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Group Efforts: talking to Houdini

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Neil Tobin says he got into magic the way most kids do: "I got a magic set for Christmas--well, Hanukkah. A lot of people I know went through the 'magic phase.' It seems to be a clearly defined developmental stage."

As he got older, Tobin says he began to gravitate toward what he calls "adult magic." "When you're a kid," he says, "all you want to do is make your friends go 'Wow!' And you want the biggest, most colorful, expensive prop you can get. But that's completely different from what now is truly magical. If somebody looks you in the eye and tells you what you're thinking, you're a lot more apt to feel something there. And that emotional connection is much more rewarding to me as a magician than twisting balloons for kids."

Now 35, the Oak Park resident, freelance copywriter, magician, and medium is vice president of the Chicago chapter of the Society of American Magicians. "It's a question of who lets go and who doesn't. People who are magicians now are the people who never let go."

This Halloween, Tobin will attempt to contact the ghost of Harry Houdini. But though he says he's had some success in the past--"with relatives of close friends of mine, that sort of thing"--he says it's hard to say exactly what constitutes a successful seance. "Oftentimes it's more a feeling than a specific 'Oh yeah, I heard a bell ring' or 'Oh, I saw Aunt Agnes.' It's just a feeling of emotional resolution. If the people you're working with feel like some closure's been made, then it's a successful seance."

Houdini, of course, is not Aunt Agnes, and Tobin says that this seance will be more of a "theatrical situation than your usual living room seance." In spiritualist circles Harry Houdini--master sleight-of-hand and escape artist and virulent crusader against fraudulent mediumism--is the biggest catch of all, and every year since his death on Halloween in 1926 attempts have been made to contact him, to no avail. Houdini's wife Bess tried for ten years before giving up, saying, "Ten years is long enough to wait for any man."

Tobin thinks that's arguable. "She might have given up the ghost too soon," he says. "There are ghosts that have been rattling around Irish castles for hundreds and hundreds of years. Who knows when they started showing up."

Houdini swore that if there were a way to contact the living after death, he would be the one to do it. "We're hoping 75 years will be the interval," Tobin says. And anyway, he says, "if you were to ask me whether this seance is tricked up or whether it's truly an attempt to contact Houdini, I would tell you, 'Isn't it more entertaining if we left that ambiguous?'"

The Society of American Magicians' seances will take place October 29, 30, and 31 at the American Legion Hall in Stickney, 6431 Pershing Road. Admission is $7, and children under 18 must be accompanied by an adult. There are two seatings each night, at 7 and 8:30 PM, and they're first come, first served. For more information on the Society of American Magicians' Chicago chapter, Assembly Three--the third-oldest chapter in the country, the charter for which Houdini himself signed in 1917 while president of the S.A.M.--call 708-444-2123.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jonathon Cohon.

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