Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Greatest Magician

He came from nothing and through hard work and perseverance transformed himself into the world’s first super star. Those who knew him and saw him perform were nearly universal in the opinion that he was a mediocre magician; Jim Steinmeyer, in his highly recommended Hiding The Elephant, points out that the public of the time didn’t even think of Houdini as a magician. Yet his name is synonymous with magic and we still think of him as the greatest magician ever. Truly he was the master mystifier of this or any other age, a man capable of manipulating reality itself, of creating a legend that has achieved mythic proportions. He was the great Houdini.

Like many magicians my initial interest in magic was spawned by a fascination with Houdini. Very early on I read E.L. Doctrow’s Ragtime, which features Houdini as a minor character, and was totally hooked. There’s a scene in Ragtime where Houdini, overcome with grief at his mother’s passing, is expressing that grief, exorcising the demons that are devouring him, by performing magic at a maniacal pace. Coins are falling from his fingers; canaries are flying from his open mouth – it’s a veritable assault of wonders, a magician come from some dark corner of hell to terrify and astound. The audience’s wonder turns to disquiet…then to fear. Suddenly there comes an explosion from outside and the audience flees the theater in terror, thinking it’s some other infernal illusion he’s devised.

That scene made quite an impression on this young magician – it really helped form my view that a magician should be a mysterious character, and maybe not always benevolent. Of course it was entirely fictional, but then so much about Houdini was and is. I remember seeing the illustration in the mostly apocryphal The Great Houdini in which Houdini is tying his shoes with his toes – this was some years before I knew anything about Houdini or magic. That picture to me symbolizes Houdini – the weird talents, strange disciplines, the ever addictive sense of mystery. It’s so hard to determine where the apocryphal begins and ends. He was truly an enigma.

Here it is, Halloween eighty-one years after his death and we still remember. While there have been other legendary magicians, I don’t think anyone’s managed to achieve what he did – certainly no other performer has come close to equaling his success with escapes. He created the impression that he could escape from anything. He challenged the world to restrain him, and he could not be restrained. Is it any wonder that he reached mythic status in his own lifetime?

People wonder if he were alive today if he could achieve the same level of success. I don’t know. It was a very different world he lived in, and I think much of his success was dependant upon that particular time – I’m not sure if the concepts he symbolized would work today. Then again, I wouldn’t want to bet against him. If he were able to forge his showmanship in a comparable way – by working the lowest rungs of show business – I’d certainly give him a shot. And it’s without a doubt he was one of the most driven men ever. As Houdini himself so completely proved, anything’s possible.

So we remember, and tip our hats to the greatest magician of all time. For if a magician is defined as one who creates mystery, there’s no doubt he was the greatest. The fascination continues. See you next time.

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