Museum Intent on Exposing Houdini’s Metamorphosis

Have you been?

Are you experienced?

Have you gone to Appleton, Wisconsin? Have you seen the sacred ground where young Erich Weiss and his family moved after leaving Budapest, Hungary and where his father Mayer Samuel Weiss served as rabbi for town’s reformed Synagogue?

Have you seen the Houdini Museum in this bucolic hamlet? It is truly a magical experience. You can walk the streets where young Erich walked and see the Synagogue where his father served until supplanted by a younger Rabbi.

Soon, you will be able to learn the secret to Houdini’s most famous effect, The Metamorphosis. That’s right, you’ll be able to see and crawl through the trunk and learn the secret of the effect that fed Houdini and his brother, Hardeen, and later Houdini and his beloved Bess.

In Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear, author Jim Steinmeyer praises Houdini for improving the illusion by lightning quick work.

Houdini seemed pretty proud of the speed at which he and Bess performed the effect.

All the apparatus used in this Act is inspected by a Committee selected from the Audience.

Mons. Houdini’s hands are fastened behind his back, is securely tied in a bag and the knots are sealed, then placed in a massive Box which is locked and strapped, the box is then rolled into a small cabinet, and Mlle. Houdini draws the curtain and claps her hands three times, at the last clap of her hands, the curtain is drawn open by Mons. Houdini and Mlle. Houdini has disappeared, and upon the box being opened She is found in his place in the bag, the seals unbroken and her hands tied in precisely the same manner as were Mons. Houdini’s when first entering the bag.

Just think over this, the time consumed in making the change is THREE SECONDS!

We challenged the World to produce an act done with greater Mystery, Speed or Dexterity.

Respectfully yours, THE HOUDINIS.

The Outagamie Museum in Appleton will offer a display taking away the mystery of the effect in their new presentation set for June 2, 2004 “A/K/A Houdini.”

According to one report, the presentation will allow children to crawl through the trunk and encounter the use of the gimmick that permitted the effect to occur.

Say it ain’t so, Joe.

First of all, our name is not “Joe” and yet we must admit it is so.

But Joe, why would they do this? After all, who would care more about Houdini than the Outagamie Museum? After all, this museum owes its existence to Houdini’s fame.

Is it not true, Joe, that The Metamorphosis is still performed by many of our best Magicians, including the Pendragons? This effect is not some delicate artifact of history; to be examined only under the watchful eye of a curator. It is not dead but living. It is not King Tut’s burial sarcophagus or Van Gough’s ear. Why would the museum expose an effect used by real, live working magicians? They must have a reason.

Terry Bergen is the Executive Director of the museum:

They (Magicians) perceive our museum’s role to be a shrine for Houdini. We don’t see ourselves that way. We see ourselves as an educational institution that explores local history. It’s not a point of view that magicians understand at all. The entire industry of magic is based on deception and withholding information. It has been a match made in heck from the beginning.

Ms. Bergen may be right. We do perceive the museum’s role to be more shrine-like and less exposure-like. The exciting thing about The Metamorphosis is not the secret, but the effect it had on audiences and its very special place in Houdini’s career.

We have been racking our brain to think of an appropriate analogy.

It’s tough because we have such a small brain. We tend to see this issue as a clear-cut, black and white, a no-brainer.

Clearly the concept of Magic is lost Ms. Bergen and the Museum folk. Recall her statement, “It’s not a point of view that magicians understand at all. The entire industry of magic is based on deception and withholding information.”

Yes, but that’s what audiences expect from magicians. The art is not just based on deception, it is the art of deception. Houdini never claimed his show was free of deception. In fact, he claimed the opposite. He stressed his miracles were accomplished not by supernatural or unknown powers, but by very human means.

Can we agree that if the secret to The Metamorphosis is exposed, it could take away from the experience of seeing it performed as a magic trick? You might still be impressed by its speed but no more than you would be impressed by the speed of a Kerry Woods’ fastball or a very talented typist.

Criss Angel performs The Metamorphosis but instead of a curtain, the change occurs under cover of a puff of smoke. To expose the secret of the effect would make Mr. Angel’s incredible skill simply interesting and the puff of smoke unnecessary.

So what is the proper analogy by which we can argue against the exposure?

The Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanta shows the history of the wonderful drink that greets us each morning and never disappoints.

It shows the effect the elixir has had on our nation and the world, it shows those that have tried to imitate or steal the formula, and even chronicles the changes made to the packaging and some of the ingredients – such as the removal of cocaine, for example.

And yet, you will not find the formula for Coca-Cola anywhere in the vast museum. Why?

Because it is a secret. Moreover, the formula irrelevant to the story the museum tells.

(But, just like magic, a true detective can learn the secret in books. Check out For God, Country and Coca-Cola: The Unauthorized History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company that Makes It, by Mark Pendergrast. The secret ingredients contained in Formula 7X is detailed in the appendix.)

The secret to the taste is not the reason we love Coca-Cola, we love it because we love it. We love it because of the marketing, the tradition and the positive associations we have made with drinking the brown, liquid love.

It should be noted that Coca-Cola does not have a patent for Formula 7X. Any patent would have expired long ago and the process of applying for the protection would necessarily expose the secret formula.

The smart people at Coca-Cola decided their secret was safe by keeping it a secret. Formula 7X is just a secret, a trade secret. Coca-Cola resisted two court orders to disclose the formula. This secret allows Coca-Cola to employ millions directly and indirectly and keep its stock in the portfolios of institutional investors. This secret, like Colonel Sanders 11 herbs and spices, makes Coca-Cola special and desirable.

It is hard to be fair and open-minded on this. The museum folk have their backs up and the magicians have their silks in a wad. Curator Kim Louagie noted, “This exhibit is not about magic. It’s about the life and times of Harry Houdini and magic are used as a tool to tell that story.”

Magicians on the web have proposed boycotting the town and there is consideration of moving the Houdini Days festivities from Appleton. The Magicians count for about 200 hotel rooms and 5,000 visitors during the Labor Day weekend.  We are firmly against such a boycott.  It would only hurt — really hurt — the magicians and volunteers who have worked so hard to bring Houdini Days to life.

Some Magicians have written or called the Museum to voice their objection. Walter Blaney reports that both David Copperfield and Mark Wilson have called Ms. Bergen to seek compromise but to no avail. It is unfortunate that some Magicians have lowered themselves to ad hominem attacks on Ms. Bergen.

Ms. Bergen told the local Appleton papers, “One magician referred to my ‘whorish’ behavior.” She likened the publicity she has received to “having your name on the bathroom wall.”

We as magicians must be better than that. There is no need to attack or flame the people involved. It demeans all Magicians more than exposing our secrets.

There is still time to work behind the scenes and working behind the scenes is was magicians do best. We have time to convince the powers that are to change the presentation. Perhaps it is in our best interest to work with the museum to contribute to the exhibit and protect the secret. Rather than threaten a boycott, we could promise an increase in visitors to see a truly unique exhibit featuring items and memorabilia on-loan from all of us who have benefited from Houdini’s legacy.

If the museum’s desire is to show how this effect was part of Houdini’s life and career, we must be able to offer the posters, news items and reviews of the Metamorphosis as well as video of the effect as performed today without exposing the secret.

Imagine the publicity that could be gained if the Pendragons, Criss Angel, Mark Wilson, David Copperfield and others not only contributed exhibits or videos but also promoted the Museum the place to visit for those interested in Magic or Houdini.

We are hopeful there is a solution. When it comes to thinking outside of the box, magicians do it best.