Houdini’s Water Torture Cell

Originally published February 2009.

It’s 7 a.m. October 31, 2002.  That’s right.  It’s Halloween, the exact day, 76 years later, that Harry Houdini died.  I’ve been up for about two and a half hours heating water and storing it in huge water coolers/heaters so I can take the hot water with me to Opry Mills Mall.  I’ve convinced the mall’s marketing team to allow Opry Mills to be the host for The Houdini Challenge, a brainstorm I had to help push me into the local Nashville spotlight and land me squarely on the entertainment map.  I’ve arrived at the venue and I’m greeting my team of close friends who have helped me prepare over the last few weeks.

The current challenge is out of my hands.  I’ve given the electric chain hoist to the team of engineers the mall employs to rig it to a huge beam well over our heads and get it electricity.  I’m here this early because the mall’s management team wants to see me actually perform this beast before a huge crowd gathers later in the evening.  I guess they want to make sure I’m not going to drown in front of news cameras shooting the event live.  And what’s funny is that I want to make sure I’m not going to drown performing this thing too.  The catch is…I’ve never actually performed the Water Torture Cell from beginning to end.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve rehearsed it in segments, but none of my crew or I have ever fully performed it.  Let’s just say the tension is high.  Perhaps I should explain just how I got into this predicament…

Houdini - Water Torture CellA couple of weeks before, I’m brainstorming on how to really get my name on the map with agencies, event planners, etc. when I realize that the anniversary of Houdini’s death is coming up.  I knew this could be a great opportunity to capitalize on a huge potential news story.  I come up with the idea to stage an event in a high traffic public space.  The idea of the event, The Houdini Challenge, is to take several pieces of magic and escapes that Houdini actually performed and recreate them for a modern audience.  I knew the key to making this a larger than life news story was to perform Houdini’s Underwater Torture Cell and I knew just where to get one.  So, I call up my former employer and friend Illusionist Brett Daniels and I tell him what I am planning.  He likes the idea and is kind enough (read that as extremely kind, generous and gracious) to allow me to borrow the Torture Cell that he performed in his show Magic and Beyond.  Several days later I make my way to Mississippi to the warehouse where it is being stored and I transport it back to Nashville.

So I store the Cell in my parent’s garage for the next several weeks and I attempt to rehearse it as best as I could.  Now let me set the record straight.  I’m not an idiot.  I know better than to try to do something dangerous like this without the proper amount of expertise and rehearsal.  The problem was that there was no venue to actually set the entire thing up with the chain hoist 20 feet overheard and rehearse it.  I was counting on the knowledge that I had acquired from being one of Brett’s backstage technicians for several years and having performed this with him.  I knew exactly what had to happen and exactly when it had to happen at all times.  I just had to make sure my team understood that information as well.

So we start the rehearsal process.  One evening, after my guys get off work, we all get together in my parents garage and fill the Cell up with water.  I get inside it and immediately realize two things.  Number One is that the water needs to be somewhat warm to do this stunt effectively.  Apparently cold water makes it harder to get a good breath of air so you can hold your breath.  Go figure!  Number Two is that it’s really tight in here.  I’ve never been claustrophobic in my life, but this thing is a tight fit!  Unfortunately we’re on a time table here and I don’t have a lot of time to freak out.  So I do my best to get comfortable and we push forward.

The rehearsal process is going well.  I’m diving into the cell from the top and learning how to hold my breath comfortably upside down.  Trust me there is a right way and a wrong way to do this.  I learned the wrong way right as my dad came home one day.   So I dive in head first as my dad pulls up and I get a huge nose full of water and start to choke.  I have to quickly get out of the cell.  I’m trying to get some air so I can stop choking while my crew and now my dad watch.  Up to this point I had convinced my parents that I had it completely under control and this little incident is not helping my argument.  My dad does not seem amused and questions whether or not I should even be attempting this.  So I shrug it off and re-convince him that what happened was both a fluke and a learning experience.

Ultimately the rehearsals get us as prepared as we can possibly be.  And I made sure to spend some time with my crew explaining their exact jobs and what they had to do when it got time for the real deal.  A couple of days before the Houdini Challenge I call Brett and ask him for any advice he can give me.  He proceeds to tell me about numerous precautions that I had never thought of.  It was obvious that he had performed this thing many, many times as he offered me several important safety tips that would hopefully make me even safer.  I glean as much information from Brett as possible and set my focus on the task at hand.

So, we’re back to Halloween morning and the engineers have rigged the chain hoist in place.  Now I just have to convince everyone, and I mean everyone that this thing is going to work.  My team and I huddle up and go over the last minute details.  All of a sudden, it’s go time!  The guys lock my ankles in to the stocks and raise me about fifteen feet in the air.  I’m dangling upside down as they move the Upside Down (as Houdini liked to call it) into place right below me.  They lower me so my head is barely above the water and stop.  I take several huge gulps of air and the guys lower me into the Cell.  I’m locked in the cell by my ankles, upside down, trying to escape.  After several minutes I emerge triumphant!  The first full rehearsal is a massive success!  All the mall people are duly impressed and we’re given the thumbs up.

I’m on cloud nine.  My preparation and slightly calculated gamble has paid off and we have a huge show to prepare for.  The hours fly by and all of a sudden a massive crowd has started to gather.  The mall is packed.  Several local news stations show up with cameras.  I coordinate with James Lewis from our NBC affiliate to stage the escape so it can be broadcast live during the six o’clock news coverage.  The minutes tick away and now everything and everyone is ready.  It’s time!


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