Even in death, Harry Houdini has been hard to pin down.
A bust of Houdini atop the central pedestal of his family plot at Machpelah Cemetery in Queens was smashed or stolen four times between 1975 and 1993. The Society of American Magicians, of which Houdini was president at the time of his death in 1926, then gave up trying to replace it.
After that, except for the annual observance of Houdini’s death, when a bust would be set there temporarily, the pedestal stood empty. The allegorical figure in the monument seemed to be grieving over its abandonment.
But look again. He’s back.
On Sept. 27, in a caper worthy of the intrigue-filled story of the Houdini-Weiss family burial plot, self-styled commandos from the Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pa., took it upon themselves to install a reproduction of the bust, in what they hope will be durable statuary concrete. Though they operated in broad daylight, they did so without alerting the cemetery or the magicians’ society. After years in which blame and responsibility were traded and shifted over the condition of the Houdini grave site, the commandoes decided a fait accompli was in order.
“It’s a can of worms, which is why we went in surreptitiously,” said Dick Brookz, a director of the Harry Houdini Museum. (He started spelling his name with a “z” because too many Dick Brookses come up in a Web search.) Dorothy Dietrich, another museum director and Houdini commando, said, “We were ready to get arrested.” Or were they? A retired escape artist, Stephen Moore, was included in the crew.
Let Mr. Brookz and Ms. Dietrich tell the story:
Everything was ready: diamond bits, drills, a powerful vacuum system, a generator (no electricity at the grave), special cements and epoxies, a way to safely transport the bust.
Everyone arrived by caravan at 10 a.m. and the work began. Each person had their assignments. Part way into the project, a cemetery caretaker and watchman inquired what we were doing. Dorothy explained and tried to distract him with various papers, etc., as we continued working. He said we would have to stop until he called his boss. A long, almost nonending phone conversation followed, and the issue of insurance came up. Our insurance agent faxed a letter and we were given the go-ahead.
Because of the lost time and other problems — such as a powerful construction cement drying too rapidly, having to drill it out and rushing to a local hardware store last minute for more — we did not finish until 7 p.m. The watchman had now become our supporter and allowed the cemetery to stay open an extra three hours.
Despite the commandos’ unorthodox approach, officials of the cemetery and the society said on Monday that they were pleased with the result.
“When someone offers to repair something that’s broken — in a charitable spirit — any cemetery would be thrilled,” said David Jacobson, the chairman, president and administrator of Machpelah Cemetery, which is nestled in the great verdant necropolis straddling the Brooklyn-Queens border. He said the cemetery received no money for continuing care of the site, much less the restoration of an ornamental feature. “Unless someone else pays for it, our hands are tied behind our backs,” Mr. Jacobson said.
George Schindler, the dean of the Society of American Magicians, said his group had stopped contributing money toward the maintenance of the site in recent years. But he expressed hope that a new arrangement might be worked out, in cooperation with the Houdini Museum. As for the bust, he said, “We’re delighted with it.” The timing isn’t bad, either. Not only is Oct. 31 the 85th anniversary of Houdini’s death, but this week also is designated “Magic Week.”
Mr. Brookz and Ms. Dietrich said the museum spent almost $10,000 to restore the bust. “But it sorely needed to be done,” they added. “Houdini, in his lifetime, had paid for the fixing of dozens of magicians’ graves that were in disrepair. This was only fitting payback.”
And everyone is hoping that his days of escape are finally over.