Dr. Richard Ireland has been many things in his time. Nightclub mind reader. Psychic sleuth. Hollywood seer. Corpse.

On this particular day, however, the "Godfather of Psychics" is merely late.

En route to an interview, the self-described "Phoenix Oracle" somehow fails to foresee that the car he is riding in will conk out in the midst of rush-hour traffic.

When Ireland finally does show up for the appointment at the University of Life Church (the New Age religious center he founded here 31 years ago), he dismisses his psychic lapse.

"I don't endeavor to discern those kinds of things," the star of stage, pulpit and after-death experience explains haughtily.

Evidently, if one has The Gift, one doesn't waste it by forecasting anything so mundane as car problems.

That may be one of the very few things this ESP VIP hasn't predicted during thirtysomething years on the tux-and-blindfold circuit. Love, sex, career, finances--during the Sixties and Seventies, it seemed no Valley clubgoer's mind was safe from the good doctor's probing third eye.

His all-knowing, all-seeing gaze even penetrated Hollywood's movie colony, where he stunned the stars during a series of appearances 20 years ago. Mae West, who eventually became Ireland's biggest booster, boasted that she rarely made a move without seeking Ireland's psychic guidance.

Even people who never set foot in nightclubs knew about Ireland back then. "Dr. Ireland has something to tell you!" screamed breathless ads from Valley entertainment pages of the period that hailed him as "the world's most renowned psychic." (Never mind that the accompanying photograph of Ireland pensively massaging his temples suggested that his real message was, "I've got a splitting headache!")

"Since he can tell you the serial number of any currency while he is blindfolded," one of his standard ads promised, imagine what he can tell YOU about YOUR future!"

Even if the logic behind that last statement doesn't hold up, nightclub customers didn't notice. They were too busy fishing dollar bills out of their wallets and scribbling questions on "ESP Grams," Ireland's copyrighted note cards.

"I was the guy that paved the road," brags Ireland. "I don't know any other psychic who dared to go onstage as early as myself. I was the guy who drove the first wagon and then all these gypsies jumped on the wagon behind me. These people like Criswell [the Fifties TV psychic] could never have emerged, I don't believe, if it hadn't been for me. That's a rather egotistical thing to say, but I've always been sort of `The Godfather' of the psychics."

This startling claim somehow overlooks the fact that some of his psychic contemporaries (such as the Amazing Kreskin and Jeane Dixon) were nationally prominent when Ireland still was only a regional celebrity.

Now semiretired from the nightclub biz, Ireland proves that you can't take the showman out of the shaman. He shows up for an interview one recent afternoon sporting shorts, a patterned shirt unbuttoned to mid paunch, and a knuckleful of flashy fingers that even Liberace might have deemed excessive. (Don't even ask about the significance of the gold "10" dangling from his neck--he didn't spend 15 years working Playboy Club shows for nothing.)

The overall effect--that of an off-duty lounge act bagging rays at poolside--is merely reinforced when Ireland comments on his own resemblance to borscht-belt funnyman Shecky Greene.

Like that comedian, Ireland's name rarely shows up on marquees anymore. Today, most of his ESP demonstrations take place on the banquet-convention circuit around the Valley, with an occasional club date in Hawaii, where he maintains a second home. Despite much evidence to the contrary, Ireland insists that he left show biz; show biz didn't leave him.

I simply haven't found a comfortable home in a Phoenix club for a period of time," explains Ireland, a long-time fixture at such bygone Phoenix niteries as the Playboy Club, the Colony Steak House and the Stein and Sirloin. "The environment has a lot to do with the success of my demonstration. I had the perfect settings at those other clubs."

In reality, Ireland's success in those settings probably had as much to do with the era as anything else. In an age when magazines were rife with then-novel reports of ESP, flying saucers, astrology, reincarnation and related ooga-booga, nightclub patrons were only too eager to tag along on Ireland's search for tomorrow.

Ireland's own foresight saga began 60-odd years ago in Columbus, Ohio, when, as a 5-year-old hospital patient, he realized he had the power."

While recuperating from eye surgery, according to his 1970 autobiography The Phoenix Oracle, he found he was able to bounce a ball off the wall and catch it even though his eyes were bandaged shut. Although stunned nurses initially believed he'd tampered with the bandages (a suspicion harbored by many who've since crossed his path), the Boy with Something Extra was off and running. I rapidly became the spectacle of the hospital and the leper child of my family," reported Ireland. Dubbed Crazy Dick" by his brothers, he forecast domestic mishaps, the arrival of drop-in visitors and even the death of a playmate in a car crash. Outraged when this last prediction came true, one neighbor child pelted Ireland's home with stones.

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Dewey Webb