By Gary Peterson
Home and Away magazine
Ever done something so well that your name became synonymous with the act? Well, Harry Houdini did. The man made himself a legend by extricating himself from hair-raising and life-threatening situations, to the delight of magic fans. And he did so before the special-effects gimmickry employed by modern magicians such as David Copperfield.
Today, Houdini’s name is used as a colloquialism meaning a great escape.
Born Ehrich Weiss in 1874 in Hungary, Houdini was a man so far ahead of other purveyors of his craft that he was ascribed supernatural abilities by those who wondered at his skill. Even friends such as author Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes was famous for logical interpretations of mysterious incidents, believed Houdini’s exploits to be otherworldly.
Houdini, who changed his name in tribute to a famed French illusionist, insisted his talents were products of practice, not the occult. In fact, Houdini took great pains to expose others who touted themselves as spiritualists; he often would attend sÈances with the sole purpose of debunking them. Houdini also gave lectures on how to discount the false claims of charlatans.
Houdini’s immense talents were not limited to magic. He dabbled in filmmaking as a writer, director and actor. He was one of the first people to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and he was the first magician to be so honored. Houdini also was an aficionado of aviation, and in 1920, he was the first person to fly in Australia.
Portions of the great magician’s life would be shrouded in mystery if his brother had heeded Houdini’s dying wish to destroy his props, papers and other materials. Instead, after Houdini’s death in 1926 from peritonitis, his brother—also an accomplished magician—saved the items and eventually passed them on to his protÈgÈ Sidney Radner.
In 1988, Radner donated the collection to the Houdini Historical Center in Appleton, Wis., which had long claimed to be Houdini’s birthplace. Houdini’s family moved to the city when he was a toddler and his father was Appleton’s first rabbi.
Radner’s donation is the centerpiece exhibit at the center, and includes Houdini’s own posters, lock picks, handcuffs, straightjackets and a milk can he used in one of his escapes. The Houdini Historical Center is open year-round and offers annual events, such as summer magic shows and Halloween with Houdini (the magician died on Oct. 31). A Houdini walking-tour map of Appleton also is available at the center.
The center, located in the Outagamie Museum, is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 5 pm., and Sunday, from noon to 5 p.m. The center also is open Mondays, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., June through August. The facility is wheelchair accessible. Admission is charged. For additional information, call 920-733-8445 or visit www.houdinihistory.org.
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