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The Great Houdini

December 15, 2018 0 Comment

Word Count: 1152The performer known world wide as Harry
Houdini was born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest.

Although Houdini often claimed to be born in Appleton,
Wisconsin, Houdini actually came to the United States when
he was four years old. To this day many connected with the
small town of Appleton still claim the untruth that Houdini
was born there strictly to attract tourists. Houdini’s father
was Mayer Samuel Weiss. Houdini’s father was a Rabbi.

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His mother’s name was Cecilia Steiner Weiss. His parents
spoke little English, and the family was quite poor so most of
the children began to work at an early age. From the age of
eight young Ehrich Weiss sold newspapers and worked as a
shoe shine boy. At the age of 12, young Ehrich left home to
make his way in the world in an attempt to help support his
family. Young Ehrich traveled the country for about a year,
always sending money home when he could. Finally he
joined up with his father in New York City. The family
moved to New York in the hope of finding a better life
there. In New York, Houdini worked as a messenger and as
a cutter in a garment center sweat shop, to help support his
family. Houdini began performing magic as a teenager first
calling himself Eric the Great. Ehrich acquired the name
Houdini from a book he read, “The Memoirs of
Robert-Houdin,” the autobiography of one of the greatest
magicians of the day. Influenced by what he read and
learned about the internationally known magician Robert
Houdin, young Ehrich changed his name to Houdini, hoping
to be in some way like his new found mentor. Houdini’s first
magic shows consisted of card tricks and other simple
magic. Soon Houdini began experimenting with hand cuffs
and using them in his acts. Houdini performed with another
young man who worked with him in the factory in New
York. They called themselves the Houdini Brothers. Soon
Houdini’s younger brother Theo took the place of the boy
from the factory. Together with his brother Theo, they tried
to succeed as the Houdini Brothers. Their first performances
included shows at amusement parks, beer halls, “dime
museums,” and at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. In
1894, Houdini met Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, who was
singing and dancing as part of the Floral Sisters. They were
working Coney Island at the time. After knowing each other
only two weeks they were married in the month of July.

Bess, as she was called, worked and traveled with Houdini.

Bess took Theo’s place in the act that would now be called
“The Houdini’s”. Houdini began offering rewards to anyone
who could successfully restrain him, first in handcuffs and
later in all manner of objects. Houdini escaped from
handcuffs, leg irons, straight jackets, jails and prison cells, a
mail pouch, packing crates, a giant paper bag (without
tearing the paper), a giant football, an iron boiler, milk cans,
coffins, and the famous Water Torture Cell. Some of
Houdini’s escapes, such as the Straight Jacket or being tied
with a hundred feet of rope, Houdini would do in full view of
the audience. Houdini spent many hours studying, practicing
and conditioning. For Houdini’s underwater stunts, Houdini
would practice holding his breath in the bathtub for up to
four minutes. To help draw crowds and sell tickets, Houdini
would do escape challenges, often at police stations with
newspaper reporters present, assuring a headline story.

Martin Beck, Vaudeville’s most important booking agent
caught Houdini’s act in 1899 and was impressed with his
dynamic personality and booked him as a “challenge escape
artist.” Martin Beck booked the Orpheum circuit, the largest
chain of vaudeville theaters in the country and booked all of
the stars of vaudeville. He had a trained eye for talent. He
immediately placed Houdini in big time vaudeville as a
supporting act. Houdini soon began to headline in several
theaters throughout the country. After some success in the
United States Houdini decided to go to Europe in the year
1900. Houdini created a sensation in London, England and
went on to travel throughout Europe for five years as a
headliner. Houdini had so much work in Europe that he
summoned his brother Theo to work there under the name
Hardeen. Houdini returned to the United States, determined
to become an even bigger star in the country he loved. He
would cris-cross between Europe and the United States
going where he could get the biggest offers. As escape artist
imitators popped up to take advantage of Houdini’s
tremendous success, Houdini began to originate new and
more difficult and dangerous escapes. Houdini invented the
underwater packing box escape as a fabulous publicity stunt
that was copied by many others. He was the first person to
do the Straight Jacket Escape as well. He introduced the
sensational Milk Can Escape in St. Louis on January 27,
1908. In 1913 he introduced his legendary Chinese Water
Torture Cell. This was the same year his mother died which
was a great shock to Houdini. He was in Europe at them
time and his family had not told of his mother’s illness. He
was also the first to do the largest stage illusion to that day,
making the largest object known at the time – an elephant
disappear. This was done in 1918 at the Hippodrome in
New York City. In 1916 Houdini began a film career. This
gave people all over the world a chance to see the great
artist. Houdini made five major silent films up until 1923. He
also wrote several of them. His films include “The Master
Mystery,” “The Grim Game,” “Terror Island” and “The Man
From Beyond.” Houdini was given one of the first stars on
the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contribution to the film
industry. The star is in a prominent spot out side of
Hollywood’s famous Chinese Theater. Houdini wrote and
even directed several of his movies. Houdini hated cheats
and frauds. Throughout his career Houdini exposed cheats
and frauds in the areas of gambling, spiritualism, and psychic
frauds. Houdini never believed in spiritualism, but would
often pretend to in order to gain entry to seances. Houdini
would write many books and articles throughout his life.

They included “The Right Way To Do Wrong,” an expose of
swindlers, “A Magician Among The Spirits,” an expose of
psychic frauds, and “The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin,”
which was up until that time the greatest book on the history
of magic. On October 22, 1926, Houdini was in Montreal
performing at the Princess Theater. In his dressing room at
the theater, while lying on a couch backstage, an young
athlete from McGill University, asked if Houdini could
actually withstand punches to the stomach as he had heard.

Before Houdini could prepare himself by tightening his
stomach muscles, the student began to punch the legendary
magician in the midsection. Houdini did not know it, but his
appendix was ruptured. Houdini did several more shows in
Montreal and then headed for Detroit. Houdini did one
performance there and then collapsed and was rushed to the
hospital. Houdini did not die in an escape or fail in some final
escape as many believe. The greatest “ghost buster” of all
time died on October 31, 1926, Halloween. No other
famous magician worked as hard as Houdini to promote his
craft and those around him. Houdini today is one of the best
know performers and promoters in theatrical and film history
and Houidni’s name has come to mean the ability to escape
from any restraint or difficult situation. Houdini not only
earned a place in history but in the dictionary as well.

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