For a young person watching an old Charlie Chaplain movie, it might take a bit of explanation for them to truly understand why Chaplain was such a groundbreaking figure and what he meant to the American cultural landscape. For Harry Houdini on the other hand, an explanation probably isn’t necessary. Watching somebody shackled at their hands and feet being dropped off a bridge and then surfacing unencumbered within seconds, lets just say it hold up. What might actually require a bit of explaining, is what Houdini represented to the America of the late 19th, early 20th. To truly understand what Houdini meant to his craft, the world at large, and the American Jewish legacy, The Jewish Museum’s Houdini exhibit is an absolute must see.
The first feature of the exhibit depicts one of Houdini’s most famous tricks: the straitjacket escape. Photos and video of Houdini display the feat is in its quick and striking glory. Although not Houdini’s earliest trick, the straightjacket is prominently displayed right off the bat, it seems, as a metaphor for Harry Houdini’s embodiment of the immigrant experience, a first glimpse at the overall thesis of the exhibit.
Moving on, we see a timeline biography of Houdini (born Erik Weisz): baby photos, his rabbi father’s Hebrew bible, and a travel diary and newspaper clippings are included in the glass-enclosed timeline. It’s explained that few artists ever depicted Harry Houdini and therefore most of the images of him come from photos by newspaper photographers. As a result, all the photographs of Houdini originate from early 20th century newspapers, giving the entire exhibit this distinct sepia-tone, vintage aesthetic. The exhibit continues displaying a multitude of original tickets and flyers from actual magic shows.
As you proceed through the museum, the sheer impressiveness of Houdini’s feats increase with each step. Displayed in the second room are actual sewing needles from a trick in which Houdini swallowed a number of needles and then thread, only to regurgitate them a moment later with each needle perfectly threaded. One of Houdini’s most famous tricks, was the “Milk Can Escape,” in which Houdini, naked and handcuffed was submerged in a milk can filled with water. In describing this trick, the museum also details Houdini’s knack for showmanship. Like a master architect, Houdini would plan each trick so as to shock and crowd as much as possible. For instance: during the milk can trick, a large man brandishing an axe would stand beside the can. Once Houdini had been inside the can for long enough that the crowd would begin to worry, the man would ready the axe about to chop open the can in order to free Houdini before he suffocated. Just as the man would pull back to swing the axe, Houdini would emerge safely as the crowd sighed in collective relief. Displayed in the center of the exhibit’s main room was a huge milk can actually used by Houdini for the escape.
One of Houdini’s nicknames was, “The Handcuff King,” for his ability to escape any set of handcuffs. The exhibit explains that a very young Eric Weisz apprenticed for a locksmith in order to help out his struggling family, but spent a lot of his time tinkering with the locks on his own. Afterwards, his mother’s attempts to lock up the sweets in the house so that he wouldn’t eat them all became futile.
The reminder of the exhibit is rich with artifacts and memorabilia that explore Houdini’s fame: films depicting his life, Houdini inspired art and videos of modern magicians who pay tribute to him. The exhibit does a wonderful job reminding the visitor of how fame worked in a time before the internet or television. The American zeitgeist was very much the result of a mindset of strangers in a strange land. Houdini represented that zeitgeist. He was an immigrant whose parents didn’t even speak English, and, inspired by the world around him, he strove to work harder than anyone else. This is what people once respected in their celebrities. The spin that the Jewish Museum subtly puts on this picture is that Houdini further represents an archetype not only of the hardworking immigrant, but of the hard working immigrant Jew. Houdini, like so many Jews who came after him and rose to fame, embodied the notion of the underdog, and dedicated himself to his craft. For anyone looking for a reminder of what can of dedication and hard work can bring, or for any Jew looking for a reminder of what our ancestors have accomplished, the Houdini Exhibit will serve to reinforce a sense of pride and perseverance for a long time to come.
The Houdini Exhibit will run thru March 27th at The Jewish Museum (1109 5th Ave. @92nd St)
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