THE “ICE escape” is a trademark fixture of David Merlini’s repertoire. It involves him lying down in a sealed metal tank containing 400 gallons of water that is then fast-frozen with liquid nitrogen to encase him in a solid block of ice. He’s wearing a straitjacket for good measure.The hefty block is then raised upright while Merlini, a seasoned Hungarian- Italian escape artist, is trapped visibly inside at freezing temperatures and with barely any air to breathe. During the edge-of-yourseat stunt, he will need to keep his composure and hold his breath for several minutes.Using blowtorches, his assistants proceed to melt off the outer layer of the ice before one of them retrieves a chainsaw to cut into the thawing block at front and back, creating crack lines. “One false move and Merlini would be cut up like a chunk of frozen meat,” the narrator related breathlessly at a recent World Magic Awards event in Los Angeles, where the magician showcased the act, winning the Best Escape Artist prize. “Remember, he’s still holding his breath.”
He continues to do so, as do members of the audience, while two of his on-stage assistants set about pounding the block of ice with a pair of sledgehammers. Should they smash too hard, Merlini could end up with broken bones. Finally, once his icy prison is suitably loosened, Merlini pries it open from the inside and out he steps, straitjacket in hand, to cheers and applause.Two years ago, while performing the stunt on live television in Italy, he did end up with broken bones. As he stepped out of the collapsing block of ice, a heavy piece of it fell on his right leg, fracturing both his tibia and fibula. “I was numb from the ice and didn’t really feel it,” he recalls. He only realized his leg was badly broken when he looked down and saw it dangling at a crooked angle.Undaunted, Merlini continues to perform the act, which he invented himself. “I think,” he opines, “Houdini would love my ice escape.” The legendary Jewish-Hungarian escape artist might also like the private museum Merlini has created in his honor. A labor of love, it’s a lavish, 2 million euro tribute to his boyhood idol.Housed in a repurposed ground-floor apartment in a quaint two-story building in Budapest’s historic Castle District on scenic Buda Castle Hill, The House of Houdini opened in June 2016. It pays homage to Harry Houdini, who was born in Budapest as Erik Weisz in 1874 and emigrated at age four with his family to the United States, where he would become the American Dream personified.His inventive death-defying exploits and meticulously cultivated daredevil persona turned Houdini into the king of vaudeville, who is still widely celebrated as the greatest illusionist who has ever lived.Houdini was a consummate showman who didn’t flinch from resorting to hyperbole and legerdemain, and he remains as popular as ever with a steady stream of books, plays and films continuing to appear about him.“His staying power in the public imagination is really amazing,” says John Cox, a Hollywood screenwriter who is one of the world’s leading authorities on Houdini. “It’s fair to say he’s even more popular today than he was in his own time. I think it’s because his name has come to be associated with the miraculous. He’s become part of popular culture.”The House of Houdini itself testifies to the staying power of the great magician, who has been dead for almost a century. It seems, in parts, to be less a museum than an elaborate shrine to Houdini. Its very name simultaneously evokes an aura of mystery and an air of dynastic legitimacy. It duly provides both.Visitors gain entry via a mock-up of an old bank vault’s steel door by answering a puzzle beside a life-size wax sculpture of Houdini, frozen perpetually in the act of ridding himself of a pair of manacles. Inside awaits Merlini’s private collection of Houdini memorabilia. Letters penned by Houdini. Sepia portraits of him with his beloved mother, Cecilia, and his wife, Bess. Copies of his books. Contemporary posters publicizing Houdini’s various performances. A variety of props used in “Houdini,” the 2014 History Channel miniseries, which was filmed in Budapest and stars Jewish- American actor Adrien Brody, whose mother was born in the Hungarian capital.“I believe in the energy of objects,” says Merlini, who served as a technical adviser for the series. He helped train Brody and design “magic effects,” for which he used replicas of Houdini’s stage props, including his famed “Chinese Water Torture Cell” and a brightly painted milk can that is now on display in his museum. “I like to hold old objects, inspect them and learn the history behind them,” he elucidates, indicating the milk can, the original of which Houdini used in his famous “milk can escape,” a stunt that saw him make his way out of the water-filled can after being squeezed and locked into it in handcuffs. “Many of Houdini’s props were real works of art.”They were also ingenious. The best escape stunts are meticulously designed and choreographed with painstaking attention to every last detail. Beyond athletic feats of endurance and steely nerves, they require plenty of ingenuity.Take the straitjacket Merlini wears in his “ice escape.” It seems to bind him, adding an extra hurdle he must overcome to break free. In fact, the padded jacket helps insulate him against the freezing cold within the ice, where he needs to stay still for long minutes.
In this, too, Houdini was a trailblazer – a restless innovator and clever inventor. He designed new handcuffs, devised a special diving suit that allowed its wearer to slip out of it underwater, and invented a magician’s belt that rotated on ball bearings, allowing him to access picks and keys stored in its hidden compartments by manipulating it with his elbows while his wrists were tied.Yet, Houdini kept many of his inventions secret. So secret, in fact, that it remains a puzzle how he pulled off some of his greatest illusions, including “The Vanishing Elephant,” in which he made a five-ton pachyderm disappear in New York’s 5,300-seat Hippodrome Theater in 1918 right in front of a stupefied audience. (He used a specially built jumbo- sized cabinet, which has since been lost.) “Unlike [those of] other magicians of his time, Houdini’s feats are still baffling and awe-inspiring even to a modern audience,” says Cox, who lives in Los Angeles, from where he runs “Wild About Harry,” a popular website devoted to the legendary illusionist. “We still puzzle over how he could escape from a locked prison cell after he has been stripped and searched. He’s contemporary in that way,” Cox explains. “His life story continues to evolve along with his legend. I’m constantly learning new things about him.”FOR HIS fans, even simple objects Houdini once owned are imbued with his magic. At pride of place among the exhibits in The House of Houdini, within a custom-made display case with bulletproof glass and microclimate humidity control, is the Weisz family’s English-language Bible from Appleton, Wisconsin, where Erik’s father received a new posting in 1878 as the rabbi of a Reform congregation. The book is open to a page signed by Erik, now calling himself Ehrich, in his cursive handwriting. It’s flanked by certifiably authentic handcuffs and leg irons that Houdini employed in his high-octane acts of escapology. These items alone cost Merlini a fortune.“I did this museum for Houdini,” he explains, sitting on a period sofa in the museum’s parlor, which is decorated in opulent, fin de siècle style with a proper stage on one side where 12 in-house magicians take turns entertaining visitors. You half expect Houdini to materialize any minute somehow, perhaps conjuring himself into a physical form from his life-size shadow that is painted on a wall.“I’ve got so much from him. I’ve made money. I’ve toured the world. I’ve made new friends,” Merlini says. “And it’s all thanks to the art of escape. Houdini inspired me to have this career and showed me what was possible.”Merlini pops into his little office. It’s located behind a movable bookcase packed with leather-bound tomes. Perching on the top shelf is Napoleon, a tabby tomcat from next door that comes daily to traverse the premises and now surveys goings-on from above with proprietorial interest. Momentarily, Merlini produces a small case and clicks it open to show off its contents: 11 silver spoons. Each is bent out of shape in the middle. The set is a gift he received from one of those friends: the Israeli “spoon bender” and self-proclaimed psychic Uri Geller, whose father was a Hungarian Jew.One wonders what Houdini would have made of Geller’s claim that he can bend spoons with just the power of his mind. The great magician, who himself appeared at times to defy the laws of nature with his acts, famously had it in for self-styled psychics. He dedicated years of his life to exposing spiritualists, mediums and other charlatans who preyed on the gullible by claiming to possess supernatural powers.“Forget the spoons,” Merlini says, almost apologetically. “But Uri does some things that are hard to explain,” he adds.He’s less charitable about a self-professed magus who lives in the apartment upstairs. From his “Karma Studio,” the man plies his trade reading palms, putting on hexes, “undoing curses” and communicating with spirits. He’s a dark-haired fellow who gazes intently in his publicity photos and shares the customary proclivity of occultists for crystal balls, plastic skulls and tarot cards.“He’s a bully,” Merlini insists. Since Merlini refused to sell the man’s magic potions in his museum and asked him to stop parking his motorcycle outside its doors, the magus, who is a minor celebrity in Budapest, has turned on him, warning the magician about unspecified “consequences.” The self-styled magus doesn’t like Houdini and Jews much either, the magician attests. Mockingly, Merlini has placed a period poster of Houdini at the building’s gate so the man has to pass it daily: in it Houdini promises to expose “fake mediums and their methods.”“IT’S IRONIC, isn’t it?” Merlini says with a chuckle, referring to the opening of his tribute to Houdini, the bane of psychics, literally right under the nose of one. “Talk about coincidence!” It hasn’t been the only coincidence. Merlini, whose mother is a Hungarian pop singer and whose father is an Italian painter, was born in 1978 on the same date, October 31, that Houdini died 52 years prior, in 1926, at age 52. Then there’s this: Houdini was born in Budapest and taken to a new country, the US, at age four; Merlini was born in Budapest and taken to a new country, Italy, at age three. In their new homes, both boys developed an abiding passion for magic very early on.Such coincidences can be formative, even if you don’t read too much into them. There they may remain, stored in a vault at the back of your mind, subconsciously guiding your choices in life.And so it proved with Merlini. He first came upon these parallels between Houdini’s life and his own, as a budding teenage magician in the Italian town of Turin, where he grew up, while perusing an old, dogeared compendium about Houdini – a copy of which he still keeps. By then, he had been dabbling in magic for years, practicing sleight of hand, mastering misdirection and building his own props.“When I was four, I started collecting padlocks and keys and doing magic tricks,” he recalls, revealing yet another similarity to Houdini, who was forever toying with locks, padlocks and cuffs, the better to open them at will. “I’m still like that,” Merlini adds. “Give me a padlock and I can play with it for hours.”He also began performing whenever he could. During a stay in Eilat, Israel, in 1991 with his mother, who signed on to sing at local hotels, Merlini then 13, convinced a manager to let him entertain the guests with his magic tricks. “He offered to pay me one dollar for each minute of my show,” Merlini says. “I used the money to buy my first real pair of handcuffs in Jerusalem.”Barely out of high school, he returned to Budapest to pursue the art of escapology in his and Houdini’s native land. “I wanted to become a part of Houdini’s legend,” Merlini says. “I wanted to reproduce some of his stunts with some new twists.”In 1912, Houdini debuted his “Underwater Box Escape,” wherein he was handcuffed and locked in a wooden crate that was then trussed and chained before being lowered from a barge into New York’s East River. After two and a half minutes underwater, Houdini popped up to the surface. Scientific American magazine declared his stunt “one of the most remarkable tricks ever performed.”
In August 1996, Merlini, then 17, had himself handcuffed and locked in a perforated steel box that was welded shut and lowered by a Hungarian strongman into the Danube from Budapest’s famed Chain Bridge. He freed himself underwater and swam to the surface. He became an instant sensation in Hungary.“It was one of my first Houdini stunts,” Merlini says.It wasn’t his last. Several Houdiniinspired stunts would follow.Houdini had himself buried alive, only to claw himself out from six feet under. Merlini likewise cheated death by escaping from a glass coffin. Houdini set himself on fire to show he could escape being burned alive. Merlini had himself handcuffed to the steering wheel of a car that was doused in gasoline and set alight... while being hoisted 66 feet above ground by a crane, then dropped. He emerged unscathed from the vehicle’s smoldering ruins.On the side, he set a series of world records for holding his breath underwater in a glass tank, achieving a stunning 21 minutes and 29 seconds as his personal best.In 2004, Merlini decided to raise the stakes on Houdini’s old “escape from a watery grave” stunt by adding some extra “Wow!” effect. This time, he had himself embedded up to his neck in a concrete cube weighing 3.5 tons, which was then lowered by a crane to the bottom of the Danube while 20,000 people watched from the banks and 2 million more on live television.“It was dark down there. You couldn’t see a thing,” he recalls. “We almost drowned.” He and two scuba divers waiting underwater to secretly free him, that is.Because of the low visibility in the murky water, Merlini used a fishing line to reel in his two helpers so they could get to him on time without becoming disoriented. They had only a few minutes before Merlini, who had no access to oxygen, would drown. Strong underwater currents caught the line, however, making it difficult to pull. Then, all three of them got entangled in it.In the end Merlini managed to make it to the surface.“THEY LIFTED me up out of the river with a helicopter. There was champagne, fireworks, big headlines,” Merlini remembers. “But you can’t imagine what the fishing line did to my hands. They felt numb, like I had gloves on. I still have scars on my palms all these years later,” he adds, showing off thick bands of calloused skin. “The river was cold and polluted and I got salmonella. I was sick for months afterwards.”Then again, Houdini never said it was going to be easy. He trained endlessly for years and decades, pushing himself physically ever harder to the very edge of endurance and often well past it.“I have struggled with iron and steel, with locks and chains; I have burned, drowned, and frozen till my body has become almost insensible to pain; I have done things which rightly I could not do, because I said to myself ‘You must’; and now I am old at 36,” Houdini explained.Merlini is 38 and clearly feels the same.“I have constantly gone against my better judgment because I wanted to prove something, because I wanted to follow so much in the footsteps of Harry Houdini,” he says. But, at my age, now I’d never allow myself to be encased in a large block of concrete and sunk to the bottom of a river.”The art of escapology can serve as thrilling escapism for spectators but can take its toll on its practitioners.“A six-minute stunt can cost you months of your life,” Merlini explains. “You don’t sleep, you don’t drink, you don’t eat. They handcuff you. They lock you in a box. You need to go through a protocol of things just to survive.”But he’s not going to stop just yet.“I guess I have another 15 years in me,” he says. “I’m working on a new stunt. It’s going to be big.”What stunt? “Can you keep a secret? So can I,” he quips. “Out of every 10 ideas for a new stunt, only one will work” is all he allows.He’ll tell you all about his museum, though.The House of Houdini, Merlini says, has attracted some 10,000 visitors since it opened and he’s planning to launch an adjacent Houdini-themed café.His tribute to Houdini has already helped rekindle interest among Hungarians in the Budapest-born grand master of magic. In November, “Houdini the Magical Musical,” a song-and-dance show with live magic acts, debuted in Budapest, selling out all its performances.His museum also has put Budapest back on the map for the legions of Houdini aficionados around the world. “I can’t believe it’s taken this long to have something in Budapest devoted to Houdini!” Cox observes. “David Merlini is passionate about magic, escapology and Houdini, as well as Houdini’s connection to Budapest, so he’s been the perfect person to build a museum in Houdini’s true birth place.”
Ultimately, though, Merlini has created his museum for a man who will never be able to visit it.“I’m not sure what Houdini would think of my museum,” the escape artist ponders. “Would he like it, or would he think I was exploiting his legend? For me, it’d be enough if he was happy with it.”