Lock, stock, and the daunting water torture cell

At 33, Dennis Watkins has been performing magic for over a quarter of a century, having learned the ancient secrets of teleportation, mind reading, and other wondrous feats from his grandfather, the renowned Texas magician Ed Watkins, who died in 2005. These days, Watkins, a local actor who helped launch the boisterous House Theatre of Chicago, continues the family legacy. Starting July 7, he returns in the critically acclaimed Death and Harry Houdini, in which he replicates Houdini’s famed escape from the water torture cell (see below). Friday nights, he’s at the Palmer House Hilton, bending the laws of physics in the late-night show The Magic Parlour. Below, Watkins discusses the largely unwritten code of magicians passed down to him by his grandfather.

Dennis Watkins

1. This above all else: Divulge no secrets. Press Watkins to reveal how he teleports dollar bills from an audience member’s pocket to the inside of an (unpeeled!) orange, and he clams up fast. “There’s no way I’m going to tell you how I do anything I perform. I’d never work again if I was known as the magician that gave away secrets. It’s a matter of ethics.” And yes, there’s a real code of ethics for the Society of American Magicians. Rule No. 1: “Oppose the willful exposure to the public of any principles of the Art of Magic.”

2. Train with the best. “My grandfather ran one of the first mail-order magic shops in the country. When I was eight, he started having me read books on magic that were published in the 1920s—that’s still the material I love most, old-school sleights of hand.”

3. Add your own twists. “There’s a common trick magicians do called the card stab. It’s when someone secretly picks a card and then throws the entire deck at you—and you leap up with a knife and stab right through their card as it’s flying through the air with the rest of the deck. It’s an old trick,” Watkins explains, then offers his twist: “I do it from inside a giant balloon that I blow up with a leaf blower and crawl into. When the deck gets thrown, I stab through the balloon into the card. It starts out like the world’s most boring card trick. But add a leaf blower, a butterfly knife, and a man bursting out of a gigantic balloon, and you defy expectations.”

4. Have a plan B. “About 15 percent of the time, something goes wrong. You need to know 30 more tricks you can use for backup. And then you make it look like the backup plan is what you meant to do all along.”

GO The House Theatre of Chicago presents Death and Harry Houdini July 7 to August 17 at the Chopin Theatre. The Magic Parlour is ongoing at the Palmer House Hilton. For info, denniswatkins.net.

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By the Numbers

Arguably Watkins’s most extraordinary feat? Replicating Harry Houdini’s escape from the water torture cell. He’s lowered upside down into a six-foot-tall, 160-gallon tank, his feet chained with six padlocks. Here, we break down the dangerous illusion.

$10,000 = Cost to buy a custom-made water torture cell for Death and Harry Houdini

3 = Max minutes Watkins can hold his breath (average adult: 1 minute, 40 seconds)

2.4 = Minutes Watkins takes to escape the cell “on a good night”

1 = Stagehand with a sledgehammer in case Watkins doesn’t emerge in time


Photography: Michael Brosilow