From Time to Thyme
By Paula Dunn
While researching last week’s column, I stumbled across an item in a 1982 Noblesville Daily Ledger that reminded me of something I’d completely forgotten — daredevil Lucky Teter wasn’t the only person to make a movie in downtown Noblesville.
For a couple of days in May of 1982, the southwest corner of the courthouse square was overrun with cables, lights and sound equipment as scenes were shot for a feature-length film starring Indianapolis radio personality, broadcast entrepreneur and record-breaking escape artist Bill Shirk.
By the time of the filming, Shirk was already well known for performing death-defying feats, such as escaping from a strait jacket while hanging from a helicopter 1,800 feet in the air. Along the way, he set several world records in Escapology and raised thousands of dollars for charity.
In the movie, originally called “Modern Day Houdini” and later known as “The Escapist,” Shirk portrays a fictional version of himself. The plot has him being forced to execute a number of dangerous stunts in order to prevent his radio station from being taken over by a large corporation.
One of those stunts was actually a recreation of an escape he’d performed five years earlier at the old Hamilton County jail, a few months after the new jail opened on Cumberland Road. (The date, October 31, was significant — it was the the 51st anniversary of the death of Shirk’s idol, Harry Houdini.)
Shirk set a new world record for jail breaks during the original escape, freeing himself from three sets of handcuffs, almost 50 pounds of chains and three locked doors while clad only in an athletic supporter.
The motion picture not only highlights some of Shirk’s sensational exploits, it also contains appearances by a number of local radio, television and sports personalities of that time period. Carolyn Churchman, Jim Gerard, George McGinnis, Marvin Johnson and Dick the Bruiser are just a few of the faces you might recognize.
The biggest name in the cast, however, is Indianapolis native Peter Lupus, best known for his role on the 1960s television program “Mission Impossible.”
Several Hamilton County people can also be spotted in the crowd scenes shot on the courthouse square and at the Uptown Cafe. (The Uptown’s owner, Mary Kay McGlinch, kept right on serving up breakfasts to her regular customers while the cameras rolled!)
The world premiere of the movie took place April 14, 1983 at the 800-seat Eastwood Theater in Indianapolis.
That afternoon, to promote the picture and to raise money for charity, Shirk had himself buried alive in a coffin in front of his radio station with six rats as companions. He vowed to stay underground until one regular performance of the film sold out.
Four days later, the rats had become so unruly they had to be sent to the surface, but Shirk stayed on and made a new vow — to come up when Johnny Carson invited him to appear on the Tonight Show.
After about two weeks, however, his health had deteriorated to the point he had to be hauled up, Carson or no Carson.
Shirk went on to perform more amazing escapes after the movie’s release. Now in his 70s, he’s retired from both his radio career and his career as an escape artist.
If you’re curious about “The Escapist,” I discovered DVDs of the film are for sale on Shirk’s website, www.billshirk.com, as are copies of “Modern Day Houdini,” a book he co-authored with Dick Wolfsie (yes, the same Dick Wolfsie whose column appears in the Times.)
Several videos of Shirk’s escapes can also be viewed on YouTube, including the trailer for “The Escapist.”
Thanks to Nancy Massey for research help.