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Harry Houdini was known for escaping from handcuffs, straitjackets and water tanks, but his greatest trick was escaping from the dustbin of history. How many popular performers can you name from 1902? More than 80 years after his death, Houdini is still referred to as the greatest magician who ever lived - or disappeared.
A new exhibit at The Jewish Museum in New York asks how Houdini's fame managed to survive.
NPR's Robert Smith exposes the secret.
ROBERT SMITH: Part of it is how simple the Houdini legend is. So simple, even today, kids pass it around the playground. There was once a man who could escape from anything.
Mr. RAYMOND JOSEPH TELLER (Magician, Pen and Teller): He is the perfect teen idol.
SMITH: The magician Teller, of the duo Penn and Teller, says each generation discovers that there's something elemental about Houdini.
Mr. TELLER: This is this physical and mental super-guy. This ultra cool James Bond guy, that you can strip stark naked and throw into a jail cell, and he can get out. And if you're a teenager, what do you want? You want self-liberation above all. And there's Houdini as the perfect, shiny example of the All-American self-liberator.
SMITH: But going from a man to a myth wasn't easy a century ago. Houdini didn't have TV or radio to spread his name, and the wax cylinder did have its limits.
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Mr. HARRY HOUDINI (Magician): Ladies and gentlemen, introducing my original invention, the water torture cell...
SMITH: No, Houdini had to build his fame one escape at a time, one town at a time. And the exhibit at New York's Jewish Museum shows how he pulls it off, from his days in the traveling circus to international star.
Curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport shows me some archival silent film from 1907. When Houdini would roll into a town, he would do a stunt out in public to drum up a paying audience for his show.
Ms. BROOKE KAMIN RAPAPORT (Curator, The Jewish Museum): This is a bridge jump that Houdini did while he was handcuffed.
SMITH: Look how it tells this story. He's a respectable man who gets stripped down. Now he's got police, and all these figures of authority, chain him up.
Ms. RAPAPORT: There are crowds on the shoreline, crowds standing on the bridge, and then he dives into the river.
SMITH: And he's in this precarious position. He's facing death. People are watching a story.
Ms. RAPAPORT: And he comes up with the handcuffs brandished in the air.
SMITH: It's like there's a plot to it.
Ms. RAPAPORT: There's a great storyline, and it's absolutely cinematic.
SMITH: The museum's collection of Houdini art and artifacts shows this again and again. Houdini knew how to create an iconic visual image, and how to manipulate the media of his time. He would come into a big city and hang himself upside down in a straitjacket from a skyscraper - but not just any building, usually the one that housed the major newspaper.
Ms. RAPAPORT: The Houston Chronicle or the Boston Globe.
SMITH: So the photographers could just hang out the window of their newspaper building and take pictures of him.
Ms. RAPAPORT: He would not only make front-page headlines, but he would also sell out his evening performances.
SMITH: In Houdini's diaries, you can see how he collected these newspaper clippings, honing his PR savvy. People, Houdini realized, wanted to see magic in everyday objects, not the magician's top hat. Houdinis escapes were from milk cans and mailbags and steamer trunks.
Teller, of Penn and Teller, says Houdini would show up in a town that - say, had a beer factory.
Mr. TELLER: He would arrange, essentially, what we would now call a co-promotion, in which he would have the beer manufacturer manufacture a beer barrel big enough to contain Houdini - and submerge him in there, and nail him in the beer barrel. And he'd escape from that. But when he escaped from your boss's beer barrel, you were escaping from your everyday job.
SMITH: Years before the science of public relations was perfected, Houdini was doing it all: branding, viral marketing, media strategy, product placement, even new media - although in the early 1900s, new media was posters.
At the Jewish Museum, you can see posters from every stage of Houdinis career, each one more and more dramatic: Houdini surrounded by the forces of evil, sometimes being cuffed by menacing policeman. In other posters, hes choked by a robot or held under the water by a giant, green monster.
The curator of the show, Rapaport, says people at the time would have seen the subtext - here was a Jewish immigrant, born Erik Weisz in Budapest, son of a rabbi.
Ms. RAPAPORT: These feats were stunts. They were also imbued with great symbolism of escape from political, religious and social oppression.
SMITH: Now, would people have actually gotten that? That seems a little highfalutin for a guy escaping from a milk can.
Ms. RAPAPORT: You know, I think that we look on Houdini today, and that narrative is so clear that it could not have been missed in his day, too.
SMITH: Houdini was so aware of his effect on a viewer, nothing was likely left to chance - even securing life after death.
Houdini died of peritonitis on Halloween in 1926, after being punched in the stomach. Later, movies would change this ending and have him drown in the water-torture device. But Houdini, before he passed on, had one last PR stunt. He told his wife that he wanted her to hold a s�ance on the anniversary of his death.
Fans of Houdini still gather every Halloween to carry out his wishes, and carry on his fame.
Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.
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