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Houdini expert shares tales about 20th century magic and illusion legend

Date: 11/20/2014

EAST LONGMEADOW – On the night of Nov. 12, East Longmeadow Lions Club Vice President Wally Clune was in a bind; his hands were bounded together with an authentic pair of Harry Houdini handcuffs.

The handcuffs and key, which is the only way out of the handcuffs other than learning master illusionist techniques perfected solely by 20th century magic legend Harry Houdini, are owned by William Radner, co-director of the official Houdini séance.

Radner said Capt. Bean Cobb of the Boston Police Department designed the handcuffs in the early 1900s. Cobb challenged anyone to escape from the cuffs for $500. Naturally, Houdini accepted the challenge and escaped from the handcuffs, which were designed to be inescapable.

“This is the only pair that uses this key,” he added. “Every other Bean giant [handcuff] has the same key. This one doesn’t.”

Clune attempted to use the key while handcuffed but his tightly bound hands prevented him from inserting the key into the lock.

During his first attempt at opening the lock, the key fell between his fingers onto the floor. After a couple minutes in the Bean handcuffs, Radner released him.

William Radner is the son of Sidney Radner, an amateur magician who became the steward of Houdini’s illusionist artifacts such as the “Upside Down Water Torture Cell,” a water tank in which Houdini was chained by his feet and lowered upside down.

“My father went all over trying to find [Houdini’s brother Theodore Hardeen] and my grandmother thought he was crazy,” Radner said. “He did and Hardeen saw somebody so enthused and he thought, ‘Here’s somebody who can pass on the name Houdini.’’’

Sidney Radner bought a large collection of Houdini props and stage items from Hardeen and also resurrected the Houdini séance in 1948, after Houdini’s wife stopped hosting the event in 1936.

She started the séance in 1927, a year after her husband’s death.

After his father’s death in June 2011, William Radner took on the role of co-director the séance with Thomas Bold from Appleton, WI., the city where Houdini claimed he was born. The historical legacy of Houdini stage items and props passed to William as well.

That same year, a special Houdini séance called “The Séance of Lifetime” took place to honor Sydney’s decades of work raising public awareness about Houdini’s master skills of illusion, Radner said. Famous magician Teller attended the memorial séance.

“[Sydney] would get people in the magic field together and they would go out and find certain specialists in certain areas. He’d do them every year [on Oct. 31, the day of Houdini’s death],” he added.

At the séance, a large ensemble of magicians and Houdini enthusiasts gather together around a table, Radner said.

An inner circle of about eight people who knew Houdini or are prominent members of the magic field attempt to contact Houdini from beyond the grave.

“We never did but it was a nice social event at the time,” he added.

The séance is hosted in areas where Houdini preformed, Radner explained. This year, the séance took place in Danvers.

Radner said he got his first taste of being in the theatrical business when he was 12 years old. Sidney was featured in a Magic Handbook article in the 1960s about his Houdini expertise.

Sydney asked his son if he wanted to be in the magazine as well and he taught him simple magic tricks such as the rising card trick and another involving putting a pin in a bottle of milk without the bottle leaking.

“They gave me credits as Billy Radner and I was like ‘Wow, now I’m a movie star now,’” he added.

Sydney was also on the Merv Griffin show and contributed to a “Gamblers Never Gamble” section of an edition of Racket Squad comic books in the early 1950s.

Radner said he is currently looking into having a televised future Houdini séance.