The New Yorker, September 6, 1999
The Talk of the Town
POSTCARD FROM L.A.
|A Hollywood psychic's inaccuracy fails to dent his popularity.
A little over a week ago, the chances of the world's coming to an end were hovering somewhere in the neighborhood of eighty-seven per cent--that is, according to Criswell, the late Hollywood prophet who claimed his predictive accuracy to be within that lofty percentile. "The world as we know it will cease to exist...on August 18, 1999, he forecast in his 1968 book "Criswell Predicts from Now to the Year 2000." He went on, "And if you and I meet each other on the street that fateful day...we will open our mouths to speak and no words will come out, for we have no future--you and I will suddenly run out of time!"
Though Criswell departed the world as we know it in 1982, his friends and admirers hadn't yet been stricken mute by the evening of August 18th. On that Wednesday night, an assortment of them congregated at the congenially moldering Boardners, an old-time Hollywood watering hole and former Criswell haunt.
They came to toast the Criswellian apocalypse, and to raise a Martini
glass to one of Hollywood's first celebrity psychics. During the nineteen-fifties,
the flamboyant Criswell hosted a live program on Los Angeles television
and wrote a nationally syndicated column (both titled "Criswell
Predicts") in which he dispensed outrageous predictions while
radiating low-wattage Tinseltown glimmer. His column and his appearances
on the "Tonight Show" briefly made him something of a national
character. It was
Criswell who blazed a trail for all subsequent mass-media prophets, seers, and astrologers, from Jeane Dixon to Linda Goodman and Dionne Warwick's Psychic Friends.platinum-blond pompadour who introduced several of Ed Wood's famously underproduced films, including "Plan 9 from Outer Space." Thanks to the enduring cult status of "Plan 9," and to Tim Burton's 1994 Ed Wood biopic, Criswell has been enjoying a kind of show-business comeback from beyond the grave. His record album of prophecies ("The Legendary Criswell Predicts! Your Incredible Future") has been reissued on CD. And Criswell memorabilia-including autographed photos and signed copies of his books-sustain energetic bidding on Internet auction sites.
Of course, Criswell's claimed eighty-seven per cent accuracy level has taken a savage beating over the years. For example, the tragedy he forecast for England ("Meteor Destroys London: 1988") failed to materialize. Likewise his political forecasts: "I predict the assassination of Fidel Castro by a woman, on August 9, 1970"; "I predict the District of Columbia within the next fifteen years will cease to exist as the capital of the United States. The seat of government will be moved to Wichita, Kansas, in the caverns beneath the city"; "There will be no welfare in the future, and I predict the death penalty for all freeloaders." He also predicted that the first Americans on the moon would be pregnant women, and that by 1981 Americans would be able to receive heart, kidney, and brain transplants via vending machines.
Among those in attendance at the Boardners fete were several of Criswell's former tenants (in addition to being a brinksmanlike prognosticator, Cris was also a Hollywood landlord). Charles Coulombe, who was just a boy when his family moved into one of the showman's apartment buildings, remembered that "Mr. Criswell," as he still called him, claimed to have lost his psychic gift after he came to Hollywood. "He told my father that he had had the ability to tell the future when he was young, but that when he started taking money for it he lost it," Coulombe said. As the clock neared midnight, Coulombe, dressed in tails for the occasion, donned a white wig and commemorated the planet's final moments by channelling Criswell. Reading aloud the psychic's vision of doomsday, Coulombe intoned, "Future generations from some other planet will dig down through seven layers of rubble and find us some two thousand years hence. They will wonder what on earth was meant by the words 'Henry Ford' or 'Hollywood,' and what in heaven's name was a Criswell?"
Alas, when the last revellers left, at 2 A.M., Boardners was still standing, thus dealing the Criswell legacy yet another harsh statistical blow. But on a much more important level, Hollywood's greatest seer had vindicated himself: he had posthumously conjured an enthusiastic party in his honor. The significance of August 18th? It's Criswell's birthday.