The remnants that live on in TV variety shows—animal acts, jugglers, monologu-ists—are dogged reminders that vaudeville is as dead as the day before yesterday. The old troupers are legend now, larger than life in sentimental memories. But the best of them never needed such exaggeration. Carnival Buff William (Nightmare Alley) Gresham's biography, Houdini, The Man Who Walked Through Walls (Holt; $4.50), serves its subject well, simply by telling the story straight. "As the archetype of the hero who could not be fettered or confined," writes Biographer Gresham, "he became the idol of a...

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