Fire-Breathing Stunt Goes Awry; Chicago Opera Star Burned
Feb. 05--A day after he was burned while playing a fire-breathing stilt walker at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, actor Wesley Daniel was doing well and sending out photos of himself at the hospital, according to friends and relatives.
"He's all bandaged up but he's got this funny look in his eyes like, 'Look at the mess I've got myself into,' " said David Kersnar, who directed Daniel in Lookingglass and Next Theatre productions last year.
Daniel was performing in a dress rehearsal of the opera "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" Monday afternoon when the mishap occurred. Daniel picked up a torch and a little jar of fluid and blew two fire balls, according to his father, Clifton Daniel, who was in the audience.
Then suddenly his son's mask appeared to be on fire and he started patting his neck and chest before walking across the stage toward stagehands who were carrying fire extinguishers, Daniel's father said.
Clifton Daniel said he ran to his son backstage, where he was being treated with compresses. Paramedics had already been called and his son was upbeat, even giving a thumbs-up, the father said.
"It's horrifying," said Clifton Daniel, 55. "You don't believe it. At first, everything's fine. You're proud of him. You're amazed at what he's learned to do, and suddenly he's in trouble."
The 24-year-old actor was taken in serious-to-critical condition to Northwestern Memorial Hospital suffering burns to his throat and second-degree burns to his face, fire officials said. He was transferred to Loyola University Medical Center, where doctors inserted a breathing tube, officials said.
Clifton Daniel said there was no damage to his son's lungs or airway and the tube was removed Monday night. "Doctors likened them to a severe sunburn and he will heal," his father said of the burns. "He shouldn't have any scarring."
The hospital told him his son should be released Thursday.
Clifton Daniel said his son graduated from Roosevelt University and has been acting for about three years. He was hired as a back-up for the opera in case someone called in sick or didn't show up. Wesley Daniel stepped in when an actor was involved in a mishap last week, his father said.
Drew Landmesser, the Lyric's deputy general director who focuses on backstage activities, said the company is still trying to determine the accident's cause.
"We don't exactly know the cause of the accident, just that it was a terrible accident and he seems to be doing well," Landmesser said.
He stressed that Daniel was experienced with such a fire-spitting stunt, which he characterized as routine in the entertainment world.
"You've seen this a thousand times: at carnivals, at Renaissance fairs, at kids parties," Landmesser said. "It's a common routine for a performer like this."
That said, Daniel was the replacement for a previous performer who was removed after a mishap involving the same stunt. "He had a handlebar mustache, and handlebar mustaches and fire-spitting don't go well together," Landmesser said, noting that the mustache "got singed, but there was no injury."
Landmesser said Daniel's mask never caught fire, nor did his costume.
"The fuel he was spitting was the only thing that was on fire," he said, adding that the stunt has been removed from the production mostly so audience members won't become distracted during one of the opera's climatic scenes. "I think that frankly the press made something hysterical that was a rather calm event, but why upset people, let anyone misunderstand what happened or how safe it is?"
Tribune photographer Jason Wambsgans, who was at the rehearsal, said it resumed after a 30-minute break but was finally cut short, ending about 6 p.m.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened up an investigation into the incident after hearing about Wesley's accident through the media, said agency spokesman Scott Allen. A compliance officer went to the Lyric Opera House this morning and talked to witnesses and employees to find out what may have caused the accident and if the opera house violated any OSHA regulations, he added.
Kersnar, who worked with Daniel at Roosevelt University, described the young actor as an experienced physical performer with circus training.
"It was the first time he was on the Lyric stage, but this is what he does," said Kersnar, a Roosevelt adjunct professor. "He's very funny, very strong, very skilled and smart. He doesn't do stupid stuff. I was very surprised to hear this went wrong."
Kersnar said Daniel performed various stunts for him, such as dressing as an ingenue and lifting the title character of "Pulcinella," at the Lookingglass performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. "This is the actor life. They do a lot of different things. He's a jack of all trades."
Clifton Daniel said he is the grandson of former President Harry S. Truman and Wesley Daniel is the president's great-grandson.
Copyright 2013 - Chicago Tribune