Houdini at Muzeo Anaheim

Today, The Husband and I spent a few hours at Muzeo in Anaheim, California, one of our favorite museums.  It’s a small exhibition space with the flexibility to be set up individually for each show.   Previous shows have included selections of Cheech Marin’s Latino artwork, Napoleon’s hat, Russian religious icons and costumes from Downton Abbey, just to name a few.  The current exhibition, continuing until January 22, is Houdini Unchained: The Legacy of Harry Houdini.

Here are some highlights:

One of the more lurid posters.

Born in Budapest as Erhich Weisz, his early life taught him creativity and hard work when his father could not earn enough to keep the family together in America. Harry left the family to lighten the burden on his father and went from job to job, city to city, until he was able to reunite the family in NYC. He discovered a love for magic and started touring with other magic and vaudeville acts, learning from generous older magicians as he went.

He also worked in Dime Museums, which I’d never heard of. According to Wikipedia, they were “designed as centers for entertainment and moral education for the working class”. If you’ve ever seen The Greatest Showman, the venue that Barnum opened in New York was a dime museum, filled with freak shows, circus acts and other “lowbrow” entertainment, including magicians.


He met his wife, Bess, when she and her sister had an act of their own. Because she was so small, she was an excellent partner for his early magic acts. They were devoted to each other for the rest of their lives (and beyond!).

I thought this was pretty cool and neither The Husband nor I had ever heard that he contributed in this way.

Here are some of his actual handcuffs and other stage props:

Custom made lock picks

Shackles and handcuffs used by Houdini.

Full table, detail of the foot pedal and explanation of the Flower Automation Illusion.

I think the first two above are replica’s but the milk can I’m standing beside is the real deal! It’s one of several that still exist.

He was also an inventor but refused to patent most of his inventions for fear of people ripping him off. Here’s one thing he did get a patent for:

The requisite Silly Husband photos.

At the end of his life, after his mother died, he briefly became obsessed with reaching her in the afterlife. However, he quickly glommed onto the tricks the spiritualists were using because he’d used them in his act in various ways himself. He devoted several years before his own death to exposing the charlatans, going so far as appearing before congress to beg for laws forbidding fortune telling and seances. He lost the friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a follower of the Spiritualist movement.

The last exhibit was set up as a seance. The Houdini’s had made a pact that the first to pass away would try to get a message to the survivor. Every year for the next ten years after Houdini’s untimely and suspicious death, Bess would have a seance with the hope that Harry would finally get through to her with a prearranged code. A recording from the last seance, in 1936, plays on a loop as you wander through the room. Can you say, “Spooky”??!!

At the time of his death, Houdini was serving as the president of the Society of American Magicians.

At one point, Houdini formed a moving picture company but after two films ran over budget and were not received well, he moved on to other things.

Dr. Randall Bell is the collector who made this exhibit possible. Thanks, it was fascinating!

There are several screens showing many of his outdoor strait jacket and shackle escapes, both dangling from wires and thrown into rivers across the country, as advertisements for his stage shows.  I didn’t think to try to photograph them – Duh!

He would also go into police stations and, with journalists in tow, have the officers handcuff him with their own cuffs, which would take him a minute or less to escape from.  Eventually, he brought the cops to his shows and made them part of the act.

Words to live by, in his own hand.

If you’re in the area (right down the street from the Happiest Place on Earth), you’ve got another couple of weeks to partake of this magical exhibit. If you’re not near, I hope this post gave you a few minutes of fun and wonder.

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