Finding Houdini: Bringing Houdini back to Maryland

Posted on September 19th, 2017 by

We are thrilled to introduce a new blog series, Finding Houdini, from guest curator David London! David will be sharing his adventures as he tracks down the exciting ephemara, daring details, and fascinating facts on who some might call America’s Greatest Magician: Harry Houdini.


 

In July, while performing at Baltimore’s annual Artscape Festival, I unwittingly called Marvin Pinkert on stage to help assist a piece of magic. At the time I didn’t know that it was Marvin, or that he led the Jewish Museum of Maryland, but the trick worked, people were fooled and entertained, and we all went about our merry ways. That was less than two months ago today, and neither Marvin nor I could have imagined where we would find ourselves today.

A week after that show, I received an email from Marvin titled simply “Houdini exhibit”. He was inspired, and I was intrigued. Emails turned to phone calls. Phone calls turned to meetings. And meetings turned into a vision: Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini coming to the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Summer 2018.

The World's Handcuff King & Prison Breaker

The World’s Handcuff King & Prison Breaker

I have had an interest in Houdini since I was a kid. On a Houdini poster for his Water Torture Cell escape that hung above my bed since I was an early teen, claimed the act as: “THE GREATEST SENSATIONAL MYSTERY EVER ATTEMPTED IN THIS OR ANY OTHER AGE.”

Aside from the lofty claim itself, I find myself particularly fascinated with the phrase “this or any other age,” for the most amazing thing Houdini ever accomplished was to become the most famous magician and escape artist of all time, who to this day, over 90 years after his death, is still synonymous with magic. But despite being known around the world, few people know his incredible story of transformation from Erik Weisz, Hungarian-born son of a rabbi, to Harry Houdini, the Master Mystifier.

Born in Budapest in 1874, just 9 years after the end of the American Civil War, and uniquely balanced between two centuries, the first 26 years of Houdini’s life were the final 26 years of the 19th Century. Houdini found himself uniquely positioned  at a critical time of transformation, innovation, and radical progress in America and the world. 1874 to 1900 saw the invention of film, radio, wireless communication, the incandescent light bulb, the internal combustion engine, and skyscrapers. These first 26 years of Houdini’s life also saw endless hardship and struggle, which Houdini combatted with big dreams and sheer determination.

Before turning our focus to the second 26 years of Houdini’s life, where Houdini achieved the fame and fortune we are all familiar with, the exhibition will provide an in-depth exploration of Houdini’s early life, including his formative years in Appleton, WI, Milwaukee, and New York City. We will provide a focus on Houdini’s father, Rabbi Samuel Mayer Weiss, and Houdini’s other early Jewish influences, before we hit the road with Houdini, as he travels around the country during his early years in “The Show Business.”

Houdini’s early career, from changing his name to Harry Houdini in 1891  to signing a contract with the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit in 1899, is both a fascinating and often overlooked period in the Houdini story. Trying to make ends meet, Houdini took every gig he could, jumping from town to town, hoping for his big break, while attempting to realize his calling be a professional magician. At this time in his career, Houdini touched many of the most critical constructs in early American popular entertainment and spectacle– circus, sideshows, dime museums, medicine shows, the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and finally vaudeville.

When he “hit the big time,” Houdini needed the world as much as the world needed him. As a symbol of freedom and self-liberation, and after years of trying to make ends meet, Houdini became a worldwide sensation on a scale which we will never see again.

I have been tasked with bringing Houdini back to Maryland. I say back, as Houdini made at least 7 appearances in Maryland in the early 20th Century including at least five appearances right here in Baltimore. In the amazing photo below, courtesy of Fred Pittella’s Houdini and Escape Museum, a crowd of over 50,000 gathers on Charles Street in Baltimore on April 26, 1916, to witness Houdini escape from a straitjacket while suspended high above.

At various times in his career, from 1905 – 1917, Houdini performed at The Maryland Theater in Baltimore, a now defunct  2,000 seat vaudeville house on Franklin Street. In 1925, he kicked off his world tour at The Maryland Theatre in Cumberland, MD, certainly not knowing at the time that it would be his final tour.

In order to bring Houdini back to Maryland, I must first find him. Aside from inside the hearts, minds, and imaginations of his beloved fans both past and present, where does one go looking for the legend himself? Countless biographies, newspaper clippings, photographs, and personal accounts help paint the picture. The story becomes more clear while digging through private and public collections of Houdini items across the country. On this blog, I will document my adventures as I embark on my quest of Finding Houdini, and bringing him to the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

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A “Just Married!” Extra – An Artistic (and Popular) Ketubah

Posted on September 7th, 2017 by

Curators have to make choices: not everything can make it into an exhibit, and there’s seldom enough space to share every interesting fact about the things that are on display. That’s where social media comes in! Here’s a closer look at another “Just Married” story from JMM collections manager and Just Married! curator Joanna Church. To read more “Just Married!” extras, click here. To read more posts from Joanna, click here.


 

One of the joys of exhibit research is discovering unexpectedly-related artifacts, documents, and photos across the full spectrum of the collection; it’s like finding new pieces to a puzzle you didn’t even realize was incomplete.  Such was the case with Samson Margolis’s “Artistic Ketubah,” designed in the mid 20th century.

Margolis (1897-1972), a Baltimore artist and calligrapher, shows up frequently in our archives: we have a nice collection of his business files, printing plates, and tools, donated by his son and daughter-in-law, and in addition his work can be found on many certificates, awards, and posters from a variety of sources. These include original, hand-inked pieces as well as printed documents available for purchase and customization. Popular items were his memorial book, a family history book, and – relevant to my exhibit research – an illuminated marriage certificate.  His ketubah is bright and colorful, with text in English and Aramaic, as became common for most movements in the mid 20th century. It is suitable for framing, but can also be folded into a booklet; some versions included a keepsake envelope for storage.

Margolis ketubah, front and back when folded into a booklet. From wedding of Rose and Morton Miller, 1952. Gift of Rosedale Cemetery Association. JMM 1996.25.2

Margolis ketubah, front and back when folded into a booklet. From wedding of Rose and Morton Miller, 1952. Gift of Rosedale Cemetery Association. JMM 1996.25.2

A blank copy of this ketubah was included in the Margolis files along with other examples of his work, but digging deeper I found another unused copy, from the collection of Dr. Louis L. Kaplan (who performed many marriages in 20th century Baltimore), and this one, from the wedding of Rose Siegel and Morton Miller, married by Rabbi Samuel Vitsick on February 21, 1952.

Margolis ketubah used by Rose and Morton Miller, 1952. Gift of Rosedale Cemetery Association. JMM 1996.25.2

Margolis ketubah used by Rose and Morton Miller, 1952. Gift of Rosedale Cemetery Association. JMM 1996.25.2

After taking a close look at these various copies, I started spotting it in photos.  A 1979 snapshot (showing Jesse Hellman signing his Margolis ketubah, watched by his bride Debby Salganik and their officiant Dr. Kaplan) is included in the “Just Married!” exhibit, along with the fresh copy donated by the Margolis family; but eagle-eyed visitors might have noticed that in the 1994 wedding video in the exhibit entrance, Shurron Ann Shapiro and Andrew Carpel sign a Margolis ketubah under the guidance of Rabbi Morris Kosman of Beth Sholom, Frederick.  So far, the earliest photographic evidence of this ketubah can be found in the wedding album of Barbara Sue Levy and Bernard Dackman, who were married April 4, 1951 at Beth Tfiloh.

Bernard Dackman signs his ketubah, 1951. Photo by Bradford Bachrach. Courtesy of Ilene Dackman-Alon.

Bernard Dackman signs his ketubah, 1951. Photo by Bradford Bachrach. Courtesy of Ilene Dackman-Alon.

The last piece of the puzzle (so far) is this marketing letter written by Margolis himself, hoping to get Maryland’s rabbis to invest in a supply of his work for use in any and all weddings they might perform.

Undated letter from Samson Margolis, touting his new “Artistic Ketubah” and offering local rabbis special introductory rates for bulk purchases. Gift of Aaron and Dorothy Margolis. JMM 1994.193.60

Undated letter from Samson Margolis, touting his new “Artistic Ketubah” and offering local rabbis special introductory rates for bulk purchases. Gift of Aaron and Dorothy Margolis. JMM 1994.193.60

Dear Rabbi:

I am taking this privilege of sending you two copies of the new Artistic Ketubah which I have designed and published in five colors, A Marriage Certificate to be kept and cherished for generations.

As you will note, particular attention has been paid to the space allowed for inscribing the names in Hebrew and English. The original texts which are hand-written, are both clear and legible.

Only through the new process in Lithography and the use of fine quality durable papers, could this artistic feat have been accomplished.

Considering the labor, ingenuity, and the skillful production of this Art Ketubah, it should sell for more than a dollar at wholesale, but in order to introduce it to the public and make it popular, I have decided to market it at the following prices:

100 copies for $35.00, 50 copies for $20.00

12 copies for $5.75, single copies at 1.00

As an introductory offer you may have the enclosed two copies for only one dollar.

In the event that you are not able to use these Art Ketubahs, please return them in the same envelope, using the enclosed label for the return address.

Remittance should accompany the order or, we may, upon your request, send C.O.D.

Thanking you for your kind cooperation, and hoping to be favored with your order, I am,

Respectfully yours,

Samson Margolis

I particularly like this letter because it helps explain how Margolis’s ketubah enjoyed such a long career – still in use in some congregations into the 1990s, as evidenced by the video from Beth Sholom.  If a rabbi or congregation took Margolis up on his special introductory rates and laid in a goodly stock of documents, one might well expect to still be using them some 45 years later. I’m sure Margolis would be glad to know his “artistic feat” had a lasting impact.

Detail of unused ketubah, showing Samson Margolis’s printed signature. Dr. Louis L. Kaplan Collection, gift of Efrem M. Potts. JMM 1995.192.124

Detail of unused ketubah, showing Samson Margolis’s printed signature. Dr. Louis L. Kaplan Collection, gift of Efrem M. Potts. JMM 1995.192.124

Help us track the Margolis ketubah! If you, or someone in your family, chose one, let us know the date and place!

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A “Just Married!” Extra – Matchmaking in the Time Before the Smartphone

Posted on August 31st, 2017 by

Curators have to make choices: not everything can make it into an exhibit, and there’s seldom enough space to share every interesting fact about the things that are on display. That’s where social media comes in! Here’s a closer look at another “Just Married” story from JMM collections manager and Just Married! curator Joanna Church. To read more “Just Married!” extras, click here. To read more posts from Joanna, click here.

Because the theme of “Just Married!” focuses closely on the wedding day itself, stories of courtship and matchmaking – in other words, how the happy couple becomes a couple  – were set aside. That doesn’t mean we don’t have some interesting material in the collections, however! In honor of National Matchmaker Day (August 31st), let’s take a look at an example from the early 1990s.

***

With the ubiquity of modern digital technology, it can be sometimes hard to remember that not so long ago, only early adopters were using  the internet; the rest of us had to share and gather information with paper, landlines, and (the bane of my interns’ existence) microfilm. Though I work with historic materials every day, even I find myself watching old TV mysteries and wondering why the characters don’t just look something up on their phone, for heaven’s sake? The internet, and my easy access to it, is just so deeply ingrained in my everyday life.

But of course, this was not always the case, and between the old-fashioned shadchen and JDate (established in 1997), there was a time when finding your ideal Jewish spouse was difficult in the modern world. Having struggled with the problem himself, Baltimore’s Dr. Bert Miller saw the possibilities, and used his statistical skills and marketing savvy to create two “Jewish ‘dater’ bases,” matching singles across the country using photocopies, microfiche, and the postal service – no internet required.

A flyer for Frum-Phile, circa 1990. Gift of Dr. Bert Miller. JMM 1992.50.1

A flyer for Frum-Phile, circa 1990. Gift of Dr. Bert Miller. JMM 1992.50.1

In 1990, Miller, an Orthodox Jew himself, started The National Orthodox Shidduch Project’s Frum-Phile, “The Rabbinically Approved Do-It-Yourself Continent-Wide Matchmaking Service for the ENTIRE Sabbath Observant Single Community.”  For a small fee, Frum-Phile allowed you to share your personal “resume” with singles across the country. Though it deliberately did not include photographs, the “U-Match” form allowed you to describe both yourself and your ideal spouse in some detail, with many different options and choices for Sabbath-observant folks  from a variety of backgrounds. As the flyer notes, “From Black Hat to Knit Kipa, From Long Sleeve to Short Sleeve, We’ve Got You Covered!”

An informational letter accompanying a later version of the U-Match form, circa 1992. It reads in part, “Dear Sabbath Observant Single, I developed FRUM-PHILE for you. My record of volunteerism within Baltimore's Orthodox community includes the conception, construction, and management of Baltimore's Eruv and many other projects. I trained as a statistician and mathematician and I have a background in social science data collection and analysis. After a 21-year marriage, I found myself single again and I found the traditional methods of introductions through friends and matchmakers to be very inefficient and imprecise. After my remarriage, I resolved to build a better spouse trap…. The U-MATCH form has gone through many revisions in response to the critical input sought and received from many Orthodox singles, rabbis, marrieds, and matchmakers from across the Orthodox Sabbath observant spectrum. Note that no item on the form is judgmental. Level of religious observance is an essential consideration in every Orthodox match. Therefore, the items relating to religious observance... are presented only to indicate religious compatibility - not to denigrate those less observant. Our goal is to serve the entire Sabbath Observant singles community.... We will photocopy your form and send these copies to every major Orthodox community on the continent."  Gift of Dr. Bert Miller. JMM 1992.50.3

An informational letter accompanying a later version of the U-Match form, circa 1992. Gift of Dr. Bert Miller. JMM 1992.50.3

The letter reads in part:

“Dear Sabbath Observant Single, I developed FRUM-PHILE for you. My record of volunteerism within Baltimore’s Orthodox community includes the conception, construction, and management of Baltimore’s Eruv and many other projects. I trained as a statistician and mathematician and I have a background in social science data collection and analysis. After a 21-year marriage, I found myself single again and I found the traditional methods of introductions through friends and matchmakers to be very inefficient and imprecise. After my remarriage, I resolved to build a better spouse trap…. The U-MATCH form has gone through many revisions in response to the critical input sought and received from many Orthodox singles, rabbis, marrieds, and matchmakers from across the Orthodox Sabbath observant spectrum. Note that no item on the form is judgmental. Level of religious observance is an essential consideration in every Orthodox match. Therefore, the items relating to religious observance… are presented only to indicate religious compatibility – not to denigrate those less observant. Our goal is to serve the entire Sabbath Observant singles community…. We will photocopy your form and send these copies to every major Orthodox community on the continent.”

With the success of Frum-Phile, Miller broadened his approach to encompass even more of the Jewish community with the introduction of cHupa Helper in late 1991.  In a marketing flyer, he described the venture as “potentially the most significant matchmaking program in Jewish history…. I started this project with a blank sheet of paper and a dream – the dream of your Jewish wedding! Many people were bemoaning inter-marriage, but no one with a broad view seemed to be doing anything about it. I recalled the saying ‘Better to light a single candle than to sit and curse the darkness.’ I resolved to be a candlelighter not a ‘darkness-curser.’ cHupah Helper is the result.” Unlike Frum-Phile, this second venture was aimed at “the ENTIRE Jewish singles community,” including secular and unaffiliated singles, as well as Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox.  Over 100 national Jewish organizations were ready to help share your “resume” across the country, for a nominal yearly fee; on the accompanying list, 37 states were included (with the Baltimore and Owings Mills JCCs doing their part for Maryland).

“The International Jewish ‘Dater’ Base / cHupa Helper.. Our logo puts ‘U’ under a chupah.” From the cHupa Helper introductory flyer, 1991. Gift of Dr. Bert Miller. JMM 1992.50.2

“The International Jewish ‘Dater’ Base / cHupa Helper.. Our logo puts ‘U’ under a chupah.” From the cHupa Helper introductory flyer, 1991. Gift of Dr. Bert Miller. JMM 1992.50.2

Dr. Miller explained his reasoning and methodology to the Baltimore Evening Sun in December, 1991. (The article was included in the introductory cHupa Helper mailing to potential clients.)  Under the headline “Matchmaker builds a ‘spouse trap,’” the reporter begins with a story about Miller meeting his current wife through a New Jersey matchmaker, though “this relationship nearly missed blast-off because of unreliable data.”  Hence, mathematician Miller developed the detailed and specific “U-Match” form, leaving nothing to chance.  According to the reporter, “Frum-Phile  injects a bit of modern technology” into the traditional matchmaking process.

…The problem, of course, is that modern technology keeps modernizing. Today, Frum-Phile is based online, along with many, many other local, national, and international Orthodox matchmaking and shidduch websites. (For a sample of mid-Atlantic options, including Frum-Phile, check out www.shidduchim.info.)  However, cHupa Helper appears to have closed up shop, likely made redundant by the many other internet dating sites available to what Miller called the “ENTIRE Jewish singles community.”

Have any of our readers used one or both of Miller’s services? Let us know! We’d love to hear your story.

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