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Presto, Change-o: Two Exhibitions on Magic Open at the Skirball Cultural Center

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Like many people out there, we’re fascinated by magic—the slight of hand that leaves us scratching our collective heads asking, “Uh, how did they do that?”

This week, the Skirball Culture Center opened two fascinating exhibitions on prestidigitation: Houdini: Art and Magic and Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age. The exhibits teach visitors a little history about the rise of magic, focusing on the mid-19th and 20th centuries. (Though it doesn’t quite explain the appeal of mascara-loving Criss Angel.)

Houdini: Art and Magic paints a picture of the magician and escape artist’s dynamic career, cut short when he died of a burst appendix on Halloween in 1926 at the age of 52. First shown at The Jewish Museum in New York, the exhibition features more than 150 pieces, including photographs, films, posters, playbills and memorabilia from Houdini’s era. Visitors get to see a number of props used by Houdini, including handcuffs, a straightjacket, a milk can and Metamorphosis trunk, from which he would escape. While the museum doesn’t reveal the magician’s secrets, the artifacts show that Houdini had a modern-era knack for marketing himself and his magic.

In addition to the Houdini history, the exhibit also displays a number of works by contemporary artists that have been inspired by Houdini’s work and persona. Artists that have been included in the show include Matthew Barney, Vik Muniz, Raymond Pettibon and Allen Ruppersberg, among others.

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The partner exhibition, Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age, provides a historical context of the era in which Houdini lived and worked. Conceived, created and curated by the Skirball’s Erin Clancey, it’s the first museum exhibition to highlight the contribution of Jewish magicians to the field of magic, focusing on Houdini’s contemporaries and competitors, and introducing many of us to the Hardeen, the Herrmann and Bamberg family dynasties.

A really cool artifact included in this exhibit is first-edition of the Discoverie of Witchcraft, by Reginald Scot—the first book to try distinguish magic as a skill that required practice rather that the supernatural witchcraft.

There are a number of related programs through the summer, including:

  • A visit to the Magic Castle, including an illustrated lecture on Houdini in Hollywood by Patrick Culliton, plus a catered lunch on June 3.
  • Lecture/Performance: "Tragic Magic: A History of Fatal Conjuring" by Joshua Jay on June 30.
  • Film: Double feature of two serials featuring Houdini—Terror Island (1920) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923) on July 10.
  • Lecture: "The Secret Life of Houdini" on July 24.

The Skirball is open Tuesday-Friday from 12-5 pm and Saturday and Sunday from 10 am-5 pm Both exhibitions run through Sept. 4. Closed Mondays and holidays. Admission: $10, $7 seniors, students and children over 12, $5 for kids 2-12. Free on Thursdays. Both exhibits run through Sept. 4.