“HOUDINI: Art and Magic” – At the Contemporary Jewish Museum

Sean Martinfield
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

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Seán Martinfield
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: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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