This blog is a focussed experiment. I wanted to test my ability to publish and produce a taut multi-media blog on something. I attended TAM7 in July. It struck me as the perfect 4-day crash course. The "course" didn't go as well as I hoped, but I learned a lot. I'm continuting to update as I have the opportunity to - eventually I'll have covered the entirety of my experience at the conference.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Discussion with Randi

Coming off a lunch that was a bit confused – ‘chaotic’ would not be fair – we were treated with a discussion between Jamy Ian Swiss and James Randi. It was in many ways a bit of a palate cleanser. One of the lighter portions of the day. I didn’t really get the opportunity to pay close attention to the beginning of the presentation as I was wrapping up my duties at the SkeptiCamp table.
The intent seemed to be to have a casual conversation with James Randi. Jamy Ian Swiss – a sleight of hand expert – conducted the talk which was structured around a series of clips from Randi’s past.

I won’t bother interrupting the flow of the discussion to outline every technical glitch that occurred. Suffice to say that there had been some kind of issue with the laptop to be used for the presentation and Vancouver skeptic Fred Bremmer leapt into the fray with his laptop as an alternate which worked reasonably well – except that Mr. Swiss was clearly not familiar with the operating specifics of the Mac and as a result kept getting a panoply of brief but troubling results. Several times Fred had to leapt to the stage and assist. Additionally there was a feedback problem with a mic which was punctuated by Jeff Wagg dashing across the stage fixing the error in transit. It was amusing at the time.

The discussion began with a chat about an escape attempt made for BBC to commemorate Harry Houdini. There was also some story which I believe happened in Quebec where Randi was under police escort for some reason and much to their chagrin he demonstrated a hand-cuff escape. Unfortunately all this portion of the discussion happened as I was wrapping up at the SkeptiCamp table so the audio is poor and my attention at the time was tenuous.

The next clip was from Randi’s first appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. As I was finding my way back to my seat, again the specific point it was largely lost on me. Though as I got to sitting down and setting up my various gakk I started to tune in and recognized that Randi was describing a gag I have seen in a variety of busking acts over the years – particularly back when I was touring festivals. Essentially, in the process of executing an escape trick the magician has an audience member assist in locking him up. Once his hands are supposedly secure, the magician proceeds to casually slip one hand out of the binds and give the audience member visual aid in their next instructions – typically pointing at the next prop that will be necessary in the trick – before returning the hand to the binds in one swift move. In my experience the audience usually noticed, but the audience volunteer was too engrossed in their own task to realize what had occurred. Always good for a laugh.

(Oh my god the audio on this is bad! Why is it so bad on this track?)

I think they’re talking about each of Steve Allen and Johnny Carson for a bit here. I can’t make out much that is triggering my memory. I know there was something about Johnny taking magic lessons ‘from the best’ and also that Randi was one of the few guests that Johnny liked to talk with before they got on stage.

This Steve Allen clip looks familiar to me, so I’ll include it for yuks...

The audio gets a bit better now... As they talk about Randi’s years of doing daredevil stunts.

He did an underwater escape of some sort on the Today show.

He mentioned in slight detail the technique – controlled breathing, not eating for a certain time in advance so as to slow the metabolism – and the despite the efforts he was VERY ready to come out.

Next up was a trick where he was entombed in a block of ice on the Dick Cavett show. Randi spoke briefly about how he had to stay clear of the end as they broke him out so as to protect himself from both ice chips and the implements used to emancipate him. He laid on a sheet of cardboard so his skin didn’t stick to the ice.

The next trick – was my favourite, too bad I can’t find footage – was on the Shari Lewis show. Randi re-enacted a Houdini trick where he got into a canister – kind of like a giant milk-jug – filled with water. It was sealed and then hidden from view for a moment and when it was revealed, there he was sitting right on top. If they mentioned how this was done I did not hear it either in the discussion and definitely not on the audio recording. There was a mention about wetting himself down before the reveal – which makes me think they edited the show... which would not have been an option for Houdini back in the day. Anyhow – as Penn Gillette would make clear later in the panel on Skepticism & Magic the next day – not many people really want the illusion ruined anyhow. Randi also had an anecdote about David Copperfield – which was too inaudible on the audio to make sense of.

Swiss then asked who in the audience would know what he was talking about if he said `Billion Dollar Babies?’ I could not raise my hand, though I suspected where we were heading... Alice Cooper... and I was right. I actually got to ask the Amazing Randi personally back in February about his days with Alice Cooper. I thought I had done a blog post about that, but I can’t find it. What I can find is Randi talking about it all on his podcast in two parts. (Part one & Part two.) He covers pretty much all the same material – often with exactly the same phrasing... clearly he’s said it all before.

And here’s some visuals to make some sense of the tales:

James Randi: Dentist

James Randi: Executioner

From Alice Cooper they moved on to talk about Randi’s various upside down straight jacket escapes, including this one over Niagara Falls.

He talked about how cold it was (it was early January) with his face mere feet from the edge of the falls. He could not even properly speak when he got down, because his beard was frozen solid. Meantime, park access had been closed off, but somehow a family of Chinese tourists managed to hike through, totally by mistake. They sat on the edge of the river astounded, shaking their heads at these crazy Canadians. (Yes, Canadians – Randi is Canadian by birth and the stunt was done on the Canadian side of the falls.) He went on to joke that they went home and told their friends about the Canadian tradition to tie up a tiny bearded man in a straight jacket and hang him over the falls, and how if he got out Spring would come early. That got a BIG laugh.

He made a similar escape hanging from a helicopter over Tokyo where, much to his surprise, after he’d escaped they flew around Tokyo with him hanging upside down from the helicopter for over an hour.

And with a few kind words from Jayme Swiss – “I don’t think the word ‘Amazing’ will do...” – that was that for the Amazing Randi.

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