Straitjacket Routine

During my time as a street performer I have had three straitjackets and each one was very different, the last one was made to measure and is still quite unique.

The straitjacket I started out with was a very inferior quality straitjacket but it had a hidden secret to help the escape and I was suckered into believing it was the way forward. It literally fell apart after the first couple of weeks of doing two shows a day.

My next straitjacket was one I bought from Davenport's, it was green which I always thought was strange colour but it was very strong canvas and the straps were securely attached to the body of the jacket. I had to learn to do the escape properly and actually escape for real.

When I bought the jacket my younger brother was visiting with us and he was about 14 at the time. I had seen an escape artist doing a straitjacket escape while hanging upside down and I remember his hand coming out of the jacket to unbuckle the strap between his legs, it was an outdoor event with his loud music coming over the speaker system and the appearance of the hand was very dramatic. I had remembered this and thought I would create some of the same drama, unfortunately my kid brother howled with laughter. His reaction set off a train of thought that eventually made my routine a very unique and original straitjacket escape. This was about 1982 and there were a few people doing comedy straitjacket escapes but all of them relied on spoken gags so I decided to make the comedy more visual.

My first idea was to use a rubber hand, which was hidden in one of the sleeves, and to bring that out of the jacket. Its appearance at the bottom of the jacket always got a laugh then I would jump up and down as if I was using the action to force my hand out, the rubber hand would start wobble out of control and when I judged the time was right I would release it to fly through the air and invariably hit someone. After a while I could aim it a specific person if I wanted to - the reaction was always one of massive laughter.

This idea of hiding something inside the jacket to retrieve it later was completely new and original but I understand that now it is quite standard (I've heard it referred to as "that old idea").

The Davenport's straitjacket served me well, I did replace the straps a few times and taking the straitjacket to a cobbler was always a bit of fun. In Covent Garden Market all the performers would sit underneath the portico where pigeons would be flying around and certain times of the year their stomachs seemed to be more upset than at other times and if anything dropped onto the straitjacket I had to clean it off fast because the droppings ate through the canvas.

My routine was very funny but it never really took off until I got a new straitjacket.

I found out who made the straitjackets for Davenport's and asked if him if he could do a made to measure straitjacket for me, he was a bit reticent at first but when I described what I wanted he invited me to his workshop to discuss it.

I can't remember the guy's name but he lived on the edge of Clapham Common. When I rang the doorbell I was sure I was being watched from houses on the opposite side of the street, it was just a feeling that everything was not as it seemed. His workshop was in his house and it turned out that his main job was supplying sex and fetish shops with rubber wear, all sorts of rubber clothing and I must admit they were very pleasing to look at.

As I chatted with him I realised he had an amazing knowledge of restraints of all kinds. He even told me the origins of the thumb tie, it seems that at one time in Japan when a soldier was captured on the battle field he would be tied up and there were different methods of tying depending on the rank of the soldier. The highest ranking officers had their thumbs tied together with red silk cords. So when the thumb tie was first introduced into the repertoire of a Japanese magician he used red cord because it was synonymous with rank and the magician was implying that he was of the highest rank. Whether or not that story is true I cannot say but it is an interesting theory.

Some of the straitjackets this guy had were made of the finest and softest leather I have ever come across, the arms hung down at the sides and were secured in place by leather straps going around the body, there was absolutely no chance of escaping from this jacket. It was explained to me that some people like the idea of not being able to escape while things happened to them and he asked if perhaps I was one of those and would I like to try to escape from one of the leather jackets - just for fun. Coward that I am, I refused.

As we discussed why I wanted the modifications I wanted he started coming out with some ideas of his own and he got carried away with the fun of my proposed new routine, eventually we agreed on a price and he measured me for my designer straitjacket.

I wanted it black because it's a sinister colour but on a practical level it wouldn't show the dirt. The arms instead of being cut at near enough right angles to the body were cut much deeper giving a slight bat-wing appearance, the body was large enough to give me wriggle-room but the one big departure from a normal straitjacket was the addition of the arm length of the left arm - it was 6 foot long.

The bat-wing where the arm meets the body of the straitjacket was to give me room to get my elbows out of the arm and into the body of the jacket, I didn't think anyone would notice the unusual shape and if they did would they know it wasn't regulation shape? - I doubt it. I wanted more room in the body because it gets very hot and sweaty during the escape and I needed to know that any perspiration from my body would not be slowing down the escape. The long arm I must admit I hadn't thought through.

When I took possession of the jacket Anna attached strips with small studs to the raised collar of the jacket and down the front. To these strips were attached a white shirt collar with both sides of a tie-it-yourself bow tie and down the front was a frill of the sort that go in and out of fashion but are recognisable as being from a formal evening dress shirt. These were detachable for cleaning and repairs. A fake red rose was added and my formal designer straitjacket was complete.

The routine
The bare bones of the routine

I would invite two people out to help then pick up the straitjacket, which was folded inside out, and after a few verbal and visual gags I would get the assistants to hold up the jacket with the inside to the crowd and I would turn my back on the audience to put my arms into the sleeves of the jacket.

When I turned around to face the audience and they saw the collar, bow tie, rose and frill there would be instant laughter - the left sleeve at this time was pushed up inside of itself so that it looked to be the same length as the right sleeve and to keep everything in place I would be holding onto the part where the strap was riveted onto bottom of the sleeve.

Some more verbal gags then the straps down the back would be buckled tight followed by the strap between my legs, I would be talking snapping out gags constantly.

I would then ask each assistant to take a strap (the ones attached to the ends of the sleeves) and I would instruct them pull them tight then to walk around my body keeping the arms as tight as possible. As soon as I felt the pressure on the left sleeve I would allow the sleeve to expand a slowly as I could. This always provoked massive laughter. At the end of the stretching there were a few more verbal gags.

After the laughter died down I asked the assistants to walk around my body keeping the arms as tight as possible. This was very difficult for them because they were moving at different speeds so to "help" them I would lift my arms so that they could move around more easily but in fact all I was doing was tying them up as they tried to walk around me. After a minute they would be so tied up in the mess they couldn't move then I had to start maneuvering to release them.

Once they were back to the beginning I allowed them to wrap the arms around my body.

I would then explain that I was going for a record and it needed to be timed, someone from the audience was asked to time me.

A soon as the command was given for me to start I would be jumping up and down and twisting rapidly then the arms would start moving down my body but because of the length of the left arm my legs would get tied together and I would start to dance like a 1920's flapper (you had to see it to understand) and eventually the arms would be free. When the arms were free I would tell the crowd I wasn't fit enough then I would swing the arms around behind me and start skipping.

After the skipping I would start jumping up and down then I would stand perfectly still and the hand would appear from the bottom of the straitjacket it would fly off then I would release the strap from between my legs. A hand would then appear from the top of the jacket and it would have a handkerchief, which I used to mop the sweat from my forehead and I would loosen the bow tie.

I would then tell the person timing me that they had to whip the audience up into a frenzy and count down from ten. To help them I would produce a cheer leaders pompom from the bottom of the jacket. I loved that part because the pompom expanded so much when it came out it didn't look possible for it to have been hidden anywhere. I would get the person to wave the pompom around to help get everyone worked up then I would ask for the countdown to begin.

When the countdown started I would suddenly get the timer to do a little dance and I would stand and smile as if I was enjoying the dance then suddenly remember what I was supposed to be doing and when the countdown got to two I would pull the jacket over my head and throw it into the air.

The routine was full of verbal and lots of visual gags and I had to work hard to get out of the jacket, on the street this routine was the perfect way to end my act - it had everyone in fits of laughter, it had an ending that was full of energy and people loved it.

Incidents

One time in Canada I was all set to go when a small child, looked to be about 18 months old, toddled out and grabbed the strap hanging down between my legs. He then lifted his feet of the ground and started to swing. There was absolutely nothing I could do and by the time his parents had caught him (he started to run around me and they couldn't catch him) I was in fits of laughter and couldn't do anything for quite a few moments.

Another time someone took the strap at the back and tied it around the buckle and I had to work very hard to get out.

So after these incidents I made sure the straps were long enough to grip and pull through the buckle but short enough to be no danger to me.

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