Chinese Water Torture Cell

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Houdini performing the Chinese Water Torture Cell

The Chinese Water Torture Cell is a predicament escape made famous by Hungarian-American magician Harry Houdini. The illusion consists of three parts: first, the magician's feet are locked in stocks; next, he is suspended in mid-air from his ankles with a restraint brace; finally, he is lowered into a glass tank overflowing with water and the restraint is locked to the top of the cell.


History[edit]

The original Chinese Water Torture Cell was built in England in 1911. Houdini first performed the escape for an audience of one person as part of a one-act play he called Houdini Upside Down!. This was so he could copyright the new escape (having learned with his Milk Can escape that patents failed to stop imitators). The first public performance was at the Circus Busch in Berlin, Germany, on September 21, 1912.[1] In letters Houdini referred to the effect as "the Upside Down" or "USD." Houdini continued to perform the escape until his death in 1926. Despite two Hollywood movies depicting Houdini dying in the Torture Cell, the escape had nothing to do with his demise.[2]

After Houdini's death, the cell was willed to his brother Theodore Hardeen. Hardeen never performed the cell himself, and despite Houdini's instructions for it to be "burned and destroyed" upon Hardeen's death, his brother gave the cell to Houdini collector Sidney Hollis Radner in the 1940s. The cell remained in the Radner basement until 1971 when it was put on display at The Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Canada. Here the cell suffered from neglect and theft. At one point, the museum owners put a fish tank inside the cell to achieve an aquarium effect. The leaky tank caused mold and damage to the cell wood and structure.

In 1995, the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame burned to the ground. It was initially reported that the cell was completely destroyed, but the metal frame survived and the cell was restored by illusion builder John Gaughan. In 2004, the restored cell was sold at auction to magician David Copperfield. It now resides as part of his massive private magic collection in his home in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Sidney Radner gave the burned wood, screws, nails, metal straps and many other unused pieces of the original Water Torture Cell to Geno Munari. In August 1998, John Gaughan subsequently sent those items to Geno Munari, owner of Houdini's Magic Shops, in Las Vegas. Additionally, Geno Munari provided John Gaughan an original back-up Water Torture Cell glass plate from The Houdini Museum in Las Vegas. This backup glass traveled with Houdini as a spare in case the Water Torture Cell had to be axed to save Houdini's life.

In 2003, an exact duplicate of the Water Torture Cell was discovered, leading to controversy over the authenticity of the restored cell.[3] Sidney Radney filed suit against John Gaughan. The lawsuit can be viewed at this link: http://www.houdini.com/en/content/28-chinese-water-torture-cell In 2011, Richard Sherry of Richard Sherry's Magic and Escapes created the only exact working replica of Houdini's Chinese Water Torture Cell. In 2012 a never-before-seen photo of Houdini performing his Water Torture Cell in 1920 was unearthed and put on display in Scotland. The photo shows two horizontal bands wrapped around the cell.[4]

On March 24 2012, female escape artist Dayle Krall of Sherry and Krall Magic became the only person in history since Houdini`s death to perform this escape in an exact working replica of his infamous Chinese Water Torture Cell. Harry Houdini had different versions of his Water Torture Cell. His original included an inner cage and two outer cross bars which were later removed from the performance. This original version with the inner cage and cross bars has not been seen since Houdini and was performed by Dayle Krall on September 21, 2012 to celebrate the exact 100th Anniversary.

Dayle Krall and Richard Sherry can also be seen performing Houdini's Water Torture Cell on the new ITV documentary Perspectives: The Magic of Houdini with Alan Davies which aired April 20 2014.

Modern interpretations[edit]

Several magicians and escape artists have performed the escape since Houdini, among them Al Marks (1940s, using a steel tank with no window), Dill-Russel and Norman Bigelow.

In the 1950s, magician Leo Irby performed the escape for "You Asked for It."

In 1975, magician Doug Henning performed a version of the Water Torture Cell during his first live television special on NBC. In his version, a twist ending revealed the magician to be one of the hooded ax-wielding assistants standing beside the cell.

In the Spring of 1980, magician John R. Hall (stage name Keoni - pronounced key-OH-nee) purchased a Chinese Water Torture Cell from Tony Spina of Louis Tannen (a magicians' supply company in New York City) and performed the escape on the television show PM Magazine in October 1980 and in other venues throughout 1980 and 1981. The Chinese Water Torture Cell purchased by Keoni was represented by Louis Tannen as a duplicate of the cell constructed for Doug Henning's live television broadcast on NBC. Like Doug Henning's performance, Keoni's escape ended with a twist, when the curtain around the cell was lowered, the cell was empty and Keoni retook the stage by running from the back of the theaters, down the aisles, to the stage.

In the 1980s, the renowned English magician Paul Daniels achieved great acclaim by reproducing the illusion for his television show, with his son Martin Daniels as the performer. This performance of the illusion was notable for the fact that Daniels intended it to be as near as possible to a recreation of the original illusion. The cell used is a replica of the Houdini cell, made after extensive research using photographs and plans. The replica "Houdini Water Torture" escape, as seen on The Paul Daniel's Magic Show, is now owned by of Merlins of Wakefield, who plan to exhibit it in a museum of magical props and memorabilia. As the original British built Houdini cell was destroyed in a fire, this is now believed to be the only one to have been made and used in the UK.

Escape artist Steven Baker performed the Water Torture Cell for many years, including a performance on Dick Clark's LIVE Wednesday.

Escape artist Kristen Johnson performs a water cell escape that was inspired by Houdini's trick. Johnson's stunt is significantly different in that she remains in full view of the audience throughout the escape. She performed her 1,000th water torture cell on November 4, 2012 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway and is known in the industry as doing a legitimate three minute plus breath hold in the water torture cell. Johnson has performed her version at NBA half time shows and has been seen on ESPN's SportsCenter.

During a FOX special called Breaking the Magician's Code: Magic's Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed, the Masked Magician told the audience how a version of this trick is done.

Different versions of the device have been featured in Houdini biography films, such as "Houdini" (Paramount, 1953), "The Great Houdinis" (1976) and the Turner TV-movie, "Houdini."

A simple, 'headfirst dive' version was depicted in the film, "The Escapist."

A similar, but simpler, immersion escape is featured in the 2006 movie The Prestige.

In 2003, and again in 2012, Chicago magician Dennis Watkins performed the Chinese Water Torture Cell while playing the role of Harry Houdini in Death and Harry Houdini produced by the House Theatre of Chicago. Watkins' interpretation of the Water Torture Cell is performed within 5 feet of the audience, and is performed in a cell that is 2'x 2'x 6', which leaves almost no room for maneuvering. [1] Watkins has performed the illusion nearly 100 times, including public performances at Chicago's Navy Pier, as well as in earlier versions of Death and Harry Houdini.

In 2006, actor Orlando Seale did a version of a water torture cell for the TV show Ghost Whisperer, on the episode named Miss Fortune. Mark Cannon was the Underwater Escape Consultant.

In 2007, a failed imitation of the stunt was attempted by a character performed by the British actor Steve Valentine before the character passes out in the episode "You Don't Want to Know" of Fox's TV series "House MD".

In September 2010, escape artist Alexanderia the Great, performed a smaller more confined version of the Chinese Water Torture Cell in full view (no curtains) that she calls UC or the Underwater Cell. A recent performance was in a front page story for the Metrowest Daily newspaper.

In July 2013, Richard Sherry and Female Escape Artist Dayle Krall, of Sherry and Krall Magic, released their 21st Century Chinese Water Torture Cell. Void of any framework, this Water Torture Cell is a stunning variation of Houdini's original creation.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Mastronet.
  2. ^ Silverman, Kenneth (1997). Houdini!!!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss. New York: HarperCollins. pp. 162–165. ISBN 0-06-016978-8. 
  3. ^ "The Mystery of the Two Torture Cells". Retrieved February 11, 2007. 
  4. ^ "NEW photo of Houdini and his Water Torture Cell unearthed in Scotland". Retrieved February 23, 2012. 

External links[edit]