Part Two TONIGHT at 9/8c on HISTORY

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Time to bury the Houdini exhumation

Back in March 2007 the AP broke the news that the family of Houdini (represented by George Hardeen) was going to exhume the body of the great magician to investigate the possibility that he was poisoned. This was an old murder conspiracy theory championed as credible in the 2006 biography The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush and Larry Sloman.

So what happened? It’s been two years and Houdini still rests in his grave. Unfortunately, the truth of this event is now as murky as the poisoning theory it was meant to dispel.

The authors assured me as of last year that it was sincere and was in the hands of the lawyers. I’ve no reason to doubt them. The popular media, on the other hand, has largely concluded that it was just a publicity stunt.

The Washington Post was the first to suggest something was rotten in their coverage of the March 24 news conference. Held at the American Jewish Historical Society, the paper noted "it was impossible to take a photo of the event without including a blown-up copy of the cover of The Secret Life of Houdini hanging being the news conference principals." A little digging by the paper revealed the media spectacle was not orchestrated by the family of Houdini, but was organized and paid for by the authors in conjunction with the PR firm Dan Klores Communications.

As time wore on, the authors said legal issues were delaying the exhumation, which seemed credible after the Hinson-Blood family and members of the magic community raised objections. “We want to do this the right way,” Sloman told the Daily News. “We don't want to offend anyone.”

But that same article revealed that the parties involved never filed legal papers to preform an exhumation, and that George Hardeen had pulled out, saying, “I am not intimately involved in this.”

Now, two years later, all the parties have gone quite.


So what happened here? Was this a sincere attempt to investigate a controversial theory as the authors claim? Or was it a crass publicity stunt as the press say? Or was it some combination of both (which is what I’m now prone to believe). And was it harmless?

Personally, I wouldn’t have minded seeing Houdini exhumed. I freely admit I have a morbid curiosity to see the famous bronze casket and what remains of the old boy (not to mention the letters from mama buried under his head). Granted, if I were family, I might feel differently, but certainly Houdini wasn’t above prying the lid off deceased family members. He did exactly this with both his father and half-brother Herman when he had their bodies moved to the Machpelah family plot. I also would have loved all the publicity it would have generated (Will Houdini be inside?) and the Discovery Channel documentary that was vying to cover the event.

But to have gone this far would have required joining a collective conspiracy of belief in the poisoning theory, which most Houdini historians, including myself, find highly dubious. In the end, there was just no sincere reason to do this, and maybe that’s why it never happened.

For better or worse, the proposed exhumation of Houdini is now a part of the Houdini story. One day it would be nice to exhume the full truth.


Exhumation timeline:

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Evidence of an unmade 1936 Houdini movie

Two recent eBay auctions offered evidence of a Houdini biopic in development at Paramount some 17 years before their HOUDINI with Tony Curtis would hit the screens.

Click to enlarge.

Two trade ads, both from 1936, show the film was to be called Houdini The Great and would be produced by the legendary Dore Schary for Paramount Pictures. Writer Pierre Collings is credited with an adaption (presumably of the Kellock book) on the first ad. Collins wrote the acclaimed The Story of Louis Pasteur for Paramount. He died in 1937.

Dore Schary
The second ad shows Schary working on Houdini The Great with writer Frank O’Conner. There is no mention of it being an adaptation this time. O’Conner and Schary are credited with an “original story and screenplay.”

The year is significant. Nineteen thirty-six was the 10th anniversary of the death of Houdini and the year of the final Houdini seance atop the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. That event marked the zenith of Edward Saint's postmortem Houdini publicity blitz, and certainly helped the studio see the potential in a film about the great escape artist. In fact, I’ve seen documents that show Saint and Bessie Houdini were the driving force behind this early Houdini movie.

At the late great Aladdin Bookstore in Fullerton, I got a peek at what I believe was an original script for Houdini The Great (I don’t recall if it was by Collings or O’Conner). Interestingly, the story ends with Houdini being assassinated by a spiritualist gunman in a crowd. As Bessie was involved in this version, it’s maybe telling that she was okay with pinning the direct cause of Houdini’s death on the spiritualist community. Did she consider J. Gordon Whitehead an “assassin”?

It would take more than a decade for Paramount to finally make the Houdini movie, and when they did both Bessie and Edward Saint were dead and Dore Schary had moved onto MGM. That film was, of course, the classic HOUDINI starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh.

One wonders who the studio might have had in mind to play Houdini in their 1936 version?

Related:

Monday, February 16, 2009

Holly Houdini

Here’s one for fun. Hugh Hefner’s former #1 girlfriend, Holly Madison, recently posed for a layout in Playboy with an escape theme. The pictorial, which was showcased on last night’s The Girls Next Door, features “escape artist” Holly wrapped in chains at the bottom of the Playboy Mansion swimming pool. And she’s nude...but you probably already guessed that.

“Just like Houdini,” cackled Hef when he stumbled on the photo-shoot in progress.

Holly’s sudden interest in escapology may have something to do with the fact that she’s now dating illusionist and askew hat wearing enthusiast, Criss Angel.

The pictorial featured in the February edition of Playboy.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Murdoch Mysteries investigates Houdini

The popular Canadian TV series Murdoch Mysteries will air an episode this season featuring Houdini.

Based on the award-winning novels by Maureen Jennings, the show features shrewd and forward-thinking detective, William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson), who battles crime in late 19th century Toronto with a cunning mixture of intuitive deduction and forensic techniques.

The final episode of February sees a young Harry Houdini (Joe Dinicol) bring his already world-famous stage show to Toronto. While Houdini is giving one of his star escapologist performances, the bank next door is robbed and the security guard murdered in the process. Could it possibly have been the world famous illusionist?

Series 2 of Murdoch Mysteries starts on Tuesday February 10 at 9pm on Alibi. Click here for more information.

Unused Death Defying Acts poster

While trolling the net, I discovered this unused poster for Death Defying Acts, the 2008 film starring Guy Pearce as Houdini and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a Scottish psychic.


Not a bad poster. In fact, I much prefer this to the final one-sheet, which did everything it could to hide the fact that this was a movie about Houdini.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Escape artist has close call in Water Torture Cell

Escape artist Kristen Johnson had a very close call when she performed her version of Houdini’s Water Torture Cell during an NBA halftime show last month. After three minutes, Johnson lost consciousness and had to be pulled from the tank.

Kristen’s husband and performing partner Kevin Ridgeway told the Magic Newswire, “Kristen suffered an hypoxic seizure after freeing herself from one of the restrains. She wasn’t feeling well earlier in the day, but that seems to have been low blood sugar. We’ve staged that escape 599 times and had only one other incident which is a very good track record.” 

The entire incident was caught on video (which is pretty disturbing, so I’ll leave it to you to watch it or not).

Interestingly, one the very first imitators of Houdini’s most famous escape was a woman. Miss Undina performed a copy of Houdini’s act not long after he first introduced the escape in Germany in 1912. Houdini filed an injunction against Undina, who quickly vanished into obscurity, her only legacy being the poster (below) that Houdini used in court as evidence against her.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Houdini dabbles in ‘Electric Flesh’

Houdini never dies in the mind of novelists. While browsing Amazon this morning, I stumbled on this piece of Houdini fiction I overlooked when it was first released in 2006.

Electric Flesh by Claro finds Harry Houdini infatuated with Szuszu, a magician's assistant, whom he pursues through a sideshow of carnival freaks. In a modern story set in 1996, an unemployed executioner, Howard Hordinary, hopes to prove that he, like Gary Gilmore, is the unacknowledged grandson of the great escape artist, the fruit of Houdini's liaison with Szuszu.

Electric Flesh can be purchased now on Amazon.com.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A solid Houdini biography and learning tool

There are no shortage of Houdini biographies aimed at young readers. My bookshelf currently holds 50 different titles. But this is not surprising as the life of Harry Houdini is a joy for youngsters to discover, and a great way to get kids to read.

The most recent release is Harry Houdini by Janet Piehl, part of the “History Makers Bios” series from Lerner Publishing. This 48 page book is aimed at a 4th grade reading level and is a VERY fine biography in all respects.

First off, the book is well illustrated with a mix of photos (most credited to the Library of Congress) and nice original color illustrations by Tad Butler. While there are no new photos here for the hardcore Houdini aficionado, the book does contain a rarely seen pic of Houdini controlling Margery in the Margery Box on page 38, which may be new to some. I also appreciated the photo of New York neck tie cutters in 1889, which gives a feel for the workspace Ehrich Weiss occupied as a teen.

The text is clearly written in simple fact-based sentences that appear to be tailored for reading out loud. The book handles the facts of Houdini’s life responsibly and thoroughly. With the exception of saying the Brothers Houdini charmed snakes as part of their act (and maybe they did -- I’ve just never heard this before), I spotted no inaccuracies or, worse, Houdini mythology stated as fact, which is the scourge of so many Houdini biographies.

In fact, by putting in a sidebar the tale of Houdini’s boyhood encounter with a convict while working for a locksmith, and clearly staying that it is “a story that is told,” this little bio demonstrates greater responsibility than the newest adult Houdini biography (which plays very fast and loose with this tale). While the many apocryphal tales of Houdini are tempting -- especially when we’re talking about tantalizing young readers -- Janet Piehl sticks with the facts. Bravo.

The book also includes a timeline and bibliography of books, websites, and further reading recommendations.

All in all, this is an excellent biography of Houdini and a first rate learning tool for young magic and reading enthusiasts.

This review first appeared on Houdini Lives.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Being Harry Houdini in Northampton

Click to enlarge
Three performers take the stage at Northampton's Academy of Music this Sunday, reviving the spirit of Houdini in a special program entitled “Being Harry Houdini.”

Todd Robbins will perform sideshow feats, old-school magic will be represented by Hartford-based David Garrity, and Springfield's Michael Paul will perform mentalism.

“Being Harry Houdini” happens Sunday, Feb. 8th at 2 p.m. at the Academy of Music, 274 Main St., Northampton. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 at the door. Call (413) 587-1269 or visit Northampton Art Council for more info.

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