Houdini Unlocked: CJM exhibit reveals the man behind the magic

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At noon on a crisp March morning almost 90 years ago, 30,000 people gathered at the intersection of Third and Market streets in downtown San Francisco, necks craned toward the sky. Moments earlier, San Francisco policemen had strapped the world’s most famous magician into a straitjacket and, using a pulley rigged to the seventh story of the Hearst Building, hoisted him roughly 80 feet into the air.

With hands and feet bound, dangling headfirst from a rope around his ankles, Harry Houdini, age 49, began to work his way out of the straightjacket, as the crowd below — including both businessmen on their lunch breaks and kids playing hooky from school — gasped in delight.

Harry Houdini, circa 1920 photo/courtesy of the national portrait gallery, smithsonian institution, washington, d.c.

The headline in the San Francisco Examiner the next day read “Wizard Throws Off Bonds With Lightening Speed Suspended From Side of Hearst Building.” The response of police chief William J. Quinn, as it appeared in the newspaper: “Well, I’ll be d——d.”

Almost a century later, history’s most-loved escape artist still inspires the same reaction. “Houdini: Art and Magic,” which opens Sunday, Oct. 2 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, explores the life and legacy of the man whose name remains synonymous with daring, seemingly death-defying illusions and feats of strength.

Organized by the Jewish Museum in New York, where it made its debut, the exhibition features more than 160 artifacts, including handcuffs, a straitjacket and other pieces of Houdini’s renowned escape acts; private diaries, promotional posters, flyers, photographs and wall-sized projections of silent films that captured him performing his craft in his heyday. It also includes contemporary art inspired by the magician.

The exhibit drew big crowds when it ran in New York for five months, from December 2010 through March. It then moved to the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, where it ran from late April until Sept. 4, also drawing large crowds.

Crowd scene with trolley cars stopped while Houdini performs the Straitjacket Escape, circa 1915 photo/collection of ken trombly

While the exhibit is in San Francisco, the CJM will be offering some complementary programming, including two films: the 1953 film “Houdini” (starring Tony Curtis) at 1 p.m. Nov. 1, and the 1976 TV movie “The Great Houdinis” (starring Paul Michael Glaser) at 1 p.m. Dec. 6. Also, basic magic classes for kids, teens and families will be offered periodically through December (check the CJM’s calendar online for details).

While some portions of the exhibition have been purposefully tailored to kids, adults will find plenty to gawk at, including a rich telling of Houdini’s upbringing and largely undiscussed Jewish heritage, a lens that casts his later adventures in a fresh light.

Born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, in 1874, Houdini was one of seven children. In 1878, the family moved to the United States and settled in Appleton, Wis., where the family changed its last name to the German spelling of “Weiss,” and Erik was changed to “Ehrich” — friends called him “Ehrie” or “Harry.” His father, Mayer, a highly educated rabbi who spoke only Hungarian, found a post at the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation in Appleton, but after a few years he was dismissed in favor of a younger, English-speaking rabbi.

The family was never the same. The elder Weiss took Ehrich to New York City with him to try to find work there, eventually managing to scrape by as a rabbinic jack-of-all-trades, offering marriage, funeral and mohel services. He also worked at a necktie factory on the Lower East Side, where his son took a job as well. In 1892, when Ehrich was 18, he lost his father to tongue cancer.

“I think his father’s life and struggles as an immigrant and as a rabbi definitely shaped who Houdini became,” said Dara Solomon, the CJM’s curator for the exhibition.

Studio photograph of Houdini in chains, circa 1905 image/courtesy of the harvard theatre collection, houghton library

“It’s especially interesting to me to think about his father’s sudden inability to perform as a rabbi — because so much about being a successful rabbi is being able to really perform on stage,” she added. “Then Houdini goes on to become the ultimate performer, not only in these spectacles but in film, in Hollywood. At a certain point he was the ultimate American celebrity.”

It was while working at the necktie factory that the young Ehrich formed a magic act called “The Brothers Houdini,” named after the French conjurer considered by many to be the founder of modern magic, Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin. A friend from the factory initially played the role of his “brother,” soon to be replaced by Ehrich’s actual brother, Deszo, who shared his interest in magic. In 1894, the act became simply “The Houdinis” when a 19-year-old Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner — she went by Bess — took Dezso’s place with a song-and-dance number. She and Ehrich were married that year, to the dismay of Rahner’s German Catholic family.

Houdini rose to international fame at a time when a host of other Jewish magicians were garnering national attention — a time when the “street spectacle” was a rare, free form of pleasure that drew working-class people of all backgrounds.

Among the greats were Nate Leipzig, a Jewish immigrant from Sweden who was admired for his sleight-of-hand artistry; Max Malini, who would borrow a hat from an audience member and make a block of ice appear beneath it; and The Great Leon (Leon Harry Levy), a vaudeville star whose act included sending an assistant through a sheet of steel with a “Death Ray Gun.”

One of Houdini’s best friends in the business was The Great Lafayette (Sigmund Neuberger), whose act “The Lion’s Bride” involved a female assistant entering the cage of a lion, which roared and prepared to pounce — only to have its hide fall to the floor, revealing The Great Lafayette in an impressively realistic lion suit.

Exhibit organizers took the opportunity of “Houdini: Art and Magic” to celebrate these other Jewish immigrant magicians, as well as the rich history of Jews in magic in general. According to historians, Houdini saw magic as an ancient Jewish art, and often cast biblical stories — such as the transformation of Aaron’s staff into a serpent — as some of the first magic tricks. While he wasn’t observant, he would seek out a synagogue and say Kaddish each year on the anniversary of his father’s death. He took great pride in his Jewish heritage and was enraged by anti-Semitism; he was known to keep newspaper clippings about anti-Semitic acts throughout his life.

Lobby display for a live show, circa 1906 poster/courtesy of the kevin a. connolly collection

As his fame grew, Houdini also became deeply involved with Jewish theatrical culture. In 1918, he and Al Jolson founded the Rabbis’ Sons Theatrical Benevolent Association, whose members — all rabbis’ sons working in the performing arts — were required to donate earnings to the Red Cross, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association or other philanthropic groups. Eddie Cantor (Israel Iskowitz) took the post of vice president; Irving Berlin (Israel Baline) served as secretary.

While based out of New York for much of his career, Houdini enjoyed a special relationship with San Francisco, where he performed four times between 1899 and 1923. On Aug. 26, 1907, at San Francisco’s Aquatic Park, he plunged into the bay with his hands handcuffed behind his back and more than 75 pounds of ball and chain locked to his body. He escaped from his shackles in 57 seconds.

Trying to figure out how the great illusionist pulled off his stunts — and debating theories with fellow onlookers — was half the fun. “Everybody will tell you how he does the trick, but no two bodies will tell you the same way,” read a story in the San Francisco Examiner the day after his bay plunge.

Photographs of the magician throughout his life reveal an intense and often stubborn yet playful personality. Houdini was known to smile, with a glint in his eye, throughout even his most dangerous acts. At 5-foot-5, his diminutive stature belied a powerful stage presence that effortlessly filled an auditorium.

One aspect of the magician’s biography that might be a bit hard to translate to modern audiences: his crusade against Spiritualism, which had taken off in the 1920s, as séances and “psychic” mediums that supposedly conversed with spirits became popular. Houdini attended hundreds of séances, and hired a young woman to attend more under a fake name and report back to him. He reported his findings to the New York Police Academy, and took every opportunity in his shows to discredit so-called mediums by revealing their tricks.

This crusade was the driving factor in ending his once-solid friendship with Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who saw Spiritualism as a replacement for Christianity. Doyle became attached to the cause after a London medium helped him connect with the spirit of his long-dead son.

A poster for one of Houdini’s early shows with Bess, featuring the classic Metamorphosis act, circa 1895 image/courtesy of the collection of ken trombly

In order to sway Houdini’s feelings on Spiritualism, Doyle offered the magician a private séance, at which Doyle’s wife took down 15 “spirit messages” supposedly being spoken through her from Houdini’s deceased mother. The only problem: the “transmission” included a cross — something a Jewish mother, a rabbi’s wife, would never have sent her son. (To make nothing of the fact that she never spoke English.) Far from impressed, Houdini grew ever more steadfast in his crusade to de-fraud mediums, whom he believed took advantage of the grief-stricken.

Aside from anecdotes and photographs, the original tools and objects used in Houdini’s acts take center stage at the CJM. On display are handcuffs, Houdini’s diagrams from the needle-threading trick (in which Houdini “swallowed” 50 to 100 needles, followed by 20 yards of thread, then removed a string of threaded needles from his mouth), and an original “Metamorphosis Trunk” used in one of his most classic escape routines. A re-creation of the famed Water Torture Cell (the original was destroyed in a fire in 1995) rounds out the collection. They’re all lit and positioned in a way that curators hope will encourage a feeling of mystery throughout the space.

“We don’t give away any of his tricks, because we figured that would be kind of the ultimate betrayal,” said Solomon with a laugh. “Magicians never gave away their tricks.” She added that docents have been specifically instructed not to reveal any of the illusionist’s secrets to inquiring visitors.

While the displays, photographs and texts do encompass the entirety of Houdini’s rise to international fame, curators decided to forgo a linear telling of his story, according to Solomon, in favor of showcasing contemporary works of art influenced by the magician throughout the exhibition.

San Francisco artist Deborah Oropallo’s oversized oil paintings of Houdini were inspired by nostalgia for magic’s so-called Golden Age. Fascinated with magic for most of her life, Oropallo explained in her artist’s statement that, “Like painting, magic shares certain intangible qualities: illusion, sleight of hand, deception.”

Those qualities are part of what the exhibition’s organizers believe draws children and adults alike to the legacy of Houdini’s life and work, some 85 years after his death.

Houdini died on Halloween in 1926, reportedly after a university student punched the magician in the stomach to test Houdini’s claim that he could take any blow above the waist without injury; the young man hadn’t given Houdini time to properly tense his stomach muscles.

In a strange twist to Houdini’s views, he had instructed his wife to hold a séance on the anniversary of his death for 10 years. Though he believed séances to be hokum, he reportedly felt that if anyone could figure out how to do it, it would be him. The couple devised a special code so that Bess would know it was truly her husband.

She complied, and announced after the 10th year that the experiment was over — Houdini’s special communication had never come through. But the tradition lived well beyond her: Houdini enthusiasts around the world, young and old, continue to mark Halloween with some kind of séance, an attempt to connect with the magician’s spirit from beyond the grave.

Clearly, our fascination with “The Handcuff King” continues to this day.

“No matter how many advances we see in technology that we’re wowed by, even if we don’t understand how they work, it’s not the same as a human being suspended in a straitjacket from a tall building,” Solomon offered.

“There’s still this magic to it — the idea of the unknown, the aspect of performance where you’re held in suspense for a few minutes. That transcends time.”

cover photo   |   courtesy of bruce j. averbook collection, cleveland

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.