Sidney H. Radner, an amateur magician and newly minted Yale grad in 1941 when he became the unlikely steward of a trove of Harry Houdini artifacts, building it into one of the world’s largest Houdini collections, died on Sunday in Holyoke, Mass. He was 91.
The cause was cancer, his son William said.
Mr. Radner is credited in the world of magicians and magic collectors with having preserved some of the most important of Houdini’s props, including the “Chinese Water Torture Cell” (a water tank in which Houdini was lowered upside down, his feet chained) and the oversize “Milk Can” he used in a similar escape stunt.
His collection also included lesser items, but for Houdini buffs equally treasured, like the lock picks Houdini hid from his audiences by swallowing them, then regurgitating them, for escapes; cylinder pulleys, key wrenches, latches, levers and tumblers he used in various tricks; and a set of charred handcuffs from the exhibit that was set up in the theater lobby for his shows, advertised by Houdini as “handcuffs used in Spain on prisoners burning to death in 1600!”
“If not for Sid, all that stuff would be gone,” said David Ben, artistic director of Magicana, a nonprofit group representing magic performers and members of the international Magic Collectors Association. “He made it possible for a generation of magicians and scholars to see the actual mechanical thinking that sprung from the mind of this American icon, who is still the all-time megastar of magic.”
Mr. Radner, who became interested in magic and card tricks as a child, was attending a magicians’ convention in Springfield, Mass., in 1935 when he met Houdini’s younger brother, Theodore, also an escape artist, who used the name Hardeen.
Hardeen took Mr. Radner under his wing. When Mr. Radner graduated from Yale six years later, and was poised to enter his family’s rug business, Hardeen offered to sell him a large share of his brother’s tools and props, which he had kept in a warehouse since Houdini’s death in 1926. Hardeen needed the money, according to several Houdini biographers.
Mr. Radner bought some of it (for “a modest amount,” his son said), and inherited the rest when Hardeen died in 1945. With additional memorabilia purchased elsewhere, Mr. Radner’s collection was eventually leased out to small museums — the bulk of it to the Outagamie Museum/Houdini Historical Center in Appleton, Wis., where Houdini spent his early childhood, and some to the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame, in Niagara Falls, Canada.
In 2004, he reluctantly sold the 1,000-piece collection at auction for close to $1 million after the museum in Appleton chose not to renew its lease for the items. David Copperfield bought the Water Torture Cell.
While operating the rug store in Holyoke founded by his father, William, in 1905, Mr. Radner performed professionally under the name Rendar the Magician, and pursued a parallel career as an expert in the field of crooked gambling. During his Army service in World War II, he helped investigate card scammers on troop ships. He later wrote a dozen books about card games, including several on how to spot cheaters.
Mr. Radner was born Dec. 8, 1919. His son said Mr. Radner had been taken with magic from an early age, “the way some kids who become great athletes just love sports.” He said his father had been drawn to the Houdini legend because both men had grown up Jewish in communities with few Jews.
“As a Jewish kid, I think magic was a kind of entree to the world for my dad, maybe the way it was for Houdini,” he said.
Mr. Radner’s wife of 64 years, Helen Cohen Radner, died in March. Besides his son William, of Springfield, Mass., he is survived by another son, Richard, of Las Vegas.
Beginning in the 1940s, Mr. Radner was the organizer of the annual Houdini Séance, a tradition started in 1927 by Houdini’s widow, Bess. She and Houdini, a debunker of supernaturalism, had devised a secret code that he promised to use if ever Bess tried to contact him after his death. Bess held a séance on the anniversary of his death for 10 years, then gave up. But Houdini buffs carried on.
At the séance one year, a medium announced that she had finally contacted Houdini, Mr. Radner told an interviewer for NPR, the public radio network.
Mr. Radner sought to verify her claim by instructing her to ask him what Hardeen’s nickname was. (It was “Deshi.”)
The medium closed her eyes, and channeled Houdini’s reply: “It was so long ago,’” she said on behalf of the supposed spirit, “I don’t remember.”