James Hydrick Speaks — Part IV
This is the final part of my interview with James Hydrick, his first in over thirty years. If you landed here without reading the previous entries, here are the links:
— In the way you looked up to, and were inspired by Bruce Lee, were there any magicians that you admired, growing up?
My first teacher of magic was Harry Blackstone Jr., the son of the great Harry Blackstone Sr. I met him when I was a youngster at a county fair and caught him doing the French Drop and other sleight of hands. He thought that was pretty good, and as a reward gave me a box of magic tricks with cards, scarves, and so on with an instructional manual. That box became my inspiration to magic. I practiced those tricks by myself and on others thousands of times while growing up in orphanages and foster homes in the deep south.
The second role model was Harry Houdini. I saw his movies to learn the tricks and became especially adept at the handcuff escape from anywhere… even underwater. I practiced holding my breath for long periods until five minutes underwater became routine, and my timed record was six and a half minutes.
The third and fourth inspirations were both oriental martial artists. Sho Kosugi did ‘Ninja’ movies that combined illusion with martial arts, and then Master Zen converged the two disciplines into one show. That’s what I wanted to do on stage.
The fifth magician I admired was James Randi. He had strong illusion skills and treated me fairly. He bragged about me that ‘No one from such a poor upbringing has ever so cleverly taken simple things around him to perform stage magic that deceived the audience.’ Randi encouraged me to become a professional stage magician.
But where these magicians made money from it, my goal was to generate martial arts students to generate income. My first love was always martial arts.
— As far as I’m aware, the air current illusion had never been performed before you did it. What first made you think of it, and how long did it take before you perfected it to the point people couldn’t tell it was a trick?
I learned the breath illusion in LA County Jail while housed in cell block 2904 with the Alphabet Bomber Muharem Kurbegovic. We were the only ‘red bracelet’ prisoners on the tier with the security of one body guard. Kurbegovic used to talk constantly, or yell in the night, and he read scripture. One day I got bored listening to him read scripture and took a deep breath, and exhaled it. The bible pages in his hands moved. It was an accident, but I saw the potential.
I practiced for a few days until I could direct my breath to move the pages, pencils, and other small objects without being detected. After I got transferred out of 2904 back to the general population, I used the breath illusion on other prisoners and the guards. When I asked an inmate to hold the bible and concentrate hard on believing, he’d try, and suddenly the pages started fluttering in his hands. He turned white and got religion. I probably had more converts than the jail chaplain. I continued to practice this and other illusions in jail to ‘reinvent’ myself for release. I had a plan to combine the magic with martial arts to have a show to draw students and make money so I wouldn’t return to jail. It worked.
— During the taping of That’s My Line, before they brought out James Randi, you appeared to struggle with the pencil illusion, and it was said that it took you 40 minutes to flip the pages of the phone book. Was this to sell the idea you couldn’t work on cue, once Randi’s conditions were later put in place? Or had you been working on your showmanship since the earlier appearance on That’s Incredible?
I hadn’t met Randi before the That’s My Line show, and sure didn’t know what conditions he was going to throw into my breath illusion act. I took the stage before Randi’s conditions were put in place, and took about 40 minutes studying the setup from every possible angle. I walked around, thinking what Randi could possibly impose on the act. Would he hide a microphone, a close-up camera of my face, intense lighting, a mouth mask, or what? After I was satisfied, I went ahead and made the pages move. The purpose of the delay was to learn the setup, but there was a little showmanship thrown in too.
I love performing. It may be that I missed the attention as a kid unless it was my dad beating me or stepmother burning holes in my skin with cigarettes. My showmanship has two angles: I know how to make something appear real, and I can read people. If there is a flaw in the peoples’ perception, then I can create an illusion to put in it, and make it appear real. I can lasso the moon if you want me to.
— Did you go in to the That’s My Line taping thinking you’d take home James Randi’s prize of $10,000? And how much pressure did this add to your performance?
I always look forward to performing, and once on stage enjoy it. When I appeared on That’s My Line it was to draw students into martial arts rather than win the $10,000. I had plenty of money, but knew that of that the national exposure could generate thousands of students to make even more money than the $10,000 prize.
The ten grand didn’t make me nervous at all. James Randi used to comment on how well I performed under pressure, but there really wasn’t any because I enjoyed showing my magic.
— Can (and do) you still perform the pencil trick?
I rarely use the pencil trick any more. It’s like, who wants to see the old news? My technique for it was a simple martial arts breathing method while distracting the audience with hand gestures in order to blow and create an air current that moved the pencil.
— And are you still surprised at how easily people want to be fooled?
People don’t really want to be fooled. They want to be entertained, or to have an excuse to be talked into something. My illusions are icebreakers. People don’t want to be fooled. They want to know: Who am I? Why are we suffering and having wonderful experiences? Why am I here?
For more information about James Hydrick, and other, similar tales, check out my book, Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal.