He died during the Coolidge administration, but the last time I heard Harry Houdini mentioned in the media was just a few weeks ago.
During a Red Sox postseason playoff game, veteran radio broadcaster Joe Castiglione remarked that Sox reliever Joe Kelly had worked his way out of a bases-loaded jam. “He pulled a Houdini,” said Castiglione, invoking the famed magician/escape artist’s legendary ability to get out of impossible situations.
I had to smile. This Halloween will mark the 91st anniversary of Houdini’s death, yet his brand is alive and well. Like many magicians, I’ve held a lifelong fascination for Houdini and his storybook rise to fame. And like many of my fellow prestidigitators, I watch for mentions of his name outside of the magic world. Not a month goes by that I don’t run across a book, movie, play or news item either about Houdini or invoking his name in a significant way.
The master magician would smile knowingly at all this, for his enduring legacy is no accident. Although his fame predated the modern media age, Harry Houdini was also a master brand strategist, and the principles he employed would serve anyone well today:
Young Erich Weiss took the surname of his hero, French magician Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, added an “i” and created one of the catchiest names ever. “Ehrie,” his nickname, became Harry, adding alliteration. “Houdini” lent itself to “whodunnit?” wordplay for posters and playbills—and, most important, newspaper and newsreel headline writers. (Houdini’s name even became a word, first appearing in Funk and Wagnall’s dictionary in 1920: “Houdinize: to release or extricate oneself from, as by wriggling out.”1)
Houdini made much of his humble beginnings, sharing details in shows and interviews. Because he was actually born in Budapest, Hungary, his story as an Eastern European immigrant succeeding in America must have resonated with his adoring crowds, many of whom likely were immigrants themselves. Historians have speculated that part of the attraction of Houdini’s performances was that he was acting out a metaphor for escaping the shackles of the Old World or the grind of the New. His story was consistently one of perseverance and triumph.
A tireless promoter, Houdini performed well-publicized death-defying stunts to generate tons of free press in every city or town he played. Lunchtime crowds would gather to watch him escape from a straitjacket—hung upside from a two-story crane—or leap, manacled, into a river, from which he would invariably emerge triumphant after being underwater far longer than anyone in the crowd could hold their breath. The subsequent word of mouth made for great social media that guaranteed sold-out theaters everywhere he went.
Houdini became famous not just for his magic and escape artistry. He also grabbed headlines by becoming the first human to fly solo in Australia (a significant feat in the early days of aviation), for starring in a series of silent Hollywood thrillers in which he basically played himself, and perhaps especially for his years-long crusade against fraudulent psychic mediums who were bilking a post-World War public into believing they could communicate with their dead soldier sons. Flying and films were logical extensions of Houdini’s escapist brand, while his exposés of spiritualists showcased his ability as a magician to duplicate their séance phenomena. Whatever he did, he stayed magical.
A major reason Houdini’s name popped up during that recent baseball broadcast or that in recent times the actor Hugh Jackman was preparing to star in a Broadway musical about Houdini’s life … is that Houdini planned it that way. He often spoke of building “my monument.” The death-defying showman craved immortality and he worked hard to get it. (He even gave his wife, Bess, a secret code before he died so that if he came back from the dead during a séance, she would know it was really him.) Whether vanishing an elephant at the New York Hippodrome—an illusion that remains unsolved to this day—or being buried alive in a locked casket, Houdini performed unforgettable feats so he would not be forgotten.
By many measures, he succeeded: how many other brands created more than a century ago are still around? So take a page or two from Harry Houdini’s book of tricks to work some magic for your own brand. As any magician will tell you, it involves cleverness, planning, persistence, and eyes always on the prize. Thoughtful work, in other words. As Houdini once said, “My brain is the key that sets me free.”
1 Zimbler, Brian L. Fit to be tied: slipping the chains of reality. Harvard Crimson. October 31, 1977.