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Conjuring Houdini

"Give me a call when you get to the Little Apple, and we'll talk about Harry," Al Schroeder, the principal of Houdini Elementary School, says cheerily. In Appleton, Wisconsin, the kids named their school after the local boy who grew up to become the world's greatest escape artist. The school's colors are the same as those on the famous magician's cape: red and black. "If anything disappears, we blame Harry," says Schroeder.

Last spring, I paid a visit to this prosperous city 90 minutes north of Milwaukee, where young Houdini, then known as Ehrich Weiss, ended up after emigrating from Budapest with his family in 1878. One of my first stops is Houdini's Lounge. When I ask if anyone has seen Houdini's spirit lately, the bartender says, "He comes and goes." Evidently I just missed him. Houdini Way is almost as hard to find since its sign pulled a disappearing act. Across the street in Houdini Plaza, Metamorphosis, a sculptural representation of the Great Mystifier's classic illusion beckons. Perhaps he's over there?

In downtown Appleton, bronze plaques memorializing Houdini pop up every couple of blocks. Legends abound of a prankish little boy undoing the front door locks of all the stores on College Avenue and learning his first rope trick from a clerk at the town's hotel. Ehrich, Prince of the Air, is said to have made his debut with Jack Hoeffler's Five-Cent Circus, performing a contortionist act that may have included prying up needles with his eyelids while hanging upside down from a trapeze.

"Did he really? We don't know," says Thomas Boldt, executive president of Appleton's Houdini Historical Center in the Outagamie County Museum. "Many of these myths were told by Houdini himself. Or his wife, who perpetuated his legend. We're here to learn about the man and to separate the myth from the truth."

Every year on Halloween, Boldt joins a distinguished group of Houdini devotees who attempt to conjure the spirit of The Man No Jail Could Hold. On October 31, 2001, the 75th anniversary of Houdini's death, they will try once again. This year, the group will assemble in the Detroit area, where Houdini died at age 52. Specifically, they'll be trying to make contact with Harry at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

"Members of the Inner Circle are chosen because they have knowledge of Houdini or they have a particular artifact associated with him," says Boldt. Past participants have included John Gaughan, an illusion designer who is currently restoring the Chinese Water Torture Cell; Kenneth Silverman, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of the definitive biography of Houdini; and Marie Blood, Houdini's niece.

Sidney Radner, the director of the Official Houdini Séance, has been a regular since the 1930s, when he became the protégé of Houdini's brother, the magician Hardeen. Many of the artifacts that Hardeen entrusted to Radner are on display in Appleton's museum; others can be seen in Las Vegas's Venetian Resort Hotel.

"Houdini never promised he would come back," explains Radner, "He said that if a way could be found to communicate from the world beyond, that he would be the one to find the secret. But it was very theatrical of him to have died on Halloween."

In Appleton, some folks still believe that Houdini died in a locked casket at the bottom of the Fox River, where he almost drowned as a boy. Another popular myth is that he drowned performing the Chinese Water Torture Cell, probably because in the movie starring Tony Curtis as Houdini, the last scene shows him struggling to get out of the water-filled glass cabinet. Houdini himself billed this escape as a "Feat Bordering on the Supernatural!" In reality, he died in a hospital bed from a ruptured appendix, several days after he was punched in the stomach by a student visiting his dressing room. Seventy-five years later, Houdini's name remains inextricably linked with Halloween séances and other spooky goings-on because the myths about his death and his promise to communicate have an enduring fascination.

On October 31, 1997, I was fortunate to obtain tickets to the Official Houdini Séance at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House. In the week leading up to the event, I had seen Metamorphosis, the Upside Down Straitjacket Escape, and the Chinese Water Torture Cell presented live onstage as part of the musical Houdini. What captured my imagination, however, was the séance's quintessential prop: a pair of genuine Houdini handcuffs. And they weren't just any pair from the more than two hundred in Radner's collection: These cuffs were one of only two pairs in the world with a virtually pickproof seven-cylinder Bramah lock.

The world's other pair of Bramah cuffs are in the private collection of the magician David Copperfield. It took Houdini 70 suspenseful minutes to escape from those cuffs in the famous London Mirror challenge in 1904. "No lock is pickproof," Radner explained as he placed his Bramah cuffs on the séance table, which was draped in black velvet and occupied center stage. "If I put this pair of handcuffs on the table in the shop of a locksmith who was highly skilled and had all the apparatus, it would take him hours to open. They're not the kind of thing you could open in three minutes with no tools. Houdini gave these handcuffs to his brother and said that he would unlock them if he come back in a physical way."

This unusual artifact has traveled with Radner to séances in New York, Los Angeles, London and Appleton, among other places, but as far as anyone can tell, it has never been touched by the spirit of the Handcuff King. And yet strange coincidences have happened over the years:

"In Niagara Falls, when the medium asked Houdini to make his presence known, the book Houdini on Magic fell to the floor," Radner recalls. "Believe it or not, the pages opened to a poster that said 'Do Spirits Return?'" Houdini's answer to this poster advertising his 1925 show exposing phony mediums was emphatic: "Houdini says NO, and PROVES IT." In Montreal, where the séance was held during the intermission of a grand magic show, Radner later found out that a freak rain shower had enveloped the building during the event. "It was just like in 1936," he says, referring to the famous séance held at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood on the tenth anniversary of Houdini's death.

It is well known that Houdini and his wife, Bess, had devised a secret code to communicate if either of them should die. The message began with the title of a song, "Rosabelle," that Bess used to sing in their vaudeville days. It was followed by a sequence of words whose first letters spelled B-E-L-I-E-V-E. After holding séances for ten years without success, Bess announced to the world that she had given up hope: "I do not believe that Houdini can come back to me, or to anyone," she said. Today, Bess's voice, which was broadcast live over the radio in 1936, echoes eerily across time and cyberspace, thanks to an audio file on houdiniana.com: "The Houdini shrine has burned for ten years. I now, reverently, turn out the light. It is finished. Good night, Harry!"

Why do the members of the Inner Circle keep trying to contact Houdini long after his wife gave up?

"We're carrying on a tradition," says Thomas Boldt. "We're saying, if you'd like to attend an historical event and experience a séance in the way in which these have been conducted since the '20s, you're welcome to attend and learn with us. It's done in venues that have some connection to Houdini. Usually the people who are there have either an interest in magic or the psychic world. Those can be compatible whether you believe in it or not."

Ironically, the Halloween séances---both official and unofficial--- do what Houdini would probably be doing if he were alive: proving that spirits do not return to converse with the living. "It certainly keeps Houdini's name in the news," Boldt adds with a grin.

Inside the Houdini Historical Center, I pass colorful posters trumpeting "The Greatest Necromancer of the Age, Perhaps of All Time!" and "Buried Alive! Egyptian Fakirs Outdone!" as I enter a gallery where I can see why Houdini was a symbol of freedom to people all over the world. The exhibition includes leg irons from Saxony and Egypt, manacles from Spain and Siberia, and a Victorian recreation of a medieval Iron Maiden, from which the American Self-Liberator freed himself in one of his famous challenges.

If Houdini's spirit can be found anywhere on earth, I suspect it would be in the locked room, perhaps 12 feet square, that houses the bulk of the Radner Collection of Houdini's personal papers and hardware. I am thrilled to have gained special admission to this inner sanctum of the museum.

"Houdini's first press book has been conserved. Each of its pages have been deacidified by a paper conservationist and then encapsulated in a chemically inert polyester sleeve," says my guide, Matthew Carpenter, curator of collections. As his white-gloved hands gingerly turn the pages, I read aloud: "An exposé of Houdini trunk and handcuff tricks: How you can disconcert this clever performer and others of his kind when they blandly ask for someone to help them at their tricks!"

We laugh. It's impossible to imagine the Great Houdini being disconcerted. But I find it especially unbelievable after seeing the staggering number of tools he used to pull off his escapes. The storeroom's archival cabinets contain thousands of keys and lock picks, organized in sets and placed next to numbered pouches. With a shock, I realize that Houdini must have had a prodigious photographic memory to be able to distinguish one key from another at a glance.

Pointing out a piece of molding clay, Carpenter explains that in the conversation preceding the escape, Houdini would somehow manage to gain the key that would work the lock, make an impression of it, and then pass that to an assistant. "There were all kinds of subterfuge involved in the escape," he says.

While it is often said that Houdini took many of the methods for his escapes to the grave, he bequeathed all of his "thrill effects, new mysteries and illusions and accompanying paraphernalia" to his brother, Hardeen, with the proviso that they be "burnt and destroyed upon his death." Fortunately, Hardeen preserved Houdini's collection and passed it on to Sidney Radner.

"This is an example of the legacy he left," says Carpenter as he opens drawer after drawer filled with Houdini's handcuffs. I gasp in amazement. By the time he opens the sixteenth drawer, where the leg shackles are stored, chills are running up and down my spine. Houdini's collection of locks and lock picks, molding clay, and cuffs have a powerful aura about them that has not dissipated with time. The white-glove tour has worked its magic on me: I can almost believe that Houdini's spirit might return to the locked room to reclaim the tools of his trade and make his greatest escape ever.

The business card of Houdini's agent, Martin Beck, is pasted in his press book The words on Beck's card still ring loud and clear: "Harry Houdini, The King of Handcuffs! Positively the only conjurer in the world that escapes out of all handcuffs, lead shackles, insane belts and straitjackets after being STRIPPED STARK NAKED, mouth sealed up, and thoroughly searched from head to foot, proving he carries no KEYS, SPRINGS, WIRES or other concealed accessories. Defies duplication, explanation, imitation or contradiction!"

Seventy-five years is a long time to wait, but in Houdini's day audiences waited up to an hour and a half for him to escape--- from coffins, packing cases, glass boxes and boilers. "It's amazing to think that people would actually sit around that long, and not say, I'll go out and have a beer," says Appleton magician Ron Lindberg, whose stage name is Rondini in tribute to his boyhood hero. Rondini's annual magic show at Oshkosh's Grand Opera House is a marvelous mix of contemporary illusions and Houdiniesque escapes.

"There are all kinds of theories about why Houdini was as popular as he was," Rondini says. "It's the longing to escape that plays on people's emotions, even now. But nowadays, if you're doing an escape, you have to do it fast to keep the audience's attention. And not only fast, you have to to do it with all the bells and whistles and strobe lights because we're in the information age."

Among creators and producers of magic shows, Houdini is still considered the world's greatest escape artist, though not the world's greatest magician. "On the magic and illusion side, he would probably be overwhelmed by David Copperfield, Lance Burton, Siegfried and Roy, and many others," says Gary Ouellet, a stage director for some of Vegas's top magicians. Ouellet is also the producer of such television shows as Houdini: Unlocking His Secrets and The World's Most Dangerous Magic Acts. "The reason Houdini was so successful was because when he attempted a dangerous escape, people cared whether he lived or died. David Copperfield only attempted a straitjacket escape on his 14th television special, reasoning correctly that unless an audience felt they had a stake in the outcome (i.e. a friend at risk), then the stunt threatened to be a big bore."

World-class illusion designer John Gaughan agrees: "There were other magicians around during Houdini's reign who were actually better magicians. It was just that he was such a startling, challenging personality." Gaughan, who has built illusions for Hollywood (Forrest Gump), Broadway (Beauty and the Beast) and Disney parks, as well as for David Copperfield and Siegfried and Roy, doesn't believe that Houdini's legacy has been passed on to anyone: "He was a very special person; he was a showman who happened to be a magician or an escape artist."

Before leaving Appleton, I drop by Rondini's Abracadabra magic shop, looking for a souvenir of Houdini. A miniature replica of the Siberian Chain Escape just might do the trick. Or a very simple Jail Cell Escape, which consists of little more than two cards and a brass paper fastener. Rondini gives me expert guidance and lends me his line of patter: "Now if it's true Houdini can escape from anything, perhaps we can conjure his spirit and have him do magic one more time..."

One thing I know for sure: Houdini can most reliably be found in a bottle of the Appleton Brewing Company's Houdini Root Beer, which is as light-colored and delectable as old-fashioned cream soda. When Penn and Teller visited Appleton some years ago, they had a couple of cases shipped home, so you know it's got to be something out of the ordinary. I'm saving my last bottle for Halloween, when I plan to pour a tall drink and raise a toast to Houdini's spirit. Cheers!

Copyright 1997-2024 Tricia Vita
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