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He's a young black magician. People ask: 'Are you the new Houdini?'
A museum guest shows others his card and makes sure that Rajon Lynch, who is performing the trick, doesn't peek, at the Houdini Museum of New York, Oct. 31, 2019. Lynch, who performs as RJ the Magician, grew up performing in the same Wisconsin town where Houdini lived as a child. Now he directs Manhattan's Houdini Museum. Anna Watts/The New York Times.

by Corey Kilgannon

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Two months ago, Rajon Lynch, 23, was teaching magic in Shanghai when he got an email from the Houdini Museum of New York.

For Lynch, who grew up in Wisconsin performing in the same childhood town as Harry Houdini, it was a request that seemed set up by the gods of magic.

The museum’s owner, Roger Dreyer, needed a new director and had heard about Lynch.

“He was intrigued I was from same place as Houdini,” recalled Lynch, who immediately bought a one-way ticket to New York to meet with Dreyer.

New York City has many prominent museums. The Houdini Museum — tucked away on the fourth floor of a building in Midtown Manhattan — is not one of them.

But it has one of the world’s largest displays of the famed escape artist’s memorabilia, with well over 200 items.

The museum, which shares a modest-size room with the Fantasma Magic shop, offers tours, magic classes and evening shows for a fee.

But it is free to enter and browse, and Lynch and other young magicians are on hand, showing tricks and dispensing tips.

“People have said to me, ‘Wow, are you the new Houdini?’” said Lynch, who is known as RJ the Magician and has modeled his magic career after Houdini, who died in 1926.

He stood in the museum recently as a group of students from the Gotham Professional Arts Academy, a high school in Brooklyn, milled around.

“Hey, step right up — I’m going to show some magic,” Lynch said authoritatively.

The room instantly went quiet, and by the time Lynch began doing comic imitations of Michael Jackson dance moves, he had the teens’ complete attention.

He called over a man who was browsing in the museum and had him choose a card and then return it to the deck without showing it. Moments later, Lynch pulled it out of his own pocket.

Lynch, who peppers his performances with jokes and ad-libs, tested the man’s reactions by suddenly raising his voice. But the man — Steven Crawford, 65, a doctor from Manasquan, New Jersey — didn’t even flinch.

“You must be from the hood,” Lynch joked.

Later, Lynch said this crowd — black students who had no exposure to magic — were the type of demographic he especially hoped to reach with his magic.

“We’re trying to get more kids of color in, as well as women and girls,” he said. “I think it helps that I’m African American and I don’t necessarily look like a conventional magician.”

Dreyer, who has a prodigious collection of Houdini artifacts, opened the museum in 2012 in his previous magic shop in Midtown Manhattan. He moved it in 2017 to its current home, where he also runs a business manufacturing toys and magic kits.

The museum’s displays range from a trunk that Houdini would lock himself in to small lock picks he would regurgitate during his escapes.

There are photographs and movie posters as well as a coffin the magician escaped from even though it had been nailed shut with long spikes.

Dreyer said Lynch has a “contagious smile,” considerable magical skills, and a flair for Houdini’s genius for marketing and promotion.

He said he hired Lynch partly to expose urban teens to the motivational power of magic.

“Houdini used to say, ‘My brain is the key that sets me free,’” Dreyer said. “RJ’s enthusiasm is contagious, and he wants to bring magic to the masses. He motivates kids to be the best they can be.”

Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest and immigrated to Appleton, Wisconsin, as a child. Lynch said he grew up nearby and became interested in Houdini as a child.

By age 9, he was learning magic, and by his teenage years, he was performing in Appleton at Houdini’s Escape restaurant, for example, and at a local museum with a Houdini exhibit.

Knowing that Houdini eventually settled in New York with his family as a teenager, Lynch hoped to one day move to New York and break into its active magic scene.

“Being on a parallel path with Houdini, I knew I’d wind up in New York,” he said.

He landed a long-term teaching gig in Shanghai two years ago, but after Dreyer’s recent invitation, he headed to New York City without enough money to rent a room. He spent a few weeks living in a hostel and staying on friends’ couches until he saved enough to secure an apartment.

On a recent afternoon, Lynch stood near a bust of Houdini that once adorned Houdini’s grave in Queens. The bust is on loan from the Society of American Magicians, which was founded in 1902 in a Manhattan magic shop and was led by Houdini for many years.

Lynch turned off the lights in the museum and used a tambourine and crystal ball that belonged to Houdini to try to summon his spirit.

He had already achieved a nifty trick in getting a room full of chatty teens to remain silent for two minutes as he called — seemingly in vain — for Houdini to give a sign.

But when he turned the lights back on, Lynch pointed to a pair of handcuffs on a séance table that had been locked. Now they were unlocked.

“Yo!” one of the teenagers yelled.

Suddenly a butterfly fluttered around the room.

“I honestly don’t know where that butterfly came from,” Lynch said to a magician colleague at the shop, Jerel Leeon. “I’ve never seen a butterfly in here, ever.”

A few minutes later, a diving suit helmet that Houdini once wore slipped off a cabinet and crashed onto the ground.

“Wow,” said Lynch, picking it up. “We’ve got to stop doing the séances immediately.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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