- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2004

APPLETON, Wis. (AP) — How did Harry Houdini do his signature “Metamorphosis” escape, where he was handcuffed inside a sack and locked in a trunk and yet somehow managed to switch places with an assistant on the outside?

Visitors to an exhibit that opened yesterday at the Outagamie Museum in Houdini’s hometown learned the secret.

Among other things, visitors learned, the trunk has a side panel that allows someone inside to sneak out.

The disclosure has some in the business tied up in knots.

Magicians say their code of ethics prohibits revealing secrets to the public. The famous and not-so-famous alike, including David Copperfield and Ronald “Rondini” Lindberg, have called to protest the “A.K.A. Houdini” show.

“It’s just that this is a very, very passionate thing that magicians feel about, and what the museum is doing is wrong,” Mr. Lindberg said.

But museum officials in Appleton, a city of about 70,000, insist the exhibit hasn’t revealed anything not already available in books and on the Internet. They also say people will appreciate magic more by knowing the secrets.

The exhibit — set to run for 10 years — includes 38 artifacts, 190 documents and hands-on displays. There is a straitjacket and a jail cell from which visitors can try to escape, plus items such as handcuffs and lock picks, the kind used by Houdini.

The part of the exhibit showing how tricks were actually performed is in a “backstage” area. A sign warns visitors: “Those who do not want to know how Houdini performed his magic should avoid this area.”

In the “Metamorphosis” trick, also known as the “substitution trunk,” a magician, handcuffed in a sack inside a trunk, frees himself and switches places with an assistant standing by the trunk.

The exhibit lets visitors climb inside the trunk to see how it works. Houdini first performed the trick more than 100 years ago with his wife.

Kim Louagie, the museum’s curator of exhibits, said before the exhibit opened that it had received more than 200 e-mails and 40 phone calls from people against the idea of revealing secrets. But she said it has also received much support from museum members and others in the community.

“In some ways what we’re doing here increases the value of magic, rather than making it something cheap,” she said.

She said there had been rumors in Internet chat rooms of plans to sabotage the exhibit, and police had been contacted to step up patrols around the area. But there was no trouble when the museum opened at 10 a.m. yesterday.

Bob Rath, a professional magician and small-business owner, supported the museum. It would take hours of practice to do the trick successfully, he said.

“The performance is more important than the secret, and just because somebody is going to know the secret to Metamorphosis isn’t going to make them any great magician,” he said. “It’s a very complicated and very difficult effect to do.”

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