Real Magician Takes on Role of Houdini in ‘Ragtime’

February 20, 2019
Benjamin Schrader (center) and the cast of “Ragtime.” Photo by Jenny Graham

A decade ago, during his first crack at the musical “Ragtime,” Benjamin Schrader was a member of the ensemble and an understudy in the show’s first Broadway revival. Fast forward to the Pasadena Playhouse where “Ragtime” has become magic time for the Seattle-born Schrader.

Not only is Schrader undertaking the role of Harry Houdini in the Pasadena Playhouse production that runs through March 3, he is also the show’s magic consultant. Given his career as a professional magician, the dual assignment of illusionist and illusion overseer fits the actor like a rabbit fits in a magician’s top hat.

“We have straitjacket effects while hanging upside down high above the stage. We have some pyrotechnic elements,” Schrader said during a rehearsal break a couple of weeks before the show’s opening. “A lot of the design work is coming from my end, so I have my role as an actor and I have my role as a magic technician and the meeting of two worlds. It’s kind of thinking with the left and right side of my brain here.” 

Adapted from the novel by E. L. Doctorow, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, “Ragtime” tells three intersecting tales. In New Rochelle, an upper-middle-class woman called Mother keeps her family together while her husband is out of the country. A black pianist from Harlem encounters racism while trying to carve out a life with the mother of his infant son, and a Latvian Jew travels to America with his young daughter with a dream of striking it rich. The Playhouse staging is directed by “Frasier” co-creator David Lee and is one of the largest physical productions in the company’s history. 

In addition to its fictional characters, “Ragtime” is littered with historical figures: the actress Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman and Houdini, who pops up at strategic points in the narrative, a figure of mystery and the ultimate representation of an immigrant having made good. 

“If he was possessed of anything, it was self-promotion. He was a showman through and through,” Schrader said of Houdini, who was born Erik Weisz. “And if he had a Twitter feed or an Instagram if he was alive today, he would be one of the greatest influencers in the world.”

“[Houdini] was a showman through and through. And if he had a Twitter feed or an Instagram if he was alive today, he would be one of the greatest influencers in the world.” — Benjamin Schrader

Schrader had a magic kit as a child and read a couple of books on magic, but lost interest when his attention switched to theater. He studied at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, worked extensively at theaters in Washington state and ultimately moved to New York. Schrader appeared in the Broadway productions of “Avenue Q” and “The Book of Mormon” and toured with “Avenue Q,” “Peter and the Starcatcher” and “Big River.”

Relocating to Los Angeles five years ago, he accompanied a friend to the Magic Castle, a visit that triggered a flood of memories and nostalgia for the art form. Schrader returned to the books and became a regular at the Magic Castle. He eventually worked his way up to performing and used his theatrical eye to help other magicians develop their shows. Schrader opened the Magic Bar at a strip mall in Encino where, two nights a week, he and fellow Magic Castle magicians craft cocktails and do close-up magic for an intimate audience of 18.

“It’s been going for over a year-and-a-half now and it’s turned into one of the premiere venues for close-up magic in the country,” said Schrader, who will have a substitute magician hosting at the Magic Bar on Tuesdays during the run of “Ragtime.” “And I’m very proud of it.”

Jews have put their stamp on magic throughout history, from Houdini to David Seth Kotkin (AKA David Copperfield). Schrader’s mother was from Long Island and Jewish, and her family included singers and vaudeville performers. His father was a non- Jew who worked for American Airlines, relocating the family to the airline’s hub in Washington DC. 

“The Jewish sensibility, the Jewish sense of humor, the Jewish cuisine, that was all my Jewish experience and still is,” Schrader said. “The culture surrounding being Jewish has always been just a major influence in my life, in everything from my love of theater and performing, to my sense of humor, down to the quality of the matzo ball that my mom makes when I go and visit her. The only thing that hasn’t been a large part of my life is the religious aspect of it.”

As for “Ragtime,” he is seeing new themes in the show this time around, as well as old ones. 

“The play has stayed the same. The content technically hasn’t changed,” he said. “But for some reason, the meaning of the play and the words and the description of this play have gone through profound changes because the news cycle brings out new things. I find that fascinating, how a piece of art can stay the same and yet evolve over time.”

“Ragtime” plays through March 3 at The Pasadena Playhouse

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