Coincidence?

Posted on July 12th, 2018 by

A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here

From the beginning the Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini exhibit has been full of coincidences and surprises and  the surprises didn’t end on opening day.  Here is an amazing story from last week:

We held a member/donor preview of the exhibit on June 21.  In addition to our members and project donors we (as is customary) invited a select group of public officials to the event.  Among these was Maryland’s Secretary of State, John Wobensmith, who had been kind enough to participate in our opening for Yad Vashem’s Beyond Duty exhibit last February.

Secretary Wobensmith showed up for the Houdini preview carrying a folio.  He said “my grandfather was Harry Houdini’s patent attorney and I brought with some correspondence between them.”  I admit that this seemed like such a strange coincidence that I barely knew what to say.  Given the evening’s busy schedule, I did not have time to peruse the folio, but the Secretary invited me to his office in Annapolis to take a closer look.

Last Thursday I was able to make a visit and what I found was astonishing.  The Secretary had inherited not one small folio but at least three binders of material related to his grandfather’s work.  Moreover, James Chambers Wobensmith (1879-1973) was much more than Houdini’s patent attorney, he was a magician in his own right.  He founded the Philadelphia chapter of the Society of American Magicians and in 1930 was elected national president of the Society, immediately succeeding Houdini’s brother (Theo) Hardeen.  He was ultimately elected to the Society’s Hall of Fame.

It also turns out that Wobensmith wasn’t just Houdini’s patent attorney, but the leading patent attorney for magicians in his time (including patenting tricks of the famous magician Thurston). For the most part, Houdini avoided patenting his magic (he didn’t want to expose how his tricks were done).  His work with Wobensmith was focused on more pragmatic technologies, such as his “easy escape” diving suit, featured in our exhibit, or film development processes (from the days when Houdini ran his own movie studio).

Wobensmith was also a confederate in Houdini’s third act – his crusade against phoney mediums.  Wobensmith gave Houdini legal advice and even participated on stage in Houdini’s exposure of a particularly prominent Philadelphia Spiritualist.  Remarkably, Wobensmith’s work on the project did not end with Houdini’s death in 1926.  Mrs. Houdini (Bess) had offered a substantial reward to anyone who could bring her a message from her husband from the great beyond.  Wobensmith stepped in to protect the estate from unscrupulous frauds like “the Mysterious Raymond” who tried to trick a grieving widow into awarding them the cash.

But the most amazing thing I saw last Thursday was not a document with Houdini’s signature or a patent drawing.  It was one of several newspaper clippings about the Houdinis that Wobensmith had collected.  In January 1933, Bess Houdini gave an extensive interview to the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (at one time America’s largest circulation evening daily).  Just two passages from the article will reveal just how interesting it was:

“I can’t give up the idea of someday hearing definitely from him [Harry}.  I suppose it is my early Catholic upbringing that makes me think perhaps the delay [in receiving a posthumous message from Harry] is penance for some act done long ago.

I never make any decision without calling on Harry for help – I get an answer, maybe from my subconscious mind, which knows from long associations how he would act under certain conditions.

Harry was religious.  He believed in the Jewish religion and in an afterlife where we would all be together.  He did not believe in spirit messages though he had an open mind and was willing to believe, as I am if he could be given real proof”

And later in the article –

They played many amusing games together [Bess and Houdini], which they never told for he was afraid of being thought sentimental.

They had no children, so Houdini created a dream child, a son named after his own father Mayer Samuel.  In their large New York home, he occupied the fourth floor, while his wife’s quarters were on the third.  He sent her many letters by the maid about how the son was getting on.  The letters only stopped when the son became President of the United States.

I closed the binder, thanked the Secretary of State, and as I exited I thought “how improbable was this encounter?” to learn something about the mind of Harry Houdini in a government office in Annapolis… it seemed about as likely as running into a Jewish magician at Artscape and deciding to create an exhibit!

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From Game Design to Scheduling: JMM Interning is More than Meets the Eye

Posted on July 11th, 2018 by

Blog post by JMM intern Justine “Ellie” Smith. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.

Over the course of the last five weeks I have gained valuable knowledge about the inner workings of programming and education at the JMM. Before coming to the JMM I had no idea about how much planning it took for museums to host events and create successful educational opportunities. So much goes into putting on a program and the small details really make a difference.

For the opening of Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini, we transformed the lobby space into a cocktail area. We set up a buffet and bar as well as seating areas. Each of these areas was then decorated to fit with the magic theme. We built houses of cards that adorned the tables and crated flower arrangements with magic wands that we placed throughout the space. To add to the ambiance of the space we hung the concept art for the exhibit on some of the walls. To give the space some more visual intrigue we created a mobile with playing cards and suspended it above the buffet area. These small details really made the night special.

For the Magic of Jonestown Festival we worked to create interactive magic themed crafts that children could create at the JMM table. After some experimenting we figured out how to make magic wands with smoothie straws, construction paper, and electrical tape and how to make magicians hats out of paper. The kids who came to the table really seemed to enjoy the crafts and it was something special for them to take home.

Before starting this summer, I thought programming was just speakers and book signing but it is so much more than that. It is all about creating experiences that connect people with the museum and offer them something different. I have been working on programming for Stitching History from the Holocaust which will open in the spring and it is a lot more challenging than I expected. The process of finding the best fit for our events is challenging but completely worth it. After seeing how popular the Houdini programs have been I cannot wait to finalize the program ideas for the spring and I can only hope they will be as popular.

The education department here at the JMM works very hard to connect to schools, camps, and other groups. We are not only working to education children but also their teachers. We host the Summer Teachers Institute which focuses on Holocaust education. This year we are focusing our attention on primary sources in the classroom. Teachers learn valuable skills which they can take back to their classes which creates a higher standard of Holocaust education. We are in the preparation stage for this event currently. We are creating schedules and emailing confirmations to those who have signed up.

Closer to the event we will have a lot of other preparation to do such as folders and gathering materials to share with the teachers. The Summer Teachers Institute was one of the main reasons I wanted to work at the JMM. Holocaust education is extremely important but is often ignored or glossed over in the school system. By providing teachers with resources and lesson plan ideas we can makes sure this important topic is discussed in classrooms.

The education department also hosts school and camp groups. We have educational activities to do with the kids. The first school group that came in was here to learn about the Holocaust and to hear from a survivor. We did an activity using pictures from our collection and asked the kids to explain what they thought was happening in the picture. The kids loved interacting with the primary sources and were able to be creative when coming up with their answers.

For Houdini we created the vanishing elephant game. Kids are put into group and each child is given a question (which are based on the Houdini exhibit). The kids then come back together and the answers reveal a code. They then have to break the code and reveal a secret message.

Our first camp group did an excellent job but it was clear that if we had younger kids this was not going to work. So we got to work on creating a version of the game for younger children. We changed some of the questions and eliminated the code breaker books. This new version allows for us to host a larger range of age groups. Seeing kids go through the exhibits and ask questions is what makes it all worthwhile. Knowing that we are providing a memorable and educational experience to these groups of kids is extremely rewarding.

I never thought that crafting, game design, and program creation would be part of my summer at the JMM but I am grateful that it is. Through this internship I am getting to see everything that goes into the program and education departments. It may be challenging some days but it is necessary. We are providing unique experiences for all patrons, the youngest to the oldest, and that is what a museum is all about. We are connecting to people on a deeper level through our programs and educational opportunities. These connections create lasting impressions and memories that will last a lifetime.

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Once Upon a Time…10.27.2017

Posted on July 10th, 2018 by

 The Baltimore Jewish Times publishes unidentified photographs from the collection of Jewish Museum of Maryland each week. If you can identify anyone in these photos and more information about them, contact Joanna Church by email at jchurch@jewishmuseummd.org

JMM 2006.13.3236

Date run in Baltimore Jewish Times: October 27, 2017

PastPerfect Accession #: 2006.013.3236

Status: Identified! Participants in the JCC Youth Spring Show, 1977. Left to right: Mindy Shapiro, Moshe Tom Heyn, Tina (or Dena) Segel

Thanks To: Howard Goodman, Minday Shapiro, Geri Miller

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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