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A Magical Mystery Tour

Updated on February 16, 2015
Sample of an early Houdini poster
Sample of an early Houdini poster

Houdini's gravesite

We movie extras submit to a ton of cast calls and wait for the callbacks for what seems to be time expressed as a static concept of "eternity and beyond". And so, in the meantime, other activities abound. There's going to the gym, going to the cleaners, going to the library, going to Houdini's grave... yes, Houdini's grave!?!

Although somewhat moribund, I was inspired to make the pilgrimage after catching the end of a miniseries on the History Channel about HOUDINI as portrayed by Adrien Brody. As the show ended, I looked up the magician's bio on Wikipedia and became obsessed with having to see his elaborate grave. It was situated relatively nearby in the Glendale-area interconnected cemeteries. Between all the stories about the grave on the internet and Google's satellite maps, I was pretty confident that I knew where it was. Off I went on a sunny frigid cold and snowy January winter morning with my trusty GPS to Queens, NY.

There were several entrances to the vast cemetery complex on the adjacent road but the one I was looking for was somehow elusive. Apparently, the entrance buildings were no longer there. They were demolished a short time ago and no clear moniker of the cemetery's name was to be seen. So I decided to take the first entrance on the corner. It was the Hungarian Society Section that had the gates open, and knowing that Harry Houdini was origianlly from Hungary, I figured I was close to what I was looking for. So I decided to drive in and slowly go up a steep and narrow hilly road with my car. Crunching through frozen ponds of water and barely making it over the protruding pieces of cement road, I found myself on top of a hill at a dead-end circle. Skeptically, I got out of the car and looked around. Not a soul around but lots of gravestones -and none with Houdini's bust on top of it (as described by previous visitors).

There was a lot of history to the Houdini grave. The bust was stolen previously and much of the area had fallen into disrepair. But recently there were some people who took up the cause and had the bust reinstated. They even went to the magicians' union to request funds in order that Houdini's grave be kept up. After all, Houdini established the union and was their president for many years. Apparently some dispute occurred about the received funds in past times and over the years the graveyard upkeep was abandoned. Vandals had desecrated it by holding cultish rituals at its site. There were also stories of a hidden compartment, which when it was located would provide the secrets to Houdini's unrevealed illusion-ism.

But I wasn't here for any secrets -I just wanted to experience a kind of presence that was once Harry Houdini, whose given Hungarian name was Erik Weisz. I began to trek in the general direction of where I thought his grave would be and got lost among all the various graves and mausoleums that populated these hallowed grounds. I got a bit lost but didn't care. At one point I walked under a vine-entangled tree and heard a loud snap just as I approached. There was no one there -but it did startle me. I proceeded through more closely arranged graves which provided little space for a safe passage without stepping on someone's sacred coverings. Frustration began to creep in as I reached the far end of the graveyard. Oh well, I guess I was kidding myself about being able to find Houdini's grave. I began my long trek back to my car on the hill.

I got there eventually and took a long look down the hill. Nothing. Still, I didn't want to give up and decided to wander a bit onto the precipice of the high ground a short distance from my lonely car. I crossed over a disintegrated fence and gazed down at all the gray tombstones when all of a sudden there it was. I was looking at the back of a white stone-bust atop what appeared to be a round column. That had to be it –there was nothing else so expressively white among the other stones. Slowly I made my way down toward the gleaming statue and realized that I was at the back of Houdini’s family grave.

So I found it after all. Just before giving up. Walking around to the front and taking in the whole view, it was extraordinary. Shaped like a semi-circled wall, inside of which a female statue figure kneels seemingly grieving his passage. Some stories tell about the design being a “bell” whose female figure is named perhaps Eve… enshrining Houdini’s code word of a message from the great beyond: “Rosabelle believe… “ There is a strikingly red mosaic seal under Houdini’s bust. It’s the seal of the magician’s union: the Society of American Magicians. In front of the wall lay Houdini’s family and a loving cup shaped planter –which was totally frozen today. A couple of stone benches on the periphery and in the atmosphere there are hints of both physical and mystical history. Reading about all of them would be a literary pilgrimage to be taken another day.

Before leaving, I placed a stone atop Houdini’s father’s commemorative stone (he was a rabbi). I said a short prayer, and reflected on what I knew, and now experienced in a small way, as Houdini’s life and legacy. My sense of connection to him was as one who is perhaps not a magician but a fellow Hungarian Jew (even though Houdini was not religious). One more glance and I headed back to the car. Surprisingly, there was a “live person” a short distance away. A gravesite worker, whose truck door was jammed and he was now trying to pry it open. “Hey, what are you trying to do –break in?” I joked to him. We laughed as he explained his predicament to me. I could only imagine how easy it would have been for Houdini, an expert escape artist, to help this guy out! Unfortunately, I could not.

And so, back to my car on top of the hill. I got in and made an awkward U-turn in the short circular path to head down the broken narrow road that would eventually lead me out of the cemetery -but not from the haunting connection I managed to make with a magical moment.


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