By Patricia Chavarria, 19. Senior writer
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Back view of Houdini with arms open, n.d., photograph. Museum of the City of New York, Theater Collection.

Every summer has been the same routine for me and my little sister. Wake up late, eat, go to the pool, watch TV, eat dinner and go to sleep. Before summer began I vowed that this year would be different. I wanted to explore L.A. I also wanted my sister to have a a memorable summer. One day while at Venice Beach I saw a poster for a Houdini exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center. I knew right away that’s where I would be going the following week. I’ve always been fascinated by magic and to see an exhibit about the magician who performed death-defying acts would be amazing. I checked online for prices and read that Thursdays are free, and so we went. 

Before going into the Houdini exhibit we checked out the Masters of Illusion exhibit, about Jewish magicians of the Golden Age (1875–1948). There were some props like the magicians’ wands, decks of cards and handcuffs. I have a fear of puppets and when I saw one in the beginning I freaked out. The puppet was sitting on a swing like acrobats use to do tricks. Next to it was a video showing a man saying something to the puppet and the puppet would shake his head and do a trick on the swing. I squeaked and hid behind my sister. Other than that the exhibit was great. There are more than 150 objects and more than 10 magicians featured in the exhibit. I had hardly heard about any of them.

After that we went to the Houdini exhibit. Before the exhibit all I knew about Harry Houdini was that he was one of the greatest magicians who ever lived. Criss Angel, a contemporary magician, talked about Houdini on almost every episode of his TV show Mindfreak. I learned that he was famous for escaping handcuffs and straightjackets. Some people thought he was a fraud so they challenged him to escape in public while hanging upside down, which he did successfully. When I watched a grainy black and white clip of that I was biting my nails saying every minute “Oh my god.” Throughout the five-minute video I thought to myself, “There’s no possible way he could do it. There’s no way. No way.”

The exhibit includes props like his straightjacket, the large milk can he escaped from in his act and his Metamorphosis Trunk. As one of his acts, Houdini would tie his partners hands together and then would put her inside a bag and tie the bag. He would then lock his partner inside the trunk and stand on top of the trunk. Then he would raise a curtain and in three seconds he would let it down only to reveal his partner and not Houdini standing on top of the trunk. The partner would then open the trunk and open the bag inside it and out comes Houdini. There is a video of that trick in the exhibit, but not performed by Houdini. In the video, it says that the Metamorphosis is known as the world’s quickest illusion.

Handcuffs, late nineteenth or early twentieth century, metal. Sidney H. Radner Collection at The History Museum at the Castle, Appleton, Wisconsin.

Also included in the exhibit are paintings that artists have done of him. One of the best was “The Man Who Walked Through Walls” by Joe Coleman. In the painting you can see some of Houdini’s magic acts and some of the letters he wrote to his mom while on the road performing. But my favorite was a hologram piece done by Ikuo Nakamura. From far you can just see the famous milk can and a window in front of it, but when you get close and you look into it, you can see Houdini’s arms as he is escaping. It’s amazing!

There are clips of some of his performances, pictures of him, sculptures, and some of his personal things (like his diary). I’ve always liked magic and this exhibit was unbelievable.

The Houdini Art and Magic exhibit runs through Sept. 4 and the Masters of Illusion exhibit runs through Jan. 8, 2012. Admission to the Skirball costs $10 for adults, but only $7 for full-time students and includes both magic exhibits. It costs $5 for children 2-12. The exhibit is free on Thursdays. Parking is free. Skirball Cultural Center is located in 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90049. You can check out more information at