George Hardeen’s passport has a new stamp on it, and this one’s a little more special than the rest.
Hardeen, a Greenehaven resident, recently returned from a trip to Budapest, Hungary where he spent Halloween as the guest of David Merlini, an accomplished magician and talented escape artist, whose magic and exploits are famous throughout Europe.
Merlini is the David Copperfield of Europe and his resume rivals that of Houdini himself. Merlini has escaped from being frozen in a block of ice, thrown into a shark tank while wearing a straight jacket and shot into the sky in a rocket.
“He asked me what time it was and when I looked for my watch it was on his wrist,” said Hardeen.
Hardeen is the closest living relative to Harry Houdini. Hardeen’s grandfather was Houdini’s brother.
Houdini was arguably the world’s greatest, and certainly its most famous, escape artist. Houdini was born in Hungary in 1874. He moved to America with his family in 1878. He became an internationally acclaimed escape artist, famous for his ability to escape from any pair of handcuffs put on him, which grew more daring has his career progressed, eventually involved escaping from handcuffs while holding his breath underwater and while being buried alive. The reason for the Halloween trip is because Houdini died on Halloween 1926.
As a fellow escape artist Merlini has always been a big fan of Houdini, even going so far as to erect a museum in is honor -- which he named The House of Houdini – in the city of Budapest, where Houdini was born.
As Houdini’s biggest fan, Merlini has been trying to coax Hardeen to visit him and the House of Houdini for years, where on Halloween night, the anniversary of his death, they celebrate Houdini’s life and accomplishments.
Houdini was in Hungary for six days. “It was unexpectedly wonderful,” said Hardeen. “I was very impressed by Budapest. It is Europe’s best-kept secret. I found it even more cosmopolitan than Paris.”
Though Hungary’s native language is Hungarian, Hardeen found that most of its residents spoke several languages, including English, and many of its signs were also in English; enough so he had no trouble communicating with those he came in contact with, or navigating through the city.
For most of his Budapest sojourn Hardeen was escorted through the city by a woman named Judit Oldal, who took him to the Lazar Equestrian Park, where he viewed a 45 minute equestrian performance. On another occasion he visited the country and took a carriage ride through the woods.
A key advantage of having a local guide is that Oldal knew the city’s best restaurants, and once inside, she’d recommend the house’s best dishes. Oldal’s recommendations were usually spot on, said Hardeen, but the duck lasagna leaved something to be desired.
Hardeen said he was very impressed with Budapest’s architecture and how immaculate it was.
“The entire city was clean,” he said. “I’m talking spotless. Even the subway was spotless. And the people were hospitable.”
Hardeen’s favorite part of the trip was a day when he explored the city without his guide.
“I walked from my hotel across the Chain Bridge, then made my way to the [House of Houdini] museum,” he said. “It was a brilliantly, sunny day. It was a fun adventure just exploring the city on my own.”
The peak of Hardeen’s adventure came on Halloween night when he was the honored guest at House of Houdini’s annual Houdini Halloween celebration.
The House of Houdini has always held a big celebration on Halloween as it marks the anniversary of Houdini’s death, and with Merlini being a magician, the spirit of the occasion brings with it an extra energy for him. And having Houdini’s closest living relative among them the energy rose to a higher note still.
Hardeen was the guest of honor and Merlini had invited his family and closest friends, who were also magicians. They went all out that night, celebrating the occasion with champagne toasts, and each magician taking the House of Houdini’s stage in an attempt to outdo the rest with their best trick and performance.
Hardeen added to the auspicious occasion by giving a speech and presenting the museum with a bronze plaque commemorating his visit. The plaque was added to wall already adorned with photos of his family.
Hardeen’s journey to Budapest, where he had the rare opportunity to meet with people who admire his family and their rare abilities as much as he does, will stand out as one of the great trips of this life.
“Budapest was a complete surprise,” he said. “I have been to Paris, Oslo, Malaga and Tunis. Nothing really compares to the beauty of Budapest and the hospitality of Hungarians.”