- Associated Press - Saturday, March 25, 2017

APPLETON, Wis. (AP) - Harry Houdini wasn’t born in Appleton, but he claimed it as his hometown.

Good enough for us.

Appleton is more than happy to embrace the internationally known illusionist as one of its own and weave him into the local lore and culture, the Post-Crescent (http://post.cr/2mq1l7o ) reported.

Houdini Plaza is the very heart of downtown Appleton, and it’s the center of activity for the city’s signature community events, like Mile of Music and Octoberfest. Businesses, schools and events are named for him, including Houdini’s Escape Gastropub, Houdini Elementary School and the Houdini 10K.

Houdini was actually born in Budapest and moved to Appleton in 1878 when he was 4 years old. His father, Mayer Samuel Weiss, was Appleton’s first rabbi. The family lived here for four years, according to the Museum at the Castle, which is the epicenter of Houdini culture with its permanent display of Houdini’s life and memorabilia.

The Houdini connection is worth an estimated $1 million a year in economic impact in the community, said Matt Carpenter, the museum’s executive director.

But it isn’t the locals who are spending all that money.

“The interest or fascination with Houdini would not be sustained locally if it were not for the out-of-town visitors,” he said. “Sixty-two percent of our visitors last year were from outside the area. Out-of-town visitors cite Houdini as the first reason they come to this museum.”

All told, tourism in Wisconsin - including all those summer camping trips, weekend getaways to Door County during cherry season and visits to Milwaukee to hit up the Milwaukee Art Museum or catch a Brewers game - had a $19.3 billion economic impact in 2015 and supported about 191,000 jobs, according to an annual report from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.

The State of Opportunity series is examining how Wisconsin and its regions market themselves, from tourism campaigns and efforts to woo out-of-state businesses to attempts to attract young talent. Throughout the year, the series will consider what is great, what is a challenge and what Wisconsinites can do to tell our story. And USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, in collaboration with groups around the state, will work to come up with new stories we can tell about ourselves.

Carpenter said his Houdini economic impact figures were based on a tourism formula that estimates spending at hotels, restaurants and shopping. He said about 28,000 people visited the museum last year. If 62 percent, or 17,360 people, spent $1 million, the per-person expenditure was $57.60.

Carpenter said his small museum gets a hefty boost of publicity from the Fox Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“They promote pretty heavily. They bring in travel writers from throughout the U.S. and they do write about Houdini and his connection with Appleton,” said Carpenter.

Houdini attracts both leisure travelers and convention groups, said Pam Seidl, CVB executive director. Her bureau has given more than $200,000 to the museum for Houdini exhibits.

“We’ve had the Houdini Club of Wisconsin convention here a couple of times. It’s a convention of illusionists,” she said.

The club brought in more than 275 people for annual conventions in 2001 through 2003, but then canceled visits to Appleton to protest the 2004 AKA Houdini exhibit, which explained the secret to one of Houdini’s signature escape acts.

“It took us a few years to get them to come back,” said Seidl. The group returned in 2015 with 300 people.

Since 2005, the bureau has been marketing the Fox Cities as “Wisconsin’s Shopping Place.” Tourism research shows that shopping is the primary reason people come to the Fox Cities. The Fox River Mall in Grand Chute draws nearly 16 million shoppers annually.

In addition, downtown Appleton, downtown Neenah and destination stores like Urban Evolutions and The Harp Gallery attract customers from a wide area. Shopping is a draw along with arts and culture with events like Mile of Music and a wide-range of entertainment at the Performing Arts Center in Appleton.

A young magician is also doing his part to boost the magic quotient in Appleton.

Rajon Lynch is a 20-year-old University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh student who pays his rent by doing magic. He goes by the stage name RJ the Magician.

Lynch puts on workshops for young aspiring magicians, and has a business called Now Serving Magic, a dinner theater that pairs a three-course dinner with magicians performing table-side in Appleton restaurants, including Houdini’s Escape Gastropub.

From his perspective, more could be done to promote the Appleton/Houdini link.

Appleton has been waiting for a rebirth of magic in the area,” he said. “People have to re-brand and renew Houdini and make sure young people know who he is.”

With more promotion and even stunts, like Mike Schroeder’s suspended straitjacket act over the museum, a more active connection will be made in people’s minds, he said.

“People will say, ‘wow that’s cool.’ It will make them think Appleton is a place for magic, not just a place where a celebrity is from.”

___

Information from: Post-Crescent Media, http://www.postcrescent.com

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