A pair of eyes that are dark, intense and mysterious stares out at each visitor to the latest exhibit at The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum. They belonged to a poor Hungarian rabbi’s son named Erik Weisz, who came to America in the 1870s, renamed himself Harry Houdini, and became one of the most famous magicians and escape artists who ever lived.
He was a spectacular performer, who made short work of a variety of locks, chains, ropes and straightjackets while confined to all sorts of containers and contraptions.
He started his career escaping from a locked water-filled milk tank, but quickly expanded his act to freeing himself from heavy canvas mail bags, packing crates, riveted boilers and even a dead whale that was found in Boston harbor.
A masterful self-promoter, he frequently staged his most spectacular stunts before vast crowds while suspended high above the streets of major cities around the world. In an age before the full impact of modern communications technology was felt, he was an early media star.
You can follow his spectacular career from start to finish in “Inescapable – The Life and Legend of Harry Houdini” which runs through Aug. 11 at The Breman Museum. It’s a fascinating step back into show business history during the early years of the 20th century when Jewish performers and promoters were remaking the nation’s entertainment industry.
Not only were they successful in the vaudeville theaters of the era, but the hardscrabble, risk-taking Jewish entrepreneurs of the time laid the foundation for much of what became the modern music, motion picture and broadcasting industries.
Houdini himself tried his hand at the film industry, and the exhibit shows a clip from one of the feature films he produced and starred in. There are more than a hundred artifacts in the exhibit, which was originally put together for the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore by David London, who, as a professional magician and performer, has spent a lifetime exploring Houdini’s legacy.
Visitors can try their own hand at mastering illusions, including the world’s smallest version of Houdini’s biggest trick – making an elephant “vanish.”
The Breman will offer a number of programs to complement the exhibition, such as several speakers and family events. This month there are two programs planned, including an interview May 28 with Holocaust survivor Werner Reich, who managed to stay alive in three different concentration camps, in part because of his interest in stage magic.
Among the programs will be Magical Mondays, a series of kid’s events featuring magical activities, stories and projects, and on June 30, an Atlanta Magic Spectacular where Atlanta’s top magicians will perform.
The summer programming will climax on July 21 with Houdini’s Magic Block Party, a family event featuring street magicians, concessions, magic tricks you can do at home, and a record-setting simultaneous escape by a number of local performers.
The exhibit and the extensive series of programs at The Breman is the first effort by the museum’s new director, Leslie Gordon, who formerly ran the Rialto Center for the Arts at Georgia State University. She came aboard in January after an extensive 1 ½ year search involving more than 300 candidates for the job.