By Samantha Silver '10
It was 1895. The small city of Holyoke, Massachusetts, was in its heyday. Travelers from all over the country stopped at the small city along the Connecticut River as they journeyed back and forth between New York and Boston. A man by the name of Harry Houdini was touring with a troupe called the American Gaiety Girls, who were playing at the local Empire Theater. It was here in Holyoke that the troupe and Houdini made a stop, and it was here that the young magician and escape artist showed local spectators his talents and performed his first jailbreak.
Now, more than 100 years later, Elizabeth Dobrska '11, a Holyoke native and international relations major, wants to keep that special moment in Holyoke history alive by collaborating with a family friend, fellow Holyoke native and renowned Houdini historian and magician Sidney Radner. Inspired by his commitment to the city of Holyoke and all things Houdini, Dobrska is using Radner's unique collection of Houdini films, posters, handcuffs, and props, along with donations from other collectors, to create the Sid Radner Museum of Houdini and Holyoke.
The museum will be located on High Street in downtown Holyoke in a 2,500-square-foot space that will not just serve the museum, but the community as well. Holyoke, as the country's first planned industrial city, had more millionaires per capita in 1900 than any other city in America, but is now one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts. Using this enterprise to rejuvenate Holyoke is one of Dobrska's top priorities.
"I know [the museum] will become a destination in the city and attract people who might otherwise not be inclined to visit Holyoke, and inspire other people to open businesses," said Dobrska.
She envisions the museum as a community-wide effort run entirely by volunteers and hopes to work with Mount Holyoke and other local schools to have students intern at the museum.
"I hope the community becomes involved with the efforts for this museum," she said.
Dobrska was greatly motivated to do something for her community and start a business, and she found a huge amount of guidance in mentors Joe Sibilia and Brendan Ciecko. Ciecko, founder of the rapidly growing Internet-based media company Ten Minute Media, has been responsible for the museum's presence on the Internet, with a Web site and online marketing tools; he is also the owner of the space where the museum will be located. Sibilia is the founder of Gasoline Alley Foundation, where Dobrska interned, and he has been able to provide her with support and encouragement. His local nonprofit organization assists new small businesses and inner cities, as well as young and underprivileged residents, to rejuvenate local economies and decrease crime rates. But, of all these inspirations, Sidney Radner has been crucial.
"His legacy is such an important part of Holyoke," said Dobrska.
While serving in the armed forces in World War II, Radner performed magic escape acts in numerous war bond tours. As a protégé of Theo Hardeen, Houdini's brother and a lesser-known magician, he has done most of Houdini's tricks and contributed to the founding of two Houdini museums, one in Appleton, Wisconsin, and the other in Niagara Falls. Although his travels have taken him far and wide, Radner has remained true to the city where he grew up: He was one of the founders of Holyoke's Volleyball Hall of Fame, and he served in the 1970s as president of the Holyoke Chamber of Commerce.
Dobrska will be using most of Radner's collection, including Houdini's handcuffs and exclusive documents and books, but would like to broaden the collection further with donations from other Houdini collectors. The museum will display original posters from shows and will have a movie theater to screen actual footage of Houdini and films by Houdini himself; it will also host shows by magicians from the area and around the country.
The museum is set to open sometime next year, with renovations beginning this winter.