Capturing Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini by the Numbers

Posted on February 15th, 2019 by

This month’s edition of Performance Counts is from School Program Coordinator Paige Woodhouse. To read past editions of Performance Counts, click here. To read more posts from Paige, click here!


“[It] Opened my eyes to the many things I never knew about Harry Houdini. Best of all, it showed that he was a smart man, along with his star power.” – Comment left in our Visitor Feedback Book for Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini

 

It is no illusion that Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini, a JMM original exhibit, captured the attention of many while on display for the past six months (June 24th, 2018 to January 21st, 2019). In fact, over 8,900 visitors came to experience this magical exhibit. So now, after the exhibit has hit the road – next appearing at the Breman Museum in Atlanta and then, if things go according to plan, at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, let’s look at some of the numbers that capture this monumental success.

Of the 8,900 people who visited, general attendance made up 4,600 of these visitors (that is, individuals who did not come as a part of a school group, adult group, or for a public program). You may have been one of the many Houdini enthusiasts, magicians-in-training, history lovers, or those learning for the first time that Houdini was Jewish, who joined us to explore Houdini’s life and legacy. In fact, you may have been part of the 58% of people who visited the JMM for the first time during this exhibit! If so, welcome! Please come back and see what we have in store next.

Visitors Immersed in the history of Houdini

People came from all over the world, including Ireland, Australia, Mexico, and Japan. While only 2% of our visitors were from other countries, this exhibit captivated our home audience, with 72% of people coming from Maryland and 26% from other States.

Dai Andrews performing a great escape at the Magic of Jonestown Festival in July (Photo by Will Kirk).

From films and book talks to escape artists and magicians, the Museum hosted an array of Houdini-related public programs for 1,900 visitors. Highlights included the Magic of Jonestown Festival, the 91st Official Houdini Seance hosted on Halloween and A Fantastical Farewell to Houdini where Magician Brian Curry performed to a standing room only crowd of 180 people.

A Fantastical Farewell to Houdini. Brian Curry and audience assistant performing for the crowd.

Thirty-eight public, private, and Jewish schools and camps made up of over 1,800 students, teachers, and chaperones who visited to learn about the story of young Erik Weisz immigrating to the U.S and transforming himself into Harry Houdini. Students worked together to crack the code and reveal one of Houdini’s famous illusions — the disappearing elephant. They were immersed in a personal story of immigration, the performing arts, and the technologies and entertainment trends surrounding the turn of the 19th century.

Students from the National Academy Foundation tried out the Spirit Photograph to see if Houdini would appear during their visit in October.

Students didn’t just engage with Houdini while at the JMM, over 2,400 students, teachers, and chaperones had a visit from Harry Houdini himself at their school or camp. David London, magician and guest curator of the exhibit, performed as the Museum’s newest Living History Character. Harry Houdini didn’t just perform for schools, he also entertained adult groups and public programs at the JMM, performing 27 times for over 3,100 audience members in total. This dramatic performance hasn’t come to an end yet. Just as Houdini’s legacy lives on, our Living History Character of Harry Houdini has another 9 performances scheduled before the end of April.

250 campers at Habimah Arts Camp waited for Harry Houdini to take the stage at one of his many performances at Jewish Camps and Schools. 

David London Performing as Houdini at the JMM.

Schools were not the only groups enjoying the opportunity to try out some of Houdini’s magic tricks on display, 640 attendees from 39 adult groups explored the hands-on illusions and rare artifacts on display.

Residents from Brightview enjoyed a tour by our Director of Learning and Visitor Experience, Ilene, in July.

With numbers like these, it is no surprise that the month of December 2018 was the highest single-month onsite attendance in the last seven years with 1,909 visitors to the Museum.

While these numbers are incredibly thrilling for those of us who are data-lovers, it’s what you, the JMM visitor, had to say about the exhibit that really hits home. At the JMM, we share stories to inspire, to create conversations, and to empower you to discover something new. One visitor shared, “the connection between Houdini’s popularity and immigrant striving is a well-done story.”

We aim to create memorable experiences and it is truly exciting when we inspire action. That is why this comment left in our visitor feedback book is a favorite:

 “I really enjoyed what I read and the interactive play of tricks. I am from Appleton, Wisconsin, and will now visit the Houdini Museum in my town.”

Whether it was trying out magic tricks from Esther’s Place, conducting more research on Harry Houdini after your visit, sharing something new your learned with a friend, or visiting another Museum (or coming back to visit us again!), we hope that Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini was not just a success as determined by the numbers, but a memorable experience that inspired you after your visit.


 

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My First Seance

Posted on November 1st, 2018 by

A blog post by JMM Marketing Manager Rachel Kassman. To read more posts from Rachel, click here.

Last night the Jewish Museum of Maryland played host to the 91st Official Houdini Séance. It was definitely an evening to remember. In case you weren’t able to join us (or follow along with our live tweeting of the event, #HoudiniSéance2018), I thought I’d share a little of the experience with you – this was my first séance and I didn’t know what to expect!

First, a little history on the séance, courtesy of the directors William Radner and Thomas Boldt:

“Harry Houdini died at Grace Hospital in Detroit on Halloween 1926 from complications of acute appendicitis. He had told his wife, Bessie Houdini—and close friend, confidant and mentalist Joe Dunninger—that if he died, he would make every effort to communicate with the living and established a secret code to guarantee proof if indeed he was successful. Every year since his death, an official séance was held to see if he could come across the veil and prove the spiritual afterlife existed.

Final Houdini séance in 1936. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

After 10 years, Bess Houdini declared the séance efforts over; however, Houdini’s brother Hardeen took up the torch and continued the tradition for many more years. There was never a sign from Houdini. When Hardeen passed away, his protégé and magic collector, Sidney Radner, was directed to continue the séance and did so every year until his death at 91 years of age in 2011. He was accompanied by his good friend Tom Boldt for many years in this endeavor. Now Sid’s son, Bill Radner, along with Tom, continue the tradition.”

The evening began with food, drinks (including one of our signature “magical” cocktails, mixed and served by yours truly!), and a pair of roving magicians who demonstrated a variety of card tricks and rope escapes for members of the audience. My favorite part of the evening was the presentations by our Houdini experts!

Here, Houdini collector Ken Trombley shows off a piece from his collection – a 1925 telegram to the Associated Press debunking a slate-writing medium.

“Can the living speak to the dead?” Collector Arthur Moses shares about Houdini’s deep desire to contact loved ones on the other side, referencing a pair of programs produced by Houdini. Both Ken and Arthur emphasized that while Houdini sincerely hoped to speak with those who had passed on, he was equally fierce in debunking those he felt were preying on the grieving and naïve.

Houdini in Handcuffs: expert Fred Pittella’s interest was born from reading “The Man Who Walked Through Walls.” In the age before internet, researching Houdini and handcuffs involved a lot of foot work – Fred found many of the pieces he used to learn about handcuffs and locking mechanisms hunting through flea markets and thrift stores. He shared that Houdini’s handcuffs (and handcuffs of the time in general) were more massive and complicated than those in use today!

As part of his “challenges,” Houdini asked to keep any handcuffs he escaped from! This allowed him to build up a large collection for both study and use in his performances. He also created his own sets of handcuffs for his challenges – 5 different ones in fact, including a “Russian” handcuff, a “Hungarian” handcuff, and the most famous “Mirror” handcuff.

His worst nightmare, losing the title of King of Handcuffs, loomed large when was presented with a pair of doctored handcuffs – they had been stuffed with buckshot, rendering the locking mechanism unusable. The handcuffs could be closed, but could not be opened, even with the key.

Houdini had to be cut out of them – in future, he required all challenge cuffs to be demonstrated to both close AND open before placing them on his wrists. Fortunately, Houdini’s reputation as King of Handcuffs survived this incident, and reports of the time seemed to side with him, calling the event a “cruel trick.”

Why is the Séance held on Halloween? It’s the day Houdini died. Bill Radner, séance director, told us that Houdini was not expected to survive that long by medical professionals, but he held out because he wanted to make it to the 31st.

Bill also presented about the official “Séance Handcuffs.” To have a real séance, you need to have an item from the person you are trying to contact. This pair of handcuffs was used at the first séance in 1948 – Houdini said he would open them from beyond the grave. These handcuffs were considered “unpickable” and are unlike any handcuff you’ll see today – they are the “mirror” design.

The above is a photo of the actual “Séance Handcuffs” used in the séance, but we have a fantastic selection of other handcuffs, keys, lock picks, and other escape tools used by Houdini on display in Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini.

But one of the coolest items shared this evening might be Houdini’s adjustable key! He made molds of the keys for challenge cuffs and use this adjustable key to match it. This object, shared by Bill, is the only known adjustable key used by Houdini.

Finally, the “Inner Circle” (those serving as participants in the séance) and the medium took their seats around the table. We were lucky enough to be joined by Debbie Hardeen, Houdini’s own great-grandniece – this was her first time participating in the Official Houdini Séance!

Alas, Houdini did not make contact with us this year, but we did have fun trying. And no night dedicated to Houdini can end without some seriously magical entertainment! Harley Newman, escape artist, performed a lively act to close out the night.

We were thrilled to host this fantastic group of Houdini experts and enthusiasts – here we’ve got the whole crew posed inside our Inescapable exhibit. Good luck next year!

I, Harry, and the JMM hope you all had a wonderful Halloween and come visit us soon.

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Houdini’s Magical Halloween Family Day: Making Memories!

Posted on October 31st, 2018 by

A blog post by Director of Learning and Visitor Engagement Ilene Dackman-Alon. To read more posts by Ilene click HERE.

The JMM welcomed lots of folks to Houdini’s Magical Halloween Family Day this past Sunday.  Our visitors had a magical time learning about Harry Houdini and trying to imagine the world through his eyes!  Our education team provided a well-rounded experience for our guests- we saw lots of smiles as our visitors of all ages participated in so many activities from magic shows, living history performances of Harry Houdini, marvelous crafts and delicious treats, along with workshops featuring lock-picking and card tricks!   Here are some highlights from the day!

Students and families from the Interfaith Families Project from the DC area visited us first thing in the morning.  These boys were doing some creative cooking at the dinner table inside the Voices of Lombard Street exhibit!

David London dazzled audiences young and old sharing the story of how Ehrich Weiss transformed himself to become the legendary Harry Houdini!

The Houdini inspired crafts allowed our visitors to make connections to Harry Houdini in very special ways! This gentleman was winding up the propeller to his airplane.  Did you know that Harry Houdini was the first person to fly an airplane in Australia?

JMM Development Director Tracey Dorfmann was having a great time manning a craft station.

This little guy was casting some spells complete with his new hat and magic wand.

I think that best part of the day was the way the event brought people from all over the city the Museum, many of who have never been to the JMM before!  One of my favorite moments of the day was meeting Evan Bernard Drachman, the great-grandson to Rabbi Bernard Drachman, the rabbi that helped Harry Houdini become a Bar Mitzvah at the age of 16!  Rabbi Drachman was one of the leaders of Orthodox Judaism in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Do you see the family resemblance?

The Houdini Family Day was made possible, in part by the generous funding of the Jacob & Hilda Blaustein Fund for the Enrichment of Jewish Education.

Come on down to the JMM to make your own memories!

Be sure to check out our website for some of the upcoming JMM public programs taking place in November and December!

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