Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Houdini magic in Appleton, Wisconsin January 17, 2013

Illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini.

Illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini.

WHAT DRAWS US to the magic of a magician?

I expect the attraction begins subtly when we are babes playing peek-a-boo. We frown as the face we love disappears beneath our beloved blankie. But when Mom or Dad reappears, so does our smile. It’s magic.

And then, at some point, we discover card tricks and colorful scarves growing from sleeves and rabbits pulled from top hats. And the fascination with magic dances in our childish brains and never quite vanishes.

The History Museum at the Castle, home to the Houdini and other exhibits.

The History Museum at the Castle, home to the Houdini and other exhibits.

I suppose that is part of the attraction visitors find to the “A.K.A. Houdini Exhibit” at The History Museum at the Castle in downtown Appleton, Wisconsin, the city illusionist Harry Houdini falsely claimed as his birthplace. He was born in Budapest, Hungary, came with his family to America in 1878, settling briefly in Appleton where his father was the city’s first rabbi.

A snippet of the Houdini exhibit.

A snippet of the interactive Houdini exhibit.

As you would expect, you’ll learn detailed facts about Ehrich Weiss, the illusionist and escape artist known to all of us as Houdini. The name is a tribute to his illusionist idol, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin.

Be sure to pose with the lion head, a tribute to Houdini's early fascination with traveling circuses.

Be sure to pose with the lion head, a tribute to Houdini’s early fascination with traveling circuses. That’s my second daughter, who lives and works in the  Fox Valley (Appleton) area.

But you’ll also experience hands-on interactive activities that will uncover the magic which isn’t really magic at all. Not to worry; you won’t be sawed in half or stuck in a straightjacket.

Tools of the escape artist profession.

Tools of the escape artist profession.

The museum collection includes artifacts gifted by an escape artist protege of Houdini’s escape artist brother, Theo. Sort of a tongue twister sentence there, I know. Some of Houdini’s tools of the trade seem rather archaic, almost barbaric, in a clanking metal and chains sort of way. But given the time period, you would not expect sleek and shiny.

A Houdini bust in the museum.

A Houdini bust in the museum.

Therein, perhaps, lies the genuine appeal of this exhibit. In learning about Houdini, you are honoring a man who entertained the masses in unprecedented, daring and fearless ways as he wrote magic into history and into our hearts.

Upon his death, Houdini was buried in a stage prop, his "buried alive" casket, introduced on his final tour in 1926. He escaped the staged burial in under two minutes.

Upon his death, Houdini was buried in a stage prop, his “buried alive” casket, introduced on his final tour in 1926. He escaped the staged burial in under two minutes.

The circus wagon in the exhibit is a nod to Houdini's circus association. He first performed for a neighborhood children's circus as tight roper walker "Prince of the Air."

The circus wagon in the exhibit is a nod to Houdini’s circus association. He first performed for a neighborhood children’s circus as tight roper walker “Prince of the Air.”

A sculpture outside The History Museum at the Castle.

A sculpture outside The History Museum at the Castle.

FYI: The History Museum at the Castle, 330 East College Avenue, is open from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesday – Sunday, closed Mondays and holidays. Admission prices are free for 4 and under; $10 for ages 5 – 17; $15 for ages 18 – 64; and $13.50 for those 65 and older.

A blurry image to emphasize the "Leonardo da Vinci Machines in Motion" exhibit. It's a must-see.

A blurry image to emphasize the “Leonardo da Vinci: Machines in Motion” exhibit. It’s a must-see.

Admission to the museum also covers the “Leonardo da Vinci: Machines in Motion” temporary exhibit which has been extended through February 3, and other exhibits. You can click here to read my previous post about the da Vinci exhibit. From 6 p.m. – 8 p.m. on Thursday, January 31, the museum will host “Arrivederci, Leonardo!”, a gala event celebrating the success of the exclusive da Vinci showing in Wisconsin. Cost for the gala, which covers a da Vinci exhibit tour plus light refreshments and fine Italian wine, is $20 for non-members and $10 for museum members.

You can check out all the museum has to offer by clicking here.

ADDITIONALLY, APPLETON is currently raising monies to redo Houdini Plaza, a downtown gathering spot reminiscent of the town squares of yesteryear. To read about that project, “Recapturing the Magic,” click here.

READ MY PREVIOUS post about The History Museum at the Castle by clicking here.

CHECK BACK  for a post on a great place to eat in Appleton. Like the museum building, this restaurant exudes history.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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