Friday, March 18, 2011

Wired gets it wrong (and ticks me off)

I haven't really gotten riled up over this whole "Houdini vs. Thurston" debate, probably because I've actually read Jim Steinmeyer's excellent book, The Last Greatest Magician in the World, and understand the approach he is taking. But then I see trash like this chart from Wired magazine (War of the Wands), and I get ticked off, especially as this is now getting picked up by various magic websites. And it's not because they proclaim Thurston the "winner" of this hypothetical competition. It's because they get their facts wrong -- which is insulting to Houdini buffs and to Jim Steinmeyer as they are putting words in his mouth. First, here's the chart, which I have lifted with no permission whatsoever.

War of the Wands: Thurston vs. HoudiniWired, Feb 28, 2011

So Houdini was a "complete failure at card tricks" and "later gave them up"? This is patently untrue. Houdini was very skilled with cards and continued to perform card work until the end of his career. There is film of him doing very difficult card flourishes in 1926, the year he died, for crying out loud. Also, according to Richard Kaufman, editor of Genii magazine, "[Houdini] excelled at the Pass, and the color change frequently attributed to Erdnase also appears to be his." In reality, both Houdini and Thurston performed as the "King of Cards" early in their careers because it was an inexpensive way for a struggling magician to have an act, and both went on to bigger and better things. So who "wins" this round? Actually, Thurston may have indeed been the better card manipulator. He made more of a career out of it than did Houdini. So it's still advantage: THURSTON, but not for the reasons stated by Wired.

Next, Houdini "lacked the showmanship to succeed Kellar"? This one shows this writer, Olivia Koski, not only doesn't know anything about Houdini, but also clearly didn't even read Steinmeyer's book (people get paid for this kind of thing, eh?). The Kellar show was purchased by Thurston. It wasn't a competition that Houdini was even involved in. Houdini had his own success and didn't need to buy another magician's show, especially as it involved paying royalties. Kellar himself said that Houdini was already "at the head of the profession." Houdini, in fact, endorsed Thurston as Kellar's successor over Paul Valadon in his Conjurers Monthly Magazine. So who wins? Well, Houdini forged his own "magic pedigree" and name. Thurston purchased his. And to say Houdini "lacked showmanship" is like saying Marilyn Monroe lacked sex appeal. Advantage: HOUDINI.

As to "Spectacle", having just seen Houdini's Goodbye Winter performed at The Magic Castle, I'm not so sure one can dismiss his full evening show's magic as "weak." This revived Houdini effect (revived by Jim Steinmeyer, btw) totally blew away a modern audience. Also conveniently left out of all this discussion of magic is the Needles, a fantastic trick that Houdini mastered and did his entire career to great acclaim and, again, still holds up today. I don't think anyone who saw Houdini do the Needles would say "he really wasn't a very good magician." However, there's no question that Thurston's Wonder Show was a marvel to behold, and he was indeed the preeminent "magician" of his day. But who would you rather see? Advantage: TIE.

LOSER: Wired.


  1. I saw this a while ago and had the EXACT same feeling! My favorite part of your blog though is, "Here is the chart which I lifted with NO permission whatsoever" LOL!

  2. It ticked me off when I first saw it a while back as well, but I let it pass. Why even give it attention. I didn't even link it on my HH Facebook page. But now Magic Newswire picked it up and Magic Con picked it up from I had to address it. And it's not just a defense of Houdini. It's also a defense of Jim's book, which I love, and which is being misrepresented here (although, admittedly, nicely promoted).

  3. That chart is BS.

    Well it took a while but the wait was worth it. Good rant.

  4. Well, since Houdini is by far the more famous name, I say: Advantage Houdini!

    Granted my standard is a little arbitrary, but no more so that a chart that lists "use of elephants" as one of it's criteria.

  5. John I am reading Jims book now and I totally agree with you. I have yet to see anything that says annthing negative about Houdini versus Thurston. If anything the book has shown Thurston to be somewhat a hack and a mechanical Magician. Keep up the great work.

  6. Nice rant, John! This ticks me off, too. I mean, if you're going to write about a topic as complex as magic history (even if it's only 2 magicians in question), one should always look up some facts first. Maybe the Wired writer was trying to go for comedic effect here, but it sure backfired (or at least it does in the eyes of people who know anything at all about Houdini's career).

  7. Thanks all. I'm happy I did this, but I have received heat for it. All I have left to say is to get Jim's book and enjoy. Always good to learn about other magicians.

  8. Do they even realise you're not dissing his book? Have they read that far? =)