Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Alan Davies brings us Houdini in 2014


What I love about Houdini documentaries is not so much what they can tell me about Houdini (they tend to only skim the surface), but that they capture the world of Houdini at the time they are made. This is certainly the case with The Magic of Houdini with Alan Davies, which aired on ITV in the UK on Easter Sunday.

The hour long documentary, produced for ITV by What Larks!, was extremely well-done. It did not tell Houdini's story in the familiar form of most docs. It was more of an essay by Davies, a popular UK comedian and magic buff, who traveled to several Houdini locations in the UK and U.S. Davies emphasized Houdini's drive, physicality, and daring, and really captured Houdini's appeal and superstardom in an exciting and even sexy way. Considering Davies reputation (and some of the pre-promotional material), I was expecting something more comedic and maybe a bit mocking. But this is one of the most reverential Houdini documentaries ever made.

But, as I said, what I love most about docs is how they capture the Houdini world and personalities of the time, and Davies does a great job showing us Houdini in 2014. It's a world that will be familiar to readers of this blog.

Host Alan Davies at Mrs. Leffler's boarding house in New York.

Davies first travels to New York City where he visits Mrs. Leffler's (or Loeffler) boarding house on East 79th Street (remarkably unchanged); Coney Island, which Davies credits as the source of Ehrich's fascination with show business (hmmm); and the Houdini Museum of New York, where he chats with owner and Houdini collector, Roger Dreyer. Roger has some fun challenging Davies to escape from a pair of Bean Giant handcuffs, even after he gives him the key (just as Houdini would do with rival Handcuff Kings).

Following Houdini to Europe, Davies visits the recently renovated Hippodrome Casino in London, site of Houdini's famous 1904 Mirror Challenge. While Master Locksmith Mick Hanzlik doesn't appear on screen, his beautiful replica Mirror Handcuffs do, and it was interesting to see the cuffs fully opened (Davies "escapes" from them).

With Houdini collector Kevin Connolly.

A real treat was the appearance of Houdini collector Kevin Connolly -- who has his own amazing website, Houdini Himself -- which I believe is Kevin's first on-camera appearance. Kevin shared with Davies his collection of letters that suggest Houdini was considering a monkey gland transplant operation late in life. This certainly captured the imagination of Davies who, again, seemed especially interested in the physical Houdini.

Another very special appearance was by Richard Sherry and Dayle Krall and their amazing Water Torture Cell replica. Dayle even performs the escape on camera. I especially like how Dayle was able to provide first-hand insight into the escape. She talks about the pain of being raised by the ankles, how hard it is to capture a final breath when hanging upside down, and how the water pressure is noticeably increased when one reaches the bottom of the cell. She even says she's broken bloods vessels in her eyes while doing the escape (one wonders how many times this happened to Houdini).

Dayle Krall in the Water Torture Cell.

For most, the highlight of the show will be Davies' visit to David Copperfield's private museum in Las Vegas. It's noted that Copperfield "now owns over two-thirds of all surviving Houdini artifacts." Here we get a good look at Copperfield's beautifully displayed Houdini collection, and he even plays his Houdini voice recording for Davies. The hardcore will recognize it as the alternate, unedited version that isn't available online. But I think my favorite part of the Las Vegas segment was when Davies observed that Vegas is the Coney Island of its time, and that "all the showman and magicians and illusionists here today, they know they are standing on the shoulders of a tiny Hungarian."

Davies ends his journey at a staged Official Houdini Séance with several familiar faces in attendance, including 93-year-old Larry Weeks, a lifelong Houdini fan and collector (he owns the only copy of The Grim Game). Larry talks about how he saw Houdini when he was 4-years-old. It's a moving moment as Larry expresses his feelings about Houdini emotionally and beautifully, and I think I have to agree with Alan Davies that Larry was "the star of the show."

Larry Weeks.

Of course, a few errors crept in, as can be expected. Davies refers to Bess as Bess Raymond (her stage name) instead of Rahner. He says "Heffler" instead of Leffler. He says Houdini arrived in London in 1904 (it was 1900). Ruth Brandon says Houdini "never had any education, he never went to school," which is wrong. Houdini went to school in Appleton, possibly as far as the 4th grade. Ken Silverman quotes Houdini's famous bridge jump diary entry as "Mom saw me do it" instead of "Ma saw me jump" (a quibble, I know). Davies calls Jacques Boudini, "Bondini" -- but it was a treat to have this obscure challenge mentioned at all. Davies also says Houdini was punched by one of the two fans who came backstage to see him. It was, of course, a later third visitor who delivered the punch.

Unfortunately, the documentary crew didn't make it as far as the West Coast (the production company told me this was originally part of the plan, but the budget wouldn't allow it), because there's certainly a world of Houdini to capture out here. But maybe next time.

All in all, The Magic of Houdini with Alan Davies is a worthy and welcome addition to the collection of Houdini documentaries, and a beautiful time capsule of Houdini in 2014. Here's hoping the show airs here in the U.S. or it becomes available on DVD soon.

In the Copperfield Collection.

Special thanks to the helpful Houdini fan who was able to provide me with a copy of this doc for review.

Related:

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Houdini on his 1926 Buried Alive: "I like it very much."

For years the conventional wisdom was that Houdini's stage version of "Buried Alive" was something he never performed. It was said that he intended to introduce it into his full evening show during his second season, but died before he had a chance.

Now collector Thomas Ewing of Haversat & Ewing Galleries shares with us evidence that Houdini did perform the Buried Alive in September 1926. Below is a letter written by Houdini to magician James S. Harto during the week of Sept. 27 when he was performing the Worcester Opera House in Worcester, Massachusetts. I've excerpted the key paragraph below:

Click to enlarge.
I put on my Buried Alive mystery this week -- calling it the Mystery of the Sphinx. I am placed into a coffin with a glass front that is lowered into a vault which has a glass, so I can be seen all of the time -- until the sand completely covers everything -- one ton. Fastenings on the vault and in about two minutes I make my escape. I like it very much. Have everything to make it look Egyptian but am not going to do it except on two or three week stands.

What I love about this is it confirms all our speculations. Houdini's description of the effect confirms that it is the same escape he first developed in 1914. His description of an "Egyptian" theme supports that this later Buried Alive! poster is for this stage effect and not for his underwater tests (even though "Egyptian Fakirs Outdone" is a reference to Rahman Bey). We also see that Houdini only planned to perform the effect on "two or three week stands," so it's likely this was the last time he ever did it.

This performance of Buried Alive was first revealed in Kenneth Silverman's Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss (page 406), so Silverman gets credit for bringing this out first. But I suspect this letter was Silverman's source, and it's cool to read the description of this effect in Houdini's own words. And while Silverman (and later Kalush) say this was the "debut" of Buried Alive, this ad shows that he might have actually first performed the effect at the Majestic Theater in Boston during his Sept. 6-18 run.

It's also worth noting that while Houdini says he called this effect the "Mystery of the Sphinx," his program lists it as "The Secret of the Sphinx."

Now if we only had a photograph of this! I still have trouble getting my head around exactly how Houdini staged what must have been an enormous stage escape. Could it really have been a "ton" of sand?

Click here for full poster.

Thank you Tom Ewing for sharing this remarkable letter.

Related:

Monday, April 21, 2014

Houdini meets The Shadow in July

A little update today on Cullen Bunn's upcoming graphic novel featuring Houdini and The Shadow. According to Bleeding Cool, The Shadow #0 will be published in July along with three other 10th Anniversary special releases from Dynamite. The book will be solicited in Diamond Comic Distributors' May Previews catalog.

In The Shadow #0, secrets of The Shadow’s past are revealed as he meets Houdini! The Shadow infiltrates the sanctum of an esoteric society of murderous magicians, who are hell-bent on escaping the ultimate trap-death itself! In order to thwart their plans, he must evade twisted traps and solve spellbinding puzzles. A good-or evil-magician never reveals his secrets… but The Shadow knows.

When I reported on this last month, I noted that The Shadow's creator, Walter B. Gibson (below), was Houdini's friend and his ghostwriter. Since then I've learned that Houdini actually called Gibson "Shadow." What's interesting is that was well before Gibson created his famous pulp hero in the 1930s.

Houdini's "Shadow".

New Houdini mini biography

A new Houdini mini biography has appeared for the Amazon Kindle. Who Was Harry Houdini? by Tanya Turner was released on April 14 and runs 27-pages. Here's a description:

Do you love magic? Do you want to perform your own magical act?

Harry Houdini is one of the most well-known illusionists and stunt performers of all time. He would perform dangerous acts in front of audiences who would pay to see his bravery and amazing magical skills. Houdini was particularly good at escape acts. He would trap himself in very risky and difficult conditions like being locked up, restrained, contained, hung upside down, put into tanks of water and even thrown overboard from a ship - situations that would seem impossible to escape from. And Harry would always manage to free himself and leave his audiences shocked and in awe.

But who was Harry Houdini, the man who was so confident in his abilities he was willing to bet his life on it? In “Who was Harry Houdini?” you will find out about the man behind the curtain. You will discover about his early life, his family and his wife. You will also of course learn about his show stopping escape acts that had enchanted the world.

Have a copy of this eBook and discover the life of the great Harry Houdini!

Purchase Who Was Harry Houdini? by Tanya Turner at Amazon.com.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Bessie's Christ

Here's something special for Easter Sunday. This is a needle point by Bess Houdini of...well, you know who that is. (No, not him.) This hangs in the home of our good friend and benefactor, John C. Hinson, the great-nephew of Harry and Bess Houdini. As with Bessie's letter to John's father Vincent, this again shows how she re-embraced religion later in her life.


Happy Easter.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Jack Rabbit was a Houdini bunny

Are one of these rabbits "Jack"?

What better way to celebrate Easter Weekend than with a bunny tale and a nifty bit of Houdini trivia. Apparently the rabbit on the label for Jack Rabbit Brand Beans was Houdini's bunny! The story is here in this Jack Rabbit Brand brochure and on the Trinidad Benham website:

Click to enlarge.
The Jack Rabbit brand started in Saginaw, Michigan in the 1920’s, at a Harry Houdini magic show. Houdini called for someone from the audience to help with his rabbit-in-the-hat trick, and promised the rabbit to whoever would come up on the stage. Ten-year-old Phyllis Reidel, daughter of the founder of Michigan Bean Company, excitedly volunteered.

In 1935 when Mr. Reidel and Henry Jahn of R.S. Porter were searching for a name for their new brand of beans, Al Reidel laughingly recalled the Houdini rabbit and decided that a dynamic jumping jack rabbit would be the new corporate logo of the Michigan Bean Company. Who knew that 75 years later, the Jack Rabbit brand would be what it is today? Maybe no one – except Houdini!

Now, I should mention that I've never heard of Houdini giving out rabbits as part of his act. I believe that was a practice of Harry Blackstone Sr. Is it possible the Reidel family confused their Harrys?

You can read a less sanitized version of this bunny tale, including what eventually happened to "Jack" (spoiler: he was delicious) at waymarking.com, which has a page devoted to the historic Jack Rabbit Beans neon sign in Saginaw, MI.


Be sure to visit WILD ABOUT HARRY tomorrow, Easter Sunday, for a unique personal artifact from the collection of John C. Hinson.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Stephen Saracco plays Andy Rohan in Houdini miniseries

IMDb has revealed a new character and cast member for the Houdini miniseries. Actor Stephen Saracco will play Andy Rohan, the Chicago police Lieutenant who in 1899 manacled Houdini with handcuffs and irons in his Chicago headquarters. Houdini remained good friends with Rohan, who later arranged for Houdini to give private performances for his Chicago detectives during which he acted as Houdini's MC.

Born in the Bronx, Saracco is currently based in Hungary where the production filmed last year. The actor says he's "very happy" to be part of the miniseries.

In the 2006 book, The Secret Life of Houdini, much is made of the fact that Rohan was friends with U.S. Secret Service chief John E. Wilkie, and this is used to bolster the idea that Houdini worked as a spy (a theory I don't support, despite my epic respect for author William Kalush). Possibly Rohan's presence is a sign that the miniseries is going down this spy route? Or it could be that the 1899 Chicago escape, which garnered Houdini some of his first press, will feature prominently in the miniseries.

Houdini stars Adrien Brody as Houdini and Kristen Connolly as Bess. The 4-hour miniseries is directed by Uli Edel from a script by Nicholas Meyer.

By the way, shouldn't we be seeing some promotion on this by now? It's been reported that the miniseries will air next month. Let's get this party started, HISTORY!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Hardeen dials in Radio of 1950

Here is a magnificent unpublished photo of Hardeen performing Houdini's "Radio of 1950" illusion. This comes from the collection of our good friend Mark Willoughby and there is a lot to love about this image.


First off, I'm struck by how much Dash looks like Houdini in this shot. It it wasn't for the hair, you could almost mistake this for Houdini. This is also the only photo I know of that shows the inside workings of the "radio" apparatus (I'm guessing those light bulbs were illuminated or even blinking). Finally, the assistant here is Hardeen's daughter, Gladys Hardeen (at least that's what it says on the back of the photo), and it's a rare shot of her.

I don't know much about Gladys Hardeen. Her passport application says she was born February 15, 1902 and Genii reported her death in Daytona, Florida on February 17, 1966. But according to Jon Oliver, Dash and Elsie Fozzard married in 1904 (this info came direct from Hardeen's son, Harry Houdini Hardeen). Was Gladys a stepchild? She later assisted Douglas Geoffrey aka Hardeen Jr.

Houdini developed Radio of 1950 for his full evening show of 1925-26. A review of Houdini's first performance of his full evening show in Baltimore called the effect "Radio 1925." Hard to know if this was a mistake or if Houdini later changed the name. In her 2003 booklet, Touring With Houdini, assistant Dorothy Young described how the illusion was staged:

Radio was quite new in 1925. The first commercial station KDKA, had gone on the air in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania just five years earlier. So a magic trick about radio was a very up-to-the-minute feature.

To present the illusion of Radio of 1950, Houdini walked around and behind an empty table in the center of the stage so the audience could see there were no mirrors underneath. Then two assistants put the "radio" on top, completely filling the table.

"I would like to present my original conception of what radio will be like in 25 years." Houdini said, "Tune in to any station and get the girl you want. No, gentlemen, it is not for sale."

He opened the entire front, which consisted of two doors, and removed a panel that held various coils and transformers and large glass tubes the size of light bulbs that were used before transistors were invented. The audience could see there was nothing else inside. He replaced the panel and closed the front.

"Now," he said, "we will tune in Pittsburg Station KDKA." He began twisting the dials. Suddenly a voice from the radio speaker announced, "Miss Dorothy Young, doing The Charleston." That was my cue. As the orchestra started playing that popular jazz dance, I threw open the lid, popped up my head at one end and kicked one leg up in the air. I kicked the other leg, clicked my feet together, jumped up, and curtsied. Houdini opened the front of the radio, lived me down, and I went into a wild Charleston as the audience laughed and applauded.

Hardeen inherited the effect after Houdini's death and featured it in his own show. After he died, it was put up for sale for $125 along with other Hardeen-Houdini apparatus. Today the whereabouts of the Radio of 1950 illusion is unknown.

Below is a shot of Houdini himself doing Radio of 1950, showing the appearance of "Radio Girl" Dorothy Young. And if you're dying to know how this trick was done, check out Patrick Culliton's Houdini The Key (page 402). He gives a very good explanation of the method.


Thanks to Mark Willoughby for sharing this special photo and for the intel on Gladys Hardeen.

Related:

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

James Randi documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival

Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom's documentary about the life and work of James "The Amazing" Randi, An Honest Liar, will have its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, April 18-25.

With a life and occupation not unlike Harry Houdini's, "The Amazing" Randi set out to shame fakers and sub-par psychics with his performances. But going beyond his bewitching story, the investigative documentary, An Honest Liar, takes a closer look at the deceptive escapade that became his life-long career.

Randi is one of my heroes and one of the great men of magic, so I'm very excited about this doc. Check out the all-new trailer below.




For more information and some great photos of Randi during his career, visit the official website for An Honest Liar.

Related:

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

ITV announces The Magic of Houdini with Alan Davies

UPDATE: My review: Alan Davies brings us Houdini in 2014.

ITV in the UK have (officially) announced details of their upcoming documentary, Perspectives: The Magic of Houdini with Alan Davies. The show will air in the UK this Easter Sunday, April 20 at 10:00pm - 11:00pm. Here is the full press release and some images of Alan thanks to ITV:

Perspectives: The Magic of Houdini with Alan Davies

“I’ve always liked magic. I had a pack of cards when I was a kid and a book of tricks – even a wand. As a kid growing up in the seventies, you couldn’t turn the television on without somebody sawing a lady in half. But of course, the magician who intrigued me the most was Harry Houdini.” - Alan Davies

"My brain is the key that sets me free" - Harry Houdini

Having had a fascination with the world of magic since he was a boy, Alan Davies explores the extraordinary life of illusionist and stunt performer, Harry Houdini, the man who against the odds became one of the most successful entertainers in the world.

In a bid to understand why Houdini felt compelled to perform such terrifying death defying acts, Alan visits New York where the young Eric Weiss [ahem] arrived as a child with his Hungarian immigrant family, made his entry into show business and ultimately performed some of his most death-defying stunts. Immersing himself in the world of Houdini, Alan tries to hold his breath under ice cold water, lies on a bed of nails, gets strung upside down in a straitjacket and takes an exclusive look at David Copperfield's priceless collection of Houdini artefacts in Vegas.

Alan talks to Houdini enthusiasts and delves into the family history of a man driven to conquer his rivals and be the very best. And the star of Jonathan Creek reveals he learnt very few tricks of the trade creating illusions in the drama but marvels at the lengths Houdini, and his modern counterparts, go to protect their illusions.

From his most famous escapology stunt the Chinese Water Torture Cell to the momentous showdown of the Daily Mirror Challenge performed at London's Hippodrome, this film takes a journey through the life of the diminutive magician born Erich Weiss [ahem!].

Says Alan: "For Houdini it really was mind over matter...it is amazing what he could withstand, what he put himself through. Physical discomfort most people would find beyond endurance was routine for him, part of his preparation and training for the cold water escapes when he dropped himself into rivers off bridges. He would submerge himself in ice baths and hold his breath for three minutes.

"I had a bit of a go and half a minute is my absolute limit. I don't really know if could do much more than that. Of course I might be able to do a minute or even two if it came to it but I don't have the inclination to push myself to find out...the thing with Houdini is he was pushing himself to find out his own limits and human limits for endurance and pain."

Directed by Louise Hooper

Executive Producer: Claire Whalley

There is no word yet on a U.S. air-date, although it would certainly make sense for HISTORY to pick this up to help promote their upcoming Houdini miniseries.

Related:

Monday, April 14, 2014

Facts and Chicks checks Houdini

The tumblr blog Facts and Chicks has offered up the following fact and chick. I like everything that's going on here.


By the way, the site sourced my own Houdini biography for this fact. I had nothing to do with the chick.

Young Houdini to be published by Sourcebooks in U.S.

Good news today about Simon Nicholson's upcoming Young Houdini series. It looks like the books will be published in the U.S. by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky with the first book, The Magician's Fire, due out on October 7, 2014.

Not only will the U.S. release be a month before the UK edition, but it will be in hardcover. Cover art (right) is the same as the UK paperback from OUP.

Aimed at readers 10-13, the series features the fictional adventures of a young Houdini in 1886 New York. The concept follows similar successful series such as Young Bond and Young Sherlock Holmes.

You can pre-order the U.S. hardcover edition of Young Houdini: The Magician Fire on Amazon.com.

Thanks to Derry Wilkens and Shifa Kapadwala at Sourcebooks for the cover art.

LINK: Is Hardeen full of ice?

Our good friend Joe Notaro of Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence has uncovered Hardeen's very own version of being "trapped" under ice during a bridge jump, as told in his pitchbook, The Life and History of Hardeen. Hardeen's version isn't quite as dramatic as his brother's harrowing adventure, but that's the story of Hardeen's life, isn't it?

One wonders if Hardeen's story is any more true than Houdini's. It would be interesting if Hardeen's story is what inspired Houdini to create his own far more dramatic version. Or maybe the brothers shared stories just as they shared props and poster art, etc.

Click on over to Joe's blog and read all about Hardeen's own under-the-ice exploit.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Why does Jerry Seinfeld think Houdini was impotent?


Seinfeld is a television classic that will probably run in syndication forever. This is not the best news for Houdini. Because in Episode #65, "The Mango", there is this exchange between George and Jerry on the topic of erectile dysfunction:

JERRY
You know it happens to everybody. Happened to Houdini, and he could get out of a trunk underwater with his hands in chains. But he had a problem with that.

Later George returns to the subject...

GEORGE
Hey, is that a joke about Houdini?
JERRY
No.
GEORGE
Well if Houdini couldn't do it, what chance do I have!?

So why does Jerry Seinfeld think Houdini was impotent?

The answer has everything to do with when this episode was made. "The Mango" was taped on Tuesday, August 17, 1993 (directly across the street from where I'm writing this now) and aired on September 16, 1993. At that time a new Houdini biography had just been released in the UK, The Life And Many Deaths of Harry Houdini by Ruth Brandon. This was the first major Houdini biography in several years, and in it Brandon engaged in some amateur psychology as to why the Houdinis didn't have children and why Harry wrote love letters to Bess. On page 52 the author states:

One can only conjecture as to the reason for this childlessness. […] Infertility is not uncommon. But my own guess, based on his effusive daily--sometimes thrice-daily--outpouring of love-declarations--is that Houdini may have been impotent. Why all those protestations? What was so wrong that he had to keep proclaiming his devotion? Was this constant need to reassure both Bess and himself?

This salacious "revelation" was treated as a hook and featured in book reviews and in interviews with the author. Brandon also chirped her theory in the 1993 BBC documentary, Houdini, The Life of the World's Greatest Escapologist. It was in this environment that the Seinfeld writers wrote what at the time was a topical reference to Houdini's "impotency."

Of course, the reason the Houdinis didn't have children was because Bess suffered from a medical condition that prevented it, information that was shared with me by her niece, Marie Blood. (You can read more about that here.)

Brandon's theory received a dose of cold water when Kenneth Silverman revealed evidence of an extramarital affair Houdini had with Charmian London in his own biography, Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss (1996). Now the pendulum may have a swung a bit too far the other way with Houdini sometimes portrayed as a bit of a Lothario (we'll see how the upcoming Houdini miniseries handles all this).

It's too bad this blip in Houdini history had to be immortalized in pop culture. True or false, it's just not the kind of thing you want people to know!


Related:

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Houdini's house then and now

Here is a photo of Houdini's house at 278 West 113th Street in Harlem, New York. This comes from the collection of John C. Hinson and appears to be the house during Houdini's own time. The house still stands today and still looks much the same. However, in Houdini's day you can see that the top floor had an open balcony, and the rooftop has now been enclosed, probably to contain modern heating and plumbing equipment.

Also notice there is someone looking out the window. Who might this be?

278 in Houdini's time.
278 in 2005.

Soon I will share some interesting details about what happened to 278 after Bess sold the house in 1927. For other look at the house today, click here for a Google street view.

Thanks as always to John Hinson.

Related:

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Houdini the young runner

This is an excerpt from Houdini's 1925-26 full evening show program highlighting his early days as a runner. Athletics were a true passion of young Ehrich Weiss. What I like about this is it shows an uncommon shot of the young Houdini in the uniform of the Allerton Club, which pre-dates the more well-known shot of him from the Pastime Athletic Club. I also find it interesting that it states Houdini "is not a believer in Prohibition," which was the law of the land at the time.


You can read more about Houdini's pre-magic days as a young athlete HERE.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Houdini in FLIM-FLAM at the Malibu Playhouse in June

An all-new Houdini play is set to premiere at the Malibu Playhouse in Malibu, CA, June 20 - August 3, 2014. FLIM-FLAM is written by Gene Franklin Smith and directed by Thomas James O’Leary. Here's a description:

In the summer of 1922, Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle team to investigate psychic mediums for the Scientific American committee. Their friendship is challenged when Conan Doyle champions a beautiful and seductive psychic as authentic. Houdini is determined to prove that she is a phony, until she appears to make contact with Houdini’s beloved dead mother, and he must confront his own beliefs about life-after-death.

The Malibu Playhouse is located at 29243 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, CA 90265. It doesn't look like tickets are available just yet, but I will keep on top of this and, of course, I will be reviewing it for WILD ABOUT HARRY.

For more visit the Malibu Playhouse website. You can also follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks to Mark Willoughby for discovering the one.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Michael Redhill is 'Saving Houdini'

A new work of Houdini fiction is heading our way May 20, 2014. Saving Houdini by Michael Redhill is published by HarperCollins Canada and appears to mix magic and time travel. Here's a synopsis:

A classic adventure story set in historic Toronto—with a dash of humour and a lot of heart

Dashiel Woolf is ecstatic when famous magician Bloom the Beguiler brings him onstage during a special performance to mark the eighty-fifth anniversary of Harry Houdini’s death. But a century-old trick invented by Bloom’s grandfather goes inexplicably wrong—sending Dash back to 1926. Wandering the historic streets of Toronto, he barely recognizes his city but with the help of his new friend, Walt, he hatches a plan to invent the trick that will transport him home. In doing so, they just might prevent the Great Houdini from taking part in the event that ended his life, possibly changing history forever.

At the moment, Saving Houdini is only available for pre-order at the Canadian Amazon.ca. Here's hoping it appears on the U.S. and UK Amazon sites by publication.

Thanks to Michael Redhill for this first look at the cover art.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Houdini's grand finale: 3 Shows In 1

Today, April 6, is Houdini's "adopted" birthday. So I thought this was a good day to look back at his last great career metamorphosis.

"3 Shows In 1" program.
It might come as a surprise to learn that if you saw Houdini at the peek of his career, you would not be seeing him in his own theatrical show as magicians perform today. Back in his time, seeing Houdini meant seeing him as part of a Vaudeville program -- a show that would include a dozen or more Variety acts. Houdini's time on stage was only ever about 20-30 minutes long.

While contemporaries like Thurston and Blackstone toured with their own full evening shows, Houdini remained in Vaudeville. But Vaudeville was the mass entertainment of it's time, and not only was Houdini at one point the highest paid performer in American Vaudeville, but he dominated the circuits and the cities in which he played. It could be said that part of Houdini's all-eclipsing fame had to do with the fact that he appeared on more stages and in more cities more often than any other major magician of that time.

But Vaudeville as the most popular form of mass entertainment began to decline with the rise of movies in the late teens and '20s (the major Vaudeville houses eventually became movie theaters), and in 1925 Houdini decided to make the transition to a full evening show of his own.

Houdini threw himself into the effort, teaming with renowned theatrical manager, L. Lawrence Weber. Advanced publicity touted the partnership: "'L. Lawrence Weber Presents' is the highest endorsement any attraction can possibly have and Mr. Weber's presentation of Houdini promises to be the most novel and gorgeous entertainment of its kind ever seen." Houdini commissioned a musical score and hired new assistants (8 total). Bess made the costumes. The show's apparatus filled 50 crates and was hauled in a 60 foot railway car.

"Some of the magicians thought I was going to use a lot of women in my forthcoming show and they are trying to beat me to it. They have been misinformed. I am going to specialize in Houdini stuff." 
- Houdini on his full evening show

The show opened for a 3-night run at the Maryland Theater in Baltimore on August 31, 1925 (a full review of this performance was reproduced in Genii, October 1962). In December it arrived in New York and played on Broadway, first at the Shubert Theater on 44th St. and then the National on 41st. Street.

Houdini billed the evening as "3 Shows In 1." In many ways it was the culmination and a celebration of his entire career. The two and a half hour show (with two 10 minute intermissions) opened with Houdini arriving on stage to Pomp and Circumstance. The curtain was a gigantic tapestry made up of ribbons and awards that Houdini had been presented during his career.

Nothing up his sleeves.
The first of the "3 Shows" (Acts) was Magic. To prove there was nothing up his sleeves, Houdini would "tear" off the arm sleeves of his tuxedo and perform with bare arms. This section also included illusions that "startled and pleasured your parents and grandparents." Here Houdini did some effects by Dr. Lynn, the first magician young Ehrich Weiss ever saw. He also revived Metamorphosis with Bess (billed a Miss Beatrice Rahner in the program). Ken Silverman observed in Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss that, "It would not exaggerate the novelty of Houdini's 1925-26 show to say that, after a lifetime in magic, it marked his professional debut as a magician."

The second act was Escapes. This was, essentially, his Vaudeville turn, and it was classic Houdini. Here he did the Needles and the Water Torture Cell, or another famous escape, such as the straitjacket or a packing crate challange (he later introduced a Buried Alive stage effect). Act 3, which by many contemporary reports was the strongest part of the show, was devoted to exposing the methods used by fraudulent spirit mediums.

It must have pleased Houdini to read a review in the Dayton Herald which said: "Last season Thurston presented a remarkable entertainment. But Houdini captivated this reviewer in a much greater measure than his predecessor in magic." Max Holden wrote in The Sphinx: "The Houdini show is one of the most interesting I have ever witnessed. The spiritualistic part being worth many times the price of admission."

While no-one could fault Houdini's escapes and spiritualist exposures (Orson Welles recalled Act 3 as being "riveting, like a perverse sort of revival meeting"), his magic did come under fire by some magicians. In Hiding The Elephant, Jim Steinmeyer quotes Chicago magician Vic Torsberg as saying: "Houdini's magic was just a bunch of junk. You know, that push-button German crap. That's what he performed."

Walter Gibson said Houdini intended to tour his full evening show for 10 seasons. But Houdini only completed one full season (36 weeks). His second season opened at the Majestic Theater in Boston in September 1926. Of course, he was struck down on Halloween of that year. An irony is that his 1926 advertising featured Halloween imagery.

Below is an amazing photo of Houdini on the stage of his 3 Shows In 1. He is standing center stage doing card flourishes with Jim Collins who is holding Robert-Houdin's Crystal Casket. Behind him you can see the Water Torture Cell and Jim Vickery. To the left is the prop for "Radio of 1950", from which would appear Dorothy Young. To the right is the cabinet used for "Welcome Summer" and the silks from the "Whirlwind of Colors."

It must have been a heck of a show!

Houdini on stage (click to enlarge).

Thanks to John C. Hinson for the photo of Houdini on stage. "3 Shows In 1" advert from Houdini A Pictorial Life by Milbourne Christopher.

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Saturday, April 5, 2014

Dean Robbins - Houdini in Wisconsin

This is a well-done remembrance by Dean Robbins about his "lifelong love affair with The Man Who Walked Through Walls'." It originally aired on Wisconsin Public Radio's Wisconsin Life.

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