Thursday, January 28, 2016

Houdini lives at LILA


On Tuesday I had the great pleasure of giving a talk about Houdini to the 7th Grade class at the International School of Los Angeles a.k.a. LILA. This was a tag-team talk with the great Joe Fox who demonstrated some of Houdini's magic and escapes. Joe did the Kellar Rope Tie, Spirit Slates, escaped from handcuffs and showed the students a real straitjacket. But Joe really brought the house down when he extracted a 4-inch lock-pick from his nose!

The students were attentive and enthusiastic, and I was very impressed with how much knowledge of Houdini they already had. True, their teacher, Anna Scottie, had assigned them a Houdini biography to read (Harry Houdini: Death Defying Showman by Rita Thievon Mullin), but during the Q&A, I could see they had already dug beyond the text. One bright young man asked about "conspiracy theories" surrounding his death. The Miracle Factory's Todd Karr, who arranged this event, informed me that his daughter, Sierra, had developed a particular interest in Bean Giant handcuffs. Looks like there's a new generation of Houdini Nuts in the making!

The students also taught me a lesson about magic history. They seemed especially taken with the story of the Mirror Handcuff Challenge, but when I mentioned that the handcuffs are today owned by David Copperfield, I could hear, "Who?" These bright young students, who knew the name J. Gordon Whitehead, had never heard of David Copperfield?

Afterwards, Todd told me that shouldn't have come as a surprise. They would know the name Criss Angel, but Copperfield has been off television for decades. That's when I realized I've been holding a false assumption. I believed Copperfield had broken through into popular culture and had taken a place beside Houdini as the very definition of a magician. After all, in the recent Marvel movie Ant-Man, a character reacts to the Ant-Man's metamorphosis as "some David Copperfield s***."

However, I'm now thinking that Copperfield, like so many other great magicians in history, might not transcend his era. Not that he will ever be forgotten within the world of magic. But a horse who escapes from its stable will never be called a "Copperfield Horse." (I use this example because I opened the talk with a clip of "Houdini Horse.")

This helps me understand how a magician as popular as Howard Thurston could today be largely forgotten outside magic circles. It also makes me marvel even more at how strong Houdini's hold is on popular culture. I guess a biopic every decade and 150+ books help. Not to mention that Houdini still tends to fascinate school kids.

As I was leaving the school, I noticed the car parked beside mine had a surprising window sticker. If you're as knowledgeable about Houdini as the 7th graders at LILA, you'll understand why I thought this was a little spooky...


Thanks to Todd Karr, Sierra Karr, Anna Scotti, Milan Mendis, Anneli Harvey, and all the 7th Grade students at LILA for a wonderful visit.

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13 comments:

  1. I see 2 pair of Tower Leg Irons, some Tower Cuffs, a pair of Adams, Cummings, Bean Giants, a pair of Bottlenecks/Marlin Daleys, and a pair of Maltbys. Joe Fox always brings the real deal! How long did you get to speak and how long did you do Q&A? I've got a couple of these kinds of things coming up, except, I'm doing the speaking and the escaping.

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    1. Let me add, What a 1-2 Punch of HOUDINI material these 7th graders got! I wish I could have been there but I am certain it was beyond awesome! (hope you do it again soon)

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    2. The assembly ran from 8:25am to 9:20am and every moment was filled. We only had about 5 mins for Q&A, but that was fine. It all timed out perfectly, which was good because Joe and I had never done this and hadn't timed it out beforehand at all! But I was watching the clock and the teacher was watching us. In a school you don't mess around with a schedule!

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    3. Great thanks. I saw the photo of the sign with the times but I wasn't sure how you divided up the talk and then Q&A. You are correct,in schools you must abide by their schedule. I've had assemblies start late and had to cram a program into a shorter time, not always easy. I will tell you, the middle school & high school market is ripe for your kind of program. I would encourage you to look into it more.

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    4. Joe and I would love to do more of these talks at schools.

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  2. McGill University...hmmm. That is a strange coincidence John. Something right out of the Twilight Zone. I can almost see Rod Serling in that parking lot: "A man just gave a lecture on Harry Houdini, and is unaware of the surprise punch waiting for him...in the Twilight Zone.

    Outside of the magic world, I don't think any performer beyond HH will ever be remembered by the general public far into the future.

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    1. I used to think Copperfield would be the one magician who would rival Houdini in that regard. Tuesday completely changed my mind on that.

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    2. (Bullet here) On the subject of immortality... i remember a footnote in Gresham's Houdini book about Dunninger now being the most famous magician ever. But ask any random person today who Dunninger was and they probably won't know. Ask them who Houdini was and...

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    3. Interesting. I would think Blackstone would have been considered the most famous magician in 1959. But I think Dunninger had made a real success on radio, so that might have helped spread his name in the day.

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  3. We are a curious species, refusing to go quietly into the night. It would explain all those giant statues, pyramids, and monuments that date back to antiquity all the way to the HH monument in Machpelah.

    Fame is so ethereal. What happened to Britney Spears, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, or Dunninger for that matter?

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    1. I tend to think of people like Al Jolsen and Will Rogers. HUGELY famous in their day. But they've slipped away with time, maybe because their acts don't really connect with us in modern times. This is maybe why Houdini still tends to dominate other magicians. Stories of his escapes still impress. But a magician who gained fame by cutting a woman in half...meh.

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    2. I get the idea that Houdini held an incredibly strong grip on the public's imagination during his life -- just look at how many ways his name entered into the vernacular at that time, not to mention after -- and while I'm just speculating here, I think he would still have continued to be famous over 100 years later even if he hadn't died so tragically. You can bet if he had lived, he would have gone on to utilize modern media like television, and probably contributed to the war effort in WWII. He wouldn't have let the public forget him.

      As to the sawing a woman in half, I hate it when movies and whatnot show Houdini doing the trick; not only is it anachronistic to show it in his early days, I don't think he would have wanted to be remembered for something so prosaic!

      -Meredith

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    3. Well said, Meredith. Agree on all points.

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