(December 7, 1805 – June 13, 1871)
“A magician is merely an actor playing the part of a magician.”
Jean was born in Blois France to a watchmaker. His father was set on Robert becoming a lawyer. Robert was set on becoming a watchmaker. He had a job as a clerk in a law office for a short time where he spent most of his time tinkering with mechanical objects in the office than writing and copying. He was sent back to his father where he became an apprentice watchmaker. He never stopped making clocks and is credited with the invention of The Mystery Clock.
Not the books he had saved for but a 2 volume set on magic called Scientific Amusements.
The books had a fault. They explained the principle behind the trick but not how to perform the trick. Without the benefit of our modern magic, the internet. Robert went to take lessons from a local fair and party magician named, Maous from Blois (side note Maous from Blois was a foot doctor when not performing at parties).
Jean learned sleight of hand and dexterity but the most important lesson he learned was repetition and discipline. I have researched many magicians and a constant theme is they are never without their trade. If they are a card magician you will never see them without a deck that they are working with.
Jean also learned that it is crucial to still make money even while pursuing one’s passions. He opened a watchmakers shop and performed in his spare time.
Jean met and married Josephe Cicle Houdin. He took her last name and hyphenated his Robert- Houdin in 1830. They moved to Paris where Jean worked in his father in laws watchmaking shop and he found a group of magicians at the shop Rue Richelieu.
He married his love of mechanisms with an interest in automatons creating a singing bird, a dancer on a tightrope, and an automaton that wrote and drew. This was later sold to P.T. Barnum.
Using his knowledge of engineering he created amazing props and made stories out of magic creating character plot tension and resolution in his acts.
His props were nothing short of engineering marvels creating illusions that were not only beautiful but told stories from the growing an orange tree in a pot to the levitation of his son.
His acts and his ability to create a narrative play from magic changed the way magic was performed to this day. Magic had become high entertainment and not a way for a magician to claim special powers. Magic was to awe and delight. It was an age of Darwin and reason and Houdin’s magic played into science and engineering of the age, not the superstition.
To further prove this point he did not dress as magicians had before. No long robes embroidered with strange symbols. He dressed as the members of his audience would have done. Coattails, top hat, and gloves
His first show was in his estimation a disaster. On July 3, 1845 he performed the “Soirees Fantastiques.”
On the verge of a nervous breakdown he told a friend of his failure. His friend agreed with him. It was silly and ridiculous. This harshness gave Jean the kick up the backside he needed to try again.
Jean had tremendous success both as an inventor of new and amazing illusions and by selling his magic tricks to other magicians. His style of having tricks build upon tricks to create a story is still used to this day. His influence on other magicians of his time and directly after can not be overstated. The most famous being Houdini who in 1891 took on the last name.
In an interesting side not after he retired at 48 he was called upon by Napoleon the third to use his magic to pacify a tribe in Algeria.
If you have ever seen a movie called Hugo you might have heard a few things that make you think of the movie. Here is why. In 1888 after his death, his widow sold his theatre to Georges Melies. A magician himself, though history mostly remembers him for his contributions to movie making and pioneering stop motion effects.