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THE NEW YORK TIMES November 1, 1972 Page – Column –



The ceremony of the broken wand was conducted yesterday with due solemnity at the grave of Harry Houdini at the Machpelah Cemetery in Glendale, Queens. Two dozen magicians gathered there on the 46th anniversary of the death of the master showman and escape artist.

They arrived a little early, having synchronized their watches more than an hour before, and waited for the exact moment of Houdini’s death—1:26 P.M.

Then, after a few words, a wand was snapped in two and the pieces dropped, symbolizing the broken powers of the magician at death.

This was one of several tributes to Houdini arranged by the local assembly of the Society of American Magicians. Another is an exhibition of Houdini memorabilia on view this week in the Theater Collection of the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center.

Brief as an Illusion

The ceremony was as brief as an illusion. And, since none of the men present was able to put the broken wand together again, one of them had to hold it in the middle, as if it had not been broken, and then to seem to break it again—because it had happened so fast that photographers had missed it.

One of the magicians present was 82-year-old Amadeo Vacca, who had worked for three years as one of the last assistants to Houdini and whose job, as he put it in trade language, was to go in ahead and “gimmick the theater for him.”

Gimmicking a theater, Mr. Vacca explained, involves the installation of “apparatus that people don’t see, that makes a trick work.” Magic is, in part at least, the art of drawing attention to things that don’t count and away from things that do count.

“He means preparing the theater,” interjected George Post of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., a laboratory technician for Texaco who, when asked what he did, said, “I produce doves.”

“Not from boxes,” Mr. Vacca put in. “He brings doves out of silks, out of sleeves.”

“I did 100 shows last year, had 20 in December,” Mr. Post said. “It acts as a second job for me, and I love to do it.” At the end of a show he produces a live rabbit out of practically nothing.

A Challenge Recalled

Houdini, the son of a Talmudic scholar, had worked for a while as an apprentice to a locksmith, gaining knowledge that paid off later in his famous escapes from a great variety of restraining devices.

He was forever being handcuffed and manacled, nailed inside lead-weighted packing crates and dumped into rivers, only to surface shortly, free of all encumbrances.

The library exhibition shows a challenge issued on Sept. 25, 1906, by R.K. Paynter of William Knabe & Co., the piano makers, expressing the ambition of the company’s packers to test Houdini’s skill by tying him in a chair and sealing him in a zinc-lined piano-packing crate in public. Houdini readily granted them their wish.

This procedure apparently brought a little romance into the lives of packers, and the expert crate makers for Mandel Brothers soon issued their own challenge, warning, “You must understand that you are not to demolish the box in getting out.”

While Houdini could nearly always escape in a minute or two from a heavy crate thrown into the water, it often took him an hour or more to work his way out of a similar box in a theater—always out of sight of the audience, whose whole amusement in the interim was to gaze at a motionless curtain and feel the mounting tension.

Few other entertainers could get away with 63 minutes of absolutely nothing, but all Houdini had to do was reappear to touch off pandemonium. Quite often men would rush to the stage in excitement and lift him to their shoulders for a triumphal exit.

Most of the magicians, among them lawyers and physicians and businessmen, went to the cemetery yesterday by bus from Rosoff’s Restaurant off Times Square, where magicians gather five days a week to compare deceptions at the Magic Table.

“Who’s the greatest magician today?" someone asked Edward Mishell, national president of the society.

“You speak to this bus, and you say, ‘Will the greatest magician in the world please rise?’ and they’ll all stand up,” he replied. “You’ll see nothing, but empty seats.”

Larry Arcuri, chairman of the observance, called for the synchronization of the watches. This happened twice. The first time, the men called out various times and Mr. Arcuri ruled that it was “20 of,” not “22 of” as some believed. A minute or so later, he went through it again, without changing this opinion. “Seventeen of” someone called. “No, no—20 of,” came the ruling. It was no small feat. Mr. Arcuri had made time stand still.

The purpose of the ceremony, he said, was to honor Houdini and to draw the public’s attention to magic and magicians, who have had thin times since the heyday of vaudeville.

Houdini died on Halloween. The stone in the family plot is marked “Houdini/1874–1926” in large carved letters. A memorial nearby is also marked with his professional name, but below it, in parentheses and barely visible, his real name shows in small letters: (Ehrich Weiss).

Houdini defied all the means devised to hold man captive except, of course, the grave.

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