March 24, 2011, - 5:20 pm
You may have noticed, today, that Google’s normal icon on the search engine is a tribute to the late, great American magician Harry Houdini. Today would have been his 137th birthday. He was brilliant in so many areas aside from magic, and he was a great figure of Americana, whose legend lives well beyond his life.
I’ve always been a fan of Harry Houdini, not just because he was a great American performance artist, and not just because he was a great American Jewish entrepreneur (whose real name was Erik Weisz/Ehrich Weiss), who was born in Hungary and came to Appleton, Wisconsin with his parents. It’s because, as a kid, I loved to perform magic tricks, and because as an adult, I developed a great appreciation for what you might now know about Houdini–that he was a great skeptic and wrote about his investigations into psychics, mystics, healers, and other snake oil salesman trying to sell people on their powers and their “magical” products, which claimed to heal sundry maladies and problems, but really didn’t.
When I was little, my father bought me magic tricks and my parents encouraged me to perform my “show” for guests and relatives. It was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it. I used to beg my parents to take me to the magic trick stores, which, sadly, are all out of business, now. My parents took me to see some of the greats when they performed in Detroit, including the magnificent Harry Blackstone, Jr (who, sadly, died very young in 1997 from pancreatic cancer). Later on, I took my much younger brother to see Penn and Teller, and he went on stage to help them with a trick. Today, if you don’t have a spectacular show, with huge production elements like in Vegas, forget it. The magic world has mostly died out. But I still love the old fashioned one-man act magician.
As a kid, I was really into it–the whole magician business and I still am, though more in watching it than in performing. I was also a voracious reader and very curious about Houdini. I read a number of books about him, and he came from a very interesting background. His father was a Rabbi, and he was one of many children. He was a great athlete and also an actor and filmmaker. Everyone knows of him for his terrific escapes from shackles, cuffs, locks, chains, strait jackets, etc. But he was also an entrepreneur, as the owner of Martinka & Co., a magic trick company. He really was a pioneer of the magic business, turning it into a headlining act, taking advantage of the vaudeville shows that were hip at the time.
But you probably didn’t know that Houdini wrote a few books not about magic. He knew all about cons and wrote how to perpetrate them the right way in The Right Way To Do Wrong: An Exposé of Successful Criminals. Though he was a major star at the time, Houdini managed to infiltrate the world of scam artists, at first out of curiosity, but became very skeptical. He wrote Miracle Mongers And Their Methods: A Complete Exposé in 1920.
Reportedly, Houdini’s confidence in himself and his magic act was his downfall. They say he died as a result of injuries suffered when he challenged a student to punch him, saying he could withstand all blows above his waist. Shortly after that, he died in a Detroit hospital.
Regardless of his downfall, Houdini was a genius in business, performing, and logic. If there is one show I wish I could see, it’s Houdini’s magic act. Maybe, someday, when they invent a real-life “time machine” . . . .
Tags: Appleton, Birthday, Ehrich Weiss, Erik Wiesz, Great Americans, Harry Houdini, Houdini, Jewish, Jewish-Americans, magic, magician, Martinka & Co., Miracle Mongers And Their Methods: A Complete Exposé, The Right Way To Do Wrong: An Exposé of Successful Criminals, Wisconsin