Seeing how we’re so close to Halloween and the 91st anniversary of Harry Houdini’s death, it’s a good time to ponder the theory that a clause in the performer’s contract with a theater put in motion the events that led to his demise.
Quick review of what exactly happened back in 1926: Houdini was suffering from abdominal pain for several days while on tour, and was advised to have surgery immediately, but refused. He arrived for his performance at the Garrick Theater in Detroit with a temperature of 104, but did the show anyway. He was later taken to Grace Hospital, where he eventually died on October 31st from peritonitis, a result of his ruptured appendix.
So what does a contract have to do with any of that? Well, according to The Houdini Correspondence File by Wayne Wissner, it’s possible that Houdini went on stage despite being sick in order to avoid paying a hefty fine. A clause in his contract stipulated that if an illness or accident rendered Houdini unable to perform, he’d have to pay $1000 (roughly the equivalent of $13,000 today) for every day the theater was dark.
Houdini was furious to discover this stipulation in his existing contracts, and wrote to his manager:
“I am amazed any sensible manager would sign a contract with such a clause in it and I am perfectly willing to leave the road before I would take such a chance. […] Am perfectly willing to continue if a new clause is inserted but under the present contract I retire gracefully.”
Assuming that his contracts covered his appearance at the Garrick, it’s possible that Houdini tried to make it through his scheduled performances in order to avoid the financial penalty, hoping to seek medical attention afterwards. There’s currently no evidence that his contract was amended, so it’s a reasonable conclusion to reach.
via Wild About Harry
Any performer who undertakes an escape stunt is making a calculated risk. Sometimes, the challenges they set themselves might be a little outside their physical abilities. Sometimes, an act will fail. Belgian performance artist Mikes Poppe had to call off his stunt trying to free himself from a chain buried in a massive block of marble. Poppe spent 19 days trying to escape before being cut out by a safety team.
Even though he wasn’t able to pull off the stunt, Poppe is still keeping a positive attitude about the trick.
“This block is symbolic of history – the history of art which I am trying to free myself from,” he said. “I discovered that this is not possible – to free yourself from the history of art.”
Maybe that’s just a poetic spin on failure, but it’s still a good one.
Matt Johnson made a name for himself on Penn & Teller Fool Us with his death-defying water-tank escape, and it’s one of the highlights of his act when he tours the world with his magic. Unfortunately, a theater in Surrey, British Columbia has put the kibosh on that part of his upcoming performance in the Canadian city.
In an interview with the Surrey Now-Leader, Johnson explained why Centre Stage Theatre forced him to remove it from his routine:
“I found out about this about five days ago. The (venue managers) in Surrey have made the call that they can’t have the tank in that theatre, because we’re told the stage is a hollow one, and they’re concerned about the weight of the tank and any water that could leak on the stage.”
Part of the reason for the caution might be due to an earlier performance this year on Britain’s Got Talent, where the tank exploded during his rehearsal, flooding the stage with 200 gallons of water.
Johnson still plans on performing for the full 90 minutes of the show, but how he’s going to stretch time out is up in the air, especially since a lot of his routine is scripted.
“I’m actually thinking of playing the Penn & Teller episode with my water escape during the intermission for anybody who wants to see it,” Johnson told the paper. “I haven’t confirmed that with the theatre yet.”
Magicians, particularly escape artists, will often look towards the audience and solemnly intone “Don’t try this at home.” You might think it’s just to add a bit of drama to their act – and sure, it is – but it’s also a warning meant to be taken very seriously. Magic can be very dangerous and magicians spend years, sometimes decades, perfecting the skills necessary to do such exciting escapes and illusions. And even then, sometimes things go wrong. So we say, with absolute sincerity, don’t try this at home.
If you’ve seen The Prestige, what happened to Chung Ling Soo in 1918 will sound awfully familiar. Two assistants would load muskets in full view of the audience and fire directly at the world-famous Soo, who would magically catch the bullets in his teeth. The trick was done through sleight of hand and modified guns, so that a fake bullet was what actually got fired. Even done properly, the bullet catch is notoriously dangerous, because willingly having projectiles shot at you is not great for your health. It’s unclear whether the trick failed due to an unfortunate accident or because the bullets were switched on purpose, but on March 23, Soo (really William Ellsworth Robinson) caught one in the chest and died a few hours later.
We’re not going to offer an opinion on whether or not David Blaine really fired a bullet at himself (we’re guessing not, because he’s not a complete idiot), but regardless, something sure went wrong with this stunt. The setup is slightly different from a traditional bullet catch; David has a cup in his mouth to catch the bullet, and uses a laser and mirror to aim the gun, which he fires himself by pulling a string. In the process of doing the trick, the cup shattered and lacerated the back of his throat. Blaine had complete control of every element of the trick, and he still got hurt. Not as bad an outcome as Chung Ling Soo, certainly, but still a sobering reminder.
Magicians add the threat of injury or death to their escapes to raise the stakes for the audience – if they don’t slip their bonds in time they’ll be squashed or burned or something else terrible. But an accident with Jeff Rayburn Hopper in 1984 illustrates that even when the chains are off, things can go tragically wrong. Hopper was rehearsing an underwater escape where he would jump into a lake while handcuffed and chained. He managed to set himself free, but called his assistant for help when he surfaced. He managed to cry out several more times before finally going under. High winds prevented boats from reaching him in time, despite the fact that he was only 100 yards off shore, in about six feet of water.
More than one performer has met their end while imitating an escape made famous by the great Harry Houdini, who nearly died himself after performing a buried alive escape in 1915. In 1990, Joseph Burrus, who was quoted as saying he considered himself “the next Houdini”, was handcuffed, chained, and locked inside a transparent coffin, which was then lowered into the ground. The coffin was first covered with three feet of earth, then cement, the combined weight of which – an estimated nine tons – crushed the coffin, killing Burrus.
Another Houdini escape gone awry. In this classic, the performer wedges their way into a milk can filled with water, which is then chained and padlocked shut. The magician Genesta had successfully done the escape for ten years, but in 1930, something went wrong. His assistant realized the act was not going according to plan, but the time it took to remove the locks was sadly too much. Genesta emerged from the can unconscious, and died a few hours later.
There’s a lot that could’ve gone wrong with the underwater escape that Matt Johnson had planned for his appearance on Britain’s Got Talent. He’d waited for years for the chance to dazzle the judges, but a freak accident sent him home before he’d even hit the stage.
As he tells Vancouver’s Breakfast Television, his tank cracked during rehearsal, flooding the BGT stage with 200 gallons of water. Not only did that put the kibosh on his dreams of winning Britain’s Got Talent, it also put his upcoming spot on Penn & Teller’s Fool Us in jeopardy. An escape act with nothing to escape from isn’t going to fool anyone.
Johnson managed to get a new tank built in time for Penn & Teller, but there was a small problem: The new tank wasn’t built correctly, leaving Johnson scrambling to make it work in time for the show. He tells the full story in the video above, and you can catch his performance on Fool Us in the video below.