Rising fascination with the escape artist is no sleight-of-hand. He's in movies, books and -- but, of course -- cyberspace.


November 15, 1997|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Harry Houdini, the greatest escapologist the world has ever known, promised his wife that if he died before she did, he would try to return to her from beyond the grave.

For a less audacious, less imaginative man, such a vow would have been merely ludicrous. But for the first quarter of the 20th century, Houdini had astounded the whole world by extricating himself from every imaginable restraint. His resolve to cheat even death carried an undeniable plausibility, so much so that hundreds of thousands of people regarded his burial as only a first act.

If anyone could return from the Great Beyond, who else but the "Master Mystifier"?

And so, he has. Today, 71 years after his death on Halloween, we are witnessing the fulfillment of the magician's promise. True, Houdini is not literally walking the earth, but he is once again a presence on it, materializing -- abracadabra! -- in theatrical productions, in films, in television, in books, in ads ("Absolut Houdini"), even in cyberspace.

There he is, "The Handcuff King," in newspaper advertisements for "Ragtime," the soon-to-open Broadway musical. And there he is, too, in "Houdini," another show playing to strong reviews in East Haddam, Conn., raising hopes for its own New York run and another Houdini-like feat -- being in two places at once on Broadway.

Harvey Keitel portrays the magician in the current film "Fairytale -- A True Story," and Tom Cruise's name is being floated in connection with a major motion picture about Houdini to be directed by Paul Verhoeven ("Starship Troopers").

In the last five years, no fewer than three documentaries on the magician have appeared on television and, a year ago, Kenneth Silverman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, published a widely acclaimed biography, "Houdini!!!"

And, in a development that would have pleased Houdini, an admirer of every technological advance during his age, the Library of Congress inaugurated a Houdini Web site (http: //lcweb2.loc .gov/ammem/vshtml/houdini .html) that contains more than 140 photographs, posters and letters from his colorful life and career. In just a year of operation, the Internet site has drawn millions of visits from the world over. Only the library's collection of Mathew Brady's Civil War photographs rivals the Houdini Web site in popularity.

"The response has been absolutely exhilarating," says Joan Higbee, a reference specialist at the Library of Congress who conceived of the Houdini exhibit.

Fascination with Houdini, of course, is not new. "There is a big explosion of interest now," says Silverman, "but he's never really gone away. Since his death, you couldn't find five years in which there wasn't a new book about him. In magic journals, there isn't a month that goes by that his name isn't mentioned."

He is almost certainly the most enduring stage performer of his time. Even his early death from an inflammation in the lining of the abdomen at age 52 (he did not drown during an underwater escape as portrayed in the 1953 Tony Curtis film) did not diminish his fame either then or ever afterward. It's hard to even name another pre-World War II performer whose work was not primarily in films or recordings.

Ask 10 people on the street to name a magician, and nine will answer "Houdini." Not only is he the only magician to be included in most dictionaries, but his very name has become part of the language. Countless are the number of sports teams and office seekers who have "pulled a Houdini" by snatching victory from defeat.

This last achievement contains the key to Houdini's continued hold on our imaginations. Of all his remarkable transformations, Houdini's most impressive was his ability to turn himself into a metaphor for the ages.

"Houdini, unlike any magician either before or since, tapped into a very deep American desire to be free," says Teller, the usually mute half of Penn & Teller, the magical comedy act. "What is America about if it is not freedom, and what is Houdini about if not freedom?"

Freedom in all its manifestations. Houdini not only escaped physical restraints but social and economic ones as well. Not least of all, to his own thinking, he also freed himself from the superstitions in vogue during his lifetime.

His is a quintessentially American success story. The impoverished immigrant son (he was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, not Wisconsin as he wanted his fans to believe) of a failed rabbi, Houdini, through his own ingenuity, daring and sizable ego, made himself an international star and household name. His performances told the same story in abbreviation.

"I think Houdini is a very powerful representation of the human ability to escape, escape from societal limits, escape from individual limits," says Higbee. "He was a powerful imaginative force who represented the ability to transcend confinement of all kinds."

A heroic spirit

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