Harry Houdini was more than just an escape artist. He was also a master of self-promotion. I caught a great documentary on him yesterday and it was interesting to see how much of his success was due to his marketing hustle and constant showmanship. Some lessons from the escape king:
1. Focus on the killer bit
When he started out, he was doing a bunch of tricks and escaping from handcuffs was just one in the batch. A vaudeville bigwig saw him do his act and told him that no one cared about any of the tricks except the handcuff escape. Houdini dropped the rest of the tricks, did a show that focused exclusively on escapes, and flew to stardom.
2. Judo big problems into small ones
Handcuff “hacks” let him workaround difficult locks with ease.
If presented with a particularly difficult lock, he might insist it be placed higher on his forearm, then simply slip these cuffs over his wrists once the easier cuffs placed there had been removed.
3. Beat copycats by innovating
Copycats constantly threatened Houdini’s success. At one point, he couldn’t get booked in some areas because there were so many people there already doing his act. His solution? Innovation. He constantly elevated his game and pioneered new tricks. His escapes got increasingly extravagant, from handcuffs to straitjackets to water tanks. That ensured there would always be demand for the real Houdini, not impostors.
4. Give ‘em a story
Houdini knew the aura of escape was just as important as the actual escape. So he always gave people something to talk about. He’d often stretch easy escapes into lengthy affairs in order to build tension. When he finally broke free, the crowd would erupt in cheers.
He’d exaggerate his movements and writhe like a madman while doing his strait jacket escape. Sometimes, he’d do it upside down, suspended from a skyscraper. This looked impressive even though it actually made it easier to get his arms over his head, the key to the escape.
And when he performed the milk can escape, actually one of his easiest tricks, he had two axe-wielding assistants standby in order to break the tank if necessary (really, they were just there to scare the audience).
PBS’ site has some of Houdini’s escape secrets and mentions his emphasis on style:
The unique magic of his escape act lay in its presentation: “You will notice that some of these tricks are very simple—but remember it is not the trick that is to be considered, but the style and manner in which it is presented.”
5. Free samples build buzz
The master marketer would promote his shows by performing spectacular escapes in public places at no charge. He’d also go to the local police department and tell them to lock him in their best handcuffs. He’d then proceed to escape (and make sure the local media was around to report it).
There’s a great story about the first time he showed up in Europe. No one knew who he was so he escaped from Scotland Yard in order to make a name for himself.
The manager of the Alhambra, apparently not wholly convinced of the young man’s abilities, offered him a contract on the condition that he must first, ‘Escape from handcuffs at Scotland Yard’. Slater was apparently acquainted with [Scotland Yard Superintendent William] Melville and arranged for himself and Houdini to visit the Yard the following day.
At the appointed hour, they were welcomed by Melville who immediately ridiculed the notion that anyone could escape from Scotland Yard handcuffs. Stage handcuffs were one thing, he told them, but Scotland Yard’s cuffs were the last word in scientific manacles. Houdini, unabashed, insisted on rising to the challenge…Within seconds Melville had suddenly grabbed his arms, encircled them around a nearby pillar, produced a pair of cuffs from his coat and snapped them tightly around his wrists. ‘I’m going to leave you here and come back for you in a couple of hours’ Melville told him as he and Slater headed towards the door. To Melville’s astonishment, Houdini replied, ‘I’ll go with you’ as the opened cuffs fell to the floor.
Melville, although somewhat taken aback, held out his hand to Houdini in genuine astonishment, offering him his unreserved congratulations. Two weeks later, on June 27th, 1900, Melville was Houdini’s guest at a special performance of his stage act at the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square. There the London press were treated to his full routine of escapes from a variety of trunks, cabinets, chains, padlocks and shackles; many bought along by the audience themselves.