Dorothy Dietrich, the First Lady of Magic, stood alone on a compact stage, her blond hair stark against the backdrop of heavy red curtains. She raised a flat hand to her eyebrows, almost in mock salute, looking for a volunteer. She scanned the cross-legged children seated before her and the crowd of teenagers, parents and other adults behind them. She held her gaze for a moment toward the back of the crowd and straightened her finger, "You there, sir," summoning me to the stage.
I was at the Houdini Museum in downtown Scranton, Pa. In 1988, Dietrich, who co-owns and operates the museum with her partner, fellow magician Dick Brookz, famously became the first woman to successfully perform the bullet-catching trick, which has killed, purportedly, a dozen magicians. (In a video on YouTube, Dietrich stands behind a plate of glass as a man fires a bolt-action rifle aimed at her face.)
On stage, Dietrich asked me, "Are you afraid of swords or being confined?" Normally, it would depend on the situation, I thought, but I said no, and she picked up a thick square collar of wood, with a rounded-out center and a hinge on one side. "Great, put this around your neck." The audience howled, and I looked at the brothers sitting in front of me: a prepubescent boy wearing a T-shirt with the faces of Donald Trump and Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood's symbol of Nixonian vigilante law and order; and the boy's slightly older, rail-thin brother, sporting a red trucker hat with the message: "Trump. Finally, someone with balls."
I clamped the square collar around my neck as Dietrich held up a piece of newspaper.
"You see this," she said, as she sliced the newspaper with a sword.
"You feel this?" she asked, as she slid the sword through the wooden collar, poking my neck with a cool metal point.
"I'm going to run this sharp sword straight through your neck. Sound good?"
"Great," she said. "Now turn around."
I turned and looked directly under the lights at the crowd in front of me. The kids' smiles and energy, the older magic enthusiasts' knowing grins, the confusion and frozen half-smile on my wife's face. I could see everything so clearly.
After a few false starts to build tension, Dietrich pushed the sword into the collar and out the other end: a toothpick spearing a cocktail olive. I felt a slight pressure on my neck, which may have been my body remembering to draw in breath.
I was here because Harry Houdini lives in the background of my memories, blurry and unreal, and visiting the museum gave me the chance to reconnect with one of my first heroes of art and theater. When I was in grade school, I stumbled on a paperback biography of the magician, where I learned about his lifelong commitment to debunking spiritualists, communicators to the dead and psychics. His acts were rooted in endurance, skill and pain tolerance, obscured by seemingly unexplainable magic. Houdini spent a lifetime escaping shackles, ropes and steel bondage.
He traveled the world picking locks while handcuffed, held upside down, submerged in water, straitjacketed or sealed in darkened containers, cramped, with quickly diminishing levels of breathable air. He performed for massive crowds and ticket-paying audiences, including in the booming coal town of Scranton. Although the Houdini Museum, which opened in 1988, has no direct association with the 20th century's premier escape artist — Houdini never performed or lived on site — his legacy is championed by Dietrich and Brookz, and their commitment extends well beyond the museum's walls.
On display is one of Dietrich and Brookz's prized pieces: the mold used to re-create the funerary bust that sat atop Houdini's grave, which was destroyed by vandals in the 1970s. Houdini is buried in what was then a languishing cemetery in Queens. Dietrich and Brookz helped raise the funds, about $10,000, to re-create and install a new bust as negotiations between the New York cemetery and the magician's estate stalled.
The bust mold lives in a side room among event posters, chains and heavy padlocks, which museumgoers can see during the 30-minute tour that precedes the marathon 2 ½-hour magic show. The museum looks like an organized antiques store, with old magazines and advertising pamphlets resting on wardrobes and curio cabinets thick with dust and Houdini-related tchotchkes.
Once the show, which featured the magic duo trading sets, came to a close, Dietrich and Brookz made themselves available for questions while operating the museum's gift shop.
A man in his 50s waited for the audience to disperse, eager to ask Dietrich about her infamous bullet-catch trick. As he approached, his face was eager and shining, in awe of the magician.
"You really caught a fired bullet with your teeth?" he asked breathlessly.
"Well, I don't recommend it," she replied.
The Houdini Museum has different hours depending on the season. Call (570) 342-5555 for information.