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Escape Artist Disappears From Knott’s Assemblage

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was heavily promoted as a “daring brush with death,” but an underwater escape stunt that had been planned for tonight at Knott’s Berry Farm might best be considered a disappearing act.

Citing “technical difficulties,” amusement park officials on Monday canceled the long-scheduled appearance of Michael Griffin, an Ohio performer who bills himself as “America’s Escape Hero.”

To “commemorate” the Oct. 31, 1926, death of Harry Houdini, Griffin had been booked to perform his act in a sealed-off portion of the park’s dolphin tank.

“We were going to have a couple of police officers come on stage and secure me in their handcuffs, then chain me with 20 pounds of chain to two cinder blocks,” a disappointed Griffin said in a telephone interview from his home in Powell, Ohio. “Then I was going to jump off a 20-foot platform into the dolphin tank, into 16 feet of water at a temperature of about 50 degrees. There would be no life-saving measures,” he stressed.

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Griffin estimated that “depending on the different variables, such as what I have ingested in the preceding 24 hours, the water temperature and the rate of exertion, it would have taken me 30 seconds to 1 minute to escape. Then I would have come out and thanked the audience.”

For Griffin, who was to have performed the stunt twice a day through Saturday, the Orange County appearance would have brought back some watery memories. The 30-year-old “escapologist” says he performed his first underwater escape on Aug. 16, 1982, in Newport Harbor.

“We ran into some trouble with that one,” he recalled. “I got stuck on the bottom and the leg irons filled up with gunk. I was just about to blow out my air and start sucking in water--but then I remembered those pictures of people who drowned, who were all purple in the face. I just told myself, ‘Let’s get back to work.’ ” Indeed. As clocked by a Times reporter, that escape took Griffin 35 seconds.

Griffin insists that his act isn’t an illusion: “It’s primary reality. I know that, because every time I come back from a tour, I’ve got cuts and bruises all over me. Every single night I don’t know what’s going to happen.” He likened the interest in his act to that of a famed motorcycle stuntman of the 1970s.

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“It’s the same fascination there was with Evel Knievel. What he did wasn’t a trick. Everybody knew he might be severely injured, that he might die. That’s what I do, and I love it. It’s my high.”

Concerned as they might have been about Griffin’s longevity, Knott’s officials insisted they canceled the show because of “an operational problem” with the dolphin tank.

Spokesman Stuart Zanville said that Griffin’s act might disrupt the dolphins, even though they would not be in the tank when the stunt was performed. He said the park had sought to restage the escape act somewhere else, but couldn’t find a suitable location.

Griffin agreed that sensitivity to dolphins was important, but he suggested that more might be involved in Knott’s action than park officials acknowledged.

Noting that last Oct. 31, a Fresno stuntman called Amazing Joe died during an escape act, Griffin asserted that “every Halloween, an escape artist has been killed trying to duplicate Houdini.” The legendary magician died 65 years ago today, after a spectator punched him in the stomach, mistakenly believing that Houdini could withstand any blow to the abdomen.

Every time he has scheduled a Halloween escape act, Griffin said, “there’s always something that comes up, always ‘technicalities’ that prevent me from going forward. I don’t know anything about the spirit world, but I do know there’s some kind of unseen reason why I haven’t been able to do it--and the other guys have ended up dead.”


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