When I was about ten years old, inspired by the 1953 Houdini bio-pic I’d watched on tv, I went to the library to find a book on the great escape artist. What I found looked a little close, but I wasn’t sure, and I was many pages in before I finally concluded that “Nope, this is definitely a different guy”. What I was reading was a biography of Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (born this day in 1805), who is of course the man to whom Ehrich Weiss was paying tribute when he decided to call himself Houdini.
Widely considered the father of modern magic, Robert-Houdin was a second generation clock and watchmaker who got interested in illusions when he accidentally got hold of some magic books. Over the years he studied and practiced magic on an amateur basis, performing at parties, and using his mechanical know-how to devise new illusions, which he gave to other magicians at first. Gradually, he resolved to use his new illusions in performance himself. To give himself a venue, at age 40 he built the the Theatre Robert-Houdin — surely the only time in history a performer broke into show business at a theatre he owned himself. He literally made his professional debut at a theatre he’d already named after himself! How’s that for optimism?
After a shaky start, he gradually became famous for his innovations, including a mind-reading act, levitations, the “Marvelous Orange Tree” and many others. He was also the first magician to dress in evening dress, a tradition that is still prevalent to this day. Robert-Houdin retired in about 1856, using his retirement mostly to write. He passed away in 1871. The theatre he built would get a new lease on life in 1888 when it was purchased by Georges Méliès (whose birthday is two days from now, December 8 — see here for a post on him as well!)
To learn more about the roots of variety entertainment, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.