As an exceptionally talented stage magician, Harry Houdini had an interesting job. He was very very good at what he did. Although being good at what he did took a lot of practice and was genuinely a matter of life and death in some of his routines.
It all came down to practice and discipline. For instance, not only could he keep calm and function in situations that would send a normal person into a blind panic, he also trained himself to pick pins up with his eyelids. As he was straight-jacketed, handcuffed, chained and nailed into boxes he was already escaping unseen by the audience long before the last nail went in or the last bolt snapped shut.
Houdini’s passing through a wall trick was truly spectacular. The act went like this: an actual brick wall was constructed by professional bricklayers across the stage perpendicular to the audience. The brickies then vouched that it was a real wall with real bricks held together with real cement that had fully set. Curtains were set up against the wall so the audience could see the ends and the top of the structure. The only way to the other half of the stage was through that wall. Members of the public were invited to stand on the stage so that they could confirm he hadn’t slipped around the far side.
At the start of the act, the lights dimmed slightly and the curtains were back-lit so that the audience could see Harry’s shadow. The drums rolled and everyone could see Houdini’s silhouette disappear from one side of the wall and reappear on the other. The curtains were removed, the wall was intact and there was Houdini – clean through a solid wall.
The trick was so good that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually believed that the man could genuinely dematerialise. He accused Houdini of dishonesty when he explained that it was just an illusion.
Of course, it was a trick. Houdini had secrets but they were his tradecraft rather than supernatural powers. The bricklayers had built their wall over a piece of cheap carpet to protect the stage. Under the carpet was a trapdoor. Lowering the trapdoor made the carpet fall away a little from the bottom of the wall. Houdini could dislocate his shoulders at will so once he got his head through the narrow gap the rest of him followed.
Houdini had another great trick that was genuinely dangerous. A metal milk-churn would be filled to the brim with water. He would be placed in a padlocked straight-jacket, wrapped in chains (also padlocked) and his ankles would be secured in metal stocks with two more padlocks. A small crane would then be used to hoist him by the ankles and then to lower him into the water-filled churn head first. Displaced water would slosh over the stage, the crane would be unhooked and the lid of the churn secured over everything with yet more padlocks. Screens would be drawn around and the audience asked to see how long they could hold their breath.
30 seconds would pass and all the smoking that went on in the early 20th Century would see half the audience turn purple and start breathing again. A minute and the younger men and women would suck in a lungful of air. The more controlled were out at 90 seconds and by two minutes the last hypoxic member of the crowd was breathing again.
Three minutes came.
Four minutes, the audience was getting agitated. “Those men need to overturn that container and get him out!”
Five minutes!!! “For God’s sake get that man out of there!”
Worried looking assistants stepped forward and pulled back the curtains and there was a bedraggled and exhausted Houdini slumped beside the milk churn. The crowd went wild. He had done it! He had achieved the impossible again. Houdini’s shows were sold out months in advance.
The trick was part illusion and part actual escape. Houdini could do the escape bit in 15 – 20 seconds. He was pretty much free by the time they put him in the water and he had to count to 10 to make sure the screens were up before releasing his feet and getting out of the container. 15 – 20 seconds was a comfortable time. When he first did the trick he bounded out in front of the crowd in under 30 seconds. There was applause but that had obviously been an easy trick. So Harry discovered that sitting quietly beside the milk-churn behind the screens for another four minutes and 30 seconds and then doing a bit of overacting did wonders for his box office receipts.
Houdini found, like many other magicians before and since, that making things look difficult pays. Mind you there were times when things actually were difficult. He often told the tale of the time that he got trapped under the ice of a frozen lake (sometimes it was a lake sometimes it was a river) but had the strength, presence of mind and ability to hold his breath to navigate back to safety via small pockets of air.
Ripping yarns but this is a business blog so we need to draw some practical conclusions.
And here they are: