This coming Halloween is the 80th anniversary of the death of Wisconsin's most famous escape artist, and at a store up in Antigo last Saturday, Robert Moore, 3, paid fitting tribute to the master -- though it fell to Moore's grandmother, Fredericka Bierdemann, to make the connection. "He's a little Houdini already," Bierdemann told the Antigo Daily Journal, after Moore had safely emerged from the vending machine that was his prison.
The story, in case you missed it on the wire services: Moore coveted a SpongeBob SquarePants doll in an arcade game, the kind that challenges players to retrieve plush toys with a remotely operated claw. Having no luck with the traditional method, he climbed into the machine, where he was stuck. He eventually made his own way out, though, with help from Antigo firefighters who broke a lock, then passed in the screwdriver with which the lad undid two latches that were holding him in.
The funny thing is that Bierdemann thought of Harry Houdini at all. To be certain, in extricating himself Moore displayed ingenuity worthy of Houdini, who spent his formative years in Appleton, 70 miles southwest of Antigo, before he became an internationally celebrated magician and escapologist. But Houdini was known for removing himself from difficult situations, whereas what is sensational about Moore's story is not that he set himself free, but that he marooned himself in toyland to begin with.
And who hasn't wanted to go to toyland? If Moore was partly motivated by the sheer desire to own SpongeBob, surely he also was tantalized by the possibility of crossing over into a world inhabited by SpongeBob -- and by Elmo and Bert of Sesame Street, who figure prominently in the Daily Journal's picture of Moore, trapped behind Plexiglass. And indeed, his grandmother confirmed that for a while at least, the trapped Moore was in his element. "He was having a ball in there, hugging all the animals," she told the Daily Journal.
Yes, he made it. Just as Dorothy left monochrome Kansas for Technicolor Oz, Robert Moore made his way to a brightly hued world populated by cartoon characters and puppets. Then, like Dorothy, he hugged his otherworldly friends and realized there was no obvious way home.
Moore's caper is a testament to the power of stories, of fictional universes realized so fully, so movingly, that they seem almost preferable to our own. It is the feeling I sometimes get when I come to the end of a novel and wish that there were more pages, that I could spend more time with those characters.
What I am describing is the way that stories -- whether they take place on SpongeBob's Bikini Bottom, or anywhere -- can take us outside ourselves. I suppose the term for that is escapism, but that is a mildly trivializing word that does not quite explain what makes a fictional character so beguiling as to make a small child insert himself into a vending machine.
Come to think of it, though, escapism is perhaps another word for what Houdini did. So Grandmother Bierdemann's comparison may have been apt after all.