Machpelah Cemetery isn't easy to find. It's nestled among at least seven other graveyards spanning a four-mile stretch of park in Queens, New York. It's nondescript with a tiny sign; if you don't look carefully, you'll drive right past it.
Harry Houdini died 90 years ago on October 31, 1926. His grave is marked by a large granite bench adorned by a sculpture of a woman knelt in mourning. Above her lies the emblem of the Society of American Magicians and a bust of Houdini's head and shoulders. Machpelah Cemetery may be difficult to spot, but once you're inside, the famed escape artist's grave stands out.
It's fitting: The man was a master of marketing and promotion. Anyone trying to build a brand or create instant buzz could learn from him.
In life, Houdini would pack the theaters in new towns by staging public challenges before his shows. Crowds would gawk at the lunatic hanging upside-down in a straightjacket in the middle of the town square, and then he'd escape in time to do his scheduled show.
Less known is that Houdini was entrepreneurial outside his life as a performer. Especially toward the end of his life--he died young at 52--the magician started to explore ways to stay in the spotlight after his performance days ended.
In 1921, five years before his death, he founded the Houdini Picture Corporation in New York. His goal was to become a mogul: someone involved in all aspects of the burgeoning cinema industry, from acting to development to distribution.
And it played a large part in ruining him financially. Very few details are known about Houdini's financial estate at the time of his death--most of his business records are either spread out across the world or lost to the ravages of time--but it's known that he didn't leave much of an inheritance for his wife Bess when he died.
An entrepreneurial spirit.
Houdini was born Erik Weisz (later changed to Erich Weiss) in Budapest, Austria-Hungary in 1874. His family moved to Appleton, Wisconsin when he was 4 years old--and his entrepreneurial spirit was apparent from a young age in the form of innate childhood curiosity as a locksmith's apprentice.
It's a trait that potentially saved his career. He started performing magic at the age of 17, and found himself just successful enough in the late 1800s to buy a show and attempt a national tour. "It's probably his first entrepreneurial failure," muses Bill Kalush, founder of the Conjuring Arts Research Center and co-author of The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero. "And he decides, before the turn of the century, 'Well, I'm just going to get out of this.'"
In 1895, Houdini and his wife found themselves traveling with the Welsh Brothers Circus. The magician, working as a phony spiritualist, became fascinated by the psychology of why people were attracted to magic. It ended up being a perfect fit with his childhood knowledge of locks: At their core, he determined, people just want to be free.
To David Copperfield, the acclaimed performer who currently owns the world's largest collection of Houdini memorabilia near his home in Las Vegas, this lesson is revelatory for magicians and entrepreneurs alike. "When somebody sings a song, they sing about heartbreak," he explains. "You can relate to it. You sing a song about loss, you sing a song about happiness, people relate to it. In magic, nobody relates to having doves appear. But they do relate to stories that are meaningful to them--and Houdini's story was a meaningful one. It was the fact that you could free yourself. Nothing could hold him."
His relatability was compounded by his public challenges. In those moments, Houdini wasn't a man on a stage. He was a man on the ground, or in a milk can, or dangling in the air right in front of everyone else. He wasn't afraid to push social norms to create headlines, either. One iconic photo from 1899 shows Houdini naked, covered in locks, to prove he wasn't hiding any hidden keys or lock picks. "Here is a genius of publicity--showing his body in a way that was unheard of back then," says Roger Dreyer, head of Fantasma Magic and the Houdini Museum of New York. "Let's talk about beefcake; Houdini was one of the originals."
Failure behind the silver screen.
As Houdini aged, his magic act became less strenuous; it was, by the end of his life, approximately half magic and half lecture. And by World War I, it wasn't hard to see that movies were about to become the next big thing.
In 1916, at the age of 42, Houdini founded the Film Developing Corporation. It wasn't a token attempt: He'd been working with a German inventor named Gustav Dietz to create a faster, cheaper chemical process for developing film. Five years later, Houdini founded three additional businesses as part of a broad plan to become a major player in the cinema industry. The Mystery Picture Corporation was for distribution, especially of foreign films. The Weehawken Street Company was essentially a shell company, so that he could lease his own buildings back to himself. The Houdini Picture Corporation oversaw the whole process. He was set to appear in his own movies--by that time, he had already starred in a 15-part serial called The Master Mystery and two feature films for Paramount Pictures.
It took only two more years for Houdini to call it quits, in 1923. Exact figures are unavailable, but historians generally agree the movie business sucked away much of his fortune, as well as a large amount of money from his investors (including Harry Keller, an internationally famous magician and Houdini predecessor). Today, Houdini's film effort--he produced and starred in two silent movies before folding-is undeniably considered a flop.
His instincts were good--look at the explosion of the film industry in Hollywood. Some of his competitors at the time, including Technicolor and Deluxe Entertainment, still exist today.
So how did Houdini fail? Like many of today's entrepreneurs, he gambled on a new technology and lost. Houdini's connection to the German inventor gave Americans pause and his enemies ammunition. His faster, cheaper process ended up accidentally corroding his equipment. The complexity of his scheme--so many interlocking companies--turned out to be more difficult than he expected, and he was still untangling himself during the last year of his life.
Copperfield, who has studied thousands of pieces of Houdini's correspondence, says it's worth learning from Houdini's mistake. "His main thing wasn't business. It was marketing, it was branding and entertainment," he reasons. "How many times do you pick yourself up after you have some challenges in business?"
It's also possible that Houdini's entrepreneurial legacy would be much different had he not died young or split his time between business and stage performing. "This was his sole business, so the setbacks look far more inflated," Copperfield notes. "He didn't have as many chances to recover."
He pauses, then adds: "There's nothing wrong with failing, as long as you have time to pick yourself back up and learn from it."