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Sunday, July 19, 2015

James Randi and The Amazing Meeting

I have just finished a weekend at the James Randi Educational Foundation's 13th annual event, The Amazing Meeting. I haven't attended all of them (I've missed three), but I'm glad I went this year because it's likely to be Randi's last TAM. He's 86, is battling medical issues, and wants to spend more time at home in Florida working on an autobiography, "A Magician In The Laboratory." But the man still has remarkable stamina. He was up early every day and kept busy until late at night.

Saturday night, there was a cocktail reception/stage show in which several of Randi's friends and colleagues got up to tell stories about him. Jamy Ian Swiss (one of the most important voices in the skeptical movement, who must have been onstage at TAM in one role or another more than a half-dozen times this weekend) was the emcee. The speakers included:

  • Jim Gardner, son of the late Martin Gardner, who was a very close friend and colleague of Randi's;
  • Massimo Polidoro, who came from Italy to intern with Randi at age 12 and has grown to be the author of over 40 books;
  • Sharon Hill, who handles web stuff for the JREF, and whose own Doubtful News site is a must-read;
  • Jim Alcock, longtime editor of The Skeptical Inquirer and CSICOP board member;
  • Todd Robbins, a unique stage entertainer who has eaten more light bulbs than anyone else.
There were also video tributes from Adam Savage, Bill Nye, Banachek, and Penn and Teller (who couldn't be there because they're in the midst of a run on Broadway).

Jamy also asked me to say a few things about Randi because he's appeared on my show so often. I told two stories about Randi, and here's one of them, about the first time we met:

In 1988, I was doing a morning radio show in Washington when Penn Jillette came to the studio to promote his appearance (with Teller, of course) at the National Theater that night. At one point, Randi's name came up and I said I'd admired him for years (ever since seeing him on Sonny Fox's "Wonderama" TV show as a kid and then later on Johnny Carson's show, where his Peter Popoff exposè and psychic surgery demonstration were instant classics). Penn told me it just so happened that, later that day, he was going to introduce Randi at an event hosted by the National Capital Area Skeptics, and invited me to come along. I did.

At the venue, Penn did a few juggling tricks and then introduced Randi to the overflow audience, which gave him its rapt attention as he talked for about an hour. I remember one of the topics was how to cheat at randomizing, involving an index card box and a die. When Randi finished, he spoke to several attendees while Penn motioned for me to come backstage. That's where I met Jamy Ian Swiss and Chip and Grace Denman, who to this day are driving forces behind JREF and TAM.

Eventually, Randi came back and Penn introduced me by saying, "Randi, this is Paul Harris, one of the smartest radio guys I know." Randi immediately replied, "Well, that's not saying much!!" We all laughed, then sat around and talked for a half-hour or so. I invited him to do my radio show the next morning, and he did, telling stories about his adventures, his relationship with Carson, and his battles against charlatans who claim paranormal abilities.

I was thrilled to spend that hour of radio with one of my heroes, and I've been happy to welcome him back to my show many, many times since then. He's a great guest, because he's such a brilliant mind and good talker, and because he knows how to do radio, having hosted a late-night show of his own on WOR/New York some five decades ago. That means we have two things in common -- we're both broadcasters and neither one of us can remember when we had hair on the tops of our heads.