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They suggest I might have to wear a hard hat. It could be dangerous in there, the publicist says. It’s for the best. Plus, it conveys the right atmosphere: danger. It’s just the prop you want if you’re the flack for a newly reinvented suburban theme parkor a reporter dispatched by your editors to carry out the task of writing about stuntman tryouts at Six Flags America, the wonderland formerly known as Adventure World.
Two fellow newshounds and I have shown up to cover the tryouts on a recent winter Monday. We’re all hoping to see some major, Fox-quality stunt accidents. But the idea of protective gear is still ridiculous. What few long-term Peter Arnett career fantasies I’ve held on to until now dissipate right around the moment that the public relations manager, a Southern-accented, theme-park See ‘N Say, turns her SUV keys and rolls us onto the Landover theme park’s grounds.
We assembled newsies have been prepped with a rundown on the attractions at the park: two new roller coasters, new kiddie rides, new bathrooms, and a new food court. Bosnia it ain’t. The press corps there isn’t lucky enough to watch the locals read bad Batman scripts, do audition pieces in a prefab Gunsmoke-cum-TGIF theater, and get ready for dives from the fake Western façades of buildings labeled “Out Stretched Arms Hotel” onto a distinctly diseased-looking blue mat.
Still, the main reason to avoid the hard hat has to be the scorn of wannabe stunt guy Bill Leaman. As I hear again about the new park’s many wonders, he stares down at the blue vinyl mat through yellow-tinted aviator glasses. Leaman clearly has an intimacy with his subject. He knows about these mats, understands the physics of falling on them and bouncing back up; he knows they save his life and limbs.
“That mat is wasted,” Leaman pronounces. His look is pure despair. Sort of like mine.
Jim Winburn, the director and stunt coordinator for these tryouts, is a tall, paunchy man with brushed-back grayish-white hair, dark aviator glasses, and pinched lips. He has one working eye and is an absolutely intimidating man, despite the fact that the company he represents is called Totally Fun. Winburn tells the stunt virgins that he’s seen people killed from the smallest of falls.
This doesn’t faze anyone. After a couple of stultifying hours of dramatic readings, the aspiring Van Damme doubles just want to jump from the 8-foot platform to the blue mat. That’s what it’s all about.
Leaman started out years ago pedaling his Big Wheel off cliffs. Since then he’s moved on to a stint cheerleading for the University of Maryland, tumbling competitions in what he calls “sport acrobatics”which means more throwing bodies aroundand an eventual graduation to Renaissance fairs. He has also competed at the national level, doing handstand pyramids and body tosses. This will be his fourth stunt show for the theme park if he makes the cut. He can handle this small headfirst leap, no problem.
Leaman still hasn’t given up his day job selling real estate and fixing antennae and radio towers in the Baltimore area. “You have to know people,” he explains. “I don’t know enough people. I’m not real good at failure. It would be a tough one for me to go to a place where I don’t have a chance of getting gigs. That’s what my dream is.”
The others look equally game. Wes Mitchell, a tryout from Annapolis, has trained with a stuntman before. He has practiced small jumps, fake fights, and getting hit by cars. Others have spent years on trampolines practicing their falls and tumbles, and there are other theme-park vets like Leaman.
And then there’s the ringer who shows up just before the free-fall exerciseLance Irwin. This guy has business cards. Irwin, 29, makes everyone a little bit nervous. Dressed in a gray sweat suit, he is stocky. His chiseled face resembles that of Keanu Reevesbut the kind of Reeves who does sci-fi/horror B-movies. He’s worked the low-budget sci-fi circuit in Baltimore. He’s done high falls, horse stunts, hand-to-hand combat. He’s played with fire.
None of the other stunt novices know his credentials, but they can feel the threat. For some reason, Irwin is the main attraction. Maybe it’s because he has come with a leggy blond Vicki Vale aspirant. He’s an Adonis among tubby stunt-nothings.
About four hours too late, I realize: There will be no thrilling spills. There will be no death and drama. Irwin’s swagger and the other aspirants’ bragging notwithstanding, there are no Evel Knievels here.
Even if there were, it wouldn’t matter. Knievel would still be stuck on the kiddie stunts. He would still have to read the Batman lines and try out for the 8-foot mini-leap. Six Flags is still for beginners. The payoff for folks who watch is rather underwhelming.
After the first few flying bodies, there’s not much more to see. It’s like watching a cheap pratfall over and over again without the help of a laugh track or an applause sign. I sit and scribble and contemplate not the death-defying act of tumbling from on high, but the slow rhythm of bodies hitting a mat.
When it’s Leaman’s turn to jump, hardly anyone pays attention to what for him is another small step up the action-movie ladder. He slowly walks up the wooden platform. He wants to give Winburn time to stop trading war stories and give him a good look. Leaman lifts off and flips his body over so that his head lands at the top of the mat. The pancake landing gives off a spray of dust, and the mat thuds. Leaman gets up, his body covered in dirt. He looks coolly elated.
“The mat is full of dust,” he mutters, wiping himself off before going back to take another leap.CP