By Rebecca Turchan
Harry Houdini has intrigued residents of the Fox Cities ever since his meteoric rise to fame in the early 20th century.
Houdini is forever remembered as a master magician and escape artist, puzzling and astounding audiences with his daring tricks. Rumors and myths swirl around his name, while legends of his superhuman feats run rampant, ranging from tales of escaping from manacles while under the frozen Detroit River to hanging upside down and picking up pins with his eyelids.
Famous worldwide, he proudly claimed Appleton as his home. For Houdini, Appleton represented the American Dream.
“He has a very important connection to the city. He had lifelong friends here, and memories of prospering. He came from nothing and made himself,” says Tom Boldt, a Houdini enthusiast and CEO of The Boldt Company, which worked on the recent renovation of Houdini Plaza in downtown Appleton.
While the magician may have claimed Appleton as his home, many are surprised to learn he was not born here. Indeed, Houdini lived in Appleton for a very short period of his childhood.
Born as Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary in 1874, little is known about those first early years before Houdini’s family left Europe and moved to Appleton in 1878.
Houdini’s time in Appleton was one of the happiest periods of his childhood. Compared to Budapest, life was idyllic. His father was a well respected rabbi and founder of the local Jewish community, giving the family high social standing. Young Weiss was accepted and surrounded by friends who cared for him.
Appleton was the land of opportunity, where with a little hard work, anything could be achieved. Unfortunately, their security soon disappeared when Houdini’s father lost his job and the family suddenly foundered into poverty. After four short years, the Weiss family left the area and moved to Milwaukee, then New York to look for work.
That’s the end of Houdini’s residency in Appleton, but not his connection to the city. Houdini never forgot about Appleton, and made many return trips as an adult.
After developing an interest in magic in New York, Houdini returned to the Fox Cities to perform at the no longer existing Appleton Opera house with a traveling vaudeville show. Around this time he changed his name to Harry Houdini, invented from an Americanized version of his nickname “Ehrie” and the name of his then idol, magician Jean-Robert Houdin. A few years later, Houdini returned again as an international superstar, proudly displaying his scrapbook of playbills from all around the world.
Throughout these travels, Houdini spoke fondly about Appleton as his true hometown, eventually claiming it as his birthplace.
The Houdini name has been immortalized in the Fox Cities with restaurants, museum exhibits, a school and even a magician’s club celebrating its 75th year. But one of the most crucial ways Appleton has chosen to remember Houdini is through the dedication of the plaza on College Avenue. About 30 years ago, an Appleton city planner and amateur magician thought it a shame the city had never recognized Houdini’s contribution to the area, instigating the naming of Houdini Plaza.
In 2013, after years of use, the plaza was in need of updating, which happened to coincide with the city’s interest in creating a central hub for residents to congregate in downtown Appleton. “Gathering places are becoming increasingly more vital to downtown areas all over the country,” Jennifer Stephany, Director of Appleton Downtown Inc., explains. Houdini Plaza offered an opportunity to create a focal point. To achieve that goal, four crucial elements needed to come together to create the successful gathering space Appleton needed.
Stephany says this process of community building and planning is called “placemaking”. The four pillars of placemaking are: access and linkage, comfort and image, use and activity, and social building. Houdini Plaza satisfies all of these elements, providing a safe, conveniently located, and historically resonant space for people to socialize and gather for community activities.
“I’m excited to see how people use the space in new and untraditional ways in the future,” Stephany says.
The updated plaza has already inspired new events and continues to help much loved activities, such as Appleton’s enormous farmer’s market, grow and prosper. The plaza recently played host to Appleton’s first Mile of Music Festival, a feat that the Fox Cities’ favorite musician and organizer of the event, Cory Chisel, says would not have been possible in the past.
“It started to become more and more feasible [to create the Mile of Music] as Houdini Plaza was being built […] it just seemed like the town was able to support something like this,” says Chisel.
With some of the myths about Houdini dispelled, it would be easy to think of him as nothing more than a traveling performer. But the legacy he has left behind far exceeds that of a simple showman. Houdini inspires both young and old to innovate, work hard, and persevere. Besides, everyone could use a bit more magic in their lives.