Ehrich Weiss, the Budapest-born son of an immigrant family, ran away from home at 12 to join the circus. Not the least bit interested in becoming a rabbi like his father, he wanted to be an entertainer.
Although Weiss was already an accomplished trapeze artist in a neighborhood circus, he soon turned around and headed back home. But it was only a matter of time before the whole world knew who he was. Reinventing himself as Harry Houdini, the rabbi's son became a celebrity as an escape artist, and, by the time of his death in 1926 — on Halloween — a legend.
Handcuffed, chained, manacled, put in a straitjacket or locked within small containers, the nimble Houdini was dropped into water, dangled in the air and even stuffed into a coffin and buried. A master of marketing, he often performed for free in front of newspaper offices to enormous crowds — and newspaper photographers — on the eve of his paid performances.
He would even hire his own cameramen to film his escapes for use in his lectures, says art curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport.
"In his day, Houdini was so famous not only because he was a master showman on stage but also because he was able to promote his work to a broad public," says Rapaport. "His significance endures because of the visual record — the posters, photographs, film and magic apparatus — that we have today."
Highlights of that documentation constitute "Houdini: Art and Magic," opening at the Skirball Cultural Center on April 28. Organized by the Jewish Museum in New York, where it closed March 27, and guest curated by Rapaport, it is the first major art museum show to explore the life and legacy of showman Houdini. Props and devices from all of Houdini's major tricks are on hand, including his straitjacket and water torture cell, plus photos, paintings, posters, pamphlets, books, travel diaries and even a family bible.
The exhibition weaves together Houdini then and now. "The photographs, posters and films of Houdini's era are extraordinary," says Rapaport, an independent art curator. "I knew that artist Matthew Barney had used Houdini as a muse and alter ego in his work, and I began to wonder if other artists working today were also inspired by Houdini. When I visited artist studios, talked to dealers and did archival research, I discovered several other artists working today who also found Houdini a very important source."
So in addition to Art Nouveau-era posters and promotional materials from Houdini's time, Rapaport has brought in Houdini-inspired contemporary art from such artists as Allen Ruppersberg, Matthew Barney, Raymond Pettibon, Christopher Wool and Whitney Bedford. Film footage made by or starring Houdini is augmented by movie clips of the icon portrayed by such stars as Tony Curtis, Guy Pearce, Paul Michael Glaser and Harvey Keitel as well as Norman Mailer.
Few lives lend themselves so well to the screen. Immigrating to the U.S. in 1878 with his family, Houdini's father fared poorly as a rabbi in Appleton, Wis., and the family moved several times as Rabbi Weiss sought work. The Weiss family landed in New York in 1887, where teenage Ehrich took on various jobs, including uniformed messenger boy and a necktie cutter. It was at the necktie factory that Ehrich, by then 17, and a fellow employee formed a magic act, calling themselves the Brothers Houdini.
Just a few years later, the partner was gone and newly named Harry Houdini went on to meet and marry fellow performer Bess Rahner. The newlyweds, now known as the Houdinis, traveled America launching, among other things, Houdini's famous metamorphosis act: Houdini would be bound and locked into a trunk, then escape to be onstage as the trunk was opened and Bess was found inside. It wasn't long until vaudeville impresario Martin Beck discovered their act, and Bess started moving into the background. Houdini, "The King of Handcuffs," was on his way.
Small and muscular, Harry Houdini created more and more demanding feats as he became the superhero familiar to readers of E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime" or Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" — and to museum-goers. Borrowed from the Hammer Museum for this exhibition, for instance, is artist Whitney Bedford"s painting "Houdini (Upside Down)," a life-size portrait of Houdini's straitjacket trick, which Bedford says is done with unstable oil and ink that will eventually disappear into the unprimed paper she used to create it.
Key to any exhibition of Houdini, of course, is the apparatus he used for his escapes, and Skirball galleries will display the many objects of his obsession, nearly all of them the originals. "His peers were using exotic props and showgirls, and Houdini used things his audience immediately recognized," says Rapaport. "He took common, mundane objects like needle and thread, a steamer trunk and milk can and endowed those everyday objects with showmanship and mystery. He as the performer gave the objects great relevance to magic."
Taking a visitor through the exhibition at the Jewish Museum, Rapaport indicates she's mounting an art exhibition, not giving away any Houdini secrets. At the Skirball, as at the Jewish Museum, Houdini's milk can, water torture cell, packing trunk and other devices will be shown on stage-like pedestals, each of them centered in a theatrically inspired pool of light. "We wanted to provide drama by putting the light on them, "says Rapaport, smiling. "It's what Houdini would have done."
Houdini's feats were often symbolic to the huge numbers of immigrants and working class people flocking to see him, adds Rapaport. "When we look at his performances, he is constantly escaping from handcuffs or prison cells or some other constraint. You can imagine that immigrants to America who would have escaped and left their homelands due to racial or religious or social oppression could only think of those performances as somebody getting free of constraints. Not only would that have been a very powerful symbol to these new Americans, but the fact that Houdini was himself an immigrant was additionally powerful."
He also came across as a man of the people, says biographer Kenneth Silverman, author of "Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss." "Houdini was a terrific democrat — he played to everybody. He would come onstage in his shirtsleeves and talk to the audiences. He performed free for giant crowds; there were 100,000 people watching him in St. Louis when he did his straitjacket escape in front of the newspaper building there."
Film footage of such escapes will be prominent in the Skirball show, with archival footage projected onto walls. The straitjacket escape will be done on an enormous canvas sheet hung from the Skirball gallery's high ceiling and visible from the exhibition's very front.
At the Skirball, as at the Jewish Museum, there will be references to magicians like Penn and Teller, Doug Henning and others who Rapaport says talk openly of their admiration for Houdini. Teller, along with novelist Doctorow and others, is also quoted extensively in interviews with Rapaport in the show's accompanying book, "Houdini Art and Magic": "If you ask magicians which magicians matter, they'll mention Houdini's namesake, [Jean Eugene] Robert-Houdin," Teller says. "But for the public, if you say, 'Name a magician,' they'll name Houdini, even though he's been dead since 1926."
The Skirball is also originating a companion exhibition, "Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age."
"Far from the only Jewish magician, Houdini represents an avenue of employment that minorities were able to pursue with extraordinary success," says sleight-of-hand artist and historian Ricky Jay, author of the forthcoming book, "Celebrations of Curious Characters" and a lender to the show. "By the end of the 19th century, many of the most celebrated magicians in the world were Jewish."
"Masters of Illusion" has about as many objects in it as the Houdini show, says Skirball curator Erin Clancey, but will be in a smaller gallery.
"We're creating a very dense and saturated environment much like a magic parlor itself," says Clancey. "It is designed to honor and highlight magicians whose stories are not so well known as Houdini's. Many of these magicians were quite celebrated and successful in their time."
To keep the project manageable, Clancey has zeroed in on about 30 magicians, including Houdini as well as his friends, colleagues and competitors. Introductory materials go back as far as the 16th century, says Clancey, but the core of the show "narrows in on magic's golden age from 1875 to 1948 in part to give context to the Houdini story and in part because it's the most interesting time. After about 1920, movies, radio and television began to eclipse the earlier touring illusions and stage shows."
But visitors shouldn't expect to leave the Skirball with privileged information about how Houdini and company crafted their illusions. "These are carefully guarded secrets," says Clancey. "The taboo against sharing secrets with the general public was taken very seriously by magicians in the golden age and is so today. In our exhibitions, there will be no secrets revealed."