Happy Birthday, Harry Houdini!


Google Houdini doodleGoogle Houdini doodleGoogle’s homepage doodle today honors Harry Houdini, the famous magician, escape artist, and — through his attempts to contact his dead mother — a perhaps unintentional debunker of psychic charlatans, who was born on this date in 1874. A few years ago, when my younger son was interested in magic, we spent a lot of time learning about Houdini and finding resources for kids interested in learning sleight of hand. Here was what Anthony had to say at the time:

  • The easiest tricks to start off with are rope tricks.
  • Once you know the trick and the secret move, practicing is fairly easy. I try to practice as much as possible whenever I learn a new trick.
  • It’s best to talk over the part where you have to make a secret move, so people don’t know what you’re doing.
  • I love the look on people’s faces after you perform a magic trick.

My son’s favorite book, recommended by the teacher of a class he took, was Mark Wilson’s Complete Course in Magic. (Another book that came out more recently is Houdini for Kids: His Life and Adventures with 21 Magic Tricks and Illusions by Laurie Carlson, part of the excellent series by Chicago Review Press.)

We also found a number of websites to help kids learn some easy tricks at home. They include:

  • Kapoof! Magic You Can Do: teacher Andy Makar offers advice, a library of tricks, and lots of links.
  • Kidzone from DLTK has a section on magic tricks for children.
  • The All Magic Guide, which offers a variety of trick instructions with photos, magic show videos and more
  • How to Do Tricks, which also includes coin trickery, levitating illusions and street magician tactics
  • Good Tricks, where you can learn the secret behind “mind reading” demonstrations; and
  • Mighty Tricks a blog that has not been updated recently but which still offers interesting videos and some super magic tricks.
We also enjoyed watching videos of present-day performers like endurance artist David Blaine, who lived in a fishbowl in Lincoln Center and hung suspended over London in a glass box for 43 days, and the amazing Criss Angel, whose act has a definite gothic slant. You can even watch silent film clips of Houdini’s escapes, and play an online escape game, on PBS American Experience. The Library of Congress has an online collection of Houdini documents. And The History Museum at the Castle in Appleton, Wisconsin – where the magician lived when his family first came to America from Hungary in 1878 – has an online exhibit called “AKA Houdini” about the man and his times.

If you get the chance, the traveling museum exhibit Magic: The Science of Illusion, which my family loved when it visited the New York Hall of Science, is due to return to the United States this fall.

Finally, for teen and adult magic fans who are ready for a truly frightening and theatrical experience, I have to recommend the off-Broadway show Play Dead. Written by Teller (of Penn and Teller fame) and showman Todd Robbins, who also performs, the show has recently won raves from famous audience members like Neil Patrick Harris and Alan Rickman. This recreation of an old tradition of late-night live horror shows owes a lot to the tradition of Houdini, James Randi, and other illusionists who have found a way to entertain and advance the cause of skepticism at the same time.

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