Melanie Kramer is working with longtime professional archer Bob Markworth… (John Glionna, Los Angeles…)
Melanie Kramer insists she's no thrill-seeker. She's a practical single mom who gets squeamish even at the thought of, say, riding a roller coaster.
Still, a girl's got to do a few dicey, death-defying things to get work in this town in her chosen profession of circus arts.
Kramer has had knives thrown at her, pyrotechnic explosions set off in her face, swords thrust into a box when she's curled up inside — not to mention having cigarettes knocked from her lips by a man with an evil-looking bullwhip.
But it's all child's play compared with Kramer's newest act: Working under the tutelage of expert marksman Bob Markworth, she snatches an arrow out of thin air and, scarier yet, catches another shot directly at her mouth. It's Vegas, baby.
So how does Kramer do it? Catlike reflexes? Or just plain chutzpah?
"You have to have faith that everything is going to work out OK," says Kramer, a petite dancer with large brown eyes. "And you have to really trust your partner, to know he's a serious professional and not just some guy who wants to shoot an arrow at your head."
Luckily, the mustachioed Markworth is a former California archery champion and an inductee into the Archery Hall of Fame. He's a veteran performer who has taken his act to 58 countries, a bow-and-arrow guy who's been around so long he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. For years he appeared on the TV show "Circus of the Stars" at Caesars Palace but recently has done more gigs off the Strip.
Markworth doesn't just shoot apples off people's heads — he pierces cherries on top of those apples and splits playing cards faced sideways.
But in today's competitive performance arena, with young audiences used to eye-dropping video game technology and the "wow" factor of the Cirque du Soleil shows, he's been forced to take his game to the next level. "These days, you've got to walk on water," he says. "So I've developed an act that walks on water."
Kramer knows the risks of the variety thrill-acts trade. As an assistant to various black-caped magic men, she's been cut by swords shoved haphazardly into a box, grazed by a knife blade, singed on her mouth after swallowing a flame and burned on the face and neck in a pyrotechnical explosion gone bad.
She's received so many stitches that she jokes with partner magicians: "I'm not truly your assistant until you make me bleed."
Such daredevil work drives Kramer's mother crazy. "Every time she does one of these stunts, I pray, 'Please let her come back,'" Laura Kramer says.
When Markworth got the idea for the arrow-catching trick, he knew his two current assistants weren't up to the task. So he called a Las Vegas talent agent to find fearless female partners willing to learn a stunt he says no one has done before. Four other circus performers who answered his casting call didn't measure up. Kramer did.
"She had attitude," Markworth said. Days later, after doing her research on the viability of Markworth's act, she was standing in a field, trying to snatch arrows whizzing by her side.
The act takes precautions. An arrow shot with a fully-cocked bow can travel at 150 mph — too fast for any human. So Markworth uses a slower, heavier arrow with a dulled blade, but even that travels faster than the eye can see.
At first, Kramer bloodied her hands reaching out to snatch the arrows that sped past. She hesitated to reach out for the arrows at first, but hundreds of shots later, with tutoring by a martial artist, her success rate rose to 90%. That's when Markworth decided she was ready for the head-on stunt.
In this "don't try this at home" gig, Markworth shoots an arrow directly at Kramer that first passes through a small plate of glass. She snares the arrow with both hands just as it breaks a balloon clenched in her teeth.
The new act took time. First, Markworth shot arrows with "modified points" that bounced off her stomach, then her chest. Finally, he began aiming at her head.
Kramer can't see the arrow coming, so she watches for small signs that Markworth is going to release the arrow as a signal to react.
The problem is he doesn't give any. "With most people, there's a tell-tale twitch that says they're ready, but Bob doesn't have that," she says. "He stands like a statue with that arrow — then suddenly, he lets it go."
Kramer says she must eagle-eye Markworth's arrow release hand, 36 feet away, to spring into action. So what goes through a person's brain when facing a speeding arrow?
"You can't get nervous or you're going to react differently," Kramer says. "You've got to act cool and collected and think, 'I'm going to catch this arrow — no doubt about it.'
"It's not just reflexes. It's the belief you can pull it off."
Markworth says he plans to unveil the new act within a few months, but hasn't decided on a venue.
As the mother of a 5-year-old son, Kramer knows she can't defy death forever, so she's developing a talent agency called Posh Productions.
But for now, she stands ready for Markworth's arrow. The archer says the stunt is "almost magical." For Kramer, it's a pure confidence boost.
"It's exhilarating every time I do it," she says. "I know that if I can catch an arrow in midair, I'm capable of anything."