Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Houdini and Brindamour: Showdown in San Francisco

Magic historian Gary Hunt, who blogs at Magic Footnotes and has made a specialty of researching escape artists of Houdini's era, has uncovered a story about Houdini and a rival "Handcuff King" that I don't think has ever appeared in print before. I'm excited to share that story today.

In 1907, Houdini was appearing in San Francisco at the Orpheum Theatre on Ellis Street near what's known as the Fillmore District. The Orpheum had relocated to the area while downtown was being rebuilt after the devastating earthquake and fire of 1906. Right next door to the Orpheum was another vaudeville house, The Princess.

During the final week of Houdini's engagement, a rival escape artist, Brindamour, was booked into the Princess Theater. Below is a photo from Brindamour's own scrapbook showing the side by side theaters at this time. In fact, you can see a Brindamour poster in front of the Princess.

Click to enlarge.

George W. Brindamour was born to French Canadian parents in Cannon Mills, Minnesota on April 5, 1870. A one time photographer, Brindamour began performing handcuff escapes at the turn of the century. He claimed to have been the originator of the handcuff act. With his mustache and goatee, it was said he also sometimes doubled on stage for Herrmann the Great (presumably Leon).

In 1900, when Houdini was first finding success in the U.S. under the management of Martin Beck, Brindamour twice appeared in opposition theaters in Providence and Philadelphia offering an exposé of Houdini's act. Soon Houdini was off to Europe and super stardom; but his absence allowed Brindamour to gain a foothold in America vaudeville with his own version of the handcuff act.

Gary reports that a confrontation between Houdini and Brindamour had been building during the summer of 1907. The men sniped at each other in the pages of Variety, which ran an ad touting Brindamour's $1,000 per week salary as the highest ever paid by the Western States Vaudeville Association. Rumor had it that the William Morris Agency had signed Brindamour to play against Houdini who had recently signed with a rival agency. As if to tweak Houdini even more, the Princess advertised Brindamour as "Kin of All Handcuff Kings." Variety predicted that "fur should fly" when the two rivals finally met in San Francisco.

So did Houdini march over to the Princess with his Bean Giant, Mirror Cuff, or one of his other "handcuff king beaters"? Did he send confederates to gum up Brindamour's act or knock down his advertising? (Recall Houdini once allegedly threatened to shoot down a balloon advertising Blackstone that flew within sight of his own theater.)

The September 21, 1907 issue of Variety reported what happened:

Jail Breakers at Peace
Despite the predictions of open warfare when the rival jail breakers (Houdini and Brindamour) came into as close a competition as they were last week in this city, the dove of peace reigned supreme over Ellis street. Both lock defiers pursuing the even tenor of their ways as though oblivious of the other’s existence.

Anticlimactic, I know, but that's also what makes this interesting. Why didn't Houdini go after Brindamour (or vice versa)?

Well, in 1907, Houdini was already looking beyond handcuffs and jail-breaking as his bread and butter. His feature that week was a challenge to escape from a box made by employees of the Emporium department store. The week prior he had escaped from a paper bag without tearing the paper. In fact, while Brindamour's was billed as King of all Handcuff Kings, Houdini's billing at the Orpheum was: "Houdini in New Sensations." So Brindamour might have seemed less of a threat to Houdini at this time, and to have engaged him would have just given him publicity. The best way to hurt Brindamour (and William Morris) was to do nothing.

But it's also possible Houdini and Brindamour might have made a truce. It's possible both men could sense that a spat over who was the superior "handcuff king" might seem trivial and petty to citizens of a city that was still digging out from one of the worst catastrophes of the 20th century.

After San Fransisco, Brindamour and Houdini never again crossed paths, and Brindamour would meet what The Santa Cruz Sentinel called his "waterloo" just a few weeks later in Sacramento.

Brindamour keep doing the handcuff escape act long after it went out of fashion. When bookings got slim, he would sometimes put on a full evening show or just do magic. He performed on all the major vaudeville circuits through the 1920s. He retired to Los Angeles in 1930 and was said to have played character roles in movies. George Brindamour passed away on July 31, 1941 at the age of 71.

Today the Orpheum and Princess are long gone, and Ellis Street has been subdivided with a shopping center and condos. (I visited the area last Halloween while I was in San Francisco for the Official Houdini Seance.) But it's fun to know that, for one week in 1907, Houdini and Brindamour shared the street as co-handcuff kings.

Thank you Gary Hunt for this story, photos, and additional background information on Brindamour.

Related posts:

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Houdini meets Aleister Crowley

In the wild world of independant film financing, posters will be created for films that don't yet exist. This is so producers can sell the concept for the film and use foreign pre-sales to fund that actual making of the movie.

Below is one of those posters for a Houdini movie called The Dead of Night. This appeared in the May 2, 1990 issue of Variety showcasing movies being shopped at the Cannes Film Festival that year.

As you can see, the idea here was to team Houdini and Aleister Crowley, the English occultist who was sometimes called "the wickedest man in the world." As far as I know, The Dead of Night never made it beyond this poster.

Hey, I kinda like this idea, and I really like this poster. Is it too late to invest? Probably.


Monday, February 8, 2016

The showdown is coming...

This week I will share an untold story about Houdini and George Brindamour uncovered by magic historian Gary Hunt.

Brindamour was a rival "Handcuff King" who taunted Houdini from his earliest days of success in the U.S. What happened when, thanks to an earthquake, the two were forced to share the same street?

It's "Showdown in San Francisco"... and it might not end how you think.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Houdini and the Wizards of the South

A remarkable photo postcard showing a dapper Houdini posing with members of the Associated Wizards of the South (AWS) sold on eBay today for $470.93. Below is the photo and a description from the seller.

This is an exceptionally rare RPPC (real photo postcard) of Harry and Bessie Houdini with the AWS (Associated Wizards of the South) taken on Southampton Docks prior to Harry Houdini's departure to New York on 21st May 1913.

The AWS are the 4th oldest magical society in the world and Harry Houdini became a member during a 5 night string of shows at the Southampton Hippodrome in 1911. Famously the day after this first meeting with the AWS Harry Houdini performed his Water Torture Cell trick for the very first time to a rumoured audience of 1 in Southampton. Houdini wrote articles and attended further meetings with the group.

During one meeting the AWS chairman, Professor Woodley challenged the star to a display of contact mind-reading. Houdini, boastful of his own expertise in this area, insisted on being the person to hide the object for Woodley to find, which he did, over and over leaving Houdini unable to discover the secret to the trick - I know, as I'm his great grandson but its a family secret. Professor Woodley can be seen behind Houdini's left shoulder (the tall chap in a cap). The famed early magician Spitari is also in the postcard, second on the left.

These postcards were available for AWS members only and no more then 10 were ever produced. I believe this may be the only existing copy. It has been lent out by the family on a few occasions over the years. Channel 4 productions, The Magic Circle and Magical World have all borrowed the postcard from the family in the past.

A truly rare piece from an early magical society, original and direct from the family.

The only correction I'd make is I don't believe that's Bess standing beside Houdini. Still, a fantastic never-before-seen image of Houdini with a wonderful story to go with it. Congrats to the winner.

Related posts:

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Norm Nielsen magic poster collection will be auctioned

Last year it was reported that Norm Nielsen's collection of almost 2000 magic posters was for sale. At the time, it was said the collection would be sold only as an entire lot. But now word is the collection will be auctioned poster by poster by Potter & Potter in June 2016.

Starting this Monday, February 8, Lupe Nielsen will post on the Nielsen Magic Facebook page "a poster a day" until the auction. She will also share information about the poster and the story behind how it came to be part of the Nielsen Collection.

Among the many Houdini posters in the Nielsen collection is what I believe might be the only surviving poster for his Overboard Box Escape (below).


Friday, February 5, 2016

Houdini & Doyle premiere screening in London, Feb. 29

The new series Houdini & Doyle will have special premiere screening at the Everyman Cinema in London on Monday, February 29, 2016. Here are the details:

ITV presents the premiere of Houdini & Doyle, on Monday the 29th of February, exclusively at Everyman, followed by a satellite Q&A with the cast.

Stephen Mangan stars as Sherlock Holmes' author Arthur Conan Doyle in this new ten-part drama, alongside Michael Weston, who will play escape artist Harry Houdini. Houdini and Doyle will explore the friendship between Doyle - an ardent believer in the paranormal - and Houdini, who, as a professional magician, is sceptical about anything that appears to be supernatural.

The series is set within the rich history of the early 20th century, when the Metropolitan Police were overwhelmed by bizarre and often inexplicable cases. In uncertain times, New Scotland Yard turned to Doyle and Houdini for help.

This event will be followed by a satellite Q&A with actors Stephen Mangan and Adam Nagatis and producer Adrian Sturges.

Monday, 29 February 2016 from 18:20 to 20:30 (GMT)

Everyman Cinema - 5 Holly Bush Vale London NW3 6TX GB

Tickets can be purchased for £7.00 via Eventbrite. There are also complimentary tickets available for live satellite venues. A full list of links can be found at Everyman Cinema.

Houdini & Doyle will air in the UK on ITV Encore in March. It will also air Mondays, 9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT on FOX in the U.S., and on Global TV in Canada.

Thanks to Flynn Fan @FlynnFan1.


Thursday, February 4, 2016

Inside Houdini's 278 today (update)

Actor Alec Mathieson, who is currently touring as part of the ensemble of Ragtime, is a Houdini buff and fellow 278 obsessive who discovered these these incredible images of the inside of Houdini's New York home from an old real estate listing. I'm guessing this is from 2012 when the top floor unit became available. These are the best shots of the inside of 278 I've even seen. And while the original brownstone's interior had been substantially remodeled, you can still see some moldings and features that must have been there in Houdini's day. Enjoy.

Thank you Alec!

UPDATE: Ryan Whelan, a former resident of this unit, has posted to his Facebook page what it was like living in Houdini's house:

"I lived here for a while. Had some wild times, and some down right creepy ones. But if you can imagine furniture in this place, its just the same as in the photos. The sunroom was his office and the living room was his library. My room was his, and his wife had a seperate one which was my roommates. The bathroom was super different. The rest of the house was amazing. Three floors, I lived on the top. The second was used for maid quarters and the first floor was for parties and a giant kitchen at one point. Fun looking at these. I never took one picture when I lived there."

Thank you Ryan!


Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Potter & Potter 'Houdiniana' auction catalog

The catalog for Potter & Potter's upcoming auction of "Houdiniana" is now available for purchase at their website. The catalog will ship approximately three weeks prior to the sale on April 9, 2016. They've also posted a description of what to expect from this sale.

Our April 9th auction is a two-part magic extravaganza. The first section will feature choice memorabilia related to the most famous magician and escape artist the world has ever known: Harry Houdini.
Lithographs, Broadsides and Challenges, featuring the iconic "Houdini for President" three-sheet poster printed by Strobridge Litho. Photographs and Ephemera, among them Houdini movie stills, postcards, manuscripts, autographs and correspondence, including unpublished material. Associated memorabilia, magic props, handcuffs, lobby displays, scrapbooks, and more - all related to Houdini, his competitors, and escape artists.

The auction takes place at 10:00 am on Saturday, April 9th in our Chicago Gallery. Catalogs ship approximately three weeks prior to the sale. Previews take place in the gallery in the days preceding the auction, from 10am - 5pm, CST.

If Potter & Potter follow their normal practice, a free downloadable version of this catalog will be made available online as well.


Monday, February 1, 2016

Guest blog: Houdini Reflected, Part II

Today Neil McNally continues his examination of Houdini's most challenging challenge escape. Or was it?

Houdini Reflected: Part Two
by Neil McNally

In the first part of this article, you read the full official account of the famous “Mirror Cuffs” and Houdini’s eventual escape and triumph over them. Now, if you were to take it all at face value, which you probably shouldn’t, you’d be no worse for wear in thinking that Houdini truly was the world’s greatest escape artist! No one here is arguing that point, but this is Harry Houdini we’re talking about, and with him nothing was usually what it seemed. The true story of the “Mirror Cuffs” is one that is multi–layered. By simply scratching the surface, true answers do reveal themselves, however others uncover one mystery, after another, after another.

A Challenger’s Challenge

"Talk about being billed big. You ought to see London and look about. Nothing on the walls but Houdini!"

With these not-so-humble words, Houdini wrote back to well-wishers in the United States. As mentioned previously, Houdini was deluged with adoration in the weeks following the event. The intense pressure he must have been under manifested itself by the end of the Hippodrome run when he became sick and was confined to bed for 12 days. Houdini, it would seem, was mortal after all.

Mortal or not, the answer to the puzzle of the Mirror Cuffs has been baffling experts for years. Where did these so-called mysterious handcuffs really come from? Was Houdini himself in on the challenge? The theories and answers to these questions, while not crystal clear, give us a unique insight into this challenge and, most importantly, the mind of Harry Houdini.

Will A. Bennet
A good place to begin is, of course, the beginning. For years after the event, the identity of the newspaper representative who issued the challenge has always been shrouded in mystery. It eventually took the discovery of a newspaper cutting from the Sydney (Australia) Evening News dated April 27, 1910 to shed some light on the situation. The cutting is available for download at the website Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence. In it, the reporter’s name was revealed to be Will A. Bennet. His light hearted “version” of events begins matter-of-factly with:

I was working with a London daily. One morning I suggested to the editor that it would be a good “gag” or “scoop” if we could put a pair of handcuffs on Houdini, the Handcuff King, that he could not open…The editor agreed in much the same way as he might have done had I suggested that it would be a good “gag” if I could get His give me an interview on his life as a monarch.

After being given reluctant permission, Bennet travelled to Birmingham to locate a pair of handcuffs strong enough to stump Houdini. What follows is the kind of story that should be taken with liberal grains of journalistic salt. Allegedly, Bennet was turned down by numerous locksmiths unwilling to take on such a challenge. With frustration mounting, his cab driver asked him to leave after doubting that he would have enough to pay him in the end. A heated argument ensued, causing a nearby police officer to break up the fight. As luck would conveniently have it, the police officer knew of just the right locksmith for Bennet to talk with…Nathanial Hart.

It is Hart, of course, who is the locksmith generally credited with creating the “Mirror Cuffs.” According to Bennet’s story, Hart wouldn’t sell the cuffs, only loan them for the challenge. It is at this point that it’s hard to say if this whole article is one long “embellishment” or sprinkled with some degree of fact. Bennet seems to play the challenge idea off as an afterthought for his editor and the newspaper. But, when looking at it from a real business angle, for the Mirror and Houdini, it was very much a win-win situation. It was one that could provide mutually beneficial publicity for them both…and publicity is exactly what Houdini craved and the Mirror offered.

Hart to Hart

In the 111 years since the challenge, Nathaniel Hart’s remains just as elusive and enigmatic as the day the challenge was issued. Many theories exist as to who he really was and how involved or not involved he may have been in the challenge. Or for that matter did he even exist at all? As for the latter, all signs seem to point to yes. The late British Mirror Cuffs expert and locksmith Mick Hanzlick spent the better part of his life tracking down the truths of the incident. In a newspaper interview from the Hertfordshire Mercury dated January 25, 2008 Hazlick elaborates on his hunt for Nathaniel Hart:

I assumed that as Hart was named as coming from Birmingham, the heart of the metal working industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the place to look was in that area. However, it seemed that I was looking in the wrong place. I received a copy of a census form from 1891, which showed a Nathaniel Hart, coachsmith (metal worker), as living at 24B West Street, Hertford.

While this didn’t 100% prove the existence of the Nathanial Hart from Bennet’s newspaper article, it was an intriguing lead. Hanzlick went onto bring up other interesting points such as: Why wasn’t Hart in the Hippodrome audience to see the challenge take place? Why wasn’t he publicly thanked after the event? Was it actually a set-up by Houdini resulting in Hart being paid to keep quiet for his services?

The latter question leads us back to Kenneth Silverman’s Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss. Citing lock expert Bill Liles, Silverman states:

Like British police cuffs of the period…the Mirror Cuffs were non-adjustable. Just as Bobbies often had to carry several different-size cuffs, the creator of the Mirror Cuffs needed to know Houdini’s wrist size in order to forge cuffs that fit him. This and other evidence led Liles to believe that Houdini designed the cuffs himself.

When talking about Houdini you’re always going to get more questions than answers. Nathanial Hart is no exception, and his dubious involvement in the “Mirror Cuffs” episode has to be left to our conspiracy-obsessed imaginations.

Conspiracies, Keys, and Cuffs

In our mind’s eye, it’s easy to envision a restrained Houdini within the darkness of his ghost cabinet locked in the throes of violent contortions. However, the real solution to the escape is most likely a little more simple than that…he had the key. If you’re still not a buying this theory, look no further than the Amazing Randi’s blunt assessment:

"I can assure you that the Mirror Handcuffs were not opened with anything but the key!"

One of the more prominent theories ties into something as simple as…a glass of water. Smuggling a key inside a glass of water featured into several of Houdini’s other challenges. This lends credence to the fact that Bess may have passed it to him around the moment when he requested to stretch his legs and a cushion was brought onstage for him.

However, Kenneth Silverman dismisses this theory due to the key’s large size and suggests that the key was in the cushion. However, as Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence convincingly mentions:

Handcuff experts point out that the working area of the key is all that is required and that the key could have been cut down to a length of about 1 ½ inches. The actual nested mechanism is only about an inch from the keyhole and not deep inside the cuff lock tube.

The exact way he obtained the key, for the time being at least, will have to be relegated to the world of scholarly research and rabid internet forum speculation. Both are places that the world of Houdini is right at home.

One would think that at this point there’s not much left to unearth regarding the challenge. However, William Kalush and Larry Sloman’s 2007 book titled The Secret Life of Houdini brought forth a scenario that seemingly altered the way the incident was viewed and Houdini’s involvement within it.

Six weeks after the Hippodrome, Houdini was presented with a silver replica of the original handcuffs by the British silversmiths Hamilton and Company while performing in Brighton, England. According to Kalush and Sloman, after you analyze the marks on the silver replicas, the visible date stamp was 1903. As the actual challenge took place in 1904, this naturally brought up an interesting question. Were the replica “Mirror Cuffs” possibly constructed for Houdini one year before the challenge took place?

In 2013, Mirror Cuffs expert Mick Hanzlick consulted with the London Assay Office; a firm that has controlled trademarks on silver for hundreds of years. This was their response.

The HC&O mark is the maker’s mark Hamilton & Company…the “h” denotes the date, 1903…The date marks did not run from January to January. The date marks ran from May to May.

Mick countered with this response:

The challenge was March 17, 1904. The replica cuffs were presented to Houdini about six weeks after the challenge, so at the latest that would be towards the end of April, 1904. During those six weeks, the cuffs would have to be registered as required by the Assay Office. So, that would have had to have been before May, 1904, therefore the 1903 “h” mark would have been the only one that could have been used.

Are you still with me? Hanzlick believed that the replica cuffs could have been made anytime between May 1903 and May 1904 and still carry the “h” mark. However, Hanzlick’s personal opinion was that the replicas were indeed made in the six weeks following the challenge and not a year before as stated in Kalush and Sloman’s sometimes factually embellished book.

Final Bows

When unraveling the Mirror Cuff’s long paper trail it’s hard to deny that nagging feeling that we will most likely never know the true answers and secrets that lie behind it. Houdini knew exactly what he was doing. The fact that the challenge is still being analyzed and dissected is a testament to his innate gifts at publicity and always leaving audiences wanting more.

Today the Mirror Cuffs and its silver replica reside in the personal collection of magician David Copperfield. They are a physical reminder of a simpler and more innocent; a time when Harry Houdini reigned supreme.

Special thanks to the works of Kenneth Silverman, William Kalush, Larry Sloman, and, above all, the late Mick Hanzlick.


Sunday, January 31, 2016

Houdini (1953) on MOVIES, Feb. 3

Paramount's classic Houdini starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh will air this Wednesday, February 3, at 7:20 AM on MOVIES. It appears MOVIES, which is available on cable and free over the airways in some markets (including KCOP in Los Angeles), is the new home for Houdini which had been airing on TCM.

MOVIES will show Houdini complete and uncut. It will repeat on February 29 at 3:35 PM.

Related posts:

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Houdini & Doyle will track Spring Heeled Jack

Massimo Polidoro, author of Final Seance: The Strange Friendship Between Houdini and Conan Doyle (2001), recently speculated on his blog that one of the paranormal mysteries we might see investigated in the upcoming Houdini & Doyle is that of Spring Heeled Jack, a real-life terror that gripped London at the turn of the Century. Well, I can confirm that Mario is correct. In episode 4, the boys will indeed tackle the mystery of Jack!

The true story of Spring Heeled Jack begins in October 1837. A servant girl by the name of Mary Stevens was walking through Clapham Common when a strange figure leapt at her from a dark alley. After immobilizing her with a tight grip of his arms, he began to kiss her face, while ripping her clothes and touching her flesh with his claws, which were, according to her deposition, "cold and clammy as those of a corpse". In panic, the girl screamed, making the attacker quickly flee from the scene. The commotion brought several residents who immediately launched a search for the aggressor, who could not be found.

The next day, the leaping character is said to have jumped in the way of a passing carriage, causing the coachman to lose control and crash, severely injuring himself. Several eyewitnesses claimed the mysterious figure then escaped by jumping over a 9 ft high wall while babbling with a high-pitched, ringing laughter.

Gradually, the news of the strange character spread as incidents and attacks mounted. Soon the press and the public gave him the name "Spring Heeled Jack".

Spring Heeled Jack was described by people who claimed to have seen him as having a terrifying appearance, with eyes that "resembled red balls of fire." One report claimed that, beneath a black cloak, he wore a helmet and a tight-fitting white garment like an oilskin. Many stories also mention a "Devil-like" aspect. Several reports mention that he could breathe out blue and white flames and that he wore sharp metallic claws at his fingertips. At least two people claimed that he was able to speak comprehensible English.

A vast urban legend grew around Spring Heeled Jack. The devil was even renamed "Spring Heeled Jack" in some Punch and Judy shows. For decades, especially in London, his name was equated with the bogeyman, as a means of scaring children into behaving by telling them if they were not good, Spring Heeled Jack would leap up and peer in at them through their bedroom windows.

No one was ever caught and identified as Spring Heeled Jack, leading to numerous and varied theories of his nature and identity. The last reported sighting is said to have been made in Liverpool in 1904.

Back in August, while the Houdini & Doyle production team was filming stunt work in Liverpool, the Liverpool Echo captured what appears to be a photo of Spring Heeled Jack himself! So how are Houdini and Doyle going to solve the famous mystery? I guess we'll find out in Spring.

Houdini & Doyle stars Michael Weston as Houdini and Stephen Mangan as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The 10-episode series will air Mondays, 9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT on FOX in the U.S. It will also air on ITV Encore in the UK and Global TV in Canada. Premiere dates have yet to be announced.

Spring Heeled Jack history from Wikipedia.


Friday, January 29, 2016

Gillian Armstrong's Death Defying disappointment

Gillian Armstrong, who directed the 2008 Houdini film Death Defying Acts with Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta-Jones, has received some press lately for her criticism that movie studios are run by "12-year-old executives."

Gillian Armstrong directs Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Death Defying Acts.

Death Defying Acts, which was British-Australian co-production distributed by the Weinstein Company in the U.S., was Armstrong's last feature film. She now makes documentaries in her native Australia.

"What's happened to drama in the last 12 years, is that all the drama writers have left the feature industry and gone to TV and [are] writing for HBO, Showtime and Netflix," Armstrong says. "The sort of films I like to make, human dramas, the last 12 years... the scripts are all rubbish. They are all nothing. They're empty, they're formula, they're nothing."

Armstrong also complains that movie executives interfere with the creative side of a production, and this was an issue on her Houdini film.

"I had a lot of battles on the last one, Death Defying Acts. The co-production thing is quite damaging to the industry and I had something like five producers in three different countries all fighting with each other. It made it hard focusing on making the movie wonderful."

Can't say I disagree with her! But despite her struggles, I still think she turned out a quality film with Death Defying Acts.

You can read the full article at The Sunday Morning Herald. Death Defying Acts is available on DVD from Amazon.


Thursday, January 28, 2016

Houdini lives at LILA

On Tuesday I had the great pleasure of giving a talk about Houdini to the 7th Grade class at the International School of Los Angeles a.k.a. LILA. This was a tag-team talk with the great Joe Fox who demonstrated some of Houdini's magic and escapes. Joe did the Kellar Rope Tie, Spirit Slates, escaped from handcuffs and showed the students a real straitjacket. But Joe really brought the house down when he extracted a 4-inch lock-pick from his nose!

The students were attentive and enthusiastic, and I was very impressed with how much knowledge of Houdini they already had. True, their teacher, Anna Scottie, had assigned them a Houdini biography to read (Harry Houdini: Death Defying Showman by Rita Thievon Mullin), but during the Q&A, I could see they had already dug beyond the text. One bright young man asked about "conspiracy theories" surrounding his death. The Miracle Factory's Todd Karr, who arranged this event, informed me that his daughter, Sierra, had developed a particular interest in Bean Giant handcuffs. Looks like there's a new generation of Houdini Nuts in the making!

The students also taught me a lesson about magic history. They seemed especially taken with the story of the Mirror Handcuff Challenge, but when I mentioned that the handcuffs are today owned by David Copperfield, I could hear, "Who?" These bright young students, who knew the name J. Gordon Whitehead, had never heard of David Copperfield?

Afterwards, Todd told me that shouldn't have come as a surprise. They would know the name Criss Angel, but Copperfield has been off television for decades. That's when I realized I've been holding a false assumption. I believed Copperfield had broken through into popular culture and had taken a place beside Houdini as the very definition of a magician. After all, in the recent Marvel movie Ant-Man, a character reacts to the Ant-Man's metamorphosis as "some David Copperfield s***."

However, I'm now thinking that Copperfield, like so many other great magicians in history, might not transcend his era. Not that he will ever be forgotten within the world of magic. But a horse who escapes from its stable will never be called a "Copperfield Horse." (I use this example because I opened the talk with a clip of "Houdini Horse.")

This helps me understand how a magician as popular as Howard Thurston could today be largely forgotten outside magic circles. It also makes me marvel even more at how strong Houdini's hold is on popular culture. I guess a biopic every decade and 150+ books help. Not to mention that Houdini still tends to fascinate school kids.

As I was leaving the school, I noticed the car parked beside mine had a surprising window sticker. If you're as knowledgeable about Houdini as the 7th graders at LILA, you'll understand why I thought this was a little spooky...

Thanks to Todd Karr, Sierra Karr, Anna Scotti, Milan Mendis, Anneli Harvey, and all the 7th Grade students at LILA for a wonderful visit.


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Houdini exhibition opens in Budapest

A special exhibition of Houdini memorabilia from the collection of escape artist David Merlini opens today at the National Széchényi Library in Budapest. The display includes authentic Houdini artifacts along with props from the 2014 Houdini miniseries, which was shot entirely in Budapest with David as technical advisor.

Last night an opening ceremony was held in the Library's Ceremonial Hall. The exhibition will be on display for one month. Here are some photos of the exhibition and pics from last night's opening.

The National Széchényi Library's Houdini exhibition runs from January 27 to February 27, 2016, in Building “F” of Buda Castle. Hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. More information can be found at the library's official website.

Thanks to David Merlini and Barbara Kiss. Photos courtesy David Merlini and the Országos Széchényi Könyvtár Facebook page.


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Meet Houdini's new assistant

So far there is no indication that Bess Houdini will be in the new television series Houdini & Doyle. However, it appears Harry will have a woman in his life -- "Florrie" played by actress and model Jerry-Jane Pears.

Florrie is Houdini's assistant. It is she we see breaking the glass of the Water Torture Cell in the ITV trailer. It may also be Florrie who we later see massaging Matt Weston's Houdini, so she might be more than just his assistant. At the moment, IMDb lists Florrie as appearing in two episodes.

Of course, I don't think I need to point out that there was never a "Florrie" in real life. During his first UK tour, which is when Houdini & Doyle is set, Bess was the only woman who shared the stage with Harry, and for the bulk of his career Houdini used male assistants who worked as the "axe handlers" during his escapes. It wasn't until the final years of his life and his full evening show that Houdini employed female stage assistants, such as Dorothy Young.

Houdini & Doyle stars Michael Weston as Houdini and Stephen Mangan as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The 10-episode series is due to air on FOX in the U.S. in Spring 2016. It will also air on ITV Encore in the UK and Global TV in Canada.


Monday, January 25, 2016

Guest blog: Houdini Reflected, Part I

Today I'm excited to share a new guest blog by Neil McNally, who last gave us a three-part look at Houdini in Washington. Now Neil tackles the story of Houdini's most challenging challenge escape.

Houdini Reflected: Part One
by Neil McNally

“Houdini” and “Handcuffs.” These two words are synonymous in entertainment history with bold challenges, daring escapes, and enraptured audiences. During his fifty-two years on this Earth, Harry Houdini never encountered a pair of handcuffs that he couldn’t somehow get out of. His mastery of locks, picks, and their inner workings was so complete that eighty-nine years after his death, people still talk in baited breath about these escapes as if they witnessed them first hand.

Ironically, for all the success handcuff escapes gave Houdini there is one revered pair that to this day looms large over the rest: the famed British “Mirror Cuffs.” They were elegant in design and execution; however, it was this apparent simplicity that seemingly almost defeated Houdini on a London stage. His eventual escape from these is, as you would expect with Houdini, shrouded in mystery, conspiracy, and much debate. What was real? What was not? How much can myth and legend be separated from cold hard facts? There is no better place to start than from a quote from the Great Houdini himself:

“The secret of showmanship consists not of what you really do, but what the mystery-loving public thinks you do.”

Mirror, Mirror

If seeing is believing, than the “official” story of Houdini and the Mirror Cuffs begins in March, 1904. Houdini, then playing a matinee at London’s illustrious Hippodrome Theater, found himself quickly escaping from a string of “mundane” handcuff challenges from the audience. The monotony was suddenly broken when he was approached onstage by a representative of London’s Daily Illustrated Mirror with a challenge seemingly like none other. The representative explained to Houdini and the enthralled crowd the story of a pair of handcuffs made in Birmingham by a blacksmith named Nathaniel Hart. Hart, who had allegedly spent five years working on the cuffs, boldly stated that the handcuffs “cannot be picked.” Apparently, he himself had spent one week crafting the key and allegedly could not break the secret of his own creation. With the crowd holding their breaths, Houdini accepted the challenge. No pressure I’m sure.

The Mirror Cuffs, even by today’s standards still stand out as a bold and remarkable technical achievement. For those unfamiliar, the handcuffs themselves are small, compact, and rigidly hold the wearer’s hands in a vice-like grip. As Kenneth Silverman explained in his book Houdini: The Career of Ehrich Weiss:

These were inflexible handcuffs, without a chain or swivel; the wrist holes coupled to cylinders that housed the intricate locks…The key was a metal tube with slots cut in the end. When the key tube entered the lock it pushed a number of slides, each to a different depth. The key could be turned only when all the slides were depressed the correct distance, which required endways pressure and many delicate rotations.

Okay, so it’s wasn’t going to be as easy as opening up a can of beans. However, in the eyes of the theater going public of the time, there was only one man who could defeat these cuffs and it was Houdini. But, then again, maybe he couldn’t.

A media storm of publicity engulfed the escape artist as Houdini soon found himself in a place he very much liked to be…the talk of the town and in every newspaper in London. The challenge and ensuing publicity eventually reached a fevered pitch as the fateful day, March 17th, arrived. Four thousand ticket holders and over a hundred journalists thronged the Hippodrome to watch Houdini, and his career, literally liberate themselves from this deceptively simple contraption.

Tick, Tick, Tick…

"I am now locked up in a handcuff that has taken a British mechanic five years to make. I do not know whether I am going to get out or not. But I can assure you I am going to try my best."

It was with this earnest statement that 29-year-old Harry Houdini addressed the Hippodrome’s electrified audience. By all accounts, when he initially entered the theater he was greeted with a thunderous ovation which was swiftly “rewarded” with the daunting cuffs being firmly and tightly mounted on to his wrists. Then at 3:15pm, with his wife Bess by his side, the Hippodrome orchestra began to play its melodic strains. Houdini was then led to a covered stage cabinet that was ironically referred to as his “ghost house.”

When most people today think of Houdini’s escapes they most likely envision a man in a strait jacket hung upside down or thrashing about violently on stage. But, when it came to escapes, Houdini generally would leave a fair amount to the imagination and, most importantly, tension within the audience’s minds. So, essentially after Houdini would enter his “ghost house,” the audience basically was on their own to envision what kind of struggles he was grappling with within this small darkened enclosure.

However, never one to leave them hanging Houdini’s flair for the dramatic would manifest itself in three separate events in close succession:

Twenty-Two Minutes: Houdini emerged from the cabinet to get a clearer look at the lock in the theater lights.

Thirty-Five Minutes: Houdini appeared once more exasperated and sweating profusely. He explained to the audience that he needed to stretch his knees. Bess then brought him a cup of water as a cushion was provided for him by an attendant.

Fifty-Five Minutes Later: Houdini, looking even worse for wear, began to plead to have the handcuffs briefly taken off so he could remove his constrictive frock coat. When this request was denied, what occurs next has become one of the most famous and dramatic pieces of Houdini lore. By all accounts, he proceeded to contort his body until he was able to remove a pen knife from his vest pocket. Opening the knife with his teeth, Houdini began to systematically cut his upturned coat off of his body in broad slashes until it hung from both of his arms in jagged pieces. Not a small feat to be sure.

Sixty-Five Minutes Later: Houdini triumphantly emerged from the “ghost house” holding the defeated Mirror Cuffs in his hands. The crowd erupted into deafening cheers and according to author Kenneth Silverman, Houdini left the stage for a few moments “hysterical and weeping” to gather himself. When he returned he gave a short speech claiming that throughout the arduous ordeal he had considered giving up. This was Harry Houdini triumphant!

The Aftermath:

As you would expect, the ensuing publicity for Houdini was immense. The feat was reported on not only in newspapers in London, but also the United States, and beyond. In a very important way, it could be argued that this event in Harry Houdini’s life was essential in establishing him as a true and important headliner. If he could defeat the Mirror Cuffs, then he could definitively conquer any escape or challenge thrown his way. The Mirror Cuffs were the real deal and Houdini would never have lied about the struggle they put him though.

Or would he have?

The Mirror saga continues in Part Two.

Special Thanks to Kenneth Silverman.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Harry Houdini: Magic Among The Spirits on KRCB, Jan. 28

The documentary, Harry Houdini: Magic Among The Spirits, will air on PBS station KRCB in Northern California this Thursday, January 28 at 8:00 pm. This is a 2012 documentary made by Tom Wyrsch originally titled The Annual Harry Houdini Séances.

This program tells the story of how Houdini's magic led to his involvement in seances, his untimely death, and the pact he made with his wife Bess to try to reach him in the hereafter. The film details how the Houdini seances made their way to Sonoma County in 1964 and continued every Halloween night until 2002. Viewers will see the secret locations where they were held, the people who attended, and if contact was made. This 37-year annual Halloween event celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Interviews, historical film footage and photographs tell the complete story.

Harry Houdini: Magic Among The Spirits first ran on KRCB in 2014. Because it deals so specifically with local history, I don't expect it will air on PBS nationally. It is available on DVD under the original title, The Annual Harry Houdini Séances, although it's tricky to find. (Joe Notaro recently reviewed the DVD at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence.)

Thanks to Dave Sikula.


Vietnamese Houdini

Check out this Vietnamese edition of Vicki Cobb's DK Houdini biography. The title translates as The face that changed the world - Harry Houdini. This was release in July of last year. I really love The Grim Game inspired cover art.

Collector Arthur Moses is currently selling a copy of this on eBay. You can also purchase it HERE

The English language edition was first released in 2005 and can still be purchased at Amazon. The 6th edition had a variant cover.


Saturday, January 23, 2016

The birthday girl will be spectator

Today is Bess Houdini's 140th birthday. To celebrate, here's a terrific clipping from the November 6, 1916 Pittsburgh Daily Post that takes a different approach to promoting a Houdini suspended straitjacket escape. As you can see, the subject is Bess -- "Wife of handcuff king" -- and includes a great photo that I've never seen.

Click to enlarge.

Happy birthday Bess!


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