Wednesday, Feb. 24, 1999 | 9:07 a.m.
LAS VEGAS - Magician Lance Burton has been buried alive and shackled in a water-filled chamber, but he says his game of chicken with a speeding roller coaster is the scariest experience of his career.
"It was a very bad idea," Burton said of the featured act in his third television special (on NBC Wednesday). "It was the most dangerous and stupidest thing I've ever done."
Burton's hands and feet were shackled to the tracks of The Desperado, a roller coaster at Buffalo Bill's hotel-casino on the Nevada-California border southwest of here. He had some 90 seconds to free himself as the coaster raced toward him at speeds approaching 90 mph.
Burton was able to escape the chains and lunge clear of the tracks just before the coaster - one of the tallest and fastest in the country - raced by.
Watching the tape of the incident afterward gave him chills, Burton recalled, snacking on a sandwich between shows at the Lance Burton Theatre in the Monte Carlo hotel-casino here. "I didn't realize how scary it was until I saw the footage. I think it's the most dangerous stunt I've ever done."
Part of the stunt included a trip on the roller coaster to familiarize himself with the ride. Burton said it was a first - and a last - for him.
"I didn't mind laying in front of it, but I didn't want to ride it," Burton laughed. "I pulled my neck on the ride, I was so tense.
"I was more concerned about the riding part," he said. "I knew I could do the escape. I just didn't know if I could handle the ride."
Burton's escape is the highlight of the show, entitled "Top Secret," which kicks off with him making a $2 billion B-2 stealth bomber disappear.
The segment, filmed on the concrete apron at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., included armed guards surrounding the giant bomber and 40 airmen on each side of the giant aircraft, holding shields 10 feet tall.
Burton moved in front of a panel, then when it opened the plane was gone.
"I'll let 'em sweat for a couple of days, then I'll tell 'em where it's at," Burton quipped to his audience.
Also appearing on the show is actress Hunter Tylo, and Joel Brook, a 17-year-old magician from Los Angeles.
Helping young magicians is a big deal for Burton. As a child in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. he was called on stage by magician Harry Collins to assist in a trick and became enraptured with the profession.
"Somebody did the same thing for me or I wouldn't be here today," Burton said in the dressing room interview.
Burton is currently in the third year of an unprecedented 13-year contract at the Monte Carlo that will pay him some $110 million, according to his spokesman, Wayne Bernath.
The big bucks are a far cry from the early days of his career.
"There was a time when I was just hoping to make enough to buy groceries at the end of the week," Burton recalled. "I was hoping to do enough birthday parties to pay the rent."