Samuel (Sam) Randlett Interview
Born: New Jersey, USA | Hometown: Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA
Interviewed by Marc Kirschenbaum – January 24, 2021
Marc: I was asked to do an interview with you for an origami museum. Would that be okay?
Marc: Great. I have talked about you with friends in origami. We thought it would be very valuable to hear about some of the things you developed over the years. I don’t think anyone has really interviewed you. It’s better late than never! I know you were very instrumental in pioneering symbols that we use. Did you actually work with Akira Yoshizawa?
Sam: People give me far too much credit. Yoshizawa had a system and the system worked pretty well. There were two things that were suboptimum, and I changed them. But it’s Yoshizawa’s system.
Marc: Do you remember which things you changed?
Sam: Yeah, an arrow out of cup. Meaning going into a cup. That’s crazy! As Gershon Legman put it, “some weird Japanical reason for this” for this. You don’t have an arrow going in for action coming out. It’s insane. So I changed it. I eliminated that. But I had the sense Yoshizawa had a good notation. First of all, you can hardly publish something like that and then say people cannot use it without your permission. So I just used it. The idea was people can now read the Japanese literature without knowing the Japanese because you know the symbols.
Marc: You basically popularized the Yoshizawa notation?
Sam: That is what it amounts to. That was the idea.
Marc: Which is VERY valuable!
Sam: We don’t want to have two or three notations floating around. I still do not agree with the younger folders who what to have science for everything, who what to do away with verbal explanations. Which, in my opinion is impossible and to the extent that it can be done you have a very elaborate scheme of symbols. You don’t want it to be very elaborate.
Marc: I agree with you. But, if possible, I’d like to use symbols that cover as much as reasonably possible.
Marc: What was your first origami book that you made yourself and published?
Sam: Art of Origami.
Marc: What inspired you to put that together? There weren’t that many origami books back then.
Sam: There was Harbin’s Paper Magic. As Lillian Oppenheimer use to say, “you scratch a paper folder and you find a magician” Yes, exactly. Origami and paper folding appeal to the nameless personality. [Sam spoke about origamist personalities with regards to beliefs]
Marc: What type of work did you do outside of origami? What was your career like?
Sam: I am a piano teacher.
Marc: Are you still doing that?
Sam: I have one very advanced student. My policy has always been if somebody knocks on my door and wants lessons, I will give lessons. [Sam told a troublesome story in relation to his studying and teaching]
Marc: How did you find out about origami?
Sam: Lillian Oppenheimer use to say, “you scratch a paper folder and you find a magician.” I was interested in magic. Nobody knew then because origami was not a popular thing. These appeal to the same personality. The magicians are not interested in fooling their friends. What keeps interested is the ingenious solutions. You choose the Ace of spades, the ace of spades has been in my breast pocket all along, surely it’s another card. What engineering makes this possible? Some of the engineering is quite incredible. This is what keeps the magic book in sight of hand. It isn’t fooling people, couldn’t care less.
Marc: Could you elaborate? But you learn origami from a book?
Sam: I was interested in Paper Magic. Bob Harbins published Paper Magic. I am a friend of Rob Thomas who ended up doing a long-term prison term. He was good at sketching and they had nothing better to do so they did a book. The book was Paper Magic. I imagine, anyone in American who is interested in magic would have obtained a copy of Paper Magic, because it appeals to the same personality type. There is a book, and it is brown and has a red paper cover and I believe it has something to do with the scouts, which was pre-Harbin. And then there was the Art of Chinese Paperfolding has the pagoda in it and that also precedes Harbin. And so, I had these books, and I folded my way through them. As I went through these books, I began to get tired because there is no other literature that I knew of. Puzzled my way through and went back to magic and that was that. However, there were thin paperback books, sewn by hand by Yoshizawa. I don’t know way has happened to these, whether you can still get them, but these little books had finished models pasted in.
Marc: Yes, I remember those.
Sam: When I saw the finished models pasted in, I was hooked. As one lady says, “If you’re going to be hooked on something, it is better to be hooked on origami than some of the things you can be hooked on nowadays.”
Marc: How did you connect with other origami folks? How did you find out about these other people?
Sam: Most of them I have never met. They were my friends by mail. Every now and then I think, people don’t seem to get it, people can be friends. They are not competitors. They become pals, and if we get a model and share it with all our friends and everybody has it. So, these people were all my friends. I just said, “may I use your such-in-so and they said “sure.” That was it. It wasn’t any big formal procedure.
Marc: How did you find out about these people? Where did you get their addresses from?
Sam: Some I already knew from magic and Lillian Oppenheimer said for example she was in touch with me the last. I knew Neal Elias from magic, from card magic. So, we got in touch. Neal said, he hadn’t done much with origami creatively, but he would send me card magic and I would send him origami. So it was just fun. People don’t seem to understand they are for competitors, they are pals.
Marc: Did you ever publish Patricia Crawford’s work?
Sam: Yes. I was in touch with Fred Roman, Fred was in touch with Neal Elias and Fred and Neal were both in touch with Sam Ryan. What you begin to see is web of people interested in the same thing. And they keep in touch with each other by mail. When the time came, my wife said, “Hey, you have enough for a book.” In my opinion, the best of origami which is a collection of very good origami models. The Art of Origami is just an introduction. Other people say that, they say the The Art of Origami is full of the joy of folding. Well, how about the models themselves, there is some great stuff in The Best of Origami.
Marc: I am wondering about your growing up. Did you always live in the same area? Give me a little history, where were you born?
Sam: I was born in New Jersey. At the age of 6 months, I moved to Milwaukie. So, if people ask me, I just lie and say I was born in Milwaukie. I have no New Jersey memory because I left the place at six months. I am told by my mother that on the way here in the train I crawled up and down the aisle of the pullman cart to the great amusement of the other passengers.
Marc: Where are you living now?
Sam: Ten blocks away from the borderline of Milwaukie; a suburb of Milwaukie. I vaguely remember the first place we lived in Milwaukie. The upstairs neighbor had a daughter named Troy that was about my age. The mother would wait until my mother sent me out to swing on the swing with a caretaker and then she would send her girl out too to take advantage of our caretaker. After that we moved a block or so to a house of our own which was right across from the zoo. The zookeepers got to know me. I have the sharpest and most distinct memories of feeding the hippo.
Marc: That’s pretty dangerous!
Sam: I was behind the fence, always, as were the keepers. His name was Jigs. I vaguely remember that. I was 4 or 5 years old.
Marc: What year were you born?
Sam: 1930. January 1930. I’m 91 years old.
Marc: Congratulations! Were you able to celebrate this year?
Sam: A party was had for me. It was organized by Dr. Dianna Randlett, MD, from New York.
Marc: Your daughter!
Sam: It was officiated by a neighbor. We all had a good time.
Marc: What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment in origami?
Sam: The Best of Origami.
Marc: Any favorite stories from the beginnings of origami history? Anything you would like to share.
Sam: What kind of stories?
Marc: You have met some very famous people in origami. Have you ever met Patricia Crawford?
Sam: No. I think she’s dead now.
Marc: That is correct. She died young. It was a few years ago.
Sam: That connection that was she was a pupil of Fred Roman. Fred and I have been friends were friends for a long, long time. A piece of advice for you. If you don’t want to be left practically friendless, don’t be friends with people considerately older that you are because one by one that are going to die.
Marc: Yeah, that’s sad. This has been very interesting. Is there anything you would like to share? Other passions or interests?
Sam: I knew about Neal Elias because I was interested in sight of hand. That is essentially card and coins.
Marc: Neil Elies was very good at that too?
Marc: He was a very amazing folder.
Sam: That’s interesting. Lillian Oppenheimer mentioned Neil Elias as somebody with whom she was in touch. He said “I haven’t done much with origami, but how about origami for card magic, where I have done a lot. Unpublished and unknown.” So that’s what we did for a while.
Marc: Do you remember what year that was?
Marc: If I remember correctly, he was very active in origami, then took a break for a while, and then got back to it again in the 1970’s and then stopped.
Sam: I have correspondence and other things that have dates on them. It never made any difference to me, so I would have to do considerable amounts of digging.
Marc: Will these notes ever be released or published anywhere?
Sam: They have been published. Neal Elias’s Notebook.
Marc: Oh yes. I have that!
Sam: He used to be a draftsman. Nobody knew at the time, was a great boom to the future of origami. Because Neil and I were friends by mail. And as a matter of fact, we both made trips to Chicago so we could meet and do and had a good time together and returned home.
Marc: Why Chicago? What was there?
Sam: It was about halfway in between our homes.
Marc: It has been a pleasure chatting with you. Is there anything else you would like to mention?
Sam: If you have any questions, feel free to call. I will answer questions.
Marc: You are one fascinating person. Thank you for your time!