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.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Inside the Houdini Estate tomorrow

So I've finally written up a blog about my visit last month with Patrick Culliton to the "Houdini Estate" in Laurel Canyon. I know there is a question whether Houdini ever actually lived there, so I did some additional research and will lay out the full history of the famous property. So stop on by WILD ABOUT HARRY tomorrow for a journey Inside the Houdini Estate.

Chef Houdini

Magician, escape artist, author, aviator, actor, crusader...cook! Houdini did it all.

The mighty Kevin Connolly has posted to his blog Houdini Himself excerpts from two cookbooks in which Houdini provided special recipes.

The first is from the awesomely named The Stag Cook Book: A Man's Cook Book for Men (1922), where Houdini provides recipes for "Scalloped Mushrooms and Deviled Eggs."

Next is the Celebrated Actor-Folks' Cookeries: A Collection of The Favorite Foods of Famous Players (1916), in which Houdini gives his recipe for "Bread-and-Butter Custard." Says Harry, "I happen to have a weakness for sweets, and this is one you will not find in any other cook book."

So did Houdini really create these recipes or just lend his name to these books? Hey, I'm not here to reveal Houdini's secrets. But I'm willing to bet he was a better cook than Thurston.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sherry and Krall perform Houdini's Water Torture Cell

Here's one we've been waiting for. This is video of Richard Sherry and Dayle Krall of Sherry and Krall Magic performing their authentic recreation of Houdini's original Chinese Water Torture Cell escape. The video was recorded on Houdini's birthday and commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the cell's debut in 1912.



Burt Randolph Sugar dies at 75


Sportswriter and boxing maven Burt Randolph Sugar, who co-authored the book Houdini His Life and Art with James The Amazing Randi, died on Sunday in Mount Kisco, NY at age 75.

First published as a paperback in 1976, Houdini His Life and Art was one of four coffee table sized Houdini books released to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Houdini's death. It's actually an excellent book, under-rated as a biography, with sores of rare photographs. It was released as a hardcover in 1977 and has not been reprinted since. The copyright page shows Sugar as the sole copyright owner.

Click here to read Burt Sugar's obituary at The New York Times.

Thanks to Kevin Connolly at Houdini Himself for the alert.

Animatronic Houdini now appearing in Las Vegas

Houdini's Magic Shop at the New York New York Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas has added a life-sized animatronic Houdini mannequin escaping from a straight-jacket upside-down to their store. This pic comes from our friend MSW. I love it!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Wikipedia robs Houdini of his first Australian flight

It appears partisans in the ongoing pissing match over which region in Australia can celebrate the first airplane flight have struck the Houdini Wikipedia page and erased Houdini's status as the first man to fly on the continent, despite Australia's own historical record.

The aviation section, which I originally wrote for Wiki, now has Houdini's aviation career whittled down to a single small paragraph, eliminating Houdini's historic flight (and the fact that it was certified by the Aerial League of Australia as the first), and have instead devoted five rambling paragraphs to Colin Defries career and claim that he was first under the heading [Houdini] "Falsely reported as pioneer."

I went in and rewrote the section again, and included a reference to Defries claim because I do think that part of the story. But it was reverted by the same Defries-fixated user who added that my blog on Houdini's flight (sourced from the Houdini biographies by Ken Silverman and Bill Kalush) was "such an epic fail I wouldn't bother using it for anything."

Amazingly, Wikipedia -- which is usually very good about deleting bias and agenda driven edits -- is so far allowing these changes to stand, despite my repeated objections in the article's discussion area and two editors agreeing with me. At this point, all I can do is throw up my hands.

As I said, I wrote large sections of the Wiki Houdini page years back when it badly needed to be fleshed out by someone with some knowledge of Houdini. But over the years I've seen it modified by nuts, mischief makers, and people with agendas and/or bad information. The result is an unbalanced page that is now riddled with inaccuracies and weirdness. Certainly not what we want for our Harry.

Sorry for the negative post. I just needed to vent.

You can read my "epic fail" blog about Houdini's first Australian flight here. You can also read original newspaper stories, watch video, and see affidavits verifying Houdini's first and subsequent flights in Australia at Harry Houdini: Aviation Pioneer.

Monday, March 26, 2012

American Pickers are searching for Houdini


I love the History Channel show American Pickers, which follows Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz as they travel around the country picking through people's garages and barns in search of "rusty gold." It appears the pickers are headed next to Pennsylvania, and according to Berks-Mount News, the show's producers are looking for fresh leads.

"Among the items Wolfe and Fritz are on the lookout for are motor scooters, Harry Houdini items, old advertising signage, old rodeo items, motorcycles, bicycles, military items from the late 1970s or earlier, Civil War antiques and old toys."

I admit whenever I watch the show I fantasize about seeing Mike and Frank pull an original King of Cards poster or a Magic Made Easy pitchbook from a pile of junk. Maybe this season...

Click here to see the Pickers full want list.

UPDATE: American Pickers find Houdini in Leadville.

Houdini's close call

Here is the only known photo of Houdini escaping after being tied to a burning stake. This challenge was made by the Boy Scouts of America and went wrong when the overenthusiastic scouts doused the flames with gasoline. By the time he was free, Houdini's clothes were singed. It was the only time he did a fire escape.


Thanks to "Harry Houdini" for the pic (which can also be seen in Patrick Culliton's The Tao of Houdini).

UPDATE: You can now see a second photo from this challenge: Rare photo shows Houdini staked out.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

HAPPY BIRTHDAY HOUDINI 2012

Today is the birthday of Harry Houdini, who was born 138 years ago on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary to Mayer Samuel and Cecilia Steiner Weiss. Today everyone is wild about Harry!

The Birthday Boy

Birthday wishes from the blogosphere:
Carnegie: Magic Detective: Happy Birthday Houdini
Houdini Himself: Happy Birthday Houdini
Houdini Museum: Happy birthday, Harry!
Every Day is Special: Happy Birthday, Harry Houdini
The Greenbelt: Happy Birthday, Harry
The Great Kat Shred Guitar Blog: Happy 138th Birthday Houdini!
Musings of a Mad Writer in LalaLand: Celebrating Harry Houdini’s bday...
Anneographies: March 24 Birthday: Harry Houdini
Mumanhakim: Happy Birthday, Harry Houdini
The Fabulous Birthday Blog: March 24 - Happy Birthday Mr. Harry Houdini
Wis U.P. North: Harry Houdini Born On This Day In 1874

The Magic Cafe: Happy B-Day Houdini
The Magicompany Happy Birthday Harry Houdini!
MacQueBlogSpot: Happy Birthday Harry Houdini

National Post: A magician's birthday

Friday, March 23, 2012

The biggest myth

Nowadays most people seem to know that Houdini didn't die in his Water Torture Cell. Most are now aware of the dressing room punch, and even those who still think the punch lead to him becoming trapped in the cell are open to hearing the truth.

But let me tell you, this was not case in the 1970s, especially in 1976 when there was a renaissance of interest in Houdini with the 50th anniversary of his death. As a young "Houdini Enthusiast", I can't tell you how many times I had to argue that Houdini didn't die in the USD, and how I was generally disbelieved (even once by a teacher). After all, they had seen it in a movie!

Of course, they were right about that. They had seen it in a movie. The myth of Houdini drowning in his Water Torture Cell (or the "Pagoda Torture Cell", as the movie called it) was born of the 1953 film, Houdini, starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Why the filmmakers decided to give Houdini such a dramatic and wildly inaccurate death is unknown, but it might have been rooted in Harry Cohn's early complaint that the Houdini story "lacked romance and needed a better ending than a punch in the solar plexus." Paramount gave it both.

It didn't help that the 1976 TV movie, The Great Houdinis, also depicted Houdini failing to escape from the cell, but at least they hedged with a freeze frame and voice over stating that he died in Grace Hospital.

However, Hollywood isn't completely to blame. Magicians at the time freely traded on the misconception of Houdini's death. Below are two adverts from 1976 -- one for Charlie Myrick (via eBay) and the other for the great Steve Baker -- that flat out say Houdini died in the Water Torture Cell. I believe even Doug Henning alluded to this during his famous first NBC special.

eBay


But, as I said, the myth of Houdini's drowning death is much less prevalent these days, and in the age of the Internet, it's easy enough for anyone to fact check something like this. That's why I now really enjoy items like the adverts above. It's part of the Houdini story -- part of his posthumous history -- that at one time people widely believed he died onstage doing his most famous escape.

What'd I do?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Latest Houdini-Holmes crossover now shipping

Even though the release date says March 27, Sherlock Holmes: The Crossovers Casebook is shipping now from Amazon.

This new collection of Holmes short stories finds the great detective teaming up with notables of his era such as Arsene Lupin, Lawrence of Arabia, Calamity Jane, Sexton Blake, Colonel Savage (Doc's father), and, yes, Houdini!

The Houdini-Homes story is called "The Adventure of the Magician's Meetings" and is written by Larry Engle and Kevin VanHook. In it, Holmes and Houdini investigate a mystery involving a fake medium.

Purchase Sherlock Holmes: The Crossovers Casebook at Amazon.com.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What happened to Hollywood Magic's Houdini?

For over sixty years, the preeminent magic shop in Los Angeles was Hollywood Magic, which opened on Hollywood Blvd in 1942. This was one of the magic shops I frequented. I even got my first straitjacket there. Sadly, Hollywood Magic abruptly (and bizarrely) closed in 2008. It was real loss to the L.A. magic community.

One memory of Hollywood Magic is that they had a large portrait painting of Houdini that hung high on the wall along with portraits of Thurston, Blackstone, and other magic greats. The image always baffled me somewhat as Houdini appears to have white hair. Nevertheless, it's still a great portrait, and I suspect it dates back to the days of the store's opening, which means Bess Houdini may have gazed up on this image of her husband.


My question is, whatever happened to Hollywood Magic's Houdini?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ad shows Houdini performed Buried Alive in 1926

The story on Houdini's "Buried Alive" just keeps on changing (or evolving). For years the conventional wisdom has been that Houdini's stage bound version -- which is advertised in two well-known posters and might have been developed as early as 1914 -- was something he planned to introduce in his 1927 season as a replacement for the Water Torture Cell. Unfortunately, he died in 1926 and the effect went unperformed.

But now this newspaper advert has surfaced on eBay that shows Houdini was performing the Buried Alive in 1926, at least at this theater. Note a feature for the evening is: "Buried Alive Under Tons of Sand."


Now, we know Houdini is still doing the USD in October 1926 (when he breaks his ankle), so maybe this was just a trial run of Buried Alive? "Slicing a Woman in Seven Parts" also appears to be something new. Or maybe it was an effect that could only be performed in certain venues. Certainly transporting "tons of sand" must not have been easy.

Seeing as Houdini was performing the Buried Alive in 1926, I'm hoping a photograph or review of the effect survives. I still have trouble getting my head around exactly how Houdini staged what must have been an enormous stage escape.

Unfortunately this ad does no show the exact date or city, but judging by "Mass" on the adjoining ad, this appears to be the Majestic Theater in Boston where Houdini performed from Sept 6-18, 1926 (Koval).

Time to hit the archives!

Monday, March 19, 2012

No, John Edward did not speak with Houdini


You might start encountering news stories online saying that "Psychic Medium" John Edward has claimed to have contacted the spirit of Houdini who says he will return to earth on April 25, 2012.

"I’m coming back, not reincarnated as a baby but as the man I was the day I died," Houdini told psychic John Edwards [sic] in an amazing, hour-long interview conducted in the bunker below WWN headquarters.
"I am going to prove once and for all that there is a life after death, and I’m going to tell the people of the world just what they can expect on the other side. At last, the veil will be lifted from this mystery of mysteries."

Well, this is just a spoof story, first published at the spoof news site, Weekly World News (home of the Bat Boy!). Not that I wouldn't put it past Edward to claim to have contacted Houdini. He just hasn't done so...yet.

What I'd like to know is whether Weekly World News is running this story in their print version. This would be fun to add to the scrapbook. I'd also like to catch up on the latest Bat Boy sightings!

MMoCA screening Cremaster 2 this Friday and Saturday

Norman Mailer as Houdini
As part of the special programing for Houdini: Art and Magic, The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art will screen Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 2 on Friday, March 23 at 7–8:30 pm and Saturday, March 24 at 2–3:30 pm.

This second film Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle features Norman Mailer as Houdini and Barney himself as murderer Gary Gilmore. Gilmore, the subject of Mailer’s bestselling book, The Executioner’s Song, claimed he was related to Houdini.

Cremaster 2 has never been released on DVD (as far as I know), so this is rare chance to see one of the more obscure (and bizarre) Houdini films.

The screening is free for MMoCA members and $7 for nonmembers.

For a full list of special related events, visit the Houdini Art and Magic page at the MMoCA website.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

He's just as good...

So I've finally gotten around to watching the first season of Boardwalk Empire -- which is superb, btw -- and last night I reached episode six, "Family Limitation", which includes this moment between Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald).


Unfortunately, Nucky and Margaret never make it to the show in this episode, but Hardeen himself appears in episode eleven, "Paris Green", played by Remy Auberjonois.

Boardwalk Empire Season One is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

New book looks to reveal "Houdini's last ride"

Check out this new book, History's Greatest Automotive Mysteries, Myths, and Rumors Revealed by Matt Stone and Preston Lerner. It makes reference to "Houdini's Last Ride" on the cover and, according to the description on Amazon, includes this nugget of info:

Did you know Harry Houdini learned to drive late in life only because he needed to get to an airport for a stunt, and it was the only drive that he ever made?

While the book doesn't come out until December, so I don't know exactly what this refers to, I suspect they are talking about Houdini's trip to Australia in 1910 when he did indeed use an automobile to get to the field at Diggers Rest where he made his historic first flight. There's even film of him doing so. And it has been said that this is when Houdini first learned to drive.

However, we now know that's not true. Houdini purchased a Humber automobile in England in 1904. We know that for a fact from a newspaper blurb which I posted here and followed up on with the good folks at the Humber Register (nailing down the exact specs of this car was a WILD ABOUT HARRY "exclusive"). There's even a reference to Houdini competing in an auto race at the time.

So it seems the authors (or at least the Amazon blurb) have it reversed. Houdini learned to drive not "late in life", but when he was in his 20s and could afford a car. It was later in life that he stopped driving. According to Marie Blood, Harry and Bess always used a chauffeur in the 1920s. But it is possible the Australian auto could have been the last car he drove himself -- his "last ride."

Regardless, it's always fun to see Houdini pop up in books like this, even if it's more myth-making than "revealing."

History's Greatest Automotive Mysteries, Myths, and Rumors Revealed comes out in December and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Hungarian in a sack...

Having teased us with hidden Houdinis for years, last night's episode of The Office titled "Get the Girl" finally acknowledged Houdini and the Houdini Museum in Scranton by name. As you'd expect, it's pretty funny. Sorry for the low volume.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Houdini the gambler

We all know Houdini's brother, Hardeen, was a gambler. Sid Radner said he "played the ponies", and it's been revealed that the reason he sold off many of the Houdini props he inherited was to pay off gambling debts. But what of Houdini? Was he gambler as well? Or did his self imposed prohibition on drinking and smoking as extend to gaming?

While Houdini certainly took an interest in gambling techniques, namely methods for cheating (like the famous Keplinger Holdout), he doesn't appear to have been much of a gambler himself. However, there are two notable occasions where Houdini did take to the gaming tables. Once was in desperation. The other to stem his grief.

The first happend in the Fall of 1897 when the struggling Harry and Bess were swindled out of their pay at a Milwaukee Music Hall. Retreating to the old reliable Kohl and Middleton Dime Museum in Chicago for work, Houdini is said to have "plunged into a game of craps to retrieve his fortunes." Instead he lost $60 (this at a time when he was making at best $25 a week). According to Harold Kellock, Houdini had to promise Bess that he would never gamble again -- "and kept his promise with fair circumspection."

But despite Houdini's promise there is another mention of Houdini taking to the gaming tables, but this time with much better results. After his mother died in July 1913, Houdini was racked with grief. He cancelled engagements in Paris and he and Bess took on a vacation to the French Rivera, hoping to get his mind off his grief. It appears Bess lifted her gambling restriction, and Houdini visited the famous casino in Monte Carlo. On his first night, Houdini came out 500 francs ahead. On his second night he won 1500 francs! (Unfortunately, I could not find a source that records which casino game Houdini was so adept.)

Houdini in Monte Carlo from Houdini His Legend and His Magic

But even his winnings did not brighten his spirits during the dark days of 1913. Instead he made repeated visits to a cemetery reserved for people who had committed suicide. He noted in his diary that the casinos, hoping "to keep things quite", stuffed money into the corpses' pockets to suggest it wasn't gambling losses that led them to take their lives (he doesn't record how he came by this info).

So maybe it's best Houdini wasn't a big gambler. He might not have found many willing partners to play with him. I mean, would you play cards against Harry Houdini?

To learn more about casinos in the U.S. and abroad, check out this article on Casino History, which includes Houdini's lucky casino in Monte Carlo.

UPDATE: See the comments section for a Houdini gambling story that I missed.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Houdini letterhead I've never seen (updated)

The website Retronaut has a blog about "Famous Letterheads 1900-1997", which includes this Houdini stationary that I've never seen before. The site dates it as 1912.


Check out all the famous stationary -- which includes Groucho Marx, James Dean, Sigmund Freud, and some cool Star Wars and Bride of Frankenstein letterhead -- at Retronaut.

UPDATE: Reader Chuck Lyons offers up a wonderful contribution to this story. Forty years ago he visited the Library of Congress and got a copy of a Houdini letter on this very letterhead. What's amazing is the letter itself is about the letterhead! Houdini writes:

My 1909-10-11 Letter head. I never liked this one. I never had to write for work, but wanted a note head for general business. Harry Houdini, May 22/1916

Fantastic! Thank you Chuck.

Harry Houdini Vampire Hunter

In his fictional universe, Houdini has battled evil cults, serial killers, demons, and even leprechauns. But here is one of my favorite fanboy mash-ups. The Handcuff King verses The Count -- Dracula himself!


Ghosts of Dracula was a five part graphic novel mini-series released by Eternity Comics in 1991. The Houdini vs. Dracula storyline was written by Martin Powell. In it, Houdini encounters Dracula at a seance in 1925 New York. The Count pines for his long dead Lucy as Houdini pines for his mother, and the two men become friends. But when Houdini discovers Dracula is a true manifestation of evil (as well as being shaken up after seeing the movie Nosferatu with Bess), he sets out for Transylvania where he joins Prof. Van Helsing in his vampire hunt.

It's a cool book with nice pen and ink illustrations by Seppo Makinen. Sherlock Holmes even puts in a brief cameo appearance in the story. This is because the same team of Powell & Makinen had created Scarlet in Gaslight, a Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula adventure, in 1987.

As far as I know, Ghosts of Dracula is Houdini's only vampiric adventure.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

'Nevermore' released for the Kindle

Nevermore by William Hjortsberg is released today for the Amazon Kindle.

First released in 1994, Nevermore teams up Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (again!) in a "search for a literary-minded killer" in 1923 New York. The hook here is that a serial killer is recreating the grisly murders from the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

Interestingly, the description on Amazon says: "This ebook features an illustrated biography of William Hjortsberg including rare photos from the author’s personal collection."

Now, does that mean photos of Hjortsberg, or Houdini? If someone gives this a download, maybe you can clarify this in the comments.

Purchase Nevermore for the Kindle from Amazon.com.

LINK: Magicians seek to conjure up new site for closed museum

Here's an interesting article in the L.A. Times about the artifacts from the Hollywood S.A.M. museum, which includes a collection of Houdini handcuffs and keys used by Bess during the final Houdini Seance seance.

The collection used to be housed in the basement of Washington Mutual bank at Sunset Blvd and Vine Street (which is where the Famous Players-Lasky studio sat when Houdini made his two films there). The collection was removed in 2004 and is now looking for a new home.

Click here or on the headline to read.

Monday, March 12, 2012

MCA teases "wonderful discovery" on all Houdini Friday night

The other day the Magic Collectors Association revealed their Friday morning schedule for the upcoming Magic Collectors Weekend in Chicago (which includes my own little Houdini talk). Now they've revealed the program for the evening, and it's ALL Houdini people!

First up, William Pack will detail how he was inspired by Houdini and how he assembled a program about his hero that tours libraries and schools. Following Bill's talk will be a screening of a short television production in which Teller (of Penn & Teller) plays Houdini. According to the MCA, this is something very few people have ever seen.

But all this is a preamble to a presentation by super collector Arthur Moses. Here's what the MCA says on their Mystery & History blog:

"Arthur Moses offered us – and that’s you, too – something really special. Arthur’s interest, as many of you know (see his ad in Magicol), is in Houdini. Well, Arthur has unearthed something truly wonderful with respect to the master mystifier, and has graciously offered to reveal his discovery, and a few additional things, on Friday evening."

I might have an idea of what Arthur is going to reveal, and I can tell you the world of Houdini is not going to be the same come Saturday morning. But that is all I can say!

The 43rd Magic Collectors Weekend will be held at the Westin O'Hare near downtown Chicago, May 10, 11, 12. Click here for information on how to register for the weekend. And keep watching the MCA's Mystery & History blog for more program announcements.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Link: New twists on Houdini's Russian tour

Dean Carnegie at Carnegie: Magic Detective has uncovered some very interesting new information about Houdini's tour of Russia in 1903, including an account of how he performed the Bullet Catch before the Czar himself. The Bullet Catch has long been touted as "the trick that Houdini wouldn't perform." More and more that's looking to be untrue. Dean also adds a new wrinkle to the "Bell Ringing affair."

Click the headline and catch it yourself at Carnegie: Magic Detective.

Teller introduces new edition of 'The Right Way To Do Wrong'

A new paperback edition of Houdini's first book, The Right Way To Do Wrong, will be released as part of "The Neversink Library" on October 30, 2012.

First published in 1906, this book has long been in the public domain and there have been numerous reprints. Normally I pass on these, but according to the cover art just revealed on Amazon, Teller of the great magic duo Penn & Teller has written an introduction for this new edition. That definitely makes this one worth adding to the collection!

Maybe we'll even see The Neversink Library release Houdini's other books?

Pre-order The Right Way to Do Wrong (Neversink) at Amazon.com.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Houdini helps John Carter get to Mars

John Carter, Disney's big budget adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' seminal sci-fi classic, A Princess of Mars, hits theaters today. I've seen the film and I think it's pretty darn good! I also now have a mad crush on Dejah Thoris. But what the heck does this have to do with Houdini, you ask?

Well, if you stay through the credits and have eagle eyes, you'll notice a credit for "Lead Houdini TDs" near the end.

This refers to the Houdini 3D animation software developed by Side Effects, which has been used on many big budget Hollywood films, and helped the company win an Oscar for Scientific and Technical Achievement. On March 1st Side Effects released the latest version of the software, Houdini 12.

Looks like Houdini made it big in the movies after all!

For those who understand this kind of stuff, here is a video explaining the advances in Houdini 12. I just like that they say "Houdini" over and over.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Magic Collectors Weekend to feature Houdini (and me)

The 43rd Magic Collectors Weekend is set for May 10-12 in Chicago, and today the MCA revealed their program line-up for Friday morning.

Click to enlarge

As you you can see, the morning celebrates the "Three Hs" -- Herrmann, Hoffmann, and Houdini" -- with yours truly giving the Houdini presentation. "World-renowned authority"... I like the sound of that. :)

Now, exactly what I will be presenting is top, TOP!, secret, but I will say that I'm very excited and honored to have been chosen to present something that I think will blow people away.

Click here for information on how to register for the weekend. And keep watching the MCA's Mystery & History blog for more program announcements...maybe even some more Houdini.

Hope to see you there!

Houdini and Conan Doyle paperback in October

The UK paperback edition of Houdini and Conan Doyle by Christopher Sandford will be released on October 15, 2012, and can be pre-ordered now on Amazon.co.uk.

According to publisher Gerald Duckworth & Co, the cover art will be the same as their hardcover edition (right). You can read my review of this excellent book HERE.

Speaking of paperbacks, Jim Steinmeyer's The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston Versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards will be released in paperback on August 30, 2012. It can be pre-ordered at Amazon.com.

Houdini article in Skeptical Inquirer

The March/April 2012 issue of Skeptical Inquirer contains a 3-page article about Houdini by Massimo Polidoro (author of Final Seance: The Strange Friendship Between Houdini and Conan Doyle).

The article is called "The Day Houdini (Almost) Came Back From The Dead" and is about the infamous 1928-29 Houdini seances by Arthur Ford. Nothing new or revelatory, but it's a good article that recounts the history of the seances and controversy with some nice photos.

Thanks to Arthur Moses for the alert.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Doctor's report reveals the physical Houdini

Not long ago the Smithsonian Institution Archives posted a very interesting article about Houdini's visit to the lab of Dr. Aleš Hrdlička, curator of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution, in the Spring of 1926. Dr. Hrdlička was convinced Houdini possessed measurable physical abnormalities that aided in his escapes, and conducted a full psychical examination of Houdini.

Now thanks to a request by David Byron, the Smithsonian has posted Dr. Hrdlička's actual examination chart, which gives us a remarkable snapshot of the physical Houdini in the last year of his life.

The chart tells us Houdini's standing height was 5' 5.276" (165.8 cm), and 3' 01" (91.7 cm) while seated. There has been a bit of a movement in recent years to shrink Houdini (to as low as 5' 1"), but this proves he really was the height he and his early biographers claimed.

He had "medium blue eyes" with brown flecks around the pupils. His hair is noted as being "wavy", black "now about 5/6 gray", and thinning over the top. His grip is asymmetrical and his toes are "prehensile through training."

The report also reveals that Houdini's left wrist is at 50% strength compared to his right and in "traction." If this is from the break he suffered while making The Master Mystery and The Grim Game seven years earlier, it appears this injury had become chronic.

But most surprising is that Houdini's upper rear teeth are noted as "all in poor condition" from the "bicuspids and backward, all." It's also noted that his tongue is "coated in back." We all know Houdini was no fan of surrendering himself to doctors until forced to do so (an attitude which hastened to his death). Perhaps this extended to the dentist as well? Or maybe dentistry, and people's attitudes toward dental hygiene and upkeep, just wasn't what it is today.

CLICK HERE TO READ "Harry Houdini Escapes the Smithsonian II: Magic by Numbers"

Thanks to David Byron for the alert and help translating some of the chart information.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Location of Houdini's pool escape revealed in two new photos

Building on Kevin Connolly's recent discovery of a second photo from what we've been calling "Houdini's ball and chain pool escape", here I offer up two more new photos from my own collection. While Milbourne Christopher credited this escape as taking place in San Francisco (Houdini A Pictorial Life page 52), these photos refute that and reveal exactly where this escape took place.

This first photo is an 8x10 reproduction of a newswire photo that shows the moment of Houdini's head first dive into the pool. Christopher had it correct that this is the West Coast; however, the original caption on the back of this photo places it at "a swimming pool in Los Angeles" on May 7, 1922.


This next photo, which I just purchased on eBay, is an original shot taken at the event, probably by the same photographer who took Kevin's pic as the angle is the same. Unfortunately, it does not include Houdini (this is how I could afford it), but you can easily match the spectators to the photo above, and I think I can see Jim Collins back there. But what makes this pic most significant is that it takes us one step further and identifies this as the pool at the historic Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.


The Ambassador Hotel was famous for its Coconut Grove nightclub and also as the site of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination in 1968. The hotel was closed to the public in 1986, and at one time Donald Trump wanted to build the worlds tallest building on the property. After years of legal wrangling, in 2005 the hotel was demolished and the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools were built on the property.

I used to go to the Ambassador quite often. It was a wonderful L.A. landmark that seemed frozen in time. Shame that I didn't know then it was the also the site of what I think we can now call "Houdini's Ambassador Hotel pool escape".

Check out this wonderful tribute video to the Ambassador featuring photos of the hotel and pool during its heyday.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Houdini's big mouth

I think one can make the case that Houdini, in his own time, was as much associated with his famous Needles trick as he was with handcuffs or his Water Torture Cell. It may have been the trick that Houdini performed most in his career. Case in point is this terrific newspaper advert from 1924 highlighting Houdini's Needles trick above all else.


So when someone starts in with the old "Houdini wasn't really a magician" rap, just say "The Needles" and walk away. Snap!

Thanks to William Pack for sharing this ad.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Memories of "Dime Museum Harry"

Chicago based magician and Houdini lecturer William Pack has sent over a terrific collection of newspaper clippings he unearthed in the Chicago Tribune. Included are these ads from very early in Houdini's career when he was performing at the Kohl & Middleton's Dime Museums in Chicago.

Dime Museums were one of the lowest rungs on the showbiz ladder, sometimes not much more than a storefront with a mix of sideshow acts, macabre curios, and freaks (the 1953 movie, Houdini, opens with Bess and her schoolmates visiting a Dime Museum). But it was where a hungry performer could always find work, and Houdini would return to Dime Museums so many times that he earned the nickname, "Dime Museum Harry."

The earliest ad William has uncovered is for the week of October 22, 1894, at Kohl & Middleton's Clark Street Dime Museum. On the very bottom of the ad is Harry billed incorrectly as "HOUDIN, Magician." But it's also always possible this is Jacob Hyman, Harry's original performing partner, using the "Houdini" name as he did for years. It's hard to know for sure.

Click to enlarge

But there is no doubt that this next ad from the week of November 23, 1896, is our man. It shows "The HOUDINS" (wrong again!) as one of several featured acts, using a cutting of Harry and Bess that I've never seen before. It's interesting to note that this ad shows Harry and Bess performing Metamorphosis with just a bag (as does this 1895 poster). Could it be that they sometime did the trick sans trunk, maybe because of the confined space or the need to get on and off the stage quickly? It's something to think about.

Click to enlarge

Eventually, Bess refused to work in Dime Museums, at least she refused to work Huber's in New York City, which must have been an especially sketchy venue. In these instances Houdini would perform a solo act.

Here is an ad from February 8, 1899 showing Houdini doing his challenge handcuff act (funny that he is again sharing the bill with Cora Beckwith and her Champion Lady Swimmers, who must have been a little waterlogged by then). Ironically, this is the same act that would make Houdini the highest paid performer in all of Vaudeville just a few years later. "Not bad for Dime Museum Harry," he would quip.

Click to enlarge

Thank you, William.

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