At the very same institution where Houdini was fatally punched in the gut, McGill University in Montreal, psychologists and neuroscientists are trying to learn more about their respective fields by studying how magicians fool people.
Jay Olson is one of the researchers working on what a recent issue of the journal of The Frontiers of Psychology call “neuromagic.” In an article “The Psychology of Magic, the Magic of Psychology,” Mr. Olson reported on a fascinating study where subjects were shown the same trick over and over until they figured it out. We now have scientific data to support the maxim that a magician should never perform the same effect twice.
Mr. Olson studied the psychology of forcing. To his credit, Mr. Olson refused to disclose the secret of the forcing technique he used. He was able to successfully force a card on a subject 98 percent of the time – and 91 percent of the time, the subject felt the choice was entirely free. The study authors wrote, that magic “can provide new methods to study the feeling of free will.”
Perhaps more importantly, some curious magicians might hope, the study can teach an effective forcing technique that works 98 percent of the time and leaves nine out of ten participants ready to swear the choice was entirely free.
Again, Mr. Olson refused to disclose his secret method.
We urge you to visit the study’s website to learn more about the work done and the areas of investigation. It really is a fascinating read. Like painters are masters of perceptual illusions, the study notes, “magicians are the cognitive artists.”
Time and Life magazines paid homage to our noble profession’s gathering in Indianapolis this weekend by looking back at the 1947 Society of American Magicians held in Chicago in 1947.
If you follow the link to the Google books page of that original Life Magazine article you can see wonderful images of some of the greats performing for the Life cameras. It could be that Dr. Harlan Tarbell did perform the Balancing an Egg on a Fan While Blindfolded trick as part of his nightclub act. Maybe magicians did do Multiplying Golf Balls in a strip club and drew all eyes from the dancers gyrating on stage to their strained and stretched fingers. But is also just as likely that the convention attendees were doing what magicians do best at convention time – getting good press.
Time and Life’s website gives a link to the SAM 2016 registration page, a 2014 blurb on the ill-fated efforts to exhume Houdini’s remains to test for poisoning and a 1994 essay by Penn Jillette explaining why Vegas was the most logical place for magic to reside. He has some snarky things to say about Siegfried & Roy and Melinda but that was the old, “bad-boys of magic” Penn.
From the post-war era, to the 1970s with Doug Henning’s The Magic Show raking in $60,000.00 each week on Broadway ($307,175.32 in today’s dollars), to David Copperfield’s globe-trotting success, and later David Blaine taking it to the streets with camera in tow, Magic has endured.
In that 1974 Time article reporting on that decade’s fascination in magic and magicians, James Randi said the upsurge in interest is “a sign that our society is still healthy. When people stop being enthralled by a magician who can make a lady vanish, it will mean that the world has lost its most precious possession: its sense of wonder.”
We love Houdini and all things Houdini. So, when we saw the new trailer for Fox Television’s new series Houdini & Doyle, we got giddy – or giddier. We understand Fox purchased ten episodes so far and plans to launch this spring. The trailer looks great even with the obligatory and historically inaccurate axe to the Water Torture Cell scene that has been with us since Tony Curtis.
Fox has launched a webpage to promote the series with some great interviews, pretty pictures and a pithy exposition of the series.
Inspired by true events, HOUDINI & DOYLE draws heavily on the rich history of the period. Two great men of the 20th Century – Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – grudgingly join forces with New Scotland Yard to investigate unsolved and inexplicable crimes with a supernatural slant.
Ironically, “Supernatural Slant” was the name of our dance routine that catapulted us to national prominence in 1979-1980. Some no doubt recall our participation in the syndicated television contest series, “Dance Your Booty.” It was through that show that we learned the important lessons of show business:
Get your money upfront.
Trust no one, ever.
Follow “Dry Clean Only” recommendations – especially for tuxedos.
Stretch before performing.
You can visit the Fox website or for the definitive, straight dope, check out the number one source for all things Houdini, John Cox’ incredible website, Wild About Harry here.
Ask anyone who knows us – the real, deep down us – and you will learn that we love two things: Houdini and History.
Do not pay attention to the other things they say about us. They’re just haters and most of those things allegedly captured on video tape are not crimes anymore and the tape is grainy and they did take place, technically, within International Waters (as defined before the startling and over-reaching 1982 United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea).
The Confabulist, a new book by Steven Galloway mixes history and Houdini together into a literary frappéwith sprinkles of mystery and murder. As much as we love history, you would imagine we love historical fiction. And as much as we love Houdini, you would bet good money – perhaps your own – that we love fiction about Houdini. Yet your imagination and betting prowess would be in error.
Myths, Voltaire once wrote, surround history like flies about a discarded meal.
Actually, the quote in French was, “Nous cherchons tous le bonheur, mais sans savoir où, comme les ivrognes qui cherchent leur maison, sachant confusément qu’ils en ont une.”
And actually, that translates roughly to “We all look for happiness, but without knowing where to find it: like drunkards who look for their house, knowing dimly that they have one.”
But we only know one of Voltaire’s sayings and few people who know French, so we use the French quote we have memorized and attribute different meanings depending on the need.
We view Houdini’s legacy as sacrosanct – a wonderful word taken from “sacro” meaning “sugary” and “sanct” meaning “smell” thus a sugary smelling thing – and do not enjoy revisionist versions of his remarkable life told with reckless disregard for the truth as we choose to believe it. We have few immutable things in our life. We never use a “Family Restroom” when alone, we use new dental floss every time we floss and we do not make up stories about Houdini.
All that being said, we are looking forward to reading this new book. It seems like our cup of tea – because we like our tea to be sugary and smell good – thus hiding the bitter taste of our hypocrisy and the stench of our self-righteous claims to be immutable.
According to Everyday E Book, “Galloway approaches his story as though it were a magician’s act, structuring the novel with the four elements of a trick (effect, method, misdirection, and reconstruction). In addition to sections from Houdini’s perspective, The Confabulist employs a first-person narrator, the fictional Martin Strauss. As the novel begins, Martin is an elderly man diagnosed with a rare brain disorder that causes him to recall false memories. We quickly learn that he is the man who killed Houdini — or, as he tells it, the man who killed Houdini twice. This intriguing hook sets up the central mystery of the story.”
We love books about Houdini, history and rare brain disorders even if it is a work of fiction. In fact, this plot sounds a lot like a novel we are writing at this very moment about Houdini who is in a history class, studying rare brain disorders. We call it, Houdini and History’s Head Case. It is just a working title and we have not written too much yet but we have a dynamite back cover quote we will attribute to Voltaire.
Joshua Spivak has a great article in today’s Jewish Daily Forward, “The True Story of Harry Houdini’s Tefillin.”
While researching a totally unrelated topic by reading through old newspapers, he came across an article about Harry Houdini’s death. That led him to further research into the newspapers of the time and into an interesting – if occasionally contradictory – depiction of Houdini’s relationship with the Jewish community and his Jewish practices.
One article, collected the perspective of folks who claimed to be former Wisconsin neighbors and friends, claimed that: “They know him as a man devoutly religious, who, wherever his performance brought him, carried his phylacteries and mezuzahs, Jewish creedal symbols, with him…The mezuzahs, strips of parchment with scriptural passages encased in tin, considered effective in warding off evil, he is said to have nailed to the door of the hotel room wherever he lodged for the night, on the true orthodox Jewish fashion. And the phylacteries, little leathern boxes with scriptural parchment recognized as charms, he bound to his forehead and left arm each morning during his prayers, his friends declare.”
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has a great profile piece on Italian escapologist Andrew Basso today. Mr. Basso is receiving raves for his twist on Houdini’s Water Torture Cell escape performed as his turn in The Illusionists nationwide tour.
How did he get into magic? To impress mom.
“If you knew my mother, you would say she’s Morticia [Addams],” he said. “She was very serious, no smiles. But when the circus came, she watched the magician’s act, and laughed out loud. I thought, Aha! He has the power to make my mother laugh. I want to be like him.”
He has worked escapes professionally since 2003 and has brought audiences to the edge of their seats and the limits of their composure town after town during The Illusionists’ tour.
Mr. Basso can hold his breath for about four minutes but aims to be out of the restraints and back to breathing air in two minutes. He has had a couple of close-calls.
“It was this big opening, Sydney Opera House, and I was pumped — I just couldn’t get my adrenaline down,” he said. “After 2 minutes and 30 seconds, it was taking longer than normal, and my guys knew that I was in trouble, so they got me out.”
He was also burned when performing an escape on live Italian TV. He was locked in a wooden coffin rigged with explosives and severely burned over his face and hands. “I haven’t done that trick again, but I would, but different,” he said. “I learned something from it.”
Those in the know consider The Grim Game the best of Houdini’s five feature films but it has not been seen by the public for more than 96 years. Thanks to Ms. Dietrich and Mr. Brookz, the film will be featured as part of the finale of the TCM Film Festival, March 29.
After the Hollywood showing, it will be exhibited at The Directors Guild in New York City and then in Scranton, Pennsylvania – the home of the incredible Houdini Museum. Turner Classic Movies intends to broadcast the film on their cable channel later in the year.
The Hollywood tour will begin on March 24 at 10 AM in front of the Hollywood Heritage Museum at 2100 Highland Ave. The museum was once part of the Famous Players-Lasky Studio where Houdini made The Grim Game. Dorothy Dietrich will perform magic for those in attendance and then she and Mr. Brookz will join John Cox for a private Hollywood tour. Mr. Cox is the host of the most important Houdini website in the universe, Wild About Harry.
The Houdini Museum has the largest and only continuing traveling exhibit on Houdini, “Houdini Road Show,” that has finally all come back from being on display at the Seminole Coconut Creek Casino in West Palm Beach.
Ms. Dietrich and Mr. Dick Brookz are also currently starring in Psychic Theater’s Haunted Seance! The show is the longest running performance of its kind in history – more than 10 years at the Houdini Museum Theater.
Visit The Houdini Museum at http://www.houdini.org.
Magician David Ben is in the news today as Montreal’s McCord Museum announced it has acquired a collection of 600 posters, 200 rare books and 200 documents documenting magic in the 19th to early 20th centuries. The acquisition cost approximately $3,000,000.00 but sounds priceless.
Mr. Ben is the Artistic Director of Magicana – an organization dedicated to the study of magic – and was a key adviser to the museum.
“It’s the second-largest collection of Houdini material held in a public institution,” Mr. Ben told reporters today.
The US Library of Congress houses the largest collection.
The materials will be made available for scholars and will be the subject of a 2017 exhibition at the museum.
The artifacts trace Houdini’s beginnings as a magician in eastern Canada, but also the rise of spiritualism – the belief that the dead can communicate with the living. It also “tracks the social history of advertising” through the use of lithography and its posters, Ben said.
The acquisition is the gift of the Emmanuelle Gattuso Foundation. Ms. Gattuso is the wife Standard Broadcasting’s Allan Slaight. Before becoming a major media mogul, Mr. Slaight was a professional magician and mind reader.
We will keep you advised on public opportunities to view the collection. We cannot wait.
Turner Classic Movies will air its restoration of the previously considered lost Houdini film The Grim Game at its TCM Classic Film Festival in March.
Like all magic enthusiasts, we have seen the movie poster for The Grim Game and perhaps some stills or clips but never the entire film.
In fact, we were speaking with Magic Castle Librarian Lisa Cousins just a couple of weeks ago and she shared a rumor that the only remaining print might become available in the near future. She, like the Oracle at Delphi, offered nothing more; indicating but not revealing.
We are loyal TCM watchers and love learning about movies – and surprisingly do not miss the constant commercial interruptions that accompany films shown on other networks – and cannot wait to learn more about TCM’s involvement in this project.
Houdini produced this film in 1919 and stars as Harvey Hanford (see how the character’s initials are HH just like Houdini’s — we don’t think that is a coincidence), a young man framed for murder. Houdini was apparently not afraid of being type-cast as an athletic escape artist as the movie shows him escaping, leaping, fighting and other daring do. TCM relates that the film captures a mid-air collision between two airplanes that was a real accident caught on film. The filmmakers used the amazing footage in the story. We read somewhere that Houdini claimed to have been on one of the two planes even though he was safely on the ground at the time of the incident.
Surprisingly, there was only one surviving complete copy of the film, owned by Larry Weeks, a 95-year-old retired juggler. Mr. Weeks got the film from the Houdini estate in 1947 and was never willing to sell it.
“Harry Houdini is an compelling cultural icon, but most people don’t know about his movie career,” said Charles Tabesh, SVP Programming at TCM. “He made several films, but The Grim Game was his first feature, considered his best. It’s fascinating to see Houdini as an actor. It’s really fun to watch [the film] that even the most hardcore fans haven’t had a chance to see.”
TCM will screen the film in Hollywood and has booked composer Brane Zivkovic to conduct a live performance of his new score written just for the movie. TCM will air the restored classic on its channel later this year.
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