The Movie Diary: He’s a magic man
By Dom Cioffi
Correspondent | March 20,2013
Sometimes, when I’m really bored and can’t sleep, I like to watch late-night televangelists. I’m not talking about the Pat Robertsons or the Joel Osteens. I’m talking about the completely insane characters who come on at 3 a.m.; the guys who use religion as a cover to take advantage of weak and impoverished individuals; the guys who are so obviously out to make a buck that they ooze sleaziness.
Part of my intrigue is certainly focused on the figureheads doing the talking and how hollow their hearts must be to scam people out of their hard-earned money under the guise of God’s word. But I’m also baffled by the level of credulousness that the audience members seem to exhibit.
During the 1980s I remember one really sketchy “preacher” named Peter Popoff. A self-proclaimed faith healer, Popoff made millions holding revivals in which he would spontaneously heal audience members with a wave of his hand. Popoff would wander through the crowd and call out the names of audience members who were suffering. Once he approached them, he would not only know their pains and ailments, but also other personal information like their home addresses.
With a guttural command he would then order the devil out of their bodies and follow-up with a quick slap to the head, whereby the person would fall to the ground in tears or other state of disarray.
From my point of view, it was hack entertainment, but the people sitting in the audience seemed completely rapt. Popoff obviously had a knack for persuasion because his believers wrote him endless checks, some to the detriment of their own livelihood.
And then a little man named James Randi got mad. Randi spent his adult life as a stage magician, traveling the globe while wowing audiences with his amazing feats of illusion. After turning 60, however, Randi retired from performing live — but he did not fade away. Instead he reinvented himself as a debunker of paranormal, occult and supernatural claims.
His career as a magician had taught him countless ways to fool an audience, and he saw many of these same techniques being used by charlatans who claimed to have divine gifts.
Randi was disgusted by the way Popoff preyed on sick and downtrodden people and set about to expose the ruse. With the help of a criminal investigator and some technically advanced electronic equipment, Randi intercepted a radio transmission from outside an auditorium where Popoff was performing. The voice they picked up was that of Popoff’s wife as she fed him pertinent information through a small concealed earpiece.
It seems that Popoff’s divine knowledge of people’s health and lives was derived from prayer cards that were filled out by audience members prior to the meeting and then conveyed to Popoff once the show began.
Randi also planted impostors in the audience who supposedly suffered from various maladies of which Popoff then cured them.
Once enough evidence was gathered, Randi produced a video highlighting various “healings,” which included the overdubbed radio transmission from his wife. He then went on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” to expose the scam. (You can watch the actual video on YouTube.) Within 16 months of the airing, Popoff had to declare bankruptcy with 790 creditors filing claims against him. Not surprisingly, for years Popoff claimed that the audio of his wife was fabricated and that Randi was actually a soldier in the devil’s army.
Ahhhh, but that’s not the end of the story.
Because of our great country’s laws and the immensely gullible nature of mankind, Poppoff somehow found the gall and wherewithal to reemerge once again as a faith healer.
Believe it or not, today Mr. Popoff is thriving in the world of infomercials where he hawks vials of holy water that purportedly help cancel the financial debts of spiritual seekers (because God really wants you to be debt-free). Apparently P.T. Barnum was right. There really is a sucker born every minute.
Speaking of which … it would be really easy to get sucked into this week’s feature, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.” While it certainly looks good on paper with main stars Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, and Steve Buscemi manning the helm, it fails to deliver any of the magic you might expect from such an A-list cast. The story follows Burt Wonderstone and his loyal partner, Anton Marvelton, as they rise to Vegas headliner status. Unfortunately, a new breed of shock illusionist is arriving on the scene and threatening their careers.
Check this one out if you have a soft spot for magic since there are a few great cameos and endless references to the art form. Just don’t go in expecting a ton of laughs, especially from the usually reliable Jim Carrey.
A disillusioned “C” for “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.”
Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.