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THE NEW YORK TIMES November 1, 1981 Page –, Column –



A London coroner attributed the death to “misadventure.” What more could he say? On March 13, 1918, world-famous showman W. E. Robinson, alias Chung Ling Soo, was “catching bullets” in a plate at the Wood Green Empire. The gun’s discharge mechanism went afoul at an unfortunate instant; the final curtain fell on Chung Ling Soo, one of 12 persons known to have died while attempting to catch bullets.

Harry Houdini, possibly the greatest self-promoter of all time, quickly announced that he would perform the deadly feat at an upcoming convention of the Society of American Magicians. His old mentor Harry Kellar got wind of it and fired off a letter. “Don’t try the damn bullet catching trick,” he warned, “no matter how sure you may feel of its success. There is always the biggest kind of risk that some dog will ‘job’ you. And we can’t afford to lose Houdini.

Few men were more resolute than Houdini, but he was no fool. He knew that Kellar, a master magician, had investigated the stunt himself. There must be ample reason for such strong advice. Houdini quietly withdrew his plan.

At a Pittsburgh convention of the International Brotherhood of Magicians (IBM) last July, petite magician Dorothy Dietrich was scheduled to receive a bullet, fired through a glass pane, in a specially coated cup in her mouth. She, too, had warnings. “Andrew is afraid you will not be here for his sixth birthday to make the rabbit disappear,” her attorney wrote, not at all in jest. Her marksman, a Vietnam veteran, was not told until the evening before that he would be shooting directly at a friendly American woman. He had trouble sleeping. He was dripping wet as he took aim. But the stunt went precisely as planned.

Miss Dietrich, who repeated the test before “You Asked for It” television cameras, has become the first woman to catch a bullet in her mouth. There have been several men, including Milbourne Christopher, a Houdini biographer and noted escapologist. Meanwhile, numerous artists have repeated Houdini’s famed Milk Can Escape, his extrication from the Chinese Water Torture Cell, and his exploits while submerged and suspended—often with the added suspense of a burning rope, which The Escape King avoided.

Could it be the great Houdini now is routinely bested by his followers? The reply from those in authority is always the same: Yes—and no.

Yesterday—Halloween—was the 55th anniversary of Houdini’s death. (It also was the birthday of Dorothy Dietrich, who does not consider the connection irrelevant.) He succumbed, at 52, to peritonitis ignited by the abdominal punches of an admiring student at McGill University in Montreal. The student wished to confirm the showman’s fabled physique. Houdini, perusing mail in his dressing room, absentmindedly consented. This occurred on Oct. 22, 1926, and Houdini, also suffering a broken ankle, agonized through three last shows in Montreal and Detroit before allowing himself to be hospitalized.

Typical. This man, identified variously by his awed watchers as a mystic, medium, athlete par excellence, contortionist, and unshacklable escapologist, nurtured throughout his career a reputation for enduring the impossible. In reality he came very close, so close that his lasting fame easily is justified. How many entertainers today, it may be asked, would perform three shows with a broken ankle and a terminal case of peritonitis?

Yet the question of Houdini’s all-time superiority in his chosen profession is open. His greatest escapes have been duplicated many times over and occasionally taken a step further. The successors are well-tried, for today’s public is more critical than that of the early century, when much of society actually believed in magic. “Today we’ve done the magic of sending men to the moon. It’s not such a big thing anymore,” says Howard Bamman, executive editor of “The Linking Ring,” the IBM’s official magazine.

On the other hand, performers today have the advantage of access to media exposure unheard of in 1926. Millions of television viewers have seen The Amazing Randi (James Randall Zwinge) writhe straitjacketed while dangling upside down over Niagara Falls, suspended by a crane. Cable television has filmed Miss Dietrich escaping from a straitjacket while hanging from a burning rope, 15 stories high.

Mr. Bamman, like most others in this realm of the entertainment industry, refuses to name an escape champion, past or present. “It’s like comparing apples and oranges,” he says. “Everything is different. Houdini had freedom of movement, for one thing. He could go to different countries and challenge the native constabulary. Today it’s unheard of. You may be able to get yourself into a jail in Russia, as he did, but you’re not going to get out. Escape artists don’t need to make challenges anymore, and local gendarmes won’t go along with it.”

Houdini’s famous boast was that he could escape from any restraining device made. He invariably was victorious. Physically equipped for the task—he could manipulate muscles at will and regurgitate swallowed picks when needed—he also acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of locks. How he would fare today against electronically operated jails and unpickable locks is a valid fantasy. Would he develop his own space-age technology to effect escapes, or ignore escapology in lieu of another phase of showmanship? Few doubt he would be a modern-day success, for what he lacked in human ability he compensated for with sheer charisma.

“All will agree that Houdini was a master showman,” Mr. Bamman says. “That was what made him: a sense for the public eye and an aura that made him seem invincible.”

“Houdini had an unusual act,” says 82-year-old Walter Gibson, one of Houdini’s last living associates and a prolific writer on illusions and escapes. “A lot of people believed that he was either supernatural or had some amazing secrets. Actually, other magicians had bigger tricks, but no one had his style.”

The closest performer to a Houdini personality today probably is The Amazing Randi, in the opinion of Bill Larsen, publisher of the Los Angeles-based conjurer’s magazine “Genii.” Randi also received the endorsement of author William Lindsay Gresham in the dedication of the biography “Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls.” “Randi is that kind of showman, reaching out, garnering publicity,” Mr. Larsen says. “He’s become known as a challenger of other performers. Sometimes he gets himself in hot water but he gets away with it, he’s such a character.”

Miss Dietrich, on the strength of her televised stunts, could claim preeminence, although she pays deference to Houdini. She essentially is a magician, distinguished as the first woman to saw a man in half; Garry Moore was one victim. But she is an ever more serious stunt artist as well, researching some projects for as long as a year.

We may consider Doug Henning, the celebrated magician who also performs such escapes as the water torture; and Norm Bigelow, a “reincarnation” of Houdini who is carried onstage in a coffin. There are so many other noteworthy escape artists one cannot begin to list them.

“There are probably a couple of thousand enthusiastic, dedicated escapologists in the United States,” reckons Joe Tanner, who does a worldwide mail-order business in escape equipment from his Great Falls, Mont., home. “I would add a minimum of 15,000 more who do mostly magic and have at least one escape trick in their act.”

No longer are handcuffs, leg irons and straitjackets the stocks in trade, Mr. Tanner notes. A current best seller is the constrictor, a strap-and-chain contrivance that pins your arms to your sides, binds your hands behind you and connects your wrists to your knees. He intones, “You’re standing there like you’re a mummy, right? And you escape from it. They come in various colors.” Constrictors were never in official use that he knows of.

Mr. Tanner has considerable respect for Houdini’s work, but he suspects “a lot of people today are equal to, or even better than, Houdini in effecting escapes.” Mr. Gibson believes that from the technical standpoint Houdini indeed was matched, and in his own lifetime. The rival was none other than Houdini’s brother and one-time partner Theo, who performed under the pseudonym “Hardeen.”

“Everybody’s overlooked Hardeen,” Mr. Gibson says. “But he did a duplicate act, except for the water torture. He probably did the overboard stunt, in which he was thrown into the water locked in a trunk, more times than Houdini did. Every secret that Houdini had belonged to Hardeen, too. But you can’t rate them. In stunts you either do it or you don’t. Aside from that, and personality, there’s really nothing to compare.”

Houdini and Hardeen at one time toured opposite each other, no one realizing they were brothers. “I remember once while Houdini was up there getting out of the straitjacket, hanging in mid-air, Hardeen had kids handing out Hardeen pamphlets to the crowd,” Mr. Gibson says. “That was one time Houdini really got mad at him.”

The question remains: Was—and is—Harry Houdini the escape doyen he claimed to be?

Mr. Gibson gives a final yes-and-no. “A great many have surpassed him in certain ways,” he observes. “But the thing about Houdini was that he was unique. He was very dynamic. He did things his own way. As a showman he was the equal of Barnum—and he did his own pitch.”

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