Randi up to 1968
Randall James Zwinge was born in Toronto, Canada on August 7, 1928. He dropped out of Canadian high school at the age of 17, and started doing magic for a travelling carnival - he was into magic since childhood when he had seen Henry Blackstone, Sr. perform, and doing card tricks passed the time when he was in a cast after a childhood bicycle accident. For a lot of his early career (1946 onward) he seemed to orbit around Toronto doing both the aforementioned stage mentalist act ("Randall the Telepath"), doing escapism magic (he liked escaping from straightjackets while hanging upside-down in the air - he later mocked that bit in a cameo on Happy Days in 1978) and being involved with the Toronto Globe and Mail's predecessor Midnight, which was a nightlife publication in the 1950s. Cridland mentions this publication in his 2013 interview with Radio Misterioso (Greg Bishop) on the predecessor article to the movie review, a 2012 The Anomalist magazine article titled "The Real James Randi." What Cridland discovered is that Randi is rather loose with recounting his own past - before he was a high school dropout he allegedly destroyed a Spiritualist church through his understanding of "cold reading" as a teenager. But had he? Was there such a church or group? Cridland in his interview says he could not find any scrap of proof that the incident occurred.
The "Randall the Telepath" act had that same problem - according to Cridland he advertised himself as an actual telepath, not a stage act. He also made predictions or psychic "detective work" for money as late as the age of 26:
.....In the early days Randi represented himself to the public and to the media as a genuine mind reader. In later interviews and accounts he would always claim he did this only briefly, but the historical record shows that this went on from his teens until at least the age of 26. The film shows a very public prediction that Randi, then known as Randall Zwinge, made for a Toronto newspaper. In the film Randi says the prediction, which seemingly foretells the outcome of the World Series, happened when he was 21.
In a self-recorded interview, Randi would say that he was always able to talk his way out if a reporter or interviewer would bring past claims of being psychic. Over the years Randi has a tale of a man from Florida who came to visit him believing he had genuine psychic powers and offered him money to give him information. In one version, told in Randi's book Conjuring , he wants to know the outcome of horses races. Randi then elaborates on the moral dilemma this caused him and states that that was one of the reasons he dropped the whole phony psychic routine. In AHL, Randi's friend, magician Penn Jillette, talks of this time in Randi's life and says that is commendable that “...he backed away from it."
The problem is that Randi has said he backed away, but the record shows he went back to it again and again. Randi's account in Conjuring refers to the World Series prediction and states that he was "eighteen years old" when this occurred. There are other accounts of similar predictions from different years. Both my article and AHL show that Randi's claims of being psychic went on for at least eight years beyond his supposed encounter with the unnamed man from Florida. Randi's reasons for dropping the psychic routine are much more likely related to his success as a stage magician and escape artist than a moral dilemma.
Although Randi and his associates demand a high criteria for accuracy in the people and claims they scrutinize, Randi gets away with slippery story telling.....
And this isn't even mentioning his time doing horoscopes as "Zo-ran" in Midnight - today he would say "it was an experiment in gullibility", back then he was doing it for a paycheck.
By the early 1960s Randi was in New York City, living in Greenwich Village and doing regular stage magic while also appearing on Long John Nebel's WOR-AM radio talk show. When Nebel left that station to go to syndication, James Randi took over the show. Along the way Randi came into contact with James Moseley, the editor of Saucer News (later Saucer Smear); we don't know if they ran into each other through Nebel's show or the Joe Pyne syndicated TV talk show (Moseley made a number of appearances on The Joe Pyne Show - Pyne was a conservative talk show host well-known for his "Beef Box" segment where people could voice whatever annoyed them). Either way, they became friendly, Randi interviewed Moseley's associate Grey Barker, and Timothy "Mr. UFO" Beckley, who was sharing office space with James Moseley at 303 Fifth Avenue in New York City. On the ground floor was the then recently-installed FAO Schwartz toy store while the Moseley-Beckley office was a small space floors up. Randi was impressed with Beckley, who was on his way to being a prolific author/publisher of UFO and paranormal books of varying quality and later founder of the 1970s UFO Investigators League (which died by the early 1980s and was revived in 1990 only to die again). According to Beckley:
"...Randi and I shared a small office at 303 Fifth Ave in Manhattan that was also occupied by Jim Moseley of UFO fame. I traveled with Randi to several of his gigs. I remember one in particular at a high school gym where he levitated a young lady and the curtain shook behind him." Beckley told me that Randi wanted him to be his manager and this is why he accompanied him to some of his shows. That's right, Randi wanted Mr. UFO to be his manager.Nothing came of it, but Randi did attend the 1967 Congress of Scientific Ufologists run by Moseley, and was photographed by UFO contactee Frank Stranges, standing next to Andy "The Mystic Barber" Sinatra, and the photo was put in Stranges' book Stranger at the Pentagon (two words: "Valiant Thor.") Below is the photo, screen-captured from Cridland's blog; notice that Randi has his "The Amazing" moniker already.
When the Table Flipped: 1973
After his time on WOR was up, Randi continued to do his stage act. According to the Internet Movie Database, he appeared in the pilot and on a few test segments of Sesame Street in 1969. Wikipedia claims that Randi appeared as "The Magic Clown" in a 1970 Canadian revival of the ancient 1949-1959 Bonomo Magic Clown show. The original was little more than magician Sam Wishner doing his pre-existing Zovello character making (Bonomo's) Turkish taffy appear and disappear for audiences of fez-wearing kids - the Montreal-taped version had the clown and God-knows-what went on for thirty minutes. I have not been able to find a photo of Randi in his clown getup, video of the show, etc. I can tell you that Wishner quit the original in 1952 and the Bonomo clown was played by different actors/mimes/magicians until the show was cancelled. In any case, the Canadian version only lasted until 1971. Two years later Uri Geller hit the United States and that's when Randi became a skeptic.
Before we talk about about why Randi went skeptic, we need to talk about organized skepticism itself. Pretty much there were no organizations of skeptics outside of academia after ancient Greece, unless you want to count the Fortean Society run by Tiffany Thayer from 1931 to his death in 1959; Charles Hoy Fort was an arch-doubter of the weird stuff he researched. (Of course today's skeptics do not consider Fort to be one of their own.) By the 1970s the American Humanist Association (founded in 1941) had grown large enough to consider backing a skeptical organization, which they did after the AHA magazine The Humanist published the statement "Objections to Astrology" in their September-October 1975 issue. Unfortunately they also took on Michel Gauquelin's "Mars Effect" theory, which became part of a fiasco for the newly-assembled "Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal" (CSICOP) that Wikipedia is still trying to minimize forty years later. So who was part of CSICOP when it started? There were the big names like Carl Sagan (who had stopped being open-minded about UFOs after the Condon Committee report came out in 1969) and Isaac Asimov (scientist, atheist, author on a number of subjects, owner of roving hands), but those people didn't do any work, just lent gravitas to the group. The real workers were guys like Martin Gardner (science and math writer, magician); Marcello Truzzi (edited The Zetetic, the first CSICOP magazine, also professor of Sociology and a magician); Phil Klass (avionics expert, UFO debunker, master of the poison pen); and Joe Nickell (field debunker, magician, appeared on In Search of.... in 1979 to demonstrate how the Shroud of Turin could have been faked using bas relief method, numerous TV appearances since). You are probably noticing that there are a lot of magicians already, without mentioning that Randi was there from the beginning. George P. Hansen wrote a paper on CSICOP in 1992 - he lists thirteen names of notable magicians who were involved with the group from 1976 to 1992 and I've named four of them. (More on that later.) The final two people involved with early CSICOP were the astronomer Dennis Rawlins (who was still angry about his treatment twenty years later), and the founder Paul Kurtz, who was part of the AHA and also owner/manager of Prometheus Books (founded 1969) which had been doing skepticism in book form - this would become a one-two punch in the 1980s; people would debunk things in Skeptical Inquirer, then a book would be written doing a longer debunking later and that would be "case closed" on the issue - even though many of the issues "debunked" kept showing up. (Case in point: Phil Klass wrote a book published by Prometheus in 1989, UFO Abductions: A Dangerous Game making a case that it was all hysteria and hype, yet to this day there are witnesses making the basic claim that odd humanoids show up in their houses at night, either to pass along bizarre information, or conduct examinations, or amble through the building before they vanish. Night terrors? Or topics made unpalatable for research by CSICOP's campaigns?) It should also be pointed out that Prometheus Books (according to Hansen) is one of the few outsider organizations that advertised in magazines for stage magicians.
Before we turn back to Randi and Uri Geller, we need to define just what modern skepticism is. In short it is the return of logical positivism, a 1920s ramping up of August Comte's work in philosophy, and LP was practiced by the "Vienna circle" under Moritz Schlick; the group were scientific-oriented philosophers and philosophy-oriented scientists who met in cafes to hammer issues out. The only truths that counted in logical positivism were scientific ones - metaphysics was strictly valueless, a word game. The philosophy spread into the English-speaking world thanks to the exile of Austrian academics in the late 1930s, then petered out after the 1950s - either the science had gotten too complicated or logical positivism was seen as too confining or quantum theory predicted the rise of philosophical postmodernism. The difference with the new skepticism is that it was run by scientists with no philosophical backing and it had certain American proclivities - it was economically neo-liberal ("deregulated markets") and had that upper middle class orientation that Ivy League professors were supposed to hold, with the quiet belief that the American masses were gullible and needed to be lead. The membership of CSICOP was mostly male and older and this would later create friction when younger people got into skepticism in the George W. Bush years, especially females and openly gay people.
Uri Geller (b. 1946) seemed to come from nowhere when he hit America in the early 1970s, and his act infuriated Randi. Geller claimed he had gotten his powers by being zapped by a UFO as a child, but he had quickly become a big deal as a male model and nightclub performer in his native Israel in the late 1960s. Maybe it was the fact that Geller had moved so fast, or possibly Randi had begun doubting the odd things that he talked about on WOR - allegedly the "million dollar challenge" began as a "thousand dollar challenge" in 1964, and at the 1967 Congress for Scientific Ufologists he was quoted by a Washington Post reporter: "Let's not fool ourselves. There are some garden variety liars involved in all this. But in among all the trash and nonsense perpetrated in the name of Ufology, I think there is a small grain of truth." According to Tim Cridland in an interview with Craig Bishop (Radio Misterioso), Randi later claimed that Geller was stealing his business, but that this was not the case - Cridland claims that the number of shows he did was the same. We are not Randi's biographer; we don't have his private notes, emails, and memoranda so we can't "read his mind"......that written, Geller got under Randi's skin deeply and for the rest of his life, Randi was involved with various fracases with the Israeli.
The initial 1975 ad promoting CSICOP in The Humanist was titled "Objections to Astrology" in conjunction with an article critical of astrology that took potshots at the work of Michel and Francoise Gauquelin, "neo-astrologers" who had discovered a thing in 1955 called "the Mars Effect." Through statistics the Gauquelins had discovered that athletes born when Mars was "in ascension" (from ground-level on Earth, Mars appears to be at different heights above the horizon at different times of the year) seemed to perform better than those born when Mars was not. The article that slammed the "Mars Effect" was written by Lawrence Jerome and his math was not as good as M. Gauquelin's and the couple was willing to sue Jerome or the AHA. Paul Kurtz, American Humanist Assoc. honcho and founder/operator of Prometheus Books wanted a proper debunking, so he dragged CSICOP co-founder Dennis Rawlins in to do the job.....Rawlins was an astronomer, after all. In 1981, Rawlins sent Fate magazine the article "sTARBABY" outlining what an utter mess this attempted debunking was. It started off with a two week deadline, then evolved into a "Challenge" by UCLA astronomer George Abell and Marvin Zelen (head of the statistical laboratory at SUNY-Buffalo and later Harvard Universtity.) Rawlins spent a year examining the Effect, had written an article correcting Jerome's blunders within Kurtz' fortnight deadline (The Humanist published the correction/response). Meanwhile Zelen and Abell had not carried out their "Challenge" experiment. CSICOP was formally founded during the Walpurgisnacht-May Day (4-30 to 5-1) holiday* in Buffalo, NY in 1976. The two day event had heavy press coverage, or as Rawlins put it in "sTARBABY":
......I gave one of the Founders' Day speeches. It contained enough good press copy and one-liners to get me selected for the nine-man ruling Council of CSICOP.Founders' Day was above all a media event. Reporters were wooed and catered to. I certainly had no objection to that, having had largely pleasant encounters with the media. But I was naive about the one overriding reality: a Committee that lives by the media will inevitably be ruled by its publicists, not by its scholars.
.....Randi and I drove to Washington together on December 4. Late that afternoon while Michael Hutchinson and I were in Randi's suite, Kurtz called to speak with me.
He immediately accused me of lying and conspiring against him (this only a few days after trying to organize a secret movement to have me thrown off the Council for the crime of dissent).  I asked him to cite a single falsehood l'd ever told him. Unable to name one, he asked me to say what I thought his deceits were. I offered to provide a partial catalog if he were really interested -- but would do it at the Council meeting the next day.
Kurtz wanted to know if I intended to attack sTARBABY at the press conference. When I refused to make any promises, Kurtz grew more furious. We couldn't have a "schism," he said.
Council met the next day at Councilor Phil Klass' apartment. I noticed that Randi was his usual friendly self when Kurtz wasn't around but when he was within earshot Randi made different noises. He repeatedly cracked loudly, "Drink the Kool-Aid, Dennis." (This was shortly after the Jonestown Kool-Aid mass suicide.) During the afternoon meeting, when we established a rule for expelling Councilors, Randi bellowed that it is called the "Rawlins rule."
Randi meant, of course, that expulsion could come for public dissent. No other Councilor present (Gardner was not) said a word to suggest any other inference. I might add that two months later Randi foolishly boasted about how he "had to work to keep Dennis in line" in Washington, having convinced himself, apparently, that his threats had kept me quiet.
How these things grow! In 1975 and 1976 it was just a dumb, arrogant mistake by only three CSICOP Fellows. In 1977 it was their BS report, deliberate deception-cover-up. The next year, 1978, brought Kurtz's attempts first to bribe me and then (secretly) to eject me. Now there were Randi's threats....
 That Councilors Kurtz, Randi, Philip Klass, and Lee Nisbet conspired to keep dissent (read "schism") from sullying the press conference was eventually admitted from the inside in a July 6, 1979, conversation. (See also June 26 document prepared by Randi and marked "Confidential," discussed below.)