David Ben Advises Canadian Museum on Houdini Collection

Houdini Buried AliveMagician David Ben is in the news today as Montreal’s McCord Museum announced it has acquired a collection of 600 posters, 200 rare books and 200 documents documenting magic in the 19th to early 20th centuries.  The acquisition cost approximately $3,000,000.00 but sounds priceless.

Mr. Ben is  the Artistic Director of Magicana – an organization dedicated to the study of magic – and was a key adviser to the museum.

“It’s the second-largest collection of Houdini material held in a public institution,” Mr. Ben told reporters today.

The US Library of Congress houses the largest collection.

The materials will be made available for scholars and will be the subject of a 2017 exhibition at the museum.

The artifacts trace Houdini’s beginnings as a magician in eastern Canada, but also the rise of spiritualism – the belief that the dead can communicate with the living. It also “tracks the social history of advertising” through the use of lithography and its posters, Ben said.

The acquisition is the gift of the Emmanuelle Gattuso Foundation.  Ms. Gattuso is the wife Standard Broadcasting’s Allan Slaight.  Before becoming a major media mogul, Mr. Slaight was a professional magician and mind reader.

We will keep you advised on public opportunities to view the collection.  We cannot wait.

Read more in The Montreal Gazette.

Houdini’s Classic Film The Grim Game Restored

Inside Magic Image of The Grim Game PosterTurner Classic Movies will air its restoration of the previously considered lost Houdini film The Grim Game at its TCM Classic Film Festival in March.

Like all magic enthusiasts, we have seen the movie poster for The Grim Game and perhaps some stills or clips but never the entire film.

In fact, we were speaking with Magic Castle Librarian Lisa Cousins just a couple of weeks ago and she shared a rumor that the only remaining print might become available in the near future.  She, like the Oracle at Delphi, offered nothing more; indicating but not revealing.

We are loyal TCM watchers and love learning about movies – and surprisingly do not miss the constant commercial interruptions that accompany films shown on other networks – and cannot wait to learn more about TCM’s involvement in this project.

Houdini produced this film in 1919 and stars as Harvey Hanford (see how the character’s initials are HH just like Houdini’s — we don’t think that is a coincidence), a young man framed for murder.  Houdini was apparently not afraid of being type-cast as an athletic escape artist as the movie shows him escaping, leaping, fighting and other daring do.  TCM relates that the film captures a mid-air collision between two airplanes that was a real accident caught on film.  The filmmakers used the amazing footage in the story.  We read somewhere that Houdini claimed to have been on one of the two planes even though he was safely on the ground at the time of the incident.

Surprisingly, there was only one surviving complete copy of the film, owned by Larry Weeks, a 95-year-old retired juggler.  Mr. Weeks got the film from the Houdini estate in 1947 and was never willing to sell it.

“Harry Houdini is an compelling cultural icon, but most people don’t know about his movie career,” said Charles Tabesh, SVP Programming at TCM.  “He made several films, but The Grim Game was his first feature, considered his best.  It’s fascinating to see Houdini as an actor.  It’s really fun to watch [the film] that even the most hardcore fans haven’t had a chance to see.”

TCM will screen the film in Hollywood and has booked composer Brane Zivkovic to conduct a live performance of his new score written just for the movie.  TCM will air the restored classic on its channel later this year.

Hollywood Press Ga-Ga Over the Illusionists

The IllusionistsOut here in the greater Hollywood environs, just about everyone gets The Wrap delivered throughout the day to their email address.

It is one of the industry news sources, along with The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, relied upon by those in power and those hoping to one day attain power.

The Wrap emails come as entertainment news breaks: a dependable Hollywood star loses funding on his next big movie, a venerable talent agency picks up a new five-star client, a disgruntled writer sues a studio for allegedly ripping off a script idea.  If Congress decided to declare war on Canada, it would not likely be in The Wrap, Hollywood Reporter or Variety unless it affected production on some film project in Toronto.

The big three also publish reviews of plays, movies, live shows and artistic endeavors.  The Hollywood reviewers are usually very knowledgeable and pragmatic in their evaluation of the shows.  They can also be brutal.

We were relieved, then, to read the glowing reviews of The Illusionists: Witness the Impossible in The Wrap.

The producers of that ill-fated “Houdini” musical starring Hugh Jackman can let out a collective sigh of relief that their star decided not to do the show. “The Illusionists: Witness the Impossible” opened Thursday at the Marquis Theatre and there’s no way a tuner based on the life of the world’s most famous illusionist could possibly be any more fun and awe-inspiring than this new magic show on Broadway.

The review describes the performers in glowing terms and with the enthusiasm normally found in a devotee rather than a jaded critic.

“Anyone who’s ever seen newsreels of Houdini performing this feat, or others like it, has wanted to go back in time to experience first-hand the cheesy excitement of seeing a brilliant stunt performer at work risking his life. Here’s your chance.”

The reviewer describes Inside Magic Favorite Dan Sperry’s performance as the most frightening.

The scariest moment in the show, however, involved a woman from out of town who really, really didn’t want to play a game of Russian roulette with the very Goth and genuinely weird Dan Sperry (The Anti-Conjuror). By the way, what is an anti-conjuror? Whatever, in addition to creeping people out, Sperry conjures up a whole menagerie of flying birds from his Count Dracula get-up. Truly amazing.

The Illusionists: Witness the Impossible runs through January 4 on Broadway before embarking on a multi-city tour of the United States.

Read The Wrap’s review here.

Criss Angel Does It: Houdini-Inspired Escape a Success

Criss Angel FoxwoodsThe headlines coming across our teletype here at the Inside Magic News Room confirmed that Criss Angel succeeded in his “Houdini Death escape” at the lovely Foxwoods Resort Casino.

Anxious editors stood hunched over the clicking wire machines as they typed out the news that Las Vegas magician and television star Criss Angel entertained “a crowd of hundreds of fans from a 75-foot crane, while restrained in a regulation straitjacket with a 50 lb. weight hanging from of his neck by a noose.”

One of the grizzled old copy editors dropped his filterless cig into his coffee mug. “Well, I’ll be . . .” he said to no one as he reviewed the news feed.

Yessir, It was quite a day around the horseshoe-shaped city desk here at Inside Magic.

According to local news reports, Mr. Angel was “suspended upside down by his feet, arms constricted in a straitjacket, dangling from a 75-foot-high crane, with a 50-pound weight hanging from a noose around his neck, Angel wiggled and swung his way to freedom, seeming to rock to the beat of loud electro-rock music.”

The performer dedicated his performance to America’s veterans in keeping with the spirit of the day.

How did the 46 year-old feel?

“My legs are just spent,” he said. “I spent a lot more time up there than I would have liked to.”

Mr. Angel told reporters he succeed only half the time in rehearsals.

One school child told the local paper, “It seems almost impossible to get out of that, so it must be magic. I thought it was scary, cause he could fall and hurt himself really badly.”

Mr. Angel is performing his new touring show, Mindfreak Live at Foxwoods Thursday through Saturday.

Salon Author Decries Houdini Industrial Complex

Harry HoudiniOnline magazine Salon has posted an article marveling at Houdini’s current cache with the public.

We read it a couple of times because we were not sure what the author hoped to express.

Its hook is the recent Potter and Potter auction of Houdini memorabilia and the History Channel’s miniseries, Houdini.

The author interviewed magician, writer and president of Potter and Potter Gabe Fajuri, Houdini historian extraordinaire and author of Wild About Harry, the definitive Houdini blog, John Cox and Lisa Cousins, Houdini-lover and outstanding librarian The Magic Castle’s William J. Larson Memorial Library, among other super-Houdini fans. She seemed to have an agenda and was seeking quotes to support her thesis that magicians are male, hide their secrets for no good reason and that there exists a “Houdini Industrial Complex.”

She writes, “[b]ut there is one irritating thing about Houdiniana today that also dates back to his life: the code of secrecy mystifying his tricks.”

Irritating? Why Irritating? Irritating to whom?

“It’s time to end the reflex of keeping these tricks secret—perpetrated most forcefully among the small group of magicians and magic collectors that in my darker moments I call the Houdini Industrial Complex.”

She admits that she admires – or at least a part of her admires – the commitment to keep magic’s secrets secret. “But part of me believes that it misses the point entirely. In the twenty-first century, it’s not how Houdini did it that matters. It’s who he was.”

We agree that Houdini’s mystique and staying power is due to his personality and star quality.  But he was  also someone who kept secrets. Audiences came to see him perform escapes and magic not provide lectures on how to open a pair of handcuffs or the best way to make elephants vanish.

Presumably, if we agreed with the author and would just expose our secrets, people would like us more. We learned long ago this logic does not work.  “C’mon tell us how you did it.” None of the relationships we thought we could enhance by exposing our magic secrets actually grew stronger.

But, even if we did publish our secrets, the authors says we would still be outsiders.

“Besides outliers like David Blaine, magicians are no longer part of the mainstream cultural conversation. And unlike burlesque, a twentieth century pop culture fad that has reinvented itself by using the language of gender studies, magic, with its largely male population, doesn’t really appeal to women.”

This is the first time we have heard that magic does not appeal to women. Our recent, very unscientific poling of magic audiences has confirmed that those in attendance were just about equally divided between the two main genders.

Perhaps the author is noting there are few female magicians. That is a valid point but we do not believe it can be attributed to a so-called Houdini Industrial Complex, the tendency of magicians to keep secrets or even the eccentric manner in which one magic library catalogs its volumes.

“The library at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, archivist Lisa Cousins explains, uses its own ‘eccentric cataloging system—not Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress’—and is closed to non-magicians. (She rushed to say that it allowed researchers.)”

We did study the Dewey Decimal system in the 1970s and agree that it is unfit for effectively cataloging an entire library of magic books. All of the books would have the same number, 793.8. In fact, the author could go to just about any public library and use that secret number to find troves of books that told her secrets to many effects.

It was nice to see Ms. Cousins quoted in the article but wonder if the author bothered to ask her questions about women in magic – a field Ms. Cousins knows well.

Could a magician perform tricks that he or she has exposed before performing? Sure. Would anyone go to see that magician?

A ventriloquist could do his or her routine without a figure and not hide the fact that he or she was speaking in a different voice.  We probably wouldn’t pay to see it though.

Part of the essence of magic is mystery. Mystery separates what we do from what one might see on a cooking show or at a craft class.

We are not sure what the author hoped to accomplish by her article. We hope she finds satisfaction in its publication and future success with other articles. And maybe it is us – it probably is – but we did not get her point. We think magic is doing fine and do not see a reason to change what has been working for hundreds of years. Again, that’s just us.