It's the birthday today of one of the most famous magicians of the last century, Harry Houdini. His real name was Erik Weisz, and he was born on March 24th, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary, the son of a Rabbi who moved his family to the small town of Appleton, Wisconsin, when little Erik was four years old. In Appleton, you can still visit the Houdini Museum downtown and have yourself strapped into one of the straight jackets that he used to wiggle out of while he was sealed in a trunk under water or suspended upside-down from a crane high over a busy street. You can imagine what the middle-school field trips here must be like.
Houdini was one of seven children, and his father, who was approaching 50 when he emmigrated to the United States, had a difficult time creating a life and generating a livelihood in this country. Next, Rabbi Weisz moved his family to Milwakee, where his enterprising, now nine-year-old son began giving shows for a nickle in a circus of his own creation, in which he starred as "Erich, The Prince of the Air," doing trapese and contortionist tricks.
By the time the family had moved to New York and Erich had grown to be a teenager, he had become a superb athelete -- a boxer and a runner. According to one biographer, Erich even posed for a picture with some phoney medals festooned on his track outfit to embellish on the real medals that he had, indeed, won. Even then he knew how to stetch the truth for the effect.
No one really knows how magic became the central fact of Erich's life. There is some speculation that he was given an inexpensive box of tricks when he was a child. But magic was another aspect of performing, and performing -- in the many circuses, vaudeville houses, and other kinds of shows -- was one of the ways in those days that you could rise above the poverty and drudgery that the vast majority of immigrants were consigned to. By the time he was 19, in 1893, he had teamed up with another immigrant boy, Jacob Hyman, and borrowing the name of the great French magician, Jean Robert-Houdin, and giving it a slightly Italian flourish, they became the Houdini Brothers, "The Modern Monarchs of Mystery." In a few years Houdini was a solo act, and he truly begun the career that would make him an international celebrity, a career that was about every immigrant's dream: escape.
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Copyright 2004 © John Cech
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