Monday, February 3, 2014

Five Minutes with John Cox, Because He's Wild About Harry (Houdini, That Is)

John Cox with bust of Houdini.
After visiting with John Bushey and seeing first hand his handcuff collection as well as his vast selection of Houdini memorabilia, I decided to watch again those two very special films about magicians and magic, The Prestige and The Illusionist. I hope to write about The Illusionist sometime this coming week. My first write-up on The Prestige took place in 2008 and you will note that my interest in all things magic has been a lifelong interest.

Harry Houdini was a man small of stature in real life, but his reputation as an escape artist was and remains enormous. A few days after writing about The Handcuff Kings I wrote about his Chinese Water Torture Cell, and discovered the John Cox blog Wild About Harry.

EN: How did you become “wild” about Houdini?

John Cox: When I was around 10 or 11, I saw the classic 1953 Tony Curtis Houdini biopic on TV, and it was like a thunderclap! I became fascinated with Houdini and wanted learn exactly what in movie was true (even at that age I knew you couldn’t believe everything you saw in movies). So I went and got a book about Houdini at a local bookstore. The more I learned the more fascinated I became. Almost 40 years later I’m still on a quest to learn as much about Houdini as I can. I admit the intensity of my interest is bizarre. If there really is something to having lived a past life, maybe Houdini is somehow a cosmic key for me. I don’t know.

EN: It’s evident that magic is a lifelong passion of yours. Were you ever a performing magician yourself? Do you do magic for friends?

JC: Yes, I performed when I was a young. I put on magic shows in the backyard for the neighborhood, which always included a big escape as the grand finale. Escapes became my specialty. I even did a straitjacket escape on the Toni Tennille (of Captain & Tennille) TV show. I also did some handcuff escapes in our family swimming pool that the local news covered. But I didn’t continue past my teens. I’m not a performer at heart. The study of magic and Houdini is what I love.

From his youth he's been Wild About Houdini.
EN: Do you have a favorite trick? (that you perform)

JC: Certainly. That was my straitjacket escape. It was a real straitjacket. Of course, I was small and limber as a kid, so I could have easily just slipped out of it without a problem. But I learned how to create a performance and make it dramatic. I could really feel the audience was with me, rooting for me, afraid that I might not get out. I really sold it. It was fun to perform. I still have the jacket, but if I tried it today it would be an authentic drama!

EN: What’s the background on your Wild About Houdini blog? It was started in 2002 with one post a month. Now you do 40 a month. What have you learned from this experience?

JC: Actually, Wild About Harry started in 2010. I had another site called Houdini Lives that I only updated periodically. The posts from that old site I integrated over to WAH, and then I added some old stories from way back that I wanted archived, so that’s why you see some posts from 2002, 2003, etc.

At the Houdini home in NYC
The big evolution – and this just happened organically – is that Houdini Lives was a website and WAH is a true blog. What I mean by that is, when reporting news on Houdini Lives, it was formal. But WAH is a personal space where I can share my excitement. And that seemed to crack everything open for me. So WAH still delivers the “news”, but it also includes my own experiences with collecting and going to events and doing research or even just thinking about a certain topic. And now it’s become an even larger experience with people contributing material and participating in the research. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how it’s become such a communal place and real hub of Houdini activity and thought. I guess I’ve learned that there are a lot of people who are as “wild” about Houdini as I am.

EN: What’s your favorite Harry Houdini story? (in as much detail as you wish)

JC: Oh, man, that’s a hard question. There are so many… I do like stories that humanize Houdini. Small little life moments. For example, not long ago I uncovered a story told by William Hilliar, a magician and escape artist, about when he first met Houdini. He was walking down a London street on a cold, foggy morning with T. Nelson Downs, another very famous magician, when they saw a man in a big overcoat approaching. It was Houdini. He had a small dog tucked under his coat and a tin can in his hand and said he had walked all over London to get a pot of good coffee for his wife. I love that kind of stuff.

EN: For people unfamiliar with Houdini’s life and career, which book or books would you recommend to new readers?

JC: The best biography, in my opinion, is Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss by Kenneth Silverman. It’s an amazing book that really separates fact from fiction. The trouble with Houdini’s story is there are so many fictions about his life – some he created himself. And they accumulate from biography to biography. Silverman stripped it all away and rebuilt the story from scratch and I think really captured, not only the truth, but the true character of Houdini. So read that if you’re after a biography.

There are several excellent books for photos, although they are all now out of print. But you can find them second hand online. Houdini His Legend and His Magic by Doug Henning is probably the best of these. Then there’s Houdini A Pictorial Life by Milbourne Christopher, and Houdini His Life and Art by James Randi. All are terrific photo fests!

Cox with remains of original Water Torture Cell.
EN: Why was the Chinese Water Torture Cell such a compelling act?

JC: It’s really a masterpiece of presentation. I think it has a lot to do with the compelling visual nature of it. A man upside down underwater in a clear faced glass cell... It’s an absolutely terrifying, helpless situation. There’s also no doubt that that performer really is in danger. It doesn’t matter if there’s some kind of a gaff that helps him get free after the curtain is raised. For that few moments when he’s lowered and locked inside the cell, there is real danger and that creates real anxiety in the audience. Water, chains, inversion, a casket-like box… It’s everything we fear in one trick. And the apparatus itself is beautiful.

EN: Thank you, John, for your insights and for sharing so much as you have done on your blog. You're an excellent example of Joseph Campbell's admonition to "follow your bliss."

John Cox visiting the grave of Houdini. 


John Cox said...

Thank you, Ed. It's an honor to appear on Ennyman.

David Saltman said...

Nice interview!