MacKenzie and Marks

Undercover in Austria

by Gillian B

Part 3: Salzburg - The Fireproof Nun Escape

Friday 21 January 1938: Salzburger Volkstheater

8.45 pm An Escape Contest

After our close call on the Sunday we arrived in Salzburg, the remainder of the week progressed rather more peacefully. It was also very successful for us theatrically - there were good houses at the Salzburger Volkstheater every night, good reviews in the local papers and our audiences were enthusiastic and responsive.

Unusually, Friday rather than Saturday was our last night in town. (This was just because of the way the bookings for our tour worked out.) As usual, we aimed to finish our run with a big spectacular trick and we had made sure there was plenty of advance publicity, all emphasising just how dangerous our act would be.

As usual, before our pièce de resistance, we had a warm-up routines. This was the one where we and a member of the audience challenged each other to an escape contest. The way it worked was that I came on stage at the beginning of the evening's performance, before the first act came on, and announced that we would take one challenge and that anyone who wished to challenge us should see the theatre manager during the interval. (Our act came in the second half of the show.) The manager would then choose one of the challengers, who would come on stage at the beginning of our act.

I was surprised when our challenger for the evening turned out to be a woman. It wasn't the first time that this had happened, but it was nevertheless unusual. (On reflection, it is highly likely that the manager chose her purely for the novelty value.) Our challenger was probably a little younger than me, quite tall - nearly my own height. She was quite well-to-do from the appearance of her clothes, with a very nicely cut tweed suit over a high-collared silk blouse. Her calf-length button boots did not look cheap either. She spoke German with a slight accent I could not place, as if it were her second language.

Our challenger's refined appearance contrasted startlingly with my black camisole top, gym knickers and tights which were theatrical and brash in the extreme.

We had two identical straight backed wooden chairs and a large stopclock on the stage. The rules of the contest were that the challenger had the opportunity to tie me to one of the chairs as well as he (or she) could and would then in turn be tied to the other chair by my assistant, Sarah. The challenger would win if he or she escaped before me or if I was unable to escape (even if the challenger couldn't either). I would win only if I both managed to escape and did so before the challenger. There was a time limit of ten minutes set for escaping. The prize for the challenger, if he or she won, was a stack of ten shiny gold sovereigns.

Sarah's knowledge of German is rudimentary, so I did almost all the speaking during the act (and indeed for our entire tour of Austria). I began by explaining the terms of the challenge to the audience. I next invited my challenger to choose which of the two chairs she wished to tie me to. There was a pause while the challenger inspected both chairs very carefully, before selecting one. Sarah then offered her two coils of rope, each an 80 foot length (expressed as 25 metres to the audience, of course) of white cotton rope about half an inch in diameter. Using fairly thick white rope means that it is easy for the audience to see it clearly under the stage lighting. The challenger hesitated for a shorter time before selecting one of the ropes.

Most volunteers on stage are quite hesitant and look to the performers for guidance and encouragement all the time, which is of course why professionals like Sarah and I can ride roughshod over them and generally get them to do what we want. It was not so with this lady, she took charge of the situation and set about her task with a calm confidence. I privately began to harbour fears that she might be a stooge planted by someone who wanted to see me fail in my challenge. (Don't read anything dramatic or sinister into that - a local newspaper might well enjoy publishing a story of that kind.) It turned out that my fears were groundless, while her manner was confident, her mastery of ropes turned out to be less impressive.

She asked me to sit down on the chair immediately and I did as requested. She then spent a few moments looking in turn at me, then the chair, then the rope, before making her first move. She pulled my hands round behind the chair back and, starting almost at one end of the coil of rope, she tied my wrists together. She next wound several coils of rope round my waist and the chair back, securing it as best as she could with a couple of turns around my wrist binding. More coils went over my lap and under the chair seat. She paused and puzzled for a moment before forming a clove hitch, which she could do without handling the end of the considerable free length of rope she still had left, and then sliding it up one of the chair legs. She worked as much slack out of the coils over my lap as she could and tightened the clove hitch. Next she tied one of my legs to a chair leg by winding about half the remaining free rope round and round it, then she did the same to the other leg with the rest. She only had a few feet of rope left by this time, so she was able to finish off with a reasonably effective knot on the last turn around one ankle.

I sat still and waited - I wouldn't begin my escape attempt until Sarah had tied the challenger to the other chair. Sarah gestured towards the chair and our challenger sat down. Sarah began by measuring out about a yard of rope and cutting it off the coil. Our challenger looked quizzically first at Sarah then at me. I pointed out to her and to the audience that there was nothing in the rules that required us to use all the rope or to use it all in one piece. Sarah carried on her task and crossed the challenger's wrists behind the chair then tied them securely in both directions. Sarah measured off about another eight feet of rope which went around the chair back and the challenger's body, just below her bust, also pinning her arms to the back of the chair. Another two yards of rope were used to bind the challenger's ankles, taking care not to damage the expensive boots. Sarah did this stage of the tying so that quite long trailing ends of rope were left. She pulled these ends back under the chair seat, so the challenger's feet were drawn backwards and up off the floor, and then tied them off to her wrist binding.

To the audience, my challenger and I presented a startling contrast - I was swathed in coils of rope all over, while my challenger had only a few turns visible round her waist. To my more experienced eye, the challenger looked secure but not too distressed.

Sarah looked at each of us and then started the clock. I began immediately to work on my wrists which had lots of rope around them, but which were not very tightly tied. It took about 15 seconds to get first one then the other wrist free. I now had one end of the rope effectively not attached to anything, so all I had to do to get my body free was to work some slack into the coils round me and the chair. At about the 30 second mark, I had the rope loose enough to push it up to my shoulders and off over my head. Once I had dumped that section of the rope on the floor, I could lean forward and see to my legs. I sneaked a glance at the challenger; she was wriggling rather aimlessly and making no impression whatsoever on her bonds. I carried on with my escape by untying the knot that had been tied on one ankle. Once that was off, I could kick my feet to work enough slack into the ropes that I could just lift my legs out. The clock was still only at about 45 seconds. Lastly, I worked slack into the coils over my waist from the pile of rope I had dumped on the floor. Once there was enough slack, I put my elbows back so they rested on top of the chair back and applied some downward pressure while wriggling my legs. I was able to slide completely free of the ropes, ending up squatting on the chair. Finally, 60 seconds after I had started, I stood up on the chair seat and spread my arms wide. I bowed to acknowledge the audience's applause.

I jumped down to the stage and Sarah and I set to work to release the challenger, who was just as firmly tied as she had been a minute before. We were well rehearsed and it took us less than 30 seconds to free her. As she stood up, I turned to face the audience and led them in a round of applause for her.

The escape challenge always looks impressive. Instinctively, the audience expects that the more rope is used, the more difficult it must be to escape from. In practice, it is almost impossible for anyone, especially an amateur, to tie someone up effectively with a piece of rope that long - it's just too unwieldy, the knots end up not being tight enough and the person doing the tying has to resort to winding great coils of ropes around me, just in an effort to get rid of the stuff. In general, once one my hands are free, which usually doesn't take too long, it is just a matter of redistributing slack until I'm free.

9.10 pm Interlude

That was the end of part one of my act. I returned to the dressing room to change my costume for part two, while Sarah and our friend Rudi were setting up the stage.

As I undressed, I discovered a piece of paper inside my camisole top. It could only have been put there by the escape challenger as she was tying me up. I was surprised that I hadn't noticed her doing it.

I unfolded the paper and studied it for a few moments. I am told that the style of formal German handwriting can be traced back to the angular lettering used by mediaeval monks, unlike the rounded style which we use in England, which apparently came originally from Italy. German handwriting is certainly very different to English and, even to a practised eye, can be hard to read. I had to decipher the text letter by letter until, suddenly, I recognised it and could read it easily. It was a poem - Schiller's Ode to Joy:

Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum.
Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

...and so on for several more verses.

It's one of the best-known pieces of German literature - I paused for a moment to wonder why anyone would take the trouble to pass a copy to me secretly. I concluded that there must be a hidden message somewhere and propped the paper up on my dressing table, while I put my costume on for part two, which had to be done without hurry and with considerable care.

I was still reading the mysterious piece of paper while I was standing in the wings waiting for Rudi to lead me on.

9.20 pm Burned at the Stake

While I was changing, our friend Rudi Topolski introduced the second part of my act. Rudi is a dear friend and fellow professional with whom we have worked on many occasions in the past when we have been in Central Europe. Rudi is a tame pyrotechnician, if that isn't a contradiction in terms. The handling of fire on stage is a very specialised and difficult art, and there are few theatres which are equipped to handle the effect we needed tonight. The Salzburger Volkstheater is one of the few. It is quite a modern building and can provide a big asbestos-lined steel chimney which goes above the stage equipment and is vented at the top of the fly tower.

Rudi is a great bear of a man, well over six feet tall and broad with it. He has a big bushy moustache and a ready grin, which reveals a slightly sinister-looking gold tooth. He looks exactly the way you would expect a Hungarian gypsy to look, and that's exactly what he is (or at least claims to be). He was dressed in full evening dress, complete with white tie and tails. He explained to the audience that tonight Miss MacKenzie would be re-enacting a famous and quite inexplicable escape incident of the middle ages.

As Rudi spoke, he walked to the wings and brought me on stage, leading me by one hand. I was wearing a nun's habit all in white. Rudi continued his introduction, explaining that a certain Sister Anincendiaria had been condemned to be burned at the stake for certain abominable practices which he would not inflict on the sensibilities of a mixed audience. (The supposed nun's name always evoked a chuckle from the more erudite members of the audience - it's approximately Latin for 'incombustible'.) Rudi's explanation continued by saying that the nun had protested her innocence to the last. Finally, he went on, the Grand Inquisitor had told the nun that he would believe her innocent, if she stepped down from the stake before the flames reached her. Rudi walked across the stage to our equipment for the act. All the audience could see was a platform about 2 feet high. Those in the stalls could see right underneath it. The platform was about 4 feet square, but what stood upon it was hidden by curtained screens going up about 8 feet on all four sides. Rudi swung the screens aside. The back section was fixed, but the other three sides were hinged together and could be opened like doors. With the screens folded back, the stake was revealed - a wooden post about 7 feet high and 9 inches in diameter. There were a number of iron rings attached to the stake and, hanging from the highest one, a length of chain. Straw and sticks were piled on the platform.

I stepped up on the platform and faced the audience, my hands palm-to-palm in front of me in an attitude of prayer. Rudi asked for two volunteers from the audience to inspect the equipment and to assist in chaining me to the stake. After a short pause, two men came on stage. I was surprised to recognise one of them - he was the aristocratic young man who had acted as a scrutineer on our last night in Innsbruck.

The volunteers were invited to examine the stake and its ironwork. They looked closely at several of the rings. There was nothing much to look at - the rings were the heads of very large steel screw-eyes driven into the wood of the stake and all slightly battered and corroded. The highest ring was at neck level on me and on the front face of the stake as the audience saw it. The chain was run through this ring first and then I stood with my back to the stake. The chain was brought forward over both my shoulders and crossed in front of my chest. Next, it went through two more rings, one on each side of the stake at waist level. The ends were brought forward, crossed again and threaded through another pair of rings at mid-thigh level. They were crossed again and passed through the last pair of rings, just below my knees. At each stage, the chain was pulled quite tight, so I was held firmly back to the stake. Finally, the ends of the chain were brought together and padlocked in front of my legs.

Rudi explained that we did not have the time available to rivet manacles onto me in the time-honoured manner, so modern handcuffs would be substituted. He produced a pair out of a jacket pocket and handed them to one of the scrutineers. They were examined carefully and then snapped onto my wrists in front of me.

Rudi and the scrutineers now left the platform and Rudi continued to address the audience. He explained that a slow fuse would be used to simulate the time it would have taken in reality for a large pile of fuel to catch fire properly. He said that the length he had cut would take two minutes to burn and that he would also start the stopclock, so the audience could keep track of progress. He went on to explain that if I failed to escape in that time, there was enough combustible material on the platform to bring about a very unpleasant death. He ushered a pair of firemen on stage at this point, both carrying large red fire-extinguishers. All this time, I stood still on the platform.

Rudi positioned the firemen on either side of the platform, he lit the fuse, which spluttered and smoked most satisfactorily, and started the clock. I immediately started squirming in my chains. Rudi then closed the screens round me and stood back looking at the clock.

Nothing happened other than some audible clanking of chains until there were only 15 seconds left, when Rudi started a count-down, which the audience joined in. There was an awful second's pause after Rudi and the audience had counted down to one, then the whole of the screened area on the platform exploded into flames with a flash and a roar and a great deal of smoke. Several women in the audience screamed and I heard, "Gott in Himmel!" from one of the scrutineers. The curtained screens were burned away in seconds to leave just the frames, so as the smoke cleared, I was revealed. I stepped forward and spread my arms, bathed in an ethereal light, obviously free and unharmed. The firemen, who had been too shocked to move at first, damped down the smouldering straw behind me. I stepped down off the platform and to one side to give a clear view of the chain still padlocked and hanging from the stake as it had been when it was holding me there. There was a very satisfying stunned pause before the audience started their applause. I bowed to the audience and nodded my appreciation to Rudi.

There is no doubt that this trick is potentially quite dangerous, but, of course, the essence of the trick is to make it look much more dangerous to the audience than it really is. There are really two tricks in one - my escape and my survival of the flames.

The escape is a very straightforward piece of fraud. As soon as the screens were closed around me, I pressed my heel down firmly on one of the innocent looking wooden gussets which support the stake on the platform. This action has the effect of opening the two lowest pairs of rings like jaws. All I have to do is flip the chain free of these with my knees then let the jaws close again. It only takes a moment to wriggle out of the chain after that. In order to open the handcuffs, I had a piece of shim steel hidden inside my mouth, which can be used to spring the ratchets on the cuffs quite satisfactorily. After that, all I had to do was to tidy up. I re-opened the bottom rings on the stake and re-threaded the chain through them before letting them close once more. As the top five rings on the stake are all perfectly genuine, the inspection rarely goes down to the gimmicked ones. The openings in these rings are not immediately apparent. I disguise them with a disgusting mixture of brown grease paint, iron filings and rust, which provides a surprisingly good visual effect.

The fire effects and my failure to be incinerated are a little more subtle and are more a piece of applied science than a true trick. The huge roar of flames was largely a piece of pyrotechnics. The initial flash, and plume of smoke are the product of a magnesium flash, as used by the photographers of yesteryear, and a small but vigorous smoke pot. The curtains are made of the artificial silk called Rayon. The fibre from which Rayon is woven is cellulose nitrate which is highly combustible to the point of being usable as an explosive under the right conditions. Just to help, the curtains are also soaked in "Greek fire" a clear jelly made from petroleum oil. The ignition of all these dangerous substances was entirely under my own control, with a small foot-switch setting off a series of electrical detonators. To prevent accidental ignition, there is also a safety switch which was only switched on by Rudi when he was closing the screens round me.

While the fire is not nearly as dangerous as it looks, I would still get badly burned if I was not properly protected. My protection for this trick is my costume. The foundation layer is a suit of fine white wool underwear consisting of combinations (a union suit in the charming American terminology), socks and a hood, so I am completely covered except for my face and hands. (The hood, of course, forms the wimple of my nun's habit.) To improve its fire-retardant properties, the underwear is soaked in a strong solution of borax and dried before use. Lastly, the habit itself is made from a wonderful new material called "glass silk". It is smooth and slippery to touch and feels like heavy silk, but is woven from fibres of spun glass and is completely incombustible. My costume therefore protects me because I am, in effect, wearing a my very own fire curtain. Before setting off the fire, I pulled my hands up inside the sleeves of my habit and used the loose ends to cover my face. I also stood with my head bowed down and my face towards the stake for maximum protection.

Finally, my costume also provided the wonderful ethereal glow. Glass silk is incredibly reflective and a strong spotlight will make it appear to glow from within.

If you are wondering where Sarah was during this trick, she changed back into an evening dress, suitable for the theatre, while we were at the preparation stages, then by the time I was chained up, she had positioned herself at the back of the dress circle. The first scream, which set off many others was provided by Sarah.

9.50 pm Cleaning Up

As soon as I had bowed and the applause had died down, I left the stage and returned to my dressing room, where Sarah would join me shortly and where Rudi would undoubtedly present himself after I was decent again.

I peeled off the nun's habit and hung it carefully on the end of a rail of costumes. Next, I removed the woollen hood and went straight to the wash-basin. My skin always feels strange after this trick, as though I have a layer of grime which needs washing off. I suspect this illusion is the effect of brief but intense heat. In order to feel normal again, I always have to wash my face and hands, even before I have properly changed out of my costume.

As I was towelling my face dry, someone hit me hard on the back of my head. I felt pain and a wave of nausea and a terrible weakness and I knew I was just about to lose consciousness. I remember gripping the edge of the basin for support, but not my collapse to the floor that must surely have followed.

Copyright © 1999 Gillian B

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