'British Houdini': Farewell to Alan Alan, who lived for magic and great escapes

He pioneered art of escaping from straitjacket while suspended from burning rope

Adam Lusher
Sunday 20 July 2014 18:40 BST
Alan Alan hangs over the Thames in a 1978 stunt
Alan Alan hangs over the Thames in a 1978 stunt

The “British Houdini” – who pioneered the art of escaping from a straitjacket while suspended from a burning rope high above the ground – has died aged 87.

Described by the Magic Circle as “a legend in the world of magic and circus”, Alan Alan – born Alan Rabinowitz – was one of the leading stunt magicians of his day, before stepping away from the limelight to run a London magic shop.

In the early 1950s, audiences would watch enthralled as he was tied up in chains or strapped into a straitjacket, before being dangled upside down high above the ground by means of a crane and a petrol-soaked rope, which was set alight.

He had three minutes to escape – which he usually did. In 1950, however, at the Pavilion Theatre, Liverpool, the rope snapped and he came crashing down to the stage.

He was undeterred by the setback, refining his act to include dangling over rows of swords or cages of lions. In 1978, at the age of 52, he dangled in chains from a burning rope 100ft above the River Thames near Tower Bridge.

Alan had first made headlines years earlier with a deliberate attempt to upstage the great Harry Houdini, whose 1915 attempt to dig himself out after being buried alive had ended with the American escapologist losing consciousness as his hands broke the surface.

In 1949, the 23-year-old Alan hoped a Briton would show the world how it should be done, with his “Houdini II, Buried Alive” stunt.

It did not go well.

With the cameras rolling, and no sign of Alan emerging triumphant from his shallow grave, it was realised his assistants had packed the earth above him too tightly. By the time they dug him out, he was moments from death.

Small in stature, with a cheeky chappy persona that led to comparisons with Norman Wisdom, he once entertained prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs with a demonstration of how to escape from a pair of handcuffs.

In later years, Alan ran a magic shop in Southampton Row, London. The Magic Spot became a meeting place for visiting magicians from all over the world and a delight for curious children.

Describing a visit in 1984, the Monty Python star Michael Palin wrote: “I was served by a small, neat, besuited gentleman with an arrow through his head.

He demonstrated an extraordinary variety of bangs, squirts, farts and electric shocks as if he were selling nothing more exciting than a coal scuttle. Little children watched in awe.”

Alan mentored many young British magicians, and his fame was such that he also influenced young hopefuls across the Atlantic – most notably David Copperfield, who described him as “someone I’ve idolised since I was a boy”.

Alan opened the Magic Circle’s new headquarters near Euston station in London in 1998, and in 2006 the organisation presented him with the Maskelyne Award “for services to British magic”.

Jack Delvin, the president of the Magic Circle, said: “Alan was a legend in the world of magic and circus.

“He touched the lives of many through his shop, The Magic Spot, where his words of wisdom inspired generations of eager young magicians to begin their journey into the world of magic.”

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