BALTIMORE — The joy and fascination museumgoers will feel when stepping into the bold, big-top experience of the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s new original exhibit, “Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini,” is how many layers of the world-famous magician and escape artist’s life it explores. The big reveal is the saga of how young Jewish immigrant Erik Weisz persevered through poverty and destitution to become one of the most popular and beloved figures of the 20th century.
The exhibit offers up Houdini’s life in two phases. First comes the early years, his reinvention as Harry Houdini and his struggle to make a living. Next is his international rise to fame and his lesser-known feats involving aviation, invention, early film production and a crusade to unveil fraudulent mediums and spiritualists.
“The exhibit is, for the most part, chronological, except for two spaces,” said museum executive director Marvin Pinkert as he led a tour of the exhibit. “One is the Maryland space at the end of the exhibit and one is the behind-the-scenes section. We ended up going more towards the straight biography in terms of the exhibit just because there was so much to tell.
“But as you go through the exhibit, you’re going to see several stations that make it clear that Houdini not only was influenced by [his Judaism] in his childhood, but his Jewish identity was part of his adult experience as well.”
Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary, to Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz and wife Cecilia. The family, renamed Weiss, immigrated to Appleton, Wisconsin, when Erik was 4. His father led the town’s first synagogue. There, Erik — also later known as Erich and Eric and Erie before he took on the mantle of Harry Houdini — began practicing and preforming acrobatics. Four years later, the rabbi was let go and the family moved to Milwaukee, where they fell on hard times. His father was unable to get a job as a rabbi.
Quoted in the exhibit, Houdini said about those times, “Such hardships and hunger became our lot. The less said on the subject the better.”
Houdini left home at 12 for a year to reduce the family burden. Not much is known about that year, said museum deputy director Tracie Guy-Decker. “There’s a postcard that he sent to his mom, saying that he was OK and that he would come back.”
He returned to his father, who had moved to New York looking for a job, and they worked together at a necktie factory, among other odd jobs.
“It’s hard to imagine, given the success that Harry would have, how little secular education he had,” Pinkert said. “He was trained in Hebrew studies by his father and later by a Rabbi Drachman, but I don’t think he had more than a handful of years of public schooling.”
The exhibit includes his father’s Hebrew Bible with marginal notes written by Houdini. His father sold the Bible when the family was struggling, but Houdini was able to buy it back later in life. “Being Jewish mattered to him for his whole life,” Pinkert noted.
“When he went to the YMHA, he put on his first magic show as Erik the Great,” Pinkert said. “But by the time he was 18, he was Harry Houdini.”
He chose the name Houdini after a French magician he admired, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, and began performing with his friend, Jacob Hyman, as the Brothers Houdini and later with his brother Theo. It was during this time that he met his wife Bess, who was performing on Coney Island.
“They got married immediately,” Guy-Decker said. “They met and just absolutely fell in love.”
“Most exhibits on Houdini have been focused on Houdini the success. We give the whole life of Houdini, which starts out with many years of failure,” Pinkert said. “Houdini was part of dime museums, medicine shows, the World’s Fair and eventually vaudeville. But each one was a struggle.”
Houdini first came to Maryland in 1898 with the Welsh Brothers Circus. He kept a diary at the time, which is on display in the exhibit.
“It’s hard to read, but it gives his trip day-by-day,” Pinkert said, flipping through the diary. “Through Cumberland, through Hancock and then he stops in Paw Paw [West Virginia] and it says, ‘Rain hard. No dinner.’ Meaning there wasn’t enough money raised to pay for dinner.”
While working for the circus, which traveled by train and put on shows at every stop, Houdini not only performed magic, but also appeared as The Wild Man of Borneo, dressed as a caveman in a cage. Discouraged, he tried to sell his act — including all of his tricks, secrets and equipment — for $10.
“And he still couldn’t find a buyer,” Pinkert said.
He was known as the King of Cards when vaudeville theatrical owner, manager and agent Martin Beck met Houdini and saw something special in him, suggesting that if he were to focus not on magic but escape tricks, he could become a sensation.
“He gives Houdini the chance to play on the Orpheum circuit. It’s there that he becomes the Harry Houdini we know today,” Pinkert said. “Houdini would later say that Martin Beck changed his life.”
The exhibit chronicles Houdini’s rise, creating more and more daring escapes — from jail houses, stacks of handcuffs, yards of chains, straitjackets, water-filled boxes and milk cans and beer-filled casks. In “The Self Liberator” section, museumgoers can take in Houdini’s huge
collection of handcuffs and keys, as well as that original straitjacket and milk can.
Colorful posters and antique photographs abound in the display chronicling Houdini’s family life, career and the handful of films in which he starred. His voice can even be heard on a vintage wax cylinder recording.
An eerie section of the exhibit tells the story of his crusade against unscrupulous mediums and spiritualists, whom he believed were capitalizing on grieving people who yearned to be reunited with loved ones who died in World War I. The end of the exhibit recounts Houdini’s untimely death in 1926 caused by punches to the stomach. His appendix burst and he died a few days later of peritonitis. He was 52.
How the Jewish Museum’s Houdini exhibit came to be is a bit of a magical tale in itself. Last summer, a scheduled exhibit fell through and Pinkert found himself in a bind. He went to Artscape one afternoon to cheer himself up. And as with many Artscape weekends, it was a brutal, hot day.
“I looked for the first shelter I could find, which was a theater. On the stage was David London, a magician. And David put on quite an act. He even called me up to be part of the act and I couldn’t figure out how he did the trick,” Pinkert recalled. “But while I’m still sitting there in my seat, still shvitzing, I recalled that back in my American studies course in college, my professor had talked about Houdini quite a bit and mentioned that he was the son of a rabbi. I looked at David and said, ‘This guy is probably Jewish and maybe he’s interested in doing an exhibit on Jews and magic.’”
Pinkert emailed London later that day. London, 36, who is Jewish, was thrilled by the prospect. A passionate magician since age 7, London performed his first public magic trick at his cousin’s bar mitzvah, where he pulled a rabbit out of a top hat.
“I think I was always a trickster by nature,” London said. “That was the first day I knew I was a magician. I was hooked.”
London has been touring since he was 18 and feels a real affinity for Houdini’s life story.
“I really found inspiration in Houdini’s own struggle, especially in the early years of his career just trying to make it,” he said. “He never gave up. He was determined and he wanted to be the best he could be and push harder and harder and harder. And even at times when he considered giving up, he continued to push and eventually he hit the big time.”
Although experienced in arts administration, London had never curated a museum show like the one Pinkert proposed. But, as a guy who’s had a poster of Houdini on his wall since he was a teen, he had a bit of a jump-start on his Houdini research.
“It’s hard to move through a path of magic without studying Houdini to some degree, because he was so influential in the world of magic. But this was a definitely deeper dive than I had ever done into the Houdini story,” he said. “I decided early on that in order to understand the story of Harry Houdini as superstar magician, we really had to first understand the story of Erik Weisz, the immigrant.”
He read and watched and researched everything he could find and, with help from connections in the magic community, he contacted collectors and museums to gather photos and artifacts. He traveled the country, bringing back pieces related to Houdini’s charity work, his family, his early life and his Judaism.
“I think one of the most prized artifacts in the show is his father’s Hebrew bible,” London said. “I was particularly interested in exploring his Jewish heritage. And truthfully, despite my lifelong interest in magic, it was those things that gave me insight into his Jewishness and into where it connected to him. That illuminated parts of his life that were just below the surface.”
Beyond the magic and the escape artistry, London said, lies an inspirational story that still has the power to inspire new generations.
“He wasn’t just an escape artist or magician, but he really was a symbol of self-liberation and a symbol of freedom and a symbol that really nothing could hold you back,” he said. “So much of his acts were about facing challenges and overcoming challenges. I think some of the reason he remains a significant symbol to this day is that he sort of captures in his escapes the universal human drama of encountering things that we must overcome and tackling those things head on, often with great struggle and eventually overcoming them.”
Around the time London came on board, the museum brought on designer Danielle Nekimken, who worked with him to put the story and artifacts together in a context that told the tale but also grabbed the visitor visually.
“One of the things I really like about the exhibit is the way she totally activated our 17-foot ceilings,” Guy-Decker said. “I think she really did an amazing job.”
Originally a painter with an opera, theater and event production background, Nekimken, 47, who is Jewish, was intrigued when the museum approached her about a Houdini show.
“It became clear that David wanted to tell more of a biography from a Jewish perspective of how Harry Houdini began as the son of a rabbi and became this international superstar and how it affected him along the way,” Nekimken said, including when he performed in Russia and hid his Jewishness. “That wasn’t something he advertised about himself. But he had created this new persona that had a different identity.”
Nekimken drew from the lush, colorful history of circus and magic artwork to plan the color schemes and graphic elements for the exhibit.
“It’s so rich as a topic to dive into,” she said. “The colors are very rich and dark and I really did want the bulk of the section as he became a superstar to be black, because it just upped the drama. So much of what he became famous for was the escapes. And the escapes had the element of the life-or-death challenge that made them so exciting to people.”
One of those challenges was hanging upside down from a crane high over Charles Street in downtown Baltimore, completely confined in a straitjacket, while 50,000 people looked on from below or from the windows and ledges of nearby buildings.
Not long ago, Baltimore illusionist and escape artist Dai Andrews recreated that signature Houdini stunt for the museum’s annual Jonestown Festival.
Andrews, 40, of Hampden, fell in love with magic when he got a Fisher-Price magic set for his fifth birthday.
“When I started to grow up, I got more interested in escape artistry and Houdini because I really enjoyed doing something real — getting out of handcuffs or a straitjacket — as opposed to an illusion, like a card trick,” he said. “That led me to mind-over-body things, sword swallowing, fire eating, that kind of thing.”
He remembers always being aware of Houdini.
“His name is synonymous with magic. You would have a hard time arguing who is a better self-promoter, Barnum or Houdini. But either one were legends of their times,” he said.
Andrews ordered a straitjacket when he was a teen and practiced with it, even watching films of Houdini’s escapes, until he perfected his. He first performed the straitjacket escape when he was 18. Now, his performances include other Houdini-esque stunts.
“The highlight of my escape program is I let two members of the audience tie me up in 100 feet of rope in any way they like, and I escape in less time that it takes them to tie me up, or I pay them a cash prize,” Andrews said. He’s never had to pay.
“But it has come very, very close,” he said, chuckling. “It’s fun. Even the idea of the challenge escape is a Houdini act in and of itself.”
For London, he hopes museumgoers leave “Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini” with a deeper understanding of Harry Houdini as a person and as a Jew.
“If you ask somebody to name a magician in their top three, they still say Harry Houdini, and he’s been dead for almost 100 years,” said London. “That’s an extraordinary accomplishment. He set out to be the world’s greatest magician and he did it.
“Here is an immigrant son of a rabbi who had a dream and pursued that dream with such great vigor and determination and passion and eventually was able to become exactly what he wanted to become. Even though some of these feats he was able to accomplish are incredible, his biggest trick was transforming himself from Erik Weisz into Harry Houdini.”
Susan C. Ingram is a reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times.