I’ve been following tightrope walker Nik Wallenda’s recent successful effort to obtain permission to walk across Niagara Falls. Yet, I decided I’m indifferent to it, for two reasons.
First, if I want to watch this sort of entertainment for its ‘deathwatch’ component, I’m going to be disappointed. In order to get television coverage, Wallenda has agreed to tether his rope to his body. Nowadays, and I shudder to state this, if I want to see a tightrope walker fall to his death or even a murder, all I have to is press a few internet buttons.
Presumably, because death is not as a possible outcome, the projected television revenue, for the stunt has dropped. Wallenda is now seeking to raise money from the public to pursue his 15 June 2012 walk. I think I’ll pass up the opportunity to contribute $500 in exchange for a personal letter from the artiste. I can think of at least 500 better ways to spend my money.
My second reason is that it’s old news, done before by the original Niagara Falls tightrope walker, Jean Francois Gravelet aka “The Great Blondin.” Mind you, I imagine he didn’t have to get a permit from the Niagara Parks Commission and prove that his walk would not come at the expense of public safety. According to the Commission, you can now get a permit “once every 20 years, in recognition of the role that daredevil performances and stunting have played in the rich history and promotion of Niagara Falls.” If you stunt without a permit, you face a $10,000 fine.
How could Wallenda possibly match up to Blondin, who began his feats on 15 June 1859? He didn’t just walk across the falls on his tightrope, untethered. He sat down and pulled up a drink from the Maid of the Mist below; executed a backward somersault; crossed the rope on a bicycle, walked blindfolded, cooked an omelet; made the trip with his hands and feet manacled; and even carried his manager on his back. You couldn’t top any of that if you tried to.
So why am I equally uninterested in the stunt proposed by Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner’s to leap this summer 120,000 feet from what is essentially outer space to earth, which will allow him to set a distance record and also be the first skydiver to break the sound barrier? He surely deserves credit for coming up with a unique stunt.
I puzzled over that but I think I got my answer from, of all people, Harry Houdini. There is a wonderful used bookshop in the village of Tamworth, the sort you could get lost in for hours, as my long-suffering wife will attest. There I came across a book originally published in 1932, entitled “Houdini’s Escapes and Magic,” written by Walter D. Gibson, the creator of “The Shadow.” Houdini wanted the book written to dispel theories of such worthies, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and J. Hewat MacKenzie. Doyle reduced Houdini to a medium. MacKenzie, then president of the British College of Psychic Science, was convinced Houdini had “dematerialized his body and oozed out” of an airtight, water-filled container, enclosed in a curtained cabinet.
Houdini wanted it known that each trick or escape never involved an uncalculated risk. He was especially proud of the feats performed in full view of an audience, because he was first a magician, a deception artist, a showman, before he was a strongman. With showmanship, says the author, a simple trick can look like a miracle, because people look for complexity where simplicity is the key.
That’s it. Throw in a degree of physical risk if you want to, but what really impresses me is not brute strength but sleight of hand; the knowledge that I have somehow failed to perceive correctly what has just happened before my eyes. Trickery trumps bravado every time; and mere bravado doesn’t hold my attention very long.
Unless Mr. Wallenda plans to pull a rabbit out from his hat while on the high wire, or Mr. Baumgartner plans to produce a row of knotted silk scarves from his oxygen tank as he is hurtling through space, you can count me out as a spectator to their endeavours.
If you want to know how Houdini performed the “Metal Casket Escape,” I won’t tell you. You must read page 223, of “Houdini’s Escapes and Magic,” written by Walter D. Gibson. Far be it from me to break a magician’s confidences.