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September 26, 2017 | Theatre,

Boston’s Love of Magic: from Houdini to HOME

The population of Boston has long been enamored with magic and the art of illusion. Not only did the citizenry love to witness something unexplainable, the city was also once ground zero for hopeful would-be magicians.

In the late 1800’s, on Court Street in downtown Boston, one of the only “Magic Schools” in the country first opened its doors. For $75, you could learn how to escape from a pair of handcuffs from a professional instructor at W.D. Leroy’s “School of Magic” (the man who invented the trick, Benjamin B. Keyes, was a Sandwhich, MA native). Leroy’s school was credited,” The Magic Detective blog notes, “with having the largest and most up to date magic catalog of it’s time.” Leroy also founded the “Magic Mystic Fraternity” around this time, “a name well calculated to fill the outsider with awe,” The Boston Post reported. The Mystic Fraternity was the first society of its kind in the United States, and the organization drafted its official charter in Massachusetts in 1896. The society’s stated goal? “To unite, fraternally, acceptable men who are recognized performers of ability in the art of magic or sleight-of-hand.” The Post reporter who visited the Fraternity expected to find a cadre of odd fellows dressed in “turbans and flowing robes,” instead, he found a group of Bostonians in ordinary attire. It didn’t matter how you dressed or what you looked like, the main requirement was secrecy: “No man will be admitted who is addicted to the excessive use of intoxicating liquors,” the Post reporter explained, “as they are liable to talk and tell more of the secrets of the society than is good for them; when under its influence.” With applications for membership arriving from all across the country, it was only a matter of time before the man would become one of the most famous magicians of all time arrived at the door of 103 Court Street.


Harry Houdini was interested in purchasing several escape acts from Leroy, and the magic entrepreneur was happy to oblige. Within ten years of this transaction, Houdini would be the most famous magician in the world, especially beloved in the city on the hill. “Houdini was huge in Boston,” writes The Magic Detective, noting that Harry’s fans were so numerous in Beantown that they were nicknamed “Houdinites.” Soon, Houdini would handily escape from a Boston jail, break free from a coffin that had been nailed shut, and leap off the Mass Ave bridge while handcuffed. When it came time to take his act indoors, where the audience would need to purchase a ticket to witness these feats, Houdini was often found at B.F. Keith’s Theatre—547 Washington Street, where the Emerson Paramount Center operates today. During one engagement, Houdini was challenged by several business men to “escape from the inside of a 1600 lb sea creature,” that had been caught in Boston Harbor (“a cross between a whale and an octopus” the hoopla surrounding the event claimed, though the newspaper image appears to clearly display a sea turtle?). Once again, the magician succeeded and refused to tell anyone exactly how he had pulled it off.


What exactly Houdini escaped from the innards of remains a mystery, and today, over 100 years later in the same precise locale (!), a new mystery has arrived. Instead of something being destroyed or escaped from, something is being created. In Geoff Sobelle’s HOME, on an empty stage, a house is conjured from thin air. Residents move in, move out, clean up, burn down, sweep under, paint over, fence off and move on — and all the while, they live among the traces of residents present, past and future. It’s a magical, large-scale spectacle built from the ground up; HOME combines illusion, live music, home-spun engineering to delight and mystify the audience. Make no mistake, as one reviewer put it, speaking about a previous Sobelle show, “when I say “magic moments,” I mean actual magic.” “Construction continues,” Broad Street Review observed of HOME, “all without realizing quite how and when everything got there.”

Boston has always been a home to the creators and fans of magic. Now, fittingly, the city welcomes HOME.



SEP 27 – OCT 1

Emerson Paramount Center
Robert J. Orchard Stage

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