- Leslie Gray Streeter Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
For more than a decade, Kristen “Lady Houdini” Johnson has made her living as an escape artist. She wriggles out of shackles in a glass box filled with water. She escapes from a straitjacket while hanging from a crane. Her stunts routinely leave fans in shock and delight.
But about a year ago, she was the one left shocked, in a mangled car on a road outside the South Florida Fairgrounds. The horrific accident changed the lives of Johnson and her magician husband Kevin Ridgeway, who calls it “the biggest escape we’ve ever done.”
And after a long recovery from critical injuries, particularly to Ridgeway, who remained in a coma for five weeks at St. Mary’s Medical Center, the couple returns to the South Florida Fair this year to triumphantly perform the show they never got to do.
They are using their near-tragedy to expose the dangers of distracted driving, which according to the official police report contributed to their crash.
“We had a collision,” Johnson says, standing near the crushed seat of the BMW that Ridgeway was sitting in during the accident. “You can’t (make) an impact without a collision.”
The crash left Johnson with several broken ribs and a punctured lung, among other injuries. Ridgeway lost a kidney. But after extensive rehabilitation, the two were back onstage and with a new mission in less than a year.
“We do something challenging every day,” she says. “This is just another challenge.”
Kristen Johnson was raised in show business - her mother Sunny Johnson is a veteran clown. But her own road to the spotlight wound first through corporate America.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina, she worked in that state’s Research Triangle, but moved to Indiana, where her parents had settled, when her mother was diagnosed with cancer and needed help with her business.
That’s when Johnson met magician Ridgeway, who “picked me up at a home and garden show,” she says, laughing. When they started dating, she says her mother’s first reaction was “‘Hey! A young man to do birthday parties!’”
The couple, who have been married 17 years and are now based in Atlanta, began developing their act and worked up a strenuous schedule, traveling about 300 times a year. Johnson notes that unlike many married couples or families in the business, they retained their own last names because “I didn’t want to be ‘The Ridgeway Family’ and have people be like ‘Isn’t that nice that her husband put her in the act! He’ll keep her till she gets fat.’”
Not likely. Lady Houdini isn’t just an accessory to the show - she is the show. Of all of the derring-do in the act, the showstopper is the Water Torture Cell, which she began doing in 2003.
Established by escape legend Harry Houdini himself, Johnson does the master one better, becoming the first person to do the trick in full view of the audience rather than have the box dramatically covered while she gets out. A $10,000 challenge, offering that amount to anyone who catches her cheating, still stands. She’s also now done the trick 1,000 times more than Houdini.
There are dangers. On her website, Ridgeway recalls the three times he was “horrified” when Johnson couldn’t escape from the water cell, and had to be removed: “Twice, she suffered hypoxic seizures and blacked out, the third she could not pick the lock inside the lid.”
After all that, they never expected their biggest challenge would happen offstage.
2017 was going to be their big year at the South Florida Fair. Johnson and Ridgeway were doing the Lady Houdini act for the first time here. They’d been in the area for days, when about 24 hours before their first show, the couple drove to a nearby gym. They were almost back to the fairgrounds when they were hit at the corner of Belvedere Road and Sansbury’s Way, right near the fairgrounds entrance.
As a result of the accident, engineers investigated that intersection, which had a traffic camera that was not turned on at the time, and found it to have an accident rate that “certainly exceeded what we find acceptable,” county engineer George Webb told the Palm Beach Post at the time. The lights have since been changed at that intersection, Johnson says.
No one was cited in the accident, but the official report mentioned that the driver, a teenage girl, had exhibited distracted and negligent driving, Ridgeway says.
He has no memory of the accident itself, but awoke five weeks later at St. Mary’s to face a gruesome litany of injuries. Johnson suffered a concussion, broken ribs and separated shoulder.
“I never had a concussion before. I’d cracked, not broken, some ribs and chipped a tooth, and had third-degree rope burns on my hands,” Johnson says. “I had chewed-up skin as a general rule. But nothing like this.”
Her husband’s condition was more serious with a broken leg, a fractured pelvis, eight broken ribs, a deflated lung and one lost kidney. After Ridgeway awoke, he would spend another three weeks at the West Palm Beach hospital, which he and Johnson returned to recently “because we had to thank them. They did a great job.” They also thank Quantum House, where they stayed while Ridgeway was released from the hospital but was still being treated.
During that recovery, the two survived financially thanks to savings from previous shows in that season, as well as about $18,000 raised by a GoFundMe crowd funding page started by a friend. Ridgeway wasn’t released from the hospital until April, and then set off to recover, including intensive physical therapy. The process left Ridegway “feeling like an old man,” but determined to get better.
The two missed seven months of work. As you might imagine, people whose daily jobs involve daring feats of wonder don’t relax easily, and so they set up their first post-accident show for August 1, 2017 in Wyoming, a schedule Johnson readily admits was “aggressive.”
And risky. Johnson, whose job depends on being able to hold her breath underwater while escaping a glass container, “had a punctured lung, because I broke ribs in the accident,” she says. “I could hold my breath, but there was pain involved. I had done some pool training, but my best stat (for holding her breath) was three minutes.”
Too bad that the trick was estimated to take about five minutes. But they are determined daredevils, even though she admits that neither of them have the stamina they used to. They just kept working at it. They call it “our new normal.”
While fans were thrilled to have them back, those closer to them were concerned. Ridgeway recalls a call from one of his uncles, who said “‘I was really against you guys coming back so soon,’” until he watched the Will Smith movie “Concussion,” about the NFL’s chronic issue with head injuries, and related it to the couple’s new crusade against distracted driving.
“He (repeated) the quote from (the movie) that says, ‘When you have truth, the thing you are told you cannot do is the thing you must do,’” Ridgeway says. “I got chills.”
As much as they love the dangerous aspects of their act, they believe the most important part is right before the finale. Ridgeway talks about how many shows they do a year and explains that “we missed seven months.”
And then reveals the mangled car seat. “‘I was seated right here,’” he tells audiences. “Put the phone down.”
He motions to two giant color photos of him used in the show. One, taken two days before the accident, shows a smiling, muscular Ridgeway flexing for the camera. The second is of him frail and more than 60 pounds lighter.
“We want to have a positive impact,” Johnson says. “If we can stop one person from messing around with their radio, or talking on the phone, we will.”
And that seems to be happening. At “every single show, someone comes up and tells us about someone they know who had survived, or may have not, this type of accident,” Ridgeway says. “And sometimes they bring people back to see it. We’ve come full circle.
“I can’t go back and change anything,” Ridgeway says. “But I can use what happened to me to save someone’s life.”