Showing posts with label Steve Baker. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Steve Baker. 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.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Houdini Month : The Steve Baker Interview

Mr.Escape & the Magic Detective 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
version of the water torture. Not every early escape tied to Houdini, but whenever I could tie it in, I did. For my first Water Torture, I actually had my legs weighted down in the tank of water so that it would be impossible to lift myself up. A few years later, when the Dick Clark people came to me about doing the Water Torture Cell, I had Johnny Gaughan build it and I changed it, so that I would be chained to the bottom of the tank hanging by my ankles. It looked more like Houdini's tank to start with, but Houdini was never chained to the bottom. That was my twist. You might not know this, but I never did the Water Torture the same way twice.

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.'

Monday, October 2, 2017

Houdini - An Escape Revelation

Five years ago, I wrote an article about two of Houdini's friends. One of whom, may or may not been a secret girlfriend. Those friends were Hattie and Minnie Mooser. The only Houdini biography that mentions them is the Kalush biography, at least as far as I can find. There had been a couple newspaper articles on the sisters back in the 1960s. But there was also a person who met and spoke at length with Hattie and Minnie. That person was none other than my friend Steve Baker. He met them in 1967 and listened to them share story after story about their show business friends. But they spoke most often of Houdini. And in the course of the conversation, Hattie revealed something to Steve about Houdini's methods on jail escapes. She swore him to secrecy. And he kept that secret, until 2000, when he told me. But he swore me to secrecy. I was not allowed to say anything while he was alive, and I have never told a soul...until now.

Before I get to that though, I should tell you how they met. According to the sisters, they met Houdini through their brother Leon who was a theatrical agent. They claimed that it was the brother who 'discovered' Houdini. That we know is not accurate, but its possible he could have helped get Houdini booked in the early days. One thing is certain, it's clear the Moosers did know the Houdinis.  There is a 1919 photo of Minnie Mooser, that recently went up for auction. You can see it here.

Hattie claimed to worked as an assistant and filled in for Bess during the Metamorphosis. And Hattie was with Bess watching Houdini's 1923 hanging straitjacket escape from the Tribune Tower building in Oakland. This, according to the Oakland Tribune Newspaper, was when Hardeen had young boys run through the crowd of 20,000 spectators handing out pamphlets advertising HIS (Hardeen's) appearance at the Pantages Theatre, while Houdini hung upside down. A well known story and this is where it happened.

The 1923 Hanging Strait Jacket Escape by Houdini was apparently his second. He first did the escape, from the same building, the Tribune Tower on Nov 22, 1915. According to the Oakland Tribune paper, they were having trouble with the hoist and the rope twisted and Houdini, hanging upside down in the straitjacket was slammed head first into the second story cornice. He was apparently unconscious, or appeared to be. But by the time he reached the 8th floor, he began his escape. He did free himself, but on the way down, the rope got hung up and Houdini remained hanging for a very long time. His face and lips turning colors from hanging so long. Eventually, he was lowered and all was well.

NOW for the big revelation.  Hattie Mooser described a method that Houdini used to hide a key/tools for picking locks during Houdini's jail escapes. I have read other books that had 'ideas and theories', which may or may not have been accurate on how Houdini escaped from jails. Things such as a capsule containing tools he swallowed and later regurgitated, or a small bag of tools that attached discretely to the bed or chair within a cell. I have no doubt that Houdini used multiple methods depending upon the cell and various other factors. But this method described by Hattie Mooser was new to me and struck me as being very possible because it frankly made sense. She claimed he used clay and embalmers putty. The key/tool rested against his skin, then the putty was applied over that. The area, well, let's just say near a very private area, would be hidden from view because of where it was, but it would also be hidden during any sort of frisking. This was before metal detectors so I could see the potential for success. It's quite ingenious. Did he use this all the time, doubtful. But according to Hattie, it was used by Houdini for sure.

The other sister Minnie made a different claim regarding Houdini, which I thought was interesting. In her own words, "Yes, Houdini gave his wife Bess a word to use to call back his spirit, but he did it to prove it could not be done. The truth is that Houdini spent his life exposing spiritualism." Hattie added, "The whole idea of spiritualism is false. Houdini wanted to expose that fraud for what it was worth."

So, I guess all of these Houdini Seances can stop because he has no intention of coming back, LOL!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Escape Artist Steve Baker, aka Mr. Escape, Has Died

My friend and mentor, Steve Baker has passed away. He died at 11:11pm on Saturday Sept 16th, 2017 at his home in Illinois. His wife Julie, who was his faithful assistant throughout his career was by his side when he passed. Steve had been ill for quite a long time, but recently suffered several mini strokes which he did not recover from.

In the 1970s and 80s, Steve Baker was all over TV with his fabulous escapes. His career started a few years earlier when he hung upside down in front of the Tribune Tower Building in Oakland CA to recreate Houdini's Upside Down Strait Jacket Escape. Steve freed himself from the jacket in record time and it began his full time career in 1967.

Steve was known professionally as Mr. Escape. You might wonder where he got the name from? Well, the name had been used briefly by Steranko. According to Steve Baker, he asked Steranko if he could use it. A little known fact, when Steve Baker did his Tribune Tower Escape he was known as The Great Gerhart, so he was in need of a good stage moniker. 

Steve was a favorite of Dick Clark the TV celebrity and producer. In the 70s, Dick Clark invited Steve to present many daring escapes on his various TV shows. His very first was on Dick Clark LIVE Wednesday on NBC. Steve presented a thrilling version of Houdini's Water Torture Cell Escape.  He followed that appearance up with his Coffin of Death, and then a return visit had him doing a Double Hanging Strait Jacket Escape. Steve also did a challenge escape from a device created by one of the home viewers.

In the 1980s, Dick Clark had a show in CBS called Dick Clark LIVE, and Steve was again, brought on to do numerous escapes. Among those was his Tug of War Rope Tie, his Water Tank of Death, and a very thrilling original escape he called Death Race.

Despite his ability to free himself from anything, his life was not always so carefree. A freak accident while performing the Coffin of Death for the International Brotherhood of Magicians Convention, left him with severe burns on his hands.

In the mid 1990s, Steve was hit by a car in the parking lot of a grocery store which brought about numerous complications. Imagine that, the guy who had been chained to cars and was able to free himself, was hit by a car when not even chained. Life has an ironic way of playing out sometimes.

Though he tried to restart his career following this, it never really came back. He appeared on one episode of MindFreak and later was escape consultant for Andrew Basso on a TV Special  he was doing in Italy. Privately, Steve and I worked on some things we were going to do but his health gradually deteriorated until he was unable to perform anymore.

Steve had a love/hate relationship with the Escape Community. He had bitter rivalries with a number of escape artists. Probably the most prominent feud was with Norman Bigelow. Most people were unaware however that the two were good friends and respected each other greatly. Though the feud was real at one point in their lives, they preferred to keep it going publicly because they were hoping to face each other in an escape contest. All the details were worked out, but Steve's health and frankly his financial situation prevented it from eventually happening.  But please know, in the end the two finished their lives as fast friends.

This was not the case with others in the escape world. Steve Baker could hold a grudge, lol. And for now, I won't mention those other people. I think he was more connected to the Magic Community than any where else because he began his career as a magician. Most people are unaware that Steve did comedy magic for a long time, and he also had a mentalism act.

Steve Baker remained in the care of his loving wife Julie for the past several years. He lived a very private and secluded life. He no longer had email or internet access, and only a couple people even had his phone number. He preferred to be left alone I believe. When he lived in California,  I used to talk to Steve several times per week. Then when he moved back to Illinois, it was a couple times a month, then once a month, and after his stint in a nursing home rehab, it became several times a year. He always seemed to remember me when I called, but his short term memory had issues. He could remember things from long ago, but remembering things in the short term was a struggle for him.

He was one interesting character. For those who knew him, the regular every day Steve Baker, he was a super nice guy. He was not ego-driven like his on stage persona. His onstage character had the same bravado as Houdini.  In the end, he was just a performer who wanted desperately to get back out there in front of audiences because that is what he enjoyed most, entertaining people.  Life and health just got in his way. RIP my old friend, there surely will not be another like you.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Houdini's Water Torture Cell by Steve Baker

When I was a kid, I saw Steve Baker's performance of the Escape from The Water Torture Cell on TV. I don't recall if it was a rerun or if I was seeing it live.  I have had the good fortune to talk to Steve about his version of the Water Torture Cell many times. There were some features of Steve's routine that were different from the usual escape. For one, a chain held his hands to the bottom of the tank. Two, he was known to present the cell slightly differently each time he was on TV.

The first performance was on a show called Dick Clark's LIVE Wednesday Show. This was a weekly Variety Show on NBC. Steve's appearance was so impressive, that he was brought back numerous times to appear and do different escapes on the show. When the show ended and Dick Clark started another show, well he again brought over Steve Baker.

Steve told me his tank was built by John Gaughan but after he picked it up from him, he went about altering the escape methodology. Steve was very proud of his tank and his method. He would boast that no one, outside of his crew knew the method he used to escape, not even the original builder. Though, one young escape artist was up for the challenge and figured out the secret. Steve was quite taken back that his closely guarded method was figured out. The escape artist swore to never reveal it to anyone, and I haven't. :)

Steve presented the Water Torture Cell on TV several times. The first was for Dick Clark's LIVE Wednesday as mentioned above. The second was as the opening escape of an HBO Special featuring the Greatest Escape Artists in the World. Third time was below and then there was a very controversial time on Australian TV, the Don Lane Show, where Steve was trapped in the cell for real, an apparent attempt at sabatoge by a member of his own crew. Steve came out of the cell with bloody feet from trying to kick and break the top of the lid open. It took him over 6 minutes to free himself, all of his other WTC escapes were 2-3 minutes.

Sadly, today Steve's tank is gone. The whereabouts are unknown. IF anyone knows where this tank might be today, I'd surely love to know.

The video below is of one of the later presentations of the Water Torture Cell by Steve. I think this was in the early 1980s. The original WTC on Dick Clark LIVE Wednesday was around 1976.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Steve Baker Mr. Escape Update

I spoke with a friend of mine today, Steve Baker, known professionally as Mr. Escape. Steve is in his 70s now and not in the best health. He has had a number of serious health scares and was in a rehab/nursing home for quite a while. Though he is home now, I can tell he's not the same. As we spoke today he went on and on about how puzzled he is that no one contacts him. I mentioned the fact that maybe it had something to do with the fact that he doesn't give out his phone number, he no longer has email and no one has his address. His response, "I have email". So I followed that up with, "really, for three years you've been telling me that you needed to get your computer working again. So you've got it working now?". He replied "yes." So I sent him an email after we got off the phone and it bounced back, exactly as I expected it would. I get the impression that in his mind he thinks it's several years ago. I know for a while he was having a serious issue with short term memory, but they've amazingly got that resolved.

He is surely a controversial figure. He's probably pissed off more people in the magic world than I've even met! And yet, he can count some very big names as good friends. He's always had a combative nature to him which is unfortunate because the 'everyday Steve' is a pretty nice fellow. But I also am aware of the honory side of Steve that probably did more to get him in trouble than help him. I can't tell you how many fires I've tried to put out where he was concerned, sometimes it worked, often times it didn't. But escape artists by nature are complex people and then again, aren't we all.

Below is a video from last year of Steve while he was in the Nursing Home. An effort was made to bring back his belongings from his California storage unit. For the record, everything was brought back through the efforts of Theresa Greenwood and some friends of hers. At any rate you can see Steve as he looked then. I believe he is doing a little better now, though his memory is spotty sometimes.

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.