How to Beat Houdini

What does it take to outperform the master escape artist? Common sense, a good night’s sleep, and shallow breathing.
  • Transcript


Question: How did you become an escape artist?

James Randi: I took up the escape artistry thing on a peculiar sort of event.  I was working in Quebec City at the Fleur Le Royal, I think it was called; a nightclub there.  And a couple of cops came by and were eying me from the side of the stage and they came to me afterwards and showed me a pair of handcuffs and said, “Could you get out of these?”  And I said, “Oh, yeah sure.”  They were simple locks and, well we’ll see you after the show.  And I said, yeah, sure, okay, thinking I would never see them again.  And I packed up and was leaving the dressing room and suddenly they showed up in the stairway. I said, "Oh, I forgot about that."  So, I went downstairs and they put a pair of handcuffs on me out in the street, much to the amusement of people passing by, I can assure you.  And they opened the squad car door for me; I got in one side, and got out the other side with the handcuffs off. 

Now, that got their attention.  They hadn’t seen that before, but I will confide in you that handcuff locks are very, very simple locks.  And I was pretty well set up for it and ready for it.  But as they looked at me in some astonishment and said, “Well, do you think you could break out of our jail?”  And I said, “Well, show me the jail.”  Oh, they put me in the back of the squad car and off we went.  And the next morning the headlines in the Quebec Soleil, was the name of the paper, came out with, "[...] Randi [..] de la Prison de Quebec."  That means, the Amazing Randi, and I had never used that title before, up until then I was "The Great Randall," you see.  But the Amazing Randi Escapes from the Jail of Quebec, or the Quebec Jail. 

It made a bit of news and when I went to the nightclub that night, the Manager met me at the door and he said, “Forget the birds and the rings and all that sort of thing.”  He said, “Do something in the escape business.”  So, I went out there and I did a thing and that’s how I got into it.  But it made a good reputation from me; I broke out of 22 jails around the world in my career.  All legally that is.  Yes, I’ve never actually been locked up in one where I – well there was one occasion.  I won’t get into the details.
Question: How did it feel to break Houdini’s record for submersion in a coffin?

James Randi: Well, it wasn’t much of a feat really at the time, I must say, because I was much younger.  He as 52 at the age when he did that, and I was, I think 22.  So, I had the advantage, the physical advantage over old Harry.  And so I took a certain amount of credit for it, but I did break his record by a few minutes.  And I did it several times after that around the world and different countries and in different venues and increased my record to one hour and 44 minutes of being sealed up on a steel coffin under water.

What kind of mental and physical training do escape artists undergo?

James Randi: Well it’s a matter of using some common sense to start with.  You don’t want to use up a lot of oxygen.  I got a very good night’s sleep.  I did it on the “Today” Show on NBC with Dave Garroway, as a matter of fact.  He was the host at that time.  That was many, many moons ago.  And I rested up very thoroughly; I stayed at the Hotel Shelton where there was a swimming pool, in New York City.  I slept well, and I must say when I got into the coffin there, I was starting to think, well maybe I’ll make an hour or so.  I made an hour and 31 minutes in that particular episode.  But I just breathed in a very shallow manner.  I didn’t take big deep breaths to use a lot of oxygen, and I relaxed and I had good assurance.  I had headphones on so I as listening to what was happening outside.  They would consult with me every now and then.  I had a microphone on my chest.  And I just took it easy.  I kept my metabolism rate way down and at the end of an hour and 31 minutes though, I was really doing this kind of a thing and had to take every bit of oxygen I could possible manage, because you are rebreathing the air, you see.  You’re not using all of the oxygen on every breath, of course, but it was tough.  It was rather tough.  I subsequently learned that I could do it, as I said, for an hour and 44 minutes, the last time I did it.

Recorded April 16, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen