In 1923, a man strapped in a leather straitjacket was hoisted upside down and dangled outside The San Francisco Examiner offices at the Hearst Building on the corner of Third and Market streets, 100 feet above 30,000 people.
In less than three minutes he wriggled free, to the uproarious applause of the crowd. The man was Harry Houdini, the date was March 19, and Oscar H. Fernbach, The Examiner reporter on duty, wrote: “For a moment he was motionless. Then a ripple seemed in play along his spine. A systematic rhythmic convulsion was going on inside that straitjacket.”
Film footage of Houdini performing his legendary Straitjacket Escape is on view at the Jewish Contemporary Museum in “Houdini: Art and Magic,” an exhibit organized by The Jewish Museum, New York, that captures the essence of the provocateur who toyed with definitions of deception, illusion, mystery, truth and exposure, compelling audiences for generations beyond his lifetime.
Theater posters, personal diaries, photographs, books, newspaper clippings, handcuffs and props such as the padlocked Milk Can, the Metamorphosis Trunk and Water Torture Chamber replica, are all included in the show, immersing the viewer in Houdini hype and creating an atmosphere of wonder.
How did he do it?
Film footage doesn’t reveal the answers, but Houdini is all the more mesmerizing for it. His violent tugs beneath the leather straps of the straitjacket are bizarre, foreign and hypnotic, appearing counter-productive until he flaps his arms free like a butterfly finally emerging from its cocoon.
In another, he is handcuffed before flinging his body off of a bridge and emerging, nanoseconds later, with his arms flailing freely.
As a child, Houdini became adept at opening locks from his mother’s forbidden sweet cupboards to an apprenticeship with a locksmith. Born Erik Weisz in Budapest in 1874, he was one of seven children and the son of a rabbi. The family immigrated to the U.S. in 1878, first living in Appleton, Wis., and then in New York City.
As a teen, Houdini excelled at boxing, swimming and running, which served him well for the remainder of his career.
Although his work depended on sustaining the element of mystery, Houdini often exposed methods of séance artists who made their audience believe they could communicate with the dead.
He occasionally revealed his own methods. In a 1914 article for the Ladies Home Journal, he explained how he wriggled himself free after being tied to a chair. His answer: muscles, leverage and soft, flexible shoes.
“Houdini: Art and Magic” offers more than historic documentation. Houdini-inspired works by notable contemporary artists such as Petah Coyne, Raymond Pettibon and Matthew Barney, among others, feature prominently in the show, amplifying the resonance of the powerful stuntman who remains a mystery.
IF YOU GO
Where: Jewish Contemporary Museum, 736 Mission St., San Francisco
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except closed Wednesdays and 1 to 8 p.m. Thursdays; exhibit closes Jan. 16
Tickets: $5 to $12
Contact: (415) 655-7800, www.thecjm.org