Friday, May 27, 2016

Houdini in 1900

This Memorial Day marks the 116th anniversary of Houdini's first trip to Europe on May 30, 1900. To mark the occasion, here's a look back at that all-important year.

The year 1900 was transformative for Houdini. After nearly a decade of hard struggle, he would finally achieve breakout success and set himself on a path to becoming one of the most famous entertainers of all time. But it wasn't all smooth sailing.

Having signed with vaudeville manager Martin Beck in 1899 -- and achieving some success on Beck's Orpheum circuit out west -- "Houdini The King of Handcuffs" kicked off the new year playing Keith's flagship theater in Boston. Here the press compared him favorably with another recent magical sensation, Ching Ling Foo.

In February, Houdini experienced embarrassment at the New York Theater when Bess got stuck in the Metamorphosis trunk. The story made the papers. Following an engagement at Shea's Theater in Toronto, Houdini was back playing the Keith's circuit in April, performing nude jail escapes in Chicago and Kansas City that garnered favorable press.

Under Beck's guidance, Houdini had achieved a respectable measure of success, but he was rarely the headliner and was not yet a sensation, despite his flair for getting publicity. Beck also took a hefty 20% cut, which Houdini did not like and said so. Beck reminded him of the situation when they met a year earlier: "No managers would believe your act was fit for vaudeville, they all considered it a museum act."

Popular mythology has Houdini's mid-year trip to Europe a bold all-or-nothing gamble; that Harry and Bess had $20 in their pockets and one-way ticket. The truth was Houdini was already earning up to $400 a week on the Keith's circuit. It was typical to send acts to Europe to enhance their cache in the states, and the European trip was a calculated effort by Beck to "boom him to the top notch." The trip had originally been planned for Fall of 1899, but England's Boer War had depressed the entertainment economy, so it was postponed until Spring.

Beck's European representative, Richard Pitrot, made the arrangements. Pitrot assured Harry that he had advanced bookings in Berlin, London and Paris. Houdini would be advertised as "America's Sensation," and by now he had an impressive scrapbook of clippings to back that up. On May 30, 1900, Harry and Bess set sail on the S.S. Kensington.


Houdini battled seasickness for the entire crossing. At one point Bess tied him to his bunk when, delirious, he threatened to throw himself overboard. When they landed in London, they discovered no bookings had been made. Pitrot, wrote Houdini, "was a Dam Liar." In the showbiz parlance of the time, they were "shipwrecked."

These first weeks in London must have been a nightmare for Houdini. After finally breaking through, here he was in a new country with no bookings and theater managers who were not impressed with his scrapbook or tales of breaking out of American jails. Harry and Bess found lodging at a boarding house popular with magicians at 10 Kepple Street (T. Nelson Downs and Howard Thurston would pass through at this time). Eventually, Houdini met Harry Day, a young English agent, who arranged for an audition at the prestigious Alhambra Theatre in Lecister Square.

Legend tells of how Houdini won his engagement at the Alhambra by making a bold all-or-nothing bet with manager C. Dundas Slater that he could escape handcuffs at Scotland Yard. It's a great story, but all evidence points to a more conventional start. By his own account, Houdini gave several trial performances at the Alhambra, one for Scotland Yard detectives, and finally won the 10th spot on the bill. Interestingly, the 14th spot that same week was another newcomer, Chung Ling Soo (William Robinson), who would become famous in his own right and Houdini's good friend.

On his first night, Houdini was challenged onstage by Cirnoc who claimed to have originated the Handcuff Act. Houdini defeated his rival with a pair of Bean Giant handcuffs. The unexpected confrontation made the papers. With his handcuff escapes, Metamorphosis and card magic (which was still a part of his act at this time), Houdini became the hit of London. Originally booked for two weeks, the Alhambra held him over for two full months.

After his London success, Houdini set out to play the provinces. At first managers feared an escape act would be too "exotic" for working class audiences who preferred more traditional fair. But after a tryout in Bradford, audiences went wild for the young escapist. Riding high, Houdini postponed his return to America where he was booked to play the Keith circuit in August. Beck cautioned him against getting a "swelled head."

Instead, Houdini traveled to Germany. Under Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany was an authoritarian state, and all entertainers had to be certified by the police. On September 20th, Houdini visited the new police headquarters in Berlin. Before 300 officers, he was stripped searched, heavily manacled, and gagged. Allowed to work under a sheet, he freed himself in a matter of minutes. The police grudgingly approved his act: "At this time, we are unable to explain the way in which the locks are opened and remain undamaged." But Houdini would continue to butt heads with the German police in the years to come.

The German public went wild for the brash young American who could not be restrained, and Houdini quickly became as much a sensation as he had been in the UK. Houdini believed it helped that he spoke to audiences in his native German. "It makes them all friendly with me before I have performed a single trick." However, newspapers poked fun at his pronunciation.

After a month long engagement at the Central Theater in Dresden (Cirnoc appeared at an opposition theater), Houdini moved to the Wintergarten in Berlin where he headlined for two months. Tickets were sold four and five days in advance, and the crowds grew so large that the police stepped in and refused to allow any more tickets to be sold. The Wintergarten paid 4000 marks to a theatre in Vienna to hold Houdini for an extra month.


With theater managers now fighting for his services, Houdini played a 10 day stint at the Circus Variete in Magdeburg, Germany. The Variete offered to pay the Alhambra a fine in equal to two weeks salary if they could retain Houdini for another two weeks. The Alhambra refused. They wanted Houdini back in London. Houdini boasted that it was "a record for a return engagement at this world famous theater." For days men paraded up and down the street in front of the Alhambra with sandwich boards heralding Houdini's return.

Houdini opened at the Alhambra on December 14 and played out the rest of the year to jam-packed houses. His billing was featured above the famous Alhambra ballets which, according to Houdini, "is something unheard of!"

In time, Houdini would create a new series of dramatic posters to replace his "America's Sensation" sheet. This time the posters proclaimed him, without exaggeration, as Europe's Eclipsing Sensation!

Related posts:

More years in the life of Houdini:

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Haversat & Ewing auction June 3-4

Haversat & Ewing Galleries upcoming "Spring Into Summer Auction" on June 3-4 will include several interesting Houdini rarities among their 190 lots.

Two items specifically relate to Houdini in New York. The first is a program and ticket stubs for Houdini's 1917 S.A.M. benefit for the families of the Antilles disaster, in which he shared the stage with Harry Kellar among others (Lot 145). To promote the patriotic event, New York officials finally granted Houdini permission to perform a suspended straitjacket escape in Time Square. There's also a program for Houdini's first appearance at The Palace Theater, in which he shared the bill with Fanny Brice (Lot 136). The Palace was a collaboration between Martin Beck and B.F. Keith and became the preeminent vaudeville house of the golden age.

Also at auction are eleven typed pages about the Davenport Brothers compiled by Oscar Teale for Houdini (Lot 146). An article called "The Idolatrous Dog" signed by Houdini to Will Goldston: "W.G. Knowing your love of your pretty little Greyhound - know this will interest. Regards, Houdini" (Lot 137). And two keys from Houdini's personal collection owned by Jerry Metallo, who was once Houdini's metal worker (Lot 160).


You can view the full online catalog HERE. Active bidding on all lots begin at 11:30 AM EST - Friday, June 3, 2016. The first lot closes Saturday, June 4, 2016 at 5:00 PM EST.

Related:

Houdini's on First

I caught news of this late, but last Monday the Point Loma Playhouse in San Diego held a staged reading of a new play written by Hilary White called Houdini's on First.

A tattered but still glamorous theatre on First Avenue in Chicago is the latest stop on the tour of Harry Houdini and his enchanting assistant Celeste. When Houdini's biggest fan, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, catches the show one evening the great magician and the Sherlock Holmes creator bond over their mutual passion for Spiritualism but clash in their very different methods of proving life after death. But the existence of the otherworldly both men desperately seek may be closer than either of them realize. Truth and illusion, two sides of the same coin, are at the heart of this story of friendship and love set against a backdrop of magic and mystery. 

Hopefully the reading went well and we will be hearing more about this production in the future.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The truth about The Magic of Houdini

Amazon's steaming video service recently added a documentary called The Magic of Houdini. Even though it shows a 2016 date, this is actually the 1971 BBC documentary The Truth About Houdini.

This was the first Houdini documentary and remains one of my favorites. It's well worth watching if you've never seen it. Just don't be fooled into thinking you're buying or renting something new.

This isn't the first time this has happened. This was offered on DVD under the same title back in 2010, but vanished quickly.

Related:

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

REVIEW: Houdini & Doyle (ep. 4): Spring Heel’d Jack

The real-life mystery of "Spring Heel’d Jack" is the focus of Houdini & Doyle episode 4. The mysterious cloaked figure stalked London in 1837 and is back to challenge our heroes.


"Spring Heel’d Jack" is directed by Daniel O'Hara, and like his In Manus Dei, it's another standout episode. The mystery this time plays out with a fair amount of action, some of it bloody, with nice themes running through, mainly the coming of the automobile and a suggestion that the reappearance of the demon foretells this "tragedy." In fact, a highlight of the episode is seeing Houdini and Doyle traveling in an early motor car (see more on this below).

One problem that seems to have been nicely addressed is the lack of recognition and references to the two men's fame. Throughout this episode people are appropriately excited to find Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle in their homes. "You think I'd get tired of it," says Houdini cheerily.

Spoilers ahead
The actors all once again do a wonderful job, with Stephen Mangan and Michael Weston honing their relationship and displaying real chemistry. Rebecca Liddiard's Adelaide Stratton is not as present this time as she's becoming a mystery herself. The episode ends with the revelation that she is married! More to come on that front I'm sure.

As much as I enjoyed the mystery, I was able to guess early on that the reporter, Lyman Biggs (Blake Harrison), was behind the reappearance of Spring Heel'd Jack. I'm not very good at this kind of thing, so I expect those who are better armchair detectives will have had no trouble at all. But it's nice that the solution doesn't explain everything, and the final shot suggests that the legend of Spring Heel’d Jack will endure.

Just the facts

This episode is bookended with Houdini struggling to find the right poster for his show. The poster we see in the opening is based on a French poster for Houdini's 1918-19 movie serial The Master Mystery. Doyle suggests the catch phrase "Death-Defying," which Houdini instantly likes. ("Well done. You outta consider writing.") However, Houdini didn't use "Death-Defying" until his famous Milk Can poster in 1908. But the billing of "Europe's Eclipsing Sensation" is correct for this time period, as is the font used the spell out Houdini's name.


As I mentioned earlier, seeing Houdini and Doyle in an early motor car is a highlight of this episode. However, there's another one of those missed opportunities that could have come with deeper research. Cars made Houdini nervous. He was not a fan of driving nor being driven. It would have added a nice element to this scene having the fearless Houdini be a nervous passenger, something Doyle could have had some fun with.


In this episode we get to see Weston's Houdini performing magic tricks for the Doyle children. Performing for children was something the real Houdini enjoyed. Houdini's own "spring heel'd" acrobatics recall some of his movie stunts and human fly exploits. But the biggest historical issue, and the one that I expect will have Houdini buffs most up in arms, is the depiction of Houdini smoking opium to help his chronic pain. The scene is cut down in the U.S. version. In the UK we see him actually smoking from the pipe.

Houdini smokes opium (cut from the U.S. version).

At first, this seems like an anathema. The real Houdini neither drank nor smoke, and extolled the virtues of clean living. But before we beat up the writers too badly, know that they did not pull this out of a hat. On page 95 of the excellent book Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle & Harry Houdini by Christopher Sandford (which I suspect was a primary research tool for the series), we find this:

Though personally frugal, and, except on their anniversary, rarely known to join Bess in a glass of champagne, Houdini may have explored other mood altering substances around the time he went to Hollywood. Will Goldston believed he sometimes partook of "a nip of opium," of the kind widely available in Edwardian musical-hall circles, if only for analgesic properties. The drug may have numbed the pain of a damaged kidney and other health-related issues collected over the years, but, as with Bess's drinking, it didn't always produce a felicitous state.

So maybe there is something to this opium idea after-all. However, Will Goldston was known to invent Houdini mythology. It was Goldstone who published the story of Bess crying the Mirror cuff key from the representative during Houdini's famous challenge. So maybe we need to take this one with a "nip" of salt.

Next Monday: Houdini & Doyle face-off with a medium in "The Curse of Korhza."

Houdini & Doyle airs every Monday at 9/8c on FOX. You can also watch episodes at FOX NOW.

    Monday, May 23, 2016

    Tonight on Houdini & Doyle...

    The fourth episode of Houdini & Doyle airs tonight at 9/8c on FOX. Here's a teaser for Spring Heel’d Jack.


    In the first of several attacks, a businessman is murdered by a mysterious phantom with demonic eyes and gravity-defying leaps. As panic spreads across London, the trio tries to determine if this is a case of mass hysteria, or is there a beast out there that thrives on fear?

    "Spring Heel’d Jack" is written by Carl Binder and directed by Daniel O'Hara. Watch for my review tomorrow.

    Houdini & Doyle airs every Monday at 9/8c. You can watch earlier episodes at FOX NOW.

    Related:

    Sunday, May 22, 2016

    Houdini & Doyle released on DVD in UK

    A 3-disc DVD set containing all 10 episodes of Houdini & Doyle Season 1 is released today in the UK. The full series has already aired in the UK on ITV Encore. It's currently showing in the U.S. on FOX.

    This Region 2 DVD will not play on U.S. players. But I expect we'll be getting a DVD release here in the U.S. as well.

    Purchase Houdini & Doyle on DVD at Amazon.co.uk.

    Related:

    Saturday, May 21, 2016

    Boxed Bess

    The story of Bess getting stuck in the Metamorphosis trunk is one that appears in most Houdini biographies. It was also amusingly dramatized in The Great Houdinis (1976). Recently I came upon this story from the Feb. 6, 1900 Sedalia Democrat describing exactly what happened that night, right down to Bessie's outburst, "So this is the way you try and kill me, is it?"

    Click to enlarge.

    The offending trunk was almost certainly the trunk that was for many years was owned by the great Patrick Culliton. This is the trunk the Houdinis were using in 1900. It's a trunk I've had the pleasure of being put inside. I did not get stuck.

    Bessie's nemesis.

    For those familiar with how the Metamorphosis works, it's a little hard to fathom how Bess could become "trapped" due to a lack of keys. Of course, to get out would have exposed the trick to the audience, so Bess might have just been a trooper and allowed herself to remain locked up. Or is it possible this was all just an attention getting publicity stunt? If so, I doubt Harry was happy when he saw the paper identified him as Robert Houdini.

    Many assume this happened during the Houdinis early struggling days, as portrayed in the clip below from The Great Houdinis (the singing is a Hollywood invention). But by February 1900, Houdini had already signed with Martin Beck and had scored success on Beck's Orpheum circuit out west. He had also just appeared at Keith's flagship theater in Boston. Fortunately, this did not happen at a Keith or Orpheum theater.



    This happened at The New York Theatre on Broadway between 44th and 45th Street. The theater was built by Oscar Hammerstein in 1895 as the Olympia (a precursor to his Victoria) and contained two theaters and a roof garden. Harry and Bess were performing in the 1,675-seat Music Hall which was reserved for variety acts. The New York was an independent theater and a competitor to Keith's Union Square. Maybe that's more evidence to suggest this was staged. Houdini could afford to have an "accident" like this off the Keith circuit.

    The New York Theater. (Source: Cinema Treasures.)

    In 1915, Marcus Loew turned the New York into a "multiplex" cinema. The building stood until 1935. Today the site of Bessie's boxing is the Criterion Center Stage Right in Times Square.



    Related:

    Friday, May 20, 2016

    "So this is the way you try and kill me!"


    Houdini miniseries repeats May 28

    HISTORY will repeat their two-part Houdini miniseries starring Adrien Brody on Saturday, May 28 at 7:30 AM (part 1) and 9:30 AM (part 2).


    The Houdini miniseries first aired in September 2014. For those who are discovering it for the first time, check out my review and fact checks below.

    No shortage of Houdini on TV these days!

    Related:

    Houdini & Doyle on Mysteries At The Museum, May 27

    If you're enjoying Houdini & Doyle on FOX, you might want to catch the real story on The Travel Channel's Mysteries at the Museum on May 27. The series will repeat their 2014 episode in which host Don Wildman travels to the Houdini Museum in Scranton to uncover the story of Houdini and Doyle's famous falling out.


    The show highlight's the museum's original portrait of Cecelia Weiss, which hung inside Houdini's New York home. Owners Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz acquired the portrait (along with another of Houdini's father) at a 1980 auction of Houdini memorabilia in New Jersey.

    "Doyle & Houdini, The Poison Squad, The Great Imposter" airs May 27 at 6pm/5c. Check out The Travel Channel for more details.

    Related:

    Thursday, May 19, 2016

    Bill Kalush to receive 2016 Milbourne Christopher Award

    William Kalush, co-author of The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero and founder of the Conjuring Arts Research Center in New York, will receive the Milbourne Christopher Award for Literature at the upcoming 2016 Milbourne Christopher Awards on June 25.


    The Milbourne Christopher Foundation was established by Maurine Christopher in 1989, and was created to perpetuate the memory of her husband and his lifelong interest in encouraging excellence, originality, and leadership in the art of magic. The award categories reflect Milbourne Christopher’s own diversified career. Among his many works, Christopher wrote Houdini: The Untold Story (1969).

    The 2016 Milbourne Christopher Awards will be held at 6:00 PM on June 25 at the Garde Arts Center, 325 State Street, New London, Connecticut. Tickets can be purchased here.

    Related:

    The Witch of Lime Street paperback in October

    The paperback edition of David Jaher's The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World will be released on October 11 according to a new listing on Amazon.

    This non-fiction work examines Houdini's spiritualistic investigations and his famous battle with Mina Crandon aka Margery. The book was released last year to excellent reviews, including one from myself.

    In December it was also announced that STX Entertainment had purchased the movie rights and had begun development on a film based on the book.

    Related:

    Wednesday, May 18, 2016

    Houdini & Doyle stuntman injured in Torture Cell break

    If you thought the Water Torture Cell glass breaking scene in Monday's episode of Houdini & Doyle looked frighteningly real, that's because it was! According to actor Michael Weston, the stuntman doubling him as Houdini was even injured and taken to the hospital.



    For those keeping score, we've now seen Houdini fail to escape from his Water Torture Cell in Houdini (1953), The Great Houdinis (1976), Houdini (1998), Houdini Miniseries (2014), and now Houdini & Doyle (2016). Of course, in real life, Houdini always made it.

    Houdini & Doyle airs every Monday at 9/8c on FOX. You can also watch episodes at FOX NOW.

    Related:

    Tuesday, May 17, 2016

    REVIEW: Houdini & Doyle (ep. 3): In Manus Dei

    For my money, Houdini & Doyle episode 3, "In Manus Dei," is the best yet. The core mystery and personal storylines are very well integrated, making this episode both intriguing and moving (especially the end). For the first time, this series gripped me beyond just being a Houdini novelty.


    This time Houdini (Michael Weston), Doyle (Stephen Mangan) and Constable Stratton (Rebecca Liddiard) investigate the sudden death of a man during a faith healer's ministry. Was he struck down by the hand of God for being a non-believer or was he murdered? Houdini, who is portrayed as the ultimate unbeliever in this episode, is himself struck down with a mysterious illness in the course of events. He even fails to escape from the Water Torture Cell (more on that later). Doyle also has a deeply personal experience that might be related to his own faith, as his wife, played by Stephen Mangan's real-life wife, Louise Delamere, suddenly revives from her coma.

    The budding relationship between Houdini and Adelaide, set-up at the end of episode two, is only serviced with a few lines of dialogue this time. Will they or won't they? Something tells me it's going to take the entire season to find out. We again see Houdini's mother (Diana Quick) and Houdini's assistant Florrie (Jerry-Jean Pears), who has the honor of breaking the glass of the Water Torture Cell to save her boss. The faith healer, Elias Downey, is very well played by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett.


    Spoilers ahead
    This time the solution to the mystery was a nice surprise. However, the script employed a major cheat by withholding the fact that Downey's sister gave the victim "a refreshment" shortly before his collapse. This was later shown to the audience only in flashback, but Houdini and Doyle appeared to known it the entire time? Feels like a mystery series can only get away with something like that so many times (if ever). But, as I said, the personal aspects of this episode are what really drove it home. The ending, when Doyle's wife suddenly lapses back into her coma, is truly devastating.

    Just the facts

    Unlike episode two, in which the Houdini's attitude towards reincarnation is diametrically opposed to the real man, here his attitude towards faith healers is spot on. Houdini condemned them along with fake doctors and medicine show practitioners in his first book, The Right Way To Do Wrong (1906). But what about Houdini's own faith?

    There's a moment in which Weston's Houdini express an opinion that would suggest he's an atheist: "God was invented to explain things we don't understand. Now we have science." While the real Houdini was not overly religious (I like to say his religion was Magic), he was not an atheist. He even reaffirmed his belief in God while under oath before Congress. However, he was frequently accused by spiritualists that he was "attacking religion" and even today there are those who equate his skepticism with atheism. But this was not the case.

    Houdini being chopped free of his Water Torture Cell has been dramatized many times, most famously in the 1953 film Houdini starring Tony Curtis, which had him die in the escape (a myth that persists to this day). This never happened. Even if Houdini had been trapped in the USD, as he called it, its unlikely the axe would have ever been used. The cell had drainage valves at the bottom of the tank that could be opened in an emergency.

    Only once, as far as we know, did Houdini have an accident while doing the Water Torture Cell. While performing in Albany in 1926, he broke his ankle as he was being raised above the stage. And speaking of broken bones...

    At one point Doyle examines Houdini's x-rays and notes his history of many broken bones. Says Doyle, "You must be in agony every single day." This is more Evel Knievel than Harry Houdini. Apart from the aforementioned broken ankle and a broken wrist while doing a movie stunt, Houdini did not break many bones during his career. However, he did rupture a blood vessel in his kidney while doing a straitjacket escape, and that injury did cause him lifelong pain. But in 1901, when Houdini & Doyle is set, Houdini was in top physical shape.


    Finally, there's what I thought was a missed opportunity when Houdini's mother feeds him chicken soup during his feverish illness. Houdini claims it was the source of his sudden cure. Wouldn't Farmers Chop Suey have been better? This was a favorite childhood dish that Houdini asked for during his final illness in Detroit. Not only would this have been a nice nod to the real Harry, but it would have spared the audience the chicken soup cliché.

    Next Monday: Houdini and Doyle tackle the legend of "Spring-Heel’d Jack."

    Houdini & Doyle airs every Monday at 9/8c on FOX. You can also watch episodes at FOX NOW.

      Monday, May 16, 2016

      Magic Collectibles "Houdini Mania" sale May 18

      This Wednesday, May 18, Jim Rawlins at Magic Collectibles will be launching a special "Houdini Mania" sale. From 8 to 10 PM eastern, Jim will be listing a new Houdini item every three minutes. There will be 40 items with prices ranging from $30 to $2900. These will be high quality items, many which have appeared in recent auctions and several that have not been seen before.


      All prices will be fixed. No bidding, no buyers fee. Jim promises that prices "will be reasonable and generally lower than the latest auction values unless our item is superior in some way."

      Set-up an account at magiccollectibles.com and get ready for Houdini Mania on Wednesday night.

      Houdini & Doyle episode 3 tonight

      The third episode of Houdini & Doyle airs tonight at 9/8c on FOX. Here's a plot description for tonight's case: In Manus Dei.

      When a heckler is mysteriously struck down at a faith healer’s show, the team investigates whether the healer is truly channeling the power of God. And if so, can he work a miracle on Doyle’s dying wife?

      "In Manus Dei" is written by Melissa R. Byer and Treena Hancock and directed by Daniel O'Hara. This is a standout episode. Watch for my review tomorrow.



      Houdini & Doyle airs every Monday at 9/8c. You can watch earlier episodes for free at FOX NOW.

      Related:

      Sunday, May 15, 2016

      A forgotten Houdini assistant?

      Recently I received an email from Ruth Owen in the UK who tells me family lore claims her grandmother, Ellen Cook, assisted Houdini while he was performing in Yorkshire in 1914.

      Had Ruth mentioned any other year, I would have been skeptical. As we know, Houdini primarily used male assistants or Bess during the bulk of his career. But 1914 was the year Houdini experimented with his "Grand Magical Revue" in the UK, and in that show he would have used female assistants for illusions such as "Goodbye Winter" and "The Arrival of Summer." So was Ellen Cook one of them? Here's what Ruth's mother recorded:

      "Eventually Mum obtained a post at Barnsley Empire Theatre. She used to tell us that one of the highlights was when she assisted Houdini in his spectacular escapology feats. Photographs of her then show fine features and long, thick, black hair styled in a bun. 
      Lucky for me that she was in that place, at the time, or I would not be writing this! For it was at the Empire that my father, Christopher Musgrave, first saw her assisting Houdini."

      To investigate this further, I turned to Derek Tait, the true expert on Houdini in the UK (watch for Derek's The Great Houdini: The British Tours coming this year). Derek tells me Houdini did appear twice in Yorkshire in 1914. Between February 16 and 21 he played the Empire Theater in Leeds. Later he played the Palace Theatre in Hull from April 27 to May 2, where he did indeed present the Grand Magical Revue. However, there is no record of Houdini in Barnsley.

      So we have the right time, the right region, the right type of act, but not the right theater. But that doesn't preclude the possibly that Ellen Cook is a forgotten Houdini assistant. We'll just need to keep digging

      This has also set me to thinking about Houdini's Grand Magical Revue. The idea that Houdini would have had to have used new female assistants never occurred to me before. (Unless Bess worked each illusion with him?) Houdini may have hired his "box jumpers" regionally, so there may be a few Ellen Cook's out there.

      Thanks to Ruth Owen and Derek Tait.

      Related:

      Friday, May 13, 2016

      Guest blog: The Houdini Museum of New York, Part I

      Recently our friend and frequent contributor Neil McNally traveled to New York where he visited the remarkable Houdini Museum of New York in Fantasma Magic. Neil was able to interview owner Roger Dreyer about what is now one of the largest public displays of authentic Houdini memorabilia in the world. I'm very excited to share PART ONE of that interview today.

      by Neil McNally

      If you ever find yourself in New York City at the corner of 33rd Street and 7th Avenue look up. On the face of the towering Sports Plaza office building, you might just be able to make out the confidant visage of Harry Houdini staring down at you. Or more to the point, a row of vintage Houdini magic posters taking up one row of office windows. This impressive display is what greeted me one rainy December afternoon as I made my way to “Fantasma Magic,” home to the “Houdini Museum of New York.”

      As the elevator doors open you are greeted by a vintage fortune telling machine. Inside his glass cage is Zoltan who is more than happy to share his wisdom with you…for a small fee of course. Push past two metal doors, and you will find yourself transported to a golden age of New York magic. It’s an age that harkens back to a simpler and more innocent time where legends like Al and Jackie Flosso would hawk their magical wares and educate those who were willing to learn.

      Fantasma Magic is the brainchild of businessman and Houdini collector Roger Dreyer. After the bulk of his Houdini collection, second only to David Copperfield’s, was used in the travelling exhibition Houdini: Art and Magic he decided to set up a more permanent museum of his own in the foyer of his own magic shop.

      It is here that I was able to meet with Mr. Dreyer and get a personal and insightful tour of his collection. It’s a collection that has to be seen to be believed. But, in the world of Harry Houdini you wouldn’t want it any other way.

      Can you tell me a bit about your collection and the Houdini Museum of New York?

      "Everything is from my personal collection with the exception of a lone item from the Society of American Magicians which is Houdini’s second bust that was created and then stolen in 1976...and then magically reappeared at the Nassau County Police Department. There’s another story unto itself right there.

      Our whole goal (at the museum) is to motivate children to be the next legends of magic or the next Harry Houdini. We have a lot of inspirational talks and different lectures and performances where we even let the kids try on the actual Houdini handcuffs…We’re very proud of a lot of the unique items that we have on display. Many people say this is the largest permanent collection of Houdini items that is on display seven days a week where people can visit."

      In terms of the museum setting itself, it’s very obvious that you were going for a very classic magic feel for the displays. Tell us a bit about that.

      "The Houdini Museum of New York has only been in this current location for 2 ½ years. Fantasma Magic has had a small Houdini display since 2006. But, it really took off with the help of the architect David Rockwell (who had worked on the now defunct Hugh Jackman Houdini musical) who came in and designed our museum for us. It’s with customized, beautiful burgundy wall paper and gold sparkled floors with a really cool type of magic mini-theater."

      What initially got you into collecting?

      "In the past I was inspired by Al Flosso whom I used to work for as a kid (at Martinka Magic). From him, I would get paid a lot in antique magic which I would collect for years. When I started collecting Houdini in the 90s, I ended up trading a lot of this rare apparatus with other magicians. So, it was a lot of fun acquiring it from people who knew Houdini, relatives of Houdini, as well as through other magic collectors…

      A lot of my items came from the estate of Jack Chanin. Many came from Bernard Ernst’s collection…and the Sidney Radner auction. Also, much of it came from Stanley Palm who knew Marie Hinson (Bess Houdini’s sister). So, we have been very fortunate."

      As we began to walk throughout the museum, Roger excitedly began to point out the many highlights of the collection and how he obtained them.

      "The initial pieces of our collection range from a Robert-Houdin letter, which of course was the inspiration of Jacob Hayman naming Houdini from that...We have the famous 1895 photo of Houdini as the King of Cards…We have pictures of Jacob Hayman as the Brothers Houdini doing the barrel escape. Over here is a picture of Houdini in Atlantic City when he was sixteen.

      We have something rare. Not only do we have Houdini’s escape mailbag that we actually got from Jack Chanin. Jack Chanin’s father used to run a barbershop in Philadelphia and Houdini once left the mailbag there and never came to pick it back up after the show. During the Sid Radner sale, I was able to buy a whole bunch of Houdini’s picks and equipment. One of them was a mailbag bolt…so this is Guy Jarrett’s own bolt that he designed for Harry Houdini that Houdini used with the reverse thread (for the mailbag escape).

      We also have the last trick that Houdini performed onstage for “The Whirlwind of Color.” Houdini collapsed at the end of the first act and this trick was actually finished by his assistants when Houdini was rushed to the hospital."


      One of the more unique aspects of the Houdini Museum of New York are its interactive elements. Situated by the framed exhibits is an animatronic straight jacketed Houdini that drops from the ceiling upside down…only to magically escape moments later.

      "What’s kind of cool about our venue is that we have Houdini coming down every fifteen minutes where kids can see him…Then at the end Houdini does in fact get out of the straight jacket. (Looking at the animatronic Houdini as it escapes from its straight jacket) And yes ladies and gentlemen Harry Houdini has escaped!"


      Join us next time for PART TWO when Roger talks more about his thoughts about Houdini, magic history and collecting, and the renowned Houdini escape coffin.

      Roger Dreyer photo from New York Daily News. All other photos by Neil McNally.

      More by Neil:

      Thursday, May 12, 2016

      House Theatre of Chicago resurrects Death and Harry Houdini

      The House Theatre of Chicago's 2012 hit Death and Harry Houdini is once again at The Chopin Theatre from today through July 24, 2016. The play is written and directed by Nathan Allen and features magician Dennis Watkins as Houdini. Below is the cool new poster for this latest revival.

      A ringmaster leads us through the events of Harry’s life, all told through stunning magic, poignant dialogue and original music. We travel from the untimely passing of his father, through his first tent shows with his younger brother Theo, meeting his wife Bess, and beginning a journey towards fame on the Vaudeville circuit. All the while, Harry feels Death close on his heels and he won’t rest until he’s conquered him once and for all. Harry will walk on broken glass, swallow razor blades and risk his life in the Water Torture Cell, but will he pull off an escape from Death? Marvel with us as Houdini battles Death once more.

      The Chopin Theater is located at 1543 W. Division St., Chicago, IL. For more details and to buy tickets visit the House Theatre of Chicago.

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