Monday, March 19, 2018

Houdini returned to Los Angeles in 1924

I love making Houdini discoveries having to do with my hometown of Los Angeles, and while working on my 1924 chronology, I made a whopper! Conventional wisdom had been that Houdini last appeared in Los Angeles in 1923 when he played the Orpheum and Hillstreet theaters as part of his nationwide vaudeville tour that year. But it turns out that is not the case. Houdini came back to L.A. in 1924!

Los Angeles Times, Oct. 22, 1924

Houdini returned to Los Angeles as part of his Lyceum and Affiliated Bureau lecture tour in which he exposed the methods of fraudulent spirit mediums. His talk was called, "Can the Dead Speak to the Living?" Houdini gave two lectures on October 27 & 28 at the Philharmonic Auditorium located at 5th and Olive Street across from Pershing Square (where Houdini was once roped to a canon). Los Angeles was one of four cities on the tour in which Houdini received 50% of the net profits.

By this time, Houdini's friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was at an end, so the gloves were off when he told the Los Angeles Times: "Doyle thinks he is a Messiah who has come to save mankind by instructing them in the mysteries of occultism but instead of that he is misleading then public and his teachings are a menace to sanity and health. I have investigated his work and know whereof I speak."

While in Los Angeles, Houdini stayed at the Biltmore Hotel, also in Pershing Square. While the Philharmonic was demolished in 1982, the Biltmore still stands as the Millennium Biltmore and is a downtown landmark. I was especially excited to discover that Houdini had stayed here. The Black Dahlia murder has always fascinated me, and the Biltmore is famous for being the last place Elizabeth Short (a.k.a. "The Black Dahlia") was seen in 1947. I've been to the Biltmore several times on Dahlia pilgrimages. Little did I know I was also walking in Houdini's footsteps!

Below is a period postcard that shows the Biltmore (large red building on the left) and the Philharmonic Auditorium (red roofed building in center of the image). Below is the same location today.

So for those keeping score, this puts Houdini in Los Angeles in 1899, 1907, 1915, 1919 (twice), 1923 and 1924.

I used to think Houdini's movies were the most under-reported aspect of his career. But I now believe it to be his 1924 lecture tours. This was a major change in direction for Houdini, and he appeared in many cities and venues that have never been properly recorded. Looks like Houdini's "year of the ghost" will be a topic to tackle in a future post.


Sunday, March 18, 2018

Another Russian Houdini advert sells on eBay

An advertisement for Houdini in Russia in 1903 sold on eBay today for $797.93. The seller writes that it was "obtained by my client from an LA collector of magic & Houdini memorabilia." Artifacts from Houdini's one and only tour of Russia are exceedingly rare, but this is the second Russian advert to appear on eBay within a year.

Thanks to Kevin Connolly at Conjuring History on Facebook for the alert.


Saturday, March 17, 2018

Center Stage (Mystifier), First Quarter 1992

Continuing my look back at the Mystifier, the quarterly newsletter of the Houdini Historical Center that ran from 1991-2003.

The second issue of what would eventually become known as the Mystifier is devoted largely to Houdini's first scrapbook. The scrapbook was donated to the Houdini Historical Center by Sidney Radner under the condition that is undergo professional preservation (at a cost of between $5000-$10,000). The book is described as thus:

The scrapbook appears to be sub-divided into two sections. The front 116 pages are a collection of clippings chronicling performances between June 22, 1894 and April 24, 1900, telling the story of the Houdinis two runs with the Welsh Brothers Circus and other shows. The rear 31 pages are a hodgepodge of miscellaneous clippings in memorabilia some mold at a later date. This latter portion include such items as the April 10, 1894 letter from Jacob Hyman to Houdini dissolving their partnership, an 1890 letter from the U.S. Amateur Athletic Union reinstating Ehrich Weiss' victory in a race, and a photograph portion of Houdini's plane packed in a crate.

Some clippings from the scrapbook are reproduced along with a transcription of the "Risey in the Box" article from the Coney Island Clipper, June 22, 1894, the day Harry and Bess were married. This is oldest news-clipping from the scrapbook.

In "Queries", Christopher Miller is still seeking info on Houdini's Milk Cans; Diane Kromm of Milwaukee seeks information on Houdini's posters; and Moira Thomas of Appleton seeks "references, stories, anecdotes, legends, etc., about Houdini's life on the vaudeville circuit."

In his "Backstage with Sid Radner" column, Sid relates a story about Houdini and Arthur Lloyd, "The Human Card Index", related to him by Walter B. Gibson. He recommends Patrick Culliton's article about Jack Hayman in the October issues of Genii. He say Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Ken Silverman recently visited the HHC "researching a book on Houdini." He concludes with this:

My wife Helen and I recently attended a workshop which presented the beginning of a Houdini musical–hopefully for Broadway. Finally, I have also seen stories in the press about a new Houdini movie. HOUDINI LIVES!

I'm not sure what the musical was (certainly it never appeared in Broadway), but the movie was almost certainly the on-again off-again Ray Stark project, which was in the news at this time as being on-again.

The newsletter concludes with the news that the 1992 Magic Collectors Association convention will be held in Appleton May 7-9, the first time the convention was to be held outside Chicago. A special expanded Houdini exhibit would be created especially for the weekend.

Center Stage
Volume 2, Number 1
First Quarter, 1992
6 pages

Scrapbook Presented to Center
Clipping from the Scrapbook
Membership Form
Backstage with Sid Radner
Magic Collectors Coming to Appleton


    Friday, March 16, 2018

    Houdini exhibition opens in Buenos Aires

    A Houdini and magic exhibition called Houdini Las leyes del asombro (Houdini The Laws of Astonishment) is now showing at the Fundación Telefónica in Buenos Aires, Argentina through June 2, 2018. This is the same exhibition curatored by Miguel Delgado and Maria Santoyo that was shown last year in Madrid.

    Among the planned special events will be a talk about Houdini in cinema (Houdini encadenado al cine) by Mario Rulloni on Thursday, April 12.

    For more information and to see photos from the exhibition check out the Fundación Telefónica website, Twitter and Instagram.


    Thursday, March 15, 2018

    Do we only know half of what's on the Houdini voice recordings?

    On October 29, 1914, Houdini recorded his voice to six wax cylinders using an early Edison recording machine. Those cylinders wound up in the collection of magician John Mulholland. But according to Milbourne Christopher, Mulholland misplaced them and had no idea where they were. It wasn't until after Mulholland's death in 1970 that they were discovered in a carton of odds and ends, hidden in a large rolled up photograph.

    Christopher and a group of three other Houdini enthusiasts brought the cylinders to the Edison National Historical Site in West Orange, NJ. After failing to play on two machines, they found success with a third. For those in the room, it was a remarkable historic moment to be the first men to hear Houdini's voice in 44 years.

    Two of the cylinders contained Houdini reciting the stage patter for his Water Torture Cell with slight differences. In one he offers his $1000 challenge "to anyone who can prove it is possible to obtain air inside the Torture Cell." An edited and greatly condensed combination of these two recordings is all that is publicly available. (Arthur Moses played both recordings in full at the Magic Collectors Weekend in Chicago in 2012.)

    But newspapers at the time also reported what was heard on a third cylinder, which has never been released to the public and is little discussed. The full AP story by Henrietta Leith even provided a few tantalizing excerpts.

    I have seen the original reel to reel master transfers of the Houdini voice recordings along with transcriptions of what they contain. The transcriptions show only the two Water Torture Cell speeches. This suggests the poetry cylinder was never transferred. In fact, if it weren't for the mention in the AP article, I don't think we'd even know about it! (Some papers, including the Los Angeles Times, cut the paragraph about the third recording.)

    That brings me to an even bigger point. There were six cylinders total. We know what's on three of them. So what about those other three? Are they copies? Or is it possible we only know half of what Houdini recorded that day in 1914?

    David Copperfield owns all six original cylinders and says he has not yet transferred them. But it is something he intends to do. Even if we were just able to hear the poem (which I don't believe even David has heard), that would be incredible. It's now been 48 years since Christopher and the others first heard Houdini's voice in that room in West Orange. Maybe there is another historic moment just waiting to happen.


    Wednesday, March 14, 2018

    Finding Houdini in Austin

    I've just completed my 1923 chronology and was rewarded with the discovery of a photo I've not seen before. This is from Houdini's two day engagement (Nov. 16-17) at the Hancock Opera House in Austin, Texas. A challenge packing crate escape was the big attraction. Did he make it? What do you think.

    While in Austin, Houdini spoke to the Young Men's Business League at the Driskill Hotel (before heading out to do a suspended straitjacket escape from the Littlefield bldg.). He told them, "I have almost come to the point of adopting Texas for my home. Here in Texas you have not yet got the big-town heartlessness and hurry and mistrust of your neighbor. You are quite friendly and make one feel you are glad to see him."


    Tuesday, March 13, 2018

    Coffeyville by C.E.L. Welsh released in paperback

    C.E.L. Welsh's Houdini novella Coffeyville is now available in a paperback edition. Coffeyville is a clever fusion of fact and fiction which had previously only been available as an eBook.

    Coffeyville, Kansas, is known as the “Town that stopped the Dalton Gang.” Many shots were fired in the early days of Coffeyville…but there was one lone bullet, fired some years after the Daltons were laid low, that passed unnoticed by most. One man, however, would never forget; a young Harry Houdini, still some years before fame would find him. The events of Coffeyville would ricochet down through the years, giving Houdini the ammunition he would need to pull off the greatest illusion of his epic career. Can you keep up with Houdini’s misdirection?

    C.E.L. Welsh is a card-carrying Houdini nut and the author of the superb 2009 Harry Houdini graphic novel from Campfire. I read Coffeyville as an eBook and loved it, so I'm very happy to now be able to add this to my shelf of Houdini fiction.

    Purchase Coffeyville at (U.S.) and (UK).


    Monday, March 12, 2018

    Houdini among "Windows on the Bowery"

    The Bowery Alliance of Neighbors in New York has launched a special exhibition, "Windows on the Bowery" which features individual street posters displayed at 64 historic Bowery locations. Three of the posters include Houdini. Two mark the locations of Dime Museums he played early in his career (the Globe and Miners). The third marks the location of Otto Maurer's Magical Bazaar.

    You can see all the posters and find their street locations at the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors website. The entire exhibition is also displayed inside the majestic HSBC Bank at 58 Bowery.

    The Bowery Alliance of Neighbors is a nonprofit grassroots organization working to protect residents, small businesses, the neighborhood and the historic character of the Bowery.

    Thanks to Colleen Bak and Da Mc.


    Sunday, March 11, 2018

    Restoring Terror Island (Reel 4)

    In 2016, Joe Notaro at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence offered a "restoration" of the missing Reel 3 of Terror Island using photos and script excerpts from the Margaret Herrick Academy Library in Los Angeles. Now Joe is back to do the same with the missing Reel 4, which contains two Houdini escapes. Enjoy.

    While a few photos from the warehouse fire escape do exist, there are no photos from the overboard box escape. Because of this, most people don't even know that Terror Island contained this iconic Houdini feat!

    Thanks to Joe for taking on this important work. Here's hoping one day we might see the film itself restored.


    Houdini double feature tonight in Somerville, MA

    The Aeronaut Brewing Co. in Somerville, MA will screen Houdini's Terror Island (1920) and The Man From Beyond (1922) tonight, March 11, starting at 7:30 PM.

    Both films will be shown with live musical accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based performer regarded as one of the nation's leading silent film musicians.

    The Aeronaut Brewing Co. is located at 14 Tyler St., Somerville, MA. Tickets and more information can be found HERE.


    Saturday, March 10, 2018

    The Great Illusionists by Derek Tait released in UK

    Derek Tait's new book The Great Illusionists has been released in the UK by Pen & Sword. You'll recall Derek's last book was about Houdini in the UK. Now he expands the story of Golden Age magic in Great Britain.

    In a time before television, radio and cinema, entertainment was found at the many music halls and theatres up and down Great Britain. Acts were varied and included singers, comedians, acrobats, dance acts, animal acts, magicians and escapologists as well as male and female impersonators. Shows played to packed audiences.

    Many people escaped their hum-drum lives, working in cotton mills, coal mines or factories up and down the country, by visiting the local theatre or music hall. Magicians and illusionists attracted huge crowds all over the country. This book includes the stories of some of the best illusionists as well as speciality acts such as Datas and The Human Fly. Some are still well-known names today, while others will be unheard of by many. Marvel at the feats and lives of the Davenport Brothers, the Great Raymond, David Devant, Carl Hertz and Harry Kellar. Relive the tragedies such as the deaths on stage of Chung Ling Soo and the Great Lafayette.

    The performers of the late 1800s and early 1900s made way for the many great illusionists and stage artists that we have today. Acts such as David Copperfield, Siegfried and Roy and David Blaine are all influenced by the likes of Houdini, The Great Lafayette and Robert-Houdin and without the innovations of the early artists, the modern performers might not exist - how different would entertainment be to this day?

     Purchase The Great Illusionists now at (UK) and pre-order at (U.S.).


    Friday, March 9, 2018

    Center Stage (Mystifier), First Issue, April 1991

    Today we kick off our look back at the Mystifier, the newsletter of the Houdini Historical Center that ran from 1991-2003. In many ways, this was the forerunner of blogs like WILD ABOUT HARRY.

    The Houdini Historical Center's Mystifier newsletter began life as "Center Stage." Volume 1, Number 1 was published in April 1991. On it's front page was an introduction, "Welcome to Center Stage", which laid out its mission statement:

    What is Center Stage all about? It is a forum. It's one of the ways the HHC hopes to facilitate the fair and open exchange of information between people from a variety of backgrounds who are interested in Houdini. Academic historians and magic collectors, magicians and magic buffs, escape artists and locksmiths, antique dealers, and folks who just plain find Houdini interesting will all find something for them in Center Stage.

    True to their word, the first feature article by Dr. Morris N. Young is a rare treat. Young gives "An Eye Witness Account" of seeing Houdini in Boston when he was a youth. Young notes that while he went in expecting to be dazzled by Houdini's escape feats, he came away most impressed with his magic, notably what Young called his "card acrobatics." This eyewitness assessment of Houdini's magic led to a special editor's note:

    His unique account and testimonial challenges the common assumption that Houdini was a great escape artist and publicity manager but only a mediocre magician. Dr. Young's account, along with other evidence that had been brought forward in recent years, force us to reconsider this assumption.

    The second feature, "From The Sidney H. Radner Collection", showcases a newspaper clipping from 1899 about Houdini's escape from handcuffs in a San Fransisco police station. The article contains a terrific illustration of Houdini standing on a table surrounded by officers.

    In "Sid's Notes", Radner explains how his collection came to find its new home in Appleton in 1988.

    When then-Outagamie Museum Curator Christopher Miller arrived at my home to examine my collection, I knew immediately that I had made a sensible decision. Chris arrived with white cotton gloves–-explaining to me why these artifacts should not be touched by human hands. I was thoroughly impressed. Only gloved hands have touched the collection since.

    Finally, in "Queries", Thomas J. Bolt writes that he's looking for "stories, anecdotes, legends, etc., about Houdini's life in Appleton", and Christopher Miller of the Minnesota Historical Society seeks information on Houdini's Milk Can Escape.

    Center Stage
    Volume 1, Number 1
    April 1991
    4 pages

    An Eye Witness Account
    San Francisco, 1899
    Sid's Notes
    Houdini Historical Center Membership Form


    Thursday, March 8, 2018

    Houdini's 278 parlor revealed

    Here's an extraordinary new (old) photo of the inside of Houdini's 278 during his lifetime. This is the 2nd floor parlor looking towards the street. This comes from the John C. Hinson Collection and was part of our 2013 Hinson Endowment. At the time, I did not recognize this as 278. But now having been there, I can see it's unmistakably Houdini's house (and the clock on the left is the clincher that it's Houdini era).

    You'll notice this photo shows Houdini's piano (referred to as a "player piano" in a 1919 inventory). This is clearly not the same piano that was inside 278 last year. That piano was said to have been original to the house, so I suspect it actually belonged to the Bonannos. The piano was not among the items purchased by David Copperfield for his International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts in Las Vegas. Looks like that was the right call!

    Below is the same room in 2017.

    And before you ask, no, I don't yet know who bought Houdini's house. The house went under contract in January. We'll need to wait for the deal to close before we'll have a shot at finding out who the next owner of 278 will be. But the suspense is killing me!

    Thanks to John Hinson.


    Wednesday, March 7, 2018

    High schoolers perform Watson and The Dark Art of Harry Houdini

    The drama department at the La Junta Jr. & Sr. High School in La Junta, Colorado is performing Watson and The Dark Art of Harry Houdini March 7-10.

    Christian Montano plays Houdini with Alex Whitfield as Sherlock Holmes and Austin Kurtz as Dr. Watson. Says Montano, "It’s a good time! The cast works really well together since we’ve been doing this for so long... it’s like a family."

    Tickets are $5.00 and performances are held at 1817 Smithland Ave, La Junta, Colorado. The house opens at 6:30 with a 7:00 PM curtain.

    Watson and The Dark Art of Harry Houdini was written and directed by Jaime Robledo and had its debut at the Sacred Fools in Hollywood in 2013. (I reviewed it here.)

    The La Junta Tribune Democrat has a nice profile of the play and students. Oh why didn't my High School drama class do this kind of thing!?


    Tuesday, March 6, 2018

    Brad Meltzer is out peddling the myth that Houdini was a spy

    The last time we heard from Brad Meltzer was when he "investigated" whether Houdini was murdered on his show Decoded. Among the many, many untruths perpetuated in that episode was the allegation that Bess Houdini murdered her husband because he suppressed her own show business ambitions. It was preposterous and offensive, but typical of the conspiracy-laden "reality" programs which are Meltzer's specialty.

    Now Meltzer is back with a new novel, The Escape Artist, in which he once again wraps Houdini with conspiracy. This time he's reviving the idea that the great magician worked as a spy. Now, I don't mind having Houdini doing spy work or even fighting fiction. And as with David Saltman's recent Houdini Unbound, which also features Houdini as a spy, I was going to do a post today recommending Meltzer's book as a fun new bit of Houdini fiction.

    However, on Late Night with Seth Meyer, Meltzer said "it's true" that Houdini was a spy, and even trotted out the specific details that he was recruited into the Secret Service by John E. Wilkie in 1898 [sic]. I expect he will continue to say this in promotional appearances, so I now feel compelled to a write a different kind of post to help clear the air about where this whole spy idea came from and why people like Meltzer continue to perpetuate it. I really hope this doesn't offend people I respect, but it's time I say here what I've been saying in private when this topic arises, so here it goes.

    The notion that Houdini worked as a spy comes entirely from the 2006 biography The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. Among some excellent new research, the book also resurrects long ago discarded Houdini mythology (ringing the bells of the Kremlin) and conspiracy theories (Houdini poisoned by his doctors). But the spy angle was new and was touted as the sensational revelation of the book. So was it?

    It is true that Houdini was friendly with law enforcement and took a great interest in the methods and practises of criminals and con-men. He even penned a book on the subject in 1906 called The Right Way To Do Wrong. It's also true that he had a relationship with Superintendent William Melville of Scotland Yard, who did operate an early version of British Intelligence (formal intelligence agencies as we know them did not exist at this time). Houdini might have written to Melville about what he was seeing in Germany and Russia during his early European tours. Houdini was a habitual letter writer, a gossip, and a bit of a G-man at heart, so it was in his character to do this. So, technically, this would classify him as a "spy." I'm willing to go that far.

    However, the hard evidence for even a casual correspondence with Melville is paper thin. What authors Kalush and Sloman uncovered was a single vague mention of a letter written by someone with the initials "HH" that was important enough to show to the Ministry of Defense. That's it. That's the entire factual foundation of the Houdini spy theory and industry.

    Now, I don't know the authors hearts and minds, but I do know that the economics of writing non-fiction are not great (it's one of the reasons I've yet to produce a Houdini book myself). A sale to Hollywood is pretty much the only way a non-fiction work makes money for the author and publisher. So tickling Hollywood's buying bone can become a corrupting influence. There can be pressure to showcase a sensationalistic and cinematic angle, and turning Houdini into 007 certainly fit that bill, even if the facts were not really there to support it

    So it's possible the authors felt compelled to enhanced the spy angle using broad speculation (sometimes informed, sometimes not) and generate scenarios in which Houdini interfaces with famous figures in intelligence, like Wilkie. Upon publication, most Houdini buffs largely rejected the spy theory as unfounded, and felt it undermined what should have been a great new Houdini biography. At the time, the authors said more evidence would come forward. It never did. But in 2009, the book sold to Summit Entertainment and a franchise of movies featuring Houdini as "part Indiana Jones and part Sherlock Holmes" were announced (they've yet to appear). So the publisher achieved their economic goal, but the Houdini world was left with a gigantic new piece of mythology to contend with.

    Okay, I should stop here and say that I know and greatly respect Secret Life author Bill Kalush, as does everyone in the magic world. With his Conjuring Arts Research Center and Ask Alexander online archive, he has done extraordinary things for magic history and researchers. My own conspiracy theory is that he was led down this path by his writing partner and publisher Simon & Schuster. I also have a mad dream that one day Bill will write a wholly fact-based Houdini biography for a specialty magic publisher like Mike Caveney's Magic Words. If he did, I have no doubt it could be the finest and most accurate Houdini biography of them all.

    Happily, the Houdini spy theory hasn't had the same traction as other myths. Yes, Hollywood now has their teeth into it, and even the 2010 Houdini Miniseries with Adrien Brody featured Houdini doing spy work. But reviews uniformly qualified this as speculative, and even the filmmakers admitted the spy portion of the story was dramatic fiction.

    But now here comes Brad Meltzer, reviving this idea in his own work which, again, I don't object to in itself. But to go on Late Night and state unblinkingly that it is "true" shows Meltzer has not done his research or facts don't matter to him. And after what he did on Decoded, I suspect it's the latter. Meltzer trades in the world of pseudo-history and "fake news" -- a conspiracy theorist historian peddling half-truths and titillation. I'm sure the goal here, once again, is to sell a book to Hollywood, and I'm sure he will.

    But that doesn't mean we have to buy any of it.



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