Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Nothing on Earth Can Hold Houdini!

I don’t know how I missed this, but Monday was Houdini’s birthday.

It’s one of the great regrets of my life that I never got to see Houdini in person. I mean, it’s not like I just neglected doing it – like I did with Sinatra – it’s more that he died 30 years before I was born. 

One of my other regrets is that, given the recordings we have of Houdini’s voice, he sounds, well, pretty wimpy. I realize he’s over-enunciating because of the technology (or “tek-noll-oh-jee,” as Harry would pronounce it on these cylinders) and that he had to be heard all over the theatres he played, but, given his robust personality, I’d hoped for a deeper and more commanding voice. (In this regard, he’s like Theodore Roosevelt, whose voice is nothing like his Rough Rider image.)

 Harry and TR: Two men with egos and accomplishments for a dozen.

But I’m crazy for Harry. I’d always been aware of him – how could you not be? His name is still a household word. But until I started my research, I had only the vaguest notion of what his life really involved.  Most of what I did “know” was from the 1953 movie starring Tony Curtis that misrepresents a lot of his feats – up to and including his death.

My Houdini jones, if you will, started when seeing something in New York. I was reading the program before the show and saw that someone in the cast had been in productions of “Houdini” and “Macbeth.” I initially read that as one production, and started musing on what that must have been like – and, once I realized my mistake, what those two had in common. Almost immediately, I realized their connection: ghosts. Obviously, Macbeth has to deal with a number of spooks and, even then I knew that Houdini had fought phony psychics and spiritualists. (I realize the “phony” is redundant …) That realization prompted the playwright in me, so I wrote what turned into a trilogy of one-acts that paired Harry Houdini, hard-boiled ghostbuster-for-hire with Macbeth, Sherlock Holmes, and Hamlet. (Note to producers: they're available for production.)

"Mr. Houdini, my castle is haunted."

But, until I started the research that has continued to (literally) this day (I just learned some stuff I didn't know about his gravesite), I didn’t realize all he had done. The escapes were the least of it, and that’s saying something. The more I learn about those escapes and illusions and how they were done, the more respect I have for him. (And, of course, there are still magical feats he performed for which the logistics are still unknown. No one knows the exact means by which he disappeared an elephant or the specifics of the Chinese Water Torture Cell escape, even nearly ninety years after his death.) 

Harry in the "Upside Down" (or USD, as he called it).

In spite of my general distaste for braggarts and the boastful, that’s one of the reasons I Iove Houdini. He was the first performer – hell, the first person – to realize the value of mass publicity. Every time he’d go to a new town, he’d hit the local newspaper and escape from a straitjacket while suspended several stories over the street, or he’d challenge the police force to lock him in a jail cell, from which he’d escape – usually after being stripped naked – in a matter of minutes. He’d issue challenges to local companies to create things he couldn’t get out of (creating mutual publicity for both him and the company). Whether that thing was a pair of handcuffs or a novelty box or a giant automobile tire or even a “sea monster,” there was nothing from which he couldn't escape. The only challenge he came close to not completing was when he was nailed into a beer barrel. Harry was a teetotaler, and the alcohol fumes nearly overcame him.

 No one was better at drawing a crowd than Houdini.

The "sea monster."

He made movies (unfortunately, he was a terrible actor – though he did fight the first robot ever seen in films). He was the first man to fly an airplane in Australia. He amassed some of the largest private collections of magic and theatrical programs and memorabilia. He wrote the entry on magic for the Encyclopedia Britannica. He performed before the crowned heads of Europe.

 Houdini over Australia -- note the publicity on the plane.

There's so much I want to say about Harry that I can't fit it all into one post, so I'll be concluding this tomorrow – when I can go into details about his fight against phony spiritualists and his mysterious death.

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