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Final evening of Chautauqua

Harry Houdini will be portrayed Saturday night by Larry Bounds.

The final evening of this year’s Big River Chautauqua on Saturday will feature Harry Houdini.

The theme this year is “A Night of Laughter, Gossip and Magic, Entertaining America." The free event is held under the big tent behind Bonne Terre City Hall.

The evening will start with the Big River Fire Department selling food at 5:30 p.m., desserts and drinks will be sold by Livelystone Tabernacle. At 6:30 p.m. the famous Chautauqua Singers will take the stage. The main performance will begin at 7:30 p.m.

According to organizers of Chautauqua, Houdini was an illusionist and stunt performer, noted for his sensational escape acts in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He changed his name from Erich Weisz in 1894 when he launched his career as a professional magician.

Though his magic met with little success, he soon drew attention for his feats of escape using handcuffs. In 1893, he married fellow performer Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, who would serve as Houdini's lifelong stage assistant under the name Beatrice "Bess" Houdini.

In 1899, Houdini's act caught the attention of Martin Beck, an entertainment manager, who was able to book him at some of the best vaudeville venues in the country, followed by a tour of Europe. Houdini's feats would involve the local police, who would strip search him, place him in shackles and lock him in their jails. The show was a huge sensation, and he soon became the highest-paid performer in American vaudeville.

Houdini continued his act in the United States in the early 1900s, constantly upping the ante from handcuffs and straight-jackets to locked, water-filled tanks and nailed packing crates. He was able to escape because of both his uncanny strength and his equally uncanny ability to pick locks.

In 1912, his act reached its pinnacle, the Chinese Water Torture Cell, which would be the hallmark of his career. In it, Houdini was suspended by his feet and lowered upside-down in a locked glass cabinet filled with water, requiring him to hold his breath for more than three minutes to escape. The performance was so daring and such a crowd-pleaser that it remained in his act until his death in 1926.

His grand illusions and daring, spectacular escape acts made him one of the most famous magicians of all time. Houdini was fascinated with magic and when he began performing he drew attention for his daring feats of escape. Houdini continued performing escape acts until his death, on October 31, 1926, in Detroit from a ruptured appendix.

After his death, Houdini's props and effects were used by his brother Theodore Hardeen, who eventually sold them to magician and collector Sidney H. Radner. Much of the collection could be seen at the Houdini Museum in Appleton, Wisconsin, until Radner auctioned it off in 2004. Most of the prized pieces, including the Water Torture Cell, went to magician David Copperfield.

Larry Bounds will portray Houdini and he has been recreating historical figures on stage for Chautauqua audiences since 2002. He has performed as Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, and Walt Disney, but his closest relationship with notable men would be with the legendary magician Houdini.

Bounds became fascinated with magic as a boy. He expanded his performance skills receiving his bachelor’s degree in theatre from The University of Tennessee in the '70s and performed for eight years as a magician for “Ripley's Believe It or Not!” in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

He managed magic shops in Atlanta and performed many summers in a Kentucky theme park. Through all these experiences, the story of Houdini stood both as an inspirational and a cautionary tale.

Since earning his master’s degree in education in the 1980s, in addition to a regular schedule of performing magic for private parties and civic events, he has been teaching high school English in Knoxville, Tennessee, and in Greenville, South Carolina.

In that capacity he has served as a department chair, Title One coordinator, and president of the Greenville Council of Teachers of English. In 2003 he was recognized as his school's Teacher of the Year.

Bounds lives just outside of Greenville, in the city of Greer with his wife Carole and their two Yorkie-Poos, Beau and his sister Dini. Bounds has been honored by the International Brotherhood of Magicians with inclusion in its Order of Merlin and has served as an officer for Piedmont Area Mensa, the high IQ society of Upstate South Carolina.

Bounds’ performance as Houdini will recreate many of the master magician's favorite tricks and escapes, as well as his exploration of how fraudsters apply the tools of the conjurer's art to cheat the public instead of just to entertain. Houdini spent much of his life crusading to try to prevent the magical arts he loved from being misused to hurt others. Bounds is honored to continue that tradition on the Chautauqua stage.

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Renee Bronaugh is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3617 or rbronaugh@dailyjournalonline.com

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