Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Photo shows three lost Houdini lobby stand displays

While visiting the spectacular Houdini Museum of New York at Fantasma Magic, I spent some time looking closely at this photo of the Princess Theater in Chicago in 1926. What I love is that it shows us three now lost (as far as I know) Houdini lobby stand displays.

Below is an enlargement that gives a better look at each stand. The  first one you can see sitting off to the far left inside a doorway. That stand -- which also appears on page 288 of The Secret Life of Houdini Laid Bare -- has a letter drop box where the public could insert questions for Houdini. In the center is another display with the iconic hand to face image (here it appears to include his second hand). This is only image of that particular stand that I'm aware.

But the one that really excites me is on the far right. This is of a female and in the past my eye has gone right past this because I assumed it to be another performer. But that's Bess! (You can see her in this costume in Silverman).

Knowing that there was a lobby stand devoted to Bess is pretty cool. And why not? She was part of the 3 Shows in One, and the idea of having a poster devoted to a magician's spouse was not unheard of. The upcoming Potter & Potter auction has a lithograph of "Mrs. Keller" (lot 490). What ever happened to this Bessie stand I wonder?

I'm currently aware of four surviving Houdini lobby stands from his 3 Shows in One (pictured below). The portrait stand on the far left belongs to David Copperfield. The portrait stand on the far right belongs to Arthur Moses. I don't know who owns the $10,000 Challenge (could also be Copperfield). The "Jail for Medium" stand sold last year for $7000 at Potter and Potter's auction of Houdiniana.

The Houdini Museum of New York is located at 421 7th Avenue, 3rd Floor, New York, NY, and houses one of the largest public displays of authentic Houdini memorabilia in the world.

Stay tuned for another Houdini Museum of New York artifact that I think will give us a lot to talk about.


Monday, August 14, 2017

Houdini's 278 is off the market (UPDATED)

Houdini's former home at 278 W 113th Street in New York is now off the market. The house was listed for sale by Douglas Elliman Real Estate for $4.6 million in June. Did the house sell? Did the owner pull it? Afraid I don't have any answers at the moment, but know the doors of 278 are once again closed.

Click the top link below for what might have been a very rare look inside 278 during its one and only open house in June.

UPDATE: Word from the realtor is that the house is only temporarily off the market as the owner is traveling. It will be re-listed in September.


Escape your troubles with a cold Houdini

If you listened to my recent Magic Word podcast, at 00:45:00 host Scott Wells talks about a short-lived beer that bore Houdini's name. This wasn't something I was entirely familiar with. Now, by shear coincidence, I have a six-pack! This was given to me by my friend and magic historian Diego Domingo who's trying to cut down. His collection, that is.

The Houdini Draft Lager was brewed by Todd Hanson and the Fox Classic Brewing Co. in Houdini's own Appleton, Wisconsin. I'm not sure how long the beer remained in production. My case was bottled April 9, 1992.

So who's up for a cold one? Or should say old one?

Thanks Diego.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

Rare Russian Houdini advert sells on eBay

A rare advert for Houdini in Moscow during his 1903 tour of Russia sold on eBay today for $560. Artifacts from Houdini's one and only tour of Russia are exceedingly rare. In fact, I don't recall ever seeing anything on eBay before this.

While the final price was certainly respectable, I did expect it to go for more. Last year some early German adverts each broke $1000. Not as much love for Russia these days, I guess.

Congrats to the winner of this rarity. And thanks to Kevin Connolly at Conjuring History for the alert.


The Secret Life of Mrs. London to be revealed in 2018

Looks like 2018 is going to kick off with a provocative piece of Houdini fiction based on fact. Here's the description and cover art for The Secret Life of Mrs. London by Rebecca Rosenberg.

San Francisco, 1915. As America teeters on the brink of world war, Charmian and her husband, famed novelist Jack London, wrestle with genius and desire, politics and marital competitiveness. Charmian longs to be viewed as an equal partner who put her own career on hold to support her husband, but Jack doesn’t see it that way…until Charmian is pulled from the audience during a magic show by escape artist Harry Houdini, a man enmeshed in his own complicated marriage. Suddenly, charmed by the attention Houdini pays her and entranced by his sexual magnetism, Charmian’s eyes open to a world of possibilities that could be her escape. 
As Charmian grapples with her urge to explore the forbidden, Jack’s increasingly reckless behavior threatens her dedication. Now torn between two of history’s most mysterious and charismatic figures, she must find the courage to forge her own path, even as she fears the loss of everything she holds dear.

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of Houdini and London's alleged affair, which was first uncovered by Ken Silverman in his 1996 book Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss.

You can pre-order The Secret Life of Mrs. London at (U.S.) and (UK). Release date is January 30, 2018.


Friday, August 11, 2017

Unlocking Houdini's secrets in 1995

On May 24, 1995, NBC aired the one-hour special Houdini: Unlocking His Secrets hosted by Robert Urich. The show featured modern magicians performing Houdini's feats, intercut with biographical information. It's a well-done special with excellent performances and some nice Houdini photos and film footage. And despite the title, no secrets are revealed.

The stage performances were filmed at Ceasers Palace Circus Maximus on April 30, 1995 (tickets were given out free). Host Robert Urich narrates from the "Magic and Movie Hall of Fame" at O'Sheas Casino in Las Vegas. Here one gets a good look at items from the Dixie Dooley collection. Behind Urich for much of time is the Houdini packing case that Dixie famously retrieved from the basement of 278 in 1985.

The broadcast kicks off with Charlotte Pendragon leaping chained from a riverboat on Lake Mead. It's a well-staged stunt with some nice tension. This is followed by Lance Burton performing a stage-bound suspended straitjacket escape. Again, a well-staged stunt, and it's great to see Burton in his absolute prime. Also in his prime is Mac King who does a comedic thumb tie with Melinda Saxe. The Pendragons do their well-honed Metamorphosis. David Williamson does a very funny take on Houdini's Needles.

It what should be a show highlight, Brett Daniels does Houdini's Water Torture Cell. However, the escape is robbed of tension by over production, with backlighting and smoke and various curtains sweeping up and down over the cell. For me, the best presentations of the USD -- Houdini, Henning, Steve Baker -- keep it a serious "test," too dangerous to load up with smoke machines. Raw tension is all the stagecraft required. Likewise, Jonathan Pendragon's "Exploding Coffin of Death" grand finale seems a little overwrought, but it's in line with the "extreme" escapes of the 90s. Apparently cut from the broadcast was Max Maven who demonstrated the tricks of fraudulent mediums. A shame this wasn't included in the home video release.

Apart from stating that J. Gordon Whitehead was a "college boxing star" and Houdini's final performance took place in "London, Ontario," the biographical segments are good. There are also a few bits of Houdini film that I don't believe I've seen since.

The film footage is credited as coming from the collection of Manny Weltman "by agreement with Nanette Weltman" (Manny died that year). Another notable name in the credits is Executive Producer Gerald W. Abrams, who would go on to make the Houdini Miniseries with Adrian Brody in 2014. Maybe this is where he first discovered the power of selling Houdini?

Houdini: Unlocking His Secrets was released on VHS by Goodtimes Video in 1996. Without commercials, the show comes in at only 30 minutes. It can can still be purchased at Amazon.

Unfortunately, the show never made it to DVD. The only clip available on YouTube is Charlotte Pendragon's opening underwater escape (below).

Below are links to a few other Houdini television specials from the recent past.


I recently launched a new standalone page devoted to Houdini documentaries and appearances on investigative and reality TV. Check it out under "Movies" in the top menu bar or click HERE.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Magic Word is Wild About Harry

Today I'm thrilled to link to my appearance on Scott Wells' terrific The Magic Word Podcast. Scott came over the day after I returned from New York after touring Houdini's house, and we spent a full hour discussing that experience and all things Harry. Scott even got me to talk about a few non-Houdini matters -- imagine that!

It was great fun and real honor to appear on such a prestigious magic podcast. Click the link above to go to The Magic Word website where you'll see a variety of options on how to listen.

Thanks again Scott.


LINK: The Grim Game's Disappearing Act

The Paris Review has a well-researched article by Will Stephenson about the reappearance in 2014 of Houdini's lost silent film The Grim Game. Nothing all that new for those of us who followed the blow by blow that year (some links below), but it's a good overview of the story with fresh quotes from Dick Brookz, Rick Schmidlin, and Jon Oliver. (Click the headline above to read.)

One thing this piece does not observe is that The Grim Game has not been shown on TCM since its one airing in 2015, nor has it been released on DVD or streaming. In some ways, The Grim Game is once again Houdini's lost film.


    Wednesday, August 9, 2017

    Charlotte Montague Houdini biography now shipping

    Even though the publisher shows a September 26 release date, Houdini: The Life and Times of the World's Greatest Magician by Charlotte Montague is now shipping from Amazon in the U.S. (mine arrives tomorrow). Aimed at general readers, the book runs 208 pages and is relased by Chartwell Books.

    Based on contemporary reports and diaries and supported with historic photographs and period posters, Houdini is an intriguing biography of the world’s greatest magician and escape artist. Ninety years after his death, this brings both the man and his magic back to life again for one last performance.

    This biography is an authoritative view from accomplished biographer Charlotte Montague, and belongs on the shelf of any lover of magic, escape artistry, and enigmatic figures.

    Charlotte Montague has penned biographies of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft also released by Chartwell.

    Purchase Houdini: The Life and Times of the World's Greatest Magician from (U.S.) and pre-order from (UK - Sept 28).

    UPDATE: I've just received my copy and flipped through it. The book is beautifully laid out and comprehensive. Almost an encyclopedia in how it sections off people and events. Lots of photos, all familiar. Nice to see that it tracks Houdini beyond death -- into books, movies and television, right up to last year's Houdini & Doyle and this year's Timeless. I've not gotten into the text itself, but it appears to be a nice summation of known facts. I've already spotted some mythology (Bells of the Kremlin) and inaccuracies (Buried Alive), but there's no section on his "spy work", so it appears we're in the hands of a responsible biographer. Oh, and it's a much larger book than I thought it would be. Almost brings me back to the glory days of Houdini coffee table books. I admit I'm a little hurt to not see my site listed in Further Reading (it appears to have been sourced for the later sections at least), but this is one I'm happy to add to my shelf.


    Tuesday, August 8, 2017

    Houdini shows you how to Escape Everything!

    Escape Everything! by Robert Wringham uses Houdini to teach one how to "cut loose the shackles" of modern living. This was actually released last year, but it escaped me!

    We will each spend an average of 87,000 hours at work before we die. We will spend another 5,000 hours getting to and from work and countless more preparing for work. Worrying about work. Recovering from work. The majority of us hate our jobs. But without work, we can't buy all the things we've been told we should want and need, so around we go. Through the pages of New Escapologist magazine, Robert Wringham has been studiously examining the traps of modern life, questioning where our commitment to them stems from and why we are so unable to break free. Taking inspiration from the great Escapologist Harry Houdini—who escaped from jail cells, straitjackets, and even the innards of a dead whale—Wringham applies Houdini's feats as a metaphor for real life, proposing the principle of Escapology as a way to cut loose our shackles. Become a modern-day Escapologist and freedom and happiness might be possible after all.

    You can purchase Escape Everything! at (U.S.) and (UK).

    This is not Houdini's first foray into the motivational arena. Below are links to a few other examples of Harry Self-Help.


    Monday, August 7, 2017

    When 'Dead Famous' went in search of Houdini

    In 2005 Living TV in the UK aired Dead Famous: Houdini, in which skeptic Gail Porter and "sensitive" Chris Fleming went in search of Houdini's ghost. This British series was part of the explosion of dubious "reality" television and part of a sub genre of ghost-hunter shows that aped the style of The Blair Witch Project. Here's a description of the Houdini episode:

    Searching for the ghost of Harry Houdini our duo visit the Eastern State Penitentiary, the blueprint for modern escape-proof prisons, where the man known as The Jailbreak King might still be tampering with the locks, and the Palace Theatre on Broadway where Houdini performed in the vaudeville era. But could the man no jail could hold be captured by the cameras?

    The investigative segments of the episode are tedious and the research embarrassingly bad. Chris Fleming actually calls out to Houdini as "Harold", and Gail Porter states that Houdini "most famously survived going over Niagara Falls in a barrel." And while it's cool to see the inside of Palace Theater, they then go to Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary for no reason other than "it would have appealed to Houdini." (I suspect this segment was actually filmed independently of the Houdini episode and added to help pad out the hour.)

    However, the show redeems itself in the end when the team attends the 2004 Houdini Seance with Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz at the Houdini Museum in Scranton. You get a great look at the museum, and it's an excellent documentation of that year's "Original" seance (not to be confused with the "Official" seance). Jeff Blood, the grand nephew of Harry and Bess, is in attendance and has a moment on camera. Bess's voice from the Final Houdini Seance also gets some nice air play (more than we typically hear).

    So despite being the sort of hokum that Houdini himself would have condemned, the show is still worth checking out. Below is the full episode on YouTube.

    Dead Famous: Houdini originally aired January 18, 2005. Two seasons were released on DVD in the UK.


    Sunday, August 6, 2017

    Remembering Celeste Evans

    Last month pioneering magician and escape artist Celeste Evans died at age 85. Born on New Year's Eve 1931, Evans toured extensively in the Far East as a State Department entertainer. After a 1957 of Africa, she settled in Chicago and toured the Playboy Club circuit. Celeste was possibly the first female magician to perform dove magic, made more difficult by the fact that she only wore gowns, leotards, and jumpsuits in her act. She retired from magic in 2003 to run her husband's management business. She passed away on July 25, 2017.

    Below is Celeste's appearance on the classic CBS game show To Tell The Truth on May 21, 1957. Houdini is mentioned several times. In fact, the answer to a Houdini question is the deciding factor for one of the judges.

    Celeste Evan's obituary appears in the August 2017 Academy of Magical Arts/Magic Castle newsletter.

    Thanks to Dustin Stinett.


    Friday, August 4, 2017

    Houdini's 1983 turn as a serial killer

    In 1983 a play called The Lives and Deaths of the Great Harry Houdini was featured at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts from July 6-14. Steve Skibell played Houdini and Stephanie Shine played Bess. In digging around for information online, I found the following surprising description:

    "The Lives and Deaths of the Great Harry Houdini presents the great escape artist as a serial killer."

    The Lives and Deaths of the Great Harry Houdini was written by David Ives who would later become involved in the aborted Houdini Broadway musical with Hugh Jackman. He also adapted David Copperfield's Broadway show, Dreams and Nightmares, in 1996.

    While this is the first time I've heard of Houdini himself being protrayed as a serial killer (man, nothing surprises me anymore), in the 1999 film, Oxygen, Adrian Brody played a serial killer who goes by the name "Harry Houdini" and leaves clues to his crimes on Houdini's grave

    Photo of Steve Skibell and Stephanie Shine as Harry and Bess from the Williamstown Theater Festival archives.


    Thursday, August 3, 2017

    Houdini and Chaplin share the page

    A new children's biography covering the lives of Houdini and Charlie Chaplin has been published in Indonesian. Charlie Chaplin & Harry Houdini by Sahanjaya Dwi Suputra is available in print and eBook from the website Scoop. Sometimes books like this will have an English language equivalent, but it appears this one is original to the territory.

    Houdini and Charlie Chaplin met in Los Angeles while Houdini was on his 1915 U.S. vaudeville tour. You can see the photo they took that day via the first link below.


    Wednesday, August 2, 2017

    David Saltman's HOUDINI UNBOUND coming in November

    Some great news today. David Saltman's eagerly awaited historical novel HOUDINI UNBOUND will be published in November by Hudson River Books. David has spent 11 years working on the book, which is set during Houdini's tour of Russia in 1903 and finds the magician engaging in espionage on behalf of President Theodore Roosevelt. Other historical characters include Chekhov, Gorky, Diaghilev, Durov the Clown, and Rasputin.

    David has sent over the mock-up cover art (right), and also shares the incredible news that the book has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction!

    David has authored several non-fiction works, including Gilda, the acclaimed biography of comedienne Gilda Radner. He also runs the the great blog The Houdini File. HOUDINI UNBOUND is his first novel.

    You may recall the book had previously been scheduled for release in 2014 by Maiden Lane Press under the title The Escape Artist: Harry Houdini in Russia, but the publisher went out of business.

    You can read more about HOUDINI UNBOUND on David's official website. There is yet no listing on Amazon, but I will update as soon as it appears.



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