Collective Magic: An Interview with Arthur Moses

Arthur Moses biography Houdini Speaks OutCollective Magic presents a closer look at the many collectors of Houdini objects and ephemera. Our first post highlights Arthur Moses, the author of Houdini Speaks Out. His extensive collection of Houdiniana includes the straitjacket on view in Houdini: Art and Magic, opening at The Jewish Museum on Friday, October 29. It is organized by guest curator, Brooke Kamin Rapaport. Joanna Montoya, Curatorial Assistant, coordinated this interview.

When did you become interested in magic and when did you start collecting magic objects? I read a book on Houdini when I was in the 7th grade. I began reading and collecting books about him shortly thereafter. The real growth of my collection (currently over 4000 items) began in my mid 20’s (1985) when I had real money to spend on purchases instead of a youth’s “allowance”.

What is a favorite piece in your collection? I can’t really say that I have a favorite piece. Whether if it’s a $20 item or a $1000 item, each piece makes up an integral part of the collection. Just to name a piece with great dollar value does not make sense and is only showing off that I own something expensive. It is that I have built a collection of varied overall significance that is my favorite.

What was your first Houdini experience or memory? I can still remember being in the 7th grade and grabbing that book off the school library shelf and was so engrossed by it that I skipped the next class and just sat there and read.

What is your favorite Houdini illusion? I think the most stunning would have been “Walking through A Brick Wall”. Just think of it…here you sit in the audience and watch as masons build this wall, brick by brick, right in front of you; there just can’t be any funny business to this. And then Houdini amazes you by walking right through it!

Which magician today do you think has achieved the fame or intrigue of Houdini in popular culture? David Copperfield

How do you think Houdini would fit in today’s dizzying entertainment culture? As a Houdini memorabilia collector I am often asked to make comparisons or answer the question of who is better: Houdini, or one of today’s celebrated magicians. For performing tricks and illusions, it’s a complex explanation. Today’s magicians have access to materials used to create their apparatus and routines that Houdini could never have even dreamed of. It’s simply a matter of industrial evolution. Specialized electronics, computer programs, lightweight metals and plastics, lighting techniques, and miniaturization are just an afterthought today. Houdini’s era, however, was confined by the general availability of mostly just wood and steel. While Houdini’s magic may seem bulky, simple or even primitive by today’s standards, it’s only because of his resource limitations, whereas today’s magicians and magic designers have almost no bounds to limit their imaginations. The question of who is better is therefore really a question that cannot be asked; Houdini was great for his time period, while current popular magicians are great for today’s era.

The real comparable difference is between Houdini’s and others’ abilities as escape artists. Today’s performers are without a doubt talented and hard working, and have earned the accolades attributed to them. However, today’s magicians mostly perform escapes designed to be daring—but designed by them—at most a few times a year. These are usually presented on hyped-up television specials or media events, with more often than not, under their own controlled conditions. Houdini, on the other hand, put forth open challenges to the public to present their locks, manacles, chains, straitjackets, ropes, trunks and other devices in attempts to restrain him. Houdini often would not know what was coming to him next. He chose to accept these obstacles of jumping shackled into rivers, or to be bound up with ropes, or to hang from a perch while constricted within a straitjacket as if it were a routine occurrence. He incorporated these stunts into his performances—risks he took on an almost daily basis.

Given the noted differences of each era’s available material resources, the acceptance of Houdini-style challenges put forth today, using modern technologies, would lead to certain defeat since they could be designed for a guaranteed impossibility of escape. But I think that acknowledgment is just a sidebar of the larger question. If any of today’s leading magicians were granted the ability to go back to Houdini’s time, would they have the necessary competence and daring to do what he did? I doubt it. The appeal and our remembrance of Houdini are due not only to his mastery of magic but also to his unyielding defiant bravado; he was fearless. Nothing was ever insurmountable to him. There is no comparison: Houdini was the greatest escape artist ever.

Related Links:
Houdini: Art and Magic
Blog: Happy 136th Birthday, Ehrich Weiss

Image Credit: Cover image of Houdini Speaks Out written by Arthur Moses.