Jewish masters of magic materialize at Skirball


Prestidigitation as a Jewish vocation? Could there be such a thing as Yiddeshe legerdemain? Pulling an answer out of its hat, the Skirball Cultural Center is set to open two shows: a traveling exhibition that originated at the Jewish Museum in New York, “Houdini: Art and Magic,” and a new show organized by the Skirball, “Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age.”

The shows, which will run concurrently from April 28 through Sept. 4, 2011, conjure up a world of mystery and mastery, a little-known world of Jewish magicians.

We find that Harry Houdini, the son of a rabbi, born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary, in 1874, though a great escape artist, did not try to escape his Jewish identity.

“Coming to America, Houdini’s family faced a lot of the same issues that other Jewish immigrants faced, including anti-Semitism,” said Brooke Kamin Rapaport, guest curator of the Houdini show.

Houdini in chains, 1903, photograph. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections.

“I never was ashamed to acknowledge that I was a Jew, and never will be,” Houdini is quoted as writing to a friend in the show’s sepia-toned and well-documented catalog.

According to the exhibition wall text written by Rapaport, Houdini’s escapes “had particular resonance for those who sought liberation from political, ethnic or religious persecution.”

Houdini, who Rapaport considers “the most famous magician who ever lived,” died Oct. 31, 1926, of peritonitis that resulted from a ruptured appendix.

“He really was involved with the new media of this time. He was a savvy marketer,” Rapaport said. With more than 160 objects, the show includes advertising posters and broadsides that Houdini used to promote his shows.

Houdini’s Straitjacket, c. 1915, canvas, leather, and copper. Collection of Arthur Moses, Fort Worth, Texas. Photo by Robert LaPrelle

Also on display will be magic apparatus Houdini made famous: handcuffs, shackles, a straitjacket, his Metamorphosis Trunk and a milk can that Houdini squeezed himself into. Contemporary works by artists influenced by Houdini will be on view as well.

New to the show is a finely crafted reproduction of Houdini’s famous Water Torture Cell created by illusion designer John Gaughan; the cell will be on view only at the Skirball stop of the show’s tour.

In addition, with a deftly shuffling sleight of hand, the “Masters of Illusion” show puts on display an entire deck of Jewish magicians — kings, jacks and jokers.

The show skillfully reveals the careers of several influential Jewish magicians, including the Great Leon, who created the Death Ray Gun, as well as several generations of two magical dynasties: the French Herrmanns and the Dutch Bambergs.

According to Richard Hatch, an expert on magic who consulted with the Skirball on the show, the Herrmanns — Carl “Compars” (1816-1887) and brother Alexander (1844-1896) — helped to popularize the “Mephistophelian appearance,” the devilish pointed beard and mustache, as well as the stage wit and charm that influenced generations of magicians.

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