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Harry Houdini as a man and magician before his time

April 23, 2011 | 10:33 am

Houdini Ehrich Weiss, the Budapest-born son of an immigrant family, decided early on that he would not be a rabbi like his father. A trapeze artist by 9 and a magician by 17, he was more interested in fame and fortune. 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.

"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 Brooke Kamin Rapaport, who guest-curated "Houdini: Art and Magic," which opens Thursday at the Skirball Cultural Center. "His significance endures because of the visual record — the posters, photographs, film and magic apparatus — that we have today."

Organized by the Jewish Museum in New York, “Houdini: Art and Magic” is the first major museum show to explore the life and legacy of the showman. 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.

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. Rapaport makes it clear that she is mounting an art exhibition, not giving away Houdini's secrets.

At the Skirball, as at the Jewish Museum, Houdini's 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."

You can read more about “Houdini: Art and Magic” in Arts & Books.

--Barbara Isenberg

Above: Houdini upside-down in the water torture cell, around 1912, in a photograph from the Kevin A. Connolly Collection. Credit: Courtesy of the Skirball Cultural Center

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