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Skirball Cultural Center

2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90049 - (310) 440-4500


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Press Walkthrough: Wednesday, April 27, 10:00 a.m.
Reservations required: (310) 440-4544


Skirball Cultural Center presents


April 28–September 4, 2011

First major museum exhibition to explore life, career, and
lasting influence of the legendary magician and escape artist

Left: Houdini in chains, 1903, photograph. Library of Congress, Rare Books and Special Collections.
Right: Handcuffs, late nineteenth or early twentieth century, metal. Sidney H. Radner Collection
at The History Museum at the Castle, Appleton, Wisconsin.


LOS ANGELES—Through impossibly daring feats, magician and escape artist Harry Houdini (1874–1926) captivated audiences worldwide. His gripping theatrical presentations and heart-stopping outdoor spectacles continue to inspire awe. On view at the Skirball Cultural Center from April 28 through September 4, 2011, Houdini: Art and Magic documents Houdini’s rise to celebrity, his lasting cultural influence in the decades beyond his death, and the iconic status he still holds today. Organized by The Jewish Museum, New York, it is the first major art museum exhibition to explore the life and legacy of the celebrated American showman.

Featuring more than 150 artifacts, the exhibition illuminates Houdini’s compelling story through historical photographs, dramatic Art Nouveau–era posters, playbills, theater ephemera, memorabilia, and archival and silent film footage. The enduring power of the Houdini legend is captured in the works of contemporary artists who have been inspired by his physical audacity and celebrity, his magic props and illusionist effects, and the themes of metamorphosis and escape. Among these artists are Matthew Barney, Jane Hammond, Vik Muniz, Deborah Oropallo, Raymond Pettibon, Allen Ruppersberg, and Christopher Wool.

The exhibition does not expose the “how-to” secrets of Houdini’s magic performances. Rather, it describes his innovation in endowing common items with magical qualities. The magician’s renowned escapes come alive through wall-sized video footage and examples of original apparatus, including a straitjacket, milk can, and Metamorphosis Trunk used by Houdini. Also featured is an exquisite re-creation of Houdini’s famous Water Torture Cell built by well-known illusion designer John Gaughan (much of the original Water Torture Cell was destroyed in a fire). Gaughan’s replica will be shown exclusively at the Skirball.

Rare personal items highlight Houdini’s personal biography, among them family photos, a postcard he wrote to his mother after running away from home at age twelve, and the Bible belonging to his father, Rabbi Samuel Mayer Weiss. Also displayed are two of Houdini’s private travel diaries, never before seen in a public exhibition.

The objects and art works featured in Houdini: Art and Magic are drawn from many private and public collections, including The Museum of Modern Art; the Museum of the City of New York; the Library of Congress; the Harvard Theatre Collection; The New York Public Library; The History Museum at the Castle, Appleton, Wisconsin; The National Portrait Gallery; the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Harry Ransom Humanities Center, University of Texas at Austin; and Tate, London. Following its Los Angeles showing, Houdini: Art and Magic will travel to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, CA (September 30, 2011–January 16, 2012) and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Madison, WI (February 11–May 13, 2012). The exhibition debuted at The Jewish Museum, New York, in October 2010 and remains on view through March 27, 2011. Brooke Kamin Rapaport is the guest curator of Houdini: Art and Magic.

In conjunction with Houdini: Art and Magic, the Skirball Cultural Center has organized an original companion exhibition, Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age, which spotlights magicians who were once celebrated innovators in America and Europe but whose rich stories have largely been forgotten.

“We are pleased to celebrate Harry Houdini, the son of a rabbi who fled anti-Semitism in his native Budapest in 1878 and rose from humble origins to become an American icon,” remarked Uri D. Herscher, Skirball Founding President and CEO. “Once cultural outsiders, Houdini—and the many Jews who became magicians during magic’s Golden Age—helped to shape the cultural landscape and exhilarate tens of thousands through their imaginative entertainment.”

In support of both exhibitions, a number of related programs will be offered at the Skirball, including appearances by magicians Joshua Jay and Max Maven, a family-friendly Magic Day, an excursion to the Magic Castle, weekly magic performances, and an interactive gallery program for students.

About Harry Houdini

Houdini: Art and Magic traces Houdini’s evolution from fledgling circus performer in the 1890s, to stage magician at the turn of the twentieth century, to star of stage and film.

Born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary, Houdini was the son of a rabbi who immigrated with his family to Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1878. From the beginning, Ehrich was drawn to illusion, performance, and spectacle. When he was twelve, he ran away from home with the intention of joining the circus. Instead, he spent his teenage years doing odd jobs to help support his impoverished family, now living in New York City. Passionate about athletics, he trained as a runner, swimmer, and boxer. These workouts paved the way for Houdini’s rigorous training routine as a magician and escape artist.

Ehrich’s career as a professional magician began after his father’s death in 1892. He changed his name to Harry Houdini as a tribute to the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805–1871), and married Bess Rahner (1876–1943), a Coney Island song and dance performer who became his on-stage partner as well.

Over the next decade, Houdini rose to international fame through daring feats that involved seemingly superhuman physical strength and stamina. Acutely aware of the power of the press, he staged dramatic, free public events, frequently outside newspaper office buildings. Throngs of spectators watched as he flailed upside down in a straitjacket or was tossed, handcuffed, into an icy river in a padlocked crate. He freed himself every time to wild ovations.

Film was another powerful medium for documenting Houdini’s heroics, as well as an outlet for his showmanship: Houdini starred in a number of melodramatic silent films from 1919 through 1923. Houdini’s celebrity extended beyond the realm of conjuring. He was the first successful aviator in Australia in 1910, and fraternized with the likes of President Theodore Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, and Sarah Bernhardt.

Houdini battled many professional peers and copycats who tried to duplicate his signature feats. An advocate for the magic profession, he used his acclaim to debunk the widespread popularity of the quasi-religion Spiritualism. In lectures, writings, and even Congressional testimony, Houdini contested the practice of using séances fraudulently to contact the deceased. As he told the Los Angeles Times in 1924, “It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer.”

Houdini’s death, which occurred on Halloween in 1926, has inspired many myths: that he was poisoned, that he died in the Water Torture Cell, and that he faked his death and escaped. It is more likely that he had been suffering from appendicitis and died of peritonitis after a blow to the stomach. He is buried in the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York, in a bronze casket fabricated for his buried-alive stunt.

Following his death, Bess Houdini became custodian of her husband’s legend, as well as a fixture on the magic circuit in her own right. Houdini’s legend lives on in recent magic generations: David Blaine, David Copperfield, Doug Henning, The Amazing Randi, and Penn & Teller have all paid homage to the master. Houdini has been the subject of Hollywood and TV movies, inspired prominent fiction, and profoundly influenced visual artists.

Related Programs

During the runs of both Houdini: Art and Magic and Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age, the Skirball will present many related programs:

  • DOCENT TOURS: Docent-led tours of Houdini: Art and Magic  (Tuesday–Sunday starting May 1, 12:30 and 2:30 p.m.) as well as Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age (Tuesday–Sunday starting May 1, 12:30 p.m.). The tours are appropriate for adults and children 8 and up.
  • GUEST WALKTHROUGHS: Exhibition tours led by expert commentators and special guests, including magician Mike Caveney (Sunday, June 26, 1:30 p.m.) and Skirball curator Erin Clancey. (Dates and additional guests TBD.)
  • LECTURE: A revealing talk on Jewish magicians by Max Maven, Hollywood mentalist and author of The Art of Magic. (Thursday, May 26, 8:00 p.m.)
  • LECTURE: “The Secret Life of Houdini,” by William Kalush, director of The Conjuring Arts Research Center and author of The Secret Life of Houdini. (Sunday, July 24, 2:00 p.m.)
  • LECTURE: An insightful dialogue between esteemed magicians Marvyn Roy (“Mr. Electric”) and Mike Caveney. Roy is the only surviving magician featured in the exhibition Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age. (Sunday, August 21, 2:00 p.m.)
  • LECTURE/PERFORMANCE: “Tragic Magic: A History of Fatal Conjuring,” by Joshua Jay, World Champion of Close-Up Magic and author of the bestselling book Magic: The Complete Course. In this lecture/performance, Jay vividly explores some of the strangest deaths that have befallen magicians, assistants, and even audience members throughout magic’s rich history. Jay even performs one of these deadly stunts! (Thursday, June 30, 8:00 p.m.)
  • EXCURSION: A visit to L.A.’s famed Magic Castle, including an illustrated lecture on Houdini’s experiences in Hollywood by Houdini expert Patrick Culliton, a tour of the Houdini séance room, a performance by Jim Bentley, an accomplished magician and escape artist who performs in the style of Houdini, plus a catered lunch. (Friday, June 3, 11:00 a.m.–2:30 p.m.)
  • FILM: Free matinees of films about Harry Houdini and the influence of magic in Western society, namely Houdini (1953) (Tuesday, May 3, 1:30 p.m.); Ragtime (1981) (Tuesday, May 10, 1:30 p.m.); FairyTale: A True Story (1997) (Tuesday, June 7, 1:30 p.m.); and The Great Houdini (1976) (Tuesday, June 14, 1:30 p.m.)
  • FILM: Double-feature screening of two serials starring Harry Houdini: Terror Island (1920) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923). (Sunday, July 10, 2:00 p.m.)
  • LATE-NIGHT EVENT: Magic-inspired evening featuring live music, a DJ, magicians, film screening of the Houdini serial Master Mystery (1920), poetry readings, and gallery tours. Performers TBA. (Friday, July 8, 9:00 p.m.–12:00 a.m.)
  • FAMILY PROGRAM: On Sunday afternoons, performances by a strolling magician across the Skirball grounds. (Sundays, May 1–September 4; intermittently 12:00–2:00 p.m.)
  • FAMILY PROGRAM: Magic Day at the Skirball, featuring a variety of magic shows, opportunities to create magic-inspired art, personal encounters with card-trick and sleight-of-hand performers from the Magic Castle, and a screening of the documentary Make Believe, which celebrates the power of magic to positively shape young people’s identities. (Sunday, May 15: drop in anytime 10:00 a.m.–4:30 p.m.)
  • FAMILY PROGRAM: A six-session Toddler Time class for toddlers and their caregivers to explore the exhibitions and engage in related art, music, and movement activities. (Thursdays, May 19–June 23, 10:30 a.m.–12:00 p.m.)
  • FAMILY PROGRAM: As part of the Skirball’s annual Family Amphitheater Performances summertime series, a rich line-up of magic acts to complement music, dance, storytelling, and other family-friendly performances. (Saturdays and Sundays, July 9–September 4, 12:00 and 2:00 p.m.)
  • FAMILY PROGRAM: An overnight getaway inviting kids and grown-ups to explore the exhibitions after dark, participate in “Houdini-esque” activities, and cozy up for bed with the creatures in the Skirball’s Noah’s Ark galleries. (Saturday, July 16–Sunday, July 17, 6:00 p.m.–9:00 a.m.)

As part of its extensive outreach to local schools, the Skirball will offer an interactive, gallery-based program for students in Grades 3–8. The program will include a tour of Houdini: Art and Magic, and encounters with objects from Houdini’s most famous performances. It will address topics of immigration and identity through discussion of Houdini’s family history and his transition into the field of entertainment. School visits will also include a tour of the companion exhibition, Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age, as well as a live performance by a local magician.

The Skirball will also offer a Houdini-related, in-school residency program focusing on spoken word performance. A group of area high-school students will work with spoken word artist Joshua Silverstein on the creation of pieces that they will perform at their respective schools and at the Skirball. Participating students will visit both magic exhibitions and focus on the themes of personal transformation and the invention of a public persona.

Catalogue and Merchandise

Published by The Jewish Museum and Yale University Press, the visually striking exhibition catalogue, Houdini: Art and Magic (2010, 280 pages, 157 color and 45 b/w images, $39.95 hardcover), was authored by independent exhibition curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport. It includes contributions by novelist E. L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime; magician Teller (of Penn & Teller), and contemporary artists including Raymond Pettibon and Matthew Barney. The catalogue will be available for purchase at Audrey’s Museum Store at the Skirball.

In addition, Audrey’s Museum Store will offer a large selection of Houdini-related books and magic-inspired merchandise, including magic sets, exclusive collectibles, and fun lock-and-key themed novelty items.








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About the Skirball

The Skirball Cultural Center is dedicated to exploring the connections between 4,000 years of Jewish heritage and the vitality of American democratic ideals. It welcomes and seeks to inspire people of every ethnic and cultural identity. Guided by our respective memories and experiences, together we aspire to build a society in which all of us can feel at home. The Skirball Cultural Center achieves its mission through educational programs that explore literary, visual, and performing arts from around the world; through the display and interpretation of its permanent collections and changing exhibitions; through an interactive family destination inspired by the Noah’s Ark story; and through outreach to the community.

Visiting the Skirball

The Skirball Cultural Center is located at 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90049. Free on-site parking; street parking strictly prohibited. The Skirball is also accessible by Metro Rapid Bus 761. Museum hours: Tuesday–Friday 12:00–5:00 p.m.; Saturday–Sunday 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.; closed Mondays and holidays, including June 8 in observance of Shavuot. Admission to exhibitions: $10 General; $7 Seniors, Full-Time Students, and Children over 12; $5 Children 2–12. Exhibitions are always free to Skirball Members and Children under 2. Exhibitions are free to all visitors on Thursdays. For general information, the public may call (310) 440-4500 or visit The Skirball is also home to Zeidler’s Café, which serves innovative California cuisine in an elegant setting, and Audrey’s Museum Store, which sells books, contemporary art, music, jewelry, and more.



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