Exhibit delves into life and legend of Houdini

NEW YORK Fri Oct 29, 2010 1:40pm EDT

1 of 4. A 1903 photograph shows Houdini in chains, part of the exhibition 'Houdini: Art and music'.

Credit: Reuters/Library of Congress/Rare Books and Special Collections Division/McManus Young Division/Handout

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Handcuffs, shackles, a torture chamber and straitjacket used by renowned escape artist Harry Houdini will be part of a major exhibit that delves into the life and legend of the world famous magician.

"Houdini: Art and Magic," which opens on Friday at The Jewish Museum, will feature a recreation of the Chinese Water Torture Cell, which Houdini used to enthrall huge audiences with his daring, death-defying escapes.

"The show is an interdisciplinary exhibition. We integrate historic posters, broadsides, photographs, film and Houdini's magic apparatus with contemporary pieces," said Brooke Kamin Rapaport, the curator of the exhibit at the Manhattan museum.

Harry Houdini, who was born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest in 1874, immigrated with his family to rural Appleton, Wisconsin when he was a child. After a stint as a circus performer in the 1890s he become a magician and changed his name as a tribute to the French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin.

He went on to become the most famous escape artist of his day, captivating massive audiences by escaping during stage performances from the glass Chinese Water Torture Cell while suspended upside down and confined by a straightjacket.

"The water torture cell had a glass front so the audience could actually see Houdini being lowered down, by his ankles, into this apparatus. For an audience the sense of audacity but also confinement underwater in this tank was really terrifying," Rapaport explained.

In another famous feat a handcuffed Houdini freed himself from a padlocked crate that had been thrown into a river.

Photographs, Art Nouveau-era posters, as well as his private diaries, which have never been shown before, and silent films of his performances will be included in the exhibition that will run until next March when it will travel to San Francisco, and in 2012 to Madison, Wisconsin.

But visitors looking for the secrets of Houdini's magic and escapist performances, which inspired other illusionists such as David Copperfield, David Blaine and Dough Henning, will be disappointed.

"The exhibition is not a how-to show. There is a tradition in the magic field that performance secrets aren't revealed and we are respecting that," Rapaport said.

Houdini, who was portrayed by actor Tony Curtis in the 1953 film "Houdini," died on Halloween in 1926. Although there is a common belief that he perished in the water chamber, Rapaport said it is not true. His death was more likely due to appendicitis.

Regardless of how he died, it was his life, his talents and his showmanship that inspired the public.

"For the thousands of spectators who would watch his escapes that performance was probably symbolic because liberation from political, racial or religious oppression was a true aspiration to the 19th century immigrant community who traveled to America in those years.

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