Speaker 5: Barry was telling me you don't feel what strong tonight is that--?
Uri Gellar: I don't feel strong. Right now, I'm feeling being pressed and I can't--
Speaker 5: I'm not trying to pressure you. I really not.
Uri: You're only telling me, "Well, will you try that or that?"
Speaker 5: Well, I thought that was the idea of-- No, I'm not trying to put you down.
Bob: Now, Randi, one of the most striking things to me about your techniques is how much effort is expended to reveal the truth but how much of that, strictly speaking, is unnecessary. In the case of Uri Geller, for instance, why don't you just say, "Oh, here's how it's done. Watch me do it. I'm going to replace this perfectly intact spoon with a bent one and make you think that I had been it with my mind."
James: They tend not to accept that simply because I'm probably doing a trick on them of giving them the wrong solution. You see, these are highly suspicious people of me, but not of the psychics who are fooling them.
Bob: Geller still fills a larger place in the amazing Randi story. He is kind of Dr. Moriarty to your Sherlock Holmes.
Bob: You practically, I think he has said this, you practically don't exist without him. Do you need Uri Geller to be you?
James: No, not at all. As a matter of fact, since Geller is now wanted to be known as a mystifier, and he is essentially confessed that he is a magician, I'm forgetting about Geller. Geller is pursy, I don't think that he has any power in the world.
Bob: I once did a story about a guy who had the hiccups for 30 years. He tried everything to get rid of them, folk remedies, various drugs that were prescribed to him. He had a rib removed, he spent three decades trying to get rid of the hiccups. Then he stopped because the hiccups were part of him, part of his identity. He couldn't imagine living without them.
James: Yes. I remember Andy is the guy who hiccups all the time.
Bob: In the end is your life, and of course, your life's work actually better for Uri Geller having been there to unmask?
James: Perhaps to a certain extent, yes. I have no problem with that. If he wants to have added to my reputation and to my way of making a living. Thank you very much, Mr. Geller, and goodbye.
Bob: You can get out of ropes, Peerless handcuffs, the Lachine city jail, you can escape almost anything, but you were locked in your own closet for 80 years. Why did it take so long for you to come out as gay?
James: I didn't think it was all that important to my career in such that I would have to bust out in public and say, "Oh, by the way, I'm gay." I did that eventually because I saw that my books were selling very well and it had never been hinted at or dealt with. I decided to do it on email. I did one week, I suddenly said, "Oh, by the way, I'm gay." I didn't know what the reaction would be. It was a little worrisome because I thought, "Oh, I've got to lose a lot of people." That didn't happen.
Bob: You are an exceptionally observant man. You're a professionally observant man. Surely you observed that show business was even back in the '50s was the one place where you could be, if you weren't a romantic lead in a Hollywood picture, live a gay life more or less in the open with zero repercussions and yet you, the great revealer did not reveal?
James: I didn't try to conceal it. I didn't go around with a sign saying, "I'm straight." Everything-- A buttonhole lapel sign saying, "I'm straight. I'm not gay." No, I wouldn't do a thing like that. It was just not an important part of my public persona.
Bob: Any dragons that you have not yet slain that interests you?
James: Oh, they're all over the place. Most of them have felt the point of my sword at least. They've gotten nicked by my sword to a certain extent and pretty well. The proof of that is that they don't answer my challenges at all. We have a million-dollar offer out for anyone who can prove any paranormal or called a supernatural event of any kind under proper observing conditions. You'll notice that the phrase comes rather easily to my tongue
Bob: In spite of all your efforts and all your debunking and unmasking and revelations, televangelists are making more money than ever before. Peter Popoff is back in business and Uri Geller is around somewhere. The weight loss industry tells people that they're going to get thin miraculously and people are still lining up to buy. I think if you as Sisyphus, just perpetually pushing that boulder up the hill, or maybe a little more precisely the metaphor that Will and Ariel Durant used in their book about civilization.
They said that civilization is like a jungle and that it must be constantly thinned and reduced or barbarism will gradually inexorably overtake. It. Is not the battle against superstition and even better example of the jungle quickly overtaking the little clearings of rationality that you've been able with your machete and bent spoons to clear out.
James: Oh, that's a pessimistic view, I would say. I'll let it be yours because it's not quite mine. I've done what I could with the ability the meager ability that I have to get these ideas across. I know I'm fighting a giant, a giant of superstition and irrationality. If you don't fight the battle you can't win, you got to be confident that you do have some effect on the world out there, and that effect is positive and so far, I've seen very good evidence with certain individuals.
I received a lot of Hardy handshakes and hugs from people who appreciated what I've done. I often get tears in my eyes. I really do when they say, "You made a big difference in my life because they mean it." My hope is those individuals will take up the cajole and march forward into battle on my behalf.
Bob: All right. Amazing, Randi, you ready for the countdown round?
James: Sure. Why not?
Bob: All right. Here we go.
Speaker 6: Eight.
Bob: What's your favorite movie that you're pretty sure is nobody else's favorite movie?
James: Freaks, for many years ago. It's a great film. If you ever get a chance to see Freaks, see Freaks.
Bob: You can take the boy out of the carny, but you can't take the carny out of the boy.
Speaker 6: Seven.
Bob: What apart from your own field are you fanatical about?
James: I'm currently very fanatical about the NRA, the National Rifle Association. Thank you gentlemen for making assault weapons, assault weapons, not defensive weapons. Assault weapons so easily available to the American public. I am fanatically angry about that. All those people dead simply because they had to have that sale. Next.
Speaker 6: Six.
Bob: What character trait or quack most defines your image of yourself?
James: I think determination because I have never lost a gram of determination. I don't know what it's measured in, but I've never lost a bit of determination in my battle against quackery nonsense and Penn and teller, give me the term bullshit.
Speaker 6: Five.
Bob: Describe your most frightful recurring dream.
James: I don't have many recurring dreams, but a couple of times I have dreamed that something has happened to Davy. My partner, I've woken up very, very scared. I immediately looked around and said, "Oh, it's only one of those dreams."
Speaker 6: Four.
Bob: What more than anything fills you with rage and what do you do with that?
James: I'm filled with rage by the fact that I don't have the time left to me to be able to get to some of the more egregious quacks and fake preachers and such out there. I just hope that I've made enough of an impression on the skeptical world that they will carry that work forward for me.
Speaker 6: Three.
Bob: What are you terriblist at?
James: Is that a word terriblist? Most terrible I think it would be a better selection of language there. I don't know that I have any particular failing in my daily life.
Speaker 6: Two.
Bob: How much of your MacArthur prize money. Did you squander on cheap hooch and fast cars?
James: None whatsoever. I spent a lot of it defending myself against lawsuits from Uri Geller.
Speaker 6: One.
Bob: What in your entire life did you truly exquisitely fuck up?
James: There was one time when I tried to repair a painting. Maybe David knew, found out about that. I shouldn't mention, so don't mention it.
Bob: Your secret's safe with me. James Randi. Amazing Randy, little Randall Zwinge. Thank you very, very much.
James: Oh, my pleasure.
Bob: That was the 2017 episode of The Genius Dialogues produced by Maya Thomas, Mickey Capper, and executive produced by Molly Barton. Stay tuned for The Big on the media show this weekend. Don't forget, Tuesday evening election night Imprecision 2020. See you there.
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