Sunday, July 13, 2014

When Houdini walked through a brick wall


It was 100 years ago today that Harry Houdini first walked through a brick wall at Hammerstein's Roof Garden and Victoria Theatre in New York. Even though he only performed the illusion for a short time, it has become part of his legend, and he is still known as "the man who walked through walls" today. So on this anniversary, here's a look back at this spectacular magic effect.

When Houdini returned from Europe in late June 1914 to fulfill his regular July booking at Hammerstein's Roof Garden and Victoria Theatre in New York, he intended to make a splash. He promoted his appearance with a spectacular Overboard Box escape off Battery Park, and during his first week (July 6) he presented his Chinese Water Torture Cell, which was still relatively new to American audiences. But Hammerstein's required a performer change their act each week, so during his second week, Houdini revealed a dramatic new magic effect: Walking Through A Brick Wall.

Houdini first presented the illusion during the Monday matinee performance on July 13. It was an especially hot day in the city, and before the start of the show, a special announcement was made that any man might remove his coat. Many took advantage of this. Houdini was the 8th act on the 13 act Vaudeville bill -- the closing act before intermission.

What the Hammerstein's audience saw on that hot July day was a brick wall, 9 feet tall and 10 feet wide, rolled out and placed atop a carpet and a sheet of muslin laid out on the stage floor to insure no trap doors were used. Audience members were invited onstage to examine both the wall and stage coverings, some were even given hammers to test the wall's veracity. The audience members then surrounded the wall so that it was visible from all sides at all times. Houdini, dressed in a long white duster, took his place at one side of the wall "like a prisoner awaiting execution." A screen was placed over the magician and another screen was placed on the opposite side of the wall. Houdini waved his hands above the screen and said, "Here I am." Then his hands vanished and almost instantly reappeared from the screen on the other side. Both screens were pulled away to reveal that Houdini had seemingly walked through the wall.

Billboard reported that, "The audience sat spellbound for fully two minutes after this feat was accomplished. They were too dumbfounded to applaud."


It was a good effect, but unlike the Milk Can and Water Torture Cell, it was not an original Houdini creation. During a magic spending spree in England (where he had tried out his first all-magic show, the Grand Magical Revue), Houdini purchased the secret for £3 from magician Sidney Josolyne, whose original plans called for a wall of steel. Controversy would later erupt over whether the secret was Josolyne's to sell. Magician P.T. Selbit claimed to have invented it and accused Joselyne and Houdini of theft. Alexander also claimed to have performed a similar effect in the 1890s using blocks of ice. But the controversy remained largely on the other side of the Atlantic, and it was an inspired touch by Houdini to change Josolyne's steel wall into one made of brick.

As he had done with his Water Torture Cell, Houdini copyrighted his new effect by writing it into a short playlet he called (what else?), "Walking Through A Brick Wall." In the play, a young man named Jack comes to the home of wealthy Richard Sterling to ask permission to marry his daughter, Alice. As Jack is the son of Sterling's "mortal enemy," the man refuses, saying:

Sterling: Nothing. Not even if you had all of the money in the world. It would take a big miracle to make me change my mind; say fly though the air without a flying machine or walk through a brick wall.

Jack: Maybe I can do that.

Sterling: The day you can walk through a brick wall that separates our houses, I'll give you my daughter.

In Act II, Jack succeeds in penetrating the brick wall in Sterling's garden and wins the hand of fair Alice.

Alice: Jack, did you really walk through that brick wall?

Jack: Alice, whether I did or not, everything is fair in love and war. (Embrace. Curtain.)

It's unclear whether the play was ever performed. Houdini received his copyright on July 15. (The full text of the play appears in Houdini's Strange Tales by Patrick Culliton.)

Walking Through A Brick Wall proved to be a sensation during Houdini's run at Hammerstein's. During one performance, laborers from the bricklayers Union No. 34 "turned out in force." One man, dressed in his work clothes and "flashing a trowel, proceeded to hammer away at some of the bricks" until "several were pried loose." In a confrontation almost certainly pre-arrange by Houdini, the bricklayers challenged him to walk through a wall made of their own construction. Houdini accepted the challenge, and before a packed house on the following Friday, he beat the bricklayers wall.

Hammerstein's -- where Houdini walked through his brick wall.

It's interesting to note that Houdini also performed his Double-Fold Death Defying Mystery -- an enhanced version of the Milk Can escape -- during the same 29 minute act in which he featured Walking Through A Brick Wall (he also did the Needles). While the Brick Wall illusion grabbed the headlines, Houdini knew his audience still expected him to defy death.

Houdini may have only performed Walking Through A Brick Wall during this one week at Hammerstein's. During his third week, he featured a submerged box escape. Ken Silverman in Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss said he later presented the illusion at Keiths Theater in Boston, where he was again challenged by the bricklayers union. However, I've not been able to find any evidence of this Boston performance (and some evidence to the contrary).

Hardeen takes over.
After this short run, Houdini passed Walking Through A Brick Wall to Hardeen, who would present it at the Bowdon Theatre in Boston in January 1915. The press claimed that Hardeen "is the originator of it." Hardeen also inherited the controversy with P.T. Selbit, and they continued to exchange barbs into the 1920s. It might have been good research or a happy accident that in the 1976 TV movie, The Great Houdinis, Hardeen (played by Jack Carter) says as he's about to take the stage: "Excuse me. I gotta walk through a brick wall. Hope I make it."

Why did Houdini abandon Walking Through A Brick Wall so quickly? Some say the effect lost its appeal because the secret was known to so many, including stagehands. It's also possible Houdini was uncomfortable with the invention controversy. Curiously, the secret of Walking Through A Brick Wall was offered for sale in September 1914 by a company calling itself "New York Magical Exchange" located at 30 E. 42nd Street. The company even claimed to have a copyright. The fact that Houdini did not take legal action (or worse) leads Houdini expert Patrick Culliton to suspect that Houdini himself was behind the business.

The frame used in Walking Through A Brick Wall survived. It was passed to Sidney Radner by Hardeen along with so many other important pieces of Houdini apparatus. But Sidney revealed to Patrick Culliton that the frame was stored outside behind his house and eventually rusted away. What a loss.

Walking Through A Brick Wall has become a part of Houdini's legend. William Lindsay Gresham titled his groundbreaking 1959 biography, Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls (in which he also revealed the secret), and a 1975 paperback edition of Milbourne Christopher's biography, Houdini The Untold Story, featured on the cover a beautiful painted image of Houdini penetrating a brick wall (artwork at the top of this post).

There have also been some notable modern interpretations. After doing the Water Torture Cell and Vanishing Elephant on his first two live television specials, Doug Henning did his own version of Walking Through A Brick Wall in 1978. David Coppefield later upped the ante when he walked through the Great Wall of China. In both cases, these two modern masters of magic properly paid tribute to Houdini as the original "man who walked through walls."

Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, Sept 3, 1914. (Click to enlarge.)

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16 comments:

  1. Great work John! WRT to performing Brick Wall in Boston, checkout page 151 [Houdini 1914} and 152 [Hardeen 1915] of History of Magic in Boston:
    Announced for early appearances at Keith’s on Nov. 8 [1914]. This year the handcuff king walks through a brick wall -- for a change -- which is a great mystery. Appearance week of Nov 16 - 21
    Advertisement Jan 14 [1915] says Hardeen, that night, would walk thru a brick wall -- the first time ever attempted in Boston.
    Not the best evidence either way.

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    1. At least there's a mention of Houdini and the Brick Wall in connection to his Boston appearance, which is more than I've ever found. But I could find nothing from that actual appearance -- ads or reviews -- that mentions the wall.

      The Hardeen article saying it was "the first time ever attempted in Boston" could be seen as further evidence that HH never did it there.

      I'm pretty sure Silverman made a mistake. But it's Silverman, so...

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  2. The Billboard began it's review by saying: "Houdini gave the most remarkable performance that has ever been seen in American Vaudeville. . ."
    I think that Selbit may have been responsible for the brick wall -- not the effect itself, but, Selbit did call his version "Walking Through a Brick Wall."

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    1. I got a lot from that Billboard review, induing the correct date. A lot of sources say he did it on July 6 at the start of his Hammerstein's run. But it's clear this was his second week feature.

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  3. Boston Globe ad for 16 Nov 1914 show at Keith's says he will do the "Chinese Water Torture Cell for the first time in Boston".

    A review of the show in the Globe on 17 Nov said he did the Torture Cell and the Needle Trick -- no mention of the Brick Wall.

    On the 18th, a short article said a crew from the W. & A. Bacon company had challenged him to a packing box escape, which he had accepted for
    that evening, and a classified ad held the text of the challenge. A follow-up on the 19th said he took only 8-1/2 minutes to escape from it.

    On the 19th, in another ad, Houdini accepted another packing case challenge, which emphasized how he would be searched and would not be allowed to wear his own clothes. It also said he would be tied to a tree by two seamen at noon on the common and that he would escape.

    An article on the 20th said he escaped from the second packing crate in only 7-1/2 minutes, but the outdoor tree tie was delayed because of
    storms and would occur when the weather improved.

    An ad on the 20th outlined a new challenge -- workmen from the Burkhardt would seal Houdini in a cask and fill it with Tivoli beer. Houdini accepted the challenge. An article on the 21st said a 100 gallon cask was filled with beer, and a handcuffed Houdini was lowered into the cask and it the lid was secured with three padlocks. A curtain was placed around it and in 2 min 12 sec he emerged with the padlocks in his hands.

    Coverage and ads in the Herald and the Post were consistent with the above.

    So his week in Boston was pretty thoroughly covered, and no mention was made of the brick wall. I don't think he did the trick there.

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    1. Exactly Bill. You've pretty much covered what I found as well. No mention of the Brick Wall in Boston. I think Silverman made a mistake. But being in Silverman, I felt I had to mention it.

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  4. Cool Art of Houdini Coming through brick wall. That was from a paperback edition of Milbourne Christopher's Houdini The Untold Story.

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  5. Do you know: Was the performance in Hammerstein's roof garden or in Victoria Theater?

    Was 1914 the only time he did a submerged box escape at Hammerstein's? Did he do in 1912?

    By the way, if you look around, you may find on the Internet a photo of the interior of the roof garden during a matinee.

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    1. It was the Roof Garden, at least during the week of the Brick Wall, according to ads.

      Seems like the submerged box would have had to have been the Theater because of the tank. Unless they had a tank on the Roof. That I don't know. Maybe they played shows in both?

      Don't know if he did the submerged box AT Hammerstein's in 1912. But he did one in the harbor.

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    2. I am pretty sure he did the submerged box in 1912 and I believe it was on the roof.

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  6. "Was the performance in Hammerstein's roof garden or in Victoria Theater?"

    Coverage in the NY Dramatic Mirror says "At the Victoria, Harry Houdini spent the week in " walking through a brick wall." "

    A Hammerstein's ad in the NY Evening Telegram for July 12 says "Mat. in Theatre, To-Night on Roof"

    The NY Sun July 12 says "Houdini will walk through a brick wall this week at the Victoria Theatre."

    The NY Sun July 14 says "Houdini, who calls himself "the handcuff king," introduced a brand new trick yesterday afternoon at the Victoria Theatre which he calls "walking through a brick wall." "

    So it's possible, if not likely, that he did the effect on the roof and in the theater. Certainly outdoor afternoon matinees in July in NY would have been sweltering.

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    1. Hence the reference to the fact that men were invited to remove their coats at the July 13 matinee.

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  7. I was browsing through Christopher's biography, and he says that in 1912 Hammerstein built a water tank for Houdini in the Roof Garden theater. It allowed Houdini to recreate his packing crate escape in which he was lowered into New York Bay from a boat.

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    1. They built it specifically for Houdini? Cool. Thanks, Eric.

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  8. According to
    www.themagicdetective.com/2011/01/hammersteins-victoria-and-rooftop.html

    "A previous act had a large tank of water in the theatre and Houdini used it to recreate the underwater packing escape"

    It seems at the time they used the name Victoria Theater and Roof Garden interchangeably. My guess is because of the hot months, no air conditioning, they just moved the shows automatically with out concern that people would be confused.
    Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz
    The Houdini Museum, Scranton, PA
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini

    ReplyDelete

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