Happy Medium

From Merlin to Charles Dickens, the spirits of the late and the great are all present at the party in magician-channeler Lawrence Furman's head

After a long while, he came to a road where he spotted a diner. He foraged for a few coins outside on the ground, then walked up the wooden steps and into the restaurant, where he furtively took a few more coins from the table of some departing customers. He now had a dollar or so to his name. Then he sat down, his PRISONER emblem covered by the back of the seat, and told the waitress, "Give me a piece of apple pie." She didn't notice anything amiss, so she brought him his pie and a glass of water.

"Every bit exploded with flavor. I never savored a piece of food so much in my whole life," he recalls. "That piece of pie meant more to me than anything." Then he realized he had to get back, or he might be shot by any trigger-happy cop he encountered.

On his return he went back to the same spot in the fence where he had earlier escaped. But now the guards knew that someone was trying to penetrate the compound; sirens wailed as he started climbing the outside fence to get back in. He looked down the path between the two fences and saw it coming: a vicious dog, teeth bared, running toward him. As he tried to maneuver his way from one fence to another, the dog leaped upward, teeth snapping, eager to bite him. For a moment he was paralyzed with fear. Then, adrenaline pumping, he hurled himself over the inside fence and hit the corrugated roof of a workman's shed, rolled off, and landed on the ground. Two MPs pulled up in a jeep, their M16 rifles drawn, and began chasing him. He went to the side of the shed, while they mistakenly went inside looking for him. Breathing hard, he rounded the corner of the shed and spotted, yes, the mess hall. By now it was early evening, time for dinner, and the inmates were filing inside. He rushed to join them, and, holding his breath out of fear, he merged with the crowd. The military cops never discovered who had escaped. "I made it," he remembers, one of the first glimmers of hope he had known for many years.

Ultimately the army agreed to release him -- if he'd sign papers absolving it of any liability for what happened to him. In September 1969 he returned home with what was officially recorded as an honorable, physical-disability discharge, a young man broken and defeated by his confinement. Not long afterward he suffered a nervous breakdown and went back into the mental hospital. One day, though, he heard a strong inner voice tell him, "You've got to get out of here now, or you'll be here for the rest of your life." He summoned the strength to ask to leave, and, with a small amount of money he inherited from a relative, traveled across the country with a family friend to San Francisco, still Oz for hippies in the early 1970s.

The years since then have been a journey upward into health and different kinds of magic: the magic of recovery, spiritual awakening, and the illusions that dazzle audiences. On the West Coast, he joined communes, visited alternative healers, and followed a guru. Upon returning to San Francisco, he met Garrance Lightinheart in a commune, and they put together a traveling variety and magic show. The recovering mental patient discovered his own resilience by learning to become a juggler, a magician's stooge, and acrobat. "Doing this brought me a great sense of healing," he says.

By the mid-1980s, he moved to Miami, where his friend Lightinheart had launched a career as a full-time magician. One day Lightinheart needed someone to take his place as a magician at North Miami's Jockey Club, and gave Furman, then working as an actor in commercials, a three-day crash course in closeup magic. He was nervous at first, but the coin and card tricks he learned went over perfectly.

"I felt a kind of grace take over me," he notes now, and that grace seems to have continued since then. He met and married an attractive actress, Allorah, and beat out a few dozen competitors to be the host of It's a Magical World, a show geared to preteens that's scheduled for broadcast in 150 cities later this month (not including Miami). After so much time locked up in institutions, he now lives in a pleasant home with a pool in back, doing the kind of work he feels he was meant to do.

"I want to be the local shaman," he says, and for many in Miami, he is. The transformation of Lawrence Furman is a kind of magic in itself.

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