HARRY HOUDINI Biography - Other artists & entretainers


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Name: Harry Houdini                                                                           
Born: 24 March 1874 Budapest, Hungary                                                         
Died: 31 October 1926 Detroit, Michigan, U.S.                                                 
Occupation magician, escapologist, stunt performer, actor, historian, pilot, and             
paranormal investigator                                                                       
Harry Houdini (March 24, 1874 - October 31, 1926) whose birth name in Hungary                 
was Erik Weisz (which was changed to Ehrich Weiss when he immigrated to                       
the United States), was a Hungarian American magician, escapologist (widely                   
regarded as one of the greatest ever), stunt performer, as well as a skeptic and             
investigator of spiritualists, film producer, and actor.                                     
Harry was born in Budapest, Hungary. A copy of his birth certificate was found               
and published in The Houdini Birth Research Committee's Report (1972). His                   
family name is German, means "White" in English, and can be written Weiß. The "ß"           
is a ligature originally for "sz" but now more often rendered "ss", making the "Weisz"       
and "Weiss" spellings functionally interchangeable. As to his birth date, from               
1907 onwards, Houdini claimed in interviews to have been born in Appleton,                   
Wisconsin, on April 6, 1874.                                                                 
Houdini's father, Mayer (Mayo) Samuel Weiss (1829-1892). Weisz, was a rabbi; his             
mother was Cecilia Steiner (1841-1913). Ehrich had six siblings: Herman M. Weiss             
(half-brother) (1863-1885); Nathan J. Weiss (1870-1927); Gottfried William Weiss             
(1872-1925); Theodore Weiss (Dash) (1876-1945); Leopold D. Weiss (1879-1962);                 
and Gladys Carrie Weiss (1882-?).                                                             
He immigrated with his family to the United States on July 3, 1878, at the age               
of four on the SS Fresia with his mother (who was pregnant) and his four                     
brothers. Houdini's name was listed as Ehrich Weiss. Friends called him "Ehrie"               
or "Harry".                                                                                   
At first, they lived in Appleton, where his father served as rabbi of the Zion               
Reform Jewish Congregation. In 1880, the family was living on Appleton Street.               
On June 6, 1882, Rabbi Weiss became an American citizen. After losing his tenure,             
he moved to New York City with Ehrich in 1887. They lived in a boarding house on             
East 79th Street. Rabbi Weiss later was joined by the rest of the family once he             
found more permanent housing. As a child, Ehrich took several jobs, then became               
a champion cross country runner. He made his public debut as a 10-year-old                   
trapeze artist, calling himself, "Ehrich, the prince of the air.", Weiss became               
a professional magician and began calling himself "Harry Houdini" because he was             
heavily influenced by French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, and his friend               
Jack Hayman told him that in French, adding an "i" to Houdin would mean "like                 
Houdin" the great magician. In later life, Houdini would claim that the first                 
part of his new name, Harry, was a homage to Harry Kellar, whom Houdini admired               
a great deal. However, it's more likely Harry derived naturally from his                     
nickname "Ehrie."                                                                             
Initially, Houdini's magic career resulted in little success. He performed in                 
Dime Museums and sideshows, and even doubled as "the Wild Man" at a circus.                   
Houdini initially focused on traditional card tricks. At one point, he billed                 
himself as the "King of Cards." But he soon began experimenting with escape acts.             
In 1893, while performing with his brother "Dash" in Coney Island as "The                     
Brothers Houdini," Harry met and married fellow performer Wilhelmina Beatrice (Bess)         
Rahner. Bess replaced Dash in the act, which became known as "The Houdinis." For             
the rest of Houdini's performing career, Bess would work as his stage assistant.             
"My Two Sweethearts". Houdini with his wife and mother, ca. 1907.                             
Harry Houdini's "big break" came in 1899 when he met manager Martin Beck.                     
Impressed by Houdini's handcuffs act, Beck advised him to concentrate on escape               
acts and booked him on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Within months, he was                 
performing at the top vaudeville houses in the country. In 1900, Beck arranged               
for Houdini to tour Europe.                                                                   
Houdini was a sensation in Europe, where he became widely known as "The Handcuff             
King." He toured England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Russia.             
In each city, Houdini would challenge local police to restrain him with shackles             
and lock him in their jails. In many of these challenge escapes, Houdini would               
first be stripped nude and searched. In Moscow, Houdini escaped from a Siberian               
prison transport van. Houdini publicly stated that, had he been unable to free               
himself, he would have had to travel to Siberia, where the only key was kept. In             
Cologne, he sued a police officer, Werner Graff, who claimed he made his escapes             
via bribery. Houdini won the case when he opened the judge's safe (he would                   
later say the judge had forgotten to lock it). With his new-found wealth and                 
success, Houdini purchased a dress said to have been made for Queen Victoria. He             
then arranged a grand reception where he presented his mother in the dress to                 
all their relatives. Houdini said it was the happiest day of his life. In 1904,               
Houdini returned to the U.S. and purchased a house for $25,000, a brownstone at               
278 W. 113th Street in Harlem, New York. The house still stands today.                       
Poster promoting Houdini taking up the challenge of escaping an "extra strong                 
and large traveling basket".                                                                 
From 1907 and throughout the 1910s, Houdini performed with great success in the               
United States. He would free himself from jails, handcuffs, chains, ropes, and               
straitjackets, often while hanging from a rope in plain sight of street                       
audiences. Because of imitators and a dwindling audience, on January 25, 1908,               
Houdini put his "handcuff act" behind him and began escaping from a locked,                   
water-filled milk can. The possibility of failure and death thrilled his                     
audiences. Houdini also expanded his challenge escape act - in which he invited               
the public to devise contraptions to hold him - to included nailed packing                   
crates (sometimes lowered into the water), riveted boilers, wet-sheets, mailbags,             
and even the belly of a whale that washed ashore in Boston. At one point,                     
brewers challenged Houdini to escape from his Milk Can after they filled it with             
beer. Many of these challenges were prearranged with local merchants in what is               
certainly one of the first uses of mass tie-in marketing. Rather than promote                 
the idea that he was assisted by spirits, as did the Davenport Brothers and                   
others, Houdini's advertisements showed him making his escapes via                           
dematerializing, although Houdini himself never claimed to have supernatural                 
In 1912, Houdini introduced perhaps his most famous act, the Chinese Water                   
Torture Cell, in which he was suspended upside-down in a locked glass-and-steel               
cabinet full to overflowing with water. The act required that Houdini hold his               
breath for more than three minutes. Houdini performed the escape for the rest of             
his career. Despite two Hollywood movies depicting Houdini dying in the Torture               
Cell, the escape had nothing to do with his demise.                                           
Houdini explained some of his tricks in books written for the magic brotherhood               
throughout his career. In Handcuff Secrets (1909), he revealed how many locks                 
and handcuffs could be opened with properly applied force, others with                       
shoestrings. Other times, he carried concealed lockpicks or keys, being able to               
regurgitate small keys at will. When tied down in ropes or straitjackets, he                 
gained wiggle room by enlarging his shoulders and chest, moving his arms                     
slightly away from his body, and then dislocating his shoulders. His                         
straitjacket escape was originally performed behind curtains, with him popping               
out free at the end. However, Houdini's brother, who was also an escape artist               
billing himself as Theodore Hardeen, after being accused of having someone sneak             
in and let him out and being challenged to escape without the curtain,                       
discovered that audiences were more impressed and entertained when the curtains               
were eliminated so they could watch him struggle to get out. They both performed             
straitjacket escapes dangling upside-down from the roof of a building for                     
publicity on more than one occasion. It is said that Hardeen once handed out                 
bills for his show while Houdini was doing his suspended straitjacket escape;                 
Houdini became upset because people thought it was Hardeen up there escaping,                 
not Houdini. Many people imitate some of Houdini's tricks to this day.                       
For the majority of his career, Houdini performed his act as a headliner in                   
vaudeville. For many years, he was the highest-paid performer in American                     
vaudeville. One of Houdini's most notable non-escape stage illusions was                     
performed at New York's Hippodrome Theater when he vanished a full-grown                     
elephant (with its trainer) from a stage, beneath which was a swimming pool. In               
1923, Houdini became president of Martinka & Co., America's oldest magic company.             
The business is still in operation today. He also served as President of the                 
Society of American Magicians (aka S.A.M.) from 1917 until his death in 1926. In             
the final years of his life (1925/26), Houdini launched his own full-evening                 
show, which he billed as "3 Shows in One: Magic, Escapes, and Fraud Mediums