As the son of a Rabbi, Erich Weiss (1874-1926) didn’t feel the pulpit was his forte. Yet like a great pulpit communicator, Weiss was able to mesmerize his “congregation,” –a world-wide audience– when he became a magician-escape artist and changed his name to Harry Houdini.
From now through the end of March, New York City’s Jewish Museum (1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street) has the kind of exhibition not typical of the Museum’s traditional style. The opportunity to see up close the story that made Houdini a legend is nothing less than spell-binding. Faster than you can say, “Abracadabra”, the exhibition titled “Houdini: Art and Magic” takes you on a whirlwind tour behind-the-tricks and inside the mind of this master magician. The exciting exhibition also focuses on some of the people he inspired, including artists who saw Houdini as a source for contemporary poster and artistic design.
Houdini definitely was a talent ahead of his time. He was a self promoter, marketing and advertising master. Before the motion picture industry added sound, long before TV, vaudeville and even Las Vegas revues, and reminiscent of the performing styles of Al Jolson and the Marx Brothers, Houdini, the magician-actor-performer was first an entertainer who had the idea to film his own stunts and tricks as a marketing tool. By filming his escapades, he literally controlled and expanded his exposure, enabling audiences to see his work throughout the world.
As you wander through this exhibition, you see that Houdini, the escapist, just couldn’t be contained. While performing, he was bagged and hustled into a packing trunk, folded and sealed in a milk can, hung suspended by his ankles in a water-filled cell, and dangled outdoors in front of thousand of people in a strait-jacket-and escaped from them all. His performance props were common recognizable objects like needles and thread, a milk can and packing crate. In 1895 he said that “I have escaped out of more handcuffs, manacles and leg shackles than any other human being living.”
In addition to viewing the vintage black and white footage of Houdini as well as his props and magic paraphernalia, there’s a wonderful collection of the artistically colorful posters inspired by his showmanship.
Houdini literally performed until he died, when a ruptured appendix believed to be brought on by a so-called stunt one day, ended his life. By the way, even after almost a hundred years, Houdini fans still make Yahrzeit (memorial) pilgrimages to his gravesite at the Machpelah Cemetery in Ridgewood Queens.
Escape to the Houdini exhibit at the Jewish Museum this winter. It’s magic from the master.