GALENA, Kan. —
Aron Houdini has done most of what his great-great-uncle did, including learning magic, becoming an escape artist and delving into paranormal investigations.
Changing his last name is part of that. But where Erik Weiss simply performed under the name Harry Houdini, Aron Houdini legally changed his name to reflect his lineage.
Houdini will perform this weekend in Galena - just like Harry Houdini did in January, 1898. As part of a grand opening of the Galena Murder Bordello, he will perform the same signature straitjacket escape that Harry Houdini performed back then.
"I always like going back and performing the same escapes that he did," Houdini said. "That was his big signature escape."
Houdini said he doesn't know why his other brothers didn't get into magic like he did. They all got the same kinds of magic tricks as presents, and all heard stories about Harry Houdini and his brother, Theodore Weiss (who performed as Thomas Hardeen).
Aron Houdini is related through a series of in-laws all the way to Elsie Fozzard, who married Theodore Weiss.
Magic took hold of Houdini, back when he was a 5-year-old named Aron Sullivan.
"I got a trick for Christmas that year," Houdini said. "I kept doing magic. All I wanted for every birthday was a magic trick."
He started performing professionally while he was still in high school, and when he turned 18, started performing escapes. That's when he changed his name, but then realized what having that name meant.
"After I changed my name, people started coming to the same show more often," he said. "Then all of a sudden, I realized my tricks weren't Houdini. They were fine for someone else, but not a Houdini. I had to step it up a notch each show."
His pursuit of escapism helped with that. His first straitjacket was made for magicians, however, and the weak construction disappointed him. So he started learning more advanced techniques.
And thanks to a prescription from a friend who was also a doctor, he obtained a medical-grade straitjacket.
"I got it home and they put me in," he said. "And I couldn't get out. That's when I said, 'Oh, crap. This is real.'"
The next six months were filled with training and treatment from doctors and chiropractors. He learned how to stretch ligaments and dislocate his shoulder in order to get out of the tight-fitting, disabling jacket.
Magic and escapism also followed him through a tour of duty in the U.S. Army, he said. He ended up working for the Army's public relations wing, performing at schools and talking about serving in the military.
He now uses a straitjacket reserved for the U.S. Marshalls Service. "This makes a hospital jacket look like a kid's toy," Houdini said. "It has four buckles and three crop straps. The inside is like sandpaper, and your arms are tied down in six different areas."
He said that he is the only escape artist able to get out of that type of straitjacket. He also holds the Guinness World Record for most straitjacket escapes in an hour, with 30. Burning boxes and poisonous snakes are regular parts of his stunts.
Houdini also works with paranormal investigators. But where Harry Houdini exposed scam-artist spiritualists, he has worked with groups such as Brad and Barry Klinge, formerly of the Discovery Channel's "Ghost Lab," and debunks fraudulent ghost hunters.
He also is working on a project to show what he goes through as an escape artist. He is filming his life for a future TV show, he said.
"I think it's important for the public to see what goes on after the show," Houdini said. "There's the back of clothes, the bag of tricks, the ibuprofen and the Icy Hot. It shows a true dedication to who I am."
Living a legacy
Plenty of books have been written on the elder Houdini, considered one of the most famous people in history. Plenty of others have not been glowing - some such as Jim Steinmeyer's "The Last Greatest Magician in the World" indicate that Harry Houdini was not a good magician.
Houdini said he was interviewed by William Kalush and Larry Sloman for "The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero," and said that book is absolutely the best for learning about his ancestor. Other books that suggest Harry didn't stay loyal to his wife, Bess, aren't accurate.
"I question a lot of those," he said. "I think he was very faithful to Bess. He had a respect for women like most do not."
He considers Harry Houdini a good magician, a great escape artist and the world's greatest showman, saying that if his elder were alive today, Facebook and Twitter would be a major part of his presence.
But one of the guiding principles that Houdini said he tries to follow is how Harry Houdini had a total dedication to his role.
"If you're going to be a magician, an escape artist or whatever, it's important to let people know who you are," he said. "Live the part."
Want to go?
Aron Houdini will perform today and Saturday in Galena. At 9 p.m. today on Main Street he will perform a promotional escape and attempt to get out of a burning box hanging 30 feet in the air. At 7:30 Saturday he will perform a magic show at the Galena Performing Arts Center. Tickets: $15. Then at 9:30, he will hang by his feet over the Galena Murder Bordello and attempt another escape.