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Written May 29, 2010

I once green-lighted a cable TV series called The Anti-Assault Program.

The year was 1978, and I was the program director at Washington Channels in Washington, Pennsylvania.  A local karate master, Regis Ryan, offered to host a weekly half-hour of instruction in self-defense techniques.  This seemed like a good idea for both parties.  From the standpoint of our business, it was another locally-produced show on TV-3, and we could even claim it was a public service promoting personal safety.  From the standpoint of his business, it was good advertising.

Each week, we toted a martial-arts mat into our little black-and-white studio and taped the program, which premiered Tuesday, November 7.  The show lasted three months at most.  During that time, Regis told me he had encountered a young mentalist named Steven Shaw.

Born in England in 1960, Steve immigrated to South Africa with his stepfather in 1969.  Then his mother disappeared.  Steve left to find his real father in Colorado.  After a few more stops, he eventually came to live with his grandparents in Washington County, in the town of Clarksville.

“I was alone basically since I was nine,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  “I never really fit in.”  But there were moments in his childhood that he thought might be psychic experiences.

While growing up, he told NBC's Phenomenon, “I was socially inept.  I was the kid in the back of the classroom with a heavy winter coat on in the middle of summer, afraid if the teacher would call on me I would turn bright red.”

As a student at Trinity High School, just up the hill from our cable TV studio, Steve was inspired by reports of Uri Geller’s alleged spoon-bending.  He figured out how to achieve similar effects himself by sleight of hand.  “Then all of a sudden I started bending metal and doing these things.  And all the students were stealing all the silverware from the cafeteria and bringing it to me.  I got suspended for two weeks as a result.  The school went to plastic silverware until I graduated.  But I found a home, and I opened up.”

Steve had been working three part-time jobs, including one at Washington Hospital.  But he discovered he much preferred performing on a stage, and the money was better too.

So it was that one day, our martial-arts instructor told me about this fantastic 18-year-old mentalist and asked if he could bring him on The Anti-Assault Program as a special guest.  I was skeptical enough to realize that a “mentalist” merely performs illusions, not miracles, but I agreed it would make an interesting show.

That week, we set up our studio without the usual karate mat.  I operated one of the cameras.  Regis introduced Steve and invited him to demonstrate his powers before a small studio audience seated “on stage” — six or eight people who were strangers to me.  I thought at the time that the performer could easily have arranged for one or two of these spectators to be “plants,” accomplices who could help bring about the desired results.  But I don’t think he used that method.

We taped for a full hour and packaged it as two programs, the first of which aired on TV-3 at 5:30 pm on Tuesday, December 19, 1978.

(The photo below is not from the actual TV show but from the mentalist’s old website at www.banachek.org — the source for the parts of this story that don’t involve TV-3 and me.  Nowadays, https://banachek.com/ is his current website.  I had forgotten Regis Ryan's name until Banachek himself reminded me via e-mail.) 

In the first half-hour, Steve bent a nail.  Actually I think he pre-bent the nail, but he held it initially so that the audience couldn’t see the bend; then, stroking it, he allowed the bend to become visible.

He also divined the serial number of a dollar bill provided by an audience member.

Then he found something hidden in one of a number of 35mm film canisters.


On August 17, 2011, now known by his stage name of Banachek, Steve repeated these tried-and-true illusions on Primetime Nightline.

“It might look like he’s bending metal with his mind,” reported ABC-TV’s Juju Chang, “but he says it’s just a sleight of hand.

"He’s a crusader who for years has used magic tricks to prove that magical ‘powers’ are just an illusion.

"Banacheck believes that some psychics aren’t just fakers, they’re dangerous frauds.”  That’s because, Banacheck said, “People base life-and-death decisions upon what a psychic tells them.”

And now back to 1978.

For the big finish, as I recall, Steve was blindfolded.  An audience member was given a lit candle and then asked to move quietly to a different part of the room, meaning away from the brightly-lit part of the studio.  Despite his blindfold, Steve was able to wander around the room and eventually find the candle.  Holding a balloon dramatically in front of him, he burst it with the candle’s flame.

From my position behind the camera, trying to show the climactic moment taking place in a shadowy area that was never meant to be televised, I could think of several non-psychic methods by which Steve could have located the candle.  Sounds and smells could have given him important clues.  Maybe he could see through the blindfold well enough to find a high-contrast target, a candle burning brightly in a dark corner.  Or he could peek beneath the blindfold to observe a flickering circle of light on the floor — or the candle-holder's shoes!

That was my last encounter with Steve Shaw.  But he had been corresponding with James Randi, the professional conjuror and skeptic.  Those letters led in the following year to a bigger stage, known as Project Alpha.

From his professional background, Randi recognized that when “psychics” claim to demonstrate their paranormal powers, they're merely performing magic tricks.  To his dismay, however, highly-educated scientists know nothing of the magic arts.  When these scientists conduct experiments on the psychics, they're deceived, especially if they're fans of the paranormal to begin with.  Their flawed experiments seem to prove that the psychics actually have supernatural abilities.

Randi later described his Project Alpha experiment in the magazine Skeptical Inquirer.  Here are some excerpts:

When it was announced in 1979 that noted engineer James S. McDonnell, board chairman of McDonnell-Douglas Aircraft and devotee of the paranormal, had awarded a $500,000 grant to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, for the establishment of the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research, it seemed a the ideal opportunity to initiate an experiment I had contemplated for some time. It was designed to test two major hypotheses.

Parapsychologists have been lamenting for decades that they are unable to conduct proper research due to the lack of adequate funding, but I felt strongly that the problem lay in their strong pro-psychic bias. The first hypothesis, therefore, was that no amount of financial support would remove that impediment to improvement in the quality of their work.

Moreover, I have always insisted that qualified, experienced conjurors were essential where deception — involuntary or deliberate, by subjects or experimenters — might be possible. So the second hypothesis was that parapsychologists would resist accepting expert conjuring assistance in designing proper control procedures and, as a result, would fail to detect various kinds of simple magic tricks.

The director of the McDonnell Lab was physics professor Peter R. Phillips, who had declared in the press that the lab intended to investigate psychokinetic metal bending by children. Accordingly, I asked two young conjurors who had been in touch with me by mail, and had expressed an interest in my work as a skeptic, to write the McDonnell Lab claiming psychic powers. Our experiment was to be code-named “Project Alpha.”

My colleagues Steve “Banachek” Shaw (herein referred to as his stage name Banachek) and Michael Edwards, a student in Marion, Iowa, and well-known there as a magician, were the only McDonnell Lab subjects chosen.

There is no question that the lab personnel believed that the boys were psychic.  It was this belief that made the deception exceedingly easy, and it was clear that, had the two entered the arena as conjurors, they could never have gotten away with all they did.  Simple tricks, performed under very informal conditions of control, were declared psychokinetic events, and careless descriptions of circumstances surrounding the performances were written up.

Then, in July of 1981, I “leaked” broad hints of Project Alpha at a magician’s conference in Pittsburgh.  Eleven days later, I heard that some rumors had reached the McDonnell Lab.

If Project Alpha resulted in Parapsychologists (real parapsychologists!) awakening to the fact that they are able to be deceived, either by subjects or themselves, as a result of their convictions and their lack of expertise in the arts of deception, then it has served its purpose. Those who fell into the trap invited that fate; those who pulled back from the brink deserve our applause.


Above, a screen from Banachek's current website.  Click it to be transported thereto, where you will find videos and more!

On the left, a poster from his early career.

And here's a link to a 2014 interview.


So that’s my story about the young man who came to our studio many years ago and is still keeping up the good work.



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