Monday night at the Lion’s Club Bluegrass Fair, a crowd of people watched Kristen Johnson fight for her life.
As she struggled to free herself from her bindings, for the chance to take another breath, the audience held its, wondering if she would survive.
Johnson has, more than 1,700 times.
Submerging herself in a chamber of water with a locked lid, bound in chains, handcuffs and leg shackles is a night at the office for Johnson, also known as Lady Houdini. She and her husband, magician Kevin Ridgeway, have been presenting their half-hour long show at the Lion’s Club Bluegrass Fair, which continues through Sunday.
“My husband and I put a show together a number of years ago where we were performing illusions,” Johnson said before the 7 p.m. Monday show. “I wanted to be an equal partner, so I started doing escapes. There are not a lot of people doing them, and there certainly are few women in history that have performed those stunts, so I just wanted to be different and hopefully be an inspiration to other people and hopefully young girls who see me and think, ‘If she can do that, I wonder what I can do?’”
It is a gig that is easier said than done. To prepare for stunts such as freeing herself from a straitjacket while suspended upside down, dozens of feet over the stage, and of course being locked in a chamber of water, Johnson had to get a variety of training.
“I worked with locksmiths, police officers, safe crackers, aerial artists, circus performers; I enlist the expertise of people who have the knowledge that I need to execute a particular stunt,” Johnson said.
As she is suspended over the stage in a straitjacket, Ridgeway, who is as good at being a dramatic emcee as his wife is at picking locks, notes to the audience that blood is rushing to his wife’s head as she tries to maintain the mental clarity to free herself from her predicament. She performed stunts like that for a while, and then in 2003 decided to up the ante, replicating Harry Houdini’s legendary water torture escape.
“I worked with a dive master and spent a lot of time at the bottom of the pool holding my breath and learning that breathing technique, so that I had enough of a buffer, so that when placed in that anxiety situation, I was able to hold my breath for a number of minutes, because I am under the water for two-and-a-half to three minutes,” Johnson said.
Lest we think this is routine, even though she has performed the escape for that 1,700 times, Johnson says, “Any time you get locked into a tank of water, your brain says, ‘not a good idea.’”
While in the water torture stunt she and Ridgeway share signals should she decides to abort the attempt or if he sees something that concerns him and decides to stop it. Johnson has had two incidents where she blacked out with a hypoxic seizure — when the brain is not getting enough oxygen — during an attempt; one, unfortunately, during halftime at an 2009 NBA basketball game. (Note: The video at this link may be disturbing to some viewers.)
“He’s very attentive to my color and my motor skills, and if he sees it coming on, he tries to signal me,” Johnson says.
Those two failed attempts are far out-weighed by 1,725 escapes at the time Johnson was interviewed, a skill that prompted an Inside Editon producer to dub her “Lady Houdini,” and the name stuck. And her skills have led to amusing moments, including people at shows asking her to help with things like locked cars.
“We’ve had occasion to get people into everything from a dorm room to a trailer,” said Johnson, who admitted she’ll sometimes pick locks just for fun.
She tries to keep the show fresh, saying she and Ridgeway have looked at possibilities such as escapes involving fire and explosives. She added a twist to her aerial escape, sometimes dropping from the suspended position into an unseen stunt airbag.
One of Johnson’s major deviations from some of her predecessors is she does everything in plain sight — except one magic trick from behind a curtain that has a surprise twist — so the audience sees everything. Most nights, like that 7 p.m. show Monday, the audience just wants to see Johnson spring from the water tank and take another breath.
If You Go
Lion’s Club Bluegrass Fair
When: Gates open 5 p.m. through Fri., 3 p.m. Sat., Sun.
Where: Masterson Station Park, 3501 Leestown Road
Admission: $6 (cash only). Ride wristbands are $20.
Lady Houdini: Performances at 7 p.m., 9:30 p.m. through Friday, 4:30, 7 and 9:30 p.m. Sat., Sun. Ladyhoudini.com.