Saturday, March 22, 2014

Blackstone gives Bessie a lift

Here's a remarkable period photo of Harry Blackstone Sr. levitating Bess Houdini. I picked this up on eBay where I was surprise to see it cycle unsold twice. I've never seen this image before, and it's a really great shot featuring two true legends of magic. Although I can't quite tell if this is an actual performance of levitation or a photo composite (possibly done for a convention?).


Of course, this isn't Bessie's first time being floated. While touring Canada early in their careers, the Houdinis performed a version of the Trilby levitation.

The irony of this photo is that Blackstone was a rival to Houdini. The men clashed several times. Once when Blackstone floated a large balloon advertising his show near a theater where Houdini was playing, Houdini considered shooting it down, but feared that would just draw more attention to it. He even filed a complaint with the National Variety Artists to stop Blackstone from performing his overboard box escape. In return, Blackstone frequently took swipes at Houdini's ego. In Milbourne Christopher's Panorama of Magic (1962), the author recalls:

The first time Blackstone visited my apartment he went from room to room, stopping now and again to examine a print, a painting or a book more closely. Finally, as he came to the colorful lithographs, he said: "Houdini used to have a place like this. The only difference is that all of his pictures were of Houdini."

After the deaths of Houdini and Thurston, Blackstone became the preeminent magician of his day, and really the last great stage magician of the Golden Age of Magic. He died in 1965 at age 80 in an apartment just blocks from The Magic Castle in Hollywood.

For more on the career of Harry Blackstone, check out the first part of an excellent profile by Michael Lauck over at iTricks: Blackstone: The Last Great Stage Show.

12 comments:

  1. Someone told me the photo is a fake. Study it. Is Bessie pasted onto the Blackstone image. This was done for a convention, I think. Blackstone and Bessie were okay with it--tell me: is it a trick photo?

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    1. Yeah, that's what I pointed out in the first paragraph. It looks like a composite. But it's still a neat photo and I'd like to think that it was done with Blackstone and Bessie's blessing.

      Have you seen this photo before this auction, Patrick?

      Delete
  2. John Hinson great nephew of Bess and Harry HoudiniMarch 22, 2014 at 2:40 PM

    I have seen this shot many times. I have heard the story. It is fake.

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    1. Do your recall where you've seen it, John? Was it created for a convention maybe? Were there many made?

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    2. John Hinson Great nephew of Bess and Harry HoudiniMarch 22, 2014 at 3:09 PM

      Is have seen it in a few collection. It a common shoot.

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    3. Guess that explains why it cycled unsold. I'm amazed I've never seen it. Well, I'm happy to have one in my collection now. :)

      Delete
  3. The photo is a fake but didn't Bess actually lie down for a levitation? Somebody must have photographed her levitating before the two images were combined.

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    1. She is indeed posed for a levitation. Just because this photo is a composite doesn't mean it wasn't still put together by Bess and Blackstone, or someone working with them.

      I'd really love to know the story on this. Were these maybe sold or given away at a convention or something? What year was this done?

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  4. You know, maybe this was a Blackstone promotional thing. You could lay down and have yourself inserted into a photo of Blackstone levitating you. Maybe Bessie did it as a lark. But that doesn't really explain why there'd be many copies out there.

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  5. No, it was for some magician's convention they were both plugging. I'm 99% positive. I think.

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  6. It is NOT a fake. I knew Ann Sterling, widow of frank sterling, known to the magic world as "Doc Mahendra", magician/mentalist. Ann showed this photo to me in the 1980's & told me it was a studio shot, & that she was there when it was done. Her & her husband knew all the greats {& ton's of not so greats too I'm sure. LOL!} in magic, including the houdinis. & Blackstone senior was a REAL close friend of thiers. As a matter of fact, they took care of harry jr. while harry sr. was touring different times when he was a small tyke. I was SOOOOO happy to see this photo again in more recent years. Ann was a true GEM of a lady, & I was honored to know here. We met at a show Harry Blackstone did that I went to, & when he came out after the show & saw her, he cried "ANN! It so good to see you!", & gave her a VERY warm embrace. He was a true gent also & I loved chatting with him a bit. So no, this photo is no fake, believe me, for I knew someone who was there when it was taken.

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  7. I WILL say this though. The photo Here HAS been retouched though. The one Ann showed me, though in excellent shape, was just plain old fashioned black & white. Bess's image looks MUCH more "pristine" here then it did in the original version Ann had.

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