APPLETON, Wisconsin – “What do you fancy?” Sid asked. “A Houdini lager or maybe a hand-crafted Houdini English stout? It’s all the rage.”
My reply consisted of two “ums” and one “er.”
The barman looked at me as if I might be a Lutheran. So I went for a stout. In a deep voice. Sid had the same.
Eighty-eight-year-old Sid Radner is the greatest living authority on Harry Houdini. He has just sold his Houdini memorabilia collection for $3 million. Magician David Copperfield bought some items, including the original Chinese water torture tank patented in 1913.
“People think you are a nut if they know all you collect are milk churns, leg irons, manacles, shackles, punishment suits and straitjackets!” Sid was giving me a guided tour of Houdini’s home town in Wisconsin. You cannot escape the great escapologist Harry Houdini in Appleton, two hours north of Milwaukee and one hour south of Green Bay.
Downtown there is the Houdini Bar and Lounge as well as the Houdini Elementary School. In 1987 the pupils decided that they wanted their school named after the world’s most famous magician and greatest escapologist. The school motto is “The Magic of Learning. The Magic Begins Here.”
Harry Houdini, born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest in 1874, spent the first nine years of his life in the town now famous for dairy farming and the production of fire engines. Houdini’s father, Samuel Mayer Weiss, was the town rabbi. He preached above Heckert’s Saloon, which is now a carpet shop and bridal outfitters.
Sharim’s Rug Store has become a historic landmark and is part of Appleton’s Houdini Historic Walking Tour which takes in the site of the king of handcuffs’ boyhood home, which is now a could-be-anywhere shopping plaza with a Houdini town clock overlooking a multistory parking garage.
The only physical landmark left from Houdini’s days is the wooden Temple Zion synagogue at 320 North Durkhee Street, which was built around the time Rabbi Weiss was sacked from his $750-a-year job for not being able to preach in English. It was built in Stick/Eastlake style by the architect Henry Ashman. Appleton’s first major, a livery stable owner called David Hammel, probably had a say in its construction. It catered originally to German Jews and ultimately the Reform Jewish community.
The Weiss family moved to Milwaukee in 1883. Records reveal that Houdini’s mother, Cecilia, had to appeal to the Hebrew Relief Society for a half a ton of coal and food for the winter. Houdini and his brothers, Nathan and William, shined shoes and worked as newspaper boys for the Milwaukee Journal.
Their father became a kosher butcher. Houdini took his name from the French illusionist Robert-Eugene Houdini. He died in 1926 in Detroit and is buried in Brooklyn, New York.
“Houdini is Wisconsin’s favorite son along with Senator Eugene McCarthy, Frank Lloyd Wright and Liberace,” said Radner as we walked down Appleton’s leafy side streets.
Appleton is also famous for the US’s first enclosed shopping mall. It also had the country’s first hotel with electrified lighting.
Moaning about his prostate, Sid took me for a comfort stop at the Waverley Beach Hotel, a very bright homogenized modern motel with a “comfort dome” and all-you-can-eat buffets.
The original Waverley Hotel was where Houdini reputedly was taught his first trick by a clerk. It is now a travel agency.
DOWNTOWN APPLETON has nothing to rave about, but if you go a few blocks south you get to the river where Houdini nearly drowned and where he saw his first circus. There is a wireworks factory and a couple of bridges and three locks which are on the National Register of Historic Places. So are some of its Victorian and Queen Anne-style houses which are found north of the main drag. Franklin Street is perhaps the most picturesque street and the best example of what Appleton once was.
Being in Wisconsin, you are very conscious of cheese. But being in Appleton, you are very conscious of its civil and mechanical landmarks as well as its magical ones. We walked beside the Fox River and Sid pointed out the site of the world’s first hydroelectric plant.
Sid Radner worked with Houdini’s brother, Hardeen, at the Lamb’s Club in New York.
“It was through him that I began collecting playbills, padlocks, chain-wrapped butter churns and fetters,” he said. “The obsession took hold. I found Houdini’s first performing contract, the only recording of his voice and his own scrapbooks.”
The History Museum at the Castle and the Outgamie District Museum opposite the Taste of Thai restaurant have many Houdini-related artifacts on show. The museum gift shop sells straitjackets for $300.
“He was an amazing man. He performed everywhere. Even in Russia,” said
local construction company executive Tom Boldt, the person responsible
for putting commemorative plaques around Appleton and creating the
Houdini Historic Walking Trail. “There wasn’t much he couldn’t do.
Except perhaps drive. He was the first man to fly a plane in Australia.
We have been trying to track down the Viosin biplane he used in 1910.”
With Radner, Boldt organizes the annual official Houdini séance. This
year it will be held on Halloween (October 31, the day of Houdini’s
death) at the Fantasma Magic Shop in New York.
Houdini promised to send a message through from the other side, if there was an other side or an afterlife.
During his life, Harry Houdini debunked spiritualism and exposed phoney
mediums. In 1924, he went on a lecture tour called “A Magician Among the
Spirits” and published a book about it. The final act of his last stage
show was called “Do the Dead Come Back?” in which he named and shamed
mediums whom he believed were fraudulent.
“We all look forward to the séance,” Boldt said. “There is a code that
only Sid knows. And we usually place some handcuffs on the table. If
Harry comes through, he would know how to open them. Harry was the
ultimate showman. He once said that only when people were sure he was
licked would he appear. He was a master of suspense.”
We gravitated back to the Between the Locks bar to toast Appleton and
its Houdini heritage. The hospitality is hard to get out of when you are
among Houdini fans. We ordered Weiss beer. A pitcher of the stuff. We
clinked glasses. Tom winked at me. “How many magicians have had beer
named after them? That’s fame. That’s eternity!”
“Don’t forget Appleton’s Houdini bagels either,” added Sid, making more than a mouthful disappear.