Buried and Not Forgotten

May 1999

Buried and Not Forgotten

By John Moehring

“There is a rumor going around that there is a gimmick to the thing. I pledge my word of honor there isn’t a thing to it, excepting to lie down and keep quiet.”

– Harry Houdini,

in an August 1926 letter to

circus-magician friend James Harto

From day one, there were plenty of skeptics, those who didn’t believe David Blaine’s “Buried Alive” was for real. And even after the seventh day, when he rose from his well laid grave, there were still many convinced it was an illusion, a mere magician’s trick.

The week before David Blaine went underground with his existent 24/7 staging of the age-old stunt – to publicize his April 15 ABC Magic Man special – Time Out New York hit the news stands, hyping the event to the hilt. “It’s a mixture of brash self-promotion and genuine danger,” wrote Brett Martin in the weekly magazine subtitled The obsessive guide to impulsive entertainment. “The stunt brings to mind Harry Houdini; in fact, it was inspired by a feat the master showman was planning at the time of his death.”

Indeed, Houdini’s infamous Otis lithograph “Buried Alive, Egyptian Fakirs Outdone” had been printed. And in 1926, the year he died, Houdini had already conducted a test-run “Buried Alive,” surviving for an hour and a half inside a sealed metal casket submerged in the pool of the Hotel Sheldon in New York city.

Now, almost three-quarters of a century later, Time Out proudly announced that 25-year-old David Blaine would “Pull a Houdini.” Listed were complete details on how to find the location where David was to stage his April 5 -12 “grand stunt.” Martin advised readers that “Blaine insists there’s no secret involved in his version.” The cover-story quoted David himself: “It’s not a trick. It’s a test of endurance of what the human body and mind can stand.”

At 10 a.m., Monday, April 5, 1999, David Blaine was laid to rest about six feet into a Donald Trump development, facing New York’s elevated West Side Highway, overlooking the Hudson River. It was actually a muddy, ongoing construction site across from Trump Place at Riverside South. In addition to Trump’s support of the week-long event, James L. Nederlander, chairman of the board of the Nederlander Producing Company, joined forces for promotion of this event.

In less than 24 hours, Blaine’s “Buried Alive” had the TV tabloids talking, or rather, listening to others talking. But hey, that’s what David’s video ventures are about – spontaneous on-camera, on-the-street reactions. Entertainment Tonight’s cover story of April 6, day two of the stunt, featured footage of David wearing silky purple pyjamas, comfortably ensconced in his custom-constructed, climate controlled transparent coffin, A 450-gallon Plexiglas tank of water, snugly positioned over the casket, allowed queued-up spectators to pass by, wave, stare, and gawk at Blaine. “It’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen,” gasped one onlooker. Another mumbled, “It’s an illusion… one of those holograms.”

Inside Edition led off their second-day coverage proclaiming, “It was the place to be in New York City last night.” Reactions of spectators ranged from simple statements of “frightening,” “a little scary,” and “a little creepy” to an assessment by so-called magic expert Lorenzo Clark, “Of course it’s a trick… a publicity trick.” A doctor from Lennox Hill Hospital expressed his concerns for Blaine. Carol Burnett joined the flock of fans to peer into the coffin. IE’s Craig Rivera interviewed David Blaine’s closest friend, magician Bill Kalush, who made the statement: “It’s not a trick. It’s not an escape. It’s not even a stunt. It’s a spectacle. It’s kinda the world’s longest piece of performance art.”

But Entertainment Tonight started to question the validity of the stunt, asking, “Is he really in the coffin?” The Amazing Randi was invited to examine ET video of Blaine’s burial. “If he’s actually in that box, my hat’s off to him. That’s quite a good stunt,”

Inside Edition continued on day three with Regis Philbin arriving with a megaphone and hot dogs, tempting Blaine to break his week of fasting, A funeral registry was even available for those wishing to record their condolences.

To kick off fourth-day coverage, the Entertainment Tonight cameras panned down the crowded line, showing well over a hundred. Police barricades were added for crowd control. A lady holding a toddler called it “a typical New York experience… If there’s a spectacle, people will turn out.” According to security officer Bill MacLellan, “Up to now, there’s been 40,000 people.” Movie stars like Edward Norton and Drew Barrymore popped onto the screen, ET proclaimed David’s burial “a fullscale media attraction.”

Inside Edition went on to report that “His stature has gone from spectacle to phenomenon, with thousands keeping a round-the-clock vigil to see this daredevil.” That evening, Donald Trump stared into the illuminated gravesite: “No question about it. David’s the bravest person I’ve ever seen.”

On day five, Al Roker was broadcasting NBC’s Today Show weather report from Trump Place: “As rain falls in Manhattan, the underwater gravesite turns into a Hollywood sideshow.” Later, ET re-aired a segment of the Rosie O’Donnell show, where Rosie sent her own cameras to confirm that “David is really down there!” Actress LeeLee Sobieski stepped out of a limo, gazed down at David and said, “He seems claustrophobic in that tomb-style tank.” Cathy Rigby, in town for revival of Peter Pan, showered fairy dust and good wishes over the coffin.

Over the weekend and into the final 48 hours, The New York Daily News reported an additional 30,000 flocked to the site, despite the rain. Leonardo DiCaprio telephoned Donald Trump from a film location in Thailand for a progress report, Marie Blood, niece of the legendary Houdini, visited the site and praised David’s stamina, “Houdini would be flabbergasted at the whole thing,” she said. “It’s really amazing.” On Sunday night, Blaine’s mentor, Uri Geller, paid homage and, standing over the coffin, told reporters: “Simple ideas sometimes take off. David’s personality, his charisma, and his Mindpower were the elements that made this such a phenomenon.”

Phenomenal was the word to describe the stunt’s ability to capture the focus of the media. On Monday at 10 a.m., an estimated 100 news teams were at the coffin-opening ceremony. There were chants of “David! David! David!” as the tank was lifted off. When he sat upright and smiled, he was asked if it was nice to breathe fresh air. His answer, “It’s amazing. . . “

After a brief statement, Blaine was whisked away in an ambulance, leaving the crowd wondering if the “Buried Alive” was for real or just an unreal magician’s publicity stunt. “I frankly don’t care how he did it…” declared skeptic and debunker James Randi. “He did it! He got the press from all over the world, and that’s what it’s all about.”


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