Baltimore escape artist Spencer Horsman's willingness to almost die in front of an audience is proving a smash on NBC's "America's Got Talent."
"Yeah, apparently they like the fact that I'm willing to almost kill and mangle myself every round," Horsman said with a laugh, just a day after his latest escape earned him a spot in the show's final round, being taped this month in New York.
Truly, the 26-year-old, heretofore best known for performing on weekends at his Federal Hill club, Illusions, is going national. He's performed twice on "America's Got Talent." First, he wriggled out of a straitjacket while suspended upside-down above the stage, just before a pair of steel jaws clamped shut on the space where his head had been moments before. The second time, he escaped after being chained inside a padlocked cube filled with water.
Sure, there are easier ways to make a living. But Horsman is making a lot of new fans. That includes the show's three judges — Howard Stern, Sharon Osbourne and Howie Mandel — who have been impressed (or scared) enough to keep him in the competition. He's among the 48 performers still in the running for the $1 million grand prize.
"The whole thing has just been a surprise to me," said Horsman, whose escapes recall the death-defying acts of his idol, Harry Houdini. "They'd never had an escape artist on the show before. They'd had magicians, but they'd never had an escape artist. So I didn't know what to expect."
Neither, apparently, did the judges. "What the hell is it?" asked Osbourne when the jaws apparatus — which Horsman said was patterned after a torture device from the first "Saw" film — was unveiled before Horsman's first appearance. "It looks hideous."
A squirming Osbourne could barely watch as Horsman struggled his way out of the straitjacket, then fell to the floor just moments before a burning cord snapped and the giant contraption clanged shut.
"I can't stand it," she said. Added a relieved Mandel after Horsman made his escape: "I think that America is mesmerized by this stunt."
Horsman doesn't exactly laugh at danger, but he understands it's what keeps audiences watching — and him in the hunt for that million-dollar grand prize.
"There's a great quote from Houdini that actually still holds true today," he said, "which is, 'People don't like to watch other people get hurt or injured, but they love to be on the spot where it happens.' It's completely true — they have their hands out in front of their eyes, but they're still peeking through from between their fingers."
Horsman's had plenty of time to think about why audiences find the sort of stuff he does so fascinating. He's been performing for some 18 years; at age 8, he was doing a ventriloquist act, one that got him booked onto "The Late Show with David Letterman."
"I've been picking locks and learning how to do things like that since a very young age," he said. Perhaps that shouldn't be a surprise; both his parents were clowns with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. At age 4, he was demonstrating tricks to customers at his dad Ken's magic shop on Charles Street, Ken-Zo's Yogi Magic Mart.
Five years ago, Horsman and his dad opened Illusions. On weekend nights, Horsman does his straitjacket escapes for the audience, usually suspended from a crane. He's even done the water cube trick there a few times, he said.
Whatever happens with "AGT," Horsman promised, he'll be coming back to Federal Hill.
"I still do my shows every Friday and Saturday at the bar," Horsman said. "If by some miracle I win 'America's Got Talent,' I will be at the bar for as long as I possibly can.
"So come see me now," he said only half-jokingly, "before I get snatched up by Vegas."
The final round of "America's Got Talent" will be broadcast live beginning Monday. Horsman is set to perform on the July 17 show. He won't say what he'll be doing but promises it will be something he's never done before.
"I'm not repeating anything," he promised. "It's something out of my comfort zone, that I have not really dealt with before."
Horsman said he has yet to meet the judges offstage; show officials discourage such things, he noted. But he's eager, he said, to make at least one judge's acquaintance.
"I haven't had the chance to meet Sharon yet," he said. "As soon as I do, I'd like to apologize for almost giving her a heart attack twice now."
If you watch
"America's Got Talent" airs at 8:30 p.m. Monday and 9 p.m. Tuesday on WBAL/Channel 11. Horsman is set to return July 17.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times