Thursday, February 23, 2017

The first great Houdini documentary

On May 15, 1976, the BBC documentary The Truth About Houdini aired on American television. The film footage in this well-made documentary was for many (including myself) their first look at the real Houdini in action. Along with the new books, the Doug Henning specials and The Great Houdinis, the airing of this first major Houdini documentary in the U.S. was part in the great "Houdini renaissance" of the 1970s.

Original TV Guide ad.

The Truth About Houdini was originally produced for the BBC in 1970 by David C. Rea and Patria Pictures Ltd. It was set to premiere on BBC One on Tuesday, November 10, 1970, but it appears to have been was postponed until December 29, 1970. It repeated on April 25, 1973 and December 18, 1973.

The very first screening in the U.S. was at Ulster County Community College in Kingston, NY, on November 9, 1975. Curiously, newspaper accounts record the title as "The Great Escape Artist." The screening was attended by Walter B. Gibson and Sidney Radner who introduced the film and participated in a Q&A.

Following its U.S. television premiere on May 15, 1976, The Truth About Houdini aired several more times in October and November on different local televisions stations around the country.

In addition to the rare film footage (credited as coming from the collection of Larry Weeks), The Truth About Houdini contains interviews with Milbourne Christopher, Walter B. Gibson, James Randi, and Sidney Radner. Radner's demonstration of Houdini's full body punishment suit escape was cut for time in some later airings. Today it's quite horrifying to behold Radner thoroughly abusing this valuable Houdini artifact.


It's not generally known that the producers of the documentary secured permission to use the Houdini voice recordings, discovered in 1970, from the widow of John Mulholland. They even acquired high quality reproductions of both Water Torture Cell speeches. But for whatever reason, Houdini's voice was left out of the final cut.

While now dated, The Truth About Houdini is still a fascinating documentary and must watch for all Houdini buffs. While it has never been commercially released on home video, a bootleg version under the title "The Magic of Houdini" (not to be confused with the Alan Davies doc of the same name) has appeared from time to time. Currently Amazon has it available as a streaming video.

So did The Truth About Houdini play a role in your own coming to Houdini? Share your memories in the comments below.

More Houdini docs:

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Rough Riders: Riders on the Storm #1 released

Today sees the release of Rough Riders: Riders on the Storm #1, which kicks off the second Rough Riders story arc by Adam Glass. Artist Patrick Olliffe shared a terrific Houdini preview page on his Facebook page (below).

Great jumping on point! Three years have passed since the Rough Riders' last adventure, but when an assassin's bullet takes President William McKinley's life, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt is thrust into the role of Commander in Chief. As a country mourns the loss of their leader, Roosevelt believes that the assassin is part of a bigger conspiracy, one whose tentacles reach back to Europe and whose intentions are to destroy humanity through world- wide ANARCHY. 
To stop them, Roosevelt must convince Harry Houdini, Jack Johnson, Thomas Edison and a surprisingly very alive Annie Oakley to band together again. But time has strained the bonds that once united them and the ideologies of their enemies may have already seeped into one of their own. Welcome to ROUGH RIDERS: RIDERS ON THE STORM.

As you can see below, this first issue comes in a four variant covers, including a great cover showing Houdini trapped under ice.


Visit Aftershock Comics for more on the series. Issue #2 is due out March 29.

Related:

'Le Kaiser Et Le Roi Des Menottes' released today

The second book in Vivianne Perret's French-language "Houdini Magicien et détective" series, Le Kaiser Et Le Roi Des Menottes ("The Kaiser and the King of Handcuffs"), is released today.

Even though this series is fiction, the author sets the books within the correct timeline of Houdini's travels. The first book, Metamorphosis, featured Houdini in San Fransisco in 1899. This new book finds him in Berlin in 1900.

The author has shared with me the exciting location for book 3, but I will keep that secret for now.

Le Kaiser Et Le Roi Des Menottes can be purchased at Amazon.fr and Amazon.co.uk. It's also available for Kindle.

Related:

    Monday, February 20, 2017

    Houdini by Tom Lovell

    Here's a beautiful painting by pulp artist Tom Lovell of Houdini jumping from what is credited as the Wheeling, West Virginia bridge. Lovell lived during Houdini's lifetime and I'm wondering if he actually witnesses this. As you can see, he puts Houdini in a cerise-colored bathing suit, which we've recently learned is indeed the color bathing suit Houdini wore for his outdoor water stunts.


    This image was used to illustrate the article "How Houdini Did It" by William Lindsey Gresham in True: The Man's Magazine, December 1954.

    This above image comes from the blog Art Contrarian where you can read more about Tom Lovell's life and art. A larger version can be seen at Main-ly Painting.

    Thanks to Tim Rappel and Arthur Moses.

    Related:

    Sunday, February 19, 2017

    LINK: Eerie remains of Burnley theater where Houdini performed

    This article from the UK's Daily Mail shows the current condition of the Empire Theater in Burnley where Houdini performed in December 1902. While many old theaters claims to have had Houdini on their stages, this one actually did!


    Details of Houdini's Burnley appearance can be found in Derek Tait's Houdini The British Tours. An updated edition of that book is due out on July 30, 2017.

    Related:

    Saturday, February 18, 2017

    Houdini and the grave robber

    Here's one from the dark side of humanity via Planet Weird. I've been debating whether to share this because it's pretty disturbing. But it is Houdini related, and it's 20+ years old so it's all history at this point. Nevertheless, read on at your own risk.

    Here's the story.

    Sometime in the early 1990s, an underground video entitled "Grave Robbing For Morons" surfaced. It features a young man explaining the intricacies of grave robbing, something he claims he and his friends do "for the fun." He even shows off a freshly exhumed skull. He also claims there's a lucrative black market for the remains of famous people.

    The identity of the man in the video remains unknown to this day, and there's debate online about whether or not it is for real. In hopes of trying to solve the mystery, last year Planet Weird posted the entire video here along with a email tip line.

    What I'm sharing below is just the very end of the tape, which is the part that's relevant to us. But even this short except is disturbing, so watch at your own risk.



    Houdini's grave did suffer major vandalism in 1993, but as far as I know, there were never any signs of attempted grave robbery. But as Planet Weird concludes: "If this video is the real deal, Houdini’s skull might be sitting on a shelf in someone’s basement."

    However, having watched the entire tape (so you don't have to), I believe these guys, if for real, only robbed crypts and mausoleums and would never be able to exhume a coffin six feet underground. Houdini's grave is also visible from the street, and one of his "instructions" is to only rob graves well out of sight. So I think Harry is safe.

    But I can imagine that on discovering the impossibility of robbing Houdini's grave, these guys deciding to vandalize it instead. So are we looking at the face of the '90s vandal? Maybe.

    Told ya it was a dark one.

    Related:

    Friday, February 17, 2017

    A book that's bound to please

    Here's an end of the week treat from the collection of the great Kevin Connolly. This is a pre-order advertisement for Houdini's Magical Rope Ties and Escapes. Not only have I never seen this ad, but I don't think I've ever seen any ad for this book! I love the image of Houdini bound to the book here.

    Kevin Connolly Collection

    Published by Will Goldston in 1920, Magical Rope Ties and Escapes was only released in the UK. It was no doubt timed to take advantage of Houdini's return to the UK after six years absence because of the war. While it's not one of Houdini's more substantial works, it does contain terrific photos of Houdini in escape action, and the frontispiece photo of Houdini and Ira Davenport seems to foretell the next chapter in his career.

    Magical Rope Ties and Escapes is available today for the Kindle. There is also a reprint available from Houdini's Magic Shop.

    Thanks Kevin.

    Related:

    Wednesday, February 15, 2017

    Teller flips the bird on his 2016 holiday card

    This is Teller's 2016 Christmas card. I love this because not only is Teller one of my favorite magicians and magic thinkers, but his card provides a nice Houdini fact check. Maybe it's tacky to post a personal Christmas card online, but this one is just too awesome to not share, and I think Teller would be happy to extend his holiday greeting to all Houdini fans. So enjoy.

    Click to enlarge.

    The card photos are by Mike Jones and W. David Mason. The hawk was wrangled by Civon Gewelber and Dave Kanellis. Houdini scan by Catherine Wallace. Graphic design by T. Gene Hatcher.

    Thanks to Tom Ogden.

    Monday, February 13, 2017

    Wild About...Clempert?

    This poster for John Clempert, a Russian wrestler turned escape artist, sold on eBay yesterday for a whopping $7,613. This may be a record price for a Houdini imitator.


    This has to be one of the most blatant Houdini imitator posters of all time. Not only does Clempert co-opt Houdini escape imagery, but he also snatches incidents from Houdini's life. Apparently, Clempert also escaped from a Siberian Transport Prison Van and flew his own biplane!

    Also check out the below image of "Clempert", drawn without much modification from a famous Houdini publicity photo. No wonder Houdini hated these guys.


    According to Magicpedia, Houdini filed a suit against Clempert in England where variety acts were protected. Clempert apologized and promised not to infringe Houdini's rights in future. After Houdini's death, Clempert came out of retirement, but it was a short-lived revival.

    Below are links to tales of more Houdini imitators.

    Related:

    Sunday, February 12, 2017

    LINK: Houdini in Riverside

    Joe Notaro has another home run at his blog Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence today. Joe has uncovered some terrific details about Houdini's time spent in Riverside, California while filming Terror Island in early November 1919. During the shoot, Houdini and the crew stayed at the Riverside Mission Inn, which stands to this day. Underwater scenes were shot at the nearby Elliotta Springs Plunge.

    Interestingly, the local press reported the title of the movie as Deep Sea Loot, a title that sometimes shows up as a separate Houdini movie. Salvage was another early working title for Terror Island.

    Click the headline to have a read at HHCE.

    Related:

    Saturday, February 11, 2017

    Ken Ralston remembers the unmade 'Houdini' movie

    In an interview with Cartoon Brew, Academy Award winning visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston remembers his involvement with an unmade Houdini movie that was to be directed by Robert Zemeckis.

    Having worked on these big films, were there any other productions you were involved with that perhaps didn’t get made, that you wish had been?

    Ken Ralston: Actually there’s several. I can name three right now. Two of them were for Zemeckis that I was really excited about. One was, he was thinking of a very interesting way of telling the story of Houdini, and also he was playing with the idea of a story about Tesla. And I just thought that would be so cool. Especially in Bob’s hands. But who knows why things happen or don’t happen.

    All I remember is, I was kind of in the Houdini mode and thinking about how I might design some shots, and I got a call from Bob and he said, ‘So a woman falls down a flight of stairs and she gets her head twisted around a hundred and eighty degrees. How would you do that?’ And I was just kind of like, I didn’t say anything, and then I just said, ‘So we’re not doing Houdini, huh?’ He goes, ‘No, we’re going to do Death Becomes Her.’

    Ralston was recently presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 15th Annual VES Awards.

    For more on the unmade Houdini movie, check ot my post from 2014: The saga of Ray Stark and Houdini.

    Thanks to Neil Bulk for this one.

    Related:

    Friday, February 10, 2017

    Houdini exhibition opens in Madrid

    A major Houdini and magic exhibition called Houdini Las leyes del asombro (Houdini The Law of Shadow) opens today at the Espacio Fundación Telefónica in Madrid, Spain. It will run through May 28.

    María Santoyo and Miguel A. Delgado are the curators along with magic historian Ramón Mayrata.

    A host of special events are planned including lectures, magic performances and contests. For the full details, visit the official website (in Spanish).

    The Espacio Fundación Telefónica is located at C / Fuencarral 3, Madrid. The Houdini exhibition is located on the fourth floor.

    Below are Twitter images from yesterday's grand opening, which including a panel discussion and an appearance by Houdini himself!


    It interesting to see how popular Houdini is in Spain, a country he never performed in.

    Photos: Miguel A. Delgado @rosenrod and Javier Piera @javierfpiera and Diario CÓRDOBA @CORDOBA_diario.

    Related:

    Thursday, February 9, 2017

    Bess Houdini's Royal Crown Brooch headed to auction

    An emerald and ruby encrusted "Royal Crown Brooch" that once belonged to Bess Houdini will be auctioned by Potter & Potter as part of their Spring Magic Auction on April 8, 2017.

    According to legend, Bess received the brooch from the Czar of Russia during Houdini's tour of the country in 1903 (but more on that below). There are several photos of Bess wearing the brooch, including this color photo and the famous portrait of the Houdinis on the right.

    In the 1940s, Bess gave the brooch to Geraldine Larsen, wife of William Larsen, Sr., who was Bess's attorney. Bess helped "Gerri" form The Magigals, an organization devoted to female magicians, assistants, and wives of magicians. The Larsens sons, Bill Jr. and Milt, went on to found the Magic Castle. Milt's wife Arlene inherited the brooch and has wore it to Castle functions (where I've had the great pleasure of seeing it).

    The brooch is now being sold to help fund the "Magic Castle Cabaret" in Santa Barbara, a new venture by Milt Larsen. The brooch has remained private, so this is the first opportunity for magic buffs to finally see this important Houdini artifact, not to mention own it!


    News of the sale was released today in a press release put out by the Larsens via sites like Broadway World. Unfortunately, the press release contains a fair amount of hokum! Along with the claim that Bess received the brooch from the Czar himself (which we'll accept if Bess said it -- but know she was as prone to mythmaking as her husband), the release claims that Houdini was doing espionage as a member of the royal court before being undermined by the head of the Russian secret police. Yikes!

    While there are several fanciful stories about Houdini performing before Czar Nicholas II (ringing the bells of the Kremlin, etc.), there is no hard evidence that he ever did so. In Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, author Ken Silverman says Houdini planned to travel to St. Petersburg during his 1903 tour, but the engagement fell through when the manager who arranged it vanished.

    Harry and Bess did give a private performance for the Grand Duke Sergei Aeksandrovich and the Grand Duchess in Moscow. It's said the duke gave them their dog "Charlie" as a gift. That, as far as I know, was the Houdinis only brush with Russian royalty.

    The idea that Houdini was doing espionage during his time in Russia is pure speculation put forward in the sensationalistic 2006 biography The Secret Life of Houdini. While Hollywood has embraced this "Houdini as spy" narrative, most magic historians, including myself, remain highly skeptical.

    As auction time nears, I'm sure Potter & Potter will clarify the facts behind Bess Houdini's Royal Crown Brooch in their own auction listing. But this is definitely going to be one to watch!

    Gerri Larsen and Arlene Larsen wearing the Royal Crown Brooch.

    Potter & Potter's Spring Magic Auction will contain "a strong selection of Houdini-related material, including personal family photographs, documents, movie-related memorabilia, and letters." Last week the auction house sold a Houdini Water Torture Cell poster for a record price.

    Thanks to Dick Brookz at the Houdini Museum for the alert.

    Related:

    Tuesday, February 7, 2017

    Houdini throws shade at Edison (for real)


    In recent episodes of Houdini & Doyle and Timeless, a fictional Houdini encounters Thomas Edison. In both cases, Houdini is hostile towards the inventor, expressing his support for Nikola Tesla who's inventions Edison was reported to have stolen and/or undermined.

    Like Christopher Columbus, Thomas Edison, a great hero in his own day, has been reassessed by history, mainly because of the emerging story of Tesla, and Edison's aggressive business practices and credit grabbing. So it didn't surprise me that these shows would make Houdini an Edison foe, although I suspected in real life Houdini would have been an Edison admirer. The two men were known to correspond.

    However, I recently found a clipping in the November 26, 1924 The Tar Heel that suggests Houdini might have been more in line with current thinking. Check out the paragraph below from a report on Houdini's spiritualism lecture at the Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


    Tesla was not Danish, so I suspect the "Danish inventor" referenced here may be Poul la Cour, who in 1878 made key improvements to the Telegraph and competed with Edison. Or maybe Houdini thought Tesla was Danish?

    Houdini's hostility might have also had something to do with the fact that Edison was a tacit believer in spiritualism. He was even said to be working on a device that could communicate with the dead.

    Houdini seemed pretty fired up at this lecture. The paper also reported him as saying "The ouija board is the first step to the insane asylum" and that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Oliver Lodge "should be locked up and kept away from society."

    Related:

    Monday, February 6, 2017

    The Magic Castle's new Houdini Seance Coin

    The Magic Castle in Hollywood has released a new Houdini Seance Coin. The AMA creates these unique coins as souvenirs for those who attended their Houdini Seances. These are also available for sale at the front desk and the online store. Only 2000 coins are produced.


    Thanks to Mark Willoughby for the pics.

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