Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka
Handcuffs, shackles, straitjackets, milk cans, packing trunks – nothing could hold Harry Houdini, the renowned magician and escape artist who became one of the 20th century’s most legendary performers. Possessing a talent for self-promotion and provocation, this poor Hungarian immigrant, the son of a rabbi, rocketed to international fame and grabbed front page headlines with his gripping theatrical presentations and heart-stopping outdoor spectacles – often dangling high above huge crowds or being lowered dramatically into an icy river locked inside a crate.
HOUDINI – Studio photograph, 1905.
Photo, Harvard Theatre Collection
Now through January 16th the Contemporary Jewish Museum presents the first major art museum exhibition to examine Houdini’s life, legend, and enduring cultural influence. Organized by The Jewish Museum, New York, Houdini: Art and Magic contains more than 160 objects including contemporary art works, historic photographs, dramatic Art Nouveau-era posters, magic apparatus, theater ephemera, and archival and silent films that allow visitors to fully explore the career and legacy of the celebrated entertainer.
The Houdinis. 1895 lithograph. Collection of Ken Trombly
HOUDINI, 1953. Paramount.
His daring stunts come alive through wall-sized video projections and examples of original magic apparatus – rarely exhibited together – including a straitjacket, milk can, and Metamorphosis Trunk used by Houdini. Also featured is a re-creation of the famous Water Torture Cell (much of the original was destroyed in a fire in 1995).
The exhibition does not expose the “how-to” secrets of Houdini’s magic performances. Rather, it describes his innovation in endowing common items with magical qualities – everyday items such as trunks, crates, and boxes that had real life significance to other recently-arrived immigrants in his era.
Metamorphosis Trunk, late 19th or early 20th century, wood and metal.
Courtesy, Fantasma Magic Shop, New York
Personal effects such as two of Houdini’s private diaries (never before shown in a public exhibition), along with family photographs, posters, film footage, and more, reveal the showman’s compelling life story – his escape from anti-Semitism in his native Hungary and an impoverished boyhood and his evolution from a fledgling circus performer in the 1890s, to a stage magician at the turn of the 20th century, to a daring escape artist in the early 1900s.
“Harry Houdini is extraordinary not just for his spectacular feats, but also for the obstacles he overcame to transform his life,” says Connie Wolf, the Museum’s director. “He was a cultural outsider who became an American icon – an inspiration to millions then and now. His legacy continues to fire the imagination of contemporary artists and countless others and we are thrilled to be sharing his story with Bay Area audiences.”
The Sphinx, October 1936.
Bess and Harry Houdini performing with the Metamorphosis Trunk
Courtesy, The Jewish Museum, NY
Born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary in 1874, Houdini was the son of a rabbi who immigrated with his family to Appleton, Wisconsin four years after his birth. From the beginning, Weiss was drawn to illusion, performance, and spectacle. When he was 12, he ran away from home with the intention of joining the circus. Instead, he spent his teenage years doing odd jobs to help support his impoverished family, now living in New York City. Passionate about athletics, he trained as a runner, swimmer, and boxer. These early workouts paved the way for Houdini’s rigorous training routine as a magician and illusionist.
Weiss’s career as a professional magician began after his father’s death in 1892. He changed his name to Harry Houdini as a tribute to the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. Early on he performed card tricks and the Needle Threading Trick in which needles and thread are swallowed and then pulled from the mouth in a long threaded chain. But it was after he married Bess Rahner, a Catholic Coney Island song and dance performer, that his acclaim grew. She became his onstage partner for a short time, and together they performed the Metamorphosis illusion in which magician and assistant quickly switch places bagged and sealed in a trunk.
Over the next decade, Houdini rose to international fame through increasingly daring feats that involved seemingly superhuman physical strength and stamina. Acutely aware of the power of the press, “The King of Handcuffs” staged dramatic, free public events, frequently outside newspaper offices. Throngs of spectators watched as he flailed upside down in a straitjacket or was tossed, shackled, into a river in a padlocked crate. He freed himself every time to wild ovations.
Houdini at the London Palladium, c. 1920.
Photo, Museum of the City of New York
Straitjacket, c. 1915, canvas, leather, and copper.
Photo, collection of Arthur Moses
Houdini appeared four times in San Francisco between 1899 and 1923. He was 25 years old and a relative unknown on his first visit where he played the Orpheum. By his third trip in 1915, however, he was a sensation and performed an escape from a chained box that was lowered into the water at Aquatic Park as part of the Panama-Pacific Exposition. For his last visit in 1923, he performed his famous mid-air straitjacket escape suspended from the side of the Hearst Building at 3rd and Market Streets in front of 30,000 spectators.
Film was a powerful medium for documenting Houdini’s heroics and establishing his eminence. The Straitjacket Escape became the most chronicled and carefully managed performance in Houdini’s repertoire. Film also provided an outlet for his showmanship – Houdini starred in a number of melodramatic silent films from 1919 through 1923. His celebrity extended beyond the realm of magic. He was the first successful aviator in Australia in 1910, and fraternized with the likes of President Theodore Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, and Sarah Bernhardt.
Houdini Being Lowered into the Upside Down, c. 1912.
Photo, collection of Dr. Bruce J. Averbook
Houdini Upside-Down in the Water Torture Cell, c. 1912.
Photo, courtesy of Kevin A. Connolly
Houdini battled professional peers and copycats who worked to duplicate his signature tricks. Many feats, such as the Handcuff, Milk Can, and Water Torture Cell Escapes, were copied and publicized by other magicians over Houdini’s objections.
An advocate for the magic profession, he served as president of the Society of American Magicians from 1917 until his death, and used his fame to debunk the widespread popularity of the quasi-religion Spiritualism. In lectures, writings, and even a Congressional testimony, Houdini contested the practice of using séances fraudulently to contact the deceased. As he told the Los Angeles Times in 1924, “It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer.”
Houdini’s death, which occurred on Halloween in 1926, has inspired many myths: that he was poisoned, that he died in the Water Torture Cell, and that he faked his death and escaped. It is more likely that he had been suffering from appendicitis and died of peritonitis after suffering a blow to the stomach by a student visiting his backstage dressing room (the student had persuaded Houdini to allow him to punch the magician to test his strength). He is buried in the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York, in a bronze casket fabricated for his buried-alive stunt.
Der Weltberühmte, Houdini (The World Famous Houdini). 1912, lithograph.
Courtesy of the Fantasma Magic Shop, NYC
See related material:
LEANNE BORGHESI – SF Bay Area Star on the Rise
SHAWN MATHEY – To replace Topi Lehtipuu in SF Opera’s “Don Giovanni”, opening Saturday, October 15th
CAMERON CARPENTER – International Superstar Organist plays “Phantom of the Opera” at Davies Symphony Hall, Friday, October 30th
FLEET WEEK – The VIP Party at Pier 39
“REAL STEEL” – Reels of money-making crap starring Hugh Jackman
BERLIN & BEYOND – 16th Anniversary, Film Festival Opens at The Castro, October 20th
LUCAS MEACHEM – Former Adler Fellow to sing “Don Giovanni” at San Francisco Opera
“THE MILL & THE CROSS” – Film director Lech Majewski brings 16th Century masterpiece to life
“ONCE IN A LIFETIME” – A Charming Comedy at A.C.T.
“LUCREZIA BORGIA” – A Hard Act To Swallow at San Francisco Opera
THE “DOUBLE PLATINUM” GOES TO: The California Academy of Sciences!
EDDIE MULLER and “Fear Over Frisco” – An Interview with the Czar of Noir
CD Release – Jacques Loussier Trio – “Schumann: Kinderszenen”
LEAH CROCETTO – An Interview with “Liu” in SF Opera’s TURANDOT
SILENT FILM FESTIVAL – Joins with the American Conservatory Theatre
HENRY PHIPPS – A Conversation with Featured Boy Soprano in SF Opera’s “Heart of a Soldier”
HBO Premieres “The Strange History of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” – Midnight, 9/20
“HEART OF A SOLDIER” – A Rapturous World Premiere At San Francisco Opera
THE ART OF ANATOLIAN KILIM – Now at the de Young Museum
“HEART OF A SOLDIER” – World Premiere, Tonight at San Francisco Opera
“The Glory of Love” – A Salute to Jacqueline Fontaine
MEET MAESTRO NICOLA LUISOTTI – San Francisco Opera opens 2011/12 season with Puccini’s “Turandot”
SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY – Opens Tonight and Celebrates Its 100th Anniversary
STEVE MARTIN’S “The Underpants” – Gets an airing at Gough Street Playhouse
A “WORLD PREMIERE” – Mozart’s Concerto for Horn and Orchestra
“MOZART’S SISTER” – Third string cinema
SF EARLY MUSIC SOCIETY – Season Opens with the Catacoustic Consort and Wildcat Viols
“ONCE IN A LIFETIME” – 1930 Comedy Open’s 2011-12 Season at A.C.T.
SF ARTS COMMISSION – Debuts New Public Artwork at the Ortega Branch Library
36th ANNUAL SF OPEN STUDIOS – Every weekend, October 1st—30th
SELECTED HISTORIES: Discover Latin American Art at SFMOMA
POLARIS: VOYAGE FOR ORCHESTRA – With the San Francisco Symphony
“HEART OF A SOLDIER” – SFOpera Presents World Premiere September 10th
GRANTS FOR THE ARTS – 50th Anniversary, A Free Celebration At City Hall
THE MOURNERS: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy
MEROLA OPERA’S GRAND FINALE – Meet Daniel Curran and Mark Diamond
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA – Opens with Puccini’s “Turandot”, September 9th
HELP IS ON THE WAY XVII: Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance!
Previewing two exhibitions coming to the de Young Museum and Legion of Honor
NEW ON CD – “Live from the Marlboro Music Festival”
100th BIRTHDAY – San Francisco Symphony throws free concert bash in Civic Center Plaza, September 8th
KEVIN SPACEY IS “RICHARD III” – At the Curran, October 19th—29th
FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS – Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s Experimental Opera at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 8/18–21
3rd i’s QUEER EYE – August Festival focuses on the South Asian LGBT experience
BALI: Art, Ritual, Performance – At the Asian Art Museum until September 11th
FOLGER COFFEE BUILDING – Becomes Downtown Hub for University of San Francisco
“STUFFED AND UNSTRUNG” – The Henson Puppets, Totally Uncensored – At the Curran, 8/18—27th
San Francisco Opera and Musicians Union – Ratify new 3-year contract
DIANA ROSS – One Night Only! – At the Golden Gate Theatre, 9/16
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA – Free Concert at Stern Grove, August 21st
TURANDOT – San Francisco Opera Opening Night Gala, September 9th
“THE BARBER OF SEVILLE” – Presented by the Merola Opera Program, 8/4-7
KIRK DOUGLAS – On Stage At The Castro Theatre
“CASABLANCA” – The SF Symphony accompanies screening
“HE WHO GETS SLAPPED” – A conversation with composer and pianist Matti Bye
ABEL GANCE’S “NAPOLEON” – San Francisco Silent Film Festival to present complete restoration by Kevin Brownlow in 2012
SEPTEMBER 11th – “Opera In The Park” – The City’s Civic Observance of the 10th Anniversary of 9/11
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA – Single tickets go on sale Sunday, July 10th, at 10 AM
THE CASTRO AMBASSADORS – Got questions? Have answers!
MARY GIBBONEY – An Interview with the star of “ABSOLUTELY SAN FRANCISCO”
“BILLY ELLIOT” – A high flying hit at the Orpheum
HEIDI MELTON – An Interview with “Sieglinde” in San Francisco Opera’s DIE WALKÜRE, 6/29
“DAS RHEINGOLD” – The slippery steps to Valhalla
“BILLY ELLIOT” – Leaps Into the Orpheum June 27th
PICASSO — Now at the de Young Museum
SONDHEIM’S “ASSASSINS” – Ray of Light Theatre is right-on target
“TALES OF THE CITY” – Totally Sensational, Totally San Francisco
“THE STOPS” – At NCTC – Come On and Get A Faith Lift
BRENDEN GUY — British Clarinetist In Concert, June 2nd
SILENT FILM FESTIVAL – Opens July 14th with re-discovered film by John Ford
THIS GUN FOR HIRE, 1942 – Looking at “Now you see it, now you don’t” sung by Veronica Lake
Seán Martinfield YouTube with Janet Roitz – ‘Marked Woman’ (1937) and the song that gave it pizzazz – ‘My Silver Dollar Man’
“Would You Like A Souvenir?” – Sean Martinfield and Janet Roitz explore a song from Film Noir classic NORA PRENTISS (1947)
SFMOMA — The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde
“ASSASSINS” – Ray of Light Theatre presents Stephen Sondheim’s controversial musical, June 2–25
VICE PALACE – All Singing! All Dancing! All Hedonism!!!
SEEING GERTRUDE STEIN: FIVE STORIES
THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS – Coming to A.C.T.
PICASSO: At the de Young Museum, Tickets on sale 5/11
BETH WILMURT – A stunning “Alma” in The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, at the Aurora Theatre
THE PRINCESS OF MONTPENSIER – Les yawns, les sighs
CD: ZUILL BAILEY, Cellist – Brahms Works for Cello and Piano
TIIT HELIMETS – An Interview with “Prince Edvard” of SF Ballet’s THE LITTLE MERMAID
NO EXIT: A Helluva Great Time at the American Conservatory Theatre
KIRK DOUGLAS – On stage at the Castro Theatre, July 24th
NEW CONSERVATORY THEATRE CENTER – Announces 2011-12 Pride Season
NEW PUBLICATIONS: PUBLIC TRUST BETRAYED. An Interview with author and real estate appraiser, James E. Manning
NEW CENTURY CHAMBER ORCHESTRA – Presents “Mastery of Schubert”, Featuring Soprano Melody Moore
FLORAL DESIGNER NATASHA LISITSA – Creating the Fantastical in the Wilsey Court for “Bouquets To Art 2011″
ZHENG CAO – A Conversation with A Miracle Artist
MELODY MOORE – Soprano shines in SF Ballet’s “Nanna’s Lied”
MARNIE BRECKENRIDGE – An Interview with “La Princesse” of Philip Glass’ Orphée
AVENUE Q – A Totally Fabulous Place To Be
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.