recess radio program

03/23/06
Conjuring Before Houdini
    by John Cech

It's the birthday tomorrow of Harry Houdini, one of the modern superstars of magic, whose elaborately staged escapes were the stuff of public drama. There are others who have followed in his footsteps, like David Blaine, who has been called the "hip hop Houdini," and most recently the edgy, avant-guarde Chriss Angel, an illusionist who calls himself a "mind freak." Both Blaine and Angel do what they call street magic, often wearing only jeans and tee shirts, which literally makes it impossible to hide anything up their sleeves. On his television specials, Blaine has levitated, been submerged under water for seven days, and sealed in ice for sixty-two hours -- in plain view of pedestrians and monitored constantly by TV cameras.

But guess who could make eggs hop from the top of one hat to another and then disappear into thin air, who could drink molten lead and then spit out solid pieces of the metal, still warm to the touch; or who, with his wife, could climb a rope suspended in space, while being carefully observed by a crowd of people, and then simply vanish? Those were just a few of the tricks that were performed, to great acclaim, by America's first recorded magician, Richard Potter, who was African American. He was born in 1783, in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, and through a series of events worthy of a novel and a major motion picture, found his way to England as a cabin boy, and with his sea-earned wages, was out on a ramble when he came upon a country fair and a Scottish magician who just happened to need an assistant. I won't spoil the surprise of reading the rest of Richard Potter's story in a book by Kathleen Benson and my late colleague, Jim Haskins, called Conjure Times: Black Magicians in America.

In this eye-opening book, you'll also find the incredible story of Henry "Box" Brown, who earned his stage name by means of his famous escape from that most horrific confinement of all: slavery. When his family was forcibly separated, Henry vowed to make his way to freedom. He somehow managed to find a sympathetic and courageous white carpenter who built Henry a box that he could fit into, and then he had Henry shipped north to a friend in Philadelphia. How Henry endured, and how the other Black magicians described in this book all found their ways onto the stage is a remarkable testament to human resourcefulness and bravery, and to the power of the human spirit to find ways to perform sheer, breath-taking magic.

Copyright 2006 John Cech

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