Monday, June 30, 2014

Houdini coming to the silver screen

A July 20, 1918 issue of Motion Picture News recently sold on eBay for $115.46. It includes a full page ad announcing the signing of Houdini by B. A. Rolfe to star in a motion picture serial. That serial was, of course, The Master Mystery, and this ad heralds the start of Houdini's career as a screen actor. You gotta love the quote in Houdini's own hand: "It is authentic Houdini."

"There will be ten episodes and work will begin about July 15. I cannot announce the complete cast yet, but it will be a notable one. It is the intention to make it a serial that will live long and be remembered."

- B. A. Rolfe

Of course, a year later, this is how Houdini's relationship with B. A. Rolfe ended:

The Evening World, Oct. 9, 1919.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Former home of Leo Weiss for sale


The Ridgefield Connecticut estate that once belonged to Houdini's brother, Dr. Leopold Weiss, is for sale. According to an article at Connecticutmag.com:

The house was built by James Stokes, who was the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. A few years after building it, Stokes sold the property to Dr. Leopold Weiss, brother of legendary magician Houdini. Houdini would regularly visit and be seen about Ridgefield. In a 1987 column in the Ridgefield Press, Richard E. Venus, Ridgefield’s former town historian, wrote that Houdini and his wife “spent many weekends at his brother’s Ridgefield home. I recall seeing him as he shopped in the local stores on a Saturday morning.”

The article also claims Houdini "practiced his famous underwater escapes in the pool."

Asking price: A cool $5.75 million.

Related:

Friday, June 27, 2014

Margery's Curse

Houdini's most famous spirit medium exposure was that of Mina Crandon a.k.a. "Margery". Margery had passionate and powerful supporters in the spiritualist community, and their series of cantankerous seances in July 1924 made headlines across the country. Even after the seances -- and after Margery was denied the Scientific American prize for genuine mediumship -- challenges and accusations continued to fly, and newspapers continued to report on the famous rivalry.

In December 1925, this item appeared in newspapers across the country:


This was almost certainly planted by Houdini himself. Evidence of that is the fact that it calls out Margery by her real name, Mrs. Le Roy Crandon. The "curse" referred to here was a prediction during a seance by Margery's spirit guide, Walter (her deceased brother), that Houdini had "but one more year to live."

Margery denied all this, saying: "All talk by Houdini that spirits are plotting his death within a year is not only false but absurd. Why, I never heard of Black Magic. I regard his statement as a joke."

While Walter's prediction had actually come in 1924, the irony here is Houdini would indeed die within a year of this article's appearance. To the general public, it would have appeared that Margery's prophecy had come to pass.

Curse? Coincidence? Just add it to the stew of intrigue that was the last year of Houdini's life.

Related:

Congress declares Magic an art form

It looks like the "Do Nothing Congress" has actually done something...for magic! Society of American Magician's President Dal Sanders, with the help of Wylie Mayor Eric Hogue (also a S.A.M. member), was able to get Congressional recognition for magic as an art.

Here's the full Text of Congressional Record, which includes a mention of Houdini.

IN RECOGNITION OF THE ART OF MAGIC — HON. PETE SESSIONS (Extensions of Remarks – April 28, 2014)
[Page: E586]

HON. PETE SESSIONS OF TEXAS
IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
Monday, April 28, 2014

Mr. SESSIONS. Mr. Speaker, I rise today on behalf of one of my constituents, Dal Sanders, National President of The Society of American Magicians, to recognize magic as an art.

The art of magic has been around for centuries and is intended to entertain audiences with the staging of tricks and creating seemingly impossible illusions. Throughout its history, magic has grown to show innovative and creative ways to delight and engage audiences worldwide. It takes a great deal of dedication and a strong work ethic to devote the practice time necessary to master this art.

I would specifically like to take this opportunity to recognize the world’s oldest magic organization, The Society of American Magicians, S A M. Since its founding in 1902, The S.A.M. has attempted to elevate and advance the art of magic by promoting an environment for magicians worldwide to come together and share their passion. The S.A.M. members follow in the footsteps of renowned magicians Harry Houdini and Howard Thurston, who each served as national president of The S.A.M., and Harry Blackstone, Jr., and David Copperfield, who both have served as The S.A.M. ambassadors.

Mr. Speaker, I ask my esteemed colleagues to join me in recognizing the art of magic.

Since the 1960s, the S.A.M. has been trying to get Congressional recognition for the "Art of Magic". While many states and localities have issued Magic Week proclamations recognizing magic as an art, the federal government has not.

“When considered for grants, magic in the U.S. has been seen as a hobby or at best, a craft," says Dal Sanders. "This is not the case in other countries. For example, in the late 60s Doug Henning won a grant from the Canadian Council for the Arts to study magic. In Canada, as in many other countries, they recognized magic as an art form. Henning's grant led to the show that would eventually become the Broadway hit The Magic Show."

Congratulations to Dal Sanders and the S.A.M. Your past "Most Illustrious" President Harry Houdini would be proud.

Click here for the full press release from the S.A.M.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

S.A.M. exhibition disappearing in July

If you haven't seen the Society of American Magician's Hall of Fame collection at the Whittier Historical Society & Museum in Whittier, CA, know that the clock is ticking. The exhibition will be closing after a "Grand Finale Magic Show" event on July 19.

The exhibition, which opened in 2012, features an impressive display of rare Houdini artifacts, including a dress worn by Bess, Houdini's die box, a brick from 278, and three handcuff displays created by Edward Saint in 1936. On one of these boards is the original Russian Manacle and key. This was a handcuff custom made by Houdini at the height of his Handcuff King career, and along with the Mirror and the French Letter Cuff, is probably the most famous and recognizable Houdini handcuff.


There are some amazing non-Houdini magic artifacts in the exhibition as well, including; T. Nelson Downs' top hat, Cooke's own linking rings with carrying case, and Alexander Herrmann's original cups and balls. There are also some beautiful original Thurston posters.

It's unclear if the collection will move to a new location or go back into storage.

The Whittier Museum is located at 6755 Newlin Avenue, Whittier, CA 90601. Admission is free, but you might to call ahead and make sure the exhibition is open that day. I've heard tales of people traveling there only to discover the exhibition doors locked. Also, the light had been burned out in the Houdini case, making it impossible to see the items inside. Hopefully that has been corrected.

Related:

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Here's your chance to be Houdini

Calling all actors, magicians, and escape artists in the New York area. Backstage.com has posted a casting notice looking for someone to play Houdini in "six short videos to promote The History's Channel's new Houdini [miniseries]. Each video will cover one of Houdini's most famous tricks or escapes." Below are the requirements:

Click to enlarge.

The Houdini promos will shoot on July 1 & 2 in Jersey City, Brooklyn, and NYC. For more details and to apply, go to the full listing at backstage.com.

Houdini stars Adrien Brody as Houdini and Kristen Connolly as Bess. The 4-hour miniseries is directed by Uli Edel from a script by Nicholas Meyer. It will air on HISTORY over the course of two nights starting Labor Day, September 1, 2014.

Video Cellar digs out Houdini

Here's one for completists only. A company called Video Cellar is offering Terror Island and Haldane of the Secret Service on DVD for the not very low price of $14.95 apiece. The Amazon listings say these are "manufactured on demand using DVD-R recordable media"...which pretty much means they are home made copies. The home made aspect extends of the covers as well.


Before you grab these, know that you can still buy both these movies individually and with better cover art from Alpha Video for only $5.98. Or you can buy Kino's amazing box set of all of Houdinis movies plus loads of extras for only $19.48. Haldane and Terror Island are also now streaming via Amazon and Netflix.

New Houdini eBook biography for kids

Harry Houdini For Kids! by Ian D. Fraser is a new 59-page mini-biography tailored to readers 5 - 12. It is part of the "Biography for Kids" series and was released as a Kindle eBook on June 22. Here's the description on Amazon:

Harry Houdini was one of the most famous magicians and escape artists in the world. He could escape from just about anything. Harry could escape from a locked coffin. He could escape from a sealed container submerged in the ocean...while handcuffed and shackled. He even escaped from a milk can full of water and shut by 6 heavy-duty padlocks.

Start reading and discover...

* Why Harry Houdini was so famous.
* What inspired Harry to become a professional magician when he was only 9 years old.
* How Harry learned to escape from any lock in the world.
* How Harry became one of the most famous persons in the world.
* Why the Milk Can Escape became so popular...even though it was probably the easiest of all Harry's escape.
* What Harry did when four English sailors pointed a loaded cannon right at him.
* How Harry amazed audiences by walking right through a brick wall.
* How Harry escaped from a straightjacket...while hanging upside down hundreds of feet in the air.

...and Much More!

So start reading and discover the incredible story of how Harry Houdini rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most famous magicians in history.

Purchase Houdini For Kids! by Ian D. Fraser at Amazon.com.

Monday, June 23, 2014

REVIEW: Flim Flam is for real

Houdini and Margery share a Master Mystery moment.
(Photo: Brian McCarthy)

Last Friday I had the pleasure of attending the opening of Flim Flam: Houdini and the Hereafter at the Malibu Playhouse in Malibu, California. Maybe I'm still under the influence of the champagne reception, but I think Flim Flam could very well be the best Houdini play I've yet seen. Not only is there a steady stream of insider references to excite the Houdini buff, but it's also a beautifully layered story of three couples struggling with their marriages amid fame and a world tumbling toward spiritualism as the answer to all things. Flim-flam indeed.

From the moment the play begins, it is clear everyone involved in the production has done their homework, and this play is here to celebrate Houdini, not bury him. During his introduction on opening night, playwright Gene Franklin Smith said, "The more you study Houdini, the more you discover that you don't know anything about him." We all know how true that is!

But it's clear that Smith has the fever, as he peppers the play with historical Houdini Easter-eggs. We hear Harry order Farmers Chop Suey; Bess gets stuck in the sub trunk (I missed her real-life line: "So this is how you try to kill me!"); there is a mention of Bess's niece, Julia, and a rub-down with Zam-Buk; the name Quentin Locke is heard (suggesting Houdini might have pre-visited Margery in disguise?); wax "ectoplasmic" hands are used to comedic effect; and Act 2 opens with a terrific silent movie vignette of Houdini and Margery being harassed by Dr. Crandon as The Automaton. This last bit I especially loved, and to coin a Houdini expression, it was here I fell back and proclaimed Gene Franklin Smith "master."

Rick D. Wasserman as Houdini.
(Photo: Brian McCarthy)
Rick D. Wasserman is excellent as Houdini. He resists the familiar urge to play the escape king as an overly theatrical egotist, and instead gives us a much more accurate and very human Harry. Here we get a hardworking, showbiz savvy Houdini; a tactician and professional who is, nevertheless, wracked in pain and looking for a less strenuous way to evolve his career. His Houdini is quick witted and disarming with an easy smile, but still dominates any room he's in, despite more than a few jokes made about his height. It's always interesting to observe how an actor deals with Houdini's still mysterious voice, and here Wasserman creates a voice that has a touch of a New York accent, but also contains many elements of Harry's mixed heritage and experience. We even get to hear Wasserman sing "Rosabel" in a fine singing voice. Yes, Houdini sings in Flim Flam. Hello, money's worth!

Bess is a very important character in this play and she's magnificently played by the talented Melissa Kite. Bess is in her full "Champagne Coquette" mode here, and while drinking makes her quick tempered and unstable at times, she is still Houdini's rock of stability and frequently the only "sober" person in the room when it comes to calling out fakery. Kite as Bess is charming and witty and holds her own with Wasserman's Harry. They feel like a real couple. But the "spirits" Bess has turned to are far more insidious than those being channeled by Margery and Lady Doyle on behalf of their husbands, so the Bess of Flim Flam is also tragic. Again, feels true.

Margery channels the spirits.
(Photo: Brian McCarthy)
Sabra Malkinson as Mina Crandon a.k.a. "Margery" is sexy, strong, charismatic, and even a little frightening. Her stage time is limited, but she dominates when present -- a force as formidable as Houdini himself, as it should be. Malkinson nicely channels Walter in her strong stage voice using genuine Walter dialogue, and her costuming (and lack thereof) beautifully reflects her complex marital situation -- she's both free and captive. Her Margery admits to using trickery at times, yet she produces phenomena that is unexplainable -- the same mantra as Harry Houdini. The play ends with a wonderful "what if" by having Bess visit Margery as a last ditch effort to contact her beloved Harry. It's an electric idea, but you'll have to see the play to find out what happens.

Cameron Mitchell, Jr. brings us a thoroughly oily Dr. Leroi Crandon, Margery's controling husband. Crandon is stiff and old-world by intent, and his open anti-Semitism brings an instant tension to his scenes with Houdini. As with all the women in the play, Margery is in a state of reaction to her husband's ego and will. But there is a very funny moment when Crandon has to correct his wife on the pronunciation of his own name -- showing that while he controls Margery as any wealthy husband would at the time, he doesn't have her respect or even full attention. Love it.

Peter Van Norden as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is spot on. There is a moment, beautifully staged and performed, in which Doyle explains how spiritualism allowed him to talk to his dead son, and in a flash we understand and forgive the naiveté of the creator of Sherlock Holmes. This is a man who finds comfort in spiritualism from the worst pain possible, even at the cost of his reputation. There is also a nicely staged scene at the beach in which Houdini and Doyle discuss the idea of suicide as "an answer." One wonders of they might have really had such a conversation.

Sir Arthur and Lady Doyle conjure Mama Weiss.
(Photo: Brian McCarthy)

Top-billed Gigi Bermingham as Lady Doyle is commanding and her scenes with Bess are particularly well done, and she also wears some beautiful period clothing. In Flim Flam we get to see the infamous Automatic Writing session in Atlantic City, and Bermingham eerily rolls her eyes into her head so that they flutter white. Of all the tricksters in this play, Lady Doyle seems to be the most insidious faker, but her motivations are the hardest for me to fathom. Of course, this was also true in real life (was Lady Doyle insane?), so all this all feels correct.

Flim Flam is an entertainment, not a history lesson, so there are moments of poetic license. We see Margery (successfully?) channel Mama Weiss, which certainly never happened in life. But this serves the story well and Sabra Malkinson's Mama's voice is as effective as her Walter. Perhaps the largest leap is when Harry lands on the idea of doing a spiritualist exposure act -- and does so as a broadly comedic routine with Bess as his partner. Not really accurate (his spiritualist lecture and act was deadly serious), but this was actually an inspired way to present this. Not only did it provide an entertaining and lively moment for the audience in a play that has a lot of talk about death, but it nicely reunited "The Great Houdinis" on stage and very efficiently motivates Conan Doyle's rage over Houdini's (comedic) ridicule of his deepest beliefs. Again, great work by Gene Franklin Smith here.

"The Great Houdinis" reunite to parody a seance.
(Photo: Brian McCarthy)

The magic was supervised by our friend Jim Bentley (who has himself played Houdini on-stage on several times), and in the course of the evening we get to see a straitjacket escape, Metamorphosis, the Spirit Cabinet, and a scarf through the neck (very skillfully performed by Wasserman). Also high marks go to the beautiful and historically accurate costumes by Claire Livingston, impressive stage design by Erin Walley, sound design by Greg Chun, and, of course, the magnificent direction by Thomas James O'Leary that pulls all this great work together. You get much more production value in Flim Flam than in many plays of this size.

My only disappointment of the evening? Where the heck was the magic world!? While the play was sold out, the only familiar face I saw was Jim Bentley. Listen up people; one of the best Houdini plays that's every been produced is happening right now (through Aug 3) at the Malibu Playhouse which, by the way, is a beautiful venue with the ocean right across the street. So pull your noses out of your Erdnase and get on over to the Malibu Playhouse and spend some time with the Houdinis (AMA members get a discount). This is a very special play and a terrific experience, and that's no flim-flam!

Cast and crew after Friday's premiere.

Flim Flam: Houdini and the Hereafter plays through August 3, 2014 at Malibu Playhouse located at 29243 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, CA 90265. Tickets may be purchased through the box office, online at malibuplayhouse.org or by calling 323-960-7711.

For more information visit the Malibu Playhouse website. You can also follow them on Facebook and Twitter. Production photos by Brain McCarthy. For more on Brain's work visit McCarthy Photo Studios.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Happy Anniversary Harry and Bess

Today is Harry and Bess Houdini's 120th wedding anniversary. The couple were married in Coney Island on June 22, 1894. To mark the occasion, here's a repeat of a wonderful unpublished photo from the John C. Hinson Collection showing the Houdinis in 1924. Bound forever.

"We have starved, and starred together. We have had our little tiffs but your sunny smile, and my good (?) sense always smoothed out the bitterness. I love you—love you—and I know you love me. Your very touch, your care of me dearest and the laughter in my heart when you put your arms around me prove it. Think dear heart, twenty five years. . . .yours till the end of the world and ever after. Ehrich." 
-Note written by Houdini to Bess on
their their 25th Anniversary

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Flim Flamming last night in Malibu

The new play by Gene Franklin Smith, Flim Flam: Houdini and the Hereafter, had its "Red Carpet Gala" opening at the Malibu Playhouse last night. The sold out event was a big success and the play itself was terrific! I'm hoping to get my review up by Monday, but in the meantime, enjoys these pics from last night.

Houdini here!

Jim Bentley entertains some early arrivals.

Cast and crew. Bravo!

With Bess (Melissa Kite) and Margery (Sabra Malkinson).

With Houdini himself (Rick D. Wasserman).

Jim Bentley's lock collection on display.

Flim Flam: Houdini and the Hereafter is written by Gene Franklin Smith and directed Thomas James O'Leary. The cast includes Rick D. Wasserman as Houdini, Melissa Kite as Bess, Sabra Malkinson as Margery, Cameron Mitchell Jr as Dr. Leroi Crandon, Peter Van Norden as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Gigi Bermingham as Lady Jean Conan Doyle.

Tickets may be purchased through the box office, online at malibuplayhouse.org or by calling 323-960-7711. Malibu Playhouse is located at 29243 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, CA 90265.

For more information visit the Malibu Playhouse website. You can also follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

UPDATE: REVIEW: Flim Flam is for real.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Houdini materializes in Malibu tonight

Houdini returns to the stage tonight in the new Malibu Playhouse production, Flim Flam: Houdini and the Hereafter. The play has its "Red Carpet Gala" premiere this evening at 8pm and then runs through August 3rd. I'll be at tonight's opening and will tweet pics of the festivities @HoudiniWild. I'll also be posting a review of the play in the coming days.

(Photo: Brian McCarthy)

Flim Flam: Houdini and the Hereafter is written by Gene Franklin Smith and directed Thomas James O'Leary. The cast includes Rick D. Wasserman as Houdini, Melissa Kite as Bess, Sabra Malkinson as Margery, Cameron Mitchell Jr as Dr. Leroi Crandon, Peter Van Norden as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Gigi Bermingham as Lady Jean Conan Doyle.

Tickets may be purchased through the box office, online at malibuplayhouse.org or by calling 323-960-7711. Malibu Playhouse is located at 29243 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, CA 90265.

For more information visit the Malibu Playhouse website. You can also follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Houdini's greatest secret

Today it is general knowledge that Houdini was born in Budapest, Hungary, and immigrated to America along with his family as a child. Houdini's story is a classic tale of an immigrant making good, and today it is fashionable to say that part of Houdini's appeal was that he symbolized for his audiences the immigrant/individual who was able to break free of the "bonds" of oppression. But that might actually be a very modern read on Houdini.

Because during his own career, Houdini always claimed to be an American -- born April 6, 1874 in Appleton, Wisconsin.* In fact, it's more likely Houdini symbolized for his audience a new breed of 20th Century American supermen. This was especially the case in Europe where Houdini was billed as "The Elusive American" and had posters that showed him wearing shorts made of the Stars and Stripes (and this before Rocky Balboa). An American superman was certainly how Houdini wanted to be seen.

So it must have come as a surprise to those who had known or had seen Houdini in life to learn that he wasn't an American after all. Many first learned the truth of Houdini's Hungarian birth 33 years after the magician's death with the publication of Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls by William Lindsay Gresham in 1959. Some in the magic world still didn't accept it until 1972 when the S.A.M. National Council investigated the issue and published their conclusions in The Houdini Birth Research Committee's Report (above).

But the truth of Houdini's real birthplace and birth date was actually first uncovered and revealed in December 1932 in a German magic magazine, Die Magie. Patrick Culliton recently translated and reproduced that historic article on his website, Houdini's Ghost. It makes for interesting reading, especially the passage below in which the author talks about trying to publish this historic finding in an American magic publication and being rebuffed:

I believed that I was rendering our American friends a service and sent the original excerpt from the register together with the reproductions of the above-mentioned letters and pictures, to the S. A. M. [Society of American Magicians] for publication in SPHINX. To my great astonishment, I received from Mr. B. M. Ernst, President of the S.A.M. a cool letter of rejection with the statement that he could in no case accept that my conclusions were correct, and since it could only have been an error, he also advised me, in a tone that seemed disconcerting, against the publication of this material.

What the Die Magie writer apparently didn't know was that Bernard Ernst (right) was Houdini's lawyer and close confidant who continued to look after the Houdini estate and Bess at this time. It has been said that Ernst and Bess feared that the Life Insurance companies who had paid out on Houdini's policies (Bess' main income) would have grounds to void the policy and stop payments if it was shown that Houdini had "falsified" his nationality on the original application. This could very well be. But could Ernst have also been protecting the myth of Houdini as an American superman? He might have had unique knowledge of how important this was to Houdini. Regardless, it's very interesting to see proof of a genuine conspiracy of silence on the topic of Houdini's birth at this time.

Here's another related thought. Before 1900, Houdini would list the year of his birth as 1873. This changed to 1874 with the new passport application he filed in Europe when he officially designated Appleton/America as his birthplace (Hardeen did the same thing). Why the change? Could it be that Houdini got a look at his birth certificate when he travel to Budapest during his European tour and discovered his real year of birth? If it was easily accessible in 1932, it would have been no problem for Houdini to get a copy in 1900. It must have come as a shock for Houdini to learn that he was actually a year younger than he always thought.

Below is copy of the birth certificate photograph was taken at the Registrar's office at the Pest Jewish Community on November 9, 1932 and referred to in the Die Magie article -- the document that revealed Houdini's greatest secret.

Click to enlarge.
Check out the full Die Magie article at Houdini's Ghost.

* Before 1900, Houdini did acknowledge his European birth. He said he was an Austrian. His American identity came with his fame.

Related:

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Flim Flam: Houdini and the Hereafter Castle Perk, July 1

Attention AMA members. The Magic Castle will hold a "Castle Perk" on Tuesday, July 1, with the team behind the new play, Flim Flam: Houdini and the Hereafter, which opens this Friday at the Malibu Playhouse. The cast will be presenting snippets from the show, and a reservationist will be on hand of arrange discounted seats to the full production for Castle members.


The event will be held in the Inner Circle, Tuesday, July 1, at 8PM. See you there!

For more information and to buy tickets to Flim Flam: Houdini and the Hereafter, visit malibuplayhouse.org or call 323-960-7711. Malibu Playhouse is located at 29243 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, CA 90265.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Unpublished Houdini: Street shoot

Here's an unpublished shot of Houdini filming street scenes with an unidentified cameraman. This was most likely taken in Europe during Houdini's return tour in 1920 when he was heavily involved in making movies. Footage he shot during this tour would untimely appear in his 1923 feature, Haldane of the Secret Service.

"I think the film profession is the greatest and that the moving picture is the most wonderful thing in the world."
– Harry Houdini

This photo comes from the collection our good friend and benefactor, John C. Hinson, the great nephew of Harry and Bess Houdini. You can check out more unpublished photos from the Hinson family collection HERE.

Related:

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Join HOUDINI HQ on Facebook

I've created several Pages on Facebook devoted to Houdini, his Escapes, Magic, Spirit Exposures, the Miniseries, etc., but Facebook's support of Pages is just not what it once was, and the more popular gathering place now seems to be Groups. I know the Magic Castle Group is where I'm spending more of my Facebook time.

So I've decided to road-test the idea of a dedicated Houdini Group on Facebook, HOUDINI HQ. Here I will link to select posts; but it's also a wide open place where everyone can share their own Houdini links and images. It's a true HQ, and we already have some great members. So if Facebook is the place for you, join us at...

CLICK HERE TO GO.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Houdini's last train ride

Canadian Pacific no. 2327 leaving Windsor Station, Montreal, in 1926.
(Canadian Pacific Corp Archives)

Following up on the Comments in my recent post about the Prince of Wales assault, Joe Notaro of HHCE has uncovered a 1926 railroad time table that may show the details of Houdini's overnight train ride from Montreal to Detroit on October 23-24. It's generally believed that it was on this journey that Houdini's inflamed appendix burst and sealed his fate. Says Joe:

"I found a 1926 Canadian Pacific Railway Time Table (snapshot attached), and according to Table 45, the Chicago Express (21) had a sleeper car that according to Table 46 was scheduled to leave at 11:00 pm from Montreal and arrive at Michigan Central Depot in Detroit at 2:20 pm traveling a distance of 569.3 miles. That is a travel time of 15 hours and 20 minutes if it was on schedule and left on time."

Click to enlarge

While aboard the train, Houdini's abdominal pain became so great that he finally told Bess about the dressing room punch in Montreal. When the train made a brief stop in London, Ontario, a cable was sent to the advance man in Detroit to have a doctor waiting for Houdini at his hotel. But the train arrived late and the troop had to go directly to the Garrick Theater.

There Dr. Leo Dretzka examined Houdini on the floor of his dressing room and recommend that he go to the hospital. But Houdini refused to disappoint the sold-out crowd and performed with a 104 degree temperature. His reportedly opened the show by telling the audience, "We've just made a thousand-mile journey from Montreal, and we are tired."

Thank you Joe.

Related:

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Young Houdini #2: The Demon Curse

Cover art and a plot synopsis for Simon Nicholson's second Young Houdini book, The Demon Curse, have been revealed on Amazon. The book will be released by Oxford University Press in the UK in February 2015. Here's a preview:

Young Houdini: The Demon Curse is the second book in the electrifying Young Houdini series. New Orleans, 1886. When the city's mayor is struck down by a terrifying, unexplained illness, whispers of voodoo and demonic magic are everywhere. Could it be that the mayor is the victim of a deadly curse? Harry is about to find out. Along with his best friends Billie and Artie he will travel to the deep, dark heart of the Mississippi river, using his extraordinary skills to investigate the mystery. But evil forces are at work and soon Harry will face his most lethal challenge yet ...can he unravel the truth before it's too late?

Simon Nicholson's first book, Young Houdini: The Magician's Fire, will be published by OUP in the UK in November (Amazon.co.uk) and by Sourcebooks in the U.S. on October 7, 2014 (Amazon.com). The series is aimed at readers 9-12.

It's interesting to note that the publisher's website says film rights are "already sold."

Related posts:

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Is this HISTORY's Water Torture Cell?

Celebrity art photographer Robert Sebree has used Houdini's Water Torture Cell as inspiration for two beautiful photos with models Nikki Leigh (below) and Raylin. But might these photos be revealing in more ways than one? Says the artist:

"One of my favorite aspects of this job is the bazaar opportunities that arise. When a Houdini water tank was loaned to my studio I knew I had to fill it with water and induct a brave human to take the plunge."

Robert Sebree Photography

Now, here's my thinking on these. Why would a Water Torture Cell be "loaned" to Sebree's studio? Could it be because this is the cell used in HISTORY's upcoming Houdini miniseries? These photos were posted in December 2013 when the production had just wrapped shooting in Budapest. And look at the quick shot of the cell from the Houdini teaser trailer. The riveting and design matches perfectly. Maybe Sebree took photos of Adrien Brody as well?


Another possibility is that this cell was just used to create the teaser trailer, which may have been shot in Los Angeles and had nothing to do with the production itself. This cell does look suspiciously like one that appeared in a recent episode of Castle.

You can see both photos in high res at Robert Sebree Photography. The Raylin shot gives an even better look at the cell, but it's NSFW (Not Safe For Work), so I will let you check that one out on your own.

UPDATE: So it looks like this is not HISTORY's Water Torture Cell after all. You can see that cell HERE.

Related:

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Meet the Robinsons


I have some cool Houdini miniseries cast and character news today; but if you don't want to learn any plot details, know that this could be considered a SPOILER.

Classically trained English actor Jason Cheater and actress Faye Bradbrook will play Mr. and Mrs. Robinson (name might change) in the first part of the two-part Houdini miniseries set to air on HISTORY starting September 1st. In the movie, the Robinsons encounter Houdini in Kansas while he and Bess are performing a spiritualist stage act early in their careers. During his act, Houdini attempts to contact the spirit of the Robinson's murdered daughter. After the show, Mr. Robinson berates Houdini backstage for his hurtful trickcanery. Harry and Bess give up spiritualism and return to what was then a far less lucrative career in magic.

Illustration from The Great Houdini.
Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer almost certainly based this on a real event. Harry and Bess did perform as spiritualists early in their careers. One day Houdini saw a mother scolding a young boy for riding his bicycle recklessly. Seeing the mother in the audience that night, Houdini improvised a message from the spirits that the young boy would have an accident on his bicycle and break his arm. The next day the hysterical mother appeared backstage and accused Houdini of black magic. Her son had indeed fallen off his bike and broken his arm.

Houdini cited this incident and an overall distaste for what they were doing as the reason they gave up their spiritualist act. Said the magician, "I was chagrined that I should ever have been guilty of such frivolity and for the first time realized that it bordered on crime." Houdini, of course, later became a famous anti-spiritualist crusader.

Houdini stars Adrien Brody as Houdini and Kristen Connolly as Bess. The 4-hour miniseries is directed by Uli Edel and co-stars Evan Jones as Jim Collins, Eszter Ónodi as Cecilia Weiss, and Tom Benedict Knight as Theo Hardeen. Click here to watch the teaser trailer.

With thanks to Jason Cheater.

Monday, June 9, 2014

'Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini' available in paperback

The play Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini by Jaime Robledo is now available as a paperback from Steele Spring Stage Rights. It was released on June 7 and can be purchased on Amazon.

After a string of brutal murders, Watson and Holmes travel to New York on the trail of the killer. The mysterious Harry Houdini seems to know more than he’s telling, but is he friend or foe? Nothing is as it seems in this sequel to the smash hit "Watson: The Last Great Tale of the Legendary Sherlock Holmes," as our heroes encounter murder, mystery, magic… and a heartbreak that is almost too much to bear. From award-winning writer and director, Jamie Robledo, another “all-around excellent, hilarious, thrilling, crowd pleaser!” –StageScene LA

Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini ran last year at the Sacred Fools Theater in Los Angeles. It featured Donal Thoms-Cappello as Houdini, Scott Leggett as Dr. Watson, and Joe Fria as Sherlock Holmes. You can read my review here.

Purchase Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini at Amazon.com (U.S.) and Amazon.co.uk (UK).

Sunday, June 8, 2014

When Bess and her dress returned to Hollywood

We know in her later years, Bess Houdini frequented clubs and restaurants along Hollywood Blvd., such as Sardi's. But in 1995, Bess returned to Hollywood! Okay, not the Bess, but the first Bess of the cinema, Janet Leigh.

Ms. Leigh came to Collectors Book Store, then located at Hollywood and Vine, to sign copies of her first novel, House of Destiny. Collectors Book Store was a Mecca for film buffs and collectors, and was co-owned by our good friend and Houdini buff, Mark Willoughby. Many Hollywood treasures passed through this store for more than 40 years before it closed in 2008.

Below is a photo of Janet Leigh at that very book signing. But what you are going to want to notice is the dress standing beside the Houdini poster behind Ms. Leigh. This is the dress she wore in the 1953 film during the scene in which the Houdinis are stood-up by reporters on their return to America. It's owned by a private collector, but Mark arranged for it to be displayed at the signing. It's great to see that it still exists.




By the way, this wasn't Janet Leigh's first signing at Collectors Book Store. In 1987 she signed copies of her autobiography, There Really Was A Hollywood. I missed this '95 signing, but I was there for her first signing in '87. You gotta love how she inscribed my book...


Thanks to Mark Willoughby and Collectors Book Store for the photos.

Related:

Friday, June 6, 2014

LINK: The Fenton Lock

Here is a must read article at the David De-Val Tribute Site about The Fenton Lock, which is claimed to be a lock that "beat The Great Houdini."


That designation is a touch misleading. Houdini was indeed challenged with The Fenton Lock (twice), but he refused the challenge (twice) because he was not allowed to examine it before hand. This was a standard condition of his when challenged with a non-regulation lock such as this.

Click here or on the headline to have a read at the David De-Val Tribute Site. You can also see video of The Fenton Lock HERE.

Thanks to Allan and Rebecca (below) for the photos and great work on this post.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Houdini on being "not too tall"

I once heard a recorded interview with a man who saw Houdini give one of his spiritualism lectures. He didn't know what Houdini looked like, and his first reaction on seeing the famous magician was; "Oh, he's a short guy."

Houdini stood 5 feet 5.276 inches (according to a 1926 physical). Until now, I've never heard Houdini make reference to height. But recently I spotted this paragraph in an interview with Houdini published in the Adelaide Daily Herald on April 16, 1910 while Houdini was touring Australia. Characteristically, he viewed his size as an advantage, especially in regards to athletics. Says Houdini:

"It is good for me that I am not a tall man. Why? Because I must be quick! and a tall man is always slow. It is so all through the profession. The best men are not too high. A tall man is easy going, good-natured; a short man is sometimes good-tempered, more often not so. All the mean, cunning men that I have known—short! All the keen, eager, ambitious men—short! And for work—the tall man has too much to carry, he is too far from the ground, he cannot lose and recover balance as it is necessary, in a flash."

In this same candid interview, Houdini gives more vital statistics (adding a couple inches to his height), and also addresses the perception of egotism:

"You will think that I am vain to tell you these things. But I am a Magyar, and Magyars are vain. American born. Magyar descended; my parents came from Austria; my father was a clergyman in Wisconsin. My name, Ehrich Weiss; my height about 5 ft. 7 in; weight about 12 stone; 36 this month of April. Only 36, but I feel old; I have done too much in order to be, in my poor little way, Columbus."

You can read the full interview by A.G. Stephens at Trove, an amazing archive of Australian newspapers created and maintained by the National Library of Australia.

Thanks to "Anonymous" who turned me onto Trove. Photo of T. Nelson Downs and Houdini (on tiptoes) from Houdini A Pictorial Life by Milbourne Christopher.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Jem and the Houdinis

Jem Harry.
Jem and the Holograms was a syndicated 1980s cartoon series which, like Transformers, was basically a commercial for a Hasbro toy line. The popular series ran from 1985 to 1988 and still has a cult following today. There's even a Jem and the Holograms movie currently in production.

On February 15, 1988, Houdini became part of the Jem universe with Season 3, Episode 8, That Old Houdini Magic. In it, Jem and a new character, Astral (a magician), tangle with a rival band who are taking advantage of a rich widow by convincing her that the ghost of Houdini has returned. The episode features escapes from a high fashion straitjacket and climaxes with the Water Torture Cell.

Show creator and writer Christy Marx (credited here as Jina Bacarr) clearly did her research. The episode is peppered with historical Houdini facts, including this obscure but entirely accurate reference to Harry and Bess' private code (no, not that code). I've excerpted two short clips below.


(Sorry for the ads. YouTube automatically monetized this for Hasbro.)

You can read more about the episode (and its fashions) at Jem Vs. Prancetron. You can also watch the entire episode at Daily Motion, or buy the Season 3 DVD at Amazon.

Jem straitjacket (click to enlarge).

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

LINK: Phantom Empires on Haldane of the Secret Service

Here's a positive review of Houdini's Haldane of the Secret Service at the blog, Phantom Empires.

Haldane is frequently knocked as being Houdini's worse film. But as with this reviewer (a Houdini fan), I've always enjoyed it, and I agree that it has a nice "dime novel feel." This reviewer also provides some interesting background on the name "Silent Saunders" (Heath Haldane's father).

Click here or on the headline to have a read at Phantom Empires.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Prince of Wales assault


We all know J. Gordon Whitehead punched Houdini in the stomach at the Princess Theater in Montreal on October 22, 1926. That punch started a chain of events that would lead to the magician's death on Halloween. But in his seminal work, The Man Who Killed Houdini, author Don Bell uncovered evidence of two other punches delivered by McGill University students during Houdini's stay in the city.

Recently we looked at the first of these, "the Pickleman punch," which took place at the McGill University Union Hall on October 19. Today we have what might be better described as an "assault" on Houdini in the lobby of the Prince of Wales Hotel on McGill College St., just a few blocks west of the Princess Theater.

In 1990, Gilles Larin, the grandson of the Prince of Wales owner, Francis Larin, related to Bell the remarkable story, which he said was part of family lore. He heard it from his father and grandfather, although the only eyewitness was the night clerk, Honore Larin (Francis' brother). Here's the story as told in Bell's book:

After giving a performance Houdini usually had a meal and relaxed in the Prince of Wales lobby, reading newspapers. In the back of the  hotel was a tavern [Pig & Whistle] frequented by McGill students. It had a door leading to the lobby, but when the hotel closed at 11 p.m., the students usually went out through the rear exit leading to the lane in back.

But that particular night when Houdini was there waiting to board the overnight train that would take him and his company to Toronto, Buffalo, etc. and then to Detroit, three or four students who were rather drunk spilled out of the tavern into the lobby. One of them, mimicking the act that Houdini presented in his show where he dared anyone to hit him in the stomach walked up to Houdini, who was sitting in a lounge chair reading a newspaper, and, without any warning, hit him through the newspaper in the stomach, a crunching blow. Houdini, doubled over in pain, said, "You shouldn't have done that," then got up, very slowly, and walked out of the lobby.

Larin goes on to say that while this incident was "much discussed" the next day, there was no police report filed and Houdini was already gone. The timing of this is interesting. If Houdini was waiting for the train to Detroit, then this happened after the Whitehead blows, which would have made this especially painful (and damaging?). It's generally accepted that Houdini's appendix ruptured while on the overnight train to Detroit.

It's also interesting to speculate whether Houdini's unidentified assailant that night suffered the same confusion and guilt that Gerald Pickleman experienced. After Houdini's death, it was only reported that he had died as result of being punched by a "McGill University student." The name J. Gordon Whitehead and the details of the dressing room punch did not become public until 1953. Any student who struck Houdini that week would assume they were the student in the news reports. Houdini's words, "You shouldn't have done that," would have certainly haunted this student. (Unless he was too drunk to recall the incident at all.)

This one is a bit harder to accept than the Pickleman punch, which still had living eyewitnesses into the 1980s. While I find no reason to not believe this happened, second hand accounts are by their nature unreliable, especially when they are over 80-years-old. Still, it's a curious piece of the puzzle that is the last week of Houdini's life.

Related:

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Master Mystery posters

Houdini's first motion picture serial, The Master Mystery, was released to theaters in 1918-19 with a spectacular collection of a beautiful full color posters. Legend has it that a cache of these posters were discovered in the walls of 278 in the 1980s where they had probably been used as insulation. Because of this amazing find, examples of these posters have survived while so many other Houdini posters have been lost.

Now wholesaler Popcorn Posters is offering reproductions of what appear to be the full set of Master Mystery posters. I've rearranged the images from their "Magic" catalog to give us a look at the entire collection in the order each episode was released. The only poster missing is Episode 15. Could it be there was never a poster made for this final chapter? In its place I've inserted a projector slide advert. Enjoy.

Click to enlarge.

Thanks to Joe Notaro of Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence for this find.

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