Confined by a straitjacket one fall evening, Paul Krendl shook his head, took a deep breath and plunged head-first into the water. With weights strapped around his belly, he sunk to the bottom.
He’s not crazy. He’s a magician.
And in this moment the Virginia Beach resident and longtime Oceanfront entertainer is practicing a stunt that takes two of Houdini’s most well-known escapes — from a straitjacket and from a Chinese Water Torture Cell while upside-down — and combines them.
“It’s been coined as impossible,” Krendl said earlier in his office, surrounded by newspaper clippings about his other tricks, shows and accomplishments — some of which once had similar adjectives. Few in the world can say they’ve escaped from a water cell, and fewer still can say they did so while confined by a straitjacket or anything else, according to Dean Gunnarson, one of the world’s expert escapists.
Krendl wants to debut the act in Australia where he is on tour with The Illusionists 1903, the latest show of the global magic brand. The stunt without the jacket earned him a role in the show as “The Escapist.” He was hoping to retire the act because of its difficulty and the physical toll it takes, not ramp up and make his name on.
“Life’s just not meant to be bound up and tortured under water,” said Malena Sharkey, a free-diving instructor at the Chesapeake Bay Diving Center who was helping Krendl wrestle control of his lungs after he fell in.
She kept her eyes glued to the magician. They took the precaution of staying in the pool’s shallow end because Krendl’s body had yet to withstand the stress of the stunt and because he wouldn’t be able to signal to Sharkey if his lungs or mind buckled. In a previous drill they used to work to this point, Krendl escaped from two-pairs of handcuffs while dipped vertically into the pool upside-down. His hands and arms were bound inside the straitjacket along against his torso.
Thrashing wildly to indicate the need for help doesn’t work — that looks identical to the movements Krendl needs to make to get out of the jacket.
“We’re working on it,” he said of a distress signal. They’re working on an emergency response plan, too, he added.
The water cell looks like a glass telephone booth. Krendl has been escaping from it for three years for Oceanfront crowds and performing for them for nearly 15 years. He’s been doing magic since he read a book on illusions at age 10.
His first show was at a McDonald’s when he was 12. The gig paid $5.
That was in his hometown of Delphos, Ohio, a city of about 7,000 people. He moved to Virginia Beach as a 19-year-old in 2000 to work as an entertainer for the city.
It did not work like magic. One of the higher-ups of Beach Street USA, the events program created by the city, laughed at him on one of his first days and remarked at how bad he was.
“It’s a lot more work here than back on my horse farm” in Ohio, Krendl said. “People just wanted horse (manure) to disappear there, not coins.”
But with hard work he soon learned enough tricks to get cheers from crowds, and a year later formed his company, Magical Solutions Inc. Today, his company grosses more than $1 million annually, has four full-time employees, more than 20 contractors and a newly opened office in Los Angeles.
“We’re expanding so much, we can’t keep up,” Krendl, 36, said in October in his crammed 3,000 square-foot warehouse near Dam Neck and London Bridge roads.
A few dozen bubbles popped on the surface of the pool, releasing carbon dioxide. The straitjacket surfaced. Krendl didn’t.
The weight belt anchored him down, just as he wanted.
Wrestling out of the jacket in a pool is easier than in the cell, and he needed to acclimate his lungs to longer periods without air. Muscles burn oxygen in the body when they contract, so the exertion of wrangling out of something can drastically reduce the time he can hold his breath.
Twice while training in the cell, Krendl freaked out and walloped his head on the glass wall. The second knock busted his head open more than the first and turned the water a murky red, he said. Other times he emerged vomiting or unconscious with the help of assistants.
On this day, Krendl, who dislikes his given name, Paul, so much that his Facebook profile is “Krendl Krendle,” emerged smiling, scars atop his head.
After collecting his breath he asked Sharkey for the news he’s been waiting for: “Time?”
The answer wasn’t good. It took him well more than the 3 minutes he’d have to complete the maneuver in the cell on stage. Krendl rested at the edge of the pool.
Despite running one of the largest magical entertainment businesses in Coastal Virginia and touring with some of the world’s best magicians, Krendl said he still lacks confidence off stage. In many ways, magic has always been a crutch for him, a compensation for a guy who is less-than social and keeps his head down when he can’t hide behind props.
As a child, Krendl’s card tricks made him interesting to his peers. When he was in the eighth grade, a teacher sent a note home with him warning against tom-foolery and magic tricks during study hall, he said.
He didn’t realize until his mid-20s in Virginia Beach that the people watching also liked him, not just the acts.
Krendl started pouring himself into his shows. What began as simple magic acts evolved to performances with plot lines or themes. He began adding messages that went beyond magic, including a quote from Carl Sagan during a laser show and a trick in which Krendl shreds a newspaper while talking about all the horrible happenings and “bad news” in the world. He believes you can find faith, hope and love in anything with a positive spin. The trick culminates with him moving his hands to reveal a restored paper.
Tricks like these — including the water cell — have become an extension of Krendl. Ways he can communicate a message of hope, that even the worst odds can be overcome.
That’s why he keeps stacking the odds against him, he said. It’s why he wanted to pull off a “truly crazy” stunt.
He thought about escaping from a burning rope while hanging upside down over the ocean. He said he called someone who might have known how David Copperfield did something similar. The man told him he couldn’t give up the secret.
But he had a water cell for sale.
In under three minutes, Krendl thrashed off a straitjacket, broke free from foot stocks and picked a padlock that locked him in the cell. Then he did it again — and again, he wrote in December from Australia, still on tour with “The Illusionists 1903.”
He had broken down each element of the stunt and practiced them separately, each time adding and taking another step toward his goal.
When he finally reached it, an unforgettable sensation shot through him, he said.
“It’s as if you feel alive and yet brand new all at the same time,” he wrote. “Nothing else is on your mind except for that moment as if you are forced to enjoy the present because you felt you had no future, just a moment ago…of course that could of been the lack oxygen to my brain, lol.”
Krendl is already cooking up his next trick.
Something lethal and strange. Something that will get both his and the audience’s blood flowing. Something crazy.
He wants to escape from an electric chair.
Krendl said he pitched it to “The Illusionists” folks.
“I thought they’d think it was too dark,” he said. “But they loved it.”
Have a story idea or news tip? Contact city hall reporter Judah Taylor at Judah@SouthsideDaily.com or 757-490-2750.
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