Sidney Radner Passes – Keeper of Houdini Legend

Inside Magic Image of Sidney Radner and Curator Elizabeth C. Dobrska The New York Times broke the sad news of Sidney Radner’s passing today.  He was 91.

We considered a few people pillars of our Magic Reality.  Sidney Radner, Martin Gardner, Harry Blackstone, Jr., and David Copperfield.  We could not imagine magic without these four fixtures in our worldview of this wonderful art.

Mr. Radner  thoroughly in loved Magic and literally held the key to some of the finest pieces of history from Magic’s Golden Age.

According to his son, William, cancer was the cause of Mr. Radner’s death.

The Times correctly observed Mr. Radner’s unique position in the preservation of magic history.

Mr. Radner is credited in the world of magicians and magic collectors with having preserved some of the most important of Houdini’s props, including the “Chinese Water Torture Cell” (a water tank in which Houdini was lowered upside down, his feet chained) and the oversize “Milk Can” he used in a similar escape stunt.

His collection also included lesser items, but for Houdini buffs equally treasured, like the lock picks Houdini hid from his audiences by swallowing them, then regurgitating them, for escapes; cylinder pulleys, key wrenches, latches, levers and tumblers he used in various tricks; and a set of charred handcuffs from the exhibit that was set up in the theater lobby for his shows, advertised by Houdini as “handcuffs used in Spain on prisoners burning to death in 1600!”

Mr. Radner’s great fortune began when he attended a convention in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1935.  It was there that he met Theo Weiss a/k/a Hardeen; Houdini’s kid brother and an fine escape artist in his own right.

They formed a strong friendship and Hardeen offered to sell the young  man the majority of his Houdini collection.   “Mr. Radner bought some of it (for “a modest amount,” his son said), and inherited the rest when Hardeen died in 1945.”

Mr. Radner could have kept the pieces to himself or sold them slowly through the years to collectors but he worked to make the collection available to the public and scholars through museums.  Readers of Inside Magic will no doubt recover the heart-breaking showdown between Mr. Radner and the Outagamie Museum/Houdini Historical Center in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Appleton was home to Houdini (and Theo) in their early childhood.  The collection seemed appropriately placed.  The Times claims Mr. Radner sold the 1,000-piece collection “after the museum in Appleton chose not to renew its lease for the items.”

We recall, however, the incredible indolence of the museum’s curator and her determination to expose Houdini’s Metamorphosis illusion to all visitors.  Why did she desire to ruin the magic for so many?  We never heard a credible explanation.  Mr. Radner disassociated himself from the museum and moved his collection to Holyoke, Mass.  At the time of their separation, Mr. Radner was adamant:

“Mr. Radner said this week that he would not rest until he had removed the Houdini Historical Center from the control of the Outagamie County Historical Society and had relocated it far from the grip of Ms. Bergen.

“I don’t care where it goes, so long as it is not in Appleton,” he said. “She doesn’t know Houdini from Liberace. She just knows dollars.”

He attempted to exhibit the collection on a smaller scale with the help of an enthusiastic 19-year-old director of a very welcoming New Holyoke Museum, Elizabeth C. Dobrska.

[UPDATE: there is a great article with a great quote from Ms. Dobrska regarding the efforts to build an accessible but not too accessible exhibition found in The Republican and posted on

“[Elizabeth] Dobrska has already met with Joseph Carvahlo III, executive director of the Springfield Museums Association. Among the things that he told her: ‘Remember, you need to have excellent cases — you’re going to have a lot of people coming to the museum who are experts on how to pick a lock.'”]

Mr. Radner’s son believes his father was enthralled by “the Houdini legend because both men had grown up Jewish in communities with few Jews.

“As a Jewish kid, I think magic was a kind of entree to the world for my dad, maybe the way it was for Houdini,” he said.

Mr. Radner’s wife of 64 years, Helen Cohen Radner, died in March. Besides his son William, of Springfield, Mass., he is survived by another son, Richard, of Las Vegas.

Magic has lost an important link to a wonderful era.  Our prayers are with Mr. Radner’s family and friends at this time.

Read Ms. Dobrska’s press release from October 2008 on her work with Mr. Radner to launch The Sid Radner Museum of Houdini & Holyoke here.

[Updated 8:01 am est to include link to museum press release and quote by Ms. Dobrska].

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