Memories of Jewish magicians conjured with launch of downtown club
Liberty Magic, a speakeasy in the Cultural District, opened in February. Its close-up magic shows have been selling out ever since.
A new performance venue has appeared downtown, just steps away from the spot where, in 1916, a Jewish magician named Erich Weisz — better known as Harry Houdini —performed his spellbinding upside-down straightjacket escape.
The intimate speakeasy-style club, called Liberty Magic, is devoted to the arts of prestidigitation and sleight of hand, and provides an entertainment experience that is a bit out of the ordinary.
The club seats only 68 guests, is open Wednesday through Sunday, and features a single nationally or internationally known magician for weeks-long runs. The shows, which run about 60 to 80 minutes, are recommended for adults over the age of 18, and the club has a BBYO policy, with a $5 per person corkage fee.
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“The Cultural District has a huge history with magic, going back to 1916 when Harry Houdini actually did his famous upside-down straightjacket escape right in front of us on Liberty Avenue,” said Scott Shiller, vice president of artistic planning for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust when the opening of the club was announced last December. “That was 100 years ago when Pittsburgh had all the vaudeville theaters — all of our historic theaters in the Cultural District started out as vaudeville houses. And so all of the famous magicians of the 1900s came through Pittsburgh. We want to continue to honor that tradition in a really intimate setting.”
The tradition of magic — in Pittsburgh and beyond — has been largely dependent on Jews, who not only have been disproportionately represented in the field historically, but also levitated the art to thrilling new heights.
Allan Kronzek, a Jewish magician originally from Pittsburgh but now living in New York, lectures on “Magical Jews: The Life and Times of Great Jewish Magicians” at Jewish Community Centers and other venues. The author of several books on magic, including the recently released “Grandpa Magic: 116 Easy Tricks, Amazing Brainteasers, and Simple Stunts to Wow the Grandkids,” Kronzek noted that a list of the top 100 American magicians of the 20th century shows that 20 percent were Jews, despite the fact that Jews comprised only about 2 percent of the total U.S. population.
One of the greatest Jewish magic “superstars,” according to Kronzek, was Alexander Herrmann (1844-1896).
“During the 1860s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, he was the most famous popular entertainer in the United States, and many parts of the world,” Kronzek said. “Theatrical magic at that time was huge. There was no radio, no TV, and people were moving from the country into the cities, and they had to have entertainment. So, there were music halls, there were theaters, there was opera, and there was tons and tons of magic, and it was very competitive.
“These were big illusion shows, and Herrmann just was the absolute greatest. He is the image — when you look at a poster of the archetypal pointy-beard, twinkle-in-the-eye kind of magician. That was his persona. He was a trickster. But he was also just brilliant. He did his act in six different languages, and apparently he was very, very witty. He was always on, he was kind, he was generous, he gave all his money away. When he died, he had a huge funeral in New York City at Temple Emanu-El, and it was like a day of national mourning.”
A more recognizable name is Houdini.
Born in 1874 in Hungary to a father who was a rabbi, Houdini immigrated to the United States with his family when he was a child, first to Wisconsin, and then to New York. He developed into a top athlete as well as a “pretty good magician,” said Kronzek.
“He had enormous will, and by the time he was in his early 30s, he was the most famous, highest paid entertainer of any kind in the world. He promoted himself with his escape artist stuff. And he was also a crusader against phony mediums and spiritualists.”
Another renowned Jewish magician in early 20th-century America was Horace Goldin, “whose real name was Hymie Goldstein,” who became famous by sawing a person in half. Although he did not invent the effect, “he certainly exploited it, and he had wonderful versions of doing it. He was a very colorful character,” said Kronzek.
Many other Jewish magicians took to the vaudeville circuit, which “was often Jewish-owned, so there was networking going on and they could get jobs,” he explained.
Why Jewish immigrants were attracted to the field of magic might be explained by some of the same reasons Jews were widely attracted to other performance genres, including theater, filmmaking and songwriting.
“They did so, I guess, because they couldn’t become doctors or lawyers — or they were just very talented — but certainly the door was open,” Kronzek surmised.
Jack Greenberg, a Jewish Pittsburgh native who has been practicing magic for 80 years, senses that Jews’ attraction to the field may be connected to the intellectual curiosity emphasized by their traditions.
“Many of the greats of magic were Jewish,” noted Greenberg, who is 89, still performs for private events, and practices his craft three hours each day. “I suspect our faith encourages investigation, curiosity, resolution of puzzles and problems. It goes back to the Talmudic scholars who spent their time interpreting and arguing with one another. This is built into our faith — we’re raised to be curious and ask questions and try to resolve them. And that’s a part of magic. The art of magic relies significantly upon that feature.”
Magic, he added, is an inclusive pursuit, which could help explain why so many Jews are drawn to it.
“Birds of feather flock together,” he said. “There is some grouping involved here. There’s no rejection as you find in other pursuits. There’s encouragement of people of all faiths, of all colors, of all origins to get involved with magic.”
Greenberg has been a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians — the “largest magical organization in the world” — for 75 years. Pittsburgh has had its own branch of the organization, called Tampa Ring 13, for 90 years.
“Pittsburgh has a rich magical history,” noted Greenberg. “And there have been quite a few Jewish magicians.”
He recalled, in the mid-20th century, “a past president of the organization that was widely known as a hypnotist in Pittsburgh, and he was a well-known lawyer, his name, I believe was Schmidt. He was quite successful and put on quite a few shows. That Schmidt fellow was Jewish and very active in Jewish affairs as well.”
Then there were the Brodie brothers, Greenberg said. Elliot Brodie, who was known as “Steve,” was a dentist who was a hypnotist and also did mental magic. His magician brother David was a podiatrist.
“They called themselves the foot-and-mouth disease specialists,” said Greenberg.
Ralph Schugar, a Pittsburgh mortician, also was an active magician at the time.
Of course, there are still many Jewish magicians at the top of their craft today, including David Copperfield (born Steve Kotkin), Teller of the duo Penn and Teller, and David Blaine.
Currently at Liberty Magic is magician Lee Terbosic, who is not Jewish, but who has spent a lot of time studying — and replicating — the work of Houdini. His 60-minute show “In Plain Sleight,” runs through May 12, and blends comedy, sleight of hand, illusion, mind reading, escape and storytelling. The show is immensely entertaining, and Terbosic, an internationally known magician and Pittsburgh native, is a natural and engaging performer.
In November 2016, Terbosic accomplished Houdini’s upside-down straightjacket escape at the exact spot it was originally performed, 100 years to the day of Houdini’s feat.
He also traveled to Britain and Hungary with Houdini’s great-grandnephew, George Hardeen, to create a four-part TV series “Houdini’s Last Secrets,” which premiered Jan. 6 on Discovery’s Science Channel, and is currently available on Amazon Prime.
Houdini performed in Pittsburgh 13 times over the course of about 20 years, at the Davis Theater to sold out crowds, Terbosic said, and in 1907, Houdini jumped off what is now the Andy Warhol Bridge.
Terbosic, an artistic advisor to Liberty Magic, envisions the club as “a new home for Pittsburgh magic,” he said. “My vision long-term is to have the level of talent remain at a very high place,” and to continue to bring in magicians from around the world.
The club, which opened in February, has been consistently selling out each show.
“People are intrigued by the art, and seeing it live,” Terbosic said. “People see magic usually on television or YouTube, but seeing it live is a different experience.”
Although his current Liberty Magic show is focused on sleight of hand and mental magic, Terbosic has performed several of Houdini’s escape stunts. In addition to the upside-down hanging straight jacket, he performed the underwater torture escape, buried alive, the bullet catch and the Carette escape, in which Houdini — and Terbosic — escaped from a Russian transport car, in handcuffs, in 24 minutes. All of these feats can be viewed on “Houdini’s Last Secrets.”
And Terbosic has something else up his sleeve: He is working on another stunt that Houdini performed while in Pittsburgh, although for now, Terbosic is keeping the details under wraps. He is aiming, though, to master it and perform it to crowds in Market Square in 2020. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at