Thursday, May 5, 2011

Kids OFF The Couch: Houdini at the Skirball Cultural Center

Magic and Mystery from an Icon

There are figures in history for whom fascination never fades. Houdini sits high atop that list -- albeit, with shackles around his wrists! The famed magician and escape artist is such an icon of popular culture that when we saw photographs of him at Houdini: Art and Magic, a fabulous new show at the Skirball Cultural Center, we were shocked into remembering that he was actually a real person. Somehow, he always seemed like a figment of our collective imagination.

The show, which is the first to explore Houdini's life and legacy, includes the most wondrous of Houdini's props: a straightjacket, the Metamorphosis Trunk, the Milk Can that was part of his "greatest trick," and a faithful reproduction of The Water Torture Cell, one of the tanks into which he was padlocked and submerged. We stood before each object and imagined how cramped his body must have been in each vessel, and wondered what would make a man risk his life to perform such a feat. The colorful show is full of artifacts, such as never-before-seen personal diaries and photographs and a slew of contemporary art inspired by his antics. Grown-ups can pore over these rarities but kids will be more interested in footage of Houdini escaping from a straightjacket above Times Square, clips from his numerous silent films and Penn and Teller's hilarious send-up of the Water Torture Cell trick.

Best Houdini Facts: Houdini died on Halloween Day, 1926. His collection of books on magic was so extensive that his widow donated it to the Library of Congress after his death.

Best Houdini Feat: We could debate this forever, but no one would argue that Houdini was a master at marketing and self-promotion. Even if that were his most finely tuned skill, it's still incredible that he captured the imagination of the world, and continues to do so to this day. His humble origins and seemingly super-human ability to escape from bondage are thought to have represented a freedom from tyranny, an idea that captured the hearts of a generation of immigrants.

Accompanying Show: A side-bar to the Houdini show is Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age, which is chock-full of magical toys and colorful circus-like posters that helped us understand how Houdini fit into a long history of magic. In ancient times, folks thought that magicians were practicing witchcraft. Houdini's mastery of his tricks helped popularize the skill of illusion, which led to the more modern view of magic as entertainment.

Programming Through the Summer: Check the Skirball's website for a complete listing of worthy lectures and screenings that expand upon the topic of Houdini, including strolling magicians on summer Sundays, and extensive family programing, including a Sleepover in July, and Presto Change-O, a day full of magic on Sunday, May 15 that includes a wonderful documentary called Make Believe.

Related Movies and Books for Adults: Houdini starred in several silent films, clips of which are on view in the exhibit and also on the big screen at the Skirball in July. (You can purchase them on DVD at the gift shop, too). A few interesting movies have been made about him, but none seems to have been able to truly capture the mystery that was the man. Notably, Tony Curtis played Houdini in 1953, and the esteemed director Gillian Armstrong made a film called Death Defying Acts in 2008 starring Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Fiction seems to have captured the magician's aura much better, at least for our taste. We loved all three of these books, and think the trio would make an excellent summer reading list: Ragtime: A Novel by E.L. Doctorow,Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon.

Both shows will be at the Skirball Cultural Center through Labor Day weekend, so be sure to catch them before they... disappear!

Kids Off The Couch

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