Showing posts with label James Randi. Show all posts
Showing posts with label James Randi. Show all posts

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Magic of Niagara Falls

Recently, I got to thinking about the famous image of Houdini holding onto a rock at Niagara Falls. As I pondered the drama in that photo (see below), I suddenly began to see all these various connections in the magic world to this beautiful natural treasure of scenic beauty.

However before we can get to the magicians, I need to point out the daredevil who started this whole Niagara Craze. Her name was Annie Edson Taylor and she was born in 1838. At the age of 63 she decided to attempt going over Niagara Falls in a Barrel. She thought it would leave to fame and fortune. On Oct 21st, 1901 Annie made her attempt. And after 20 minutes her barrel was seen bobbing up in down in the water below the falls. She was alive and came out of the barrel unscathed except for a cut on her chin which happened when the lid was being removed from the barrel. Annie Edson Taylor was the first person to go over Niagara Falls and live. She would repeat the stunt a few years later at another falls.

Though she did gain some modicum of fame from her daredevil stunt, it did not really lead to the kind of riches she had hoped for. She died in poverty in 1921.

Annie's success started a fad of going over the Falls in a barrel and many others followed her daring feat. Some were successful and some died in the attempt.
In an odd twist of fate, or coincidence, Harry Houdini showed up to film his movie The Man From Beyond on the very day that Ms. Annie Edson Taylor was being buried. The whole story on that event can be found over at John Cox's site

According to biographer, Milbourne Christopher, Houdini had plans on presenting a spectacular escape at the Falls by being placed into a packing case, sent over the Falls where the crate would smash to pieces on the rocks below and then when it seemed there was no hope for Houdini to be alive, he would mysteriously appear on the shore, to the delight of one and all. But this escape was never presented. The 'stunt' can also be found in Walter Gibson's book, Houdini's Escapes and Magic. Gibson points out that this was an idea, a concept for an escape but it didn't go far beyond the idea phase. I tend to think that given the fact that the stunt had been successfully presented by several other people and that some had died in the process, it would put Houdini more in the realm of copying what someone had already done and I don't think he would have done that, and may be why the 'idea' never went anywhere.

Rather it would seem that Houdini's Niagara Falls adventure begins with the filming of The Man From Beyond. The film had several locations including Lake Placid, NY, Fort Lee, NJ, but the climactic scene with Houdini rescuing the heroine from going over the Falls at Niagara took place at the actual Falls in Ontario. Houdini would be performing some fairly dangerous stunts, like swimming in and against the current to save the damsel in distress. Despite having a safety line attached to him, it was still quite dangerous. I should note, that though Houdini never did the escape as listed in the previous paragraph, we do at least have the film footage of Houdini in Niagara from The Man From Beyond.

Fast forward to June 6, 1968 and Houdini again appears in Niagara Falls Ontario. This time in the form of the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame. For many years, this Museum would be the place that stored and displayed many of Houdini's famous escapes, including The Water Torture Cell. In 1995 the museum burned to the ground in a mysterious fire. The carcass of the Water Torture Cell was later sent to John Gaughan in California where he amazingly restored the cell.

In 1978, for the filming of a magic documentary, James Randi, the escape artist and famous psychic debunker, escaped from a Straitjacket while hanging over a freezing cold Niagara Falls. It was so cold during taping that Randi wore a ski mask to cover his face. He also wore thermal underwear, and if you watch the footage captured on the documentary Houdini Never Died, you'll see Randi having a bit of trouble getting out of the jacket at the end. No doubt the cold and the extra clothing added to the escapes difficulties.

In 1990, for his 12th annual CBS special titled The Niagara Falls Challenge, David Copperfield would close out a special filled with fantastic magic, with an escape that had him apparently going over the Falls in some sort of metal container strapped to a raft. I didn't feel it was his best closer, but not because the escape was weak. In my opinion what made the whole thing weak was the reveal of Copperfield hanging from a helicopter by a wire. He should have taken a page from Houdini's notebook and appeared on the shore or at least swimming to the shore. Still it added another magic feather in Niagara's cap.

The final magic connection is still there, it's the Greg Frewin Theater, owned and operated by magician, illusionist Greg Frewin. Though he became famous for his incredible Dove Act, Frewin has presented Houdini-like escapes in the past. The most notable escape was a packing crate escape presented on the Champions of Magic over the French Riviera in Monte Carlo.

UPDATE: Wait, hold the presses!!!! I just found out one other connection (sort of). It turns out the Niagara Falls area was the final destination of the proposed VEDA-LAND amusement park. This was the TM Amusement park that Doug Henning left magic to spearhead. Of course, it never happened because Doug died before Vedaland was built. And I have my doubts it ever would have been built. But I'll save that conversation for another time.

In the past 100 years, Niagara Falls has drawn, daredevils going over the falls in barrels, giant rubber balls, large metal cans, there have been daredevils who have walked via tight rope OVER the Falls, and of course, you've read above about the various exploits of the magicians. Perhaps, the most magical thing about this location is simply the breathtaking beauty of Niagara Falls itself.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Episode 1 Additional Information

First, thank you to everyone who clicked over to watch my new The Magic Detective Show on Youtube! I really appreciate it. Episode 1 showed an escape gone wrong. The escape in question happened in Venezuela some time around the mid 1970s and featured escape artist Steve Baker.

Many of my younger readers and viewers may not be familiar with Steve, but from the late 1960s to the 1980s he was easily one of the most recognized and popular escape artists around. I can remember seeing him on TV all the time when I was a kid.

The escape that is featured on the video is called 'Trial By Fire'. It just so happens that another escape artist, Norman Bigelow, also has an escape that he presents called 'Trial By Fire' but though they share the same name, the escapes are very different. In Steve's version he is chained to a wooden post and surrounded by a canvas covered t-pee like structure. The t-pee is sprayed with a special flammable chemical and then set on fire. Steve has seconds to get out the chains and burst through the t-pee flames before he too is engulfed in the inferno.

He had presented the escape successfully before. But on this night in Caracas something went wrong! At this point I encourage you to watch the video if you already haven't. It's worth seeing, plus I explain what went wrong.

Now the good news, Steve still escaped. The bad news was he suffered from some pretty bad burns. There was also more bad news. He still had another escape to do. He was supposed to escape from a packing crate in front of a live audience. His hands were bandaged up, but he still submitted to the challenge and escaped! But it was such a struggle that his hands began to bleed and by the time he got out of the trunk, his bandages were soaked red with blood!

Also on the bill with Steve was another escape artist, The Amazing Randi. James Randi was another well known escape artist of the time, but he was slowly phasing out escapes and moving into the world of exposing fake psychics. His career as an investigator of fake psychics still goes on today. However, during his time in Venezuela, he too was there to present escapes. His first escape was from a locked safe on live TV, which is something he had done a number of times in his career. His second escape had him escaping from a straight jacket, but not in the normal way. They decided to hang Randi upside down from a helicopter and fly him all over the city dangling by his ankles! By all accounts it was quite thrilling.

If I'm not mistaken there is an audio recording that Randi did in the late 70s or early 80s that was put out by Martin Breese and I believe that he mentions his time in Caracas with Steve, and I know he also mentions an escape of his that almost went wrong involving a locked safe.

Now, just to keep the record straight, I mentioned Norman Bigelow and his escape also called 'Trial By Fire'. I do not know who created the name first. I have a feeling it was a name they both chose without knowing of the others creation. Bigelow was another of the big escape names in the 1970s. He was performing in colleges and went on to become a prolific writer on escapes and magic. One of his tomes had to do with the Death of Houdini and he put forth the theory that Houdini was indeed killed. I believe the name of the manuscript was 'Death Blow'. Lots of people talk about that possibility today, but it was Norm who really looked into it and developed the theory.

Norman Bigelow continues to delve into little know areas of Houdini's life even today. Though his views are sometimes controversial, he doesn't do these things to become popular but to expose the truths he thinks are still hidden in Houdini's life and truths he believes we all should know.

Now, as to Norm's version of 'Trial By Fire'. He would be handcuffed to a board. Running along the board is a trail of gunpowder which was set on fire. Underneath his hand is a large amount of gunpowder. He had only seconds to get out of the handcuffs before being badly burned. His escape was done out in the open with the audience watching him as he openly picked the handcuffs. A very original and very unique escape and presentation.

Speaking of original, his manuscripts are filled with ideas and concepts for escape artists and magicians. One of his ideas was used by David Copperfield in the 1980s and then featured on one of his Television Specials.

In the future I think I'll continue to add some additional bits of information about the various episodes because afterall, they are only 5 minutes long. Eventually, once the audience is built up, I'll move to a longer format. See you all on FRIDAY for another episode of The Magic Detective Show!