Ray Murphy's Chainsaw Show
Chainsaws. Most people fear them as agents of bloody chaos, of home projects gone terribly wrong. Not Ray Murphy. Chainsaws and Ray have had a long, creative relationship. A handmade sign on his property lists their many exploits. Ray "invented chainsaw art" in 1952 (we were unaware that chainsaw art had an inventor) and by the 1980s he was on the road, wowing crowds by chainsawing a chair in ten seconds, or chainsawing the alphabet into the side of a No. 2 pencil. His feats were praised by Ripley's Believe It or Not, and earned him his own question in the game Trivial Pursuit.
Predictably, Ray's fame brought competition. The term "chainsaw carving" entered the vernacular, which allowed rivals to rough-cut wood with a chainsaw and then carve the details by hand. "They called my stuff crude and their stuff refined," said Ray, who still bristles when someone describes his work as "chainsaw carving." "What I've got is real chainsaw art. 100 percent with a chainsaw!"
But what could Ray do? His barnstorming days were over. His old tour bus sat behind his gallery on US 1, wallpapered with yellowed clippings, sheltering the famous alphabet-inscribed pencil. Ray felt that the world needed to see a true Chainsaw Master again. So at an age when most men retire, Ray began performing nightly shows outside of his studio. We heard about it and thought, Oh, it's just some guy in a parking lot, under a tent, sawing logs.
We were wrong.
Rather than buy a tent, Ray spent a quarter-million dollars to design a warehouse-size building with bleacher seats for 400 spectators. He had a fifty-foot-wide eagle clutching chainsaws with its feet painted on its outside wall. Inside, he built a soundproof booth as big as a bus, fronted with bulletproof glass, and rigged with a video projection system so that his audiences could watch every detail of his show in safety and comfort.
Ray freely admits that he's never had close to 400 people for his "Chainsaw Sawyer Artist Live Show," a title that he's trademarked. On the night that we visited, the audience was tiny, but the empty seats didn't dampen Ray's enthusiasm. He entered the soundproof booth whistling happily and performed nonstop for the next 90 minutes. His assistant told us that he gives a similar effort every night.
The sound system pumped out "Freeway of Love" and "Theme from Mortal Combat" as Ray sawed 15 numbers on the side of a popsicle stick, flipped it over, and sawed the alphabet on the other. He sawed an audience member's name onto a pencil, then sharpened the pencil with the chainsaw. He took a volunteer into the booth and sawed his name into a wooden belt buckle while the nervous man was wearing it (The audience burst into applause when he emerged unscathed).
For Ray's grand finale, he fired up two evil-looking black chainsaws and sawed a different piece of art with each, simultaneously. The manic beat of "Wipe Out" filled the theater while the chainsaws rattled like a squadron of model airplanes, overwhelming the soundproofing. Ray pumped out art at a furious pace: a donkey, a lightning bolt, a broom, arrow, feather, cabin, heart, tree, eagle head. In his quiet moments Ray looks like Santa Claus. But in the booth, his beard peppered with pine chips, diesel smoke swirling around him, its impossible to look at Ray and not think Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Finally, Ray sawed a little duck and inscribed it with the number "57,000." Ray keeps count of every sculpture that he's ever made, and this one marked another milestone. He exited the booth triumphant, and offered all of the sculptures to the audience ("Take what you want!").
"God gave me a talent to share," said Ray, "not to goshdang hoard."
Ray gives no indication that he plans to stop sharing any time soon. His current goal is to saw 18 numbers on a toothpick (He got to 15 in our show before the wood disintegrated). And he needs to update his sign. Ray has already chainsawed his name onto a match head without lighting it, and carved wooden bugs so small that ten of them can fit on a dime. But they're not part of the show because Ray can't find a video projection system powerful enough to magnify them.