Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Birth of Mr.Escape

I began my professional performing career back in 1956. During that time I performed as a comedy magician, a dove worker, close-up magician and stage performer. I was known as "The Great Gerhardt" for a while, which is a story in itself. But in February 22, 1967, I officially became Steve, Mr. Escape, Baker.
This came about in a most interesting way. Back in 1923 the great Harry Houdini was performing in Oakland, and he chose the Tribune Tower Building to do his outdoor upside down straight jacket escape from. At the time, the Tribune Tower Building had not yet been completed. Houdini was raised up to the ninth floor and then escaped. People in attendance said Houdini presented the escape in an 'amazing' time, but no actual time was recorded for posterity.
A member of my church had been present at Houdini's escape in 1923 and she shared with me her experience. It just so happened that I was going to be doing a fundraising show for my church and we thought this would be a great way to generate publicity for the show. No one had any idea just how much publicity this stunt would eventually generate.
The number of people who came out to watch me attempt the escape was first reported as 12,000 in the newspapers. But later estimates were as high as 22,000 people. Newspaper photos of the crowd show a sea of people covering blocks of downtown Oakland. There was a parade of antique cars before my stunt and my crew and I were escorted to the Tribune Tower Building in one of the cars supplied by the Antique Auto Club of Oakland.
Dawn Wells from Gilligan's Island
The Mayor of Oakland, John Redding was the official time keeper. Also in attendance were Oakland Tribune columnist, Bob MacKenzie who was also the events master of ceremonies, Actress Dawn Wells who played Mary Ann on Gilligans Island, former Alameda County Sheriff H.P. Jack Gleason, Tribune security guards Bill Willmoth and Roy Earp. My crew consisted of my father who was my head male assistant and Miss San Leandro, Pamela Zweifel who was my female assistant.
The two security guards placed me into the straight jacket. One of security guards, Roy Earp, happened to be the nephew of the famous Wyatt Earp of OK Corral fame. After I was strapped in, Sheriff Gleason checked all the bindings to be sure I was tightly secured and proceeded to sinch them up even more. Up to this point the noise from the crowd was quite loud. But as soon as they started to raise me in the air, things began to quiet. In fact, the silence was almost deafening. The crowd could actually hear the sound of the rope and pulley as I was being raised. I held a scarf in my mouth that when dropped would signify the start of my escape. But at that moment, I was just marveling at the sea of people beneath me. Everywhere I looked there were people. They were all over the streets, standing on the roof tops of buildings, and hundreds stuck their heads out the windows of the buildings that were within view.
I looked upwards and could see the pole that jutted out from a tenth floor window. The moment of truth was only inches away. I said a quick prayer, mentally prepared myself and then I dropped the red scarf. I could almost feel the crowd take a deep breath in unison as I started my struggle. I had rehearsed this escape in my head a million times and now it was time for me to burst into action. Frankly, it was more of a surreal blur because six seconds after I released the scarf from my mouth, I was free. I huge burst of confetti was released at the moment of my freedom and the crowd below went wild. I pulled myself up vertically and began waving to my new found fans. Maybe it was from hanging upside down for so long, or maybe it was the electricity given off by the excitement of the crowd, but I felt more alive at that moment than ever before in my life.
When I made it back to the ground, Dawn Wells threw her arms around me and kissed and hugged me. When she finished my assistant Miss San Leandro continued with the exuberant kisses. Not a bad way to be greeted after hanging ten stories in the air. The surrounding crowd was cheering and celebrating this incredible stunt. The editor of the Tribune presented me with a commemorative plaque that had my photo and Houdinis side by side. Afterwards I signed autographs, greeted fans, shook hands and enjoyed my new found fame, but the crowds excitement continued for a very long time.
I had just not only duplicated Houdini's 1923 escape, but I had beat it by being raised one story higher and escaping faster.
By the way, a few days later I performed the fundraiser for my church. So many people came to see the show that they had to turn people away. There was only room for five hundred. The performance hall was overflowing with people.
My show was billed as 'An Evening of Mirth, Magic and Mayhem". During the show I presented my full dove act, my complete comedy magic act and ended the show with an escape from a postal service mail bag. My church raised a lot of money that evening.
A wonderful ending for a great cause and a wonderful beginning for Mr. Escape.

For the record, I did my escape 44 years after Houdini and this blog is appearing 44 years after my escape!


  1. Hey Steve, Happy Anniversary. Hope it's a good day for you.

  2. HAPPY BIRTHDAY Mr. Escape.... and thanks to John Cox for reminding me of your wonderful career!

    Harry Whodini1

  3. Friday night the Paramount Theatre in Oakland showed an MGM newsreel with your Houdini escape in Oakland.
    The audience loved it.
    Gary Meyer
    Oakland Magic Circle