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Houdini and Magic Week

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by Matthew Crabtree

As we head into the last week of October, magicians around the United States celebrate National Magic Week. A week to celebrate magic with charitable work done by the S.A.M., Assemblies, and Compeers throughout the year. Why they last week of October? Why on the week leading up to Halloween? No, it’s not because of Halloween, but who’s life ended at 1:26 PM on October 31, 1926. That person was Harry Houdini…

Past National President Harry Houdini

Houdini. The very word has transcended the nomenclature of the world of magic and the very man himself. It is now part of the very lexicon of everyday life. It is nothing to see stories in the news of an inmate who pulled a “Houdini” or see on your local neighborhood message board about that one dog who keeps performing a “Houdini” act by getting out of the yard once a week. When you have a quarterback who always seems to get out of trouble on the field it’s “He pulled a Houdini on the field.” When someone thinks of magic or escape, the first word that some to mind is Houdini. It is a rare thing for one person to reach that level. While world famous while alive, it was after his death on Halloween 1926, legend grew even more.

Erik Wiesz was born in Budapest on March 24, 1874. The family came to American in 1978 where they took the German spelling, Weiss and little Erik became Ehrich. The young Harry, along with his four brother, mother and father moved to his adopted home town of Appleton, Wisconsin, but it was not to be his home for long. Soon, New York would change his life forever. It was in New York City where he would meet his first mentor, Joseph Rinn.

It was 1891, when Houdini became Houdini. Having read the autobiography of Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin the year before and in a mistake of his understanding of the French langue, he added in I to the end of Houdin, thinking that meant “like.” The Harry came from the great Harry Keller, of whom Houdini also admired. So, through a misunderstanding of French and his love of two magician a star was born. Although, it was not overnight night stardom, far from it. It was during this time he was billing himself as the “King of Cards” while working in dime museums and sideshows. Other magicians at the time thought he was a passable magician, but didn’t see any real stand out skill, grace, or showmanship to really excel in magic. It wasn’t until 1899 when he met Martin Beck, who talked him into just working on his hand cuffs and escapes. No longer was he the “King of Cards,” now he was the “Handcuff King.” After eight years, Houdini was an overnight success.

While the world mostly remembers him for his escapes and magic, he was more. You could say he was America’s first real action hero, the star of stage and screen. He was also an early aviation pioneer, as well as an inventor. He spent a good chunk of his time to exposes charlatans and spirit mediums. At one point he testified before the U.S. House on the matter. At one point, Houdini went so far as publishing a book debunking his hero Robert-Houdin’s claimed abilities. Houdini even set up a code with his wife to continue that work when psychics came calling after his death.

Now the United States Library of Congress have made learning and teaching about this part of Houdini’s life. They have put together a selection of articles from newspapers of the time about Houdini’s work in the field of debunking spiritualists. To view these articles, CLICK HERE.

History of National Magic Week

National Magic week is traditionally the last 7 days of October (October 25th-31st). The purpose of National Magic Week is to celebrate the charitable work done by the S.A.M, S.A.M. Assemblies and S.A.M. members throughout the year.

The roots of National Magic Week date back over 80 years. In the summer of 1927, less than one year after the death of Harry Houdini, a “Houdini Day” was established. In 1938, Les Sholty, a Chicago member of the Society of American Magicians, sought official sanction for a “Houdini Day.” A friend of the Houdini’s requested and obtained permission from Mrs. Houdini to proclaim October 31st as National Magic Day in honor of Harry Houdini. A plan was formulated to celebrate this day by having free magic performances for shut-ins and the handicapped, who would otherwise not be able to go out and enjoy a show. The first radio broadcast about National Magic Day occurred on July 20, 1938 on Radio station KQW. Mrs. Houdini participated in that broadcast.

It wasn’t long before National Magic Day became National Magic Week.

Today, members of The Society of American Magicians and S.A.M Assemblies celebrate National Magic Week in a variety of ways. Most often it is celebrated in the same way it has been for over 80 years, by giving free performances for retirement homes, hospitals, orphanages and for others who wouldn’t be able to get out to see a magic show. Many Assemblies also seek proclamations from state and local officials declaring the last 7 days of October “National Magic Week.” Assemblies and members are also encouraged to put magic displays in libraries during this week.

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