Lee Terbosic shackled himself to a 100-year-old tale before escaping above a thousand screaming fans. To mark the 100th anniversary of Harry Houdini’s death-defying Pittsburgh-based stunt, Terbosic, a Pittsburgh native whose career has elevated from local pizza shop performer to nationally recognized magician, recreated the illusionist’s famed upside-down straitjacket escape.
On Nov. 6, 1916, in a fashion emulated by his admirer exactly one century later, Houdini, a Jewish magician of international renown, donned a straitjacket and hung overturned before freeing himself above the corner of Liberty Avenue and Wood Street in downtown Pittsburgh. Houdini, the son of Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss, was then in town to promote a series of shows at the New Davis Theater.
Houdini was “the ultimate showman. He’s the ultimate entertainer. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and to do something on this day … in my hometown, it means so much to me,” Terbosic said in the moments before climbing onstage and allowing three “Pittsburgh Princes” to tighten his torso with restraints.
In recreating the historical feat Terbosic called upon local legends Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris (both four-time Super Bowl champions with the Steelers) as well as Tom Savini, a Pittsburgh native and award-winning special makeup effects creator whose film credits include “Dawn of the Dead” (1978) and “Friday the 13th” (1980).
As the iconic Pittsburgh trio tied Terbosic, Rick Sebak, a Bethel Park-born nostalgia documentarian whose work has appeared on WQED and PBS, recounted Houdini’s regional relevance.
Houdini came to Pittsburgh 11 times, but perhaps the most important and interesting time was when he hung here at lunchtime 100 years ago, remarked Sebak.
After the recital of a city-issued proclamation celebrating Terbosic’s efforts, Bleier gripped the microphone. “I’m ready for this. … Harry Houdini was from Appleton, Wis., my hometown, [and] I missed this the first time around,” Bleier announced to the thousands gathered.
Similarly squeezing the historical sentiment, Harris turned to his Steeler teammate, “It feels like we played 100 years ago.”
A crane, which clutched Terbosic, lifted the constrained and upended entertainer 90 feet above the street.
“I have mixed emotions, but he’ll be fine,” said Kathy Terbosic, the magician’s mother, as she watched her son slowly rise above the city corner.
“I hope that he performs his trick safely, that’s what I’m hoping to see,” noted Josef Fort of Squirrel Hill, who with his wife, Aviva, and two children traveled downtown after learning of the event on Facebook.
“It’s kind of history,” added Aviva Fort, before explaining to her son, “Houdini was a Jewish guy whose tati [father] was a rabbi.”
After the restricted Terbosic reached his ascent, many attendees raised their smartphones, to capture the moment.
For nearly seven minutes, the magician and comedian — who has entertained Hollywood celebrities including Aaron Paul, Jack Black, Wiz Khalifa and Johnny Depp — dazzled those below with twists, curls and contortions before finally freeing himself from the clasped coat.
As AC/DC’s “Back in Black” blasted before the frenzied crowd, Terbosic fueled the excitement by withdrawing a Terrible Towel from his pocket and shaking it while still suspended 90 feet above.
With his stock risen and history repeated, Terbosic descended back to street level and disconnected from the crane.
“Wow, that was awesome, I’m at a loss of words,” Terbosic told attendees. “I have dreamed about this moment for my entire life.”
Re-creating Houdini’s trick on the exact same day in the same place one century later, “was the most important thing to me,” Terbosic explained.
“That was special to watch from my vantage point,” said Harris. “Seeing him working his way out upside down 100 years later where Houdini did it, to be a part of the whole event makes me think 100 years ago how incredible it was and how incredible it was today.”
“It was terrific to be part of something special,” agreed Bleier.
With adrenaline surely pumping, the magician briskly disappeared to a small tent behind the stage. Surrounded by friends, supporters and reporters, Terbosic was smothered with hugs and questions.
What went through the magician’s mind as he dangled above Pittsburgh, someone asked?
“I tried to stay calm,” answered the upright entertainer, adding that while he was looking toward the sky, “I felt like Houdini was looking down on me.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.