Thursday, October 5, 2017
Houdini Month : The Steve Baker Interview
At the time of this interview, The Magic Detective Blog did not yet exist. I did have my own magic history blog that I put a lot of content on however, but this interview never appeared on there or anywhere. Steve Baker wanted me to write his life story, and I told him I didn't think I was quite qualified, as I had never done that, and didn't know near enough. So just to test the waters a bit, I began to do interviews and take notes, tons of notes.
I had seen Steve Baker on TV when I was a kid doing his escapes. I did see him do the Water Torture Cell and hanging strait jacket escapes on TV. He was the only working escape artist I ever saw on TV for a long time and he was on TV a lot!
Carnegie: Steve, I'd like to ask you a few questions about your career. First off, how did you get your name?
Steve: My parents gave it to me. Oh, you mean Mr. Escape. That was not my original stage name. At the time when I made my National debut, it was Feb 22, 1967 and I was going to recreate Houdini's Upside Down Strait Jacket Escape from the Tribune Tower building on Oakland CA. This was to promote a show I was doing in town, a fund raiser for a church. I don't think anyone anticipated the event would turn out so great. The initial estimates were 10,000 people attended my escape. But later I heard it was as many as 20,000. Houdini, had done the escape many years before and I was hoping to beat his time. Oh, you want to know the name I went by. I was using the stage name 'The Great Gerhardt'. It was a family name that I had used for a while but most of the newspapers referred to me as Steve Baker, so after this Tribune Tower Escape I went with just Steve Baker until...
Carnegie: Until you switched to all escapes?
Steve: No. It was a few years before I went all escapes. The show I had in February had comedy magic and illusions. Yes, I did illusions too. I loved the comedy magic, and I began to do Mentalism, so those became my bread and butter. I also did close-up magic. But right after Tribune Tower, I went with Steve Baker, 'The World's Most Neurotic Magician'. In May 1967, I had a big show at the Oakland Auditorium Theatre. I was doing a show of Mirth, Magic & Mayhem with the Master of Magic and Escape. Add to that the Most Neurotic Magician title and you can see I had not yet figured out my direction. I wanted to do everything. But then one day, I was reading the Steranko issue of Genii Magazine, the one on escapes, and he mentions the name 'Mr.Escape'. I asked if I could use it. After that it became my moniker for my Escape work. I also had another name, or maybe more of what you might call a tag-line, The Man Who Outdid Houdini.
Carnegie: WHAT???? I did not know about this. How did that come about?
Steve: After the Tribune Tower, it sort of just happened. The newspapers wrote articles about how I was going to try and beat Houdini's time with my straitjacket escape. One of the journalists even called his friends in Vegas to get their take. Folks like comedian Buddy Hackett and Shecky Greene threw in their two cents. No one thought I'd be able to do it. But after it was over, and I successfully beat Houdini's time, they all wanted to know what I was going to do next to beat Houdini. So I became The Man Who Outdid Houdini. I really was both, 'The World's Most Neurotic Magician' when I did comedy and 'The Man Who Outdid Houdini' when I was doing escapes and escape promotions.
Carnegie: Obviously, the Tribune Tower was a promotion, can you give me an idea of another escape promotion you did?
Steve: Many. A great deal of my shows, certainly bigger venue shows, I tried to tie in an escape. The May 1967 show for the Oakland Auditorium Theatre had a publicity escape. That was when I did the Cannon Escape. Houdini had done a cannon escape in England and I wanted to outdo all of his escapes, or as many as I could, so I thought the Cannon escape would work. The cannon we used weighed 3000 lbs and was loaded with 2.5 pounds of black powder. No cannon ball though. The black powder alone could blow the door off a bank safe. Wait till you hear what I did at the show!
Carnegie: Did you do the Cannon Escape again at the show?
Steve: The same man who donated the use of the Cannon, donated the use of a Howitzer, so I was strapped to that. By the way, I did the Cannon Escape numerous times in my career. After my 1967 performance, I gave it the name 'The Human Target', and tried not to mention Houdini, but his name always came up.
Carnegie: Why am I just hearing about this now? This isn't anywhere in the magic literature.
Steve: I was working for the public, not magicians. I have all of my press clippings with articles on all the escapes I did. I think the magic world would be surprised by the amount of things I've done.
Carnegie: Can you give me some examples of your Houdini Escapes? I know of The Water Torture Cell, I saw that a couple times on TV. What other escapes did you do that were trying to beat Houdini?
Steve: The early escapes included: safes, cement chambers, handcuffs, jail cells, even an early
Carnegie: I don't understand. You either get out or you don't get out. What other ways are there?
Steve: I meant, on TV I never did the escape the same way twice on TV. Yes, I always freed myself, but on Dick Clark, I pulled my feet out but was still stuck underwater. On another show, I had my hands free but couldn't get my feet out. Then there was the HBO Special, where Tony Curtis was M.C. and nearly panicked while I did the Water Torture Cell.
Carnegie: Tony Curtis, wow. The first motion picture Houdini as MC of your show, that's wild. I remember that special. It opened with the Water Torture Cell! And the ads for the show featured your Death Race Escape. I guess by the time of the HBO Special you were done outdoing Houdini?
Steve: Yes, I was well established by the HBO Special. But prior to that I was going through all the Houdini books of the time, trying to determine the best escapes he did in order to duplicate them and hopefully beat his time. I had conquered straitjackets, cannons, the Water Torture Cell, packing boxes, underwater escapes, and I even had a Milk Can made. But in 1969, I almost stumbled when I met Milbourne Christopher. He had recently published the book,
Houdini: The Untold Story and was sort of fanatical when it came to Houdini. He even presented shows where he recreated Houdini's act. He had made a pretty good name for himself on TV back in the 1950s. I met Mr. Christopher at a day long event called The Magic Extravaganza which was sponsored by the Oakland Magic Circle. We did not get along at first. In the two years since my National debut, I had not only outdone Houdini as often as I could, I also adopted his attitude and bravado. It got me in trouble more than I care to recall, but it also set me apart from rank amateurs and even bothered a lot of professional magicians. Christopher challenged me to escape from an actual pair of Houdini's handcuffs. It was then that I worried the most. If I did not get out, all I had done before would be for not. Plus, this was being presented in front of magicians and the lay public so not getting out would be the ultimate in humiliation. But thankfully, I did free myself. And Milbourne and I became fast friends afterward. He even personally autographed a copy of his book to me.
Carnegie: Steve you mentioned jail escapes. What jails did you escape from?
Steve: Oh, there were several. Meridian Jail in Idaho, there was a Jail in Australia, though they spelled it Gaol. I lived in Boise, so I found a number of old jails throughout Idaho. There were jails in Montana, Washington State and Oregon. For a long time I was very West Coast based. As my TV appearances grew, my territory grew. I eventually covered all 50 states, Canada, and into Europe, China and Australia.
Carnegie: So you did every escape of Houdinis? Like the Sea Monster Escape, Escaping from a Giant Football, Escape From a Paperbag, etc. ?
Steve: No, I just did his major escapes, the one's he was most well known for. I had hoped to get to a point where I would not be compared to Houdini anymore because I had outdone him. In truth, my outdoing him was for publicity, it gave a good hook for the newspapers to promote my escapes. I usually tried to beat Houdini's time, or give the escape a different twist so it seemed I was making it more dangerous than Houdini. Over time, I moved beyond Houdini's escapes and created my own signature escapes like The Coffin of Death, Death Race, Trial by Fire and others. If I had to do it all over again, I might have avoided the comparison, though I guess it just comes with the territory. You can escape like Houdini, but there is no escaping HOUDINI.
I'd like to point out that this was only a tiny portion of the many interviews I had with Steve. I might not have been the best interviewer 17 years ago, but Steve more than elaborated when I asked him questions. I have removed some content. For example, he shared the secret to his Meridian Jail escape (and no it was not the Hattie Mooser/Houdini method, lol). All of the above covers from around 1967, to the early 1970s. By the time he was on Dick Clark LIVE Wednesday, he had already dropped the 'The Man Who Outdid Houdini' moniker, and would go on to be a true TV Celebrity of the 1970s and into the 1980s. I love the last line of the interview, I think that sums it up perfectly, 'You Can Escape Like Houdini, but there is No Escaping HOUDINI.'