Harry Houdini was as great a marketer and brand manager as he was a magician and escapologist.
And he was a fabulous Predatory Thinker.
At the turn of the century, when Houdini was making his name, the world was awash with conjurors and illusionists of every different persuasion.
Houdini learned early on that of all his repertoire of tricks, his escapes were the ones that excited his audiences, because of the tension of the challenge and increasingly – as his audacity grew – the danger.
So he concentrated on them, and built himself a distinctive position supported by strongly branded and distinctive imagery.
Everything he did subsequently challenged his competitors and his public to test his claim to be “The world’s handcuff king and prison breaker”.
When he came to London for the first time, he was unable to convince Dundas Slater, the manager of the Alhambra theatre until he came up with the idea of escaping from police issue standard handcuffs, in Scotland Yard, as a test of his skill. Having secured him to a pillar, the policemen and the theatre manager said they’d leave him to it for a couple of hours, and prepared to leave.
“I’ll come with you,” said Houdini, as the cuffs dropped from his wrists, earning himself a six-month booking.
As he became better known he accepted more and more difficult challenges – and the world’s lock and safe-makers began to build him into their own marketing plans, as in this example from Newport shows.
And all the time he was simplifying his escape techniques whilst simultaneously making them look more and more difficult.
He would never attempt his famous “milk-can escape” without enlisting two people to stand by with axes to prevent him from drowning, should he fail – even though he wasn’t in the slightest danger at any point.
And when people began to copy his signature straightjacket escape, he started performing it in public spaces, suspended upside from a crane, 30 feet above the audience.
Not only did it create a huge spectacle. It also made it easier for Houdini to muscle his arms up above his head, the essential first move in the escape.
Here’s a clip of him doing it in Boston.