Robert-Houdin who was born in Blois is often credited as being "the father of modern magic". Before him, magicians performed at fairs and in marketplaces, but Robert-Houdin performed magic in theatres and private parties. Like his audience, he wore formal clothes. Many magicians today mimic this by wearing tail-coats, though some magicians view this as old-fashioned and prefer contemporary clothes. The stage name of Harry Houdini was taken in tribute to him, though Houdini later denounced Robert-Houdin. He is widely considered the pioneer in the modern performance art of illusion.
Robert-Houdin was a watchmaker, and he made mechanical toys and machines. From an early age he had been interested in sleight of hand and juggling, and in 1845 he began to exhibit his skill, soon becoming famous for his tricks.
The Arabs of Algeria were said to be excited to rebel against French colonialists by false miracles performed by their religious leaders. In 1856, led by Napoleon 3rd the French government sent Robert-Houdin there, hoping that he might perform tricks that were far more impressive, thereby dissolving the excitement of the rebels. Robert-Houdin's tricks, it is said, succeeded in breaking up the influence of the priests. Moreover, the Arabs became afraid of Robert-Houdin.
For a trick, he asked an Arab to shoot him with a marked bullet, but instead of killing him, the bullet was found between his teeth. After that, they believed he could do anything. Robert-Houdin was not the first illusionist to perform the bullet catch and many since him have adapted their own version of the effect.
He used another famous trick to prove that French magic was stronger then local shamanism techniques: he offered up an empty box with an iron bottom that anyone could lift up. By turning on an electro-magnet hidden under the floor, he made it immovable, "proving" that through will power, he could make it impossible to lift for the strongest Algerian warriors. He then claimed he could make the strong man too weak to lift a trunk that could be lifted by a small child.
Robert-Houdin's home in Blois is open to the public as a theatre and museum called Maison de la Magie, opposite Chateau Blois. It is obvious he lived for magic, performing even on vacation and constantly conjuring new ideas. His wife was often involved in his incredibly clever and innovative tricks. He openly admitted his illusions were 'deceptions' to authorities, in order to avoid prosecution for witchcraft.
Maison de la Magie is a wonderful magic museum with lots of exhibitions and hands on props to examine. There is a wonderful walk-through underwater illusion on the top floor which is incredibly entertaining and so simple. In the basement is a huge theatre for the spectacular magic show. Outside during summer daylight hours huge dragons appear out of the windows to the delighted sometimes terrified squeals of children. Combined tickets to tour Chateau Blois opposite the courtyard can be purchased. There are lovely bistros in the courtyard to enjoy a cappuccino or a glass of wine. In winter time the outdoor tables are packed away and replaced with an outdoor ice-skating rink and Fete de Noel.
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