Oh, man. Only all the time. And you should, too. Especially about this French cat named Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. If his last name looks familiar, that’s because an American escape artist and magician by the name of Ehrich Weiss paid homage to Robert-Houdin in his stage name, Harry Houdini.
Yeah. Dude’s kind of a big deal.
Why? Oh, I love it when you ask the perfect questions.
Before Robert-Houdin, most magicians performed at fairs and carnivals and markets dressed in wizard’s robes. If they were really lucky, they might get tapped to do entertainment at a private party for someone with money and position. But Robert-Houdin changed the whole game. With backing from venture-capitalist-before-the-term-existed the Count de l’Escalopier, he bought a place once owned by Three Musketeers baddie Cardinal Richelieu and turned the assembly room into an elegant theater.
Y’all, he bombed.
But he didn’t quit. He kept performing, kept refining his craft, and now nearly everything we associate with stage magicians has its roots in his work. Formal tailcoat? His idea. Beautifully ornamented theater? His idea. Second sight illusions? Floating people? Pulling stuff out of a container far too small to hold it? All Robert-Houdin.
If you remember the 2006 movie The Illusionist, you might even recognize one of his most astonishing clockwork illusions, the Orange Tree, demonstrated without cinematic assistance here by the charming Paul Daniels.
What does all of this have to do with storytelling and marketing? Robert-Houdin was a master of both. Not only did he construct his show so that marvel built upon marvel, creating a strong narrative arc of mounting intensity, he was such a success that he managed to keep bringing in crowds even after his illusions were stolen by other performers.
Here’s what Robert-Houdin did. He didn’t give up. He kept working. He used storytelling to build intensity. He pushed himself, constantly developing new illusions and automata. He took advantage of advances in technology, such as electromagnetism. He didn’t fear the new. And that’s how he changed the whole profession.
Pretty good role model for marketers, mm?