In the late 1960s, a Jewish meat merchant in Niagara Falls purchased Harry Houdini’s personal collection of paraphernalia and memorabilia from a magician known as the Amazing Dunninger, opened the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame, and put it on display. The merchant’s son, Jerry Muller, reviews a biography of the great escape artist, who was born in Budapest and was the son of rabbi.
While it lasted, the museum brought our family into contact with a stream of personalities from the world of magic. From the older generation, there was Dunninger himself, who had performed for American presidents, and Al Flosso (actually Albert Levinson), the owner of the most famous magic shop in the United States. Among the younger generation were the escape artist David Copperfield (David Seth Kotkin) and the master of close-up magic, Ricky Jay (Richard Jay Potash). One couldn’t help but notice that many of them were Jewish. Even James Randi, who was not Jewish, gave off a Yiddish vibe, probably from having consorted with Jews for much of his professional life. That association of Jews with stage magic was even more true in Houdini’s day.
Houdini himself was the founder and president of the Rabbis’ Sons Theatrical Benevolent Association, a philanthropical society that brought together the sons of rabbis and cantors in the theatrical world. Its vice president was Al Jolson (Asa Yoelson), its secretary, Irving Berlin (Israel Baline).
At the height of his career, Harry Houdini was among the most famous Jews in the world. [And] if his Jewish practice was thin, his attachments were not. Wherever he was, Houdini made a point of saying kaddish on his father’s yahrzeit. He purchased a tract at the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, where he had his mother and father buried, with room for him and some of his siblings.
And the reason Houdini excelled may not be so different from the reasons Jews distinguished themselves in other new fields of endeavor, such as photography or, most famously, film:
Perhaps the best way to think of Houdini is as an entrepreneur in the sense developed by his contemporary, the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. Usually, when we think of entrepreneurs, we have in mind people like my father: people with an eye for the opportunity to find new or profitable uses for existing resources and a willingness to assume risk. Houdini had those qualities, to be sure. But Schumpeter’s entrepreneur does more. He breaks out of the routine of economic life, in which profits are made by filling the gap between demand and supply by creating a new product that has no rivals (at least in the mind of his customers). In doing so, he creates a monopoly and can rake in much higher gains.
Although Houdini had been a good magician, his talents were not unrivaled. So he created a whole new category of entertainer: the escape artist.