He's been dead since Halloween, 1926, but Harry Houdini just won't die. The old bastard really won't go away.
Questions have lingered about how much of the myth of Houdini was created and perpetuated by his wife and others after his death, and how deeply he was really embedded into American pop culture while he was alive. Yes, he was certainly famous and successful, mostly as an escape artist, less so as a magician. Why is he still stuck so acutely in America's collective cultural subconscious today?
Who knows, and while he has stubbornly refused to show up at the séance held each Halloween on the date of his death, he's still with us. His ostensibly "lost" film The Grim Game, seen by only a handful of people over the last 75 years, debuted on Turner Movie Classics a month or so ago.
I recently attended the 14th Los Angeles Conference on the History of Magic (more about this sooner or later) and met Casey J. Wong, who has the blood of Famous Monsters of Filmland running deeply through his veins.
Casey is a makeup artist at Universal Studios Hollywood and, even though he is not a magician, this ongoing odd pop-culture fascination with Houdini grabbed him by the gonads and he spent an enormous amount of time creating what he calls his "artist's impression" of Houdini at age 52, the year he died.
If you can find an unretouched photo of Harry from that period (not easy — he always had his skin smoothed like a newborn), he indeed looks tired as hell, and 10 years older than his age. He was a fearless lunatic who pushed himself to the breaking point, literally to death, because he refused to go to the doctor despite his appendix rupturing.
Casey Wong, seen here recreating Wally Westmore's original makeup for Freddie March in 1931's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, presented an interesting talk at the LA Conference on what the lengthy process of recreating his impression of Houdini entailed. The art of special effects makeup is fascinating, and I don't have to tell you anything more than the fact that every single hair on Houdini's head was punched in one by one in order for you to get an idea of the amount of time and effort that goes into it. We see it all so often on film and TV that we take it for granted, but the hundreds of hours these specialized makeup artists put into their work is staggering.
And so, here is Casey's marvelous impression of the middle-aged Houdini. You can almost see the old boy thinking, "Oy, when are these people going to let me go already!"