I’m certainly not the first to be tempted to make comparisons between Joseph McCarthy and Houdini. Anybody else want to join in?
Hmmm. That didn’t take long, especially if you’re in Appleton and talking to Terry Bergen, executive director of the Outagamie Museum.
Both men succeeded, for a while, as masters of illusion – the U.S. senator in his aggressive and abrasive quest to tag 205 Americans as Communists in the 1950s, Houdini in his elaborate trickster mode that seemed to defy laws of logic, physics and survival 50 years earlier.
It was two magicians, not one, both with ties to Appleton. That’s my easy interpretation, but Terry digs deeper.
“They created myths about themselves,” she says. The politician “pretended to be an anti-Communist,” she alleges, and “was never motivated by more than his own self-promotion.”
She describes herself as a leftist, then adds, “I’m not going to apologize for Joe McCarthy, but he was just one man. It was the House Un-American Activities Committee that did most of the blackballing” of Americans categorized as Red.
And Houdini? “He wanted to be seen as an American, and a superman,” she says, noting that – contrary to promotional materials – he was born in Hungary, not Appleton, where he lived merely four years. Then his father, a rabbi, lost his job and moved the family to Milwaukee, then New York.
“He was a brilliant publicist,” Terry says, of Houdini. Kind of a pioneer for what we have today: Slick promoters who stage events routinely, shocking us to attention.
Stroll through Terry’s museum, where the second floor is devoted to Houdini’s antics. It is a hands-on presentation that is meant to amuse and educate children as well as adults, and about 10 to 15 percent of the museum’s Houdini collection is typically out for public viewing.
And where is the notorious U.S. senator? Nowhere, for now. A 2002 exhibit, called “Joseph McCarthy: A Modern Tragedy,” was dismantled in 2004. Terry says the run was longer than planned, and that it was never meant to be a permanent display, but she also acknowledges the controversy it generated.
“We know we did it right because we didn’t please anybody,” she says. Liberals thought it soft-pedaled McCarthyism. Some of the locals considered it too harsh, not concentrating enough on other aspects of the man.
“So many people who had known Joe, politics aside, aren’t ashamed of him – they saw him as a good man, and didn’t want him observed just as a politician.”
We chat in the museum, which is the former Appleton Masonic Temple, a sturdy stone building that cost $100,000 to build in 1924. Joseph McCarthy was one of the members.
A heavy drinker (“no one was more fun,” locals have told Terry), he died of hepatitis in 1957.
Much info from the former museum exhibit is online, but you have to know where to hunt for it. Hunt for “virtual exhibits” on the Outagamie Museum home page.
Terry says an exhibit of McCarthy artifacts will be presented in 2008. “It will be about how to interpret an artifact and learn history from it,” she says, and will replace a longtime “Tools of Change” display.
Items will include the larger than life bronze bust of the senator, which sat in the Outagamie County Courthouse until 2001, when it was moved to the museum because of political protests.
Despite his brief Appleton residency, Terry predicts that Houdini always will have a presence in the museum because “he has universal appeal” and “the world thinks he came from Appleton.” (Aside: There is a museum devoted to Houdini in Scranton, Pa. See www.houdini.org.)
Hers is a job that has required tough skin. Besides dealing with “A Modern Tragedy” controversies, Terry was buried with feedback from magicians in 2003, when the museum showed 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.
“It’s an outdated method today,” she says, but magicians in the United Kingdom and Germany were especially vocal about how the museum spilled the beans about a trade secret. David Copperfield contacted Terry personally, too, which led to a “Today” show debate.
That happened during Terry’s first year of work as executive director, a feet-in-the-fire experience that doesn’t seem to daunt her. “There will always be a conflict between the collector and the historian,” she says, describing the explosion of emotion as “the most controversial exhibit reaction for the least basis.”
Kim Louagie, a Canada native who was curator for both the Houdini and McCarthy exhibits, no longer works for the museum.
Interest in McCarthy and Appleton recently was refueled by the release of “Good Night, and Good Luck,” a movie about journalist Edward R. Murrow’s anti-McCarthyism crusade.
Her last observations, on Houdini: “We needed a guy like him during his time. The nation was unsettled, and here was someone who could escape” improbable circumstances.
And, McCarthy: “There were Communists” during his time. “People were just wrong about who they were.”
For more about the Outagamie Museum, 330 E. College Ave., in downtown Appleton, see www.foxvalleyhistory.org or call 920-733-8445.