There have arguably been more skilled magicians, but there's
no debate over who the most famous magician of all time is: Harry Houdini. In
2000 PBS created an hour-long documentary
on the escape artist and prestidigitator simply titled Houdini. Now a decade after
it first aired on the program American
Experience this nice, if brief overview on the man's career is
The show starts out at the beginning of Houdini's life and
relates how he was born Erik Weisz in Hungary in 1874. At the age of four his father, a Rabbi who
had previously sailed to America,
sent for his pregnant wife and five children.
They settled in a small town in Wisconsin
where the elder Weisz was employed by a synagogue. Eventually he lost
position and the family moved from place to place before ending up in
Jewish slums of New York City.
It was in the Big Apple that Erik started performing magic
under the stage name of Harry Houdini (after the famous magician Robert
Houdin.) He started at the lowest rung
of show business, performing several times a day in dime museums and in
side shows. He had an act with his
brother, but while performing on Coney Island
he met a fellow entertainer Bess Rahner.
The two hit it off and in a short three weeks after they met,
married. Bess replaced Harry's brother
in the act, and she would serve as his on-stage assistant for the rest
Somewhere along the line Harry witnessed a psychic
performing a spirit cabinet act. The
performer would be tied up and when the lights were shut off 'spirits'
play musical instruments that were laid at the feet of the psychic. Harry instantly realized what was happening,
the psychic was getting out of their bonds and playing the instruments,
gave him an idea that would catapult him into stardom:
becoming an escape artists.
People were fascinated by Houdini's escapes. Not
only would he remove locked handcuffs,
but he would do it in life-threatening situations:
while locked in a trunk and thrown in a river
for example. With his wife at his side,
Houdini traveled not only the US,
but Europe as well, impressing people
This is a nice chronology of Houdini's achievements, filled
with vintage photos and films of his feats as well as commentary from
James Randy and David Copperfield as well as Houdini's friend the late
cartoonist Al Hirschfeld and author E.L. Doctorow.
The show does hit on all of the most pertinent details of
Houdini's life including his deep love (some would say obsession) with
mother, his fascination with death, and his debunking of psychics in
years. The only real problem is that,
being slightly less than an hour long, there isn't time to go into much
on any one aspect of the complicated man.
The one area that I think the program should have spent more
time is discussing Houdini's amazing showmanship abilities. If you woke up tomorrow with full knowledge
of all of Houdini's secrets and the talent to pull off all of his
could spend the rest of your life as a
performing magician and never gain a tenth of the fame that Harry
achieved. Even more impressive than his
slight of hand and lock picking abilities was the way he could
public and get his name in all of the papers.
He was a master showman and the fact that everyone reading this
exactly who Houdini was before they started reading is a testament to
The stereo soundtrack is good, just what you'd expect for a
documentary. Not much use of the
soundstage is made, but the narration (by Mandy Patinkin) is easy to
The full frame video looks fine. The
interviews with magicians etc, are crisp
and clean, while some of the vintage footage is naturally scratchy and
Unfortunately there aren't any. I would
have loved a photo gallery of images
used in the special.
At the end of this biography magician James Randi says that
people have asked him if Harry Houdini was a real person of just a
character like Sherlock Holmes. That's a
true sign of lasting appeal: when your
feats are so impressive that people aren't sure if it's really possible
performed the. Houdini was a great
magician and escape artist but more importantly he was an amazing
showman. This is a good start for people
interested in learning more about this bigger than life character. Recommended.