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The Ultimate Spellbinder
By Tom Lalicki
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 Tom Lalicki
All rights reserved.
The Greatest Novelty Mystery Act in the World!
In 1876, when Mayer Samuel Weiss sailed to seek his fortune in the New World, his hopes for the future must have been mingled with sad, ness and regret.
Trained as a lawyer, he could not practice law in his native city of Budapest because he was a Jew. He became a biblical scholar and a rabbi but could not find a congregation in Hungary. To make a life for his wife and five sons, Rabbi Weiss came to the United States alone. It took him two years to find a position.
Most Americans were Christians in 1876. The massive immigration of Eastern European Jews (and southern European Christians) started in the 1880s. Between 1880 and 1925, over 25 million people came to the United States —"The Golden Land"—to escape poverty and persecution. Not all the immigrants intended to stay. Called Birds of Passage, many intended to make their fortunes and go home rich. Over one,third of all those immigrants did return to Europe, but almost none of them had become rich. They went back because making a life in America was just too hard for them.
In 1878, the Weiss family was reunited. The rabbi's wife, Cecilia, who was twelve years younger than Mayer, brought their four sons: Nathan, William, Ehrich, and Theodore. Herman, Weiss's oldest son from a previous marriage, came with them. Herman's mother, Mayer's first wife, had died years earlier. Two more children would be born in the United States: Leopold and Gladys.
Rabbi Weiss shepherded a small congregation in Appleton, Wisconsin, that worshiped in a room borrowed from a local club. Appleton was a beautiful, prosperous town. Its farmers grew wheat and its loggers cut trees to make paper. Appleton had a college, public parks, open, air concerts, and a welcoming attitude. The synagogue's members were German immigrants. Many of them had been encouraged to settle in Appleton after the Civil War, when Wisconsin and other Midwestern states had sent recruiters to Germany.
Congregation members flourished there, but Rabbi Weiss did not. He and his wife could not adapt to the "get-ahead" and "fit-in" mindset of nineteenth century America. They never learned English, the language his congregation members wanted their children to speak, so the congregation let him go. In search of another job, Rabbi Weiss moved his family to Milwaukee.
The rabbi's fifth son, Ehrich, the future Houdini, was a doer from his earliest days. Born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, an old-world city, he was brimming with new-world energy. By the age of eight he helped support the family by working at street trades: shining shoes, selling newspapers, and running errands. His family desperately needed the money because Rabbi Weiss never found a steady job again. In Milwaukee, they moved five times because they couldn't pay the rent. A Jewish charity helped them out with food and coal.
In the 1880s, most children born in America went to school for seven years. Immigrant children got even less education. Ehrich was no exception, but he learned to read and write and loved to do both all his life.
He also loved to perform. At age nine, he debuted in a backyard circus, which had a five-cent admission, as "Ehrich, the Prince of Air." Decked out in red tights his mother had sewn, he did contortions—twisting body movements and trapeze walking.
Being the intelligent, ambitious son of an educated father reduced to poverty was painful for Ehrich, so painful that he ran away in 1886 to make the family's fortune. He was twelve. His mother, Cecilia, kept a postcard all her life that Ehrich had sent from the road. It said: "I am going to Galvaston, Texas [sic] and will be back home in about a year. My best regards to all.... Your truant son, Ehrich Weiss."
But he boarded the wrong train and ended up in Kansas City, Missouri. From there he worked his way back to Wisconsin by doing odd jobs. He was adopted for several months by the Flitcrofts of Delavan, Wisconsin, and finally made his way back home.
Impressed by his young son's pluck, Rabbi Weiss took Ehrich with him to New York on a job hunt in 1887. New York was the best place in the country for a German-speaking rabbi—nearly 80 percent of New Yorkers were either foreign-born or the children of immigrants.
They moved into a tenement on East Seventy-fifth Street in Manhattan. Ehrich's father taught German and Hebrew and occasionally performed religious ceremonies, but he could not support his large family. "We lived there, I mean starved there, several years," Houdini later remembered. As an adult Houdini never dwelled, though, on the economic hardships of his youth. He downplayed the family's poverty, writing, "The less said on the subject the better."
As a fabric-cutter in a necktie factory, the teenaged Ehrich shared the misery of the sweatshops. Suits, blouses, gloves—every kind of clothing was made in dark, overcrowded tenements. Sanitary conditions were so bad that tuberculosis was called "the tailor's disease." Immigrants worked ten to fourteen hours a day, six, even seven, days a week. The pay, about three dollars per week, was too little to support a family, so the entire family worked.
Children as young as eight, called "lively elves," were prized by sweatshop owners. Children had nimble fingers for sewing and were easily disciplined. If they didn't take their work seriously enough, the penalties were severe. Looking out a window without permission cost a day's pay.
Most young people were exhausted, if not ruined, by the system. Not Ehrich Weiss. He found time and energy to box in the 115-pound class, to swim in the East River, and to run distance races for the Pastime Athletic Club. And he loved to pick through the used-book bins on Fourth Avenue and haggle over the prices of books he wanted to read. He often read late into the night. He did not seem to think his life was hard.
Nobody knows when Ehrich (nicknamed "Ehrie") became seriously interested in magic. He may have given a show in 1890 on a trip to Milwaukee, or he may have debuted in New York that same year. But it's certain that by 1892 "The Brothers Houdini: The Modern Monarchs of Mystery" were professional showmen. And eighteen-year-old Ehrie Weiss was, then and forever, Harry Houdini.
Ehrich had read and loved the memoirs of Jean Eugene Robert- Houdin, known as the father of modern magic. Robert-Houdin had abandoned the age-old wizard's costume—flowing robe and pointed hat—for black evening dress. His conjuring devices were placed on a raised, undraped platform that made trapdoors and help from assistants seem impossible. Ehrich idolized him and wrote, "From the moment I began to study the art, he became my guide and hero. His memoirs gave to the profession a dignity worth attaining at the cost of earnest, life-long endeavor." In tribute, Ehrich adopted and adapted his hero's name. (Later in life, he autographed books: "Houdini. That's Enough." One name said it all.)
In the fall of 1892, Rabbi Weiss died of cancer. He left behind a wife who spoke no English and two children under sixteen. Before dying, the rabbi asked his promising young son to swear that he would always care for his mother. Houdini kept that promise.
Show business is an uncertain way to make a living at the best of times, and those were not the best of times. The Panic of 1893 started with falling stock prices and quickly staggered the nation. By year's end, five hundred banks and nearly sixteen thousand businesses had failed. Unemployment rose to 20 percent in an era before federal unemployment insurance and welfare. With no money, the unemployed became homeless and stood on breadlines for food. In Chicago, thousands of people lived through the winter sleeping in the hallways of City Hall. "Ruin and disaster run riot over the land" was a British observer's description.
The economy improved in 1895, but a second recession set in the next year. The country did not fully recover until 1901. Ehrich Weiss could have returned to cutting necktie fabric—he had a standing offer from his old employer. Instead, Houdini pressed on in show business.
The "Brothers Houdini" were Ehrich and a friend, Jack Hyman, who quickly left, seeking greener pastures. The next Houdini brother was Ehrich's real brother, Theo, who was in the act until Houdini met his life partner in 1894.
Like many times, places, and events in Houdini's life, it's uncertain how Houdini first met Wilhelmina Beatrice "Bess" Rahner. But it is certain that he fell madly in love with her, completely and forever. They were married less than a month after meeting and honeymooned at Coney Island.
Houdini's mother took instantly to Bess and never objected to her son's marrying a Catholic. Cecilia welcomed the newlyweds into the already crowded Weiss family apartment. Bess's mother was a widowed German immigrant and devout Roman Catholic. She objected passionately to the marriage and refused to talk to her daughter for more than ten years.
"The Houdinis" were not only husband and wife, but also magician and assistant. Houdini was about five feet, five inches tall with thick, wiry black hair, intense blue eyes, and a large head. Fiercely strong and muscular from years of conditioning, he seemed large compared to the five-foot-tall, ninety-pound, brown-haired Bess. Onstage, he wore secondhand evening clothes and she wore heavy woolen tights topped with puffy blouses.
While Houdini had been perfecting card tricks and other common conjuring tricks for several years, the focal point of the Houdinis' act was Metamorphosis, a substitution illusion he had bought from another magician.
Buying tricks was not unusuaL Most magicians' acts are based on the work of retiring or hard-up magicians who sell their secrets and their apparatus. Houdini paid twenty-five dollars—a small fortune— for Metamorphosis: a steamer trunk, a large three-sided cabinet that closed in front with a curtain, and the secret that made it entertaining.
A "committee" of audience volunteers would come onstage and inspect all the props. Houdini then stepped inside a large flannel bag inside the steamer trunk. The committee taped the bag shut and sealed it with hot wax. Houdini sat in the trunk, which was padlocked and circled with heavy ropes. Then Bess spoke.
"I shall clap my hands three times, and at the third and last time I ask you to watch closely for ... the ... effect." She swung the curtain shut in front of the trunk and disappeared. Instantaneously, the curtain opened to reveal Houdini himself. Furiously the committee unknotted the ropes, unlocked the padlocks, opened the trunk, pulled up and unsealed the still taped bag to find ... Bess.CHAPTER 2
The King of Handcuffs
Vaudeville, the variety stage show, was the premier family entertainment then. Singers, comedians, dancers, impersonators, comedy singers, comedy dancers, and magicians filled out affordable three-hour shows for growing city audiences.
After the Civil War (1861-65), America's population was growing and becoming more urban. Before the war, about six million Americans lived in cities; by 1900 the number was over thirty million. The number of cities with populations of more than fifty thousand people mushroomed, too: from sixteen before the Civil War to seventy-eight by 1900.
The growth of cities was fueled by the Industrial Revolution. Factories that turned out such modern conveniences as ready-to-wear clothes, canned food, and bicycles needed laborers. While most of the immigrant workers filling the cities had little money or leisure time, factory managers, office workers, and professionals did.
But cities in the 1890s offered few recreational activities. Without cars or public transportation, people were limited to their neighborhoods. Without television, radio, or CDs, families had to entertain themselves. Even telephones were too expensive for most people. Nickelodeons showed primitive movies that were brief, not very exciting, and actually cost a dime. That same dime could buy real entertainment-vaudeville.
Promoters built lavish theaters, decorated with huge chandeliers, pillars, and murals that gave audiences comfortable places to relax and see first-rate shows. There were several tiers of vaudeville theaters. The best acts played the Keith-Albee Circuit of theaters on the East Coast and the Orpheum Circuit in the West. But in 1894, Mr. and Mrs. Houdini were far from prime-time players.
Ranked below vaudeville were the Dime Museums, an outgrowth of P. T. Barnum's Museums. There magicians, jugglers, and puppeteers were jumbled together with curiosity, or curio,"acts like sword swallowers, fire eaters, midgets, giants, and fat ladies. Performers did from twelve to twenty shows a day for very low wages. Even recent immigrants could understand and afford these shows.
The bottom rung of urban entertainment was the beer hall, where noisy and not very interested patrons enjoyed corny one-act plays and sentimental songs. Small, town folk needed entertainment, too, and that was offered by traveling burlesque, or girlie, shows, circuses, and medicine shows.
Between 1894 and 1899, the Houdinis learned the craft of showmanship by performing in all these arenas, struggling to make ends meet the whole time. To get bookings, they did a song-and-dance act and appeared in very bad plays. Houdini performed as "Projea, the Wild Man" in an animal cage and did a mind-reading act and onstage séances.
The séances were electrifying. Houdini came into a small town with a show and, incredibly, knew personal things about total strangers sitting in the audience. It was all sham, but very convincing. Ahead of the show, Houdini would sneak into town and do some very sharp detective work. He would loiter in barber shops for gossip, read old newspaper files, and pretend to be a Bible salesman to get into homes and get personal information about families. Armed with a smattering of facts and aided by paid local help who could identify audience members, Houdini could accurately retell the past and predict the future.
Popular as the act was, Houdini abandoned it almost immediately. He wrote in his diary that the séances produced a "Bad Effect!" Houdini wanted to mystify his audiences with skill, not scare or cheat them.
Regardless of how little Houdini earned, he honored the promise to care for his mother. When he and Bess had bookings, half their weekly salary was always sent to Cecilia. When they didn't, the Houdinis shared her Manhattan apartment while Houdini worked on schemes to improve the act.
A less determined, less confident man would have given up entirely and taken a job. The closest Houdini came to that was opening a correspondence school for magicians in his mother's apartment. He offered all his secrets for sale. Luckily, nobody thought the tricks worth buying.
The problem with Houdini's act was that he hadn't yet discovered the real Houdini. He performed as "The King of Cards," "The King of Billiard Balls," even as "The Paper Tearing King," without much success. Audiences loved the Metamorphosis escape but did not love Houdini's magic tricks. He worked constantly to develop new ones. He watched and studied hundreds of other performers to learn showmanship. He improved his grammar and stage speech. Most importantly, he invented brilliant ways to promote the act. But none of his efforts opened the door to stardom.
Excerpted from Houdini by Tom Lalicki. Copyright © 2000 Tom Lalicki. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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