Interview With James Randi on His Days With Alice Cooper
The Gauntlet: When did you last see your guillotine?
James Randi: I saw Vincent [Alice Cooper] working here about a year ago in Florida. It was a little before I attended his sixtieth birthday party. I didn’t think he’d live that long, but he did. When I saw the show, I wasn’t able to get close enough to the stage to see if the guillotine was the original. The one he was using looked a bit shorter than mine and by my estimation from where I was sitting, they wanted to seat me up from but I was told I wouldn’t be able to take the noise. I had to leave early and wait until the show was over to schmooze with Coop [Alice Cooper.] The noise level was just too much for me to take. I couldn't get close enough to see if it was the original machine I built. I would have recognized it from the blade and a few things. It looked like the original machine but it may have just been duplicated. I don’t know really.
The Gauntlet: From what Neal [Smith - drums] told me, he still owns the original Amazing Randi guillotine.
James Randi: Oh Neal has it now? I would have to take a look at it to be certain. There were several safety gimmicks I built into it. I took the original plan from Will Rock. He was a prominent magician at the turn of the century who built this guillotine for a horror show. It is unique in that the head that falls into the basket is the head of the performer, the real head. That takes some explaining, but I’ll let you think about that for a while. The performers whole body falls down and there is no substitute for the head until the end when they pull the head out. The proof is in the next act, when Alice is back working again. I would always snap my fingers that it didn’t work again. I did build it, but I knew how the original Will Rock one worked. I built a few other safety gimmicks into it to the satisfaction of Coop. He wanted to be very sure he didn’t loose his head before the end of the tour.
The Gauntlet: Alice Cooper was signed to Warner Brother Records who also had a movie studio and one of the best prop departments of that era in movies. Most of the props from the stage show were made by this props department. Do you know why the band came to you instead of the props department?
James Randi: I was hired by very strange means. I wasn’t following the rock music field and had never heard of Alice Cooper. One afternoon I was on 34th Street at a magic shop. I was hanging out with some other magicians and we were chatting about various things. The proprietor answers the phone and turned to us with his hand over the mouthpiece. He asked if any of us wanted to work for a rock star named Alice Cooper. I said “Sure, tell him I want $100 to go talk to him.” I thought that was the end of that and began talking to my friends again. The proprietor turned back to me and say “Yeah, he’ll pay the hundred dollars”. I thought that was so attractive that someone would pay one hundred dollars to talk to me. I hiked on down to ninth avenue to Alive Enterprises and met Shep Gordon, their manager. He sat me down, found out a few things about magic and he remembered a seeing me on television doing magic. We discussed some things and came to a price that was very fair. He said he wanted to chop his head off every night. I told him I knew of a couple of guillotines that could be used for that purpose. We shook hands and I went away engaged. It was a peculiar way that I was engaged. I didn’t know anything about the show and I had not met Coop either at that point. I met him a week after that. That was how I was introduced to the whole thing. I had never seen anything about the show or the gallows or anything.
The Gauntlet: Alice Cooper wasn’t the most trusting person as I am sure you are aware. He sure put a lot of trust in you though.
James Randi: They had seen me before. I was very well known as a children entertainer and was on television every second Sunday. I gave them a convincing enough presentation and knew enough about things. He hired me on the spot and we got along very well.
The Gauntlet: You were the executioner on tour. Was this because you knew the guillotine inside and out?
James Randi: Oh yes. Alice wouldn’t allow anybody else to operate it and I can understand why. I was also The Mad Dentist. I didn’t receive billing on the show. I think on the full color brochure, my name was listed as part of the cast, but I didn’t want to be identified as I wasn’t anyone’s second banana. I wore a wig and huge glasses as the dentist, and as the executioner, I wore a hood over my head so my face wasn’t seen. I wanted to be incognito while working with the show. I had never been anybodies second banana. I had never been that. I was content being incognito with the group. I went to press meetings after the show started in Europe and Brazil and answered questions. I did this for ninety days with the group and then Europe and Brazil. It was quite a ninety days though. It was a very strenuous tour but I was up to it back then.
The Gauntlet: Were there ever problems with the guillotine?
James Randi: There was one show where the blade stopped halfway down. I was able to fix it right there and reset it. We practiced with a watermelon. I don’t know if anyone since then has used the Will Rock guillotine. I only made the one guillotine. I think the one he uses now is a smaller version of the one I made. I am unaware of the other versions he uses though..
The Gauntlet: Did you live the rock star lifestyle while on tour?
James Randi: I saw lots of pot all over the place. You could smell it. It was widely used. Only Glen Buxton, who died probably as an effect of the whole thing. They actually hired a stand in guitarist to play his parts and he did not actually know he was not being heard at all. His input to the mixer was just shutoff. He was so pretty much high through the whole thing. It was very very sad, very sad. Glen was a nice man and we all liked him but they had to cut him out of the act on that tour as he was always fumbling around on stage and not playing well. There was a fellow backstage who was playing for him and that fit in well in the mix. His name was Mike Davis.
The Gauntlet: Alice Cooper has stated before that there were never any hard drugs backstage.
James Randi: It was only beer. There was a lot of pot floating around and it was in the year. I did not see any drug participation with the artists. They were all very sober. Alice would be back there just sucking on a beer almost continuously onstage and off. I did not see any hard drugs used at all. I was rather pleased with that and would have been offended by mixing with that company. I never saw Glen taking any drugs, but I understand that he was, and it is generally known at the time. We just didn’t discuss it. It was very sad as he was such a nice guy. He was hooked and a key part of the operation. His picture was on the posters so they had to have him on stage. It was a great pity.
The Gauntlet: Being on a hit children’s television show, did the band pay you well?
James Randi: I had a wonderful time and the money was good, the adventures were serious. We all worked together. We ran into situations though where the show wasn’t going to happen as props didn’t arrive. We actually went out into the snow early in the day and shopped for all kinds of stuff and got discarded Christmas trees and painted them. We faked the whole thing. We ended up with a pretty good stage show even though the stage did not arrive and didn’t arrive until the second day. We bullied through. It was real showbiz. As a magician, I am used to having to improvise. If it doesn’t work, make it work or put something else in its place so the audience won’t know the difference. We all worked together to get that accomplished. There was never any ‘I didn’t sign on to do this or that kind of work.’ We just did it. We all worked together to make the show work. I was dismayed when I found out the original group broke up. I never asked questions about it. I just think it was a pity. Seeing the most recent show that he has on the road, the music quite frankly is not what it used to be. When you hear it, you know it. From time to time, I'll pop in a recording and listen to it and sing along. I was on the road with them for ninety days and sometimes two shows a day. I got to know the music. It just isn’t the same anymore.
The Gauntlet: When I spoke with drummer Neal Smith about the fans, he said things were so crazy that he began carrying three pistols with him. He also said in Europe on the Billion Dollar Babies tour, Alice Cooper fans made The Beatles ‘Hard Days Night’ look like a couple people in the park.
James Randi: Oh yeah. It got very heavy. I never saw any firearms but I was told they were around. I just hoped that I was never around when I heard a bang and if I was I hoped it was Neil’s drums. It was interesting how the security people handled things. We were very close to them. They really looked after us. It was like presidential security for us. Alice drank beer all the way through the show, but he never drank from the same can more than once. He would take a sip and then a prop man would come and take it away and he’d move on to a new can. He dreaded somebody would slip something in his beer. It was a legitimate fear though.
The Gauntlet: I know there were bomb threats.
James Randi: We actually disbanded. Shep showed up on stage and said ‘Hit the limos!’ We all new what that meant. We dropped everything immediately and ran to the limos and went up the ramp. We went to the Holiday Inn where we were staying and security literally barricaded the floor. They had to do that. Someone threw an M15 into Neal’s drums. I think we had Flo & Eddie as openers then. They finished up their performance and there was that time between sets when someone threw the M15 into Neal’s drums. It was one hell of an explosion and we all heard it from the dressing room. Shep came running down the hall and yelled ‘hit the limos!’
The Gauntlet: I assume as a kids performer you weren’t used to having heavy security and bomb threats.
James Randi: [laughs] Oh no. I fell into it all very naturally though. Shep told me after the first show when he gave me a hug that I’d fit in well with them. I was proud to be a part of that show. It was one hell of a production. From the rehearsals to the props, everything was checked. It was so professional. I did an episode of Happy Days and I found the level of professionalism about the same. You have to realize that this was a traveling show done night after night. We flew in by aircraft and the crew by car. They all knew what they were doing, all pros.
There was this one time I sent Woody Allen to Alice Cooper’s room.
The Gauntlet: I never knew Woody Allen was a fan of the band.
James Randi: I didn’t know it either. I ran into him at a newstand on a Monday morning in Denver. I asked the lady at the newstand when the latest issue of Time magazine would be in. She said “This gentleman is also waiting for Time magazine” and she motioned to Woody Allen who was standing against the wall. He looked over and nodded at me and then stared. I had met him a few years before in New York a couple of times before he was the Woody Allen. He recognized me and asked me what I was doing in town. I mentioned I was with the Alice Cooper show. He got excited and said “Oh!” Then he looked around and asked “Is Cooper staying in the hotel?” I told him he was and asked if he’d like to meet him. I wrote down Coops room number, which was very confidential, and gave it to him. He just wandered away thanking me. Later that night at the arena, Alice came up to me and thanked me for sending Woody Allen up to his room. He said “I’m going to be in his next movie!” I asked how that happened. He said Woody Allen took him out to the set where he was filming and shot a scene that day with Alice standing by the side of the highway. That movie was “Sleeper”. If you see the movie, you’ll see him standing beside the side of the highway thumbing a ride. No one ever noticed it. It is a very brief and unrecognizable cameo. It is a bit of inside knowledge. I don’t think he was even credited.
The Gauntlet: Was the guillotine the only thing you built for the band?
James Randi: It was the only thing I built for them, but I also operated the giant dentist drill as The Mad Dentist. I had a couple of little walk-on’s. I wasn’t in the final spec when Cooper was resurrected. I was doing everything incognito. When they had meetings, I was there to make suggestions. There were also emergency meetings when props didn’t arrive and I’d assist with that. We all contributed. That was the good thing about it. Everything was very organized. It was a good group of people. I haven’t really worked with other rock bands though so I don’t know how others operate. I worked with Frank Zappa once at Madison Square Garden. He told me “look, they are all high and throwing up in the ailses and they don’t know who they are or why they are there. Just go up there and do your thing. Don’t worry about the applause. The money will be waiting for you in the dressing room.”
The Gauntlet: How was working with their manager, Shep Gordon?
James Randi: He really handled things so beautifully. I forgot which town it was, but we were performing in a town with a mayor in his late 20’s. The mayor decided to present the key to the city the day before the show. Shep wasn’t happy about this as they had to have Coop hated by all the adults. This would make all the kids want to come. We had to have a hurried press conference to get the people to hate him again. That was a smart move by Shep. He knows what he is doing. I would trust him to run any kind of business. He made Alice Cooper.
The Gauntlet: How was it taking a private jet to the shows?
James Randi: It was wonderful. I would often ride in the front cabin with the pilot. On the radio would come on another pilot and I would hear “this is TWA 366 and we are flying adjacent to an aircraft with a dollar sign on the tail. What airline is that?” Then the our pilot would come on and say it was the Alice Cooper Show’s plane. Then we’d hear “Really! Wow!” They were so excited that Alice Cooper was flying alongside them. What was interesting was the the company that chartered the plane was Alive Enterprises. Our pilots name was Kirk so we had Captain Kirk from the Alive Enterprise. We thought that was interesting. You have me just lost in thought right now thinking of the good days. I had fun with that group.
The Gauntlet: You mentioned you toured with the band in Brazil.
James Randi: Yes, Brazil. That was something else. Some people almost got killed. We actually had to stop the show and reach down and grab some of them and pull them on stage as they were being crushed. The stage was high and the arena was huge. It was a monstrous place. It came close to being a riot where kids would have died. Some of the kids were bleeding when we pulled them up.
The Gauntlet: Were the fans into just Coop?
James Randi: Oh no. They were into any of the band members. It got a bit bothersome having fans roaming the hotel hallways looking for Coop, but any of the band members would do.
The Gauntlet: Did the dentist/executioner have his own groupies?
James Randi: Oh no. I kept a very low profile. I was there on a contract basis to work and that was what I did. I didn’t have any such ambitions. I got to meet Coops mother in Phoenix again. We were playing a show that night in Phoenix and before the show he was looking a little disturbed. He came to me and said “Randi, would you mind sitting with my mother?” I replied “Oh your mother is going to be here tonight?” He then said “Yeah, and she doesn’t know what I do.” I was just thinking ‘oh my god.’ His father was a Mormon minister. His mother was a lovely lady. I took her by the arm and led her to her seat in the audience and sat with her. I still had to be on stage for my parts of the show, but then I’d hustle back to my seat to sit with her. She was just terrified. I heard a lot of ‘oh’s!’ and ‘Vincent, why are you doing that?’ I told her it was all just an act. I remember her being so concerned that his shirt was all torn up and he was beating on a doll. I just patted her on the hand. When I went back after my scene she was with it. She was stomping her feet with the audience and getting into it.
When I attended Coop’s sixtieth birthday party in Phoenix, I got to meet her again. She lit up when she saw me and said “you have no idea how good it was having you sitting by my side.” I said to her “I still have the marks from you grabbing my hand.” She was a lovely lady.
The Gauntlet: Were you apprehensive about sitting next to her for her first Alice Cooper concert?
James Randi: Oh yeah. I knew what she was in for. She had only heard the recordings. I explained it was all part of the act. She was riveted to the stage though like everyone in the arena was.
For more information on James Randi, visit randi.org