Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013 12:01 am
What makes The Whip Guy™ crack?
Springfield’s Chris Camp and his family of whippersnappers take their show on the road
Lifelong Springfield resident Chris Camp is one of only four professional whip crackers in the United States. Locals may recognize him from his regular appearances at the State Fair but widespread renown has taken the two-time Guinness world record holder (“most bullwhip cracks in one minute”) across the country and around the world, appearing in venues ranging from Vegas Wild West shows to the Tonight Show, from mall openings in Hong Kong to art happenings in Greece. But how does one go from being just a regular guy – a teacher and graphic designer with a degree from Millikin – to being The Whip Guy?
“It started when I was 12 and my mom took me out of school to go see Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the now 44-year-old Camp recounts. “I’d never seen a whip crack before. That one movie changed my life.” A pair of $2 whips were procured and, in Camp’s words, he proceeded to “beat them to death and beat myself half to death trying to learn.” Another year later he upgraded to a $35 swivel-handled Mexican bullwhip, which he says was “longer and heavier, so I hit myself harder.” The road of the aspiring whip cracker is a lonely one and Camp’s earliest learning experience consisted of obsessive, repetitive viewing of the fateful whip scene on a VHS copy of Raiders, followed by cuing the theme music up on his record player, turning the speakers to face his yard, heading outside and endlessly practicing Harrison Ford’s moves from the film.
This early 1980s adolescent autodidactic flagellation was the extent of his whip career until one day in 1991, when randomly thumbing through a copy of Soldier of Fortune magazine, college student Camp’s attention was drawn to an ad for whips made by the same manufacturer who did them for the Indiana Jones movies. Assuring his then-fiancée Laura that the $458 “holy grail of whips” would be the only one he would ever need, he ordered it. At the time, he was playing in a band called the Cheesy Messiahs and, during their rendition of the “Peter Gunn Theme,” Camp began to cut cigarettes out of the lead singer’s mouth with the whip, which turned out to be too long for the small stages they usually played on. Two more whips and one broken promise to Laura later, “I was kind of in business,” he says. “I thought, cool, man, now I’ve got some tools.”
Camp hired an agent and over the next few years he started booking demonstrations and small festivals. In 2000 he played his first Illinois State Fair gig under the title Master of the Bullwhip, but the hifalutin moniker didn’t really fit. “I thought it was kind of pretentious. Meanwhile, people kept coming up to me and asking, ‘Aren’t you the whip guy?’ That was real easy to remember. So I trademarked it.”
The newly trademarked Whip Guy™ journeyed to Vegas in 2004 to participate in an exhibition by the Wild West Arts Club (dedicated to the preservation of knife throwing, gun spinning, rope twirling, trick shooting, whip cracking, trick riding, etc.) and unexpectedly won multiple championship titles his first time out. “I practice all the time,” he explains modestly, “but I never met any other whip crackers before I went out there, so I had a completely individualized style that came from watching films and all of my years of trial and error.”
Now legitimately able to bill himself as a “world champion,” Camp continued to perform and rehearse, entering the Guinness book in 2005 during a performance at the State Fair and again in 2007 on the air at WMAY. (“That one was really lucky because I hadn’t practiced that particular stunt in a long time.”) He soon hired an assistant, a “beautiful, highly disciplined military girl” named Jen, whose tenure turned out to be short-lived. When he received an invitation to appear at an event in a Hong Kong mall, Laura put her foot down. “My wife said, and I’ll paraphrase, ‘If you think for a minute that you’re gonna go over there for two weeks with that little honey, you’re wrong.’” Instead, Laura learned the show and acted as his assistant herself for the Hong Kong trip. “That was the best thing that ever happened,” says Camp. “We’d been living separate lives for a long time. She’s a nurse and was selling Mary Kay full time and she never got it before, but now she began to understand the need to be onstage, that drive, that adrenaline. So she became my full-time partner.”
The two, who have three children, began traveling regularly, and the often extended absences began to affect the family. “The kids missed us, we got homesick for them. So we thought, well, let’s get them involved in the show.” Thus was born “North America’s Only Family Whip Cracking Act.” (“I’ve looked high and low for another one. We’re it.”)
At first Benjamin, now 15, Lillian, 13, and Gabrielle, 11, would just do the occasional weekend show with Dad doing all the cracking while they held various objects and other ancillary duties. “I told them if they really wanted to go with us they would have to learn the show.” The youngsters did just that, and soon there were sufficient bookings that the Camp family began homeschooling their brood. More recently, the kids have begun doing their own shows, billed as the Whip Crackin’ Daredevils.
National television has beckoned a few times. Camp appeared briefly and anonymously in a sketch on a 2007 episode of the “Tonight Show with Jay Leno” (Donald Trump was also a guest that night but for some reason was spared the sting of Camp’s lash) and two years later, he and Laura made it all the way to the “Vegas round” of “America’s Got Talent,” eventually ranking 42nd out of 70,000 acts.
“I’d never watched any reality shows before that,” says Camp. “You find out very quickly how far from reality it really is.” Among many other manipulations, the producers badgered performers to deliver maximum melodrama during interview segments. “They were looking for desperation, like losing this thing was going to crush our dreams. I was like, ‘I’m just gonna go home, I’ve got shows booked, you know. Big deal.’ That wasn’t what they wanted.” The highlight of their appearance came when celebrity judge Piers Morgan needled the husband and wife team with S&M innuendo until feisty Laura put the smirking Englishman in his place. (Piers: “Do you like being whipped?” Laura: “Darlin’, that’s a whole ’nother show.”) “It was a blast,” says Camp of their foray into nationally televised talent competition. “Would I do it again? Not in a million years.”
Standing in stark contrast to the show business glitziness of network TV, another far-flung arena to which Camp’s whipping prowess has allowed him entree has been the world of contemporary art, culminating this past September in a month-long train ride which, to the Whip Guy’s surprise and delight, turned out to be a sort of moving, corporate-backed Valhalla of unbridled creativity.
Prestigious multimedia artist Doug Aitken first utilized Camp’s skills in 2010 as part of a $20,000 per plate fundraiser for the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in Los Angeles. Alt-rocker Beck, Brazilian tropicalia legend Caetano Veloso and freak-folk songwriter Devendra Banhart did a one-time musical collaboration onstage for paying guests, including luminaries such as Will Ferrell, Kirsten Dunst, Werner Herzog and Gwen Stefani. Camp’s part of the entertainment he describes as a “crescendo piece” involving himself, six auctioneers, 20 drummers and an eight-piece gospel choir, at the climax of which, according to Camp,“the roof of the tent just seemed to expand with energy.” (Visit illinoistimes.com for video of the performance.)
Other collaborations with Aitken followed, including a 2011 piece performed on a barge floating in the Aegean Sea wherein he was called upon to punctuate a monologue delivered by actress Chloe Sevigny (Kids, Boys Don’t Cry, HBO’s Big Love) in conjunction with a quartet of synchronized pole dancers. None of this prepared him for the audacity of Aitken’s recent “Station to Station” tour.
“I got a call from Doug in May asking me to travel coast to coast on a train – there was going to be all sorts of music, possibly Neil Young was gonna be there, lots of artists, video – am I interested? Of course, sign me up!” A shifting group of performers and artists would travel by train over the course of the month of September, making stops in Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Santa Fe, Winslow, Barstow, Los Angeles and Oakland. In each city, the assembled company would enact a large, unorthodox event (Aitken calls them “happenings”) featuring music, video and visual art. These usually were set up in the train station where they pulled up.
Picturing long, boring train rides between performance dates, Camp packed a lot of extra material supplies to occupy free time that never materialized, as the art-making and fun never once stopped. One car of the train was a rolling recording studio where participating musicians, including Jackson Browne, Cat Power and members of Sonic Youth recorded while the train chugged along. One sleeper car was set up as a studio for visual artists to make work; another car had once been Frank Sinatra’s favorite lounge car still tricked out in retro-splendor.
Camp’s nightly unannounced variation on his earlier MoCA collaboration with the auctioneers was usually a buffer between video screenings and musical acts, and made a big impression in each city on the tour, but his biggest splash was definitely at Union Station in Los Angeles. That time the train was on the far end of the station from the performance site, and Aitken instructed Camp to march from the train to the stage cracking whips overhead, with a three-piece drum band behind him. “This was in a working train station filled with hundreds of people who have no idea what is happening,” Camp says. “I’m worried that if we don’t get a cadence going right away, people are gonna start pulling handguns out because they’ll think the whip cracking is rifle fire in the building.” Afterward, the L.A. fire marshall read them the riot act, almost literally, and they were forbidden to repeat the stunt. “Guess I’m the first and last person to ever march through that building cracking whips and raisin’ a ruckus,” he laughs.
Between the cutting edge, artsy excitement of his work with Aitken, the glamour of national television and traveling all over the world, it’s hard not to wonder: What in the heck keeps the Whip Guy in Springfield? Doesn’t it seem mundane after all he has seen and done? “I’ve learned to see Springfield through a whole different lens the more I travel,” he explains. “As I move down an industrial parkway in another town, I start to recognize things that I never really saw back in my own town, although I saw them every day. I’m so used to the people here that when I go elsewhere, I recognize all the same kinds of people I have at home, even overseas.” Camp says that he sometimes considers moving to an even smaller town, but finds that Springfield is where he wants to be. “I just have an affection for the landscape around here,” he says. These days, when they are not on the road, the Camp family can often be found working together at Simply Fair, the new fair trade store at 2357 W. Monroe (across from Walgreens in the strip mall with Hawaiian Barbecue and Gyros Stop) which Laura recently opened with partner Charlyn Fargo Ware. Camp, who was once a member of the late, lamented local band Mr. Opporknockity, can also occasionally be spotted playing bass behind Tom Irwin at the Brewhaus.
Reflecting on his unique vocation, Camp waxes philosophical. “I’ve been lucky to live this very cool life where hopefully I’ve been able to touch and inspire people. Not only do I pass my knowledge on to my kids and my audience, but there’s always a new trick to learn, always a new stunt to perfect. Some might take a year to learn but there’s always the satisfaction of the payoff at the end. It’s all up to me. And it pays better than any other job I ever had.” He pauses. “Of course, Laura’s the one with the drive to make the business part happen. If it was up to me, I’d probably just sit around and practice all day.”
Scott Faingold can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.