- Monday | April 18, 2022 to Monday | May 2, 2022
- All Day
- Online recording
| Cost: Free (Recording)
The Magical Life of Harry Houdini led by Larry Bounds
A magician reveals the true Houdini!
Harry Houdini, from his birth to his death, led a life of mystery and controversy. He was a world renowned magician, an escape artist, an author, and an avid collector and historian. He was a pioneering film-maker and aviator. He debunked con men and fake mediums who used magician’s tricks to cheat the public and was the frequent subject of their death threats. He trained police officers in improved restraint techniques and wrote a guide for surviving mine collapses.
Neary a hundred years since his untimely death, Ehrich Weiss, as Houdini, remains the famous magician in history.
The Houdini Talk is a part of the 2022 Library Talk Series celebrating a 24-year community collaboration between Greenville Chautauqua and the Greenville County Library System so-sponsoring talks about the historical figures that will appear in the June Chautauqua History Comes Alive Festival.
Larry has performed on the Greenville Chautauqua stage since 2002. He has portrayed Einstein, Churchill, Disney and Cronkite, among others, but recreating Houdini holds a special place in his heart. Since 1973 Larry has worked as a professional magician, including 8 years appearing with Ripley’s Believe It or Not! in Gatlinburg and Myrtle Beach and 3 years as a theme park magician in Kentucky. Over the years he has presented thousands of public, private, and corporate magic shows.
Larry is also a well-respected, South Carolina teacher with a masters degree in education from the University of Tennessee, a National Board Certification, and 35 years of classroom teaching experience. He has recently retired from teaching but serves on several community boards and is an active member of Piedmont Area Mensa. Larry is Chair of Greenville Chautauqua.
Houdini – Challenge Accepted! by Larry Bounds
Immigrants to the United States have always faced the challenge of being accepted by their fellow Americans. Ehrich Weiss (Harry Houdini) was born in Budapest, Hungary, the fourth son of a Jewish rabbi, and faced that challenge by simply re-inventing his own life story. He created the fiction that he was actually born in Appleton, Wisconsin, and that he was just another American kid from the great Midwest. It would not be until decades after his untimely death that his biographers discovered the true nature of his roots.
In fact, he came to America 1878 when he was only four-years-old. His father took a job in Appleton as rabbi to a small congregation, but his limited English and old-fashioned, old-world style cost him that position. Struggling to support his family of five, Rabbi Weiss then relocated them all to New York in search of better opportunities, but found none. Instead, one day he called his now adolescent boy to his sickbed and pledged him to care for his soon-to-be widowed mother. Harry accepted that challenge as well, and when he eventually achieved his great success he literally showered his mother in gold coins!
During Houdini’s early childhood in Appleton, he became fascinated with circus performers. He set up a trapeze from which he swung and mastered the trick of picking up pins upside down with his eyelids. (Do NOT try this at home, no matter how fun it may sound!) He then went on to master magic becoming “Houdini, the King of Kards.” With his brother Theo and later with his young wife, Bess, he toured America in sideshows, circuses, and small theaters eking out a modest living. And finally his hard work and determination paid off with his invitation to tour in a larger theater circuit.
The market for a young magician and his smiling wife-assistant was as limited at the end of the 19th century as it is today in the 21st century. But Houdini was encouraged to focus on the kind of trick that was the centerpiece of his act – the trunk escape. He expanded his escape act to include handcuff, rope, and chain escapes. He challenged his audiences to bring their own cuffs, ropes, and locks, and he offered a prize to anyone who could restrain him in a way that prevented his escape. No one ever succeeded in holding “The Great Houdini” the “King of Handcuffs.”
Numerous tours of Europe made Houdini an international celebrity. He escaped from a prison cell at Scotland Yard after being stripped naked and medically examined. He proved he was not guilty of false advertising of his amazing skills in a German court by escaping from within the judge’s own locked safe. He became the world’s most celebrated magical entertainer.
While touring France in 1909, Houdini saw the flight of a pioneering aircraft. Fascinated, he became a trained pilot and even bought a custom made aircraft of his own- a French Voison for $5000 ($150,000 in today’s money). He emblazoned the wings with his name. As Houdini completed his world tour, he also became the first successful pilot to fly the skies of the continent of Australia, a feat which he made sure to document on film.
Only recently, evidence has emerged suggesting that part of Houdini’s rise to international stardom was secretly supported by American and British spy-masters. Houdini, a native German speaker and skilled aviator, had carte blanc access to German military posts and airfields in the days leading up to the First World War. The evidence is intriguing, but Houdini never admitted to being a secret agent. Of course, a successful spy never would.
After World War I, Houdini tackled the movie business. In France in 1901 he had starred in a 10-minute film the <em>Wonderful Adventures of the Famous Houdini in Paris. </em>In 1918 he became an action, adventure film star in a 15-episode serial <em>The Master Mystery</em>. Each episode ended with Houdini in an impossibly dangerous dilemma, and each episode began featuring his perilous escape. From 1919 to 1923 he starred in four feature films. One of his films even included the first humanoid, killer robot ever presented in the movies. Houdini’s movie star recognition can still be seen memorialized on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. By the way, in the early 1920s, Houdini’s most enthusiastic fan mail came from his many adoring admirers in Japan!
Following the tragic loss of life in WW I (with over 15 million deaths) and the pandemic of 1918-1919 (with over 25 million deaths), there arose a passionate interest in Spiritualism. Particularly attractive was the promise of possibly contacting the suddenly departed to find comfort and closure from their loss. To meet this demand, charlatans began numerous scams to separate the grieving from their money.
Houdini, ever close to own dear mother whose death years before had always haunted him, sought out people who promised contact with the spirits. With his years as a master magician, he immediately saw through their deceptions. Outraged as time after time he saw the bereaved deceived, Houdini began a campaign of exposing the frauds. He testified before Congress and he wrote the books <em>Miracle Mongers and Their Methods</em> (1920) and <em>A Magician Among the Spirits </em>(1924). But most of all, in a series of incredible disguises he attended seances in every city his show toured and then exposed the names and details of the scammers from the stage each night.
Houdini received countless death threats from the con men and women who marketed deception as divinity. But Houdini continued his crusade against their dishonesty until his death on Halloween in 1926.
Houdini had promised his wife that if there was a way to return to the land of the living he would, but he never did – though now, nearly a hundred years after his death, Houdini’s name lives on as that of the world’s greatest magician.
1874 Born as Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary
1878 Family moves to Appleton, Wisconsin
1888 Adopts the name Houdini
1894 Marries Bess and tours magic act in tent shows
1900 Gains fame with escape act across Europe
1906 Stages prison break for publicity in Washington, D.C.
1910 First successful aviator? in Australia
1918 Begins movie career
1924 Exposes fake mediums for <em>Scientific American</em>
1926 Dies in Detroit, Michigan, on tour
No prison can hold me; no hand or leg irons or steel locks can shackle me. No ropes or chains can keep me from my freedom.
My brain is the key that sets me free.
My chief task has been to conquer fear. The public sees only the thrill of the accomplished trick; they have no conception of the tortuous preliminary self-training that was necessary to conquer fear.
Keep up your enthusiasm! There is nothing more contagious than exuberant enthusiasm.
I always have on my mind the thought that next year I must do something greater, something more wonderful.
Look at this life – all mystery and magic.
The secret of showmanship consists not of what you really do, but what the mystery-loving public thinks you do.
The easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that a given time and a given place someone is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will result in sudden death.
*Christopher, Milbourne. Houdini The Untold Story. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1969. Written by an accomplished magician, this text is the classic Houdini biography and the inspiration for many currently performing magicians.
Christopher, Milbourne. Houdini A Pictorial Life. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1976. More than 250 photos and illustrations bring Houdini’s world to life.
Cox, John. Wild about Harry. (Website) 2002-2021. https://www.wildabouthoudini.com/ This website is kept very current with all things Houdini, including film clips.
Houdini, Harry. Miracle Mongers and their Methods. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1921. An exposé of the workings of con men.
Houdini, Harry. A Magician Among the Spirits. New York: Harpers & Brothers, 1924. An exposé of fake mediums and how rigged seances are produced.
*Kalush, William and Larry Sloman. The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Super Hero. New York: Simon and Schuster. 2006. This recent biography also explores Houdini’s possible role as an international spy prior to World War One.
The Master Mystery. (Film) Directed by Burton King. B.A.Rolfe Productions, Octagon Films, Inc., 1918. An opportunity to watch Houdini in action, and this film features the first filmed modern robot character.
*Rapaport, Brooke Kamin. Houdini Art and Magic. New York: The Jewish Museum, 2010. A lovely, well-illustrated text published in connection with a museum exhibition.
*Silverman, Kenneth. Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss. New York: Perennial, 1997. This work corrected errors in the earlier Christopher texts and is considered one of the best.
*Available in Greenville County Library system