If Houdini could do it, Levinson can do it

Escape from chains and sealed bays, predict the future... you name it, it's a piece of cake for this young Montreal businessman and part-time magician. His secret? (Are you ready?) The Master talks to him from the grave

Fred C. Johnson December 17 1966

If Houdini could do it, Levinson can do it

Escape from chains and sealed bays, predict the future... you name it, it's a piece of cake for this young Montreal businessman and part-time magician. His secret? (Are you ready?) The Master talks to him from the grave

Fred C. Johnson December 17 1966

If Houdini could do it, Levinson can do it

Escape from chains and sealed bays, predict the future... you name it, it's a piece of cake for this young Montreal businessman and part-time magician. His secret? (Are you ready?) The Master talks to him from the grave

Fred C. Johnson

STEP RIGHT UP, ladies and gentlemen, and take a closer look at the sequence of pictures on this page. What is happening exactly? A Georges Lemay-type supercriminal about to break out of maximum security for the forty-seventh time? A McGill pre-med student who has gone around the bend over all those biochemistry quizzes? A sport shimmying out of a waist-cincher girdle the hard way — over the top?

Possible, possible, all possible. But how about Eric Levinson, a 23-year-old Montreal businessman who claims he’s privy to the Great Escape gimmicks of the immortal Harry Houdini himself, demonstrating the pièce de résistance of Houdini’s famous old vaudeville routine: shedding a straitjacket right before your very eyes, ladies and gentlemen, without benefit of any assistance, without once leaving the stage?

That happens to be the correct answer. Sounds hard to believe? Right. The fellow looks like a nut? Agreed. But Levinson turns out to be the real article and recently, for the benefit of a Maclean’s photographer and other skeptics, he put on the performance of his bizarre prowess that you see recorded here.

It happened in a T. Eaton Company warehouse in westend Montreal. Eaton’s provided a cleared space in the furniture department and a couple of guards to strap Levinson in. Levinson brought along the straitjacket.

First, the guards tried the jacket on a volunteer, a husky furniture mover who couldn’t do a thing with it and looked pretty silly in his predicament.

Then the guards strapped the jacket on Levinson, buckling and tying and binding with some sort of fiendish inner glee — they seemed almost to think it would be a deep personal affront to their manhood if Levinson did make it out of the jacket. They tightened the wide leather belt around Levinson’s waist — it held his arms crossed in two canvas sleeves over his torso — with enough pressure to make him wince.

The guards stepped back and Levinson went into a series of motions that looked a little like a faithhealer’s inner-communing fit. He swayed on his feet, head bobbing gently downward; he was trying, evidently, to work the wide belt up over his body. But the whole thing was misfiring and Levinson’s face reflected genuine agony.

By now, a small crowd of customers and company employees had gathered. And as they looked on Levinson’s contorted face, strong men swallowed hard and women stared in a sort of fascinated disbelief. Levinson dropped to his knees still swaying, still trying to inch the belt up his torso, straining, sweating, reddening — yes, panicking.

Then — click — he suddenly lost his tortured look. His moves became smooth and purposeful. The belt began to ride steadily upward over his body. He managed to raise one encased arm above his head and then, in the slightly stunned silence of the T. Eaton Company warehouse furniture department, the assembled crowd heard a distinct, crisp clunk from the region of Levinson’s left shoulder. He had — would you believe it? — deliberately dis-

located his shoulder! (Well, nobody ever said the immortal Harry Houdini’s Great Escape secrets were all that mystical.) And a couple of minutes later Levinson pulled the still-buckled straitjacket over his shoulders as casually (though perhaps not as painlessly) as Anita Ekberg shrugs off her sweater. Finally, he handed it to the guards, who looked deflated but, still, admiring.

For an encore, Levinson permitted the guards to (a) shackle his arms across his stomach with a set of steel chains; (b) padlock his chained arms to a wide leather belt around his waist; (c) cram him into a canvas mailbag, which was then sealed shut with a steel bar secured at either end with padlocks; and (d) throw him, the steel chains, I continued on page 31

continued on page 31

THE NEW HOUDINI continued from page 24

“When I get in a tight spot, Houdini comes and restores me”

continued from page 24

“Keep going! You can do it!”

Levinson will tell you, for instance, that back there in the furniture showroom. when the straitjacket seemed to have him licked and when he suddenly, mysteriously, clicked into fresh action, it was Houdini who got him

going.

“Houdini spoke to me,” Levinson says, quite seriously. “Whenever I get into a tight spot like that he comes and restores me. Without him I’d give up.”

Levinson says he began receiving messages from Houdini when he was a young boy. He enjoyed magic and soon became a dedicated Houdini disciple. He used to read the Great One’s books through most of the night, and next day he’d talk his pals into cinching him up in a junkyard variety of ropes, locks and chains. Then he’d wrestle around with the things — often, Levinson admits, for several hours — until at last he could free himself.

That was when Houdini began to address Levinson. “I’d hear Houdini’s voice say, ‘Keep going! You can do it!’ ” Levinson insists. “And Ld always get out.”

Over the years, Levinson has developed a formidable repertoire ol Houdini routines. He performs an anchor bit, for instance, that’s downright harrowing. His legs are spread apart and

the padlocked belt, the mailbag and the steel bar into a packing case and nail the case’s lid shut. You can guess what happened: a few silent minutes went by, enough time to generate a small amount of nervous tension among the crowd, and then the lid on the packing case flew up in one sudden banging motion. There stood Levinson, both hands raised in triumph, one of them holding the mailbag, which was, of course, still locked tight.

His exit was hailed with bravos all round.

Levinson, as a matter of fact, has been receiving little but bravos ever since he began escaping some 10 years ago. Often he agrees to put on his shows for nothing (he already earns a good living running a Montreal carrental business, and a parking system) because continually cashing in on his talent might, he feels, somehow tarnish the mystical affinity he enjoys with the great Houdini.

When Houdini died on Halloween, 1926, according to Levinson, he left two promises: he assured his wife Beatrice that he'd get in touch with her from the Other Side, using a secret code; and he promised that somehow his unique magic would live on after his demise. Within two years after his death, Beatrice reported receiving a coded message from him, but later denied the whole thing before she died. As for the second promise, Levinson claims that right now. there in Montreal, 40 years after Houdini died, he, Eric Levinson, is personally keeping alive the Houdini magic — and, what’s more, he’s doing it with the direct aid and guidance of Houdini himself.

chained to the bottom ends of a 100pound anchor; his arms are shackled to the ends of the anchor’s upper bar, a chain is linked around his neck; and a long rod is pointed from the anchor’s centre directly at his throat. Then, somehow, he escapes.

And Levinson has added some upto-date variations to the old Houdini

act. Often, for instance, he throws in an element of modernistic peril by having himself sealed, while chained, handcuffed and shackled, inside a plastic bag. Once, indeed, thus encumbered, he almost expired on stage at a war-veteran's benefit show.

But he survived that one and a lot of other narrow escapes and in doing

so he has convinced professional magicians that he's the genuine article. Herb Morrissey, a Montrealer who is a professional magician and a supplier of magicians’ paraphernalia, is a Levinson fan. “There's nobody in North America who can do what Levinson is doing,” he says, “and 1 doubt if anyone ever will.” No wonder: right now Levinson is taking only five minutes to perform some escapes that used to take Houdini 30 minutes.

And escaping isn't all. Levinson is

THE NEW HOUDINI continued

Could he predict the stock market? A box held the answer

in another far-out bag, too: he can forecast the future. Maclean’s, ever skeptical, put Levinson to the test on this one, too. We asked him to predict a closing Dow-Jones average for a given date — that’s a figure established each day by averaging the closing stock-market quotations for 30 selected stocks.

And so, one afternoon recently, we gathered Levinson and some independent witnesses on the trading floor of the Montreal Stock Exchange right after closing. George Cruickshank, the exchange’s vice-president, jotted his signature on a blank piece of white paper and handed it to Levinson. Levinson, in a total matter-of-fact

mood, jotted a figure on the paper, or appeared to; then scribbled a few words on it. or appeared to; then dropped the paper into a brass strong box within a wooden chest — his chest and box — locked it and handed it to Cruickshank. Cruickshank, in turn, marched the box over to his safe and spun the combination dial

locking the box in until the next day.

The following afternoon it was into the boardroom with independent witnesses. The chest containing the brass strong box was escorted ceremoniously from the safe, opened by a senior secretary to Cruickshank, who read from the paper, identified by the Cruickshank signature, what purported to be Levinson’s prediction for that day’s closing Dow-Jones average. The figure: 775.50. The secretary also read the words Levinson had jotted on the paper: “FORECASTERS GET THE JITTERS.” That, Levinson announced, would be a headline somewhere on the financial page of that day’s Montreal Star.

Cruickshank drew a piece of paper from his pocket, a piece of paper hot from the Exchange floor, recording the day’s closing Dow-Jones figure. He read it. Levinson had blown the test! But — ah ha — only by .05. The official closing figure was 775.55! Even more astounding, when a copy of that day’s Montreal Star was brought into the room — there, on the financial page, hard by the DowJones figure, were the head'ine words, “FORECASTERS GET THE .UTTERS.”

Like all conjurers, witch doctors and other men of magic, Levinson resolutely declines to reveal the secrets behind his extraordinary feats. To some extent, they don’t seem to need much revealing. As Levinson himself says, he manages many of his escapes through mastery of the principles laid down by Houdini: and he “forecasts the future” by means of a ruse he describes as “diabolically clever.”

The voice — then escape

But what about this business of the dead Houdini being there as a presence. urging him on — isn’t that just a little too, well, creepy?

It no longer seems that way to Levinson, who can remember back to those boyhood times when he would read the master’s writings far into the night. “It seemed Houdini was there with me, telling me to read this passage or that passage very carefully. As the years went by I’d find myself reading about one of his escapes, and he’d say to me. ‘You can do that one.’ Then I’d try it and find, out, sure enough, I could do it.”

Houdini, as Levinson points out, died as a result of a blow to the midsection dealt him by a young McGill student in Montreal. And so, he says, “it is fitting that a young man should bring Houdini’s magic to life again in Montreal.”

What he seems to be talking about, then, is perhaps not a spiritual reincarnation but a sort of professional form of the same thing.

Absurd? Of course. But so far, nobody has come up with any other explanation for the eerie accomplishments of Eric Levinson. ★