Showing posts with label Norman Bigelow. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Norman Bigelow. Show all posts

Monday, April 29, 2024

The Baker Challenge Belt


The picture above was hand made by escape artist Steve Baker. It was part of a run of 25 belts, but mine was unique in that it was the only black belt, the only one with gold cuffs and gold trim. Kind of the Rolls Royce of Challenge Belts.

The original belts were called Tom Horn Belts and also known as Australian Torture Belts. The originals did not have handcuffs, but rather chains with padlocks. From what I can find, there were ads in The Linking Ring for the Tom Horn Belts back in the 1950s. Later, Prince E. Wheeler had a few for sale. John Novak wrote about the Australian Torture Belts in his book on the Art of Escape Volume 5.  Steve Baker was using a Tom Horn Belt back in the late 1960s and decided to create his own version which he called The Escape Proof Challenge Belt. Below is a photo of Steve's belt.

I never liked the name because the whole idea behind the belt was to escape from it. But Steve created it so he could challenge other performers who would then not be able to escape, thus the name. It should have just been called The Steve Baker Challenge Belt. It's one of the few items that Steve never presented on Television.  But he did perform it live, many times. As you can see it combines the aspects of a handcuff escape with a straight jacket where the arms are held in place, this time with with leather straps instead of the sleeves with straps. 

When Steve built mine, I had no idea it was going to turn out the way it did. And I am especially lucky because Steve's health started to deteriorate as he was making these belts. If memory serves, there were several belts he never finished. I know most people got their belts, but I do believe there were 2 or 3 who may have never gotten a belt because Steve's health went down hill fast. One of his issues was memory. He had a good long term memory, but his short term memory was failing. I can recall being on the phone with him and about every 5 minutes he acted as if I just called, and we'd repeat the same conversation again and again. The other issue were his hands. Years of abuse via escapes had taken their toll on him and doing any sort of work with his hands became more and more difficult.

Let me get back to the belt. So my belt has the distinguished honor of not only being made by Steve Baker, but another famous escape artist from the 20th Century actually wore it during a challenge, and that was Norman Bigelow. I loaned my belt to Norm to use in a Challenge between him and Steve Baker. I spoke about this on Episode 37 of my podcast. Norm went all out and even used the neck restraint that came with the belt. This was an optional piece and I don't think it was offered on the standard belts. Below is Norm Bigelow in my belt. 

Finally, here is the one time I wore the belt. Yes, I said one time. The belt is so nice I feel bad even using it. It's more a work of art in my opinion. I may use it again, at some point, but the next time, will be the last time....maybe.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Houdini Month Bonus: The King Breakers

If you've never heard the term King Breakers, you're not alone. It's a term known by most escape artists, but not really a popular term outside of the genre. In the book, Houdini The Untold Story by Milbourne Christopher, the term used is 'defeaters'. King Breakers/defeaters usually refers to a set of handcuffs that have been gimmicked, reworked, faked or mechanically altered in some way that prevents them from being opened by normal means. Some King Breakers are simply impossible to open once closed. Others have been reworked to open with a different key or with a different device other than the standard key. And still others, might not be faked in any way but for one reason or another are extremely difficult to get out of even with a key.

This phenomenon of having a cuff that could defeat an escape artist came about because of the numerous so-called Handcuff Kings of the early 20th Century. Competitors would use King Breakers to basically try and humiliate or destroy the reputation of fellow escape artists and magicians. Chief among them, HOUDINI. Quite possibly he was the originator of the King Breaker, I do not know for sure. But I do know he used them against fellow handcuff kings. And it's quite possible that their invention came about by sheer accident. Houdini was once caught in a pair of cuffs that had been tampered with, even with the key they would not open. This was early in Houdini's career, and he had to have the cuffs sawed off. He thought his career over, but he soon found there was little coverage of his failure and what there was came down on Houdini's side. After the humiliation of having to have the cuffs sawed off, Houdini vowed to never have cuffs put on that he didn't first examine and make sure were in working order. This is why he often refers to 'regulation cuffs.' If he felt for any reason a cuff wasn't legit, he could claim it was not regulation and could dismiss the challenge. Of course, he could also use this type of strategy of having king breakers against competitors.

What pair of cuffs were the first King Breakers? That's a tough question. As for regulation cuffs that have not been gimmicked, I would say the Bean Giants. Once these cuffs were put on, they were quite rigid, restricting hand movement. Even with a key, it was virtually impossible to open them. Houdini came up with his own method to escape from Bean Giants and I think it remained the go-to method from his time forward. In fact, he even produced a challenge flyer to anyone who get out of the Bean Giants with them placed on behind their backs. For this he offered a $50 reward.

It might be said that the Mirror Cuffs (photo top of page) were specifically designed to be King Breakers. Or at least that is what the publicity about them made you think. Over time, the theory behind the origin of the Mirror Cuffs is that perhaps the entire incident was concocted by Houdini. One clue is the fact that Houdini didn't have the cuffs tested beforehand. If you recall his embarrassment of being stuck in handcuffs. Well after this he always checked to make sure cuffs were in working order, but with the Mirror Cuffs he didn't. He surely did use the Mirror Cuffs later in his career, as his own personal set of King Breakers that he could challenge others with. In one instance, a young man took Houdini up on the offer to escape from the Mirror Cuffs. Houdini noticed the young man had thin wrists and would likely just slip the cuffs rather than open them. So Houdini locked the cuffs and handed them to the young man and told him to open them. After several frustrating minutes, the challenger gave up.

I recall a conversation I had with the late Norman Bigelow about a pair of King Breakers he made. They were basically ratchet cuffs that had a pop rivet through the keyhole that prevented a key from being used. I assume they could be double locked and then the only way off is to saw them off, or possibly drill out the rivet, which could not be done during a challenge. Clever guy ole Norm.

The photo above is from the recent Potter&Potter Auction. It's a pair of Lily Irons that have been turned into King breakers. They use a different key from the regulation one. Any would-be escapist with a hidden Lily key would be completed stopped cold with this particular handcuff.

Another famous pair of king breaker handcuffs used by Houdini were the French Letter Cuffs. Now 
in the collection of escapist Jon Oliver, these cuffs have a unique origin.

French Letter Cuffs (Jon Oliver collection)
In June 1902, Houdini was in Holland. While there he received word there was an escape artist in Germany basically trashing Houdini's name. The man's name was Kleppini, and he boasted that he beat Houdini in a contest. Houdini was livid and took a leave from his contract in Holland to confront Kleppini. Houdini even wore a disguise! Houdini sat in the audience as Kleppini badmouth him. Then at some point, Houdini, disguised as a mere spectator, spoke up to contradict what Kleppini was stating. At the requisite dramatic moment, Houdini whipped off his disguise to prove HE was Houdini! He then challenged Kleppini to escape from his cuffs. He even offered to escape from Kleppini's for the sum of 5000marks. But Kleppini nor the circus manager would put up the money. After this the crowd began to disperse.

The following day the circus manager visited Houdini with an offer of a challenge. In the process, the manager asked if Houdini would allow Kleppini to escape from an unusual set of French Letter Cuffs owned by Houdini. As he examined them, he asked Houdini the combination, which Houdini gave him. The word, 'clefs' which translated meant 'key' would unlock the cuffs. Houdini swore the manger to secrecy. The truth is, Houdini knew that the business manger would tell Kleppini the key-word and when faced with the French Letter Cuffs, Kleppini would be victorious. But, as fate would have it, that was not the case. On the night of the challenge, Kleppini was unable to remove the cuffs. Why? Houdini changed the key-word. Houdini later let the manager and Kleppini know what he had done and that the new key-word was 'fraud'. Ouch!

Pat Culliton in his fine book, Houdini: The Key, refers to the French Letter Cuffs and The Mirror Cuffs as SUPER CUFFS. I think it's a fitting description. He also adds that the Russian Manacles, Houdini Bell Lock Cuffs belong in this class and there is evidence some of them might have been made by handcuff manufacturer Thomas Froggatt.  This means these special cuffs were made for Houdini and used both as a way to promote himself and as a way to defend himself.

My old friend, the late Steve Baker, shared a technique he used when confronted with what he knew were king-breakers. He had them placed on between a number of other cuffs. In other words, they joined two pair of other handcuffs, but never went on his wrists. This technique was also used by Houdini.

I can attest to being stuck in handcuffs and it's not a pleasant feeling. The night I was stuck, I did eventually open the cuffs, but not without some severe bruises to my wrists. A painful lesson, but fortunately something done privately for a friend and not publicly where it could have been embarrassing. Due to that one incident, I am very cautious about cuff escapes. I wouldn't have believed it, but Norman Bigelow assured me there are still folks out there, (mostly a-holes and angry escape artists) who might show up with a pair of king-breakers. The chances are slim, but like Houdini's early career embarrassment when he had to have handcuffs sawed off his wrists, the danger still lurks in the shadows.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Norman Bigelow has passed.

It's tough when we loose people in magic and it's tougher when they're friends. Yesterday, the magic and escape worlds lost Norman Bigelow. Norm was born August 12th 1944. His real name was Henry Hebert and he later changed it after being adopted. Norm was an apprentice to Frank Renaud who performed professionally as The Great Reno.

Norm was a big fan of Houdini and studied his career inside and out. He had many theories about Houdini's life, some of which were thought to be controversial, but Norm always stood by his opinions. I believe he broke new ground in a number of areas on Houdini and we all owe him a debt of gratitude.

Besides being a student of Houdini and Reno, Norm was an accomplished escape artist. He was also very creative in his field. He gave rise to the 'full view picking' technique which today seems to be the standard used by many escapists.

Norman Bigelow passed away at home on Sunday August 16th 2015 after a long battle with illness. As his wife Janet said, "he was home where he wanted to be."

Norman and I shared many emails and ideas and stories together. He was always an exceptionally creative individual. I was honored when he would email me about history questions, though I'm sure Norm has forgotten more than I will ever know. He was one of a kind, a superb individual and an escape artist of the highest order.

Here is the link to the obituary from the funeral home.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Houdini's Water Torture Cell by Norman Bigelow

Norman Bigelow is an interesting fellow. He is an escape artist of the highest order. He is a Houdini devotee. He is a psychic investigator and in fact he has spent a great deal of time of late exposing and researching modern day mediums and fake spiritualist con artists. I also want to add, above all these things Norman Bigelow is a Patriot! Follow him on Facebook and you'll understand why I say that.
By the way, Norm's Birthday is Aug12th, and if you haven't done so, be sure to wish him a Happy Birthday as well!!!

The Bigelow Cell has two bands around the center, no doubt for stability and also protection in case the glass needs to be broken to save his life. The bands would stop him from hitting any glass that might remain in the frame. Houdini used an inner cage on his Cell as a precautionary measure for the same reason.

One thing you have to know about Norman, he was the first escape artist to introduce the 'full-view'
picking technique. No hiding behind curtains for Norm. He does everything out in the open. For his Water Torture Cell, he is put into a leather harness, chained and locked and then dropped head first into his 360 Gallon tank of water.

Through sheer will and ability he stays underwater, in full view, and escapes from the locks, chains and harness before getting out of the cell itself.

Now, in his own words, Norman Bigelow describes his Water Torture Cell.
"I built my first one before I was twenty out of hard wood and glass but the glass blew out from the pressure. I was on top getting ready to get in. So Philip Moore of Vermont built me a steel tank. I had the lowering rig built in my home town so it was all self contained and I need no stage rigging to lower me..

At first I had an open top and my legs were in loops and chained. I was in a Trudel harness called the Spider Web Escape. Later we made the top solid and it opened like a bulk head door. Some one would lock the stocks with a padlock inside and then the top was lowered and locked from the out side. So I was always able to do it full view.

I could escape the harness and then get up to the lock between my legs. Later on I replaced the Water Cell for the Gas Chamber escape and avoided needed all that water and weight on a stage. One over looked problem a lot is sneezing. If you sneeze all locked in you could die."

Bigelow toured with his Water Torture Cell in the College Market in the 1970s. I'm trying to wrap my head around the idea of bringing this huge prop, along with all his other equipment for a college audience. But I'm thinking in terms of modern day college students who tend to be jaded. I've read some of the reviews that Bigelow received back in the 1970s and 80s and they are nothing short of overwhelmingly fantastic. The college audiences held their breath, bit their lips and grabbed their chairs while sitting spellbound by his mindblowing escapes.

I think Houdini would be quite proud of this version of his escape!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Episode 2 Magic Detective Show

Here is Episode 2 now online. Once you watch the episode, head over to the blog article which gives more information about Episode 2. Enjoy!

Episode 2 Additional Information

For the record, I love searching out the graves of dead magicians. Mainly because it's so darn hard to find the graves of living ones. On Episode 2, I showed three photos of graves of magic related people. The first was the grave of Anna Eva Fay Pingree. Anna Eva Fay was a phenomenon in her day. She was born Ann Eliza Heathman in 1851, just at the time that the Fox Sisters and the Davenport Brothers were making news as spiritual mediums. She apparently showed signs of having 'the gift' and was encouraged to move in this direction. Ann met a man who would become her manager and he taught her the actual gifts (the methods used by fake mediums).  They created an act where she would present 'Light and Dark Seances' on-stage for audiences. Among her interesting creations during the 'light seance' was the effect we know today as The Dancing Handkerchief.  Her 'dark seance' sequence was similar to the Davenport Brothers act, she would be tied to a chair inside a cloth cabinet and bells would ring, tambourines would play and other manifestation would occur.

Over the years she would move away from the seance aspect of the show and move more towards mentalism effects, all with a 'spirit' kind of theme to them. She retired from show business in 1924 and settled in Melrose Mass.

The next grave belonged to Mina Stinson Crandon, better known as Margery the Medium. She was the medium who The Scientific American Magazine was going to acknowledge to the world as being  a genuine medium and could really speak to the dead. Well, that is until Houdini got wind of this and he stepped in. Actually, he more than stepped in, he took over the investigation and an all out war ensued! Houdini had a special wooden box built to house Margery and prevent her from causing the manifestations to happen by her own hand. Her spirit guide 'Walter', who was her deceased brother, still spoke however and could be quite the salty tongued spirit.

Houdini successfully prevented the Scientific American Committee from awarding Margery with any sort of authenticity certificate.

She lived on Lime St in Boston and is buried in the Forest Hill Cemetery. The photo was provided to me by escape artist and investigator Norman Bigelow. Norm is currently offering a lecture about Margery and Houdini and other mediums.

Last up is a fellow who I've done a LOT of research on, William Henry Palmer, who performed under the stage name of Robert Heller. He was quite the performer. His show included not only magic, but mind reading and music. You see, Robert Heller was an accomplished concert pianist. The Library of Congress even has several of his pieces of sheet music in their collection.

Heller traveled the world presenting his magic. He actually was from England but his career really blossomed in America. One of his most popular feats was his Second Sight routine. This was an early version of what we think of today as mentalism or mind reading. Heller used multiple methods to read the mind of Haidee Heller, a woman he called his sister but apparently she was not. Incidentally, there is a wonderful story I read that happened between Robert Heller and Haidee. After the musical section of the show one night, he and Haidee got into a quarrel behind the scenes. She refused to come out for the Second Sight routine. So Robert Heller walked out and announced "Ladies and Gentleman, this is the part of the program where Ms. Haidee Heller comes out, except tonight she refuses to do so. Let's wait and see." He then quietly took a seat on the couch and began to twirl his thumbs not speaking a word. A few moments a red hot Haidee came storming out. Heller said "Ah! I thought so" and they continued with the show.

Robert Heller died unexpectedly in November of 1878. He was on tour in Philedelphia and had performed at the Concert Hall on Nov 26th, but showed clear signs of being ill. It was pneumonia and he died the next day. His body was sent to Machepelah Cemetery in Philidelphia and was placed in a vault there. Sometime later it was moved to Mt. Moriah Cemetery where he remains to this day.

Incidentally, these three folks were all connected in two ways. First they all had a connection to Houdini. Anna Eva Fay and Houdini were friends. Margery and Houdini were friendly enemies. Houdini re-discovered the grave of Robert Heller. Second connection is they all presented seances!

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!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Houdini Straight Jacket History & More

(library of congress photo)
The escape from a straight jacket was original with Houdini. He claimed that he visited St. John Asylum in New Brunswick in 1896 and saw an inmate there struggling inside a straight jacket and this struggling gave him an idea for both an escape and the method. He also claimed to have asked a doctor for a jacket and worked on it for a week, no doubt practicing and improving his time. The Ken Silverman HOUDINI biography speculates that Houdini may have presented the straight jacket escape in New Brunswick theatres at that time.

In August 2011, John Cox wrote a great article on his blog WildAboutHarry, about an apparent dispute over that story being accurate. Harold Wright, a historian in New Brunswick claimed the story was a myth made up by Houdini. Interestingly, in the May 1918 issue of Ladies Home Journal, Houdini says that the asylum was actually in Europe. So perhaps, the story was indeed fictional. True or not, escaping from a straight jacket was a great idea and one Houdini profited from both financially and through publicity.

The first official straight jacket escape however took place in San Francisco not in front of a theatre audience but instead at a police station. He repeated the escape a few days later at a hospital. Both times he was placed in a private room to work his escape hidden from prying eyes.

When he added it to the stage show Houdini would be strapped in the straightjacket and then placed inside a curtained cabinet. My guess is he used the Metamorphosis cabinet to do the escape. Hidden from view, Houdini did his escape. I don't see any records that say Houdini's escape was boring or suspect. I would imagine like most things that Houdini did, the audience totally bought it. But his brother Dash was not so lucky. In 1904 at the Swansea Empire Theatre in Wales, Dash's attempt with the escape was met with skepticism. The audience challenged him to do it in the open, thinking that he had a hidden helper in the curtained cabinet who simply released him. Presenting it in the open would prevent any outside help. Dash repeated the escape and stunned the crowd. Somewhere there must be a letter or telegram from Dash alerting Houdini of the sensational discovery. One thing is for sure, Houdini too began doing the escape out in the open and left the curtained cabinet behind!

Another straight jacket perk that came out of England was the idea of hanging upside down while escaping. Except, the idea was not Harry's or Dash's, it was actually the idea of a young fellow by the name of Randolph Douglas, who chose the stage name Randini. Houdini and Randolph became friends and during a visit to Randolph's home in Sheffield, Houdini watched the young man demonstrate the hanging upside down escape from a framework in the attic of the house. Houdini's addition to the idea was doing it outdoors from a building, which you must admit was a pretty decent contribution. UPDATE: Turns out the previous paragraph might not be accurate. There was another performer who very well might have been doing the Upside Down Straight Jacket Escape prior to Houdini and Randolph Douglas. His name was Mysterio and was also known as The Great Alvin. You can read more about him here.

Over the years, Houdini accepted challenges from all sorts of straight jackets, and full body canvas devices. Some of the jackets were all leather, some were a combination of leather and canvas. One thing they all had in common, Houdini got out of each and every one of them. Then in 1918, he exposed his method (kindof) in the Ladies Home Journal. He claimed that he dislocated his shoulder in order to do the escape. But the truth was less dramatic. Dislocating a shoulder is not necessary, but it sure sounds exciting!

Houdini kept doing the straight jacket escape pretty much until the end of his career as far as I can tell. It's certainly an easy thing to travel with and the publicity he gained from hanging upside down from a building was priceless.

After Houdini died, other magicians began to add the straight jacket escape to their acts. Some even copied his upside down publicity idea. One of the first twists to the upside down part was setting the rope on fire. It was Alan Alan in the 1950s who added this unique change to the hanging straightjacket escape, though Alan gives the credit to fellow magician Keith Clark for the idea. Alan Alan may have been the first to present the escape hanging upside down from a helicopter. James Randi, later presented the upside down straight jacket escape from a helicopter in Venezuela and also hung upside down over Niagara Falls in a straight jacket!

In 1967 in Oakland California, a magician who was using the stage name 'The Great Gerhardt' hung upside down outside of the Tribune Tower Building. Forty four years earlier, Harry Houdini hung outside the same building to present the straight jacket escape. It took Houdini several minutes to get out. This young fellow, whose real name was Steve Baker, got out in under ten seconds before a crowd of 20,000 people. Like Houdini, the publicity gained was enormous. So influential was this one event, that Steve dropped the 'Gerhardt' name which he used because he was a comedy magician, and instead went with 'Mr. Escape'. The name 'Mr. Escape' actually came from the Steranko Issue of Genii. Steve talked to Jim Steranko and got his permission to use the name.

David Copperfield presented a hanging straight jacket escape on one of his specials also from a burning rope. His twist was to be suspended with three flaming ropes which would burn through one by one and to hang over flaming spikes! Lance Burton presented the hanging straight jacket escape a number of times on TV and in front of an audience during the dedication of the HOUDINI Postage Stamp and also escaped from a straight jacket while inside a very small water torture cell like device. Dean Gunnerson hung upside down by his feet with no ankle restraints over Hoover Dam and escaped from a straight jacket, yet another dangerous twist.

Then there are the comedy magicians who use the routine for laughs rather than as a genuine escape. The comedy for them is the driving force. I have seen comedy routines that are funny, even hysterically funny. But most use tired old lines and gags and seem more like a filler routine than anything. Once the person is inside, they are out in no time. Most of the comedy routines just miss, for me at least.

There are the lightning fast escapers. Again, not a fan of folks who get out lighting fast. Steve Baker got out in under 10 seconds and it kicked off his career as an escape artist. But honestly, though we are friends, I'm not on board with the speed aspect. I watched a video of Norman Bigelow getting out of a straight jacket recently. His approach was slow and steady and it genuinely appeared difficult. THAT is the way to do it. IF you can get out super fast, my first thought is, you weren't in it very well. And you can bet that lay people are probably thinking the same thing.

Maybe the best modern day hanging straight jacket escape was presented by Penn & Teller. Theirs has comedy in it, but they also have a great deal of suspense.

Teller is hung in the jacket while Penn holds onto the rope reading 'Casey at the Bat'. Teller has to free himself before Penn finishes reading otherwise Penn will let go of the rope. Penn reads faster and faster as the routine progresses. It is funny, but it also has incredible tension. Penn and Teller have made the trick their own.

Watching their performance doesn't make you think about Houdini, it makes you think about this poor lil guy getting out of the jacket before his crazy buddy drops him onto a bunch of spikes! It's a great routine.

Have you ever personally been inside a straight jacket? I'd guess that at least a few readers of this blog probably have, not because you're crazy but because you are probably magicians. The first straight jacket I wore was not a real straight jacket at all, but instead a large jacket with long sleeves that had the sleeve ends tied off with rope rope and then used the rest of the rope to wrap numerous times around the jacket. It simulated a straight jacket quite well. I was an adventurous and creative youth.

When I finally did encounter an actual straight jacket, it was a Posey brand canvas jacket, the real thing. It was also too small for me. A friend put me in it and I could hardly breath, that is how tight it was. If you know anything about straight jacket escapes, you'll know I've already broken a couple cardinal rules of getting out easily, too small of a jacket and putting it on super tight. For the first minute I just relished the thought of actually being in a straight jacket, it was really cool. Then I decided to attempt the escape. I can't say that I got out in 6 seconds like many so-called record breakers claim. It took me a couple minutes to free myself from a jacket that was way too small and way too tight. I was thrilled to have gotten out and frankly a bit relieved.

Years later I opted for a Steel Straight jacket. Mine is a reproduction of the one used in the Tony Curtis Houdini movie. In 2008, I presented the escape twice at the National Theatre in Washington D.C.. I was curious about the often quoted notion 'that modern audiences wouldn't sit through a long drawn out escape'. I decided to test the waters during the first performance. I struggled and struggled and struggled to get out of the steel jacket, sweat poured down my face, my shirt was ripped, I 'sold' that routine with every ounce of energy I had. Shocker, the audience sat for the entire thing and it really hit them hard. The second show, I did a more traditional presentation, getting out along with the recorded music background. Guess which one got the stronger reaction? The LONNNNG one! Oh, in case you're wondering, that is an air tight plastic box my head is locked in. I had to get out of that first, and then the jacket.

Today, the straight jacket escape has been way overdone. It's like the Zig-Zag Lady in the 1980s. Many magicians use jackets that are way too large. If you look like you are swimming in the jacket you've lost an important element in the appearance of being secure. Do a Google search for 'straight jacket escape' and look at the number of images of people you've never heard of doing the escape. IF that many people can do it, is it really hard?

I've written about the Straight jacket on one of my older blogs quite a bit. I have a love hate relationship with it. In Houdini's day, it was a fantastic escape. After Houdini died, most of us have just been doing a cheap imitation of his escape. The majority of people using a straight jacket escape in their act don't have a clue how to deliver a striking escape with it. Watch Houdini, if he was presenting it onstage he was rolling on the floor, gyrating around, he knew how to sell it! On the flip side, watch Tony Curtis's escape from a straight jacket while portraying Houdini. His escape goes in the opposite direction, very little movement, complete concentration, his is also quite engaging. David Copperfield used this very same technique when he was strapped in a straight jacket during his Escape From Alcatraz Special. Some people do know how to deliver a good escape, but they are in the minority.

Sadly, many presentations today are more about the crotch strap jokes and then getting out as fast as possible. Even hanging upside down doesn't seem to be as big a deal anymore. The thing that scares me about the abundance of people trying the hanging straight jacket is that it is legitimately dangerous* and people can and do get hurt.

A while ago I was thinking about the Pendragons, and how against all odds, when everyone was doing the Sub-trunk, Sword Basket and Broom Suspension, they took those three illusions and built a career on them by adding something unique to each routine. They were able to presentations that were so compelling that people associate those effects with them.  I wondered, what was missing with the regulation straight jacket escape? What had not been done? It appeared that everything had been done: on the stage, in the air, upside down, underwater, over spikes, you name it, and it's been done. Or at least I thought.

A few months ago I had an idea for a new approach. A new angle that hadn't been tried. I spoke to Steve Baker about it. He thought it was brilliant. I shared it with Norman Bigelow, who said it was 'new, fresh and different'. There are a few obstacles yet to overcome so I can't divulge what it is. But trust me, I'm working hard on it, time will tell if it pans out.

In the meantime, my hats off to my fellow performers who are using the jacket the way it was meant to be used, to bring thrills to an audience. The most recent one was Wayne Houchin, who presented the straight jacket while hanging upside down. He has done the escape before, and has a safety crew there to assist him, he is smart and careful.

I'm not sure Houdini would be proud of us though, because he didn't really like anyone doing his stuff. But he might be amazed to know one of his creations is still be used over 80 years after he left this earth.

Just because a lot of people have presented a hanging upside down straight jacket escape, doesn't mean YOU should. If you do, DO NOT go into it lightly. I know of a fellow in Memphis TN who fell while hanging upside down in a straight jacket. The doctors told him the only thing that saved him was the jacket still being on, but otherwise he should have died. He was lucky.

Alan Alan, the escape artist from England, has fallen while hanging upside down and been injured. He once came up with a crazy idea of setting the jacket itself on fire. He got hurt with that too!

I know of a fellow who tried to do the straight jacket escape in the heat of the summer with a jacket that was too small. He did not get out. He struggled so much he actually caused a rip in the thick canvas. He also could have seriously injured himself.

The straight jacket escape, hanging or not hanging can be dangerous. To think otherwise is foolish. Take every precaution while learning. Always have safety people standing by. To put yourself in serious danger is just plain stupid. You'd be better off learning from a professional who knows the ins and outs of the escape.

The worst thing about escapes is 'magicians' think they are easy. I can't tell you the number of stories I've heard about magicians who went into some escape trick thinking it would be sensational and easy and they were hurt or even killed. Hmmm, maybe that's why so many people use the straight jacket as a comedy routine, it's safer and you live longer! Maybe they are on to something after all.