New York City, 1994, and I answered the ringing telephone. “I’m a producer,” announced the caller, “at WNBC Live-at-Five on Channel Four, and we’re having a psychic spoon-bender on today. Would you be willing to come in and bend spoons on the air?”
Just another day in the life of a skeptical magician. The psychic spoon-bender had come to the United States from Israel (no, not that psychic spoon-bender) in March of 1994 to try to garner support and belief in several American scientific and academic institutions. The psychic claimant’s name was Ronnie Marcus – a South African native who allegedly practiced faith healing and other psychic skullduggery in Jerusalem. I seem to recall he had a credulous physicist in tow, who apparently believed in Marcus’s supernormal abilities and had helped pave the way to arrange meetings and tests, including in Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Nevada, and elsewhere. (From spiritualism to psychokinesis, physicists often find themselves on the front lines of believing and promoting goofy stuff. [Paging Sir William Crookes!] There are reasons for this, but that is, as they say, another story.)
But upon arriving at American shores, an interesting phenomenon had promptly unfolded. Unlike in the 1970s, when Uri Geller’s psychic tableware modifications were big news, in 1994 we had something new: email. Magicians and skeptics were able to track and swiftly respond to Marcus’s travels and claims, and it became difficult for scientists and parapsychologists to ignore the clamor of such observers offering to take part as informed observers and protocol designers. Thus, for example, even though physicists at Berkeley declined to use protocols suggested by veteran parapsychology expert Ray Hyman, nevertheless, other procedures still managed to thwart Marcus’s attempted magic tricks.
As a result of these swift and decisive failures, Marcus cancelled his remaining appearances and elected to beat a hasty retreat. However since he was flying through New York City on his way out of the country, he had managed to obtain one more television booking on the way out of town and collective memory.
However, a skeptical producer at the station (which was a local NBC affiliate), on learning of Marcus’s planned appearance later that day, put a phone call in to his friend, the late Charles Reynolds, a highly regarded magician, illusion designer, and magic historian. Charles was a lifelong friend of James Randi’s and a friend of mine as well, and he passed my name along to the producer.