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Page 6: Houdini - The Milk Can Escape

By Ace Starry

Houdini Escape from a Milk Can

Decreasing show attendance demanded innovation from Houdini. In 1908 during this slowing period, Houdini increased interest by developing a new escape and adding it to his show. It was called "The Milk Can Escape." This dangerous trick renewed interest and he took the new show back to Europe. A beautiful poster declared to all "Failure Means a Drowning Death." Suddenly the threat of "death" upon failure was introduced and became a standard which escape artists have imitated since it's introduction. The tag line was very successful and found it's way into multiple ad campaigns.

Competition was tougher this time, even his new trick was quickly copied by competitors. Houdini discovered one competitor using his invention, a woman booking herself as "The Incredible Miss Undini." When Houdini confronted the theatre owners with a suit, Miss Undini did a vanishing act.

Poster of Houdini's Milk Can Escape

It was during this period that Houdini's clever unique approach to advertising and publicity flourished. Perhaps one of the most intriguing stunts was one that he pulled while on tour in Paris, France. Houdini hired seven men to sit side by side at a busy sidewalk cafe facing traffic. The men were similar in appearance and wore the same suits and top hats. At given intervals, the men would simultaneously remove their hats to reveal seven bald heads. Each one had a letter written on his head which spelled out "H O U D I N I."

Another of his most celebrated escapoloty stunts was actually invented by his brother, Theo, who was then appearing throughout the U.S. and Europe as "Hardeen, Brother of Houdini." Both were doing the strait-jacket escape hidden behind a curtain cabinet. One night the audience demanded that Theo let them see him escape. Their thoughts were that an assistant was hidden who would actually release Hardeen from the restraint. The, who wasn't using any assistant responded to the audience request by performing the escape in full view.

To his surprise, he received a standing ovation. When he wrote to Houdini about the tremendous effect on the audience, Houdini had to better his younger brother. Soon, twenty-thousand people were watching as Houdini escaped from the strait jacket hanging from the ankles, from the corner of a tall building. This is an escape he repeated over and over for years to come. It was an excellent device to get people to the theater.

Years later magician / escape artists would add the "failure means death" element to this escape and would light the rope on fire. I performed this escape in the mid eighties.

When Houdini was not hanging in the air, he was flying. After the Wright brothers invented the air plane, Houdini had to have one. While performing in Australia, the magician decided that he would use it to become the first to fly on the Australian continent. And of course, not to miss a chance for publicity, the name, "HOUDINI" was proudly displayed on the tail of his flying machine.

Houdini became so popular as a magician during the years that followed that political cartoons using his likeness sprung up in the major newspapers. Advertisements would use slogans bearing his name. For example one clothing company bombasts Houdini in an advertisement saying that a magician called "Houdin" deceived the public, but the prices that they offered were no trick. Houdini, again the master of marketing magic, rather than attempting to prosecute the company, confronted the advertiser. By dropping in on the business owner and demonstrating a few skillful card tricks he quickly became a friend.

He then suggested that the Nebraska Clothing Company change its advertising to reflect the "true" image of Houdini. The company changed its ads to feature a correctly spelled "Houdini" and heralded, "Prices and Quality Almost as Amazing as Houdini."

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