Friday, February 28, 2014

The Modern Monarchs of Mystery

Houdini embarked on his professional magic career at age 17 when he quit his job as a tie-cutter at H. Richter's Sons. Far from being a sweatshop as portrayed some in Hollywood biopics, Richter's was a good job for a young man at the time. Harry was even a member of the Neckwear Makers union (he would continue to keep up his dues into adulthood). But a life in show business beckoned, and Harry left Richter's with a letter of recommendation in his pocket on April 3, 1891.

At first, Harry teamed with his friend and fellow Richter's co-worker, Jacob Hyman, who is credited with coming up with the name Houdini. They called their act, The Brothers Houdini. While Harry was permanet fixture, the "brother" would change depending on availability. Sometimes it was Jacob; sometimes it was Jacob's younger brother, Joe. Eventually Harry brought in his real brother, Theo (Hardeen), and "The Modern Monarchs of Mystery" became a genuine brother act.

There is precious little material available on The Brothers Houdini. The act would only exist until 1894 when Houdini met and married Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner and the act became The Houdinis. But here are some rarites and even a few reviews of this earliest incarnation of Houdini's professional life.

Toledo Blade, August 22, 1893 - "Dazzling the Populace"
In the Curio hall the brothers Houdini and F.D. King entertained the visitors. The former did many difficult feats of high class magic and prestidigitation. Their startling illusion "Metamorphosis" was a revelation to the people who thought they had seen clever work before.

The New York Clipper, July 8, 1893 - "Miner's Bowery Theatre"
The Brothers Houdini closed the show with on exhibition of magic concluding with "Metamorphosis," a clever box trick. The substation is executed very quickly and neatly.

Buffalo Courier, September 12, 1893 - "At the Musee Theater"
The attractions at the Curio Hall are good, the Brothers Houdini being the principals in illusions and lightning changes of the Kellar order.

Below is an extraordinary shot of Theo as a "Brother Houdini" from Houdini His Legend and His Magic by Doug Henning. What I love about this photo is it shows the original Metamorphosis trunk and cabinet. Also notice the "Brothers Houdini" flyer on the front of the trunk. This was probably Houdini's first ever piece of advertising. How priceless would that sheet of paper be today?


Just for fun, here are actors Johnathon Schaech and Mark Ruffalo as The Houdini Bros. [sic] in the 1998 TNT movie, Houdini. This was the first Houdini biopic to show the brother act, although I expect we will see it again in this summer in HISTORY's Houdini miniseries.


Thanks to Patrick Culliton for The Bros. Houdini advert and reviews. Photo of the young Harry and Theo from The Life and History of Hardeen.

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13 comments:

  1. Great pix & clips! Weird tour - first NY, then Toledo, then back to NY. This all follows directly after the Chicago Exposition, right?

    Joe Hayman, the younger brother, went on to become a famous comedian. Interesting how many of Houdini's early associates went on to their own stardom.

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    1. Even Jack went on to become a successful physician in LA. Click on the first related post for more on the Haymen brothers.

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  2. Fantastic write-up!
    BTW: According to recollections by Joe Hayman about his Pal Dash: “Things were not so good for the Bros. Houdini [Houdini and Jack Hayman] in those days for bookings were few and money was scarce. Suddenly my brother Jack decided to give up show business, even though the boys had a few weeks booked under the team name, so my Brother suggested that I play these weeks with Harry. I did and became the second member of the Hayman clan who appeared under the magic name of Houdini. Dash really should have had that job, but as long as I had it, then it was okay with him and he said so. That’s the kind of “guy” he was! “
    Of course Dash eventually got that job.

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    1. Good stuff. Where does this come from?

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    2. Hardeen Memorial Issue Conjurors Magazine July 1945 page 28

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  3. BTW, my spelling of Jack Hyman and Joe Haymen is not a mistake. On Jack's tombstone it's spelled Hyman -- on Joe's tombstone (in the same cemetery) it's Haymen. One of them changed it.

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  4. That's the first time I've seen that photo of Harry pointing to Dash who is inside that large sack. Wow! Double thanks to John and Patrick!

    Look at Harry's outfit. What the heck is that? High socks and knickers, and Dash is also wearing something similar in the next shot.

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    1. It's a great shot, isn't it? I scanned it from my copy of The Life and History of Hardeen. I think this might be the earliest professional photo of Houdini. It's earlier than this photo which is frequently credited as such.

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    2. And those are indeed knickers. Only "formal" suit of clothes the boys owned, I'm sure. Be nice to hear from someone who understands early showbiz costuming and clothes of the period. This was probably typical.

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  5. That early photo of Houdini performing the color changing silk always looked retouched to my eyes. This picture is definitely earlier. The retouched photo appears to have been taken right around when Bess arrived on the scene.

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    1. There's a poster for The Houdinis behind him and a pair of Bean Giants on the table. I think it's much later than generally credited. Maybe even 1898. Second Welsh Bros. tour.

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  6. You're right John. That poster looks so faded, you have to stare at it to see that Metamorphosis image.

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    1. And that poster was made using photos of Harry and Bess that we are familiar with, so ALL those professional pics pre-date this one. Same might be true of the King of Cards poster.

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