Friday, March 30, 2012

Inside the Laurel Canyon Houdini Estate

Last month Patrick Culliton and I had the great pleasure of touring the "Houdini Estate" in Laurel Canyon, CA with the current owner, José Luis Nazar.

There is a lot of confusion over this property and whether or not Houdini ever actually lived here. Some say it was Houdini's house. Some say "he never set foot" on the property. Some identify a larger house up the street as the real "Houdini mansion." So I thought I'd use this blog to clear up the mystery and history of the Houdini house...as much as I can.

The truth is the property at 2400 Laurel Canyon Blvd was never owned by Houdini. It was owned by Ralf M. Walker, who in 1915 built a Mediterranean style villa at what was then 2398 Laurel Canyon Blvd (the address became 2400 later). The house was three stories with 11 bedrooms, nine baths, a ballroom, a 15-foot stage for musicians and a ballet room big enough for 10 dancers. He also built a four bedroom guest house across the street at 2435 Laurel Canyon Blvd, and this is where Houdini comes in.

Walker and Houdini were friends -- Houdini might have even invested in Walker's Laurel Canyon Land Co. -- and when the magician came to California in 1919 to film his two features for Famous Players-Lasky, The Grim Game and Terror Island, he and Bess are said to have stayed at Walker's guesthouse at 2435 Laurel Canyon Blvd. That house is now long gone, but here the great Patrick Culliton, author of Houdini The Key and life-long Laurel Canyon resident, shows us exactly where the real Houdini house once stood.


Now, it needs to be said that we don't (yet) have smoking gun evidence that puts Houdini and Bess in the Walker guesthouse in 1919 (update). But we do have circumstantial evidence. In Harold Kellock's Houdini His Life Story (page 271), it says that Houdini spent "his leisurely evenings at home in the modest bungalow he had rented in Hollywood" and that "fellow players returning from late parties, who might have been moved to investigate the solitary light burning in the Houdini bungalow, would have seen the Handcuff king and escape artist scratching busily with his pen at a table littered with manuscripts and old volumes."

The house at 2435 did indeed sit on a bluff above Laurel Canyon Blvd where, yes, one would have been able to see a solitary light burning in the window while driving to and from parties in the Hollywood Hills. The property was also practical -- being relatively close to the Lasky studio (which sat at Sunset and Vine), and scenes from The Grim Game were shot in Laurel Canyon. There is also no other address for Houdini at this time.

We also have Bessie's return to 2435 Laurel Canyon Blvd following Houdini's death, which suggests a familiarity with this Hollywood "home" and with Mr. Walker. And unlike the brief 1919 stay, we have ample evidence of Bess and Edward Saint's occupancy at this time.


This is probably when the legend of the "Houdini mansion" took root. When Bess would throw parties or hold seances, etc., she would do so at the Walker mansion across the street. In fact, the guesthouse had an elevator that went down to a tunnel that ran below Laurel Canyon and came up in the big house grounds (the tunnel is sealed but still exists). One can understand how local magicians who attended these events came to assume that the house belonged to Bess and, by extension, Houdini. The "Houdini mansion."

Bess and Edward Saint left 2435 Laurel Canyon when Walker either died or sold the estate in 1935 to a real estate broker named Charles Wilson. The property went through a series of renters, including evangelist Joe Jeffers, who turned the mansion into the Temple of Yahweh and required donations of up to $100,000 to live on the property. Following Jeffers came an eccentric poetess, Lee Alden, who was known as "The Green Virgin." After Charles Wilson's death in 1954, Fania Pearson bought the property with the intention of turning it into a girls school.

But then in 1959 the Walker mansion and the guesthouse at 2435, which was then owned by a man named Al Sulprizio, both fell victim to the great Laurel Canyon fire. Newspapers at the time reported that "the old Houdini mansion" was among the homes destroyed. The clip below is a news report on that famous fire. While there are no photos of the Houdini guesthouse, Patrick thinks it's possible the house can be glimpsed at 0:30. It appears to fit the description of a house that sits on a bluff above the road.



Is this the real Houdini house at 2435 Laurel Canyon?

Following the fire, the Walker property was abandoned when the burnt-out villa was condemned. A petition to preserve the house as a historical landmark was denied, and the house was finally demolished in 1970. All that remained was a smaller carriage house and the sprawling system of caves and stone walkways, which for the next few decades became home to hippies and homeless, including a mentally unstable man known as "Robin Hood" who believed Laurel Canyon was Sherwood Forrest. (For a taste of this time, read Escape from Houdini Mountain by Pleasant Gehman.)

The overgrown ruins were visible from the heavily trafficked Laurel Canyon Blvd, and its reputation as Houdini's house only grew, especially when it was identified as such in the 1972 guide book, This Is Hollywood, by Kenneth Schessler. The property drew magic pilgrims from around the world. Even I trudged through the ruins with my sister and father in the mid 1970s, excited to carry away a brick from "the Houdini mansion." Of course, many claimed it was haunted by the ghost of Houdini (as well as the Green Virgin), and to this day it still gets written up in publications about "Haunted Hollywood".

Doing my best "Houdini" at the Walker ruins circa 1976.
Robin Hood's lair?

But what happened to the remains of the real Houdini house across the street? According to Patrick, whatever remained of 2435 was completely demolished in the 1960s when the hillside was graded back to widen Laurel Canyon Blvd at what had been a nasty hairpin turn. There are currently foundation ruins on the hillside (also said to be haunted) which someone has tagged "2435", but Patrick assures me those ruins are for a different house. Nothing remains of the real Houdini house, not even the bluff it once sat on.

Just to complicate matters, in 1991 the band The Red Hot Chili Peppers recorded their album Blood Sugar Sex Magik in what they believed to be Houdini's home. That house, which is owned by music producer Rick Rudin, sits a block north of the Walker property on Laurel Canyon Blvd. It has nothing to do with Houdini, but the publicity about the famous recording session, which includes the documentary Funky Monks, has created a second local "Houdini mansion" legend to contend with.

In 1989 the Walker property -- which was still owned by the reclusive Fania Pearson, then 70 -- was put up for sale for $2.5 million by Merrill Lynch. They initially listed it as "The Harry Houdini Estate" until Houdini historian Manny Weltman threatened to sue them for making a false claim (even though Manny had in his collection Bessie letterhead with the 2435 address). Merrill Lynch revised their sell sheet to state only that it was "known as" the Houdini estate.

After being owned for a time by a man named Mark Jacobs, in June 1997 a colorful antique dealer from Georgia named Patrick Williams purchased the property for $377,777.77 (his opening offer was $333,333.33). Williams cleaned away decades of brush and debris, and regularly uncovered "artifacts" that he thought could have belonged to Houdini (a pen with the initial "H" went right up on eBay as "Houdini's fountain pen"). He even developed a movie/book idea, "The Treasures of Houdini's Gardens", about a group of orphans who inherit the property and discover Houdini's secrets hidden in an underground lair.

Williams gave me a tour of the property around this time, showing me a gate that had the words "Houdini & Wilson 1919" stamped on them. (Charles Wilson maybe?) No one today seems to know what became of those gates, but this always intrigued me. If that stamp was legitimately from 1919, it's the smoking gun evidence that puts Houdini himself at the Walker estate.

Williams reportedly put the property back up for sale in 1999 for $1,777,777.77 (he likes his 7s). I'm not sure if it ever sold, but I know the property was back on the market in 2006.

And that brings us to the last chapter in the Houdini Estate story and to the new owner, José Luis Nazar. It's actually a happy ending. This is 3.9 acres of land in a very desirable area, and every time it goes up for sale I dread seeing bulldozers come in and subdivide the land to make way for a dozen mac mansions. Happily, this isn't the plan. José has preserved the property and the history, and has continued with extensive restoration, including tapping back into the natural spring and reinstalling large gates so the property is once again private. José has also opened up the estate for use as a location for parties, weddings, photo shoots, and filming. The estate now has a website thehoudiniestate.com.

José is also genuinely interested in Houdini history and, as I said, generously allowed Patrick Culliton and I to freely roam the restored grounds of landscaped terraces, waterfalls, and beautiful works of art and statuary (including a massive authentic Buddha). There is also a large bust of Houdini that looks out over the property.

We also got to see inside the old carriage house, which is now expanded and decked out with a new pool and large paintings of Houdini in every room. There we toasted -- with 100-year-old port from José's world class wine collection -- to the memory of Houdini in a house that is now worthy of the great man himself. It's a magical place indeed!


Sources:
  • "Houdini Lived Here (Well, Maybe)" by Bill Sharpsteen, Los Angeles Times Magazine, March 1, 1998.
  • Houdini is Haunting the Wrong Mansion by Patrick Culliton.
  • Who haunts the Houdini Manson by Richard Carradine.
  • "Houdini Legend Persists at Aging Estate but Facts Are Elusive" by Michael Szymanski, Los Angeles Times, October 29, 1989.
  • "Revelations About The 'Houdini Estate' in Hollywood" by John Booth, The Linking Ring, March 1997.
  • "List of Homes Razed" (unidentified newspaper clipping on 1959 Laurel Canyon fire).
  • Laurel Canyon Stories website by Steve Eastwood.

19 comments:

  1. Excellent work.

    My mother lived in Laurel Canyon when she was carrying me and used to visit the ruins in the belief that they were of Houdini's estate and haunted by him. This had no influence at all on my interest in Houdini, since I was ignorant of her antics when I first learned about him, but she later appealed superstitiously to her visits as an explanation for my interest.

    Little did she know that had her mystical nonsense been true, she would actually have been setting me up for an interest in Ralf M. Walker!

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  2. What a cool sounding place! I wonder if anyone's ever thought about opening up the tunnel? (I would. Although that's probably because I think secret passageways are cool.) The cute movie concept about the little kids who discover an underground lair of Houdini magic also brought me back to a funny little notion I've had for a while about Houdini maybe having a secret room somewhere. Just sounds like something he'd do. Although that may just be my weird fascination with secret passageways again... :D

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    1. The tunnels might be filled in. Not sure it would be safe to open them up as they run under Laurel Canyon and that's now a very busy street.

      BTW, I had heard the tunnels were a myth, but Jose showed us where they connect to the property. They might actually be less "secret tunnels" than some kind of city irrigation channel or drain.

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  3. This was great - it's been well worth the wait. Nice work.

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  4. Incredible stuff. I enjoyed the Circumstantial Evidence and am also intrigued by the gate that had the words "Houdini & Wilson 1919" stamped on it.

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    1. Jose still has some of the original gates stored on the property. I climbed around them hoping to find the stamped one, but no luck. Both Jose and Patrick dismissed it as something Williams cooked up himself. But I don't know...

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  5. I visited the site from the road with Patrick a few years ago.
    It was nice to see close up pics of the estate that I did not get to see.
    Very good research. You guys did good.

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    1. Thanks Mark. I have Patrick to thank for this. He was the one who was invited. He insisted I come along. :)

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  6. John, You and Patrick did a fantastic job, as usual.

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  7. Wow, another awesome article! Thank-you and thanks to Patrick Culliton for bringing some light to this murky, mythical story. I wish I could go see that myself!

    P.S. You were a cute kid, John! :)

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  8. Houdini might have played poker over at Mr. Walker's place a lot to make people think that way. He is, after all, a frequent visitor.

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    1. Yes, if he did rent the house across the way, he would have been a frequent visitor.

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  9. This would be good place to visit to! I've been wondering what kind of enrollment does Houdini lived into and how did he developed such amazing skill to do those life-threatening tricks. I guess, the home he used to live to will pretty much explain it.

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    1. You might like to read this, Shannon. This is about his home in New York: Discovering 278: the home of Houdini

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  10. The tunnel was destroyed in 1957 when large storm drains were installed under Laurel Canyon. Laurel Canyon, being a natural waterway, with spring fed streams all year rounds and serious flooding during the rainy season, needed these storm drains. However, I am told that something still remains of the tunnel. It was strictly to allow pedestrian traffic to travel between 2435 to 2400.
    Also, the July, 1935, final Houdini seance with a small group of magic dignitaries was held at 2435. The cocktail party which I think was the following day was outdoors at 2400 and of the five hundred PCAM conventioneers and their wives "most attended."

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