To visitors, Appleton’s fascination with Harry Houdini seems like a typical small town quirk. Those coming from big cities are accustomed to monuments dedicated to famous soldiers, artists, politicians and scientists. Yet, there are few monuments around the country that are dedicated to magicians. Magic is what David Blaine does on television or what Penn and Teller do in shiny Las Vegas casinos. To many, magicians are entertainers, not artists. To Appleton’s residents, Houdini was larger than life. For this reason, the community has made a reinvigorated effort to honor the city’s most famous resident.
On Aug. 27, a bronze bust of Harry Houdini was unveiled in Houdini Plaza. The bust was created by Craig Campbell, a sculptor and co-host of a show called, “Monument Guys.” The History Channel program features a team of artists and historians that create busts of historical figures and donates them to small towns and cities like Appleton. The effort to acquire the bust was organized by Sculpture Valley, a non-for-profit organization that promotes community art in Appleton. Alexander Schultz negotiated with the show’s production company to bring the bust Appleton.
To Schultz, the bust was the perfect touch that Houdini Plaza needed. “We want to give them the sense that Houdini really did embrace his hometown and that he was extremely fond of Appleton. He was proud to call Appleton his home. He always spoke well of it. He would mention it frequently in letters to friends and family,” says Schultz.
In addition to the bust, The Boldt Company will be providing new updates to the Houdini walking tour. The tour currently features a handful of plaques with historical facts and excerpts from Houdini’s letters. However, some of the plaques had been removed due to demolition and renovation. The Boldt Company will be adding roughly eight to 10 more plaques in various locations around the downtown area. Sculpture Valley is currently developing an app that will show users the locations of each plaque allowing them to tour the sites on their own.
Of all the new ways that Appleton will honor Houdini, visitors can learn the most at the History Museum at the Castle. The permanent, interactive exhibit guides visitors through Houdini’s life, from his humble beginnings in Appleton to his untimely death on his final tour. Visitors can learn about Houdini’s complex and fascinating career in magic and escape artistry.
“He took on a life of his own. He was mythologized,” says Emily Rock, a curator at the History Museum.
Rock spoke in depth about the aspects of Houdini’s life and his influence on Appleton. Houdini did not start becoming visible until several decades ago. “It wasn’t really until the ’70s and ’80s that Houdini was rediscovered. There was a community-wide push to reclaim Houdini as one of our own. That’s when the Houdini school was named, that’s when Houdini Plaza was named,” says Rock.
Part of what makes Appleton’s celebration of Houdini unique is that despite having only lived here as a child from 1878 until 1887, Appleton still claims him as its own. “There are lots of Houdini-themed things in Appleton; Houdini beer, a Houdini restaurant. That was during a time when people still believed he was born in Appleton. Documentation shows that isn’t true, but that was during a time when people were clinging to that. He’s definitely brought a lot of Houdini fans to Appleton,” says Rock.
Maybe there is more about Houdini’s life that speaks a greater volume about Appleton. “A lot of people want to believe in the American dream of humble beginnings and making it big, that you can start with nothing and become famous,” says Rock. In a way, Houdini speaks a larger volume about Appleton’s identity. Like Houdini, Appleton had humble Midwestern beginnings and, as a growing city, seeks to make a name for itself.
Or, it could simply be that Appleton is celebrating a man who was great at what he did. Rather than spend his life doing card tricks on the street, Houdini took his performances to the next level. “Houdini was the forefather of performance art. There were famous magicians out there doing ordinary kinds of tricks. Other magicians would tell you, that he wasn’t the best magician technically. He was the best at promoting himself. He had great stage presence. He was a great performer. He took his tricks in a new direction,” says Rock. Ultimately, she wants visitors to understand how important Houdini’s life was.
“We want them to walk away with an appreciation of how Houdini could adapt to a changing world. He was able to change with the tides of his art. He was a very dynamic person. He’s more than just a magician. He has these other facets to his life that make him a very complex and fascinating person. Maybe they’ll learn a couple of magic tricks, too,” says Rock.
For entrance into the History Museum to view the permanent Houdini exhibit, rates are $7.50 for adults, $5.50 for seniors and students with a valid I.D. and $3.50 for youth ages 5-17. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 11a.m. to 4p.m. For more information on the Houdini exhibit, contact the History Museum at the Castle at 735-9370 or email Rock at [email protected].