JUST A MAGICIAN WITH A GOOD GIMMICK!
Harry Houdini, the greatest stage magician of this century, gained wide publicity for his claims to be able to duplicate any mediumistic phenomenon by a mechanical trick or sleight-of-hand. Uri Geller is being challenged by professional magicians in a similar manner. It is one thing, they say, to create illusions of supernatural effects while admitting that they are caused by stage magic; but it is improper, in their view, to perform such tricks and allege that they are the result of truly supernormal ability.
“Look, I’ve seen magicians in action for decades. I know how they work. I know the history of stage magic, the techniques of sleight-of-hand, the whole range of tricks and psychological know-how that has made many of them excellent and a few absolutely superb. This Uri Geller – why, he is nothing but another magician, with a good gimmick. That’s all. I don’t see what all the fuss is about….”
This is how one “insider” of the magic scene sees Geller. For him, all this talk about ESP, telepathy, and extraterrestrial influence is just so much clever publicity. One wonders why, if Geller is just one of them – representing a younger generation than most practising magicians – do the veterans of the sleight-of-hand crowd resent Geller. Here is another comment:
“Of course, he is just another Kreskin. But Kreskin simply goes through all the motions and pretence while he is on stage. When he’s with the boys, his fellow professionals, maybe meeting them in one of the stores that have speciaised in magicians’ gimmicks for years, he makes no such pretence. They talk shop, they know he is one of them, and they admire his skill his showmanship, and they may be just a little envious of his success. Sure, his gimmick is like Geller’s, but he is a self-acknowledged professional who uses known magicians’ devices and paraphernalia. These things are known by his fellow professions, but they have a long-standing code of not giving away the secrets of their trade – at least not the really crucial secrets.”
The magicians’ trade has regained some of the popularity it had in the days of Harry Houdini. Television is not suited for this type of showmanship. Stage tricks need to be performed in front of a live audience, and with its full participation, which might range from the time-honored request, “Take a card, any card!” to a lady volunteer for the sawing-in-half trick. The top-flight magicians of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century developed complex machinery that required props and assistants too expensive for today’s performers; their slow build-up of suspense would make today’s audience fidgety; its span of attention is too short but the magicians are adaptable.
Practitioners of the great art of magicianship are increasingly active. One of them is Milbourne Christopher, biographer of Houdini, historian of magic, and debunker of the pseudopsychic: Christopher feels that Geller is just another Kreskin but won’t admit it. Kreskin, on the other hand, maintains in public that, while most of his performance is standard stage magic, he does practice about ten percent legitimate ESP. His fellow magicians answer this claim with a knowing smile. Of course, they seem to say, that’s part of the act, just like the patter of talk, the air of innocence and surprise, the quick seemingly spontaneous movements of his body. It’s all part of the act. Some psychic researchers have grown quite angry over Kreskin’s claims to be practising ESP. Particularly those who feel that extrasensory powers are something very special, should be guarded and practiced with care, and are best observed under laboratory conditions. To them Kreskin’s claims make legitimate ESP look too easy, too trivial, or best suited for the glittering world of the stage and the TV studio. At least one member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians brought down the wrath of several colleagues on his head: as he was also a firm believer in ESP, he publicised some of Kreskin’s tricks, described how they were done, and thus gave away some secrets of the trade, although in what he believed was a good cause.
Geller has said several times that he is annoyed when professional magicians attend his performances, obviously planning to expose him. But he also maintains that their claims add to the publicity he receives, and so merely provide more grist for his own mill. The magicians, in turn, say that Geller fails to perform when professional magicians are on the scene. They point to two major occasions when he failed: the Johnny Carson Tonight show, and a demonstration before invited guests at the office of Time magazine.
The Time meeting was attended by James Randi, a magician who calls himself “The Amazing Randi.” A veteran performer, one of his most spectacular stunts is part of the Alice Cooper show. Cooper, who puts on a blood-curdling show filled with sadistic exhibitionism, is “beheaded” by Randi at the end of each nightly show. Randi, who lives in Rumson, New Jersey, is very active in the New York City area, travels widely, and has repeated many of the phenomena shown by Geller. Much in the manner in which Houdini exposed phony mediums while garnering publicity for himself, Randi has kept a file on Geller’s career, together with a collection of videotapes of his TV performances.
Randi convinced at least one Geller enthusiast, Andrew Weil, M.D., totally. In a series of two articles in Psychology Today (June and July 1974), Dr. Weil described how he first became an enthusiastic “convert” to Geller’s phenomena, but after seeing Randi, discovered that he had “never before had the experience of going from such total belief to such total disbelief in so short a time.” He added: “Nor had I ever doubted my perceptions so thoroughly. Uri’s unwillingness to perform in the presence of magicians seemed especially damning”
What had convinced Weil so completely, and what had made him change his mind so totally?
The sequence of experiences Weil had did not differ much from those described earlier in this volume. He had the feeling that, after a while, there was a special bond between him and the outgoing, charming Geller. The climax was what Uri did to Weil’s belt buckle. Earlier, he had said that he never worked with buckles. But later, when other things had worked out well, he said, “Let’s try it.” Weil put the large brass buckle into his palm, on top of three keys, a knife, and change. His description continues: “I covered the pile with my other hand. Uri put his hand on top. More intense concentration. Suddenly I felt a distinct throb inside my hands, like a small frog kicking. I told him so. ‘You did?’ he asked excitedly and opened my hands. I could see no change in the buckle. He pulled out a long steel key and cried out: ‘It’s bent, yes, it’s bent. Do you see?’ I did not see at first. But then I noticed a slight bend. It was very exciting. Uri put the key on the table to check it. Yes, it was definitely bent.”
Weil walked away from this experience convinced that some of Uri’s “powers I had seen that day seemed extraordinary and impossible to deny.” The whole experience had been elating. He had really got along well with Uri.
But he got along equally well with Randi, whom he found “a delightful host, talkative, and funny, with a twinkle in his eye and a roguish look that always let you know he might be up to some trick.” After Weil reported on his experiences with Geller, Randi showed him a table covered with envelopes, paper, nails, nuts, bolts, and aluminum film canisters – very much like Uri’s paraphernalia.
As a “telepathy” trick, Randi asked Weil to make a drawing, seal it into one envelope, then another, then a third. While he did this, Randi was at the other end of the room. They put the envelopes aside, and Randi asked Weil to select six sturdy five-inch nails, put a rubber band around them, and put them aside.
With the drawing and the nails waiting their turn, Randi did “one of Mr. Geller’s favorite tricks.” He asked Weil to fill one container so full of nuts and bolts that they would not rattle around. One after another, Randi pointed to a canister saying it was empty. Weil put it aside, recalling later, “Randi had a great sense of drama, I felt involved in his performance.” Finally, there were only two containers left, and Randi passed his hands over them, as Geller often did, “feeling their emanations.” Then he asked Weil to remove the one on the left. They opened the remaining container; it was full of nuts and bolts.
Randi said that he had used a magicians’ trick, showed Weil how he did it, but made him promise not to reveal the technique, “because we magicians aren’t supposed to reveal secrets,” although “this is a special case.” Weil promised, saw the trick, and decided that it was so simple that “a child could master it.” It was based on, he wrote, “a subtle but easily perceptible difference between the full can and the empty ones, a difference that can be seen by anybody who knows what to look for.” In this case, depending on the base on which the canisters were set, it might have been the different indentation on the tablecloth, or possibly a bulge in the can crammed with metal pieces.
Randi really awed Weil with his trick of the bent nail. He picked one that was perfectly straight, “holding it between thumb and forefinger midway along the shaft.” It bent, by about thirty degrees. Randi then showed, in slow motion, how he had done the trick, substituting a bent nail for the straight one, concealing the bend until the last moment. Dr. Weil was shocked by his own naivete: “Suddenly I experienced a sense of how strongly the mind can impose its own interpretation of perceptions, how it can see what it expects to see, but not see the unexpected.”
Magicians agree in their claim that Uri Geller does not use elaborate mechanisms or chemical substances to perform his tricks. He is, one of them says, “a master of misdirection, of simple but strong psychological influence.” It is certainly true that there is a consistency in Geller’s pattern in dealing with his audiences. He gives them a sense of participation. And because he claims that these things more or less happen without his conscious control, he can always express disappointment when something does not work – and gain audience compassion and sympathy at the same time – and he can set one trick aside, while switching to another, draw attention in one way, while quickly acting in another.
Kreskin’s making a dollar bill walk across a surface is more impressive than some of Geller’s run-of-the-mill key-bending tricks, but it presumably involves paraphernalia that could be detected or found on the magician’s person. It is one thing for someone like Randi to duplicate Geller’s performances before a wide-eyed Weil, but it is quite another to duplicate them under the same conditions that Geller does: around Restaurant table, on an airplane, in a car, before ten, twenty, a hundred, a thousand people. And before many TV cameras. True, the performance on the Johnny Carson show was dismal: Carson has a magician’s background and had invited Randi to help him guard against sleight-of-hand by Geller. Similarly, Geller refused to perform before a British group called together by The New Scientist magazine, which probably would have included magicians.
The magicians have their own type of arrogance. They sneer at the scientists at the Stanford Research Institute, implying that no one is quite as gullible as a researcher in search of a scientific breakthrough. Magicians apparently have been fooled, too. During telepathy experiments made by a British researcher, S. G. Soal, with two Welsh boys, one visiting magician attested to the excellence of the controls exercised over the boys; but he did not take into consideration the possible use of a supersonic whistle, commonly used for sheep dogs, which adults could not hear but the boys might well have used to communicate with each other.
The magicians appear to shy away from conditions that are tightly restricted and truly out of their control, while Geller seems courageous to the point of foolhardiness (assuming he does use stage tricks). Several years ago, Popular Photography, which also published the article on Geller’s effort to photograph through a lens cap, gave room to an apparent exposure of “thoughtography,” on the part of a Chicagoan, Ted Serios, under the supervision of a Denver psychiatrist and parapsychologist, Dr. Jule Eisenbud. Randi had said that he could duplicate Serios’ photographs, which appeared to be images on film, originating solely in his mind and not in other outside stimuli. Eisenbud, angered but with considerable humor, wrote to the magazine as follows:
“I hereby state that if, before any competent jury of scientific investigators, photographers, and conjurers, anyone chosen by them can in any normal way or combination of ways duplicate, under similar conditions, the range of phenomena produced by Ted, I shall (1) abjure all further work with Ted, (2) buy up and publicly burn all available copies of The World of Ted Serios, (3) take a full-page ad in Popular Photography in order to be represented photographically wearing a dunce cap, and (4) spend my spare time for the rest of my life selling door-to-door subscriptions to this magazine. No time limit is stipulated.”
Eisenbud’s letter, a surely generous offer, was published in the magazine in November 1967. A letter from Randi asked for clarifications of “range of phenomena” and definition of test conditions, and further letters were exchanged between him and Dr. Eisenbud. But the matter petered out. A detailed account of all this appeared in Fate (August 1974), written by Curtis Fuller and entitled “Dr. Jule Eisenbud vs. The Amazing Randi.” Fuller stated that “more amazing even than the abilities of Serios, however, is the manner in which The Amazing Randi avoided his promise to duplicate Ted’s accomplishments and in so doing remained the court favorite of the establishment and their ill-informed spokesmen.”
There can be little doubt that an experienced stage magician can duplicate Geller’s performances, using skill, psychology, and perhaps special equipment. But can any one of them duplicate them under the conditions Geller permits? Until someone like The Amazing Randi gets up among as mixed bunch of people as Geller encounters, and in equally varied settings, many people will swear that Uri Geller simply must be practising telepathy, psychokinesis, and other extrasensory powers – and that he may well be the emissary of extraterrestrial entities who use him as proof of their interest in mankind.
Explanations are numerous, and can be quite convincing. One critic of Geller, well versed in stage magic, analyzed his performance with CBS television personality Barbara Walters. He said that Miss Walters’ obvious perplexity at Uri’s skill may well have convinced millions that his claims were legitimate. How could his phenomena have been tricks? Well, in one case he was given a collection of twelve spoons, but controls over him were not strict enough to have made it impossible for him to weaken one of the spoons just above the bowl beforehand. As the next step, this critic noted, Geller passed up a spoon offered by Barbara Walters, picked another one, and said, “Let’s do it with this one.”
Next, Geller asked Miss Walters to hold one end of the spoon, at the very end of its handle, while he manipulated the center parts with thumb and forefinger. This way, he gave Barbara Walters a feeling of participation and her TV audience an assurance that, with the competent veteran of the Today show involved, everything had to be on the up-and-up. He followed this segment of spoon-handling by saying, “Perhaps we ought to try it the other way around,” asking Miss Walters to hold the spoon at the front end of the bowl. In this way, the gravity could exert itself on the longest part of the spoon, the handle, pulling the spoon downward from the point just above the bowl that had been weakened beforehand.
Quite a convincing explanation. And yet, many Geller observers are under the impression that he is much too impatient and jumpy, has too short a span of attention even to prepare such a trick, much less execute it with precision and cunning. The magicians say that his personality, at least in the way he projects it upon individuals and group audiences, is Geller’s greatest asset. He comes on with a mixture of bafflement about his own abilities and a childlike delight whenever something goes right. (.”Look, look, it’s bending. It has never happened like this before. I wasn’t even trying to bend it just now. These things just happen around me, I don’t know why….”)
He is, they say, a master of misdirection. He begins something, and if it doesn’t seem to work, he goes on to something else; and when he returns to the original item, something has happened to it. His patter has a pattern: he is very tired but will try his best; he apologises for being on the run but is gracious and disarming, eager to please, downhearted when things don’t come out all right. The audience is on his side, eager, in fact, to please him by going along, possibly by seeing and testifying to something of which it is not fully convinced.
And yet, and yet. One American parapsychologist had a watch stopped with a thin sheet of metal film wedged into its mechanism (see p. 167). Uri gave it one of his “watch healing” treatments. The watch began to work when it was reopened later, the metal film had moved – psychokinesis? – so as to free the mechanism. What had happened? This was not one of those watches that had been lying around for a year or two, and which responded to being handled by ticking for a half-hour, only to stop again, more or less permanently.
Other means of creating the “Geller effect” are outside the stage magic tradition and are rejected as “too fancy” by some magicians. One such test was ordered by the German news magazine Der Spiegel. It took one spoon which Geller had bent and broken during his stay in Vienna and submitted it to the Federal Institute for Material Testing in Berlin. In a testimonial dated January 25, 1974, the institute described the metallic composition of the spoon (which belonged to the Hotel Imperial in the Austrian capital), reported on its appearance, provided a spectral analysis, as well as an examination of the break itself. After describing the spoon’s composition (an alloy of copper, nickel, and zinc, silver-plated), the institute noted that the break could have been created by normal use, by forcible bending, or, as its chemical experimenters noted, by application of silver nitrate or quicksilver, a poisonous fluid.
But did Geller go around the Vienna hotel sprinkling silver nitrate on cutlery? While a magician might reject such an explanation as “too fancy,” a layman is inclined to doubt such chemical conjuring as too elaborate a trick for Geller’s seemingly free-and-easy performances, and for the frequency with which he does this sort of thing.
It is doubtful that Geller himself will encourage laboratory experiments that are more carefully controlled than were those at the Stanford Research Institute in California. This puts the challenge back into the hands of the magicians. Can they duplicate Geller’s feats, with his apparent ease and seeming unconcern, before a variety of audiences and under many different conditions? The answer is up to them.
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