For Frank Baranowski, the trouble started when he was 8 years old.
Until then, Baranowski, the 57-year-old host of KTAR's weekend paranormal showcase "Mysteries Around Us," was just another blue-collar Polish kid growing up in the hayseed town of Michigan City, Indiana.
But Baranowski says at the age of 8 he started having strange visions. He began to see colorful auras around everyone he met. Not sure what to make of these multihued lights, he asked one of the nuns at his Catholic school what they meant.
The nun asked him what he was talking about. When he explained what he was seeing, she told him to report to the convent after school.
"They all lined up for me, and I was telling them the colors I saw around them, just blabbing like a kid will blab," Baranowski recalls. "In return, I got two holy pictures. So I thought if I died, I was going straight to heaven, with those holy pictures."
But Baranowski had unwittingly created a brouhaha of near-Biblical proportions in his tiny hometown. Three local priests came to his home that night, carrying incense, holy water and an oversize missal. They walked around the house blessing each room. Then they sat Baranowski down and repeatedly splashed holy water on him. As word of the attempted exorcism buzzed around Baranowski's Polish-ghetto neighborhood, 50 people gathered outside the house.
Baranowski remembers: "The priests kept asking me, 'Do you renounce Satan?' I couldn't understand what they were asking. I was too scared to understand." He says as soon as the priests left, his father, Harry -- a hardworking welder with a fierce temper and a weakness for alcohol -- grabbed him by the shirt collar and delivered an ultimatum: "You see another light around anybody, and that'll be the last light you'll see."
Nearly 50 years later, Baranowski still insists that he sees auras around people. But what once made him the scourge of Michigan City has ultimately provided him with a lucrative career as a lecturer, radio host and all-around guru of the supernatural.
For most of his adult life, Baranowski has been a consistent believer in -- and student of -- all things beyond the realm of science, from past-life regression to clairvoyance to psychic revelations to holistic healing to numerology. The years have only made him more committed and knowledgeable about these esoteric subjects.
Since the early '70s, he's performed thousands of past-life regressions, a three-hour process in which he puts someone under hypnosis and attempts to take them back into one of their previous incarnations. His objective is usually to help them get over a particular phobia by identifying that phobia's roots in an earlier life.
But a funny thing has happened over the past 20 to 30 years. Baranowski hasn't changed, but society has. Whether it's a product of millennial spiritual anxiety or Woodstock Nation reaching middle age, paranatural pseudo-science has moved from the fringes into the suburban two-car garages of mainstream America.
Consider the evidence: Long Island channeler John Edward hosts a daily psychic show on the SciFi Network, James Van Praagh tops the best-seller lists with his accounts from the spirit world, and avowed clairvoyant Sylvia Brown has drawn huge audiences for her three pay-per-view TV specials.
As Edward's supervising producer, Paul Shavelson, recently told the Associated Press, "If someone is into New Age or spiritual programming, they have a show like ours. Imagine trying to sell a show like this a decade ago."
To Baranowski's credit -- or discredit, depending on your belief system -- he did sell such a show a decade ago, albeit on radio, not on television. For the past 11 years, he's managed to bring a surreal late-night edge to KTAR-AM 620, the Valley's most popular talk-show station. He proudly points out that he even predated the nationally syndicated show by Art Bell, the eccentric radio host to whom he's most often compared.
Every Saturday and Sunday, from 10 p.m. to midnight, Baranowski's intensely devoted fans tune in to hear him tell what amounts to elaborate ghost stories, in a deep, sonorous, Merv Griffin-like voice, with a dramatic, breathless delivery that's reminiscent of John Belushi parodying Captain Kirk on Saturday Night Live.
"People love him for his great storytelling abilities," says Tisa Vrable, program director for KTAR. "He does that intriguing, strange stuff. He doesn't necessarily have a huge audience, but he has a very loyal audience."
Baranowski's ratings fluctuate widely, but in the past two years he's been as high as a 7.9 share, which translates into 7.9 percent of all Valley radio listeners for that time period. It's an impressive figure for a guy peddling psychic phenomena on weekend nights. By comparison, afternoon drive-time host Tony Femino recently earned an Arbitron rating of 6.4 with his core demographic, although he's competing for a much larger weekday radio audience.
But even at Baranowski's lowest point, a 3.7 share in the summer of 1999, he still had twice as many listeners as the three local sports-talk stations combined during the same time period.
Radio is actually just a small part of Baranowski's life. He estimates he's lectured in 43 countries, and has performed several high-profile past-life regressions, including one on country singer Loretta Lynn and another on a man who claims to be the reincarnation of Titanic designer Tom Andrews. He's appeared on Unsolved Mysteries and Larry King's radio show, and befriended celebrities like actor Burt Lancaster and director Sam Peckinpah.
Over the years, he's also taught at four local community colleges, and his recent spate of non-credit classes at Glendale Community College is described by GCC officials as among the school's most popular.
But the airwaves are Baranowski's most powerful link to the local paranormal community, a community he helped to create.
"Frank was way ahead of his time," says Liz Dawn, a former actress who runs Mishka Productions, a company that brings renowned New Age lecturers to the Valley. "Frank is always 10 steps ahead. He was doing hypnosis and past-life regressions years ago, and who was into it at that time? He's opened up a world for people that they wouldn't ordinarily have."
Even if you consider Baranowski's subject matter ludicrous or implausible, he has an innate way of drawing listeners into his strange orbit. His voice is commanding yet warm, the perfect source of aural companionship for lonely Valley residents on weekend nights. He also gives considerable thought to his choice of music, usually picking ominous, ghostly instrumental music to accompany his haunting tales of reincarnation.
It's easy to hear Baranowski's mellifluous baritone and imagine him to be a bearded professorial type in a smoking jacket, with a pipe hanging from the corner of his mouth. So it's initially a bit disorienting to find that Baranowski is a dead ringer for sad-sack '70s comedian George Gobel. He's short and paunchy with a doughy complexion and a blatantly artificial blond rug on his head. He usually sports a Mickey Mouse watch on his left wrist, and his white pants, white tennis shoes and striped shirts make him look more equipped to go sailing than to conjure some pesky ancient spirits.
But Baranowski's slightly goofy appearance is also part of what makes him so endearing. He might be Arizona's godfather of the paranormal and guru of the weird, but he's also, in his own words, "just a schmaltzy guy." He unabashedly blows kisses to his wife Kelly in the middle of his KTAR show, and earnestly bear-hugs complete strangers like they're long-lost relatives. And his sentimental side often rears its head on his show, such as one recent episode, which he dubbed The Mysteries of Romance.
"I just want people to love each other," Baranowski says, sounding like the unlikely flower child he just might be. "When you believe in reincarnation, it behooves you to do only good things to help people. The whole thing is love."
Do you believe that you could possibly have lived in a life before this one? I mean, have you ever been to a place for the very first time, and yet, you knew what was around the corner?
-- Frank Baranowski,
"Mysteries Around Us"
To hear Baranowski tell the story of his life, his biography is oddly rife with pangs of reluctance. It's a reluctance born from the pain of periodically being told that he's a threat to everything sacred.
So, after getting the holy-water splashdown when he was 8, he quickly learned to keep quiet about any unusual visions he had.
For 10 years, he tried to fit in with the other kids in Michigan City. When he went into confession and priests asked him if he still saw auras, he'd close his eyes, so he could honestly answer "no." But his reputation as the town's visionary freak was hard to live down.
"People in town wouldn't even walk on the same side that my house was on," he says. "The word went around that I could look at a cow and make it go sterile. I prayed and did the rosary in three languages. I thought, 'Whatever this power is, I don't want it.'"
Baranowski, the first child of Harry and Lillian Baranowski (his brother George is seven years younger), attended a Catholic school until he reached high school. But he remembers being constantly distracted.
He sat through his catechism classes repeatedly drawing pictures of ships. It's an obsession that has persisted throughout his life. His north Phoenix home has more than 40 paintings and four models of ships on display. Baranowski can't fully explain this sailing fixation, but hints that the sea might have entered into one of his previous lives. (He also believes he was a priest in a past life.)
"The first time I was ever on board a schooner, I suddenly felt like I was at home, like I'd been there before," he says.
As he reached his teen years, and local memories of his aura visions faded, Baranowski began to fit in with his Michigan City classmates. He played halfback on his high school football team, was president of the student council, and played piano-accordion in a teen polka band that released a single called "The Foreign Legion Polka." But he says he always felt detached from what he saw around him.
"I felt out of place," he says. "I couldn't understand the bestiality going on with kids at school. I thought, 'There has to be a better way.' They had just finished fighting World War II when I was a small kid, and I wondered, 'What's happening here? Why are we still fighting among ourselves?'"
Baranowski's family lived in an apartment house owned by a robust Russian woman named Mary, who performed tea-leaf readings for people. Baranowski would perform various tasks for her, like taking out the trash, and he'd often stop to listen in on her readings.
He says that one Sunday at church, the priest walked off his pulpit and grabbed Mary, forcing her to leave the church because she was a "fortuneteller."
"I thought Mary was such a nice lady," Baranowski says. "I wondered how she could be as mean as he said."
Shortly after high school graduation, Baranowski got married. A couple of years later, his wife tripped on a toy and fell down the stairs. She suffered serious back pain, and doctors advised that she and Baranowski move to a warm, dry climate. So they headed to Mesa.
Baranowski studied education at Arizona State University, and planned on becoming a teacher. In the mid-'60s, he says he got an offer to work in Washington, D.C., for a U.S. senator whom he mysteriously declines to name. On his way to Washington, he stopped in Chicago, planning to catch a train to see his parents 70 miles away. According to Baranowski, his stop at the train station marked the beginning of a highly improbable series of chance encounters with psychics over the next few days.
He says at the train station he met a man who asked him if he wanted to grab a cup of coffee at the local YMCA . Over coffee, the stranger told Baranowski that he had a message for him, but it required that they go up to the man's room. Baranowski was nervous, but the man promised to leave his door open.
"It turned out to be the most interesting hour I'd spent in my life up to that time," Baranowski says. "The man was a trance-medium. He would go into a deep trance, take a couple of deep breaths, and suddenly he was speaking in a completely different voice.
"He gave me a psychic reading. He told me about my children, my wife, and about things that were going to happen. And that I'd be traveling all over the world, and I'd be talking about a subject that I don't yet know much about."
The morning after his YMCA encounter, Baranowski took a plane to Washington. He says that after only two days working on Capitol Hill, he realized that government work wasn't for him. At the airport, on his way back to Arizona, he says he had a weird exchange with a woman he later realized was psychic Jeanne Dixon.
"She came up to me, and said, 'Oh, I feel like I just have to talk to you,'" he says. "She held out her hand and asked me to put my finger in the palm of her right hand. She gave me a reading. She told me I was going to be traveling all over the world. She said I was going back to Arizona, that I'd be teaching, that I'd be on radio and TV, but that she didn't see me working for the government."
He says at the Chicago airport later that day he met Dutch psychic Peter Hurkos, who stubbornly asked to see his watch, and subsequently did a psychic reading on him. He told Baranowski that he was destined to spend his life flying all over the world.
For the next few years, Baranowski drifted from one odd job to another. He says he worked for the post office for a time, and even played piano-accordion in a dance band called the Redcoats. He also took a variety of classes at ASU and other local colleges.
Baranowski says that, in 1967, he himself acquired psychic abilities. That year, he, his wife and four children were in a car accident in which their vehicle rolled down a 25-foot embankment. All of Baranowski's family members survived, and he says the jolt to his head actually gave him the ability to see into the future.
But much as he had resisted the auras as a child, he says he also wished that his psychic abilities would disappear. "I knew what people were thinking all the time," he says. "I prayed that it would go away. There were three instances when I knew people were going to die, and they did. I didn't want that ability. I couldn't handle it.
"So I spent two and a half days praying at Queen of Peace Church in Mesa. When I left the church to go home and sleep, I woke up with a ringing in my ear. And after that, I wasn't psychic anymore."
Have you ever found yourself doing things to perfection that no one instructed you on how to do? A professional football player who knits and crochets at halftime. Can you imagine, a big bruiser?
-- Frank Baranowski,
"Mysteries Around Us"
Baranowski didn't really figure out what to do with his life until 1972, when he met Virginia Morrow in a Denver coffee shop.
Morrow had earned fame in 1954 when the Denver Post published a series of articles detailing her past-life regressions under the guidance of an amateur hypnotist named Morey Bernstein. Morrow said regression had helped her discover that in a previous life she was a 19th-century Irish woman named Bridey Murphy, who had died by falling down a flight of stairs. Fascination with the story had led to a book and movie about Murphy, whose tale was later debunked.
"She and I got to talking, and at one point, she asked me if I believed in reincarnation," Baranowski says. "I said, 'I don't really know. I don't think I know anyone who's been reincarnated.' And she said, 'Maybe I have. Maybe you have, too.' At this time, I knew hypnosis, but I didn't know how to hypnotize someone into a past life."
His encounter with Morrow led Baranowski to hone the techniques of past-life regression, which include hypnosis and the ability to patiently coax an individual through a discussion of his past-life memories.
Over the years, he's handled some celebrated cases, most notably a woman who came to him in 1985, seeking hypnosis to help her lose weight. Under hypnosis, she began to talk about experiences she'd had as a man aboard an American ship which the Japanese attacked at Pearl Harbor. She also identified nine men who were on the ship. With the help of military archives, Baranowski determined that at least eight of the men were definitely on the ship at the time of the attack.
This bizarre story was featured in a 1991 episode of the TV series Unsolved Mysteries, with Baranowski playing himself in the reenactments. But the show also included an interview with a female author who was not persuaded. She argued that Baranowski tended to ask his subject leading questions and control the hypnosis process, rather than letting it take its own course. She also said that information about the Pearl Harbor attack is so voluminous that the subject easily could have read about the people she described.
Baranowski's second most famous regression was equally controversial. In 1997, he performed hypnosis on a Gila Bend man named William Barnes, who was born April 14, 1953, 41 years to the day after the Titanic struck the iceberg. All his life, he'd been obsessed with the sinking of the legendary ship.
Under hypnosis, Barnes began speaking in a thick Irish brogue and identified himself as Tom Andrews, the designer of the Titanic. In 1999, Edin Books published I Built the Titanic, Barnes' account of his past-life regression, and put out a four-tape audio set containing his actual regression sessions with Baranowski. The recordings, part of which Baranowski recently played on a Titanic-themed episode of his radio show, feature Barnes/Andrews babbling to unknown crew members: "Maybe we've got an hour, maybe two, and then she's going to break, right here by the engine compartment. . . . How do I know that? Because I built the bloody ship!"
At least one Titanic expert, however, wasn't sold on Barnes' story. Edward Kamuda, president and founder of the Titanic Historical Society, listened to the regression tapes, and determined that they were "ill-crafted, script-read presentations aimed to capitalize on the Titanic 'mania' that has arisen from today's popularity of the subject."
Despite the inevitable doubts that such sessions arouse, Baranowski remains a firm believer in the validity of past-life regressions. He says he has 268 tapes of people speaking languages that they don't speak in their present life. One tape features a Phoenix College student speaking what Baranowski says is an ancient Egyptian language that predates Christ by at least 4,000 years. Baranowski says he learned from the Egyptian embassy in Washington, D.C., that there are fewer than 40 people in the world who know this language.
After he started teaching community college classes in the early '70s, Baranowski drew many of his hypnotic-regression subjects from his classes. He found that most students were so fascinated with the possibility of past lives, they wanted to talk about little else.
In 1974, when he began teaching at Phoenix College, Baranowski again became a lightning rod for religious controversy. On the night of his first class, about 100 people demonstrated outside the classroom, carrying signs saying "Beware of the demon in your midst" and depicting Baranowski with horns on his head. Campus police had to help students get into the classroom.
"I was stunned, because all we were talking about was the aura, and how to see the aura," Baranowski says.
Only 15 people showed up for the first class, but, ironically, the curiosity drummed up by the protest led another 105 to sign up. Over the years, at community colleges in Scottsdale, Phoenix, Mesa and Glendale, his classes have invariably been popular with students, if not always with other teachers.
"The teachers of the psychology classes were insulted, because sometimes they had 14 people in their classes, and once in Scottsdale we had 125," he says. "At one point, I was doing classes at Phoenix College, Scottsdale and Mesa, all at the same time. I was teaching almost five nights a week, but I didn't mind, because I've been trying to change consciousness, to make people understand that we're more than just a physical body."
He says Mormons used to gather outside his Mesa house for prayer meetings, to protest his classes. He adds, "It was tough for my kids to go to school in Mesa."
For the past seven years, Baranowski has taught afternoon and evening classes at Glendale Community College. Suzanne Higgins, coordinator of community education at GCC, says such Baranowski courses as "Phenomena of Man" and "Roots of Consciousness" are consistently among the best-attended non-credit classes the school offers, topped only by an annual bass-fishing weekend course. She says she's never received a single critical phone call or student evaluation about Baranowski.
"He has talked to and researched and interviewed many, many people who say they have experienced psychic phenomena," Higgins says. "And it fascinates people.
"And it's his delivery, too. Not just the sonorous voice that you hear on the radio, with the ups and downs that are made for a radio audience, but in person he's very excited, very passionate about what he talks about. He just bounces around the classroom getting people very keyed up."
Local psychic Dehbra Taylor (she added the "h" to her first name for numerology purposes) met Baranowski last May, when a mutual friend called her at 6:50 p.m. to say that Baranowski needed a guest speaker for his class that night at 7:15. She had a speaking engagement, but dropped it because she sensed that she should meet Baranowski.
"My first impression of him was, 'My God, what a character,'" she says. "He's got such an enormous amount of energy around him, to me it just vibrates. It was almost as if I already knew this man. The minute I saw him, I knew him. His energy level was just pure gold.
"And his students love him. I had one woman tell me that she's been going for three years. They really care, and it's not a cult-type caring. He gives them information that they're hungry for."
Higgins says it's Baranowski's obvious sincerity that wins people over. "He doesn't come across as a person saying, 'Gee, I happen to know that people like this crapola, so I'm going to give it to them,'" she says. "He's not a snake-oil salesman."
How about your dreams? Have you awakened at night in a constant dream that beleaguers you for so many years, and you can't get rid of it? And you wonder why?
-- Frank Baranowski,
"Mysteries Around Us"
Like most of the stories Baranowski tells, his account of how he first landed on the radio is unlikely and outrageous, but delivered with disarming conviction.
He says in 1985 he was strolling through a county fair from which talk-radio station KFYI was doing a remote broadcast. He says he just happened to be standing nearby when the DJ got sick and started vomiting. With absolutely no on-air experience, Baranowski spontaneously grabbed the microphone and calmly took over the show -- for nearly two hours.
"Someone at the station said, 'You're pretty good. How would you like to have your own show?'" he recalls.
Baranowski worked for four years at KFYI, but he says his stint there was problematic, because he clashed with a program director who tried to turn him into an aggressive, insulting shock jock. So in 1989, he moved to KTAR, where he's been a weekend fixture for the past 11 years.
His show has evolved into a mix of stories, interviews with New Age notables, and psychic call-in sessions offered by people like Taylor and Baranowski's longtime friend Marian Esther. At times, it'll take a quirky turn into non-paranormal territory, such as the August 12 show, which featured an hourlong interview-and-music session with classical guitarist Estéban.
As a radio interviewer, Baranowski's innate kindness can result in unbridled gushing.
"My God, we were spellbound!" a discombobulated Baranowski exclaimed, when a recent guest who portrays Wyatt Earp at Old West shows completed a 10-minute monologue on "Mysteries Around Us."
On another show, he began an interview with holistic expert Dr. Norm Shealy by offering these words of praise for Shealy's latest book: "I already knew you were brilliant, but my God!"
But if Baranowski's interviews are occasionally awkward, as a storyteller he's an undeniable master. He's simply a font of fascinating anecdotes that he's picked up from the 4,000 books in his collection, or from firsthand experience.
He'll tell about the 46-year-old woman who received a heart transplant and came out of the hospital requesting that her family get her pizza and beer, two items she'd never been known to like. Weeks later, she bought a motorcycle. She later discovered that the person whose heart she'd received was an 18-year-old who'd died on a motorcycle. His two favorite foods were pizza and beer.
He'll tell about the woman who hears her dead lover calling to her while riding on a gondola in Venice, or about how a New Mexico man and his two sons were decapitated in accidents in a span of weeks, after receiving two pieces of petrified wood that, when placed together, form an image of a Wicca icon.
He'll scare you with the tale of a patient whose hand turned into an immovable claw after his wife died in a car accident, fleeing beatings which he'd administered with the very same hand.
One of his most avid listeners is Liz Dawn, a former actress who moved to Scottsdale from Hollywood five years ago to take a break from her career. She not only ended up staying, she created Mishka Productions, and formed a symbiotic bond with Baranowski along the way. When Mishka Productions brings famous lecturers to town, Dawn often sets them up as guests on "Mysteries Around Us." They both benefit from the deal: He gets hot guests for his show, and she gets needed publicity for her lectures.
"Frank is very eccentric and very dramatic, but I'm a Leo, so I love people like that," Dawn says. "He's very expressive. When he's talking with you, he's right there. And I can see how a lot of people would be intimidated by that. But, to me, he's got a big energy and lots of love.
"And I've come to realize that a lot of internationally best-selling authors are very familiar with him and his work," Dawn adds. "I've had people call me and request that they be on his show."
Though "Mysteries Around Us" is often compared to the now-defunct program hosted by Art Bell (even KTAR's Web site makes the comparison), Dawn considers Baranowski's show more accessible.
"I didn't always understand Art, but I understand Frank," she says. "Frank just knows what people are interested in. Art would get really out there. I don't understand all the UFO stuff, and he was really into it. It's just not my area."
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It's one of Baranowski's charms that he can bring a common touch to even the most far-out material. When a listener named Rocky calls in for psychic advice from Taylor, Baranowski jokingly asks if the caller's last name is Balboa. He then launches into an earnest discussion of how important the movie Rocky was to America in the late '70s. Another time, he responds to a professed healer's description of speaking with God by saying that it reminds him of the George Burns film vehicle Oh, God!.
The affection that flows back and forth between Baranowski and his audience was illustrated last February when a false rumor started floating around that he had a brain tumor and was knocking on heaven's door. Listeners flooded his house with flowers and the phone didn't stop ringing for days.
"He's special, he's different," Taylor says. "He's had a hard life with this type of lifestyle. Spirituality and psychic intuitiveness were not welcomed when he was 40 years younger. They weren't welcomed 20 years ago for me. So I give him a lot of credit for that. And I feel very honored that he asked me on his radio show."
Ask Baranowski about such issues, and he slips into the practiced thespian timbre that radio listeners love him for. With an incongruous but strangely riveting Shatner-esque sense of drama, the Valley's greatest advocate for reincarnation softly intones: "It's . . . been . . . quite a lifetime."