A day of movie magic began with an exploration of Appleton’s first son to achieve the highest echelons of stardom.
A century ago, there was no bigger name than Harry Houdini. And in the midst of that fame, he never forgot his childhood home and the people who welcomed his family.
“He absolutely loved Appleton,” said Dan Davies.
Davies, an Appleton actor, writer and producer, led guests on a storytelling walking tour of Houdini’s Downtown Appleton on Saturday afternoon as part of The Film Forte.
Houdini was best known as an escape artist. He was also a movie star and his first full-length feature, “The Grim Game,” was released 100 years ago this month.
It was a time to share stories of the biggest name in magic at the intersection of a childhood hometown he found magical.
Harry Houdini, born Erich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary, came to Appleton in 1878 when his father accepted a role here as rabbi. The family moved to Milwaukee and onto New York after the Appleton congregation dismissed his father in 1883.
The tour started at Houdini Plaza at the fountain where Houdini’s home once stood.
Davies shared the tales of the youngster developing the lock-picking prowess from which he’d build his fame among the College Avenue businesses.
His physical conditioning was just as crucial to his act and that also had its roots in Appleton.
“Every building you see here, Harry used to jog by it,” Davies said.
The group walked east to the Oneida Street intersection where Edna Ferber would interview the now famous Houdini for an Appleton Post article. Ferber would go on to her own fame as a writer and Pulitzer Prize winner.
They stopped outside Brewed Awakenings where lore has it Houdini stole his first kiss as a 9-year-old.
The Film Forte, a first-year event hosted by Davies, moved on to Lawrence University’s Wriston Art Center for live music, film screenings and the first National Independent Film Awards.
During the walk, participants shared and listened to stories of his efforts to debunk spiritualists, his exploits as an early aviator and his Halloween 1926 death — spurred by accepting the challenge of a blow to his gut.
Saturday, Davies noted, marked 100 years to the day of a conversation between Houdini and Belgium’s King Albert.
The monarch asked Houdini where developed his incredible ability to hold his breath.
“In the coldest river in North America,” Houdini was purported to share. “The Fox River in Appleton, Wis.”