Tribute to James Randi (with Humor at My Expense)

May 22, 2009

In Bethesda, Maryland, for the Center for Inquiry’s 12th World Congress (April 9—12, 2009), I introduced James Randi for his special performance. That was an honor but also a difficult task.

As the world-renowned investigator and challenger of phonies and frauds, Randi needs no introduction. However, given my assignment to bestow one anyway, I knew it could easily squander half of his allotted time just to set forth a basic resumé—an impermissible luxury. I really wanted to take as little time from his talk as possible, especially when I could almost hear (if not clairvoyantly) Randi’s voice: “Hurry up kid” (such is our age difference) “and quit trying to steal my show” (as if I really could).

I compromised: I related a couple of brief anecdotes concerning my esteemed friend and mentor. One told of our first meeting forty years before, when I interviewed him in Toronto for a CBC Radio documentary on Houdini. Handing me a piece of rope, Randi invited me to tie his hands behind his back. I did so, firmly. He then faced me and, commenting on how securely he was tied, suggested I bring over a nearby chair for him to sit on—pointing to it with a free hand!

I also recalled when—at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Ontario, where I was Resident Magician from 1970—1972—he performed the strait-jacket escape, hanging upside down from a crane over Centre Street. He did that again suspended over thunderous Niagara Falls. And I alluded to the time when he almost died during one attempted escape—from a rusted old safe in a Toronto newspaper office. I always get sweaty hands when I think about it!

Finally, I observed that, in evolving from escape artist to nemesis of paranormalists and pseudoscientists, he brought to the task the same clarity of mind, supreme skill, dedication, and, perhaps above all, courage. (This audience did not need me to catalog the personal attacks, threats, and lawsuits hurled at him over his career.) “Ladies and gentlemen,” I announced, “James ‘The Amazing’ Randi!”

I remember distinctly what happened next. As Randi took the stage and I left it, the crowd lept up, applauding wildly. So, the next day, why did the same audience laugh—as if I’d had some false memory—when I thanked them for giving me that standing ovation?