Friday, May 11, 2018

Is David Blaine reviving a Houdini myth?


I really admire and enjoy David Blaine. In many ways, I do believe he is the modern Houdini. And those who have seen his live show say it's phenomenal. However, a recent article at Houston Culture Map suggests David might be trading on the old myth that Houdini died in his Water Torture Cell. Here's the surprising paragraphs:

Fans who know Blaine only from TV will see a different side of his work at the Smart Financial Centre — up close, front, back, and side. For his finale, he allows audience members to come onstage and examine a large, clear tomb of water before Blaine is lowered in and holds his breath for minutes that seem like hours. It’s the closer for Blaine’s show. It was his hero Houdini’s final act, too.

“Insurance companies won’t cover that part of the show. I push myself as far as I can, right to the breaking point, and that’s the end. Houdini died after doing this. He collapsed and was rushed to the hospital.”

So that's a bit of shocker to read. Certainly David Blaine knows the truth of Houdini's death. David is a great admirer of Houdini and credits the image of Houdini on a book cover as igniting his passion for magic. I'm also sure he knows Houdini didn't even do his Water Torture Cell during his final performance in Detroit, so there's no way to parse this into any kind of truth.

But David Blaine wouldn't be the only performer who couldn't resist the publicity appeal of this myth. In the 1970s, escape artists such as Steve Baker and Charlie Myrick openly advertised the Water Torture Cell as "the trick that killed Houdini." I believe even Doug Henning said this at some point. But this was back when the influence of the Tony Curtis movie--which created this myth--reached was far and wide, and people didn't have the immediate means to know any better. But nowadays a simple Google search will reveal the truth.

So even though you won't witness "the trick that killed Houdini", David Blaine Live is clearly a must see. Check out his official website for tour dates.

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16 comments:

  1. The USD was intended as an inexplicable magical effect. Holding your breath in a tank of water is not. Blaine flat out lied--presumably to connect himself to Harry and bask in the Houdini aura.

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    1. It's also possible he was misquoted here. Blaine is pretty respectful to Houdini and Houdini history. In fact, I was considering holding back this post until I heard him say it again.

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  2. I recall reading that Houdini did the Torture cell the night he collapsed. The detail sticks in my mind about his having a broken ankle and putting his feet in the stocks anyway. This may have been a conflation of two events or one of the many inaccuracies we've all encountered over the years. Anyway - to my enduing shame - I used to do a card trick version of the metamorphosis that I introduced as, "My version of the trick that made Houdini famous. Not the water torture cell... that's the one that killed him." It was played for laughs but perpetuated the myth of the Tony Curtis movie (still my favorite Houdini picture). Anyway, it is entirely possible that Mr. Blaine is not aware that Houdini didn't do the USD that night as it features in at least one supposedly "accurate" version of the story.

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    1. I've never heard anything about him doing the USD in Detroit, but I admit I've seen any conclusive evidence either-way. But I do not believe he did. In fact, I don't think he ever did it again after breaking his ankle in Albany. Pat Culliton says he cut the entire second act of the show and did no escapes at all that night.

      There are some details of that final show; how he seized up in pain and Collins had to finish the Whirlwind of Colors, how he was unable to step through a cabinet to show it empty. I just can't see him doing the USD in that state. Unlike Mr. Curtis, he was perfectly willing to cut it.

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  3. I saw David's show recently in Cleveland and his holding his breath in a tank of water. The big difference of course is that David is actually in the tank right in front of the audience for the duration, with a camera of him on a widescreen for the rest of the audience, not with the view of him obstructed. Needless to say, it was a fantastic show and his understated delivery just adds to the show. I do believe his show is the one that is most like what Harry's was like. Dale from Cleveland.

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  4. I saw Blaine in the water tank up at Lincoln Center in 2006, and his release from the tank on TV -- scary as hell and a feat of amazing bravery and endurance -- but in an entirely different realm than Houdini's escape from the Torture Cell. I haven't seen the version he does in his act but as described, it again sounds like comparing apples to oranges. He's amazing and ground-breaking and does not need to compare himself to Houdini, nor does anyone, as Houdini will always stand on his own countless reasons. I hope Mr. Blaine was misquoted.

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  5. According to John--he said it twice.

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    1. Oh, sorry for the misunderstanding. I actually didn't hear him say it a second time. I was considering waiting on a second hearing before posting, but then I just decided to run with it.

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    2. Cool--nevertheless it never occurred to Houdini that holding your breath in a tank of water was inherently entertaining and worth paying hard earned money to watch. I can see people do that in public pools this summer.

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    3. Of course he did tap into the entertainment value of holding his breath as a prelude to the Milk Can escape when he would ask the audience to hold their breath with him. Unlike what you see in the HH movies (and what some modern escapists do), he did not ask the audience to hold their breaths during the escape itself. It was done as test before the escape, and was very much about the marvel of watching how long HH could hold his breath. So he was there...110 years before Blaine. :)

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  6. Definitely! That initial breath holding test by HH was a nice touch before the actual effect. Too bad Blaine couldn't think of an interesting escape from a tank of water and use the breath test as a prelude to heighten interest.

    There is an interesting escape from a tank of water that HH never performed. It's in Gibson's Houdini's Escapes and was taken from HH's notes. It's called the "Crystal Casket" and would have made a wonderful effect for Blaine. Attempting an escape HH designed but never built would make a nice introduction onstage.

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    1. I was under the impression Houdini had performed the Crystal Casket (or maybe it wasn't a water escape as he performed it?)

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    2. The "Crystal Casket" that HH performed in his show was a magic trick with a small hand-held crystal box. It's a classic Robert-Houdin effect.

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    3. No--it was a tank of water large enough to hold a man. It's in Gibson's Houdini's Escapes. Taken from his notes but never built.

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    4. Yes, there's something in Gibson called that. But what I'm saying there is also a magic trick called the "Crystal Casket" that HH did in his show. It's a classic of magic. Houdini was probably thinking of naming his larger escape that as an homage.

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