Friday, Feb. 21, 1997 | 11:59 a.m.
Lance Burton thought being buried alive was a tough gig.
But that was before he attempted a water torture stunt that magic legend Harry Houdini concocted but never performed.
"It was the scariest illusion I've ever done," Burton said, referring to being strapped in a straitjacket, then padlocked in a cramped, water-filled chamber. "When you can't get oxygen, your mind begins to do funny things."
After taping the stunt twice for his NBC special "Lance Burton, Master Magician: The Encounter," airing at 8 p.m. Monday, Burton thinks Houdini had the right idea.
"I know I'll never do it again," he said recently, munching on a Big Mac between shows in his dressing room at the Monte Carlo hotel-casino on the Strip. "It was just too dangerous.
"When you're under water, you have no sense of what's going on outside the tank," he explained. "You're in your own little world. Everything's a blur. It's very surreal."
In the trick, Burton is strapped in a straitjacket and lowered into an airtight tank filled with water. The lid is padlocked and chained, and Burton begins struggling to free himself from the tight confines. He is submerged for 2 minutes and 30 seconds before a tarp is thrown over the tank. Seconds later, he emerges on stage, dripping wet.
Burton conditioned himself to hold his breath by submerging himself in a bathtub filled with water and doing cardiovascular exercises to strengthen his lungs.
Still, when the 2:30 mark passed, the assistants on stage -- armed with axes to break into the tank if the stunt went awry -- edged from concern toward panic.
"It didn't get to the point where I thought I wouldn't get out," Burton said. "But I was very close to the panic point. This was much more intense than I had expected. There is something in your DNA about being under water. Either you handle it or you drown."
Burton said he had hoped to get what he wanted from the water chamber trick during the first night of mid-January tapings, so he wouldn't have to do it a second time.
"But we didn't capture all we wanted the first time around, so we had to do it a second night," he said.
The show was taped before an audience at the $27 million Lance Burton Theatre at the Monte Carlo, where Burton has signed an unprecedented 13-year contract.
Burton said he decided to try the stunt to top the featured segment from last year's television special. In that, he was buried alive in a coffin in the Valley of Fire, northeast of Las Vegas.
"That's not as bad, because at least you can shove the dirt down as you crawl upward and you still have some air," he said. "In the water, the only air you have is in your lungs."
Burton opens this year's show by making a giant flying saucer appear on stage, then takes the audience on a supposed trip to Area 51, a restricted base northwest of Las Vegas.
Burton just grinned when asked where the "Area 51" segment of the show actually took place, and publicist Wayne Bernath said only that it was "somewhere out in the desert."
The TV special also includes segments from his popular stage show, which opened at the Monte Carlo in June.
Burton, 36, stopped through Las Vegas 14 years ago for an eight-week gig and stayed to become a premier magician.
He became enamored by the business at the impressionable age of 5 when magician Harry Collins picked him from the audience to participate in a trick at a 1965 Christmas party in his hometown of Louisville, Ky.
"I'd probably be driving a tractor back in Kentucky right now" if it hadn't been for that fateful event, Burton has said.
Collins began plucking silver dollars from behind the ears of the awestruck youngster.
"I thought, 'What a great way to make money,'" Burton recalled. "'You just take it from midair.'"