Houdini: Art and Magic

It takes a Houdini to crack the TSA-style high security gauntlet at the Jewish Museum — and the patience of a mystical swami to endure it without exploding like a Neil Simon character once  deadly weapons such as paper clips and sunglasses start to trip the alarm. I don’t possess such patience. After 7 or 8 attempts at the security gate, I finally made it into the lobby with the Countess and my kids and was summarily passed off to a reception desk where the clerk had the temerity to begin administering what I gradually realized was not an interrogation but a visitor’s services survey:

“And how do you like your experience so far?”


In the time honored Old Testament tradition I found myself shaking my fist at the heavens, “Why? O, God, why?”

I also let the ether know in no uncertain terms that NO mere museum exhibit could POSSIBLY be worth this inhuman ordeal.  And then of course it was.

Houdini: Art and Magic contains just about everything you could possibly want to see in an exhibition about the world’s greatest escape artist and one of vaudeville’s greatest showmen. You think I’m kidding? How about:

* One of his water torture tanks

* One of his milk cans from the milk can escape

* A Metamorphosis trunk

* A leather straitjacket (much harder to escape from than canvas)

* Numerous and diverse pairs of Houdini handcuffs

* Film footage of him performing escapes, as well as scenes from his brief career as a silent movie star

* Film footage from the Tony Curtis Houdini bio-pic, one of my favorite films as a child

* Photos spanning his career, including very early photos from childhood, as well as his circus and Coney Island days

* Gorgeous color lithographs

* Film of homages by Penn & Teller, David Blaine, Doug Henning, et al.

* Examples of spirit photos and coverage of Houdini’s debunking thereof

* Etc, etc

Of course, nothing is perfect. As museum curators so often are, the ones responsible for this exhibition prove to be too clever by half. The remarkable life and career of Houdini (which could fill ten full museums) apparently didn’t stimulate them enough, so the exhibition juxtaposes a bunch of crappy modern art inspired by Houdini next to the artifacts. I only saw one piece of original art ( a Joe Coleman painting) that I admired. The rest was on the order of “Cremaster” junk by the execrable Matthew Barney. My kid pointed to a row of several tables, each of which had a progressively smaller portion of a Houdini biography on it.

“What’s with that, dad?”

“I guess it thinks it’s supposed to be some sort of ‘art’, son,” I replied, thus helping to educate the next generation of art critics.

To learn more about the roots of variety entertainmentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


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