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Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle debate magic in play based on own words

Though he’s remembered as one of the great illusionists of all time, Harry Houdini was more a man of reason than many might think.

While the Hungarian-born American performer was perfecting daring escape acts, he was also busy debunking psychics and mediums, revealing séances and so-called spirit photographs as fraudulent and otherwise exposing spiritualism as a hoax.

Houdini wrote a book about his debunking endeavors and publicly lectured about it as well. With their claims of contacting people who have died, mediums and psychics took advantage of grieving relatives, Houdini argued, often bilking the bereaved out of considerable money.

Houdini’s commitment to disproving the paranormal led to a permanent rift with one of his famous friends: Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a devoted believer in spiritualism who was adamant that Houdini and other illusionists had paranormal powers.

Halloween marks the 90th anniversary of Houdini’s death. And thanks to historical materials at the University of Texas, a new play dramatizes the debate between Houdini and Doyle.

Devised by Austin’s Hidden Room Theatre, “Houdini Speaks to the Living” uses the Houdini and Doyle collections in UT’s Ransom Center to imagine the two men in a debate about the true nature of magic.

Houdini will be played by New York magician Patrick Terry, who co-wrote the play with Hidden Room artistic director Beth Burns. Terry will recreate Houdini’s floating table and spirit bell illusions, among others, during the 45-minute show. Doyle is played by Austin actor Robert Matney.

Terry says that Houdini’s mission to debunk frauds was motivated by a desire to expose predatory psychics capitalizing on people’s grief but also transcended to his show-business craft.

“The irony is that while an illusionist’s stage currency may be magic, we’re really in the truth business,” Terry says.

“We don’t want people to be deluded. And Houdini wanted to use his talents for good, not bad. He was offended by predatory spiritualists who took advantage of people.”

Burns, who spent the last year scouring the Ransom Center’s archives, said about 75 percent of the play’s dialogue is verbatim, culled from Houdini’s and Doyle’s correspondence, essays and diaries.

“There’s a tremendous conversation that emerges from the archive and paints a portrait of two remarkable characters,” Burns says.

“There’s Houdini the aspirational immigrant who diligently trained and perfected his physical abilities to accomplish stunning feats. And there’s Doyle, the Scottish gentleman who created a most logical character with Sherlock Holmes but was nevertheless under the sway of spiritualism and who claimed experiences with ghosts, poltergeists and spirits.”

Doyle became convinced that Houdini possessed paranormal powers. And though on several occasions the performer demonstrated how his tricks were illusions, the author refused to believe it.

Spanning 100 boxes, the Ransom Center’s Houdini archive is one of the larger collections of material the magician left on his death in 1926, theater curator Eric Colleary said. It includes handwritten descriptions of magic tricks, along with decades of Houdini’s business and personal correspondence, including a series of love letters with his wife, Bess.

Colleary organized a small exhibit that is on view at the Ransom Center through Nov. 6. Also, portions of the Houdini Collection are digitized and available online.

“Because his interests and activities were considerable, Houdini’s legacy provides a touchstone to so many areas of study and can be a source of artistic inspiration, too,” he says.

Colleary included the Ransom Center’s most recent Houdini acquisition in the exhibit: one of the performer’s solid iron ball weights with an ankle cuff and chain. It weighs 26 pounds.

“Houdini would have used a concealed lock pick to unlock it,” Colleary says. “It wasn’t magic.”

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