Sunday, October 13, 2013

Vernon now bashing Houdini from beyond

The October 2013 Magic Castle Newsletter has launched a new column, "Storytime with The Professor", featuring memorable tales told by the late Dai Vernon. The inaugural story is about, what else, Houdini, and in it Vernon recounts how S.A.M. members once "tricked" Houdini into going into a closest at the New York Hippodrome and locked him inside. "We pulled this trick on him because he was such a terrible egotist," said the man who's own ego was pretty well developed.

Of course, this Houdini locked in a closet story is told numerous times and always the teller is the one who managed the deed. The location changes as well. It's sometimes a closet, sometimes a phone booth, sometimes a pay toilet, and sometimes an automobile. The best evidence for a "Houdini locked in" tale is a newspaper account of a man named E.P. Wilkins locking Houdini in a phone booth at the Savoy Hotel. This is reproduced in The Original Houdini Scrapbook by Walter B. Gibson (page 166).

So either locking Houdini inside closets was a regular activity, or the old Houdini hater Vernon metamorphosed Wilkins story with himself in the lead role. One wonders if the famous story of Vernon fooling Houdini with a card trick might have also been an self-aggrandizing invention (or, at least, exaggeration). For all the scrutiny given to events in Houdini's career, this Vernon story gets a big pass. But did anyone actually witness it? Did Vernon ever tell this story when Houdini was alive? And would Harry Houdini really have been fooled by The Ambitious Card?

The October newsletter also contains a brief about Kristen Connolly's visit to the Magic Castle with Tom Interval and myself last month. Kristen is playing Bess in History's 4-hour Houdini miniseries currently shooting in Budapest. At least we know that story is true.

13 comments:

  1. It's impossible to prove a negative, but, I have seen two stories about this kind of prank being played on Houdini and they occurred years before Vernon met Houdini. I don't know who Vernon is supposed to have told this story to, but, he wouldn't have hesitated to share it with me if he had participated in such a gag. Was this in his Genii column? If it was, I do not recall it.

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    1. No, this is in the latest Castle newsletter, Patrick. I can shoot you over a copy if you need it. Yeah, this one was new to me. Bill Bowers wrote the story.

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  2. Bowers got it wrong about the phone booth. The truth is that Vernon tricked Houdini with an Ambitious Elevator. Turns out it was a double lift.

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  3. I searched for any truth of Houdini being locked in a closet at the New York Hippodrome and the only thing I could find was the following bit of humor that appeared in the Once Over Sleight-ly Section of Linking Ring Vol 27, No. 2 (Apr 1947) on page 32:
    “OPEN THE DOOR, HARRY!” :- Jean Hugard was telling us recently about the time Houdini was playing at the Hippodrome in New York. One day in the lobby, a group of boys asked him for an autographed program. Houdini opened the door of a nearby closet to get some programs whereupon the boys, out for some fun, gave him a quick push into the closet, closed the door after him and turned the key. The escapist tried frantically to do his famous specialty but this time apparently his skill in that direction failed him. Harry did not get out until much later when the boldest of the boys chose to let him out by unlocking the door and running away like mad after doing so …. (P.S. … No - There is no basis for believing that the song “Open the etc.” was inspired by this incident.)

    No mention of Vernon but Jean Hugard is mentioned; Fact vs. Fiction? I vote for Fiction.

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    1. Nice find. It's the Hippodrome, so maybe this piece was Vernon's inspiration. Like I said, everyone seemed to have a version of this story.

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  4. I just get sick of all the Houdini bashing, & sometimes by folks who claim to be fans of his. As far as his "ego" goes, I see it as nothing different than any one else's business competitiveness who have managed to get to the top. How do you think you stay at the top?? & when I read about him having waifs in the street who have no shoes taken to get shoes fit to their feet with him paying for it, & mending the broken crutch of a poor kid on the street on his way to a show, the love for his mother that mirrored the love I had {& still do} for mine, the love notes he wrote every day to Bess, his having the graves of our past masters of magic restored & kept up with him paying for it, AND hearing Dorothy Young, his stage assistant, say he was the nicest, kindest, sweetest man, I'm sorry, but I don't thin k anyone can be that nice & kind & be so full of themselves as folks claim he was. & It's all hearsay anyway. & a lot of the "ego" talk, could have been started by someone who knew him, but was jealous of him, mad at him, etc & started those rumors due to that. All I know is, I've been a Houdini fan since the late 1960's when I first started getting into magic, & My own gut feeling is that he was a good guy & doesn't deserve getting slammed like he does so often. Ok. Off my soapbox. Signed, The Great Houdunit {called myself that as a kid magi}

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    1. Well said! I just read The Masters of Mystery by Christopher Sandford, and, leaving aside any literary criticism of it, I was revolted by his persistent and repetitive labelling of Houdini as arrogant, egotistical, unattractive...and short! (What? Being short is a crime?!?) He was a PERFORMER, which means he had to attract and keep attention. That's what performers do. Many of the jibes against him come from other entertainers, so...jealous much? I am with you, Anonymous; his kindness and generosity set him apart from others; his attention-getting was normal in his line of work. (And I happen to think he was very handsome, but that's a matter of taste, I guess!) This was not the first sort-of nonfiction book about Houdini I've read that slurred him. Okay, I did mention my literary carp with it: Writing nonfiction as if you were writing a novel. I call them novelized NF. I hate that style. If you weren't there, don't tell me when a bead of sweat rolled down Houdini's cheek or a twinkle of amusement sparkled in Doyle's eye. This seems to be SOP among people writing about magicians; Jim Steinmeyer comes to mind! It's hard to slog through such messy writing, but if it's all I can find on the topic, I will. I am grateful there are people who care enough to research and write about magicians and the history of magic. I just wish they were better writers.

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    2. I also dislike that style of writing in bios. Just give me the facts. Silverman!

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    3. I just found a copy of Silverman's book at my favorite used bookstore! I hope you mean he DOES just give the facts!

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    4. Indeed. His book is fact based and no nonsense. He also omits a lot of the mythology that other bios just can't seem to resist. It's the best Houdini bio, IMO.

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  5. Me too! Secret Life was the mother of all novelized Houdini nonfiction:

    "I must release myself from these handcuffs!" Oh brother.

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  6. Yes Leah--that is precisely what John means. Silverman presents the facts as best as humanly possible. On occasion he peppers the book with his own thoughts and opinions about certain events, but that's good writing.

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