Jeff Taylor, Director of the American Museum of Magic, is this week’s contributor to our blog series Collective Magic. Located in Marshall, Michigan, AMM was founded by Robert Lund who collected magic objects and ephemera for over 60 years. Acquisition highlights include Houdini’s Milk Can and collection of needles and thread used for his famed Needle Threading Trick. Both will be on view in Houdini: Art and Magic which opens at The Jewish Museum on Friday, October 29. It is organized by guest curator, Brooke Kamin Rapaport. Joanna Montoya, Curatorial Assistant, coordinated this interview.
1. When did you first become interested in magic?
Bob Lund (1925-1995), the founder of the American Museum of Magic first became interested in magic at about the age of 9. He was in sick and in the hospital when a magician performed for the children in his ward. From that point on, Bob and magic were inseparable. By the time he was a teenager, Bob knew that he was not a performer. As much as he loved magic, he didn’t enjoy being the one on stage. He began collecting anything he could find on magic. Today, the collection at AMM contains thousands of books, over 20,000 photographs, 3,000 posters and an extensive collection of archival materials. Bob’s collection contained information not only on the big names of Houdini, Thurston and Blackstone, but on countless magicians that are little known today.
The one thing that separated Bob from countless other magic collectors was his desire to share his collection with the public. This desire to share the wonder of magic with others lead to the opening of the American Museum of Magic in 1978.
2. About Bob’s [Lund] interest in Houdini:
Bob, like all people interested in magic, was well versed on Houdini. He collected Houdini material whenever he could find it. His real interest, however, was the small-time, or little known magician. Still, the last several biographers of Houdini researched the collection of AMM. An interesting connection to Houdini – Elaine Lund was born in Detroit’s Grace Hospital on October 26, 1926. Houdini died in that same hospital 5 days later.
3. What is your favorite Houdini illusion?
In my opinion, Houdini’s greatest illusion was not an illusion at all. It didn’t involve handcuffs, water chambers, or a séance. What amazes me about Houdini is how, in his day and age, he was able to become an international superstar. Without television or a website, he became an international sensation. I think the only person who came close is Elvis, and Elvis had television and radio.
When giving a tour at AMM I try to impress upon people how big a name Houdini was in his day. It’s not always an easy thing to do. We live in an age where YouTube and “reality” TV create an endless cycle of celebrities. People today can be famous for almost nothing. During the tour, I point to a photograph taken in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1916. It shows a crowd of thousands blocking the street. All of their focus is directed toward Houdini who is hanging by his feet, arms tied down in a straitjacket. The number of spectators is overwhelming. It is difficult to image such a crowd turning out for any of today’s celebrities.
If forced to pick an illusion, I guess I would say his best illusion was death. Houdini departed this world 84 years ago, and yet his name is as well known now as it was then.
Upcoming: An interview with Kenneth Trombly, a lifelong magic enthusiast and collector, on Friday, October 29.
Image credit: American Museum of Magic, photo courtesy of Jim Klodzen. / Cover image of The Jewish Museum’s exhibition catalogue, Houdini: Art and Magic.