Impalement Artist and Dancer Set World Knife-Throwing Record in Soho!

article heilpern Impalement Artist and Dancer Set World Knife Throwing Record in Soho!As
I was on my way to the Soho Playhouse to witness the Great Throwdini attempt to break the world knife-throwing record by throwing 120 knives in 60 seconds around his lovely Russian accomplice, the world-champion rhythmic gymnast known as Ekaterina, my thoughts drifted back to the greatest feat you could ever imagine.

I
was in Dahomey (now Benin), facing the Atlantic Ocean where a historic event was to take place. Every 25 years, the high priest of Ouida leads the entire town down to the seashore. He leads a white bull and sings. Then the high priest sings to the sea—and the sea parts. But that’s not all. He leads the white bull into the path between the waves, further and further, until they both disappear. The townsfolk who witness it happening must remain silent.
Then
they hear singing from beneath the sea. And then the high priest appears again, riding a white horse.

Isn’t
that marvelous? The locals swore to me it had happened in the past, and since the 25th anniversary of the ceremony was now due I would be able to witness it myself.
When the moment came and I had gathered by the shore with many others, alas, the high priest was taken ill. Also, we were told, he’d never done this particular thing before.

Let
that be a lesson to us all. Never get ahead of yourself.

And
yet it almost seemed miraculous enough to me that anyone could think up the loony idea of parting the sea in the first place. And then there was the singing under the sea and the nice touch about the high priest’s magical reappearance on a white horse. In theater, anyway, what difference does it make whether we actually see the miracles—provided our “imagination amend them,” as the Bard wisely said.

Mind
you, the Great Throwdini, who bills himself as “the World’s Fastest Knife Thrower,” doesn’t get ahead of himself. Well, he daren’t. Impalement artists have to be extra careful, I imagine. One knife too many and who knows? Not only is Throwdini the fastest knife-thrower in the world—throwing two knives per second—but he also is the very first impalement artist to catch knives thrown at him by his partner.

And
yet he only began all this five years ago. Now 50, he found he was a natural knife-thrower when a customer showed him how to do it in a pool hall owned by Throwdini. He’s an unusual man. He’s also, I understand, an ordained minister and qualified chef, as well as a professor of exercise physiology and the author of a 400-plus-page book on biostatistics and electrocardiography. But knife-throwing is his thing.

Before
the show, I sent him this question via his publicity agent, “What happens if anything goes wrong when you’re throwing knives at your assistant, Ekaterina?”

“You
go from hero to zero in the blink of an eye!” he replied.

The
Great Throwdini has a sense of humor. I hadn’t realized that his perilous record-breaking attempt at the Soho Playhouse was but one of the delights on the bill of a variety show named Maximum Risk.

Our
host for the evening was the genial Texas Skip World Champion, Chris McDaniel, who has performed his expert rope-skipping, bullwhipping, trick-roping and lassoing at rodeos and many world-famous venues such as the Wild Horse Saloon in Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry with Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl.

I
must say, for my taste, there’s something a little too pork and beans about cowboys. But Mr. McDaniel, looking like Buffalo Bill, is a man of immense charm and his opening bullwhipping to Frankie Laine’s “Rawhide” soon won me over.
He
not only whipped a straw from his own mouth, he whipped it from the mouth of an audience volunteer. Furthermore, the stage of the Soho Playhouse is little more than the size of a postage stamp. It’s not an ideal venue for bullwhipping, and particularly lassoing. But even when one of Mr. McDaniel’s lassos got caught in the lights above the stage, it didn’t trouble him. He’s a rare artist. He carried on as if nothing had happened and dazzled us just the same.

The
lovely Ekaterina, otherwise known as Katya Sknarina, was born in Pyatigorsk, Russia, and has been the Great Throwdini’s target girl for over a year. What makes beautiful young women do this is unknown. A good friend of mine is a former fashion model who became a magician’s assistant and fire-eater for a while.
When I asked her why, she said it was just something she’d always wanted to do, like joining the circus. She was also a sword-swallower.

In
addition to her duties as a target girl, Ekaterina is also a rhythmic dancer and expert contortionist. She performed a flighty dance with amazing, coy contortions for us in a little polka-dot dress. The whole thing was charming and enthusiastically received. Ekaterina has a way of bowing backward, while beaming at us over her shoulder.

Then
came the World Famous Pontani Sisters. And I love the World Famous Pontani Sisters. The three girls who dance in towering fruit headdresses are a wonderful, kitschy throwback to the lost age of burlesque. Small wonder they have two hot DVD’s, Go-Go Robics 1 & 2. Their first delightful dance was to “Hey, Mambo.” The World Famous Pontani Sisters are sly and plumdumptuous. There’s nothing quite like them.
They’re a serious put-on, a weird dream, a seductive memory of vintage Vegas chic.

The
Great Throwdini, dressed immaculately in white tie and tails with a red cummerbund, attempted his world record at the climax of their second act. He throws his knives at a big board about eight feet away from him with the willowy Ekaterina posing appropriately against it. The thing that worried me a little was that Throwdini wears eyeglasses. But it didn’t seem to bother Ekaterina.

There
were a few chicken-feed warm-ups during which Throwdini threw various tomahawks, axes and machetes. At one point, Throwdini threw the knives at the unfazed Ekaterina while he was blindfolded with a black hood over his head.
But
that was almost too easy, like playing darts. It was impressive when he threw with both hands: equal precision, you see, left and right. But the big one was when he went for the record.

Our
host, Mr. McDaniel, came out to tell us what was at stake as the Great Throwdini carefully adjusted all his knives that were neatly lined up on a special long table before him. We learned that he was about to do something never attempted before in impalement history by throwing three knives at a time at a human target. So in that sense, he wouldn’t be breaking a world record. He would be creating one.

“Don’t
get nervous now!” someone shouted foolishly from the audience. An air of tension was apparent on the stage, and the audience hushed itself as Mr.
McDaniel looked at his stopwatch and began the countdown. Ekaterina, the contortionist, seemed to breathe in deeply—as if creating maximum room for the knives to land. Five-four-three-two-one!

Throwdini
methodically began to throw three knives simultaneously around Ekaterina.
All
three had to stay together, I assumed, otherwise bye-bye Ekaterina. But the board was getting overcrowded. Some knives jammed into the ones that had already landed and clanged to the floor. Any knife that fell didn’t count toward the record. But this was truly remarkable! As the seconds ticked away, the danger of a mistake only seemed to increase. And when the minute was up, and Ekaterina released herself from her dangerously steely outline, the Great Throwdini received a standing ovation.

The
knives that stuck to the board were duly counted. Ninety-seven! Not the hoped-for 120, perhaps, but a world record just the same. Then Mr. McDaniel, the Texas Skip World Champion, brought the tension down a little and sang us a Roy Rogers song. And at the curtain, we gave these sweet troupers and eccentrics and miracle makers another ovation before returning home, smiling.

People
say New Yorkers are cynical people. This is because New Yorkers are cynical people. But we’re all suckers at the theater.

For never anything can be
amiss

When simpleness and duty
tender it.