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Who was Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin ?

Who was Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin ?

Who was Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin ?

Robert-Houdin was born Jean Eugène Robert in Blois, France on 7 December 1805--a day after his autobiography said he was.


His father Prosper Robert was one of the best watchmakers in Blois. A skillful artisan and hard worker, Prosper Robert's main ambition was to provide for his family, but he also wanted his children to climb the social ladder. Jean Eugene's mother, the former Marie-Catherine Guillon, died when Jean was just a young child. At the age of eleven, Prosper sent his son Jean to school thirty-five miles up the Loire to the University of Orléans. (The college was equivalent to American secondary school.) At 18, Jean graduated and returned to Blois. His father wanted him to be a lawyer, but Jean wanted to follow into his father’s footsteps as a watchmaker.


Jean’s penmanship was excellent and it landed him a job as a clerk for an attorney’s office. Instead of studying law, he tinkered with mechanical gadgets. His employer sent him back to his father. He was told that he was better suited as a watchmaker than a lawyer. But by then, Jean’s father had already retired so he became an apprentice to his cousin who had a watch shop. For a short time, Jean worked as a watchmaker.


In the mid 1820’s, young Jean saved up to buy a copy of two volume set of books on clock making called Traité de l’horlogerie, or Treatise on Clockmaking, written by Ferdinand Berthoud. The book seller had put the books off to the side for Jean. He reached up to the shelf and grabbed the books. He wrapped the two volumes and handed them to the young aspiring clockmaker.


But when Jean got home and opened the wrapping, instead of the Berthoud books, what appeared before his eyes was a two-volume set on magic called Scientific Amusements. Instead of returning the books, his curiosity got the best of him. From those crude volumes, he learned the rudiments of magic. He practiced at all hours of the day.


From that point when he accidentally received those books on conjuring, Jean Robert became very interested in the art. He was upset that the books he got only revealed how the secrets were done, but did not show how to do them. He found that learning from the books available in those days was very difficult because the lack of detailed explanations provided. But the books piqued his interest in the art. So Jean began taking lessons from a local amateur magician. He paid ten francs for a series of lessons from a man named Maous from Blois who was a podiatrist, but also entertained at fairs and fetes doing magic. He was proficient in sleight of hand, and he taught Jean how to juggle to coordinate his eye and hand. He also taught him rudiments of the cups and balls. He told young Jean that digital dexterity came with repetition, and as a direct result, Jean practiced incessantly.


Magic was his pastime, but meanwhile, his studies in horology continued. When he felt he was ready, he moved to Tours and set up a watch-making business, doing conjuring on the side.


Much of what we know about Robert-Houdin comes from his memoirs--and his writings were meant more to entertain than to chronicle, rendering it difficult to separate fact from fiction. Robert-Houdin would have readers believe that a major turning point in his life came when he became apprenticed to the magician Edmund de Grisy, better known as Torrini. Unfortunately, there is no record of a Torrini or a de Grisy.


What is known is that his early performing came from joining an amateur acting troupe. Later, he performed at social parties as a professional magician. It was during this period while at a party, he met the daughter of a Parisian watchmaker, Monsieur Jacques François Houdin, who had also come from Jean Robert's native Blois. The daughter's name was Josèphe Cecile Houdin, and Jean fell in love with Cecile at their first meeting. On July 8, 1830, they were married. He hyphenated his own name to hers and became Robert-Houdin. (Originally not realizing this, Harry Houdini expressed a desire in his youth, which he realized as an adult, to be like the stage magician he called simply Houdin.)


He moved to Paris and worked in his father-in-law's wholesale shop. Jacques François was among the last of the watchmakers to use the old methods of handcrafting each piece, and embraced his new son-in-law's ambitions for mechanism. While M. Houdin worked in the main shop, Jean was to tinker with mechanical toys and automatic figures. He and Josèphe had eight children, of whom three survived; this was fairly typical for that time period.


With his work in the shop, Jean still was practicing magic. Quite by accident, Robert-Houdin walked into a shop on the Rue Richelieu and discovered it sold magic. He visited the store, which was owned by a Père (Papa) Roujol. There he met fellow magicians, both amateur and professional, where he engaged in talk about conjuring, and there he met an aristocrat by the name of Jules de Rovère, who coined the term "prestidigitation" to describe a major misdirection technique magicians used.


At Papa Roujol’s, Robert-Houdin learned the details to many of the mechanical tricks of the time as well as how to improve them. From there, he built his own mechanical figures, like a singing bird, a dancer on a tightrope, and an automaton doing the cups and balls. His most acclaimed automaton was his writing and drawing figure. He displayed this figure before King Louis Philippe and eventually sold it to P. T. Barnum.


These triumphs were short-lived because on October 19, 1843, Monsieur Robert-Houdin's beloved wife died, having been ill for months; she died at the age of thirty-two. At her death, she left him with three young children to take care of; to take up the burden, he remarried in August of that year to François Marguerite Olympe Braconnier, a woman ten years younger than himself. The new Madame Robert-Houdin soon took over the household.


Robert-Houdin loved to watch the big magic shows that came to Paris. He dreamed about some day opening his own theatre. In the meantime, he was hired by a friend of his by the name of Count de l’Escalopier to perform at private parties.


Now that he had free time, he began constructing equipment for his own use instead of selling it to others. The money from the shop and his new inventions, gave him enough money to experiment on new tricks utilizing glass apparatus that would be free of trickery. He envisioned a stage that would be as elegant as the drawing rooms in which he was hired to perform. He also thought that a magician should be dressed as such by wearing traditional evening clothes.


It was not, however, till Count de l’Escalopier fronted him 15,000 francs that he needed that his dream would become a reality. He rented out a suite of rooms above the archways around the gardens of the Palais Royal, which was once owned by the Cardinal Richelieu who was portrayed in Alexandre Dumas, père's The Three Musketeers.


He hired workmen to redesign the old assembly room into a theatre. They painted it white with gold trim. Tasteful drapes where hung, chic candelabras where placed throughout, and the stage furniture was set in the style of Louis XV.


On July 3, 1845, Robert-Houdin premiered his 200 seat theatre in what he called "Soirées Fantastiques." Not a single critic covered Robert-Houdin’s debut, but that was just as well, for in his memoirs, Robert-Houdin confessed that the show had been a disaster! He suffered from stage fright that caused him to talk too fast and in a monotone. He did not know what he was saying or doing. Everything was a blur. He believed that a trick should never fail because the magician should not present a trick that was not mechanically perfected, and this caused him to over-rehearse.


After the first show, he was about to have a nervous breakdown. He closed the theatre and had every intention to close it for good until a friend agreed that the venture was a silly idea. Instead of admitting defeat, Robert-Houdin, irked at the friend's affrontery, used this insult to regain his courage, and he continued his long run at his little theatre. At first the forty year old magician was unpolished, but soon he gained the confidence required for the stage.


With each performance, Robert-Houdin got better, and the critics did come. Le Charivari and L'Illustration both said that his mechanical marvels and artistic magic was comparable to those of his predecessors like Philippe and Bosco. Even with all of this, the people still did not come to the little theatre during the summer months. This made it a struggle for him to keep it opened. To meet expenses, he sold the three houses that he had inherited from his mother.


The following year, he added a new trick to his program that was to attract all of Paris. Seats at the Palais Royal were at a premium. This new marvel was called Second Sight. (See Famous Illusions.) Second Sight drew the audiences into the little theatre. Once there, they saw the other creations Robert-Houdin had to offer.