You would think that a museum dedicated to the great Harry Houdini would be in a glitzy city like Las Vegas or New York, but it’s actually located in Scranton, PA—a town where the world-famous illusionist developed some of his most famous tricks and amazed some of the nation’s most skeptical audiences.
Part of the magic of this location is that it was one of Houdini’s favorite stops along what used to be a vaudeville route between East Coast cities. The rough-and-tumble railroad town of Scranton hosted many entertainment legends, and it was said that if you could make it in front of this toughest of all audiences, you could make it anywhere—which Houdini proved in spades. After spending about two years traveling through Scranton while developing many of the tricks that made him famous, including the needle trick, handcuff escape and jail escape, he went on to conquer audiences around the world.
Walking in the door of the 150-year-old former ice cream parlor and disco—what is billed as the only building in the world dedicated to Harry Houdini—you find yourself surrounded by an overwhelming array of magical props, including padlocks, ropes, chains and more. There is even a giant milk can in tribute to one of Houdini’s most famous tricks; escaping the can, which was filled with water, while wearing a straitjacket.
Houdini was a man of immense talents, and while he was best known for his illusions, he was also a pilot, inventor, actor, teacher and astute businessman, who as the president of the Society of American Magicians grew the organization from nothing to earning more than half-a-million dollars in dues each year. John Bravo, a well-respected magician in his own right, shares a host of intriguing facts about Houdini as he leads the tour: most people don’t know, for example, that in 1921, Houdini invented a deep-sea diver suit with quick release technology, or that he was hired to teach soldiers how to get out of German restraints and escape from jail during World War I.
The tour starts with a video of Houdini’s early life, including a look at some of the many tricks that made him famous. And while the museum celebrates his showmanship, it also humanizes the Handcuff King, sharing stories of his lifelong love affair with his wife, Bess, who he met while performing in Coney Island. There are posters throughout the museum advertising his own shows, as well as the six films that he appeared in, including two for Paramount Studios.
Of course, no story of Houdini’s life would be complete without a magic show, and the Houdini Museum doesn’t disappoint. Not only does Bravo the Great take the stage, but Dorothy Dietrich, ranked as one of the top seven of the greatest magicians of all time, performs illusions, animal acts and her own brand of comedy that keeps both kids and adults enthralled. It was really sweet to watch the only woman to succeed in performing the “bullet catch” gently work with a shy boy from the audience as he wowed the audience with his first magic trick.
If you’re wondering, the bullet catch is exactly what it sounds like—except that Dandridge caught the fired round in her mouth—something that even Houdini did not have the nerve to do. And did I mention that she is also the first woman to ever saw a man in half?
In his heyday, Houdini’s stunts prompted more than 60,000 people to crowd into the streets to watch him perform, and the legacy that he left behind still fascinates audiences to this day. While it may be a little off the beaten path, it’s well worth the escape to visit this shrine to one of America’s favorite performers.
The Houdini Museum is located at 1433 N. Main Avenue in Scranton and is open weekends and by reservations during the year, and every day in July and August.
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