The Thrill of Escape Artistry in a Post-Houdini New York

| March 8, 2012 4:00 AM

Escape artist Thomas Solomon moments after springing himself from a London jail cell. On Mar. 18, Solomon will attempt a daring underwater escape at the New York Aquarium. Photo courtesy of Thomas Solomon.

On March 18 at 2:20 p.m. at the New York Aquarium, officers from the New York City Police Department will handcuff me with numerous pairs of restraints. I will then be thrown into the Aquarium’s colossal observation tank and attempt to remove these restraints, underwater. My name is Thomas Solomon and I am known as the “World’s Greatest Escape Artist.”

Why am I doing this, you ask?

Well, the short answer is, because I love it. I never feel more alive than when I’m risking my life. Escape artistry is the exhilarating challenge of attempting the impossible, of bringing the audience with you on a journey in which the end result can either be a success, or a failure that injures me or costs me my life.

And back in 2003, it nearly did. I was performing an underwater escape from a locked safe for my first British network television special. A titanium steel burglar proof safe was donated and examined by the audience. I was secured in a pair of handcuffs which were then locked to the inside of the safe door. I crouched down inside and the door was closed and the dial spun. The safe was hoisted into the air and dropped into 30 meters of water. I was to escape under the watchful eye of 10 mounted cameras recording the event from above, below and the sides. If something happened to me inside of the safe, it would be very difficult to rescue me.

My blood pressure was probably off the charts, my heart was racing and the adrenaline pumping. Underwater, I worked faster than I ever had before, first using my hands to work on the lock inside the safe door, constantly dialing down the panic flooding my mind as I realized I was locked in a safe, underwater and holding my breath. Panic was the enemy. If I did not control that, I could easily die. The underwater cameras captured the door opening and me coming out of the safe, but with my hands still chained to the door. I can remember my lungs burning from lack of air as I worked feverishly to open the handcuffs (the secrets of my escape shall remain with me). Finally, free from the door, I swam to the surface breaking the water to hear the cheers of the crowd. While I floated on my back to rest, the astonished comments permeated the air and I thought to myself, “yes, this was all worthwhile.”

Thomas Solomon dives into the East River, shackled, in preparation for an escape. According to Solomon, figuring out how to connect with an audience is the key to staying relevant. Photo courtesy of Thomas Solomon.

I first became interested in escapes more than 25 years ago, while I was an apprentice to a master locksmith in Milwaukee, Wis.  At that time, I already had a love of magic. I was adept at sleight-of-hand and magic principles but in the back of my mind, I wanted to see if escapes could separate me from the copycat magicians I was seeing everywhere.

I read about the legendary Houdini and his escape act, and discovered that escape artistry is more than 100 years old and began, interestingly enough, not with Houdini, but with the 19th century Spiritualist movement. At that time, séances were all the rage among all classes of people. The mediums, as they were called, would channel messages from the dearly departed to those sitting at the table. It was all entertainment, done for the right price, of course.

Two of the Victorian Era’s greatest practitioners of this form, Ira and William Davenport, performed séances in which they were tied and chained to chairs or posts. A large cabinet was closed around them, obscuring them from view, and immediately, trumpets started playing from behind the cabinet, tambourines rattled and floated, tables were lifted. Objects would fly above the cabinet, yet when the cabinet doors were thrown open, the brothers were still tightly restrained. The solution was that both brothers were adept at quickly escaping their bonds, allowing them to ring bells, throw objects, move furniture and cause lights to appear. Before the cabinet doors were thrown open, the brothers would get back into the bonds, and the audience assumed the manifestations to be genuine

As a young man and struggling magician himself, Houdini learnt of their methods and created and perfected an eight minute escape act that headlined Vaudeville for more than 15 years. Playing up his own immigrant status, Houdini connected with the millions of others like himself, who came to New York to escape the poverty, oppression and the tyranny of the Old World. After Houdini’s death, escapes faded into oblivion for a number of years.

I realized that the act that allowed Houdini to connect with his audience and made him famous could not work in this day and age. Houdini performed his escapes behind a curtain, but today’s audiences are more sophisticated and would not sit for an hour or more and watch a curtain while the artist escaped behind it.

Far from being dead, escape artistry was just in need of a serious make-over, a renaissance if you will. And I was just the guy to do it.

Thomas Solomon escaping a strait jacket 150 feet above a street in Portland, Oregon. Escape artistry is more than 100 years old, and began with profiteering spiritualists in the 19th century. Photo courtesy of Thomas Solomon.

As I continue to hone my skills in picking locks and studying magic, I seek to bring escapes into the modern world, with performances that happen in full view of the audience and include elements (lighting, staging, scripting) normally reserved for theater, movies and television. I add a touch of history by showing off my massive collection of restraints and connecting them to real-world historical events. And I retain an element of audience involvement, in which audience members are brought onstage to try on the handcuffs and assist with locking them. Like Houdini, I make a connection with the audience, and this is what keeps escape artistry relevant.

I am proud to be part of an art form that is unique, but has only a few active performers. In recent years, others have tried to capitalize on the art by performing elements of escape, most notably David Blaine, who has recently made a splash by creating performance art with the trappings of escape. Personally, I feel that Blaine’s work is more closely related to endurance stunts (being sealed in frozen block of ice, or buried alive) than actual escapes.

But Blaine’s success, as well as my own, demonstrates a truth central to my art: people remain fascinated by magic and escapes because it provides, on a visceral level, a feeling that there is more to the world than meets the eye.

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