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

 

Appreciating the history of, and in, Appleton, Wisconsin’s “castle” January 16, 2013

The History Museum at the Castle, 330 E. College Ave., Appleton, Wisconsin.

The History Museum at the Castle, 330 E. College Ave., Appleton, Wisconsin.

CONSTRUCTED OF STONE and anchored by a center tower, the impressive multi-story structure commanding the corner of College Avenue and Drew Street in downtown Appleton, Wisconsin, presents an almost formidable exterior presence.

Aptly named The History Museum at the Castle, this sprawling castle-like fortress embodies the essence of history from the outside in. History seems meant to be showcased here. And it is, in this, the home of The Outagamie Historical Society.

Windows in the Siekman Room depict the history of the Fox Cities from the days of the early explorers until modern times.

Windows in the Siekman Room depict the history of the Fox Cities from the days of the early explorers until modern times.

Perhaps it is a matter of personal taste. But I prefer to learn about history within the walls of a place aged by time rather than in a sterile, modern facility. From the heavy wooden double front entry doors strapped with metal to the woodwork woven throughout the interior to the detailed wall scones, fireplace, paintings and stained glass windows, this museum exudes yesteryear.

More Fox Valley history in art.

More Fox Valley history in stained glass art.

Its history dates back to 1923-1924 when Waverly Lodge No. 51 constructed the complex for use as a Masonic Temple, according to Kathy Voigt, community engagement manager for the museum. Says Voigt:

Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the building is constructed in the Norman Revival style, characterized by the use of rough-hewn stone and other features reminiscent of medieval castles and churches, such as vaulted ceilings, heavy beams and leaded windows.

Artwork above an auditorium stage hints at the building's past as a Masonic Temple.

Artwork above an auditorium stage hints at the building’s past as a Masonic Temple.

In the mid-1980s, after the Masons could no longer afford to maintain the temple, the building was sold to the local historical society.

Windows depicting the region's early fur trading history.

Windows depicting the region’s early fur trading history.

Today this building houses, among other exhibits, rotating and permanent, the history of the Fox River Valley, a region stretching from Green Bay on the north to Neenah on the south. The area was once home to the Fox River Valley Indians, AKA the Meskwaki/Mesquakie, who relocated to Wisconsin from the East around 1650.  “Tools of Change” highlights the Fox Valley’s tools, people, work and everyday life between 1840-1950.

And because I notice details, be sure to look for these incredible light fixtures in the main Houdini exhibit room.

I noticed these incredible wall sconces in a Houdini exhibit room.

Other exhibits feature Senator Joseph McCarthy, born and raised in Appleton; Nobel Prize winning writer Edna Ferber; the work of local noted photographer Andrew J. Mueller; and, upstairs, a more extensive exhibit on illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini, who lived in Appleton as a child. I’ll post about the “AKA Houdini” exhibit tomorrow.

While the Leonardo da Vinci signage likely catches your eye first in this photo, look to the left and notice the fireplace.

While the Leonardo da Vinci signage likely catches your eye first, look to the left and notice the fireplace, the lights, the floor.

But currently drawing the most interest is the museum’s temporary “Leonardo da Vinci: Machines in Motion” exhibit which opened late last year and has now been extended through February 3. You can read about “Machines in Motion” in a previous post by clicking here. This show was my primary reason for touring the museum in early October when my husband and I were in Appleton visiting our second daughter.

Another view of the historic museum.

Another view of the museum, from early October.

The historic Masonic Temple housing the museum rates as a bonus to the history inside. I wonder how many visitors, when they tug at those heavy front entry doors and then enter the castle, pause to appreciate the building they are standing within.

BONUS IMAGES:

Given my love of photography, the "From My View: The Photographs of Andrew J. Mueller" exhibit especially interested me. Mueller worked for the local newspaper.

Given my love of photography, the “From My View: The Photographs of Andrew J. Mueller” exhibit especially interested me. Mueller worked for the local newspaper, beginning as an artist there and becoming the paper’s full-time photographer in 1950. He approached photography from both artistic and journalistic perspectives.

Given my journalism background, an old printing press also caught my eye.

Because of my journalism background, an old printing press also caught my eye.

Would any Wisconsin museum exhibit be complete without a cow? Here you can perch on the stool and pretend to milk this Holstein.

Would any Wisconsin museum exhibit be complete without a cow? Here you can perch on the stool and pretend to milk this Holstein.

FYI: For more information about The History Museum at the Castle, click here.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Wisconsin exhibit highlights Leonardo da Vinci’s inventive side November 27, 2012

Another facet of Leonardo da Vinci, on exhibit in Appleton, Wisconsin.

QUICK. When I say “Leonardo da Vinci,” what pops into your mind?

For me, it’s his “The Last Supper” painting.

Inside The History Museum, a sign welcomes visitors to the da Vinci exhibit.

I do not even think of him as a scientist or inventor.

But this Renaissance man surely was, a fact emphasized in a current exhibit originating in Florence, Italy, and currently showing at a northeastern Wisconsin museum through January 6, 2013.

The History Museum at the Castle, 330 W. College Avenue, Appleton, Wisconsin.

Two months ago I toured “Leonardo da Vinci: Machines in Motion” at The History Museum at the Castle in downtown Appleton, a hip and historic city some 300 miles from my southeastern Minnesota home and today home to my daughter Miranda.

An overview of one exhibit room, a working crane in the front and a tank in the back, right.

Typically I would not get particularly excited about a show which features mechanical-oriented displays. But given da Vinci’s notoriety and my interest in art and in sharing discoveries with you, I embraced this working models exhibit of 40 da Vinci machines. Modern day scientists and artisans built the machines based on da Vinci’s codices.

This is an interactive exhibit.

Kids will thrill in “Machines in Motion” as much as adults.

An informational sign summarizes well the multiple talents da Vinci possessed:

Perhaps more than anyone before him—and perhaps anyone since—Leonardo was a great scientist, engineer, and artist all in one. He combined a scientist’s passion for exploring how things work and an artist’s ability to vividly illustrate his revelations. His machine designs were ingenious and visionary—often ahead of his time. They illustrate principles at the heart of machines today.

One of da Vinci’s more impressive flight designs, suspended from the ceiling of an auditorium at the History Museum.

In his study of air, water, earth and fire, this genius—and I don’t hesitate to term someone of da Vinci’s intellectual and artistic talent as thus—created ideas which evolved into workable solutions aiding mankind.

See for yourself via these selected photos from the exhibit or by traveling to Appleton to tour this vast, interactive display. Click here for more information about “Leonardo da Vinci: Machines in Motion.”

An illustration by the scientist/inventor, Leonardo da Vinci.

Machines created from da Vinci’s codices.

More inventions showcased.

Da Vinci’s version of a horse-drawn armored military tank.

The bird’s wings flap as it moves across the stage during theatrical performances.

A machine in motion.

Da Vinci the artist and da Vinci the scientist.

Da Vinci’s idea to traverse water.

One final exhibit overview.

Disclaimer: I received a $25 gift certificate from Downtown Appleton, Inc., prior to my visit and used that money toward museum admission for myself, daughter and husband. That did not influence my decision to post about the da Vinci exhibit.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling