As a young man, Irving native Steve Baker was given a book that would be the catalyst for his future.
This one single book captured the imagination and drive of a 13-year-old boy who suffered with rheumatic fever as a child and pushed him to earn the title of the World's Greatest Escape Artist.
Baker's story began as a child in Irving watching his friends through his bedroom window while he was confined to his bed for nearly three years battling the illness. With the book in hand, his life was opened to a new world of thrills, of suspense, of danger. A new world that Baker knew he would make his.
"The Art Of Escape about Harry Houdini really opened my eyes," Baker said, adding that it allowed him to dream of a better life while he was trapped in bed.
After Baker had fully recovered, he began issuing challenges to kids in the California neighborhood he and his parents now called home. Joe and Cleo Baker moved west for work and so Steve, who was only 8 years old at the time, could be seen by a doctor pioneering a new treatment for rheumatic fever. It worked.
With the illness behind him, Baker began challenging the neighborhood kids to tie and chain him up so he could test out what he had learned from the Houdini book. His parents, especially his mother, were less than thrilled about his experiments.
Baker recalled one day when his mom came upon him tied up with clothesline over wooden debris to see if he could escape before being burned. He said he regretted being tied up since it only made his mother punishing him that much easier.
As Baker grew up, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force during the Cold War where he continued honing his magician skills performing periodically to make extra money while not on duty.
After leaving the service, Baker traveled into Vietnam to perform for the troops, a job he said he enjoyed very much as a former member of the military.
From that point on, Baker's courage and determination grew into what he and his wife, Julie, called "Super Escapes." His goal with these escapes was to, in a way, one-up Houdini. He would try to go at least one floor higher off the ground or finish his escapes with faster times.
If Houdini was strung up to the ninth floor, Baker went to the tenth. He was also able to beat Houdini's escape time from a straitjacket by a full minute.
Baker said that he was never scared during his escapes, claiming he was able to take all the danger out before the performance. Baker hired his own pyro-technicians, stunt drivers and other staff to help with the safety side of the performances.
"I always loved the challenge, especially when I beat it," Baker said. "I overcame a little more fear and gained courage with each escape."
The popularity of his act, the "Three Worlds of Steve Baker," allowed him to travel the world multiple times including many visits to Mexico, Spain and Venezuela.
It was this traveling that brought Julie into Steve's life while he performed a show in Boise, ID. Steve pulled Julie on stage to assist with a trick called the "World's Oldest Lie Detector." Julie passed the test and went on to be his wife and assistant for 41 years now.
The pair have since traveled the world many times, performed numerous shows, including multiple TV appearances in the U.S. and overseas. They still laugh about the time in Venezuela when, in a televised show during their sweeps week, the locals did all they could do to "do Steve in," only to be disappointed when he emerged from the trap with only minor gasoline burns.
Baker's feats have also been recognized by different organizations throughout the years, including most recently the Central Illinois Film Commission who awarded Baker the Lifetime Membership Award on Aug. 16 at the Hilton in Springfield. The award was given for his lifetime achievement of magic performances.
Now years after the pinnacle of his career, Baker resides at Montgomery Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Taylor Springs where he is recovering from a mild stroke and compression fracture in his back from a fall.
The husband and wife team returned to Illinois about six years ago to care for Steve's mother who was dying of cancer. It was not long after her passing that Steve's health problems arose. Along with the stroke, he also underwent a year of treatment for prostate cancer and had a bout of pneumonia.
"This place really has been a Godsend for Steve and I," Julie said about the nursing home. "Everyone has been so amazing and loving to us, especially to Steve during his rehab and recovery, that it looks like we'll be able to go home together soon."
Nearly every day, Julie visits her husband, and they laugh and smile together for hours on end. To Julie, it does not matter that Steve may not be able to pull off the daring feats he once did, she just cannot wait for her leading man to be back by her side.
After all, the show must go on.