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Culture Report

Fi l m S p o r t s D a n ce Ar t s Fo o d M u s i c

In the house
of Houdini
Hungarian escape artist David Merlini pays homage to the
late and great illusionist with his stunts and private museum
By Tibor Krausz, Budapest
THE ICE escape is a trademark fixture of sistants set about pounding the block of ice fibula. I was numb from the ice and didnt
David Merlinis repertoire. It involves him with a pair of sledgehammers. Should they really feel it, he recalls. He only realized his
lying down in a sealed metal tank containing smash too hard, Merlini could end up with leg was badly broken when he looked down
400 gallons of water that is then fast-frozen broken bones. Finally, once his icy prison and saw it dangling at a crooked angle.
with liquid nitrogen to encase him in a solid is suitably loosened, Merlini pries it open Undaunted, Merlini continues to per-
block of ice. Hes wearing a straitjacket for from the inside and out he steps, straitjacket form the act, which he invented himself. I
good measure. in hand, to cheers and applause. think, he opines, Houdini would love my
The hefty block is then raised upright ice escape.
while Merlini, a seasoned Hungarian- Ive got so much from The legendary Jewish-Hungarian escape
Italian escape artist, is trapped visibly inside artist might also like the private museum
at freezing temperatures and with barely Houdini. Ive made Merlini has created in his honor. A labor of
any air to breathe. During the edge-of-your-
seat stunt, he will need to keep his compo-
money. Ive toured love, its a lavish, 2 million euro tribute to
his boyhood idol.
sure and hold his breath for several minutes. the world. Ive made Housed in a repurposed ground-floor apart-
Using blowtorches, his assistants proceed ment in a quaint two-story building in Buda-
to melt off the outer layer of the ice before new friends. And its pests historic Castle District on scenic Buda
one of them retrieves a chainsaw to cut into Castle Hill, The House of Houdini opened in
the thawing block at front and back, creat- all thanks to the art of June 2016. It pays homage to Harry Houdi-
ing crack lines. One false move and Mer- ni, who was born in Budapest as Erik Weisz
lini would be cut up like a chunk of frozen
escape in 1874 and emigrated at age four with his
meat, the narrator related breathlessly at a family to the United States, where he would
recent World Magic Awards event in Los become the American Dream personified.
Angeles, where the magician showcased the Two years ago, while performing the stunt
act, winning the Best Escape Artist prize. on live television in Italy, he did end up with Hungarian-born escape artist
Remember, hes still holding his breath. broken bones. As he stepped out of the col- David Merlini poses with a wax sculpture
He continues to do so, as do members of lapsing block of ice, a heavy piece of it fell of Harry Houdini inside his House of
the audience, while two of his on-stage as- on his right leg, fracturing both his tibia and Houdini museum in Budapest





His inventive death-defying exploits and Houdini memorabilia. Letters penned by in which he made a five-ton pachyderm dis-
meticulously cultivated daredevil persona Houdini. Sepia portraits of him with his be- appear in New Yorks 5,300-seat Hippodrome
turned Houdini into the king of vaudeville, loved mother, Cecilia, and his wife, Bess. Theater in 1918 right in front of a stupefied
who is still widely celebrated as the greatest Copies of his books. Contemporary posters audience. (He used a specially built jum-
illusionist who has ever lived. publicizing Houdinis various performanc- bo-sized cabinet, which has since been lost.)
Houdini was a consummate showman es. A variety of props used in Houdini, Unlike [those of] other magicians of his
who didnt flinch from resorting to hy- the 2014 History Channel miniseries, which time, Houdinis feats are still baffling and
perbole and legerdemain, and he remains was filmed in Budapest and stars Jew- awe-inspiring even to a modern audience,
as popular as ever with a steady stream of ish-American actor Adrien Brody, whose says Cox, who lives in Los Angeles, from
books, plays and films continuing to appear mother was born in the Hungarian capital. where he runs Wild About Harry, a pop-
about him. I believe in the energy of objects, says ular website devoted to the legendary illu-
Merlini, who served as a technical adviser sionist. We still puzzle over how he could
A six-minute stunt can for the series. He helped train Brody and escape from a locked prison cell after he
design magic effects, for which he used has been stripped and searched. Hes con-
cost you months of your replicas of Houdinis stage props, including temporary in that way, Cox explains. His
his famed Chinese Water Torture Cell and life story continues to evolve along with his
life. You dont sleep, you a brightly painted milk can that is now on legend. Im constantly learning new things
dont drink, you dont display in his museum. about him.
I like to hold old objects, inspect them and
eat. They handcuff you. learn the history behind them, he elucidates, FOR HIS fans, even simple objects Houdi-
indicating the milk can, the original of which ni once owned are imbued with his magic.
They lock you in a box. Houdini used in his famous milk can es- At pride of place among the exhibits in The
cape, a stunt that saw him make his way out House of Houdini, within a custom-made
You need to go through of the water-filled can after being squeezed display case with bulletproof glass and mi-
a protocol of things just and locked into it in handcuffs. Many of
Houdinis props were real works of art.
croclimate humidity control, is the Weisz
familys English-language Bible from Ap-
to survive They were also ingenious. The best es- pleton, Wisconsin, where Eriks father re-
cape stunts are meticulously designed and ceived a new posting in 1878 as the rabbi of
choreographed with painstaking attention a Reform congregation. The book is open
His staying power in the public imagi- to every last detail. Beyond athletic feats of to a page signed by Erik, now calling him-
nation is really amazing, says John Cox, endurance and steely nerves, they require self Ehrich, in his cursive handwriting. Its
a Hollywood screenwriter who is one of plenty of ingenuity. flanked by certifiably authentic handcuffs
the worlds leading authorities on Houdini. Take the straitjacket Merlini wears in his and leg irons that Houdini employed in his
Its fair to say hes even more popular to- ice escape. It seems to bind him, adding high-octane acts of escapology. These items
day than he was in his own time. I think its an extra hurdle he must overcome to break alone cost Merlini a fortune.
because his name has come to be associated free. In fact, the padded jacket helps insu- I did this museum for Houdini, he ex-
with the miraculous. Hes become part of late him against the freezing cold within plains, sitting on a period sofa in the muse-
popular culture. the ice, where he needs to stay still for long ums parlor, which is decorated in opulent,
The House of Houdini itself testifies to minutes. fin de sicle style with a proper stage on
the staying power of the great magician, In this, too, Houdini was a trailblazer a one side where 12 in-house magicians take
who has been dead for almost a century. It restless innovator and clever inventor. He turns entertaining visitors. You half expect
seems, in parts, to be less a museum than an designed new handcuffs, devised a special Houdini to materialize any minute some-
elaborate shrine to Houdini. Its very name diving suit that allowed its wearer to slip how, perhaps conjuring himself into a phys-
simultaneously evokes an aura of mystery out of it underwater, and invented a magi- ical form from his life-size shadow that is
and an air of dynastic legitimacy. It duly cians belt that rotated on ball bearings, al- painted on a wall.
provides both. lowing him to access picks and keys stored Ive got so much from him. Ive made
Visitors gain entry via a mock-up of an in its hidden compartments by manipulating money. Ive toured the world. Ive made
old bank vaults steel door by answering a it with his elbows while his wrists were tied. new friends, Merlini says. And its all
puzzle beside a life-size wax sculpture of Yet, Houdini kept many of his inventions thanks to the art of escape. Houdini inspired
Houdini, frozen perpetually in the act of secret. So secret, in fact, that it remains a puz- me to have this career and showed me what
ridding himself of a pair of manacles. In- zle how he pulled off some of his greatest il- was possible.
side awaits Merlinis private collection of lusions, including The Vanishing Elephant, Merlini pops into his little office. Its


David Merlini performs his ice escape
stunt, during which he is enclosed in a
block of ice

his acts, famously had it in for self-styled

psychics. He dedicated years of his life to
exposing spiritualists, mediums and other
charlatans who preyed on the gullible by
claiming to possess supernatural powers.
Forget the spoons, Merlini says, almost
apologetically. But Uri does some things
that are hard to explain, he adds.
Hes less charitable about a self-professed
magus who lives in the apartment upstairs.
From his Karma Studio, the man plies
his trade reading palms, putting on hexes,
undoing curses and communicating with
spirits. Hes a dark-haired fellow who gazes
intently in his publicity photos and shares
the customary proclivity of occultists for
crystal balls, plastic skulls and tarot cards.
Hes a bully, Merlini insists. Since
Merlini refused to sell the mans magic po-
tions in his museum and asked him to stop
parking his motorcycle outside its doors,
the magus, who is a minor celebrity in Bu-
dapest, has turned on him, warning the ma-
gician about unspecified consequences.
The self-styled magus doesnt like Houdini
and Jews much either, the magician attests.
Mockingly, Merlini has placed a period
poster of Houdini at the buildings gate so
the man has to pass it daily: in it Houdini

promises to expose fake mediums and

their methods.

ITS IRONIC, isnt it? Merlini says with

a chuckle, referring to the opening of his
tribute to Houdini, the bane of psychics,
literally right under the nose of one. Talk
about coincidence!
It hasnt been the only coincidence. Merlini,
located behind a movable bookcase packed in the middle. The set is a gift he received whose mother is a Hungarian pop singer and
with leather-bound tomes. Perching on from one of those friends: the Israeli spoon whose father is an Italian painter, was born in
the top shelf is Napoleon, a tabby tomcat bender and self-proclaimed psychic Uri 1978 on the same date, October 31, that Hou-
from next door that comes daily to traverse Geller, whose father was a Hungarian Jew. dini died 52 years prior, in 1926, at age 52.
the premises and now surveys goings-on One wonders what Houdini would have Then theres this: Houdini was born in Buda-
from above with proprietorial interest. made of Gellers claim that he can bend pest and taken to a new country, the US, at age
Momentarily, Merlini produces a small case spoons with just the power of his mind. four; Merlini was born in Budapest and taken
and clicks it open to show off its contents: The great magician, who himself appeared to a new country, Italy, at age three. In their
11 silver spoons. Each is bent out of shape at times to defy the laws of nature with new homes, both boys developed an abiding



passion for magic very early on.

Such coincidences can be formative, even
if you dont read too much into them. There
they may remain, stored in a vault at the
back of your mind, subconsciously guiding
your choices in life.
And so it proved with Merlini. He first
came upon these parallels between Houdi-
nis life and his own, as a budding teenage
magician in the Italian town of Turin, where
he grew up, while perusing an old, dog-
eared compendium about Houdini a copy
of which he still keeps. By then, he had
been dabbling in magic for years, practicing
sleight of hand, mastering misdirection and
building his own props.


I have constantly gone
against my better
judgment because
I wanted to prove
something, because ni says. I wanted to reproduce some of his Merlini setsa newworld record of 21
stunts with some new twists. minutes and 29 seconds for holding his
I wanted to follow so In 1912, Houdini debuted his Under- breath underwaterin Bahrain, in 2009
water Box Escape, wherein he was hand-
much in the footsteps cuffed and locked in a wooden crate that
of Harry Houdini was then trussed and chained before being
lowered from a barge into New Yorks East
ing wheel of a car that was doused in gaso-
line and set alight... while being hoisted 66
River. After two and a half minutes under- feet above ground by a crane, then dropped.
water, Houdini popped up to the surface. He emerged unscathed from the vehicles
When I was four, I started collecting Scientific American magazine declared his smoldering ruins.
padlocks and keys and doing magic tricks, stunt one of the most remarkable tricks On the side, he set a series of world re-
he recalls, revealing yet another similarity ever performed. cords for holding his breath underwater in a
to Houdini, who was forever toying with In August 1996, Merlini, then 17, had glass tank, achieving a stunning 21 minutes
locks, padlocks and cuffs, the better to open himself handcuffed and locked in a perfo- and 29 seconds as his personal best.
them at will. Im still like that, Merlini rated steel box that was welded shut and In 2004, Merlini decided to raise the
adds. Give me a padlock and I can play lowered by a Hungarian strongman into stakes on Houdinis old escape from a
with it for hours. the Danube from Budapests famed Chain watery grave stunt by adding some extra
He also began performing whenever he Bridge. He freed himself underwater and Wow! effect. This time, he had himself
could. During a stay in Eilat, Israel, in 1991 swam to the surface. He became an instant embedded up to his neck in a concrete cube
with his mother, who signed on to sing at sensation in Hungary. weighing 3.5 tons, which was then low-
local hotels, Merlini then 13, convinced a It was one of my first Houdini stunts, ered by a crane to the bottom of the Dan-
manager to let him entertain the guests with Merlini says. ube while 20,000 people watched from the
his magic tricks. He offered to pay me one It wasnt his last. Several Houdini- banks and 2 million more on live television.
dollar for each minute of my show, Merlini inspired stunts would follow. It was dark down there. You couldnt see
says. I used the money to buy my first real Houdini had himself buried alive, only to a thing, he recalls. We almost drowned.
pair of handcuffs in Jerusalem. claw himself out from six feet under. Merli- He and two scuba divers waiting underwa-
Barely out of high school, he returned to ni likewise cheated death by escaping from ter to secretly free him, that is.
Budapest to pursue the art of escapology in a glass coffin. Houdini set himself on fire to Because of the low visibility in the murky
his and Houdinis native land. I wanted to show he could escape being burned alive. water, Merlini used a fishing line to reel in
become a part of Houdinis legend, Merli- Merlini had himself handcuffed to the steer- his two helpers so they could get to him on


A magician entertains visitors, in front of locks and chains; I have burned, drowned, Hell tell you all about his museum, though.
Houdinis shadow, inside The House of and frozen till my body has become almost The House of Houdini, Merlini says,
Houdini insensible to pain; I have done things which has attracted some 10,000 visitors since it
rightly I could not do, because I said to my- opened and hes planning to launch an adja-
self You must; and now I am old at 36, cent Houdini-themed caf.
time without becoming disoriented. They Houdini explained. His tribute to Houdini has already helped
had only a few minutes before Merlini, who Merlini is 38 and clearly feels the same. rekindle interest among Hungarians in the
had no access to oxygen, would drown. I have constantly gone against my better Budapest-born grand master of magic. In
Strong underwater currents caught the line, judgment because I wanted to prove some- November, Houdini the Magical Musical,
however, making it difficult to pull. Then, thing, because I wanted to follow so much a song-and-dance show with live magic
all three of them got entangled in it. in the footsteps of Harry Houdini, he says. acts, debuted in Budapest, selling out all its
In the end Merlini managed to make it to But, at my age, now Id never allow myself performances.
the surface. to be encased in a large block of concrete His museum also has put Budapest back
and sunk to the bottom of a river. on the map for the legions of Houdini afi-
THEY LIFTED me up out of the river with The art of escapology can serve as thrill- cionados around the world. I cant believe
a helicopter. There was champagne, fire- ing escapism for spectators but can take its its taken this long to have something in Bu-
works, big headlines, Merlini remembers. toll on its practitioners. dapest devoted to Houdini! Cox observes.
But you cant imagine what the fishing line A six-minute stunt can cost you months of David Merlini is passionate about magic,
did to my hands. They felt numb, like I had your life, Merlini explains. You dont sleep, escapology and Houdini, as well as Houd-
gloves on. I still have scars on my palms you dont drink, you dont eat. They handcuff inis connection to Budapest, so hes been
all these years later, he adds, showing off you. They lock you in a box. You need to go the perfect person to build a museum in
thick bands of calloused skin. The river through a protocol of things just to survive. Houdinis true birth place.
was cold and polluted and I got salmonella. But hes not going to stop just yet. Ultimately, though, Merlini has created
I was sick for months afterwards. I guess I have another 15 years in me, his museum for a man who will never be
Then again, Houdini never said it was he says. Im working on a new stunt. Its able to visit it.
going to be easy. He trained endlessly for going to be big. Im not sure what Houdini would think
years and decades, pushing himself physi- What stunt? Can you keep a secret? So of my museum, the escape artist pon-
cally ever harder to the very edge of endur- can I, he quips. Out of every 10 ideas for ders. Would he like it, or would he think
ance and often well past it. a new stunt, only one will work is all he I was exploiting his legend? For me, itd be
I have struggled with iron and steel, with allows. enough if he was happy with it.