When a retired artist reminisces about rehearsals at the Opera House you automatically assume they mean for a play or musical.
There’s no doubt that Karl Bartoni was getting ready for a theatrical performance, it’s just that his style of drama involved hanging upside down from the fly bars. For the retired escapologist was practising stunts high above the Opera House stage.
Radio Wave’s Scott Gallagher met up with the infamous Karl Bartoni to find out what possessed him to follow in the death-defying footsteps of Houdini.
“Well it started really when I was seven,” said Karl. “I was very interested in magic, even in those days, and I was taken to a shop on King Street in Blackpool where there was a retired escapologist called Murray. Murray the Australian escapologist. Many people think that he was better than Houdini. We can't say that for certain but I know for a fact that he travelled and toured far more than Houdini did, and he did things that Houdini never did.
“So he started teaching me magic but over the years he sort of pushed me a little bit into escapology. Not so much doing it, but how exciting it could be, and in the late 60s I put together a nice cabaret act which was magic, and Murray said: “What you need to do now is a publicity stunt to get the name known.”
“I said: ”Well what sort of stunt?”
“And he suggested doing an underwater packing crate escape!”
This involved getting out of bonds after being sealed into a packing crate which has been dumped into water, Karl explained, adding: “And he didn't seem to be at all bothered that I said: “Well I can't swim!”
“He said: “You don’t need to swim, just get to the top!”
Just like that Karl progressed from magician to escapologist. At the time Karl was working as a Ring Boy at Blackpool Tower Circus, and the management allowed him to use their ring for his underwater act after the show.
Then Karl’s act moved on to a completely different level when he took on a backstage job at the Winter Gardens.
He went from being submerged under water to practising escapes whilst hanging upside down from the high rigs at the top of the Opera House stage.
“After all those practice sessions I ended up doing that from cranes, and eventually from the top of the tower,” he said calmly.
Hanging OVER Blackpool Tower in fact.
“I'd always wanted to something from the top of the tower,” said Karl. “I wasn't the only one, I think every escape artist in the country wanted to do something and everyone had always been refused permission. But I knew everyone, I knew the tower structure riggers…the management…I could provide the insurance that was required and the know-how, especially with all the help from the tower riggers.”
And so it came to be that on a nice sunny day Karl would do three escapes, one after the other.
The first was hanging whilst getting out of 100 feet of rope which had been wrapped in a blanket with another hundred feet of sash cord tied around him.
After that he would hang upside down fastened in a straitjacket, wearing a special body harness which allowed an apprentice to hang from Karl by his ankles. Then the race was on to see who could get out of their straitjacket first – the Master or the Apprentice.
The third act was to repeat this stunt with a girl in place of the apprentice.
Training at the Winter Gardens clearly helped Karl reach those giddy heights of success.
Karl confirmed: “Between the circus, the Pavilion Theatre and the Opera House, that really did move me forward a great deal in escapology, but not just the places - the people, the management, all the workers at Tower Street, which was the maintenance department - they all knew me, luckily they all liked me, and they could advise and help and make things for me.
“It was a massive family and everyone that worked here, it seemed to be either their parents had worked here, or their sons, daughters were going to come and work here. It really was a family thing.”
You can read more about Karl Bartoni’s remarkable life and escapades here.