Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Houdini on his 1926 Buried Alive: "I like it very much."

For years the conventional wisdom was that Houdini's stage version of "Buried Alive" was something he never performed. It was said that he intended to introduce it into his full evening show during his second season, but died before he had a chance.

Now collector Thomas Ewing of Haversat & Ewing Galleries shares with us evidence that Houdini did perform the Buried Alive in September 1926. Below is a letter written by Houdini to magician James S. Harto during the week of Sept. 27 when he was performing the Worcester Opera House in Worcester, Massachusetts. I've excerpted the key paragraph below:

Click to enlarge.
I put on my Buried Alive mystery this week -- calling it the Mystery of the Sphinx. I am placed into a coffin with a glass front that is lowered into a vault which has a glass, so I can be seen all of the time -- until the sand completely covers everything -- one ton. Fastenings on the vault and in about two minutes I make my escape. I like it very much. Have everything to make it look Egyptian but am not going to do it except on two or three week stands.

What I love about this is it confirms all our speculations. Houdini's description of the effect confirms that it is the same escape he first developed in 1914. His description of an "Egyptian" theme supports that this later Buried Alive! poster is for this stage effect and not for his underwater tests (even though "Egyptian Fakirs Outdone" is a reference to Rahman Bey). We also see that Houdini only planned to perform the effect on "two or three week stands," so it's likely this was the last time he ever did it.

This performance of Buried Alive was first revealed in Kenneth Silverman's Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss (page 406), so Silverman gets credit for bringing this out first. But I suspect this letter was Silverman's source, and it's cool to read the description of this effect in Houdini's own words. And while Silverman (and later Kalush) say this was the "debut" of Buried Alive, this ad shows that he might have actually first performed the effect at the Majestic Theater in Boston during his Sept. 6-18 run.

It's also worth noting that while Houdini says he called this effect the "Mystery of the Sphinx," his program lists it as "The Secret of the Sphinx."

Now if we only had a photograph of this! I still have trouble getting my head around exactly how Houdini staged what must have been an enormous stage escape. Could it really have been a "ton" of sand?

Click here for full poster.

Thank you Tom Ewing for sharing this remarkable letter.

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22 comments:

  1. Caveney told me he never performed it. I think that applies to 1914, but, this is major. He also was featuring an escape from a coffin inside steel sarcophagus back in the teens. I think he did it out here in California. The method he used in 1926 had to be different from what he had intended in 1914.

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    1. In the big Taschen MAGIC book Caneney/Steinmeyer write that the effect was "never produced." That idea has been ingrained.

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  2. Such great information. Can someone verify that this escape included Houdini strapped into what looks like a straightjacket, then sealed inside of a coffin (presumably the same one he was really buried in?), then the coffin lowered into a tank which was then filled with sand and in addition the tank itself was then sealed and locked? ("Fastenings on the vault"...as per Houdini above). Am I envisioning this correctly? If so what a stunning effect it would gave been.

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    1. Click the caption link on the post image and have a look at the full 1914 poster. That's how it was done. The 1926 poster also shows him in a straitjacket, although HH doesn't mention it here.

      Even with this, I have trouble envisioning it as well. Wish we had a photo or the equipment. What happened to what must have been the gigantic vault?

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  3. Re: "tons of sand" -- this is quite possible. Sand runs 100 lb/ cu ft, so a cube 3 feet on a side would go nearly a ton and a half.

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    1. Interesting. Thanks Bill.

      I'm wondering if it was really sand. Could it have been something more light weight that would look like sand onstage? Did they have anything like styrofoam back then? (Probably not.)

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  4. This escape would have been truly incredible to see. Sand, it seems, could be more deadly than water. The weight, pressure and lack of movement must have made this extremely difficult. Or at least appear to be.

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    1. Indeed. The closet call Houdini ever had was during a buried alive stunt here in CA. He wrote in his diary after, "The weight of the earth is killing."

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  5. The plot thickens.
    Do you have an image or source for the program that lists it as "The Secret of the Sphinx"?
    So we now have a program, two posters, two Boston ads (one which lists it as the “Mystery of the Sphinx”), and a Worcester letter from HH that implies he may have actually got to finally perform this in September of 1926. It sure would be nice to find a photo or at least a written review of a performance. Great stuff!

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    1. Christopher, Pictorial Life, page 165. It's been right under our nose for years. In Act II under the USD is "The Secret of the Sphinx." I used to wonder what that was.

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  6. There it is in black and white. Thanks!

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    1. That is my go-to program for the full evening show because it's the second season and lists everything.

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  7. I have a handbill for an escape artist named Harto, wonder if it was the same guy.

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    1. He performed as "Chandra". Did a mind-reading act. But maybe he did escapes earlier in his career?

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  8. Shipping all of that sand onto the stage must have been expensive and time consuming. It explains why Houdini did not plan on performing this on a regular basis.

    The tomb of Tutankhamun had been discovered by Howard Carter and George Herbert in 1922. Ancient Egypt must have been in the minds of the public around that time. I can see why Houdini chose to use that angle for this escape.

    He must have been pleased with himself for figuring out a way to present the Buried Alive escape without killing himself in the process.

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  9. Everything Egyptian was the rage during that time. Where did that tank go once Houdini died? Based on the poster it was quite large. It must have been stored somewhere unless Hardeen scrapped it once he inherited all of his brothers props. Another mystery that will probably never be solved. I'd like to think that there is a warehouse or someones garage somewhere that contains this tank, another USD or Houdinis airplane just sitting there decade after decade waiting to be discovered. Do we know where Houdini stored his apparatus when he was not on tour? I assume someplace in NY or NJ?

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    1. Probably in NJ. I believe his workshop was in NJ.

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  10. I live in central NJ. If anyone has a clue to where his apparatus was stored I will certainly take a drive to see if the building still exists and if so take some photos.

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    1. It was apparently located at 216 19th St, Union City, NJ. This was uncovered by Pat Culliton and shared on Kevin Connolly's site with pics, but the post appears to be gone. LINK.

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  11. I just took a ride to Union city and found Houdinis workshop building. I took photos. If you can send me an email address I will send them along. Perry.

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    1. Got 'em! Love 'em! I will post asap. Thanks.

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