Making magic: Houdini, other tricksters

Would you go out of your way to watch a guy escape from a straitjacket? How about if he was hanging upside-down outdoors, several stories higher than your neck could stretch?

The peculiar antics of Harry Houdini, 1874-1926, easily drew curious crowds by the hundreds. We have long known of Houdini as an escape artist who freed himself from padlocked trunks and milk cans, but now a Madison museum factors in the artistic impact of the magician’s life.

“Houdini: Art and Magic,” in place until May 13 at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, shares the paintings, photographs, films, props and other artifacts that are a result of the Hungarian-born legend’s career.

That straitjacket trick? You can watch a 1920 film clip of Houdini thrashing and wiggling his way out. Turn left for a snippet from the 1953 biographical movie “Houdini,” which starred Tony Curtis.

Also in this show are colorful performance posters, contemporary interpretations of Houdini’s signature predicaments and tricks (water torture chamber escapes, sewing needle swallowing), an art installation with live birds, sculpture and much more. Artifacts range from Houdini’s shackles and private diaries to actual confinements from which he escaped.

Explore this extensive exhibit for an hour or two on your own or show up for a 30-minute guided tour at 1 p.m. on Saturdays. Related events include movie screenings of two parts of “The Cremaster Cycle,” March 23-24; a talk that examines magic and self-liberation, March 2; and a magic show for children, April 15.

For more about the free Houdini exhibit at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St.: www.mmoca.org, 608-247-0158.

Captivated by the mysteries of magic? Hocus pocus: Here are other options for your amusement.

The History Museum at the Castle, 330 E. College Ave., Appleton: In the Madison exhibit are artifacts from this local history museum. That includes handcuffs donated by a protégé of Hardeen, an escape artist who received them from his better-known older brother.

The Appleton museum since 1989 has devoted permanent exhibit space to Houdini, an immigrant child whose family lived in Appleton around six years, until the rabbi father lost his job and moved his clan to Milwaukee, then New York.

The museum in 2003 angered magicians – David Copperfield to working illusionists in Europe – for showing how Houdini pulled off Metamorphosis, an illusion in which he was placed in a sack, then switched places with an assistant, from inside a locked trunk.

Magic trick explanations remain a part of the exhibit. For sale in the museum gift shop: Houdini T-shirts, hoodies and bumper stickers (including “Feel Trapped? Page Harry.”)

For more: www.myhistorymuseum.org, 920-733-9370.

Rick Wilcox Magic Theater, 1670 Wisconsin Dells Parkway, Wisconsin Dells: A husband-wife team begins their 14th year of stumping audiences through illusions and sleight-of-hand tricks that involve coins to a 1,300-pound helicopter (which shows up on a seemingly empty stage).

In November, Rick and Suzan Wilcox take their show, “17 Dresses and 1 Tuxedo … an Evening of Magic and Comedy,” to China for one month. His work to make magic began at age 10 and has earned international recognition.

In the Dells, the Wilcox theater seats 550 people for family-friendly entertainment during 90-minute shows. Private bookings also are possible. In the theater’s magic shop are show memorabilia and mind-control to coin-vanishing tricks.

For more: www.rickwilcox.com, 608-254-5511.

Big Guy’s Magic, 145 Park Ave., Pewaukee: For sale are magic supplies for children to professional entertainers, and the shop owner occasionally brings in award-winning illusionists to conduct lectures that explain magic tricks, then sell materials for performing them.

Mentalist Bruce Bernstein of Chicago talks at 5:30 p.m. March 3; Magician Chad Long of Florida talks at 6:30 p.m. April 10. Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door.

Big Guy’s Magic opened in April 2011. Saturday morning magic classes for ages 6-11 last 60 to 90 minutes and cost $25 (which includes the materials for two or three tricks). One-on-one magic classes cost $25 for 30 minutes.

For more: www.bigguysmagic.com, 262-691-8801.

Jest for Fun Joke Shop, 265 W. Main St., Waukesha: Proprietor Jeffrey Campbell says this is the state’s largest and oldest magic store, in business more than four decades. Inventory assists practical jokers to people who draw an income from magic.

Jeffrey also can be hired to perform “Gospel Magic,” illusions designed to pack a punch to biblical tales and themes.

For more: www.jokeshop.us, 262-544-5678.

The Houdini Club of Wisconsin, set up in 1938, hosts its 74th annual Houdini Convention Aug. 31 to Sept. 2 at Olympia Resort, Oconomowoc. Nighttime shows are open to the public.

Annual club dues are $20; members are adult magicians, ventriloquists and others who practice “kindred arts” on an amateur to professional level. For more: www.houdiniclubofwisconsin.com, 414-543-6642.