Exposing Houdini

Magicians Want to Put the Lock on Portion of New Exhibit

Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini, born the son of a rabbi in Budapest, became famous for amazing escapes from chains, straightjackets and sealed containers. Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Corbis

Although he died almost 80 years ago, Harry Houdini is still one of the world's best-known escape artists. He worked his way out of jail cells, water-filled tanks, burglar-proof safes and straitjackets — to list but a few. This week, a condensed exhibition of Houdini history opens in the northeast Wisconsin town of Appleton.

Houdini's family settled in Appleton after moving from Hungary in 1878. Until last fall, more than 200 pieces of Houdini memorabilia were displayed at the local Outagamie Museum. But curator Kimberly Louagie says that while magicians loved seeing all of the Houdini lore, other visitors were bored.

The museum's new exhibition has just 34 Houdini artifacts. Visitors can see the illusionist's straightjacket, a bust some say is haunted, or learn how to perform one of Houdini's signature illusions, called the "Metamorphosis." In it, the handcuffed magician was chained inside a trunk and then magically exchanged places with an assistant outside the box.

'Metamorphosis' Explained
An informal explanation of the secret behind Houdini's signature illusion.

But as Harriet Baskas reports for the Hidden Treasures Radio Project, some contemporary magicians — including those who use a form of the illusion in their acts — are upset. They say exposing the secret of the Metamorphosis is wrong.

This story is part of the Hidden Treasures Radio Project series, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Cultural Development Authority of King County, Wash.

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