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Houdini in chains In 1912 Harry Houdini was lowered into New York’s East River in a crate wrapped in chains. The crowd of spectators gasped; reporters pulled out their stopwatches. Houdini was out in less than a minute. The resulting media blitz was just one of the spectacles that forever established Houdini as "The World’s Greatest Escape Artist."

Throughout his rise from Hungarian immigrant to international star, Houdini confronted our greatest fears-entrapment, pain, death-and emerged victorious. He was the premier showman of the century–and a man haunted by doubts, obsessions, and his own mortality.

In this presentation of Houdini, produced by Nancy Porter ("Alone on the Ice," "The Wright Stuff," "Amelia Earhart") and Beth Tierney, Houdini’s greatest escapes are brought to life through archival footage, dramatic recreations performed by professional escape artist Bob Fellows -- one of the few able to perform the difficult Water Torture Cell escape -- and on-camera interviews with illusionist David Copperfield; investigator of psychic claims James Randi; escape artist David De-Val; writers E. L.Doctorow and Ken Silverman; and caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, who, as a child, saw Houdini perform in New York’s Palace Theater in the 1920s. Mandy Patinkin narrates.

"Everybody understands the fear of water, the fear of being buried," says Copperfield. "Houdini takes all those metaphors that are our nightmares and turns them into something that he can escape from."

After years of performing with his wife, Bess, in circuses, traveling medicine shows, and dime museums -- the lowest branches of show business -- Houdini began to wow the crowds on the vaudeville circuit with his handcuff escapes. His fame grew. In 1900 Harry and Bess toured England and Europe. He publicized his appearances by convincing the local police to lock him up, then breaking out of the cell -- in the nude. At his performances, hundreds were turned away; on stage, the short, muscular star created a frenzy with his daring stunts.

After five years on the road, Houdini, now an international celebrity, was worn down. He bought an elegant brownstone in a fashionable part of Harlem and moved in with Bess–and his widowed mother. "Houdini was really twice married," notes biographer Ken Silverman. "He was married to Bess, and then in a way also married to his mother. He always called them ‘my two girls.’"

Harry promised to slow down, but he couldn’t. In 1908 he offered $1,000 to anyone with a device that could hold him. His open challenge attracted the makers of packing cases, pianos, roll-top desks -- even a huge envelope.

Every escape carried some risk, and each performance took a physical toll. "Houdini broke, injured, sprained almost everything," says Silverman. "One of the worst times was in Pittsburgh. He had some longshoreman come up on stage and tie him tightly. They pulled so hard that they ruptured his kidney."

Houdini took his act outdoors, performing ever more dangerous water escapes. He trained by submerging himself in an icy bathtub, holding his breath while Bess timed him -- up to three minutes. Then he learned that his famous Milk Can Escape was being copied and sold to imitators for $35. Furious, Houdini retaliated by introducing what he described as "the climax of all my labors -- the Chinese Water Torture Cell." He would hang by his ankles in a tank full of water, with the lid padlocked. A curtain was drawn, the band played "Asleep in the Deep" -- then, agonizing minutes later, Houdini would emerge, breathless and sodden, to take his bow. "He was so insanely devoted to what he was doing and so disciplined that the ultimate insanity of his life never occurred to him," novelist E. L. Doctorow observes.

In 1918 Houdini attempted to break into the movies with a 15-part serial called "Master Mystery." But his acting skills didn’t hold a candle to his talents as an escape artist, and his Hollywood career bombed. Harry and Bess returned to New York, where he immersed himself in what he called his "world-famous theater library." And in a new cause -- debunking spiritualism.

With the death of millions during World War I, spiritualism was flourishing. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife, close friends of the Houdinis, had lost a son at the front, and claimed to communicate with him through mediums. Conan Doyle’s wife offered to hold a séance to reunite Houdini with his mother. Appalled by the exercise and incensed over the exploitation of his grief, Harry embarked on a vigorous crusade against spiritualists, declaring, "It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer." His exposés proved incredibly popular, and put him back in the headlines.

Despite his promise to Bess to retire, Harry, now in his 40s, could not step out of the limelight. In 1925, he launched a one-man show on Broadway that featured magic tricks, escapes, and exposés of spiritualists. For a time, it seemed that the man was invincible. "He would say, ‘Hit me, hit me as hard as you can,’" recalls Al Hirschfeld. "And I would hit him, but I would hurt my hand before I would hurt him."

But Houdini would not stay invincible much longer. At McGill University in Montreal he gave a lecture, then was resting before his performance. A student came in and challenged Houdini to withstand a blow to the stomach. Before Houdini could prepare, the young man struck him a painful blow. "That will do," mumbled Houdini. He struggled through his performance, then fell ill on the train to his next stop. Physicians later found widespread infection from a burst appendix. The great magician died in Detroit on Halloween 1926 and was laid to rest in a bronze coffin that had been custom-made for one of his buried alive stunts. He was 52 years old. After a life spent in pursuit of fame, Harry Houdini would now assume his place in history.


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