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Harry Houdini in NYC

NYC Walks Blog 17 Harry Houdini in NYC © 2018 by Philip Ernest Schoenberg, Ph. D.

Introduction

When his father’s rabbi gig ended in Appleton, Wisconsin, the family returned to Lower East Side of Manhattan.  One of the many jobs that Harry did was working as a locksmith.  He commenced a career in show business where he met his wife who became his performing partner. Upon achieving success in show biz, Harry and his wife moved to the then fashionable middle-class Jewish suburban neighborhood of Harlem at 278 West 113th Street.  His mother happily spent the last years of her life in his Harlem Home.  Although none of his improvements remain, it was recently on the market for 4.5 million dollars. He also operated magic shop where he sold many of his trick as well paraphernalia needed for magic that was continued many years by his family.

“The Summer of Magic” at the New-York Historical Society

The New-York Historical Society at 170 Central Park west  has a small exhibition, “The Summer of Magic,” on the leading magicians of a century ago from the collection of David Copperfield.  He has the world’s largest collection of Harry Houdini memorabilia of which is featured part of the exhibition. You might enjoy watching “David Copperfield vs Harry Houdini. Epic Rap Battles of History” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVTwgQ76l-g

Every Saturday and Sunday a magician performs a few times.  I had the happy privilege of watching “The Life and Magic of Harry Houdini” created and performed by re-enactor Duffy Hudson on July 8.  He will return on September 16, ,the final day of the exhibition.

I saw “The Life and Magic of Harry Houdini, today, on 8 July 2018, at the New-York Historical Society.  The twenty-five minutes performance was so good that I saw it twice.  As far I am concerned this was the highlight of the “Summer of Magic: Treasures from the David Copperfield Collection.”  The show may have been twenty-five minutes in duration, but it is jam-packed with life-changing anecdotes, death-defying feats, amazing tricks, and philosophical insights.

You would swear that Duffy Hudson, the re-enactor, was Harry Houdini, the magician come to life. Hudson mimicked Houdini’s physical appearance, mannerisms, and speech so well that you would swear that the great conjurer had returned from the dead.  Duffy Hudson shared Harry Houdini’s incredible life story as he performed or recreated some of Harry Houdini’s greatest feats of magic, illusion, and escape.  Duffy Hudson explained the magician’s philosophy of life as he struggled to free himself from a straightjacket.  As Hudson struggled with the jacket, he felt like a madman trying to escape from a straightjacket but failing.  It seemed beyond his reach because he did not believe he could do it.  In contrast, once he had the confidence he could free himself; he freed himself from the straightjacket.  As a result, he demonstrated:  Don’t put limits to your dreams because you will surely fail.

Hudson explained how Houdini and his wife did the medium shtick of contacting the dead for a few months before he decided it was immoral to delude people in any way.  As Houdini, the re-enactor elucidated how it worked.  This simply involved doing a little research at a local cemetery and giving an unusual fact about the deceased.  He gave several stories of exposing mediums including his encounter with Arthur Conan Doyle’s wife who had a message from Houdini’s mother from the great beyond. As the grand climax, Duffy Hudson as Houdini also did simpler parlor tricks such as threading twenty needles inside his mouth!

Duffy Hudson does a panoply of other characters for other shows: Edgar Allan Poe, George Burns, Audie Murphy, Dr. Seuss and A Christmas Carol. To learn more about him, go to http://duffyhudson.com/home.html. Don’t miss Duffy Hudson’s final presentations on September 16 which will be the grand climax of the exhibition.  Admission to the performance is free if you pay admission to the New-York Historical Society. To see the amazing series of programs at the New-York Historical Society, go to https://www.nyhistory.org/summer-magic.

The Houdini Museum of New York

On Sunday, I and my nephew Gabe, an amateur magician, went to The Houdini Museum of New York (owned by Houdini collector Roger Dreyer located in Fantasama Magic (whose CEO is also Roger Dreyer), a manufacturer and retailer of magic paraphernalia and tricks at 213 West 35th Street (fourth floor). It is the second largest collection of Harry Houdini memorabilia in the world and is the largest collection of his memorabilia on public display. Houdini’s 1907 escape coffin (in which Houdini was sealed with six-inch nails and subsequently escaped), the “robot” from Houdini’s 1919 silent film The Master Mystery, and Houdini’s Metamorphosis Trunk are the largest. Other notable pieces include the original bust from Houdini’s grave (on loan to the museum from the Society of American Magicians (S.A.M.) Parent Assembly Number One), Bess Houdini’s stage outfit and a large selection of smaller pieces such as Houdini’s personal magic and escape props. You can also see on display how Houdini exposed some of the fake mediums.

The Houdini Family Mausoleum at Machpelah Cemetery

The Society of American Magicians, for which Houdini served as president until his death, was the official caretaker of the Houdini family Mausoleum site until recently inside Machpelah Cemetery on the Queens side of the Kings County/Queens County borer at Cypress Avenue.   Wikipedia makes the claim that is the only graven image in any Jewish cemetery. (https://abandonednyc.com/2012/06/17/houdinis-grave-in-nycs-spookiest-cemetery/) Since his wife never converted to Judaism is buried elsewhere. WNET once interviewed at the Harry Houdini graveside.  (https://a002-vod.nyc.gov/html/index.php)

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