Sunday, September 25, 2016

A close call in Atlantic City

While researching an upcoming post, I stumbled on this item from the Wilmington Delaware News Journal dated June 16, 1908. Thought it was worth a quick share.

Below is Young's Million Dollar Pier in Atlantic City in Houdini's day. It was demolished in 1983 and today is the site of Caesars Playground Pier.

Click here to read more about the history of Young's Million Dollar Pier. Below are links to a few other notable close calls.


Friday, September 23, 2016

Secret recordings of Edward Saint revealed

In the 1930s and 40s, Edward Saint recorded private phone conversations while he and Bess lived in Hollywood. Magician John Booth first discussed Saint's secret recordings in a 1966 issue of The Linking Ring. Later Booth said, "Across the years, I have tried fruitlessly to find out who obtained these recordings from the Houdini estate. No one can tell me what happened to the voice records: they simply disappeared."

Well, they did not disappear entirely. Because today I'm excited to reveal two of them!

These remarkable recordings are owned by our good friend Mark Willoughby, who for years didn't know himself what these records contained. But now the recordings have been heard and Mark has graciously allowed me to share the details here.  While these do not include Bess, what they do contain is pretty wild!

The recordings themselves were made on "Howard Home Recording Discs." Each side contains approximate four minutes of conversation. Each record is labeled with the name of the person being recorded.

The first (undated) record contains a remarkable phone conversation between Edward Saint and a man identified on the label as "Great Alexander's Press Agent." I'm not sure of the man's real name, but at one point Ed appears to call him "Mr. Runny"? Alexander was a famous mentalist and magician who also authored books on the paranormal. At the time of this recording, Alexander was retired and living in California. [For the life of Alexander, read David Charvet's Alexander The Man Who Knows.]

Incredibly, the press agent is pitching Saint on the idea of holding a fake Houdini séance in which Alexander will appear to have made contact and Bess would concur. Saint asks him for specifics:

SAINT: Well how would you have him receive this message, through crystal or clairvoyance or...

PRESS AGENT: Mr. Saint, I haven't even gone into that. That is something that I'd have to first get your okay, then I'd broach the subject to him, if only to bring him something to him unless I knew I could go through with it. And then have the two of you sit down -- I understand you are a very smart publicity man yourself, or along research lines that is I've been told so -- and then sit down and figure out a way in which it could be done, you understand?

SAINT: Yeah.

PRESS AGENT: And the only thing that would be necessary for Mrs. Houdini in the matter would be to say, "Well, at last it came!" And there wouldn't be any public demonstration or anything of the kind of it.

SAINT: I see. Other words all you would need is a signed statement that it was...

PRESS AGENT: Yes, and have nothing public because the minute you make it a public thing it would look like publicity. This has to come at an opportune time, or you might term it an inopportune time. That Alexander didn't do it while the $10,000 that was offered -- I think that was the publicity at the time, is that right? Well whether or not it was makes no difference.

The press agent goes on to explain how he'd first like to "set a lot of things all around" Los Angeles, New York and London, but before he gets too deep into his scheme, Saint interrupts him and decides to shoot the idea down entirely:

SAINT: Well, I'll tell you, Mr. Runny[?], I know that the legitimate angle that Mrs. Houdini has carried from the time of Houdini's death all the way through the present moment would prohibit even broaching such a thing, and is to pervert or falsify or prostitute such a, well, I'd say almost a sacred thing as an occasion of Houdini... [the recording cuts off].

When the conversation is resumed on the second side of the record, the press agent is telling a story of how he once helped arrange (fix?) a jail escape for Houdini himself. The recording comes on as he's discussing a police jailer in Indianapolis named, as far as I can tell, Saul Bear:

PRESS AGENT: He was a very sour man toward show business because he had been a rank failure at it. And he laid in wait for anyone to come along with a handcuff act. He had lever cells which are unbeatable as you know.


PRESS AGENT: And so, Martin Beck... I happened to be doing, during the summer, I happened to be handling the publicity for Springfield and Terre Haute, Indiana. And I got to talking to Saul Bear here. And I dropped in and happened to see Harry at the Penn Hotel in Philadelphia. I met him there and I said, "I see you're into Indianapolis at the Orpheum there." He says, "Yes." I said, "Well, they got the new county jail there." He says, "Well I don't have to take..." He was doing some cabinet escape, I forgot what they called it, upside down in water or something. You probably remember.

SAINT: Aha. Yeah.

PRESS AGENT: I said, "Would you like to beat that jail?" Well he says, "Not necessarily." Well I says, Saul Bear's a friend of mine, and I said if you want to beat him, then I'll take care of that for you. Well he says, "I'll take care of you." And I says, "You don't need to take care of me." I don't know if Mrs. Houdini remembers it or not. But when he got there, everything was all perfectly arranged. Now that was ace publicity.
The conversation ends with:

PRESS AGENT: But I don't want to try and convince you of anything, Mr. Saint, you're probably much older than I am and know all the answers and all the angles. The thought just came to me and there is no harm in everyone giving vent to what their real feelings are when they got the nucleus of a good idea.

SAINT: [laughing] Surely, surely.

While the idea of Alexander faking a Houdini seance is wild enough, evidence of an arranged jail escape is even more intriguing. However, I wasn't able to find any mention of an Indianapolis jail escape, and according to Bill Kalush, Houdini did his last jail escape in 1912. As Houdini was doing the Water Torture Cell at this time (the escape the press agent couldn't recall), this jail break would have to have been after 1912. But it's possible. Recently there's been a suggestion of a Houdini jail escape as late as 1923.

The next record is dated Jan. 16, 1942 and contains a conversation between Edward Saint and Frank O'Conner. O'Conner was an actor and director who was involved in many of Bess and Ed's Hollywood dealings. He wrote and directed Religious Racketeers. (He's also the great grandfather of actor Wil Wheaton who played Houdini in Young Harry Houdini.)

O'Conner had helped Bess and Ed set up a Houdini biopic at Paramount and had even worked on the script. But by 1942, nothing had come of the Paramount project, so O'Conner was looking for a new studio and a new angle.

On this recording, O'Conner is discussing with Saint a deal that would allow a pair of independent producers named Jackson and Stone to pitch a "life of Houdini" project to RKO Studios. O'Conner states that actor Paul Muni "is eager to do the thing, not just because of his knowledge of Houdini, but what can be done with the character."

However, O'Conner is very insistent that it needs to be a fictional version on Houdini's life. He explains his reasons thus:

O'CONNER: Of course, everybody in the show business knows Houdini, they know what he stood for and what he'd done, and it's merely a matter of devising a fictional treatment, see. They are not concerned with biographies at all, such as the Paramount thing is concerned, you see? Biographies are a dead issue. All the biographies have failed at the box office. That goes for all of them, including Pasture. That was a terrible flop by reason of it being a biography.

Saint agrees with a fictionalized approach. "That's okay. That's entirely okay," he says. O'Conner then lays out RKO's desire for a name screenwriter to pen the final script:

O'CONNER: The story has to be written by a top flight writer, such a Dudley Nichols or John Steinbeck. In other words they want something to exploit in the publicity. Life of Houdini by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck the author of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flats and numerous others. Or Hemmingway, somebody like that, see? He'd probably do very little of the work, but his name will be used. All of which they call box office insurance.

At one point Saint broaches the subject of his own creative involvement in the writing process "to safeguard the thing." For that exchange, Mark has graciously allowed me to share a 30 second clip from the actual recording itself. Saint is the first man heard and O'Conner, much lower audio, is on the other end of the line. Enjoy.

Nothing ever came of the Jackson and Stone Houdini project at RKO. Possibly the would-be producers were unaware that RKO had already tried and failed to come up with their own fictional take on Houdini's life in the 1930s [read: RKO 589: Discovering Hollywood's first Houdini film].

Edward Saint would die the year this recording was made. But what incredible artifacts to have survived, and what a thrill to share them here today.

A very big thanks Mark Willoughby.


Thursday, September 22, 2016

FLASHBACK: Ed and Bess on the record

Here's a look back at a story from 2011 about secret recordings made by Edward Saint while he and Bess lived in Hollywood in the 1930s. These were discussed by John Booth in a 1966 issue of The Linking Ring.

I'm flashing back to this today as a refresher and teaser for an update tomorrow that you won't want to miss!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The final cut

Click to enlarge.
We seem to be in the season of Dr. Leopold Weiss, with the recent discovery of a family Bible and other revelations about the estranged brother Houdini called "Doc." So today I thought I'd share this article from The Bridgeport Telegram dated November 16, 1926, just a few weeks after Houdini's death.

As we know, Houdini and Leopold had a falling out when Leo married Sadie Glantz, the Hungarian ex-wife of another brother, Nathan. The precise details of the family drama are not entirely known, but Houdini's displeasure took many forms, including cutting Leo's head out of family portraits and forbidding his burial in the Weiss family plot.

Even after death, Houdini struck, as this article records. Houdini's Will stipulated that the dreaded Sadie, and by extension, Leo, would receive nothing from his estate. Ironically, Leo's own estate at this time may have been larger than Houdini's, which was ultimately declared insolvent.

Leo's life did not play out so well after Houdini's death. A census taken in 1935 shows him still married to Sadie; but at some point, she vanishes from his life, either by death or divorce. Leo retired from his lucrative practice as a radiologist in 1949 due to increasing blindness (some say caused by repeated X-ray exposure). In 1962, at age 70, he committed suicide by leaping from the roof of his apartment building in the Inwood area of Manhattan.

Leo left all his worldly goods to his long-time former nurse, Marguerite Elliott. But Marguerite's husband forbid her from accepting, so all that was left of the last living Weiss sibling was thrown out.

But Leo scored one victory in the end. Even though Houdini had excommunicated him, he was buried in the family plot in Machpelah cemetery, though today his gave is unmarked due to vandalism. Whatever happened to Sadie in life or death is unknown.

Leopold and Sadie Glantz Weiss.


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Lee Terbosic plans "Houdini 100" tribute

I normally don't cover magicians who replicate Houdini's feats (unless they make unexpected news), but I thought I'd make an exception for Lee Terbosic and his upcoming suspended straitjacket escape in Pittsburgh on November 6. That's because Lee will do his escape at the intersection of Liberty Avenue and Wood Street at the very spot where Houdini did his own suspended straitjacket escape 100 years ago to the day.

Lee has launched a nice website laying out the details of what he's calling: "HOUDINI 100."

Lee was also recently profiled on KDKA News. Talking about Houdini, he said: "He was a marketing genius. He really was. He knew how to sell a show. He knew how create a buzz about what he was doing. That’s why we still talk about him today."

Sounds like Lee has some marketing skills himself!

Of course, if he's really going to replicate Houdini's escape, then he will certainly strap the jacket on as Houdini did and not employ a straitjacket fail....right Lee?


Monday, September 19, 2016

LINK: German Berliner Handcuffs used during trial?

Joe Notaro at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence asks if these handcuffs -- pictured in The Great Houdini Handcuffs and Legirons by Dick Wresh -- were really the cuffs used at Houdini's famous slander trail in Germany in 1902. Joe has dug up some nice facts about these cuffs and the case, so click on over to HHCE and help unlock the mystery.


Sunday, September 18, 2016


As part of my site improvements, I've now embedded a U.S. Amazon "aStore" which you can find under the "Website" drop down menu. Here I'll feature the most recent Houdini book and DVD releases. You can add what you like to your cart. When you are ready to check out, you will be automatically sent to Amazon. Works like magic!

Today is not a bad day to do a little Amazon shopping. Olive Films upcoming Blu-ray and DVD releases of Houdini (1953) are both reduced 30% in price. So maybe give them a pre-order via the new WILD ABOUT HARRY aStore.


Hanging Houdini

Houdini to Hang! How's that for an attention getter? In 1922, when this appeared in the Washington Herald, hanging was still the standard form of execution in D.C., so this would have certainly given a reader pause. But that was the whole point.

As you can see, this ad is actually referring to Houdini's suspended straitjacket escape from B.F. Keith's Theater in the Riggs Building on January 12, 1922. I probably don't need to tell you that Houdini survived his public "hanging."

But this begs the question; did Houdini ever do a stunt that involved his own hanging? Programs do show Houdini performing something called the "Jesse James Hanging Trick," but it's likely this was a magic effect and not an escape (possibly Rope Through Neck).

In Walter B. Gibson's Houdini's Escapes (1931) that are notes for what Houdini called "The Gallows Restraint." This did not involve actual hanging, but it evoked it, as you can see in the illustration below. But it doesn't appear Houdini ever developed this escape beyond these notes.

In case you're wondering, Washington D.C. switched to electrocution as their means of execution in 1927. Of course, Houdini had fun with electric chairs as well.

Related posts:

Saturday, September 17, 2016

LINK: Magic in Marshall's air for Halloween

The Detroit Free Press reports that the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan will hold several Houdini and escape-themed events next month to mark the 90th anniversary of Houdini's death. The museum is also planning a special event on Halloween, but details are being keep secret for now.

"Let's just say that it will harken back to 1978 when the museum was new, and it will focus on the great Houdini and his legacy," museum administrator Cindy Lake said.

Looks like next month is going to be jam-packed with Houdini happenings to celebrate the 90th. I've established a new hashtag #Houdini90th so you can keep up with all the events here as well as on Twitter and Facebook.


Friday, September 16, 2016

The Elusive Key unlocks Houdini art

In March 2014 the Gristle Art Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn had a exhibition of Houdini-related artwork called "The Elusive Key." Curator Samantha Levin of Levin Fine Art described the collection like this:

"The Elusive Key was named for the rumor that Houdini’s wife snuck him a key in a kiss that allowed him to open handcuffs that “could not be picked by mortal man,” but I told the artists that they could choose any aspect of Houdini’s life to interpret. Some went for the specific theme, however a few decided to explore Houdini’s strong attempts to defrock false mediums who fooled many people out of their money into thinking they could talk to the dead. Yet others interpreted other aspects of Houdini’s legacy."

The result was some pretty unique artwork, and I'm sorry this slipped past me when it was originally shown. Happily, the art is still online and can be seen at the Gristle Art Gallery and Levin Fine Art websites.

The artwork pictured here by Michal Brodka is called "There Has Been No Miss Brent Here This Evening" and is a tribute to Houdini's silent serial The Mastery Mystery.

Related posts:

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Houdini in 1899

Houdini began 1899 adrift and discouraged. He had begun his career as a professional magician in 1891. Now, eight years later, he had not made a name for himself and was stuck playing dime museums to make a living. In fact, he worked the lowly venues so much, he was now nicknamed "Dime Museum Harry." He was also dead broke. A year earlier, he had attempted to sell his entire act, including his handcuff act. There were no takers.

During the first week of the new year, Houdini walked into a Chicago police station and amazed the officers for over an hour by escaping from their manacles. But there is a strange melancholy that hangs over the newspaper account of this exploit by the "strolling magician." It appears Houdini had no real purpose behind the stunt, except to exercise his escape muscles. Omitted from the article was that he was working at Middleton’s Clark St. Dime Museum. But the article made the front page of the Chicago Journal, a city that housed some important people in show business, including the all powerful Martin Beck.

Martin Beck oversaw the western Orpheum vaudeville circuit, which offered "refined" entertainment via a chain of well-appointed theaters. Beck had a business agreement with B.F. Keith and Edward Albee, who controlled vaudeville in the east. Eventually, the men came to monopolize vaudeville, not just with their nationwide string of theaters, but also with an all-powerful booking agency that fed their own chains (collecting commissions every step of the way). With their prestigious theaters and nationwide influence, Keith-Albee Orpheum was "the big time."

The popular story goes that Martin Beck, traveling with a party of sightseeing theater managers, saw Houdini at the Palm Garden Beer Hall in St. Paul, Minnesota. Beck even sent a pair of handcuffs on stage to test Houdini, "perhaps more in joke than sincerity." But on March 14, Houdini received a telegram from Beck that changed his life:

Beck's statement that he would "see his act" in Omaha makes me wonder if the story of Beck challenging Houdini with cuffs at the Palm Garden might be mythology. It always struck me as a little odd that a man like Beck would be trolling beer halls for acts. Perhaps it was a scout who saw Houdini and alerted Beck. Or maybe Beck had learned of Houdini via the "strolling magician" article a few months earlier. However it happened, Houdini now had his first real shot at the big time, and the timing couldn't have been better.

Houdini opened the week of March 27 at the Creighton-Orpheum Theater in Omaha, and was held over for a second week. "Was the talk of the town" Houdini reported. He then played another two week stint at the Orpheum in Kansas City where he received a glowing review for what appeared to be a new effect: The East Indian Needle Trick. In Lexington, Missouri, he perform handcuff escapes at the City Council Room on May 3. A stint at the Pavilion Theater in Joplin followed. Then, on June 2, Harry and Bess arrived in San Francisco.

To publicize his opening at San Francisco's prestigious Orpheum Theater, the birthplace of vaudeville on the west coast, Houdini marched into the Central police headquarters. Newspaper accounts the next day reported that Houdini, "who claims Austria as the land of his nativity", escaped from four pair of handcuffs and two sets of leg irons in seven minutes. When asked how he did it, Houdini replied, "Oh, I just sneak out of them."

Houdini played two weeks at the San Francisco Orpheum to good reviews. While the billing of "The Houdinis" had now been abandoned in favor of "Houdini King of Handcuffs", below Houdini's name on the program in equal size was "Assisted by Mlle. Beatrice Houdini." While in the city, Harry and Bess also got to experience their first earthquake.

Houdini then traveled to Los Angeles, opening at the Orpheum which was then housed in the Grand Opera House at 110 S. Main St. (Beck would build a new Orpheum Theater in 1903). Once again Houdini visited a police station and, after warming up the officers with his needle trick, was "trussed up like a turkey" in five pairs of handcuffs, a pair of leg-irons and an Oregon boot. He escaped in six minutes. Interestingly, the Los Angeles Record noted that an Officer Hill, "who had been for years the butt of the Los Angeles police force because of his belief in Spiritualism" was jubilant after Houdini's escape, turning to his fellow officers and saying: "I told you so." He then proceeded to "preach a batch of spiritualistic truths."

While in Los Angeles, Houdini became embroiled in an apparent controversy as a man named Professor Benzon published an exposé of Houdini's feats. Benzon's article, which was syndicated in newspapers in both Los Angeles and San Francisco, claimed:

In reality, this trick is absurdly simple. Handcuffs not being an article in extensive demand, there are but a few kinds made. Professor Houdini is supplied with these, and with the keys that unlock them. He keeps conveniently about him all keys known to the handcuff trade.

Beck advised Houdini to ignore Benzon. But that was not his style. He would refute his challenger in dramatic fashion, and in doing so evolve his handcuff act in a startling and original new way.

When Houdini returned to San Francisco on July 13, he once again escaped from shackles at police headquarters. But to disproved the claim that he used keys, Houdini allowed himself to be stripped nude and searched by a police surgeon and two assistants. After the test, Houdini visited the Bushnell Company and took a series of semi-nude photographs in shackles. These are the first of Houdini's iconic nude portraits, and they would feature prominently in newspapers and magazines. Certainly Houdini was not like any other magician the world had ever seen before.

Now, I should point out that some, including the great Patrick Culliton, believe Professor Benzon was a plant and his "exposé" was written by Houdini himself. Indeed, the following year, an almost identical article appeared in Boston penned by a "Professor Pooley." So it's very possible that along with the nude test, Houdini had created another signature during his west coast tour; the rival challenger.

After San Francisco, Houdini traveled to St Louis where on September 2 he escaped handcuffs at police headquarters "in a costume so brief he had no place to conceal keys or wires." On this occasion, his mouth was sealed with "sticking plaster." He also performed card tricks and his Needles (which he once also did in the nude). The only snafu was when the St. Louis Dispatch spelled his name HUDINI in its headline.

Along with his reputation, Houdini's weekly salary under Beck was also on the rise. He started at $60 and was now bringing in $250 (a large portion of which he sent home to his mother). Beck was overseeing his career, telling the magician, "I have laid out the plan for you very carefully. My aim especially at present to make a name for you."

Beck proposed a European tour where many American acts went to build up an "International" reputation that would sell well back home. The tour was even announced in papers on October 5. However, the recent Boer War had depressed the UK economy, and Beck thought it prudent to postpone the tour. Europe could wait.

Instead, Houdini performed at Memphis's Grand Theater in October and November. By now he was doing straitjacket escapes as part of his act. In December, he arrived in Cincinnati to play the Columbia Theater. Beck arrived in town on December 16, and the men finalized a three year contract. Beck and his wife saw Houdini perform at the Columbia on December 17.

Before the end of the year, Houdini performed one more police station handcuff escape in his home town of New York. However, when he began to strip, the sergeant protested: "That don't go... You've got to keep your clothes on."

The year of 1899 had been transformative. The moniker "Dime Museum Harry" was long gone. "Houdini The Handcuff King" was now a success on the big time Orpheum circuit. The new year, and the new century, looked promising. But even Houdini could not have foreseen the extent of success that still lay ahead.

Related posts:

More years in the life of Houdini:

Telegram and newspaper images from Houdini His Legend and His Magic by Doug Henning.

(My plan is to produce a post like this for every year of Houdini's professional life.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

HARRY by Antonio Ferrara

Released today in Italy is a fictionalized biography of Houdini aimed at young readers called HARRY by Antonio Ferrara. The 128 page book features nice cover art and can be purchased at the Italian

Related posts:

The Grim Game screening at the Harry Ransom Center, Oct. 4

TCMs restoration of Houdini's The Grim Game will screen at the Harry Ransom Center's Charles Nelson Prothro Theater on Tuesday, October 4 at 7:00 PM. Eric Colleary, Cline Curator of Theater and Performing Arts, will introduce the film.

The Harry Ransom Center is located at The University of Texas at Austin. The center holds one of the largest collections of Houdini material in the world, including one of the largest archives of material related to his film career.

For more information about the screening CLICK HERE.

Thanks to Dick Brookz.


Monday, September 12, 2016

A new look for WILD ABOUT HARRY

So I've launched a new design for WILD ABOUT HARRY. This marks the first real change in the look and feel of the site since it went live in November 2010. This is primarily so I can create new drop down menus and can better organize some the content buried deep within the blog. Let me know in the comments below if this is a look you can live with for another six years. Thanks!

If you've already forgotten what the old site looked like, CLICK HERE.

Houdini rises at Paramount

Our good friend Steven Bingen, who has written books about Warner Bros and MGM, is now completing a new book about Paramount Studios called Paramount: City of Dreams. While doing research, Steve came across this October 1952 issue of the studio newsletter showing an impressive new construction on the backlot for their upcoming production of Houdini.

Click to enlarge.

The building facade would be used to shoot Houdini's suspended straitjacket escape. Here are a few images of the shoot itself from the archives of LIFE magazine. Unfortunately, I don't know the name of the stuntman who performed the straitjacket escape that day. It's interesting to note that this was filmed around Halloween 1952.

I can't help but think what a nice companion piece the makes to last Friday's post about Houdini himself doing a stunt 33 years earlier on a building facade at the Famous Players-Lasky studio for The Grim Game. Famous Players-Lasky was later folded into Paramount.

Houdini (1953) is due to be released on a new DVD and Blu-ray on November 15. Steve's Paramount: City of Dreams will be released November 1 and can be pre-ordered at Amazon.

Thank you Steve.



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