Val formulated the method and rough design for this illusion in 1924 at the height of his career but his snap decision to retire from the stage meant that it was another fifteen years before the act became a reality.
Two members of the audience are invited on to the stage to be a committee to oversee the act and to examine the apparatus. A female assistant climbs in to the polished steel tank and remains on full view to the audience through the plate glass front. A lid is bolted down onto the small tank and two security tabs are soldered between the lid and the body. The lid contains two narrow openings that are sealed with rubber covered steel flaps that are clamped shut. A lifting frame is then attached and the girl in the tank is raised and moved in to position over a larger glass fronted tank. The small tank with the girl inside is then lowered into the larger tank. Stage hands dressed in sowesters then enter from both wings and wheel in two scaffold frames with large water tanks at the top and position them either side of the central tank. The committee members climb onto a platform and at the word of the magician they open a tap on each tower, flooding the central tank with water. When the central tank is full (several feet of water above the smaller tank that contains the girl, still on full view), the stage hands wheel the side towers back to the wings and the magician builds to the finale. At his word, the committee pull two levers that lift the flaps on the small tank thereby flooding and potentially drowning the girl, all in full view of the audience who can still see the girl in the tank!
The water rushes into the small tank with great force (there is almost two tons of water above the girl) creating a mass of swirls and bubbles and the girl disappears from sight. As the water clears it can be seen that the small tank is empty, no sign of the girl.....the magician rushes to the tank, but there is no sign of her, with a look of panic on his face and fear in his voice he shouts to a stage hand to bring an axe. The stage hand rushes on to centre stage, drops the axe and throws off the sowester to reveal........ he is in fact... THE GIRL ...from the tank.
Afterwards, the small tank is lifted back out so that the committee can inspect that the seals they soldered to the lid are still intact and the whole apparatus is made available for members of the audience to inspect.
One of the keys to this illusion, and its success, is that the girl remains in FULL VIEW of the audience right up to the last moment, and the committee members are totally genuine.
Sounds good? The reviewers loved it, the audiences loved it and the agents loved it.
Some background: This was 1930's Britain, times were hard. There had been good times financially, the electrical business had done well and the Tower Ballroom venture had initially been extremely profitable but had turned very sour, resulting in him loosing the business and all of his investment in it. He tried to find a new profitable business amongst which were selling mens suits 'door to door'! his son Kelvin was out selling watches and postage stamps by mailorder but nothing was bringing a reliable income and the money had run out. Although Ethel was against the whole Music Hall business, Val could see nothing else that he could do. He had no money to build the set so the only option was to raise a mortgage on the family home. This he did, in Ethel's name. He owed money, and the bailiffs were looking for him, so he produced the act under the name Val Enson. Once he had built the set and got bookings for the act he hoped things would get better, but as can be seen from the contracts, the theatres were paying less than they had been in the 20's! Lee Ephriam, a famous promoter, agent and long time friend, pursuaded Val that if he would do six weeks at the London Colesium he would then take the show to the USA and he would guarantee him £1000 a week. Val, Ethel and Kelvin moved to a flat in Brixton and the Birmingham house was rented out. Val was to meet Ephriam on Friday 1st September 1939 to agree terms and sign contracts, the day Germany invaded Poland. By the Monday, Britain had declared war and as a result all theatre contracts were cancelled.
The act was never performed again. Val cut up the whole set and gave away the scrap metal to support the war effort, keeping only the lid to the small tank as a sort of grim souvenier.
Val, Ethel and Kelvin abandoned the Brixton flat and moved in with their elder son, Vernon, in Cannock, pennyless.
If you listen to the tapes of Val, or read his memoirs (when I eventually finish transcribing them) you will find that Val paints a different story of this time. I guess thats pride.