Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Houdini's film lab - then and now

Perry from New Jersey, a self-described "Houdini freak the past 40 years", recently took a photo safari on our behalf and returned with these terrific shots of 216 19th Street in Union City, NJ. In Houdini's day, this was 216-222 Weehawken Street and was the location of Houdini's Film Developing Corporation (FDC).

The FDC was not a movie production company, as is sometimes confused, but an actual lab that processed motion picture film. Houdini started the business in September 1916 and convinced Hardeen to leave his own career as an escape artist to run the company. Along with serving outside clients, Houdini used the FDC to process his own movies, The Man From Beyond and Haldane of the Secret Service.

The building is remarkably unchanged. Heck, even the telephone pole is still in place! And Perry actually got a photo of the building from the exact same angle as the only existing photo of the FDC, which appeared in a trade magazine as part of a Christmas greeting/advert.



Unfortunately, the FDC would prove to be a difficult business to run, and it cost Houdini and his investors dearly (including magician Harry Kellar). An ugly legal battle with rival Powers Film Products hurt the reputation of the company when Powers charged that it was foreign owned and some customers withheld payment. To cover expenses, Houdini mortgaged the building through a new company he called The Weehawken Street Corporation, and rented it back to the FDC. Hardeen developed ulcers and Houdini would later confess, "It will be a Godsend for all of us if we get away from it in a legitimate manner."

Eventually, Houdini did escape the FDC. As for the building, Patrick Culliton believes it became Houdini's workshop where he prepared the large scale illusions for his full evening show. It was later used by Hardeen and Jim Vickery. Below is a less common shot of Houdini in his New Jersey workshop from Pat's own Houdini The Key. Clearly a brick building, and the window seems right...


Here are a few more shots of the building that Houdini and Hardeen knew very well. Today it is a rental space managed by Union City Studios. Good place for a Houdini seance?


Thank you Perry!

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16 comments:

  1. Great stuff John and Perry. A séance there would be incredible.

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    1. It really would be. It could themed to Houdini's movie career. And seeing as it's already a rental space, seems like it could be arranged.

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    2. I could arrange that

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    3. Really? Please email me and I can and I put you in touch with the people who run the official seance.

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  2. John Hinson great nephew of Bess and Harry HoudiniMay 13, 2014 at 2:12 PM

    That would be a great idea on the seance,how can we make it happen.

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  3. That photo of Houdini examining the birdcage appears to be from the same photo session where he handles a drill press machine with the other workers around the shop. The clothes match and that skull is in both photos. I always wondered what that skull/skeleton was used for.

    Thanks for the photos Perry!

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    1. Yes, I expect you're correct about that. Even thought that shot is better quality, I wanted to use this one because it hasn't really been widely seen. It also shows the width of the room nicely.

      I'm thinking if this is Weehawken Street, it could be the top floor. That window back there looks like one of the top floor windows, and this space looks small.

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  4. Cool photos. Love the "then and now"
    Cheers

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    1. Yes, I'm also partial to "then and now" shots. So cool how little has changed.

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  5. Glad everyone likes my photos. If you look at the more famous photo of Houdini in his workshop you will see a window behind him. Through this window you can see what looks like a roofline and window of a building across the street. I plan on going back to see if I can find that building across the street. This would confirm this building was used as his workshop. Perry from NJ.

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    1. Good thinking Perry!

      Link to the more famous shot HERE.

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    2. You know, looking at that roofline in more famous photo makes me think even more that this workshop is on the second floor.

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  6. My thoughts exactly. The back of this building backs up to the bay so the building we see through that window has to be across the street or to either side. I'm betting across the street. Perry.

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  7. You probably know this, but in Gresham this photo is very clear and uncropped. You can see three windows along the wall (one is covered over).

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