The Amazing Kreskin bills himself as "The World's Foremost Mentalist," and his performing
credits are impressive evidence of that claim. In addition to performing hundreds of live shows
a year, his extensive television appearances have made him a household name. He boasts over
500 national appearances, including 118 Mike Douglas shows, 98 Merv Griffins, and a record 88
Tonight Shows. (One of the jokes in his act is, "That last year, I think I was on more than
Johnny.") He currently appears on Letterman and with Regis and Kathie Lee. His syndicated tv
show from Canada, The Amazing World of Kreskin, ran for five years during the seventies.
Although he calls himself a mentalist and puts people into what looked to me like a pretty deep
trance, he emphatically claims "I am not a mind reader" and "I am not a hypnotist." It occurred
to me that he should extend this line of thought, as Penn and Teller did in their early days, by
claiming, "I'm just a guy who can do a few cool things . . . with your brain!" Kreskin maintains
an exceedingly busy performing schedule, and we finally caught up to him on October 11 for the
following telephone interview, for which I am extremely grateful.
On Early Kreskin
We begin by establishing a few biographical highlights. I ask when, and in what situation, Kreskin began using his professional name.
It was when he was a sophomore in high school, and he needed a name for an upcoming show. He formed it from his given name, Kresge, by adding another K from Kellar and the final in from Robert Houdin. [I note that a less selective high school student might have gone for a Houdini ending, in which case we would be interviewing The Amazing Kreskini here. It just wouldn't be the same.]
Kreskin mostly performs mentalism, but still does some magic in his shows to first warm up the audience. According to his brochure: "Kreskin often warms up audiences with a deft display of sleight-of-hand as a preparation for the thought reading to come. He enjoys defying the eye and admits, The ESP factor needs a solid mental foundation to be successful. Once the audience members become mystified, they are more susceptible to suggestion.'" I ask when he made the switch, as most mentalists before him, from magic to mentalism as his predominant art form.
It was very early. Kreskin was heavily impressed by Mandrake the Magician, in the comic strips. Mandrake used hypnotic gestures to create the illusion of magic. Kreskin realized that the true illusion is in the mind. He later met Mandrake's creator, Lee Falk. Falk told Kreskin he had come closer than anyone to achieving the ideal of his fictional character. Kreskin mentioned that Fellini wanted to do Mandrake at some point, as American comic strips were banned in Fascist Italy. Regarding the term mentalist, he said that Margaret Mead once tried to dissuade him from using the term, but he felt it best described what he does.
Kreskin's talk show credits are possibly without equal (unless one adds up all those times Zsa Zsa was on!). I ask what his first big talk show break was, and when his first Tonight Show break occurred.
The big break was The Steve Allen Show, in the early sixties. He began his run of 88 Tonight Shows in the early seventies. According to legend, Kreskin tripped and fell on one of the early Steve Allen shows, and it was from that incident that Johnny Carson's "Carnac the Magnificent" character was born.
On The Syndicated TV Series
Kreskin's syndicated program, The Amazing World of Kreskin, originated from Canada. It's the only syndicated show I've heard of from Canada. I ask how it came to be.
"They came to me." The show ran 5.5 years, with 26 half-hour episodes per year. During the first two years, it was the second-highest rated show in Canada. (Hockey was first.) There was no writer. Kreskin met with the network executives only four times, and they basically had a hands-off policy: there would be no censorship of what he did. His favorite program occurred at the end of the fourth season: everything failed. [I didn't ask if this was planned!] He received extensive feedback and publicity from that episode. And just to drop a name [Steve speaking here], William Shattner appeared on the show four times. [Shattner would later host a successful magic special in the U.S.]
A half-hour series consumes an enormous amount of material. I recalled Kreskin's doing card tricks on the show, and one four-ace trick sticks in my mind. I ask how the card tricks came to be included.
That really started on the Mike Douglas show. Somehow the show's producer, who is now with Fox, heard that Kreskin spent two hours a day with a deck of cards, and asked him to do something on the show. Kreskin responded, "The most boring thing in the world is a card trick. And the next most boring thing is the second card trick." But the producer prevailed, and the tricks apparently played well, and they became part of the repertoire.
I note that there are many sidelines to mentalism -- horoscopes, private readings, ghost shows, seances, etc. Kreskin's recent book, How To Be (A Fake) Kreskin, mentions his having conducted seances. I ask what those situations were and what material he performed.
He conducts a seance each year and is preparing one for the next few weeks. A tv crew from Canada is coming in for this one, along with the NYC tv folks. His favorite was conducted at Bob Lund's museum, which he agreed to conduct "on the legitimate side." The standard seance in a magic surrounding is an attempt to contact Harry Houdini. But, as Kreskin noted, Houdini "doesn't seem to be answering the phone," so they decided to attempt to contact Bess. CNN attended. Was it successful? There was a Houdini milk can in the room. At one point, a padlock on the can began to vibrate wildly, and this kept up for two minutes. How did it happen? "I haven't the foggiest. I had no tricks planned. I wouldn't do such a thing."
A telephone interview spares Kreskin any uncomfortable comparisons in this next question. I mention that on a few occasions, when I am performing myself, I have been accused of looking like Kreskin. I don't know, I say, if this is because we both wear glasses, or whether it's simply our mutual good looks. [I don't see this, of course. I have also been accused of looking like Harry Anderson and Gary Shandling. The people who say these things must be blind. I look in the mirror and see Robert Redford.] But this brings up a point. In the recent Eddie Fields biography, Eddie recounts numerous romantic adventures that befell him. I ask Kreskin if he has had to ward off, or accept, any amorous advances in his many travels. He has Call Waiting and suddenly leaves the air a few seconds. When he returns, I say, "To put it more bluntly, do you get hit on?"
He laughed and said, "of course, it happens to everyone, even Dracula." He once took a young lady to see Dracula on Broadway, and she looked up at Frank Langella and said, "He can bite my throat anytime!" He then gave me half a story. He was performing in Saudi Arabia, and on one occasion they cleared all the staff out of the hotel he was staying in, everyone. They then escorted him into a room, and there sitting alone on a pillow was a Saudi princess. The rest, as Kreskin said, is "to be continued." He also confided, without explanation but in response to this question, to once returning from Saudi with a very expensive ring. [Here in Little Egypt, this implies you are going steady!]
On Eddie Fields and Two-Person Mental Acts
Speaking of Eddie Fields, my spies told me that Kreskin once dropped in on Eddie at Sherwood Castle, and that they had a session. I ask if he recalls the session, and if he ever considered doing a two-person mental act, a la Eddie and George Martz.
He says it was the other way around, that Eddie dropped in on him, on two occasions, when Kreskin was performing in Chicago. He introduced Eddie to some of his friends as a great card expert, which Eddie somewhat dismissed at the time, as he was more into the telepathy and horoscope pitch. Regrettably, they spent no more than a few minutes together total. Kreskin felt that Eddie was a fascinating guy, not because of his card tricks, but because of all the characters he must have known. As to the duo act, Kreskin never had an interest in doing one. He said that the Zancigs were simply the best as far as stage acts went, so why try to top them?
Before leaving Eddie, I mentioned that Eddie was once a member of the Unholy Five, a group that also included Audley Walsh, John Scarne, Walter Gibson, and Orsen Wells.
Kreskin knew several of these -- he was friends with Gibson -- and seemed most fascinated with Scarne, again because of Scarne's underworld associations. He said that Scarne was a hothead who would often get into fistfights, and wondered if Scarne wasn't a true member of the Mafia.
On The Dark Side of Magic
On to the tough questions. I note that, like Ricky Jay, Kreskin performs primarily for the lay public. We never hear of him performing at the Magic Castle, or at magician's conventions. I ask to what extent that is a deliberate disassociation.
Well, you ask the question, you get the answer. It goes like this: Since 18, Kreskin has claimed to be legitimate. Working as a "magician" would compromise that stance. He also feels that most modern magicians are unwilling to accommodate that stance. Along with his friend the late Bob Lund, he deplores a lack of spirituality among magicians. [I didn't have time to ask if he is aware of the philosophies of theologian-magicians such as Eugene Burger and Robert Neale, or of Jeff McBride's Mystery School.] He says that, despite his debunking of sham spiritualists, Houdini believed in telepathy, as did Robert Houdin and Thurston, and that Kellar believed in precognition. At Seton Hall, Kreskin majored in psychology and minored in religious philosophy. He feels that modern magicians believe that God is dead and that they have taken his place, that one must be an atheist to become a card-carrying magician. This also led into a disapproval of modern magic clubs [we are back on a track I can relate to better]. He noted that in its early days the S.A.M. was a somewhat clandestine organization of professionals. Today it's different. The pointed analogy is that there is no way the American Medical Association would consider having a plumber as its president, but a "magician's" society wouldn't hesitate.
I ask who his friends in magic are, past or present.
The late Bob Lund was a close friend, as was Walter Gibson. Today David Meyers is the only name that comes to mind. [Meyers, for those who don't know, wrote a generous introduction to Kreskin's How To Be (A Fake) Kreskin.] I should mention that Kreskin earlier informed me that he has attended maybe only four magic shows in his life, and that he has never been to the Magic Castle.
I ask whom he admires in magic. This is perhaps a poor question given the above answers, but it's on my list!
He feels he would have enjoyed Nate Leipzig, and he currently admires Ricky Jay.
I regret to note that not everyone in magic is supportive. When How To Be (A Fake) Kreskin came out, Genii ran a vicious personal attack on Kreskin that had little to do with a book review and a lot to do with Jamy Ian Swiss's true colors. Swiss even boasted of having heckled Kreskin in some public forum, simply unforgivable. I ask Kreskin how he contends with this attack in particular and other extremist attacks in general.
Regarding this general situation, he said Liberace once told him, "Why don't you do what I do? Cry all the way to the bank!" And so, Kreskin says, "Every time I cash a check . . ." As to specific situations, he says friends will send him along some of the bad press, but, "I don't even know who these people are."
On the Road Show
To happier topics. I had the pleasure of watching Kreskin's show last weekend, and it contained a few surprises for me. First of all, he played a piano in the show. I don't believe I've ever seen a magician and certainly not a mentalist do that before.
And the piano has led to other things. Skitch Henderson recommended that he play with the New York Pops, which has happened. And there were tie-ins with Robin Leach and Regis. Mostly he plays Chopin. [During the show, he zonked people out to "Love Me Tender."]
There is a lengthy billet reading segment in the show. I ask if he ever considered doing full questions as opposed to random words or phrases.
No -- it's too scary to give advice. Audiences mistakenly put too much faith in the performer; they take the advice too seriously. "On second thought," he adds jokingly, "if I were performing for magicians, I'd give advice!"
During Kreskin's recent and previous trips to Indiana, I've noticed he schedules additional activities such as radio and tv appearances, parades, etc. Given the quantity of shows he does, this must take incredible organization. I ask what his staff is like.
Busy is right. Last year Kreskin performed 340 shows around the world, including Spain, Italy, Saudi Arabia, England, Wales, and Japan. The staff includes a Personal Manager who also has a partner, a Secretary, and a Road Manager.
On Looking Into the Crystal Ball
To conclude, what is coming up in the near future, both for the touring show and on television?
The live shows in the near future are mostly private, so there is no need to list them. Kreskin's ninth book is being edited, but it has nothing to do with magic. He has been working hard on a half-hour infomercial to market self-improvement tapes. But the most fun, Kreskin adds, has been doing cameos on a syndicated sitcom called Cafe Duart. It stars impressionist Louise Duart, who, on the show, runs a cabaret that features entertainers.
|What is your favorite card trick?|
|The rising cards.|
|What is your favorite stage trick?|
|Kellar's "Levitation of the Princess Karnak." I was shocked that anyone would resurrect it and invite people on stage to inspect its workings.|
|What is your favorite book on magic or mentalism?|
|There are two: Maskelyne and Devant's Our Magic and Hugard's Modern Magic Manual. Would you like to know my least favorite? Hoffmann's books, and anything by Milbourne Christopher.|
|What is your favorite non-magic book?|
|Bram Stoker's Dracula. I'm a walking encyclopedia on vampirism. And anything by A. Conan Doyle on Sherlock Holmes.|
|What is your favorite movie?|
|Yankee Doodle Dandy. I've seen it over 40 times. And The Lodger.|
|What are your hobbies/interests outside of magic?|
|Camping, all over the world. Cross country skiing. Reading: I have over 8000 books. Music. Playing cards: pinochle, hearts, blackjack. Chess.|
|Who is (was) your favorite female in magic?|
|What is your magical pet peeve?|
|Here are two more: (1) Small packet effects, when the magician brings them out in a little wallet. (2) The saying, "A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician." Then why do so many actors make terrible magicians? I agree with Hermann: "Magicians are born, not made."|