Part Two: The Tao of The Pendragons
“You are the magician with alchemical powers and this comes with the ability to control, transmute, and maneuver elements…” Robin S Baker
Mastering the elements takes years of discipline and practice. But if the world is to survive, you must do it by summer's end.
What if I can't master all the elements in time? What if I fail?
I know you can do it, Aang, for you have done it before.
Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book1: Water
If you think about it, man is the weakest creature in creation. An insect less than the size of a pinhead to the largest animal on earth can conquer man. So, humanity is vulnerable to everything outside its control without the use of tools and weapons. Recently, I was intrigued by a PBS series called Life After People, about the speculation by experts of what the future lies for Earth in the event humans vanish. The series shows the eventual fate of many human structures like the Sistine Chapel, where nature takes over, and the historical architecture is invaded by plant life, including vines, which absorb the building into the new landscape within a short amount of time, never to be seen again. Animals of every size and type seize Earth as Earth reaches its final destiny without man. Demonstrating this world we live in does not need humankind to survive. After watching this series, I concluded man’s role here is to organize the earth and take up the role of stewardship, ensuring order out of chaos—a position only our Creator can give. But man is a curious creature, and sometimes, he wants to do more than control vegetation and animals; he’s also tempted by the challenge to master the elements — earth, wind, fire, and water. In magic, this test is commonly displayed by magicians and escape artists like Houdini attempting to master matter.
One of these times was when I was approached by producer Gary Oullette to co-star along with many of my colleagues, including Jonathan, in the TV Special — Houdini Unlocking the Secrets. Although no secrets were revealed, my feat was to dare water by attempting to escape chains deep in the depths of Lake Mead starting by jumping off a 35-foot-high boat. To begin, I was covered in Vaseline by our road manager Gary Bartlett and assistant Jarrett Parker to prevent hypothermia due to the cold 62° water temperature in January. Both, of course were delighted to assist me. Following the application of vaseline, the guys shackled me tightly with chains. I breathed some oxygen before a large bucket of ice-cold water was dumped over my head, possibly making me the first to complete the “ice bucket challenge” so popular a few years back. Lol! All joking aside, my biggest fear was not the water but the boat's height to enter the dark, murky water. There was no way for me to rehearse that long leap, so I just went for it. There was a build-up of adrenaline in my body as I stared into the water below me as I prepared. When I landed in the water, I sank deep in its depth from the heavy chains securing me, but I was relieved of the anxiety brought on by my fear of heights. So, I was unaware of the threats presented trying to escape the shackles. As I wormed my body out of my constraints, I was comforted by the presence of the famous stuntman and director Gregory Barnett, who was my underwater safety person. I’d known Gregory and his lovely wife Barbie since the late 70s, and I had worked with him on a Charlie Angel segment, which I’ll discuss in a future publication.
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“I’ve had the pleasure of being on the production team for the Pendragon‘s for over 26 years. 12 years ago I was asked to assist Charlotte on a television special in reference to a Houdini escape TV Special for NBC. My roommate, Jarrett Parker, and I had the pleasure of taking Vaseline and rubbing it all over Charlotte‘s body as an insulator to keep her warm. We proceeded with shackling her up and prepping her for her jump in Lake Mead. Over the course of 26 years, I’ve had a tremendous pleasure watching this amazing woman do things that most people would only dream of doing. She’s one of the most focused and hard-working entertainers I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.” Gary Bartlett road manager for The Pendragons
Gregory has the unique gift of making those he’s working with feel relaxed and calm, so any panic I had during my escape vanished. The worst part of that magic stunt was the cold water. Kent Weed, the Director of the show, was elated when I successfully emerged from the lake holding up the chains. But I had to do one more pick-up shot underwater, which required a second time shackled while fighting icy water trying to escape. It was hours before I could return to Lake Mead due to temporary hypothermia. But at the end of the day, I mastered the water, my fear of the height and the constraints. For a short time I experienced the ability of mastering elements.
“Charlotte Pendragon had been training intensely to match the great escape equal to Houdini. She had appointed me as the head water safety officer for this particular event. I had great faith in Charlotte when I realized that she was going to attempt this dangerous stunt. Her training was vigorous, and her focus has always been very exceptional. We covered the aspect of breath-holding techniques and made sure that she was taking cold ice baths in order to get accustomed to the very cold water temperatures. Needless to say, the escape was performed successfully without any problems whatsoever! Another excellent performance from my dear friend, Charlotte Pendragon.” Gregory Barnett
Photo of Gregory Barnett
For his part on the show, Jonathan completed his stunt, escaping an exploding coffin lifted by a crane and suspended high up over the water of Lake Mead. Tension was high as the live audience watched Jonathan being constrained and locked in a solid wood coffin with an exploding device added to the top of the box as a timer. A nervous audience continued to watch as the box reached its apex, and time was running out for Jonathan to escape. Time did run out as we all watched the box explode before Jonathan’s exit. Where had he fallen among the debris which landed in the water? It was hard to wrap your head around what you thought, “did Jonathan survive?” Then suddenly, a Sea-Doo interrupted thoughts of his survival, and much relief was felt as the audience watched the watercraft appear closer, driven by Jonathan, who seemingly transcended time and space.
Producers informed us the special was The Pendragons because, without commercials, it was 30 minutes long, and about half of that time was our three pieces of magic. On that show, besides our individual parts, we performed our pièce de résistance metamorphosis to a timer, which clocked our speed to less than one-half of a second. A speed that earned The Pendragons a place in the 50th Anniversary edition of The Guinness Book of World Records. For us, speed wasn't the focus of our execution of the famous illusion. Instead, we bent time to complete what appeared as an instant transformation. We could not have performed our transformation better than that day on the Circus Maximus stage at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. It was magic!
Waiting backstage that day at Caesar’s Palace for my cue to enter the stage to perform Metamorphosis, my mind wandered to the time over twenty years earlier when I watched the Substitution Trunk for the first time by Siegfried and Roy. It was here in Las Vegas that Siegfried and Roy performed their version of this famous illusion on Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell, which was broadcast across America. While reflecting, I recalled the time Jonathan and I spent countless hours rehearsing our Sub-Trunk. Back then, never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be standing on one of the most prominent stages in Las Vegas next door to Siegfried and Roy performing Metamorphosis. I was reminded of a lively stage and who I worked with at Caesar’s, Samantha Sage who's responsibility it was to preset our props before the show as well as execute a number of cues during the performance including caring for our dog Kashmere who had a part in our act. One of her more important jobs was setting our substitution trunk correctly on stage, and of course offering camaraderie and friendship. I delighted in seeing Samantha each night at Caesars Palace. She had the special vantage point of watching our exchange from backstage. Mostly she was impressed by our speed and smoothness. Samantha had the unique fortuitous experience of not only working with The Pendragons but also for many years with Siegfried and Roy where one of her obligations was to care for the panther produced at the finale of their metamorphosis. She mentioned to me that when she would sit with the panther she would blow on his face and he would purr. it was wonderful to listen to her tell her perspective about both shows. I was fortunate she provided a quote for this piece. Those days were magical for all of us performing on the famous Las Vegas strip.
“I started at the Stardust in 1980. Siegfried and Roy were stars of the Lido De Paris Show then. One of my cues for the Box was to catch the hand cuffs off stage, and be sure to get that key. Sometimes I would have to go out into the audience to retrieve it. Instead of a cloth, they used two large hula hoops with material sewn on them. When they got ready for the reaveal, it looked like a large cloth tube that fit over the entire box. S&R did not use a sword, but they did use handcuffs, and tied up the box with a long rope. Both S&R changed their costumes inside the box. And at the end, a panther jumped out. It was my job to check the presets and sit with the panther until the Box went onstage. I remember that I used to blow on the panther's face and he would purr! S&R certainly did a fine job, but they used lots of hand motions and fancy costumes, although the moves in the box were very demanding and challenging for both The Pendragons and Siegfried and Roy. However, it was amazing and wonderful to work for S&R. They treated their animals with great love, and they treated the dancers and stagehands very well too as did The Pendragons. Charlotte Pendrgaon not only changed her costume inside the box, but her graceful and athletic moves gave the number a beautiful and powerful visual. And from where I was backstage their metamorphosis where they changed into one another was incredible. Of course I loved Kashmere, their dog. I think both acts were fabulous. I loved being a stagehand for both S&R and the Pendragons. It was a magical time.” Samantha Sage
Previously, I wrote, “So, humanity is vulnerable to everything outside its control without the use of tools and weapons.” The most effective tool or weapon to control most of the animal kingdom is a firearm or gun because often, the hostile wild animal kingdom is deadly without it. For instance, a leopard, which would otherwise maul and kill its prey, can be stopped midair by a bullet while attempting to attack its mark. So mastering the Bullet Catch is showing dominance not just over the animal kingdom but also over the supernatural. It’s no surprise that since the early 1600s, magicians have been fascinated with the ability to stop a shot in midair — and it has since become the ultimate magician challenge. Jonathan was no different and was always seeking a good dare. (A little aside —for this reason, he became a sought-after stuntman in the film and TV industry, where moviegoers watched him double John Belushi doing the backhand springs down the church aisle in The Blues Brothers. But that’s for another Substack story.)
Earlier in our career, when we were Jonathan and Char and still performing the Renaissance Faire, we considered adding the Bullet Catch to our growing collection of illusions and magic effects. Harry Anderson, who played the character on the successful TV series Night Court, still lived near us in Fullerton. One evening, we got together with Harry and discussed the possibility of adding the Bullet Catch to our show. My unfamiliarity with firearms caused me to fear them, so I was hesitant about performing the effect, especially since it was the cause of death for many magicians. That evening, I was pleasantly surprised by the gun introduced to us by Harry. It was an antique flintlock designed after those used in the 1600’s. Generously, Harry gave Jonathan the flintlock to keep for our shows. My fear subsided somewhat because the flintlock was less threatening to me than a modern gun, but less threatening it wasn’t because it could still kill a grown man. That’s the challenge Jonathan would face as he depended on me for his utmost safety. I never failed Jonathan as I respected the firearm and the safety rules established to prevent accidents, which were the fate of several previous magicians who had performed this dangerous stunt. In our routine, Jonathan’s strength was tested by the bullet. I just had to be a good aim.
Before each performance of this dangerous effect, Jonathan loaded the flintlock with gunpowder and a bb style bullet by inviting an audience member to etch their initial on the small round silver ball. Once the task was completed and the participants returned to their seats, we set the stage for the Bullet Catch, with Jonathan first standing in his predesignated place. For my role, I would take the flintlock and walk a determined number of steps away from Jonathan, then turn and face him to finish completing the stunt. Jonathan held a porcelain dinner plate in front of his face. This provided a target, but when hit by the bullet, it provided authentication when the plate broke. Although the stunt wasn't physically challenging compared to others, it took a significant amount of concentration and focus. This, combined with the element of danger, spiked my natural adrenaline. I was always relieved when this illusion was completed. After I shot the flintlock, the plate would break, and the power from the explosion sent Jonathan flying back off his feet until he fell. Stumbling back up, he opened his mouth to show the bullet clinched between his teeth, confirmed by the volunteer the pellet in his mouth was the same one loaded into the gun. I think the audience experienced the same adrenaline rush as myself as the tension built. We all felt a sense of relief when Jonathan finished, and the audience showed their appreciation with much applause and ovation for his accomplishment. They believed Jonathan to be a real magician. Mission accomplished!
Our presentation of the Bullet Catch featured on a PBS TV Special
When you take on stunt magic like Metamorphosis and the Bullet Catch, inevitably, you will be challenged by another magician wanting to better their performance by improving your work. This happened to us when, in the mid-2000s, we were contacted by Criss Angel because he admired our Substitution Trunk and desired to outperform our speed. The problem is that our speed was .24 seconds, done in a literal blink. To perceive it faster, a couple must execute it in less then .24 seconds, which is possible, but only a stopwatch can perceive the variance in speed. The human eye can't tell the difference. Although Criss attempted to beat our time using a big firewall, I think he never had that instantaneous magical transformation we had accomplished using our foulard, although his is one of the fastest. Criss wanted to inherit the title from us for having the best metamorphosis. We met him at the Magic Castle one afternoon to listen to and discuss his proposal, which was a publicity stunt requiring Jonathan and him to participate in a fake fistfight in the parking lot of the Academy of Magical Arts Award Ceremony, where Criss was receiving the Magician of the Year. The media would be filming this scuffle for entertainment news. We turned down the deal for obvious reasons. I left the theater where Criss’ ex-wife had been left outside sitting alone. I invited her inside, but then Criss came out, and they left. We said goodbye and retained our title. No deal!
I'm often asked, “What do I foresee in the future for Metamorphosis?” Once YouTube became popular, I realized how important our Sub Trunk influenced a new generation of magicians. Unless you stepped back in time, few were doing the old 1-2-3; it's me routine. Instead, most magicians I watched on YouTube had copied our style and performance. I remember excitedly telling Jonathan my discovery. This showed me that The Pendragons Metamorphosis was the gold standard for all others. To quote Coco Chanel, “If you want to be original, be ready to be copied.” I am unsure if we were ready then, but we were sure copied. I advise young aspiring magicians, “If you are copied, then you are doing something right.” We partnered with the late Louis Falanga, who owned L&L Publishing in Lake Tahoe, to publish a four-DVD instructional set of The Pendragons' magic, including our metamorphosis, enabling magicians to learn our techniques. One of the magicians who purchased the set was Australian illusionist Sam Powers, who contacted me following posting his Metamorphosis video on YouTube for us to watch and give critique. Sam represented many of these magicians during that time. What made him stand out among his peers is he understood Metamorphosis was more than just a speedy trick, as if it were merely an athletic endeavor. He understands the essence of the effect—the metaphysical aspect of performing the illusion. When Sam escapes the bonds of the trunk, you can feel the transformation he makes by overcoming his constraints. Sam brings his powerful presentation of the Metamorphosis into the 21st Century. His is Supersonic as seen in this video presentation of his work.
Sam Powers with his partner Robyn performing Supersonic Metamorphosis
Pictured here Sam Powers
“Your one-of-a-kind metamorphosis was not equal to Sigfried and Roy’s, it far excelled theirs, and I say that with the greatest respect to Sigfried and Roy, who were absolute legends and magic. Thank you for sharing the geGenesisf your metamorphosis story. I have obsessed about your work on this solution more than anything else in magic, or my entire life for that matter and this was just so cool to read.” Sam Powers 🙏✨
In real life, each of us is occasionally trapped and confined within ourselves, and most want to transform into somebody enlightened and better. To do so means modification in ones life which can often be harsh. But in the end a beautiful butterfly is born. Above all, spiritual metamorphosis is God's greatest desire and delight. It’s through him, I've successfully experienced what it’s like to understand man’s desire for victory over his elements. In the end you discover, no one can beat God.
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