Brian Lumley on Houdini’s Water Torture Cell

The Houdini Puzzler - The Day, December 19, 1975 3
Brian Lumley (Far Left), Glenn Priest (Middle), Doug (Far Right)

How did the First Special come about?

Very early in The Magic Show’s run a very influential person came and basically fell in love with Doug’s performance. She asked him what he would do if he had a show at Christmas? Doug told her he would make people appear and disappear. He would do small stuff and some of his classics. He would also make a tiger appear. The highlight would be the Houdini Water Torture Escape.

That was his dream escape show from The Magic Show. A Broadway show can close overnight. We had already been privy to his ideas as part of the “just in case scenario,” so it was at the front of his mind when asked the question. By the time her entourage had cleared the stage door, we were talking about a show for the following year. There was a lot of negotiating yet to do, and it was another year for the illusions to start arriving for rehearsals.

How was it decided that the Water Torture Escape would be for the finale?

The Water Torture Escape is a dramatic, appealing, big cumbersome messy unit. After the act there is water all over the place. The unit needs to be dismantled before it can be moved back off stage. Logistics placed it at the end.

What were the preparations for the Water Torture Escape?

Preparations for the Water Torture Escape started at the beginning. We needed a studio floor that could be modified. Very hard to find at that time. We then had to create in the rehearsal hall similar conditions to the studio. This meant a raised deck and rigging conditions. Each of these units were found. When the WTC was filled with water we found two new problems. The water was cold and murky. So murky that it was on the verge of opaque; you could not see through the unit. This meant setting up heaters and filters that did not exist.

Within a week the problems were solved but not completed. I had to build a filtration system and a heater. The water in NYC was murky brown. It took four days of continuous pumping through the filtration system to clear it. The water in LA was murky white. It took six days for it to clear.

The rigging for Doug’s pickup was complicated. The controls had to be in sync so that eight people could do their jobs at once. This had never been done before, so we had to find our own way here. The rigging for the banner was complicated and dangerous as well. It always needed careful attention and setup. One simple foul of the lift lines and a headset cable stopped the whole rehearsal on the day before the dress rehearsal. Prep and performance of the WTC required constant vigilance.

How did Doug handle the pressure?

Doug handled the pressure of the performance with complete control. We had two life threatening events with two of the guests…but Doug had complete control and kept everybody under control. There was nothing about that show that truly rattled his cage. In every emergency and possible disaster, we all worked together correcting the problem and calming the people involved.

Doug knew this show was his way to take back the control he had lost with The Magic Show. He knew this was his shot at true fame, and he every intention of making sure it happened. Even with blood all over the stage and illusions, I’m not exaggerating, he could still pull himself together and keep the other performers positive. He was looked up to as a person of strength by everybody.

I was quite proud of how he kept everybody calm and under their personal self-control. Especially since I had seen him hit a wall and fall apart more than once during The Magic Show pre-production. He handled the pressure like a champ. Without Doug’s fortitude the 1st Special would have been cancelled before air time.

What effect did the First Special have on Doug?

This was Doug’s moment to take back his magic. The Magic Show was a constant struggle between the producers and Doug for control. His relationship with the NBC producers was much friendlier and co-operative. He was much happier when everybody agreed that his magic was the reason for the show.

It was also his first true reach for national and international fame. He put a live magic show in millions of homes at the same time across three time zones. A major feat and first of its own. After the 1st Special, Doug started making serious plans to leave The Magic Show and go on his own.

To Be Concluded Tomorrow…

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you so much for doing this. I always felt the Canadian media treated Doug rather badly. It was, after all, the Americans who promoted him to stardom and most people regarded him as an American illusionist. When his bio came out (2010?) I sent a copy to the Director of Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto and that seemed to get their attention more than my previous efforts (there is a real reluctance to include magicians). To help future journalists know who he was, I also sent copies of his bio to the CBC library in Toronto, Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and The Canadian Press library..


  2. Brian, by the way, after being rejected several times by the CWOF committee, I was delighted to point out to them that Doug’s bio was written by an American author and published by a US company. However, I was really annoyed that Canadian bookstore chains would not carry it. As yet, I have not come across a Canadian library that has it. (much the same applies to David Ben’s bio of Dai Vernon). So what is our problem? Does it have something to do with religion?


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