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.

Related posts:

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Nothing on Earth (Can Hold Houdini) TODAY

George Demas as Houdini (photo by Dixie Sheridan).

Nothing on Earth (Can Hold Houdini) starts TODAY at the Axis Theatre Company in New York. Written and directed by Randall Sharp, the play examines Houdini's crusade to expose fraudulent mediums and his crossing paths with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It features George Demas as Houdini, Spencer Aste as Conan Doyle, David Crabb as Jim Collins, Brian Barnhart as LeRoi Crandon, Lynn Mancinelli as "Margery", and Brian Linden.

Remember, Axis is offering readers of  WILD ABOUT HARRY a 50% discount off regular priced tickets -- a $20 savings -- for the first 2 weeks (8 performances), February 27-March 8. All you need to do is enter the promo code HOUDINIWILD when you buy tickets HERE.

Nothing on Earth (Can Hold Houdini) runs through April 5, 2014. Watch for a very special guest review of the play coming soon.

Lynn Macinelli in the "Margery Box" (photo by Dixie Sheridan).

Thanks to Brian Barnhart of the Axis Theatre Company for these great photos by Dixie Sheridan and the nice Thank You credit in the program.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Superlove Starsky is Houdini

It's been a while since I posted anything about my favorite Houdini biopic and guilty pleasure, The Great Houdinis. So here's a page from the December 1976 issue of 16 Magazine promoting this TV movie as only a fan mag can. You gotta love the copy: "Tune in now as Superlove 'Starsky' shows you he can be lots more than just your fave cop on the beat." Indeed.


For those of you who are actually closer to age 16, know that Paul Michael Glaser was popular at this time for the character he played on the ABC cop series, Starsky & Hutch, hence the reference to his character. Where "Superlove" comes from, I have no idea. Still...

Eat your heart out, Adrien Brody.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Man From Beyond color lobby card lands $1,225 on eBay

An original color tinted lobby card from The Man From Beyond sold on eBay Sunday for a healthy $1,225. The auction received 21 bids. The card has serious condition issues, but that didn't seem to discourage buyers. In fact, I'm wondering if this could be a record price for an unsigned Houdini movie lobby card?

While lobby cards from Houdini's other films appear from time to time, cards from The Man From Beyond are exceedingly rare. I've only ever seen one title card with color tinting such as this, and that was a reproduction, not an original.

According to the seller, the card was found last summer among an assortment of silent film lobby cards in a box from an estate auction.

Congrats to the winner of this rarity.


Click here to read about "Houdini's rough ride" filming of The Man From Beyond at Niagara Falls.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Interview with Karen Mann, daughter of Jacques Price

Karen Mann and her father Jacques Price.
A highlight of last year's Official Houdini Seance in Nova Scotia was the attendance of Dr. Karen Mann, the daughter of Jacques "Jack" Price. Price was one of the three students in Houdini's dressing room in Montreal on October 22, 1926 and witnessed the punches by J. Gordon Whitehead. Those punches lead to Houdini's death nine days later on Halloween.

Now I'm honored to share a Q&A interview I was able to conduct with Dr. Mann via email. While she isn't able to answer all our deepest questions or help confirm or dispel the many conspiracy theories that have grown up around this incident, it's still incredible to hear from someone personally associated with the most infamous moment in Houdini history. So without further ado, here's Karen!

WAH: First, can you please tell us a little about yourself?

KM: I am the only child, and only daughter of Jacques Price and his wife Margo. I live in Halifax Nova Scotia. I am a university professor in medical education, and although I have 'officially' retired, I still work at things I love, like teaching, and am probably employed about 75%of time. My husband and I live in Halifax, and he too is partially retired from the University. I have three grown children, and we have 8 almost 9 grandchildren.

WAH: Can you tell us a little about your father, Jack Price, and what happened to him after McGill University?

KM: After McGill, my dad found his way to University of Toronto, where he studied civil engineering, graduating in the late 30s. I think he worked for some time before he went to university. It was in Toronto that he met my mother, who was from Niagara Falls. They married in 1940, and moved to Nova Scotia, via Prince Edward island. My dad served in the Royal Air Force in the War, as a squadron Leader, who taught calculus to pilots. He spent his work life as a self-employed civil engineer, a profession which he loved.

Jack Price sat center on Oct. 22.
WAH: Do you remember when you first learned that your father was one of the students in the dressing room on Oct. 22, 1926, when Houdini was punched?

KM: I learned about it from Donald Bell, who was researching and writing a book called The Man Who Killed Houdini. He contacted me as he had been trying to find my dad without success. He had gone to the UK, and found my dad's sisters who were still living in Blackpool and Preston, in the North of England. He found them through the local Synagogue, which was also how I learned that my dad was Jewish. Someone told him there, that my dad had a daughter in Halifax, and as Halifax is a small place, he found me without too much difficulty. I think it was sometime in 1992.

WAH: Do you remember exactly what your father told you about that day?

KM: I asked my dad about the incident, and the first thing he said was 'I didn't do anything wrong'. I think back on that now, and realize that there may have been a lot of questions around exactly what happened, and he was very cautious. He did tell me a little about it, just as the incident has been reported.

WAH: Did your father ever hint that he thought J. Gordon Whitehead deliberately tried to injure Houdini that day?

KM: WE didn't discuss it. At the time, I didn't know enough about the story to ask those questions.

WAH: Some think that Houdini's lawyer, Bernard Ernst, manipulated the details of the dressing room incident to aid his insurance claim for an accidental death. Did your father ever say anything about being manipulated or that his affidavit wasn't the full truth of what happened?

KM: No, he didn't. We didn't get to chat about it again. My mom died shortly thereafter and my dad within a few months. He was also a very private man all his life.

WAH: Did you know if your father went to see Houdini's lecture at McGill, or if he had ever seen Houdini perform on stage?

KM: I think he had. I think he was interested in meeting him, and so was happy to go backstage with his friend, Sam Smilovich.

Sam Smilovich in 1994.
WAH: Did your father stay in contact with Sam Smilovich after college? Did you know Sam?

KM: I don't know for sure; however when I spoke with him, I remember his being aware of what had happened with Sam following their time together, so they must have done in some way, perhaps not directly.

WAH: Did your father ever tell you what happened to the sketch Sam did of Houdini that day in the dressing room?

KM: No- wouldn't it be wonderful to see!

WAH: Did your father talk about the dressing room incident in public? Was it general knowledge among his friends that he was one of the eyewitnesses to the punch that may have killed Houdini?

KM: Absolutely not! He was reluctant to talk about it even with me. And when Don Bell called him following my conversation with him, my dad told him he didn't want to discuss it. No one knew. My mother was unaware even, until I told her.

WAH: Finally, how was the seance in Nova Scotia? Any strange phenomena occur?

Karen Mann
KM: The séance in Nova Scotia was a wonderful experience from start to finish. I felt very pleased to be there and really enjoyed meeting all the people who are so interested in and knowledgeable about Houdini. I'm not sure whether we actually heard anything, as our medium was unable to play back the tape very clearly. He (the medium) said that he could hear chains clanging- whether Houdini's or those of a ghost purported to live in the Citadel where the séance was held. My most enduring thought about the séance is that I really felt it connected me with my dad, who died in 1993. I especially appreciated the opportunity to say a few words about him.

Please join me in thanking Dr. Karen Mann for sharing her recollections of her father with all of us here at WILD ABOUT HARRY.

Photos from The Man Who Killed Houdini by Don Bell. Also thanks to Bruce MacNab for making this possible.

Related posts:

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Pat Croce Houdini Collection auction results

SOLD for $16,000.

Results are in from yesterday's Briggs auction of Houdini artifacts from the private collection of former Philadelphia 76ers president Pat Croce. One of the auction highlights was a large color lithograph from Houdini's full evening show. The poster beat the pre-auction estimate of $8,000-10,000 and landed at $16,000 (not including the 18% buyers premium). Very nice!

As predicated, the two display case collections of antique padlocks and handcuffs brought in the highest amounts (although both fell short of their estimates). The Castle Locks came in at $22,000 (before premium). The handcuffs brought in $28,000 (before premium). Both cases were created for the 1953 Tony Curtis Houdini movie, and were housed for many years at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Canada.

SOLD for $28,000 and $22,000.

Some other items of note: a framed assortment of Water Torture Cell artifacts ($7,500); a Houdini scrapbook kept by the Houdini club of Philadelphia ($3200); a Houdini program from France that contains a variant image of the Milk Can poster ($450); a colorful Houdini broadside ($4000); a signed challenge ($2,200); and a Levante "Steel Trunk Mystery" poster ($700).

But the hidden gem of the auction might have been this cartoon sketch of Houdini. On it is written: "An original sketch by Kin Hubbard - his impression of Houdini. In pen and ink." I didn't notice it until it was on the block, but that inscription appears to be in Houdini's own hand. It beat the auction estimate of $400-500, but still seems like a bargain at $750.

SOLD for $750.

You can currently view all the auction results on live auctioneers

Congrats to all the buyers.

UPDATE: Click over to THIS PAGE at the Houdini Museum in Scranton for an on-the-scene report by Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Take a "Haunted Houdini Tour" of L.A.


Here's a treat for all LA-based Houdini buffs. GHOULA and LA Hauntings will conduct a "HAUNTED HOUDINI TOUR" of Los Angeles on March 23, 2014. There will be three bus tours at 10:30am, 1:30pm, and 4:30pm. I've signed aboard the 10:30am tour. Maybe I'll see you there!

Here are the details from the GHOULA (Ghost Hunters of Urban Los Angeles) website:

GHOULA and LA Hauntings Ghost Tours
Present...
The HAUNTED HOUDINI TOUR!

Come join us on the eve of his 140th birthday as we travel across our city and explore the super-natural sites connected to the famous magician's life (and after-life)...

Harry Houdini is generally thought of as the greatest showman that ever practiced the craft. Additionally, because of his knowledge of the art of illusion and his work exposing the tricks of fraudulent mediums during the age of Spiritualism, he has become the poster boy for generations of skeptics and debunkers of paranormal phenomena. However, despite dozens of books and biographies, the man's personal views on the occult are still an enigma, with experts debating to what degree did he actually BELIEVE. Ironically, to this day, Houdini is the only historical figure whose ghost people across the country routinely try to contact, usually on Halloween (the date of his death).

Although Houdini did not spend much of his life in Los Angeles, the time he did spend under our palm trees were moments that defined his life, career, and possibly his views on the spirit realm. Indeed, not only did he leave his mark on this town, it may have also left its mark on him... Even all these decades after his death, the great escape artist just can't seem to get away from LA.

Seating for this bus tour is limited. (12 guests per tour. 3 tours. 1 Day)

DATE: March 23, 2014
TIME: 10:30am, 1:30pm, or 4:30pm (tours run 1 1/2 to 2 hours each)
PRICE: $35.00 (plus a handling fee)
MEET-UP LOCATION: The Hollywood Heritage Museum (The Lasky-DeMille Barn), 2100 N Highland Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90068 (map)

CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE TICKETS.

Thanks to MSW for discovering this one.

UPDATE: Here's my report on the tour: Haunting Houdini in Los Angeles.

Going once, going twice...

Just a reminder that Briggs auction of Houdini artifacts from the private collection of former Philadelphia 76ers president Pat Croce is TODAY at 4:00pm EST. Among the items on the block today is a large color lithograph from Houdini's full evening show (estimate: $8,000 - $10,000) and a cased collection of ancient padlocks (estimate $50,000 - $70,000).

You can see the full auction catalog online at BriggsAuction.com. Absentee and telephone bidding will be available during this auction. Live online bidding is offered through liveauctioneers.com.

Briggs has also put out a nice printed catalog (pictured) that I would highly recommend grabbing. It may be the last look at some of these rarities for some time to come.

I will post auction results as soon as I get them. Good luck to all!

Thanks to Briggs Auction for the catalog and for being a WILD ABOUT HARRY sponsor.

UPDATE: Results here.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Save 50% on tickets for 'Nothing on Earth (Can Hold Houdini)'


If you are planning to see the new play Nothing on Earth (Can Hold Houdini) in New York and have not yet bought your tickets, you're in luck! The good folks at the Axis Theatre Company are offering readers of WILD ABOUT HARRY a generous discount of 50% off regular priced tickets -- a $20 savings -- for the first 2 weeks (8 performances), February 27-March 8.

All you need to do is enter the promo code HOUDINIWILD when you buy tickets online HERE.

Written and directed by Randall Sharp, Nothing on Earth (Can Hold Houdini) examines Houdini's driven crusade to expose fraudulent mediums and his crossing paths with the avid spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Both men are catapulted to the center of The Scientific American Magazine contest to find the first-ever provable clairvoyant, a battle that destroyed their friendship and left Houdini to continue his search for a true psychic to contact his mother. He was not successful.

Axis Company has worked closely with William Kalush, Executive Director of the Conjuring Arts Research Center, Houdini scholar, and author of The Secret Life of Houdini, to re-create some of Houdini's most famous illusions and bring the audience on a journey to the strangest part of his life story.

The play features Spencer Aste, Brian Barnhart, David Crabb, George Demas, Brian Linden and Lynn Mancinelli.

Nothing on Earth (Can Hold Houdini) opens February 27 and will play through April 5, 2014 at the Axis Theatre Company, One Sheridan Square, New York, NY 10014. March 1st is already sold out, so don't delay. Seating is limited.

Again, save 50% with the promo code HOUDINIWILD good for the first 8 performances, February 27-March 8.


Thanks to Axis Theatre Company for giving readers of WILD ABOUT HARRY this great discount.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How to spell Houdini's real name

Photo signed "Ehrich"
This is WILD ABOUT HARRY's 2000th post, and for the occasion I thought I'd tackle what might be the #1 most common mistake people make when writing about Houdini -- his real name.

Or to be more precise, the spelling of his real name.

Houdini's real name was Ehrich Weiss. Note the spelling: E-H-R-I-C-H. There's an "H" in there. That is how he spelled his real name throughout his life. We know this because with have numerous examples of his Ehrich Weiss signature. It appears on the postcard he sent his mother when he ran away from home. It appears on love letters to Bess. It appears in signed books and photos. It appears on some contracts and legal papers. Ehrich Weiss. Show me an example of his name spelled any other way in his own hand and I will eat my straitjacket.

His name was never Eric or Erich. These are the most frequent misspellings that find their way into print. "Eric" might come from accounts of him billing himself as "Eric The Great" as a boy. (Although I think this might have been a misspelling by early journalists who only heard the name and assumed the most obvious spelling.) But even if this spelling is rooted in a stage name, it's just as wrong as saying Bess's maiden name was Raymond (which also happens).

There's no excuse for ever using Erich. It's just wrong, wrong, wrong. However, it certainly looks more correct than Ehrich, so it's understandable how this misspelling can stick in the head and flow off the hand. Even the 1960 biography Houdini: Master of Magic misuses Erich throughout. But there is no justifiable reason for ever using it. So… Erich.

The only exception is the spelling Erik Weisz. Now, I don't like seeing this anymore than Eric or Erich, but this is the spelling that appears on his actual birth certificate. However, Houdini himself never spelled his name this way. When the Weiss family came to the U.S. when Houdini was 4, the spelling became Ehrich Weiss and remained so for the rest of his life. This Erik spelling shouldn't be used at all, in my opinion. It just muddies the waters. But the main source of lazy journalists, Wikipedia, lists Erik Weisz as his "real" name, so it is frequently written as such (and I'm afraid I'm responsible for introducing the birth certificate to Wikipedia -- wish I hadn't now).

Using a combination spelling his new world first name with old world last name -- Ehrich Weisz -- is a new phenomena that only belongs in fiction. And while it's said his first name evolved from Ehrich to "Erie" to "Harry" (and some boyhood friends remember him as "Harry"), I've never seen Harry Weiss on any documentation, so one has to be careful with that one.

So with this 2000th post, let's all get firmly behind Ehrich Weiss. It's the spelling Houdini used. It's the spelling Bess used. It's the spelling everyone used. It was Houdini's real name.

What's that name again?…


That's right.

Photo from the collection of John C. Hinson. Signature image from a 1901 legal paper reproduced in The Original Houdini Scrapbook by Walter B. Gibson.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

You'll find Houdini under H

There is a chapter on Houdini in the new book, Retro Pop Culture A to Z: From Atari 2600 to Zombie Films by Brett Weiss. What makes this chapter of note is that Weiss interviewed mega collector Arthur Moses for the book, and Arthur shares some keen observations about Houdini ("He had something of a little man's complex") as well as info on his own collecting ("There's a Chinese book from the 1930s that I'd love to have.").

You can buy Retro Pop Culture A to Z: From Atari 2600 to Zombie Films on Amazon as a print paperback or as a Kindle eBook.

Also check out the author's blog: Brett Weiss: Words of Wonder.

**************************************************
This marks WILD ABOUT HARRY's 1999th post. Tomorrow for our 2000th post I will tackle the #1 mistake people make about Houdini. Can you guess what it is?

Briggs auction previews start today


Previews start today for Briggs auction of Houdini artifacts from the private collection of former Philadelphia 76ers president, Pat Croce. The auction will take place this Friday, February 21 at 4pm. Among the items you can get a look at are:

* A large color lithograph Houdini billboard, titled "The World Famous Houdini, Master Mystifier" (pre-auction estimate: $8,000 - $10,000). The poster proclaims Houdini as “The greatest necromancer of the age perhaps of all times” and illustrates Houdini displaying his magical skills.

* Important letter from the American magician, Harry Kellar, to Harry Houdini (pre-auction estimate $2,000 - $3,000). The letter mentions several other notable magicians and also discusses the recent popularity of the "sawing trick", referring to sawing a woman in half. This piece is significant due to its discussion of the sawing trick, which was surrounded by much debate and controversy, and is still one of the most recognizable illusions.

* Collection of ancient padlocks used in Houdini’s escape acts, including 12th century European castle locks, two keys, and a pair of cuffs presented in a two-sided wood shadow box with red velvet lining (pre-auction estimate $50,000 - $70,000). This amazing collection was displayed in the Houdini Museum in Niagara Falls and also used as set dressing in the 1953 movie "Houdini" starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh.
* Collection of wrist and ankle shackles, containing twelve individual contraptions including a wrist, ankle, neck shackle, a large padlock, and wrist and ankle shackles (pre-auction estimate $60,000 - $80,000), which were formerly on display in the Houdini Museum collection in Niagara Falls. Prior to the Museum's acquisition, Henry Miller purchased the collection from Joseph Dunninger, who acquired them from Beatrice Houdini.

Auction previews will take place on the following days at Briggs Auction, 1347 Naamans Creek Road, Garnet Valley, PA :

Tuesday, February 18: Noon-5pm
Wednesday, February 19: Noon-5pm
Thursday, February 20: Noon-7pm
Friday, February 21: from 9am

See the full auction catalog on BriggsAuction.com. Absentee and telephone bidding will be available during this auction. Live online bidding is offered through liveauctioneers.com.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The untold story of Houdini's 1914 Battery Park escape


On July 15, 1914, Houdini performed his overboard box escape off New York's Battery Park before a crowd of 15,000. It's an escape that, while well-represented in photos, receives scant attention in most Houdini biographies. This is surprising as it was a major event and also gave Houdini one of his closest calls (according to him). So I thought it was high time to shine a light on this uncelebrated but still spectacular Houdini escape.

Houdini returned from Europe in late June 1914 (famously entertaining President Theodore Roosevelt aboard the ocean liner, Imperator) to fulfill his regular July booking at New York's Hammerstien's Roof Garden and Victoria Theatre. The first week, July 6, Houdini performed his Water Torture Cell. But during the second week he revealed an all-new, semi-original magic effect, Walking Through A Brick Wall. He only ever performed the Brick Wall illusion for this one week at Hammerstein's, yet he is still known as "the man who walked through walls" today.

This was a significant time for Houdini, who has just turned 40. The previous month in England he had experimented with presenting his first all-magic show, the Grand Magical Revue, and he was making ambitious plans to embark on a world tour in a traveling caravan. What Houdini didn't know was that World War I would break out in Europe in just a few weeks, preventing him from traveling overseas for six years. It's also worth noting that July 17 marked the first anniversary of his mother's death, which still haunted him.

Houdini would promote his Hammerstein's engagement in a major way. On July 13 newspapers announced that he would make a "DARING DIVE!!" off Manhattan's Battery Park "near the aquarium." Houdini would be shackled and nailed into a packing crate and then thrown (always "thrown") into the harbor. The "special free test" would take place on Wednesday, July 15 at 12:30 p.m., "rain or shine." (As a side note, the Battery Park aquarim was once Castle Garden, where emigrants were processed in the years before Ellis Island, including the 4-year-old Houdini.)

This was actually Houdini's second overboard box escape in New York. On July 7, 1912, he performed the feat from a tugboat off Governors Island. (He was forced to hire a tug when police arrived and forbid the performance from the pier.) In that escape, his crate was sent down a seesaw plank into the water. This time Houdini would again use a tugboat, the J.A. McAllister, but a block and tackle would lower the box. It may have been the first time he used a block and tackle for the overboard box, and, as we'll see, it may have caused him some problems.

Clad in his bathing suit and accompanied by Hardeen, Houdini drove to the challenge in a 60-horsepower racing car. He was cheered all along the three-and-a-half-mile route from the theater district to the harbor. On his arrival, he found that 15,000 people turned out to witness the escape. The New York Tribune reported that the massive crowd "surged back and forth along the water front" with such force that police had to drive them back so those in the front wouldn't be thrown into the harbor. The paper also reported that Houdini had "an equally hard time driving away the moving picture photographers who insisted upon reeling off his feat despite the fact that he had his own staff of film-makers on hand."

It's a heartbreaking detail to learn that this escape was filmed because, as far as I know, not a frame of this film survives today. (However, we do have footage of another overboard box escape HERE.)

Photos show Houdini, dressed in a dark colored bathing suit (in 1912 he wore an all-white bathing suit), shackled in two pairs of handcuffs and leg-irons, with chains running from his hands to his ankles. He was then nailed into the packing box which was then roped and secured with what the Tribune called "steel tape." The box was then lowered over the side of the tug under the careful eye of Jim Collins. The unpublished photo below from our Hinson Endowment shows Collins using his foot to adjust the box's assent or keep it steady, which might indicate the first sign of trouble that Houdini later described.


The tugboat blew its horn as the box descended and disappeared below the water. One minute later, Houdini appeared at the surface to the cheers of the crowd. This was faster than his 2.5 minute escape in 1912. (The paper doesn't record whether the tugboat blew it's horn a second time to signal that Houdini was free, but it's very likely it did.) The paper said that "the spectators wandered off debating, some saying that he kept the keys in his thick hair; others that he had an evil genius."

But the escape had not gone as smoothly as it appeared from the surface. In an autobiographical article Houdini wrote in 1919 called "Dying For A Living," he related what had happened that day under the water:

Some of you who read this may have been at the Battery in New York on July 15, 1912 [sic]. The date is seared on my memory, and so is the picture of the crowd that I saw just before I lowered myself, manacled and handcuffed into a packing-box that stood at the water's edge. Into this box had been placed 200 pounds of lead so that it would quickly sink, and with the top securely nailed it was bound about with ropes, and held for a moment until I gave the word, and then thrown overboard.

Whatever happened I don't know until this day. It may have been that a passing boat disturbed the water, for as the box was sinking it seemed to be thrown about roughly. What I had to do to make my escape from the box had to be done in seconds, and even as I write of it now there comes to me a feeling of suffocation and I recall the moment of my discovery that the ropes had become entangled and I was face to face with the dreaded one chance of the thousand.

Always when under water, and of necessity holding my breath, my mind works just as freely and clearly as under normal conditions. On this day, down there under many feet of water, it became necessary for me to work faster than I had ever worked in my life before and my mental apparatus proved equal to the task. However I did it I am not quite sure now, but my time hadn't come and the thousands of persons who watched cheered loudly as I came to the surface freed of the manacles and handcuffs.

It should be noted that in this same article Houdini goes on to tell the tale of being trapped under the ice during an overboard box escape (post on that coming soon), so maybe this battle under the Battery is an invention as well? You never know with Houdini. However, there is some indication that it might be true. As I pointed out, the photo of Collins shows him steadying the box, and the papers report that there was a second boat, "P.D.7" on the scene, so this might have caused the disturbance Houdini talks about. The use of a block and tackle connected to the tug would have made the box highly susceptible to turbulence. Finally, Houdini rapid escape jives with the 1 minute escape time described by the paper.

So there we have Houdini's 1914 Battery Park escape. It's really a great stunt and it's odd that these details have been largely lost to Houdini history…until now.


With thanks to Mantoo, Dana Keller, Patrick Culliton, John C. Hinson, and especially Joe Notaro of Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence for providing me with the newspaper accounts of the Battery Park escape.

Related posts:

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Adrien Brody assumes THE pose

With Entertainment Weekly's unveiling this week of the first official photos from HISTORY's Houdini miniseries, I couldn't resist this little side by side of the men who have played Houdini in major biopics all assuming that most famous of poses. Welcome aboard, Mr. Brody!

Curtis, Glaser, Schaech, and now Adrien Brody.

The real thing

Houdini is directed by Uli Edel from a script by Nicholas Meyer. The 4-hour miniseries will air over the course of two nights on HISTORY sometime this year.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Entertainment Weekly has the first look at 'Houdini'

The new issue of Entertainment Weekly (Feb 21) contains the first official look at HISTORY's Houdini miniseries starring Adrien Brody. The magazine has a full page with two terrific photos (one that gives us our first look at Kristen Connolly's Bess), and also reveals that the 4-hour miniseries will debut in May. Fantastic!

Click to enlarge.

By the way, I dashed out at 10pm to track this down after being alerted to this by Dean Carnegie and Jim Fitzsimmons on Facebook. I found it at a local newsstand where it had just arrived yesterday. The man at the stand noted that he had sold an unusual amount today. "There must be something special in it," he said.

Indeed.

You can buy this issue or download a digital version at www.ew.com.

UPDATE: Not sure if Entertainment Weekly got it wrong or HISTORY changed their plans, but it doesn't appear Houdini is going to air in May as reported. Maybe Fall?

Going down with Houdini

This weekend I'll share the largely untold story of Houdini's 1914 overboard box escape off New York's Battery Park. It's wild stuff.

"...I recall the moment of my discovery that the ropes had become entangled and I was face to face with the dreaded one chance of the thousand."

See you back here this weekend as we go down with Houdini.

UPDATE: Because of the unexpected appearance of the Houdini miniseries preview, I'm pushing this to Sunday. Let's hope Harry can hold his breath!

A gift for Valentine's Day

Here's a priceless artifact that hangs in the home of John C. Hinson, the great nephew of Harry and Bess Houdini. One of Bess's hobbies was embroidery, and this is a little something she made for her husband. Speaks for itself, I think.


Happy Valentine's Day to all Houdini lovers.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Italian 'Houdini' DVD includes 'The Man From Beyond'

Golem Video has released an Italian "Special Edition" DVD of the 1953 Paramount classic Houdini (Il Mago Houdini), which also includes Houdini's silent feature, The Man From Beyond. This was released in December of last year. Pretty cool!

This is a Region 2 DVD so it will not play on most U.S. players. But the true appeal here is that it's a Special Edition. I have long hoped to see Paramount Home Video release a Houdini Special Edition DVD with some extras like this, but that has yet to happen.

Il Mago Houdini can be purchased direct from the Italian Amazon.it, or from the U.S. Amazon.com via third party.

Click here to read more about Paramount's classic Houdini.

Alan Davies goes in search of Houdini


UK comedian and personality Alan Davies will go in search of Houdini as part of ITV's Perspectives documentary series in Spring 2014. Here's a description from the ITV website:

Alan Davies on Houdini

Having had a huge fascination with the world of magic since he was four-years-old, Alan Davies explores the extraordinary life of illusionist and stunt performer, Harry Houdini, the man who against the odds became one of the most successful entertainers in the world.

In a bid to understand why Houdini felt compelled to perform such terrifying death defying acts, Alan tries to hold his breath under ice cold water, lies on a bed of nails, gets strung upside down in a straitjacket and takes an exclusive look at David Copperfield's priceless collection of Houdini artifacts in Vegas. Directed by Louise Hooper for What Larks!

Davies recently told Native Monster, "I’m filming a documentary about Houdini for ITV. He’s someone I’ve always been interested in, so when they approached me asking if I wanted to present a show about him - I jumped at the chance!"

Perspectives airs on ITV in the UK. Hopefully there will be a way for those of us in the U.S. to see this documentary as well.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

'On With Scott' goes wild about Harry


Just a heads-up that I will be the guest on the podcast On With Scott today, February 12, at 7:30pm, talking about, you guessed it, Houdini! This is first of two shows we recorded a few weeks ago. The first show (Episode 10) streams live today at 7:30 at Live Sircuit. The second show (Episode 11) airs next week. Both shows will eventually be archived on the On With Scott page at Live Sircuit.

It was a fun show to do and Scott Moore is a great host. We had only planned on doing one show -- but you know what happens when one starts talking about Houdini!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The man who kept Houdini's secrets


Is 2014 the year of Jim Collins? After decades behind the scenes, Houdini's chief assistant and trusted mechanic will be stepping into the spotlight in at least two major Houdini projects this year.

This month David Crabb will play Collins on stage in New York in the Axis Theater Co. production, Nothing on Earth (Can Hold Houdini). Then, later this year, Collins will appear in HISTORY's Houdini miniseries played by Evan Jones. In fact, it's looking like Jones/Collins will be the third lead behind Adrien Brody and Kristen Connolly.

So with all this upcoming Collins action, I thought it was time to share this remarkable artifact from the collection of Jon Oliver. This is Jim Collins' last paycheck from Houdini. As you can see, it was issued by "Houdini Attractions, Inc." on November 8, 1926 (a week after the magician's death) in the amount of $40. Collins endorsed the check and deposited it on November 16.

Click to enlarge.

You'll notice that this is Check No. 1. That's because "Houdini Attractions, Inc." was a new company incorporated after Houdini's death by his lawyer, Bernard Ernst, to deal with Houdini-related expenses and to spare Bess.* I like that the first order of business was to cut Collins a check. He was, after all, the man who kept Houdini's secrets.

Jim Collins would go on to assist Hardeen into the '30s and '40s. He died in Philadelphia on March 6, 1942 at age 59.

Thanks to Jon Oliver for the image and to Patrick Culliton for Collins' death date. For more, check out this thread at The Magic Cafe which has some interesting information about Collins as well as comments from relatives.

*UPDATE: According to Jon Oliver, Houdini Attractions, Inc. was created before Houdini's death. In fact, he signed papers bringing the company into existence during the final weeks of his life.

Related posts:

Monday, February 10, 2014

Revised cover for Young Houdini 1 and title for book 2

It looks like the cover art for Simon Nicholson's first "Young Houdini" book, The Magician's Fire, has received a bit of a rethink. Oxford University Press has posted this revised cover on their website and Amazon.co.uk. Still looks great to me. Now if they'd just revise the November release date so we could have this sooner!

Metamorphosis: Old cover (left) and the revised cover (right).

In other Young Houdini news, it appears Book 2 will be called, Young Houdini: The Demon Curse. No details or release date for that book yet. There is also no news on a U.S. publisher for the series.

Pre-order Young Houdini: The Magician's Fire from Amazon.co.uk.

Related posts:

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Houdini in color

The Facebook page History in Color has posted this colorized photo of Houdini performing his overboard box escape in New York. The image was created by Dana Keller. Very nice. (Click it to enlarge.)


History in Color did get their details wrong on this. This is not the 1912 East River escape (on July 7). This is actually from his July 15, 1914 escape at Battery Park. 15,000 people crowded the shore to watch, and Houdini had a close call, which I will detail in a future post.

Thanks to Axis Theatre Company for this find, and to MANTOO for catching the dating error.

Related posts:

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Catch Houdini on The Artful Detective

The Canadian series Murdoch Mysteries has been picked up by the Ovation network in the U.S. and is currently airing under the title, The Artful Detective. Season 2 saw an episode titled "Houdini Whodunit" featuring, you guessed it, Houdini! The episode first aired in 2009.

"Houdini Whodunit" will air on Ovation this Tuesday, February 11. It's a fun episode with Joe Dinicol playing a young Houdini accused of bank robbery and murder during a performance in Toronto. Did he do it? Watch and find out.

If you don't get Ovation on your cable service, know that "Houdini Whodunit" is available via Amazon's Video on Demand. The full season can also be purchased on DVD.

Related:

Houdini Bible brings in a sinful $24k

A tricked "Houdini Bible" sold for $24,000 (including 20% premium) at today's Potter and Potter auction of the Burton S. Sperber magic collection. It beat the auction estimate of $8,000-10,000.

Bound in 1901, this appears to be an ordinary Bible. But it was in fact manufactured to Houdini's specifications so that it allowed him to invite a person to turn to any page and begin reading silently. Instantly, Houdini would know the words that the spectator was reading.

Only three Houdini Bibles are known to exist, this being one of them.

Click here to read more about Houdini's Bibles, tricked and otherwise.

Thanks to James Smith and Gary Hunt.

Friday, February 7, 2014

American Pickers find Houdini in Leadville

Houdini turned up on American Pickers on Wednesday (2/5) when Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz picked the historic Tabor Opera House in Leadville, Colorado. Here's how it went down.



The fact about Houdini teaching American soldiers how to escape German handcuffs needs a touch of clarification. While it is true Houdini taught soldiers how to escape German restraints, it's not quite right to say he took a year off to do so. Houdini never took a year off in his life. A quibble.

As to Houdini performing at the Tabor Opera House. The only Colorado appearances of Houdini listed in Koval's Houdini Research Diary are in Denver at the Lyceum Theater (1899) and the Denver Orpheum (1907/1915/1923). But Koval is far from complete, and while the Opera House is unsure of the exact date, Houdini's performance was witnessed by Theresa O'Brien who shared the story with tourists until her death in 1981 age 86. Houdini's performance is also remembered by stagehand Fred Reichle in the book, The Tabor Opera House - A Captivating History by Evelyn Livingston Furman.

Evelyn Furman with Theresa O'Brien who saw Houdini perform in Leadville.

The trap cut in the Tabor stage by Houdini could have been for the Water Torture Cell (which puts his appearance after 1912). Houdini required a trap in the stage in order to drain the cell after the performance. In fact, you can hear Frank Fritz say "water tank" in the clip, so the Pickers seem to know their stuff.

As with the airing of Houdini Unlocking the Mystery on H2 this week, is this another sign that HISTORY is looking to gin up curiosity about Houdini in anticipation of their upcoming Houdini miniseries? I expected to see Houdini show up on American Pickers, but I hadn't expected it to be this soon. I'm betting Mike and Frank are going to encounter the Master Mystifier again in their upcoming travels.

Thanks to Sharon Bland of The Historic Tabor Opera House for the information about Houdini's performance and the photo.

Related posts:

Ehrich Weiss in Milwaukee

Our good friend David Saltman is tackling on his blog The Houdini File a part of Houdini's history that is vastly under-researched. I'm talking about the years young Ehrich and his family lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. While Houdini himself said of these years "the less said the better," this was a transformative time for Ehrich Weiss, and David had uncovered some information that has never see print before.

Begin the journey by visiting the links below:

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Houdini's rough ride at Niagara Falls

The Man From Beyond crew at the American Falls.

Michelle Ann Kratts, author of The Missed and a researcher and tour guide at the historic Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, has uncovered some very interesting information about Houdini filming The Man From Beyond at Niagara Falls in early May 1921. While Houdini had knack for charming local police and reporters, that seems to have failed him on this particular trip.

Houdini arrived in Niagara Falls with a film crew of 16 people, including director Burton King and five cameramen. They were there to shoot the climax of the film, which sees Howard Hillary (Houdini) saving Felice Strange (Jane Connelly) from going over the falls in a canoe. Not only did Houdini film himself swimming the rapids, but the production also maneuvered two canoes along the waters with stunt dummies doubling Houdini and Connelly aboard. Whatever faults Houdini's films have, the Niagara Falls sequence in The Man From Beyond remains genuinely exciting even today.

The canoe with stunt dummies.

The first piece of wild new information that Michelle's research has uncovered is that Houdini filmed his famous scenes on the Niagara rapids on the very same day as the funeral for Annie Edson Taylor. Taylor was famous for being the first person to survive going over the falls in a barrel. Incredibly, she performed the daredevil stunt at age 63!

Was it just a coincidence that Houdini shot his own Niagara "stunts" on the day of Taylor's funeral, or was it a ploy to generate publicity? If it was the latter, it backfired somewhat.

The Niagara Falls Gazette did indeed report on the duel events on May 6, 1921, but it was decidedly critical of the film company and, worse, it did not mention Houdini or the film by name. Under the headline: "Canoes with 'Dummies' Are Sent Over Falls as Body of Mrs. Taylor, Cataracts' Conqueror, Is Buried," the paper observed:

Those who attended the funeral services yesterday spoke of the fact that just a few hours before Mrs. Taylor's funeral, a motion picture company had sent canoes carrying dummies over the American Falls. The canoes and dummies were smashed to fragments on the rocks below but pictures of them were taken as they made the plunge over the brink. These pictures will form the climax of a picture romance of Niagara that will probably make thousands of dollars for its producers, while Mrs. Taylor, the only woman who ever made the Falls trip and survived, was unable to derive a fortune from the feat and was buried through the generosity of friends.

It should be noted that the shots of the canoe going over the falls in The Man From Beyond is dummy free. It had to be for the sake of the plot! However, it's possible the film crew sent their second canoe with the dummies over the Falls as well. This photo below show the dummy canoe on the brink of the falls. While the canoe was tethered, it's possible it was irretrievable at this point and was cut free. Interesting to think that for a time a Houdini dummy lay at the bottom of Niagara Falls.

On the brink.

Houdini rough PR ride in Niagara had started almost from the time he arrived in the city. The police had forbid him from performing any stunts on the Falls, and on May 4 The Gazette reported this remarkable exchange with Houdini at his hotel:

Houdini is temperamental, like the great artist he is. He was much upset when a reporter called on him at his room in the Prospect Hotel this morning. He made no excuse for his appearance, although his blue trousers has yet been flocked of the dirt they had accumulated during his work on the bank of the rapids above the American Falls earlier in the day while staging film play scenes in which he appeared as the star. His black pompadour hair, surrounding a somewhat pale but classic countenance, stood crinkly aloft and accentuated the temperamental attack which caused him to pace quickly to and fro as he conversed. [...]

"Why so upset?" ventured this interviewer.

"Why shouldn't I be upset?" he questioned back. "Here they have been circulating baseless rumors that hurt me. They say I am here to go over the falls, swim the rapids and dozens of other foolhardy exploits which can be performed only at the risk of one's life. I've been warned that I will be arrested if I attempt to stage any such stunt. Well, I would do if if I wanted to, but I don't want to. I have taken great risks but that was earlier in my stage career. I am long past that. I am accounted now an artist. I am receiving a salary of $200,000 a year for acting in moving pictures dramas and directing their filming. No more do I slip loose from manacles and chains for the
delectation of crowded houses. That is the past."

The reporter goes on to say that Houdini "summoned" his wife Bess from the other room -- "a petite and altogether charming woman" -- who stated:

"Why of course he will not risk his life in any exploit here, going over the falls or otherwise. I wouldn't let him."

Of course, Houdini (and Bess) weren't being completely forthcoming here. Two days later Houdini did swim the rapids as part of filming, although it's said he did so with a safety line attached. The production actually stayed a day later than they announced to get these shots, along with the canoe action. Perhaps this subtle betrayal had something to do with the rough treatment The Gazette gave him about shooting these scenes on the day of Annie Taylor's funeral?

It's fascinating to see Houdini so out-of-control of his own public image. But with his massive investment in his own motion picture company and career, one can understand how he'd be "temperamental" when he was still being identified as the Handcuff King. He so wants to be perceived as a highly paid motion picture artist -- a Chaplin in his own right. But Houdini's creative efforts in movies could never match his achievements on stage, and Houdini's experience here in Niagara Falls foreshadowed his coming difficulties.

Finally, Michelle pointed out is that Oakwood Cemetery has a special section dedicated to Niagara's daredevils and stunters, including the aforementioned Annie Edson Taylor. While Michelle has yet to uncover evidence that Houdini visited Oakwood's "Stunters Rest", it seems very likely that he did. Houdini could never resist a cemetery, and to have a section devoted to daredevils would have been irresistible for him.

Perhaps if his safety line broke while he was swimming the Niagara rapids, he might have become a resident of "Stunters Rest" himself. But, as always, Houdini escaped.

The Man From Beyond screens at a local Niagara Falls theater.

Thanks to Michelle Ann Kratts for sharing this unknown Houdini/Niagara Falls history. You can purchase her book 'The Missed' on Amazon. And thanks to John C. Hinson for the amazing unpublished images of the stunt canoes.

Related posts:

Sources:
  • Niagara Falls Gazette: Houdini, The Great, Who Defied the World's Best Straightjackets and Manacles, Scorns Falls Feat. Niagara Falls, NY. May 4, 1921.
  • Niagara Falls Gazette: Houdini Pulled Off a Thriller. Niagara Falls, NY. May 6, 1921.
  • Niagara Falls Gazette: Canoes with "Dummies" Are Sent Over Falls as Body of Mrs. Taylor, Cataracts' Conqueror, Is Buried. Niagara Falls, NY. May 6, 1921.
  • Oakwood Cemetery (website)

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Warning: rough water ahead

Tomorrow on WILD ABOUT HARRY I'll share some intriguing new information about the filming of Houdini's The Man From Beyond. It includes a suspicious coincidence, unseen photos, a "temperamental" Houdini, and a surprise appearance by Bess who tells it like it is. Oh, and there's a cemetery.


Hold on, Harry! We'll be back tomorrow!

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