Houdini and Wisconsin

February 16, 2012

The magician Harry Houdini continues to be an important figure in America’s cultural pantheon, though he died nearly 86 years ago. Hungarian by birth, he often claimed Appleton, Wisconsin, as his hometown since he lived there as a boy.

A new exhibition at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art celebrates Houdini as an American icon. “Houdini: Art & Magic” includes work by contemporary artists as well as historical photos, ephemera, films, objects, and much more. I’ve made one quick visit to the gallery and will be sure to return.

Harry Houdini

A pubilcity photo of Harry Houdini from 1922. Wisconsin Historical Society ID 83261

A paragraph on a text panel early in the exhibition explains that Ehrich Weiss (or Weisz) arrived in Appleton in 1878. Though he often said he was born in Appleton, Houdini was actually born in Budapest and came to Wisconsin with his family when his father took a position as rabbi at a small congregation. Four years later the family moved to Milwaukee and not long thereafter to New York City.

Appleton celebrates its connection to Houdini with an elementary school that bears his name. Appleton’s History Museum at the Castle has an ongoing exhibition about the famous escape artist and a virtual exhibit on the Web.

For much more about Houdini and Wisconsin, it’s worth reading an article from the The Wisconsin Magazine of History (Spring 2002). “The Bonds He Did Not Break” gives a thorough overview of the magician’s ongoing relationship with Wisconsin as a young boy and as a celebrated performer.

The exhibition “Houdini: Art & Magic” was organized by the Jewish Museum in New York and is making its only Midwestern stop in Madison. Isthmus, Madison’s weekly newspaper, has a review of the exhibition by Jennifer A. Smith, former project director of PortalWisconsin.org.