Salon Author Decries Houdini Industrial Complex

Online magazine Salon has posted an article marveling at Houdini’s current cache with the public.

We read it a couple of times because we were not sure what the author hoped to express.

Its hook is the recent Potter and Potter auction of Houdini memorabilia and the History Channel’s miniseries, Houdini.

The author interviewed magician, writer and president of Potter and Potter Gabe Fajuri, Houdini historian extraordinaire and author of Wild About Harry, the definitive Houdini blog, John Cox and Lisa Cousins, Houdini-lover and outstanding librarian The Magic Castle’s William J. Larson Memorial Library, among other super-Houdini fans. She seemed to have an agenda and was seeking quotes to support her thesis that magicians are male, hide their secrets for no good reason and that there exists a “Houdini Industrial Complex.”

She writes, “[b]ut there is one irritating thing about Houdiniana today that also dates back to his life: the code of secrecy mystifying his tricks.”

Irritating? Why Irritating? Irritating to whom?

“It’s time to end the reflex of keeping these tricks secret—perpetrated most forcefully among the small group of magicians and magic collectors that in my darker moments I call the Houdini Industrial Complex.”

She admits that she admires – or at least a part of her admires – the commitment to keep magic’s secrets secret. “But part of me believes that it misses the point entirely. In the twenty-first century, it’s not how Houdini did it that matters. It’s who he was.”

We agree that Houdini’s mystique and staying power is due to his personality and star quality.  But he was  also someone who kept secrets. Audiences came to see him perform escapes and magic not provide lectures on how to open a pair of handcuffs or the best way to make elephants vanish.

Presumably, if we agreed with the author and would just expose our secrets, people would like us more. We learned long ago this logic does not work.  “C’mon tell us how you did it.” None of the relationships we thought we could enhance by exposing our magic secrets actually grew stronger.

But, even if we did publish our secrets, the authors says we would still be outsiders.

“Besides outliers like David Blaine, magicians are no longer part of the mainstream cultural conversation. And unlike burlesque, a twentieth century pop culture fad that has reinvented itself by using the language of gender studies, magic, with its largely male population, doesn’t really appeal to women.”

This is the first time we have heard that magic does not appeal to women. Our recent, very unscientific poling of magic audiences has confirmed that those in attendance were just about equally divided between the two main genders.

Perhaps the author is noting there are few female magicians. That is a valid point but we do not believe it can be attributed to a so-called Houdini Industrial Complex, the tendency of magicians to keep secrets or even the eccentric manner in which one magic library catalogs its volumes.

“The library at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, archivist Lisa Cousins explains, uses its own ‘eccentric cataloging system—not Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress’—and is closed to non-magicians. (She rushed to say that it allowed researchers.)”

We did study the Dewey Decimal system in the 1970s and agree that it is unfit for effectively cataloging an entire library of magic books. All of the books would have the same number, 793.8. In fact, the author could go to just about any public library and use that secret number to find troves of books that told her secrets to many effects.

It was nice to see Ms. Cousins quoted in the article but wonder if the author bothered to ask her questions about women in magic – a field Ms. Cousins knows well.

Could a magician perform tricks that he or she has exposed before performing? Sure. Would anyone go to see that magician?

A ventriloquist could do his or her routine without a figure and not hide the fact that he or she was speaking in a different voice.  We probably wouldn’t pay to see it though.

Part of the essence of magic is mystery. Mystery separates what we do from what one might see on a cooking show or at a craft class.

We are not sure what the author hoped to accomplish by her article. We hope she finds satisfaction in its publication and future success with other articles. And maybe it is us – it probably is – but we did not get her point. We think magic is doing fine and do not see a reason to change what has been working for hundreds of years. Again, that’s just us.

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