Even at age 4, the boy who would become Harry Houdini had the mesmerizing gaze that would enthrall audiences when he was a grown man.
The lad peering out at viewers from the old family photograph at the Jewish Museum of Maryland had eyes set deep beneath his brows that glowed with a rare force of personality. The effect was like peering into a cave and spying a campfire at the far end. Those bright flames drew you in and made you venture closer despite the surrounding dark.
“Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini,” the new exhibit running for the next seven monthsdelves into the life of the Hungarian immigrant, rabbi’s son and celebrated escape artist who also was one of the most original minds of the 20th century.
As Houdini himself put it: “My brain is the key that sets me free.”
The exhibit displays about 100 artifacts — documents, photographs, his father’s Bible, a set of see-through handcuffs — culled from private collections across the U.S. The show includes one of Houdini’s original brown leather straitjackets and a rare recording of the magician’s voice, which was higher and lighter than might be expected from a man with such an intimidating stare.
Museum visitors will learn about Houdini the adventurer (he claimed to be the first man to fly an airplane in Australia), Houdini the entrepreneur (he founded his own movie studio and directed and starred in his own films) and Houdini the inventor (he holds a patent for a diving suit developed for military use around World War I that was easily removed while underwater).
The exhibit explores Houdini’s ties to Maryland, where he performed more than 100 shows; highlights his use of then cutting-edge technology (one act featured a robot) and reveals his methods for debunking spiritualists. The latter pursuit ruptured the magic man’s friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes, when Houdini exposed Conan Doyle’s wife as a fraud.
Oh — and visitors to the exhibit will also make an elephant disappear.
Granted, the pachyderm in question is both miniature and a toy, unlike the famous illusion that Houdini conducted in New York in 1918 with 10,000-pound Jennie in front of nearly 6,000 audience members.
In the exhibit, the mechanism by which the faux Jennie is whisked out of sight is to modern eyes charmingly obvious. But kids — and grownups, too, for that matter — will get a kick out of trying some of Houdini’s most famously mystifying ruses, from a simple card trick to an illusion in which the famous musician and the museum-goer appear to magically trade places.
“From the beginning, it was important for us to give people different ways into the exhibit,” museum executive director Marvin Pinkert said. “Instead of just telling stories about the magic Houdini performed, we wanted to give our visitors a chance to experience it themselves. We wanted the exhibit to be fun for kids but also to have enough content so that adults relatively knowledgeable about Houdini will still find something new.”
“Inescapable” may be the one museum exhibit in the Free State this year that’s curated by a guy who does a magic trick involving celebrity toenail clippings. Pinkert asked Jewish magician David London to put together the Houdini exhibit after attending his Artscape show last year.
“It almost seems as though my entire life had been leading up to this moment,” London said. “I’ve had a poster of Houdini hanging in my bedroom since I’ve been a teenager. It’s impossible to overstate the impact he’s had on magic.”
London said that most exhibits focus on the headline-grabbing last half of Houdini’s life. In contrast, “Inescapable” devotes equal resources to documenting the hardscrabble first 26 years of the conjurer born Erik Weisz.
“Our exhibit,” London said, “takes a peek behind the curtain.”
The Weisz family emigrated to America in 1878 when the future magician was 4 years old. But in 1882, Houdini’s father, Mayer Samuel Weisz, lost his job as rabbi for a Reform Jewish congregation in Appleton, Wis.plunging his family into poverty.
After the family moved to Milwaukee when Erik was 8 years old, the boy sold newspapers, shined shoes and delivered groceries to put food on the table. At 12, he ran away from home. “Inescapable” contains an 1886 letter to Mayer and Cecilia Weisz signed “Your truant son.”
Erik eventually made his way to New York, where he found work as a messenger and in a necktie factory and began to seriously study magic. In 1891, he renamed himself “Harry Houdini” in honor of the great French conjurer, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, took his act on the road and — as the exhibit makes clear — toiled in obscurity for the next eight years.
In 1893, when the 19-year-old King of Cards married a fellow performer, he was so poor that his bride, Bess, had to purchase the $2 marriage license. Five years later, Houdini was still struggling. His travel diary contains a succinct entry from Sept. 23, 1898 following a performance outside Cumberland: “Rained hard. No dinner.”
An especially poignant artifact is an 1898 catalog for Professor Houdini’s School of Magic. The brochure offers the secrets to the entire act that Houdini spent nearly a decade polishing — for $10.
What’s worse, the offer attracted no takers.
“Houdini had decided to quit show business,” London said, “but he couldn’t find anybody to buy his act.”
It wasn’t until 1899 that the vaudeville impresario Martin Beck met Houdini after a performance in Minnesota and gave the young entertainer the advice that changed his life: Forget card tricks, which were commonplace. Focus instead on handcuff escapes, which no other magicians were attempting.
Virtually overnight, Houdini became an international superstar who presented his act before crowds that at times exceeded 50,000 people.
“He was short, just five-foot-six, which made it easier for him to wiggle out of things,” London said, “and he had an amazing athletic physique. He also had a deep understanding of locks and mechanisms.”
Viewers living in 2018 who have become inured to photo-shopped images might be underwhelmed by Houdini’s illusions. The early 20th century craze for seances and mediums today seems laughably naive.
But those decades “were one of the most radical eras of transformation the world has ever seen,” Pinkert said. Americans were bombarded with such mind-boggling inventions as the electric lightbulb, radio and telephone. If invisible electromagnetic waves traveling at the speed of light could bring Fibber McGee’s voice into your living room, perhaps spirit photography was possible as well.
But even 21st century sophisticates will gape at Houdini’s escapes, some of which were extraordinarily dangerous. An April 26, 1916 photograph from the Maryland Historical Society shows Houdini suspended from the old Baltimore Sun building high above Charles Street. Crowds jammed shoulder to shoulder watched Houdini wriggle free from a straitjacket while suspended upside down.
Other times, Houdini allowed his arms and legs to be bound and then was nailed into a packing crate weighted with lead. The cube was lowered into the water and sunk beneath the waves. Minutes later, the great illusionist bobbed to the surface.
Inevitably, Houdini attracted imitators of his handcuff escapes, some claiming supernatural powers. In 1908, the wall text of the exhibit says, Houdini became so disgusted by the frauds that he exposed his own methods.
Perhaps he realized that future generations would continue to marvel at his most astounding escape.
“His greatest trick,” Pinkert said, “was the one that transformed Erik Weisz into Harry Houdini.”
If you go
“Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini” runs through Jan. 21, 2019 at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, 15 Lloyd St. $4-$10. Call 410-732-6400 or go to jewishmuseummd.org.