The name Houdini is synonymous with magic. In fact, it has become almost a part of the English vernacular (ie. “I’d have to be Houdini to get out of that jam”). Last week I attended a wonderful exhibit at the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles; it highlighted the life and times of Harry Houdini. (“Houdini: Art and Magic”).
For those of you unfamiliar with the amazing feats of this extraordinary magician, Harry Houdini is considered, by many, to have been the best magician who ever lived. Actually, this distinction may be due, in part, not only to the fantastic illusions he performed but to his phenomenal gift of self promotion.
Born in 1874 in Budapest, Hungary, Ehrich Weisz’s (Houdini’s name at birth) father was a rabbi. The family emigrated to Appleton, Wisconsin where Harry (derived from ‘Erry) discovered his passion at an early age. He adopted the name Houdini, to pay tribute to French magician, Jean Houdin, whom Houdini claimed was his inspiration.
Throughout the early part of the 20th century, Houdini, accompanied by his wife, Bess, performed in vaudeville houses across the country. In an era lacking television and the internet, his appearances drew thousands. A master escape artist, he used ropes, chains, handcuffs, and other assorted props to add to the suspenseful scenarios he’d create. Some of his famous “escapes” included: the mirror handcuff challenge, the Chinese water torture cell, the milk can escape, the suspended straightjacket escape (he once did this while dangling by his feet above a newsroom), and the overboard box escape.
In addition to his career in magic, Houdini was an early aviator, dabbled in motion pictures, and acted as a “debunker of spiritualism”, exposing phony séances. An interesting man to say the least and quite a showman.
It was his “debunking of spiritualism” that cost him the friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author of Sherlock Holmes) since Doyle and his wife were noted spiritualists. Ironically, while Houdini exposed séances as shams (he tried to connect with his beloved, deceased mother at one time and failed) he apparently “hedged his bets”. He and Bess came up with the code, “Rosabelle believes”, that Houdini would use should he find himself able to communicate from “the other side” after his death. Bess kept a vigil for ten years then gave up stating that “ten years was enough to wait for any man”.
Contrary to the Tony Curtis movie depicting Houdini’s life, Houdini didn’t die as a result of the water torture illusion gone bad. He suffered a blow to the stomach which may have contributed to a ruptured appendix and he ultimately died of peritonitis on Halloween, 1926. To this day, worldwide séances and tributes are held in his honor on October 31.
The exhibit at the Skirball ( 310-440-4500) will be there for another week or two and on Thursdays admission is free. (A companion exhibit showcasing the lives of other magicians who lived at that time will be continuing through the end of the year). The Houdini exhibit will then move on, first to San Francisco and then to Wisconsin. I’d encourage you to attend any of these exhibits if you can.
In an age of “fifteen minutes of fame” and instant reality show celebrity, Houdini’s is a name that has endured.
Attempting to compile a list of the greatest magicians of all time was difficult. Most lists I checked either focused on magicians of the 20th century or tended to be somewhat biased in favor of American magicians.
In the end, I decided to list those magicians, older as well as up and coming ones, whose names came up most often when speaking of great magicians, beginning with Harry Houdini. The list is in no particular order and I must admit I was unfamiliar with many of the more obscure names. Feel free to add to the list if I’ve missed someone significant.
- Harry Houdini
- David Copperfield
- Ricky Jay
- Penn and Teller
- Lance Burton
- Dai Vernon
- Doug Henning
- Siegfried and Roy
- Tony Slydini
- Criss Angel
- Cyril Takayama
- Harry Blackstone Jr.
- David Devant
- David Blaine
- Mark Wilson
- Harry Anderson
- Theodore Hardeen (Houdini’s brother)
- Juan Tamariz
Have a great weekend and thank you for joining me this week along,
RHODES LESS TRAVELED