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Magicians Angry Over Unveiling of Houdini's Secret

How did Harry Houdini (search) do his signature "Metamorphosis" escape, the one where he was handcuffed inside a sack, locked in a trunk and yet somehow managed to switch places with an assistant on the outside?

To find out, all a fan or an aspiring illusionist has to do is go to a new exhibit opening Wednesday and climb inside the trunk.

That has some in the business tied up in knots.

Magicians say their code of ethics prohibits revealing secrets to the public. The famous and not-so-famous alike, including David Copperfield (search) and Ronald "Rondini" Lindberg, have called the Outagamie Museum (search) to protest its "A.K.A. Houdini" show.

"It's just that this is a very, very passionate thing that magicians feel about and what the museum is doing is wrong," said Lindberg of Appleton, a city of about 40,000 that Houdini considered his hometown.

Museum officials, on the other hand, insist the exhibit -- set to run for 10 years -- doesn't reveal anything not already available in books and on the Internet. They also say people will appreciate magic more by knowing the secrets.

Still, as a precaution, museum officials have contacted police and hired security guards for Wednesday's opening.

Bob Rath, a professional magician and small business owner, comes down on the museum's side. It would take some 40 hours of practice to do the trick successfully, he said.

"The performance is more important than the secret, and just because somebody is going to know the secret to Metamorphosis isn't going to make them any great magician, he said. "It's a very complicated and very difficult effect to do."

The Houdini Club of Wisconsin (search), however, is displeased about the trick's exposure because it has bylaws that prohibit such a thing, said Rath, the club's vice president.

He said club members thought the selection of the trick was inappropriate because there are many magicians around the world still using it.

"There are a lot of people in the organization that are real upset," he said.

As part of an agreement with the club, the museum has posted a sign warning visitors: "The 'backstage' area shows some of the secrets to Houdini's tricks. Those who do not want to know how Houdini performed his magic should avoid this area."

Besides the "Metamorphosis" explanation, the exhibit tells the life of Houdini through hand-on displays and personal items.

Houdini was born Ehrich Weiss on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary. His family moved to Appleton when he was 4, when his father became the town rabbi. They stayed for only four years.

He embarked on a career in magic and later focused on escapes. He died of peritonitis resulting from a ruptured appendix in Detroit on Halloween 1926.