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$272,000 Stipend to ‘The Amazing Randi’ : Magician-Debunker Conjures Up ‘Genius Grant’

Associated Press

The vanity plate on the car in front of the only two-story house on the block says ESCAPE, the brass knocker proclaims the occupant a charlatan, and the charlatan, albeit an honest one, is rich for the first time in his life.

James Randi, “The Amazing Randi,” won a MacArthur Foundation grant this summer, a five-year stipend of $272,000. He is the first magician to become a prestigious MacArthur Fellow. Others this year included the man who developed the theory of nuclear winter, composers, professors and a poet.

It’s not a bad rabbit out of a hat for a high school dropout who recently spent three days in his car, eating Twinkies and drinking Pepsi Cola while awaiting the chance to go through the garbage of a faith healer, a man whom Randi considers a fraud.

Spotting a Fraud

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And the clown with a serious mission, the child prodigy who ran away to become a carny, the man who takes a sarcastic bow when he’s introduced as a minion of Satan, knows a fraud when he sees one.

He delights in exposing them with gusto, press coverage and, often, lots of laughs.

It’s this kind of zest--some would say obsession, and Randi would agree--that landed him the big prize, the tax-free “genius grant,” in the first place.

“It’s so wonderful,” he said. “No one can take it from you. Not even the IRS for back taxes. There are no responsibilities, no strings. You don’t even have to continue in the same field. You can announce that you are a Communist, transvestite, child molester and no one can touch the money.”

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He sees the MacArthur grant as a deserved recognition for his work in tilting at all the assorted seers, clairvoyants, psychics, miracle curers, astral projectionists and others who claim paranormal powers--work he’s been doing for more than 25 years.

Consistent Message

His message has always been the same: Let practitioner and audience enjoy the show, but recognize it for what it really is--good old-fashioned magic.

Randi, whose mentor was magician Harry Blackstone, said: “The foundation went way out on a limb to give this grant to me. People could say they’ve given this award to a clown, a magician and a juggler, but that would be very unfair. That’s not why they gave it to me.

“A bunch of Nobel Prize winners and other people I really respect have always said the work I do was important, but it was always private. Now it’s official. A distinguished body said I am the bee’s knees. I feel I’ve got to represent them well.”

‘I’m the Hit Man’

Randi said the prize also honors, in effect, the 10-year-old Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, a group of physicists, astronomers and philosophers who investigate claims of the supernatural.

“I’m the name that goes with the committee,” he said. “I’m the hit man.”

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Will his new status as a MacArthur Fellow take the imp out of the man who discomfited a professed faith healer on the Johnny Carson show by demonstrating that the healer used plain technology to identify a person’s ailments rather than psychic powers of divine origin? Or who sneaked two magicians into an ESP experiment and in essence closed the lab by revealing a gigantic hoax? Will he stop saying things like: “Psychics couldn’t find a bowling ball in a teacup”?

Randi’s blue eyes dance beneath the bushy white eyebrows. “Well,” he said, “I might trim my beard more often.

“And I’ll probably no longer say, ‘Professor Winterbottom is not rowing with both oars in the water.’ I’ll say he is mistaken about his scientific conclusions, based on his lack of knowledge about how things are not always as they seem.”

New Book in January

Randi, born James Randall Zwinge 58 years ago in Toronto, has a new book coming out in January in which, he said, he will expose fraudulent faith healers. “The lawyers are going crazy,” he said, “but I can prove everything I say.”

Randi is perhaps more intent now than when he dogged Uri Geller of spoon-bending fame, demonstrating the same spoon-bending ability and attributing it to, emphatically, simple legerdemain.

“Faith healers,” he said, “are the same thing as Geller, but they are much more dangerous. They each make millions preying on innocent victims and people die. They stop some people from taking medication they need. . . . They say it’s OK because they make people feel better for a while.”

What about people who claim they have been cured of various ills by faith healers?

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Always the Skeptic

Randi is skeptical. “If somebody ate a peanut butter sandwich in the morning and went to a faith healing in the afternoon and was cured, how can you say what cured them? The peanut butter sandwich, the faith healing, or neither? Who knows? Even the American Medical Assn. says that 85% of the cures would have taken place without ever going to a doctor.”

Randi concentrates on people who use the tricks of his trade to make proceedings seem supernaturally inspired.

Those whom Randi has caught in such acts speak as highly of him as he of them. “They call me a ‘dried-up old runt of a magician.’ If I’m in their audience, they say a representative of Satan is with us today and point to me. I bow and wave.”

He waves, but he also wears a bullet-proof vest, he said. He has received threats, one referring ominously to the magician in the Bible who was blinded.

“I looked that up. That guy didn’t even know his Bible very well. The Bible said the magician got his sight back in three days. But I bring along my bully boys, too.”

Points to Successes

Randi said his dogged pursuit has caused some radio and TV stations to cancel certain faith-healing programs, and he used the Carson show, where he is a frequent guest, to do his best to undo one.

He exposed the claim of a healer that his information was divinely transmitted, when, in fact, it was the more mundane miracle of microchips. His wife, backstage in a boiler room, communicated with him through a transistor in his ear, dropping helpful hints like: “Say you see the number 6901 and ask the person in the green sweater if that means anything.”

She was reading an index card that listed the green sweater-wearer’s street address as 6901. The healer then proclaimed that the man was suffering from arthritis (also on the index card) and that it was cured.

In fact, green sweater felt better.

Said Randi: “A rush of adrenaline does temporarily alleviate arthritis.” And an aura of a healer who saw the subject’s address and ailment in the guise of the supernatural “would certainly produce such an adrenaline high.”

Makes Revealing Tape

Randi taped the frequency over which the back room was broadcasting to the faith healer on stage and played it on the Carson show, as the footage of the healing was shown.

Randi has challenged a healer who claims to be able to see through a plastic eye, but the man declined to be tested. Another, with a similar claim, agreed to be tested in Ohio and now, “I can just jump on a plane and go, thanks to the MacArthur. I don’t have to wait until I can book a lecture there.”

Serious as he is about his debunking mission, Randi can’t stop having fun as he stalks his foe.

Since he is eminently recognizable--short as a leprechaun, bald with residue of snow-white hair to match his snow-white beard and hypnotic eyes--he is fond of his special non-disguise disguise technique.

Quick-Change Artist

“I bought a $7.99 brown wig, dyed my beard brown, wore a ridiculous black jacket and a bright red tie and went and sat in the last row looking nervous. Sure enough, one of their bully boys showed up and asked if I was James Randi. ‘No,’ I said, quaking.”

As the security guard went to report the find, Randi ducked into the men’s room, took off the wig, washed out the dye, changed clothes and returned to sit up front.

“Everybody was looking for the guy in a brown wig, black jacket and red tie. A guard even asked me if I had seen him. I said, ‘Yes, he went that way.’ ”

Randi stayed for the demonstration, unbothered.

In some ways, the MacArthur money came in the nick of time. Randi sold his home in Rumson, N.J., and bought a house in Florida, complete with swimming pool, for half of what he got for his property in the high-priced Northeastern corridor.

Cutting It Close

“My income had dropped to about $33,000. It was really nip and tuck. It was like being a gambler at a race track. Every now and then you win a race, or in my case, every now and then you get one of the frauds and that keeps you going. Or I get a letter from a kid who said, ‘My God, Mr. Randi, you were right.’ What a discovery. I just want people to question, question, question.”

Now, he said, he’s fixed. “I’ve made very conservative investments. . . . I wouldn’t gamble with foundation money. It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever invested in anything.”

He has bought a copying machine, he is knocking down walls upstairs to make a bigger office, and he has hired a full-time assistant. He’s also setting up a scholarship for the high school student who writes the best essay on questioning the paranormal.

By the usual magic, money begets money.

“My income has doubled since I won the award,” said Randi. He hiked his lecture fees from $2,000 to $4,000 despite his agent’s qualms, “and nobody blinked an eye.”

Makes Standing Offer

It’s something that Randi, once billed as Randall the Telepath, would never have predicted. But then he will cheerfully concede that he can’t predict things any more than the next man. After he did his old show, he used to invite anyone in the audience who believed a word of it to come backstage where, he’d tell them, he had some deeds to the Brooklyn Bridge lying around.

“We laughed a lot. I still like to laugh a lot. Magic is a great and powerful form of entertainment--but that’s what it is, entertainment. And there’s nothing like performing. It’s addictive.


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