Magic and Harry Houdini

MAGIC. . . .

Houdini and After

Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary (see Houdini). Before taking up magic he was a trapeze artist. Houdini began performing in the 1890s. His worldwide fame came from his amazing escapes. He started his escape routines by getting out of straitjackets and handcuffs. He progressed to an act in which he was shackled with irons and placed in a box that was locked, roped, weighted, and submerged under water. Late in his career he went to Hollywood and made such films as 'The Grim Game', 'Terror Island', and 'The Man from Beyond'.

Two other great magicians of the early 20th century were Harry Blackstone and his chief competitor, Dante. Blackstone (Henri Bouton) was born in Chicago in 1885, while Dante (Harry Alvin Jansen) was born in Denmark three years earlier and came to the United States at age 6. Bouton took the name Blackstone in 1917. He worked in vaudeville, in theaters, and in his own show. One of his best-liked illusions was the "disappearing horse." He also used one of the most ancient illusions, the Indian rope trick, and like Houdini he was an escape artist. Late in life Blackstone toured military posts during World War II, had his own radio show, and appeared on television variety shows. His son, Harry Blackstone, Jr. (born 1933), replaced him as a stage and television performer.

Houdini Dante began entertaining in 1902 but did not get his stage name until 1923, when his friend and associate Thurston bestowed it on him. He traveled the world with a magic show, and, like Blackstone, he appeared on television.

During the 1940s the most recognized name in magic in the United States was that of mind reader Joseph Dunninger. He began as a magician doing card tricks and other illusions but soon found that people were more fascinated by his abilities as a mentalist. His national renown came from his radio show, which began in 1943. He was succeeded as a mind reader by the "Amazing Kreskin" (George Kresge, Jr.), who also did hypnotism routines. Kreskin worked in clubs, but he became widely known from his television appearances.

A great number of other magicians little known in the United States made reputations for themselves during the middle of the 20th century in their native lands and in Europe. Among them were Kalanag (Helmut Ewald Schreiber) of Germany; Protul Chandra Sorcar of India; Emil Kio of the Soviet Union; Raffael Chefalo of Italy; Julius Sundman of Finland; and Fu Manchu (David Bamberg).

In the last quarter of the 20th century, Doug Henning and David Copperfield inspired a new interest in magic. In 1974 Canadian-born Henning starred in a rock musical entitled 'The Magic Show' on Broadway. He avoided using complex mechanical devices, believing they had become outmoded. In 1975 he appeared in 'The World of Magic' on television. He duplicated a number of Houdini's escape tricks and performed a convincing levitation illusion.

David Copperfield was born in 1957 and began performing magic at age 12. He was the youngest member ever admitted to the Society of American Magicians. His shows featured a great variety of tricks, but he was noted for his escapes and the ability to make large objects disappear. One of his early remarkable illusions was making an airplane disappear off an airport runway. In 1987 he staged an escape from a well-guarded cell at Alcatraz prison. From the late 1970s he was on television annually in 'The Magic of David Copperfield'.

Early American Magicians

Emergence of Modern Magic

Tricks of the Trade

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