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Harry Houdini: Art and Magic

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by Joann Jovinelly (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer/photographer living in the East Village neighborhood of New York City.
Published January 31st 2011
Few lives have had the impact of the magician Harry Houdini, who, even 80 years after his death, is still the inspiration for many a budding illusionist. The story of how he rose to international fame from his near invisible status as a Hungarian immigrant, arriving by boat with his mother and four brothers to the United States in 1878, is nothing short of remarkable. By the time Houdini was just 24, he embarked on a career that took him throughout the world and made his a household name. Houdini's amazing career, and his lasting notoriety, is the subject of an fascinating exhibit at The Jewish Museum, "Houdini: Art and Magic," which celebrates his astounding accomplishments.

Houdini first came to New York City with his family at 14 and settled in a boarding house on East 79th Street. Before long, he took his interest in performing to Coney Island, where he earned modest amounts of money and met fellow performer and soon-to-be wife, Bess. Around the same time he changed his name from Ehrich Weiss to Harry Houdini, a nod to the French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, his hero and contemporary.

Initially, Houdini's foray into card tricks and tight rope walking yielded little success; it was only after he began mastering the art of the escape that his career took off. By 1900, Houdini's acts of escape had not only become the charm of the American vaudevillian circuit, but also the toast of Europe. While touring the United Kingdom, he wowed police at Scotland Yard when demonstrating his dramatic escape from handcuffs, a trick that gave him the moniker "Handcuff King." Four years later, he returned to the States and purchased a brownstone on 278 W. 113th Street in Harlem where he practiced his tricks in an oversized bathtub. His family never again knew poverty.

Back in the United States, Houdini's stakes for escape quickly escalated. People marveled with a certain curiosity at the thought that he might perish while trying to free himself from increasingly challenging traps. First came the Milk Can Escape followed by the Chinese Water Torture Cell, in which the infamous illusionist was suspended upside down in a locked steel-and-glass cabinet filled with water. Next came Houdini's escape from a straight jacket, a stunt in which he physically dislocated his shoulder in order to break out. Among his most personally reviled stunts was a trick in which he was buried alive. After falling unconscious while performing the trick in California, he retired it from his act saying, "the weight of the earth [was] killing."

Perhaps the most ingenious aspect of Houdini's career, however, was the masterful ways in which he promoted himself, which is among the themes of the exhibit. One example is how and where he performed many of his most amazing feats. When Houdini arrived in a large city, he often performed just outside its largest newspaper house. Reporters and photographers had only to peer out the windows to witness a perfect view. Photographers needed to make little effort to gain images worthy of front-page placement.

To this day, any Houdini fan will be hard-pressed not to appreciate the wealth of documentation that he left behind, from books and broadsides, to a large collection of photographs and writing housed in the Library of Congress, to the numerous films about his life and career, including a 15-part serial that debuted in 1919 (pictured) that led to a two picture feature film deal with Paramount. Much of that documentation is now on view through March 27, 2011, as well as Houdini's personal belongings including his straightjacket, handcuffs, and milk can. A vast selection of gelatin silver print photographs, archival films, and posters round out the exhibit, which also contains the works of contemporary artists like Matthew Barney, Petah Coyne, and Jane Hammond, each of whom have been influenced by the master magician. Perhaps, as the museum notes, Houdini's greatest escape was his rise from impoverished immigrant to world-renowned celebrity to timeless American legend.
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Why? To witness the accomplishments of a true American icon.
When: Now through March 27, 2011
Where: The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue (at 92nd St.)
Cost: Adults, $12; Seniors $10; Students $8; Children Under 12, Free.
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