Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Coney Island: Where Harry met Bessie

Harry and Bess Houdini first met while they were performers at Coney Island in 1894; Harry as part of the Brothers Houdini and Bess with a song and dance troupe known as The Floral Sisters. But where exactly were they performing? As with so many aspects of Houdini's life, biographers over the years have offered up different answers.

Walter B. Gibson, who knew Houdini and sourced information from the man himself, says in The Master Magicians (1961) that they were at the Sea Beach Palace. Milbourne Christopher in Houdini The Untold Story (1969) says the Coney engagement was "first at the Vachress Casino, then at Sea Beach Palace." Some non-Houdini sources, such as the unpublished Last Stop, Coney Island, also name Sea Beach Palace as the location, so let's take a look at that candidate first.

Sea Beach Palace was not actually on the sea or beach. It sat inland north of Surf Avenue and was a hotel, pavilion, and the depot for the New York & Sea Beach Railroad. Below is a description of Sea Beach Palace from the excellent website, Heart of Coney Island:

The Sea Beach Palace had originally been constructed on the grounds of the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia [the first World's Fair held in the US], where it served as the United States Pavilion. Dismantled and shipped to Coney Island by barge over the winter of 1876-77, it was one of several structures from the exposition that were later moved to Coney Island and helped create the amusement area's distinctive profile in the first years of the nineteenth century. The main building of Sea Beach Palace was a domed structure 375 feet long and 60 feet deep, with spacious wings on either end. The facility included a dining room that could seat 3,000 guests, and the railway terminal was to the rear of the structure."


Sea Beach Palace was demolished in 1920 and today the site is the Luna Park Co-op at 2879 West 12th Street. Sea Beach Palace stood at the site of what is now Building #5.

Modern map showing location of Sea Beach Palace.

While it's easy, even logical, to believe that Harry and Bess performed at Sea Beach Palace, there actually isn't any documentation to confirm it. And that brings us to William Lindsey Gresham who suggests a different and long forgotten venue that was, literally and figuratively, on the other side of the tracks. But Gresham has the evidence to back it up.

On page 25 of his classic work Houdini The Man Who Walks Through Walls(1959), Gresham reproduces a news item from the Coney Island Clipper dated June 22, 1894, the day the Houdinis were married. The clipping concerns a challenge to the "Hunyadi" Brothers box trick from a local man named Risey, and it specifically names the theater where the Brothers Houdini were performing: Vacca's. It also suggests a location in the sub headline: "Much Merriment Along Coney Island's Bowery."


The Bowery lay south of Surf Avenue and was Coney Island's main draw before the great amusements parks of Steeplechase, Luna Park, and Dreamland grew up around it. For help locating the precise location of Vacca's (which was probably called Vacca's Casino, Vacca's Hall, or Vacca's Pavillion), I turned to David Sullivan who runs Heart of Coney Island website. David came through and provided maps and a terrific description of the area:

Vacca's Casino was at the corner of Buschman's Walk and Ocean Avenue. Ocean Avenue was better known as "the Bowery." The Bowery was the heart of the social scene at Coney Island, filled with bars, restaurants, dance halls, performances, arcade games and even roller coasters. It is fair to say that Houdini performed in the heart of Coney Island's raucous social district, which frequently made the newspapers as a place where the police looked the other way and where patrons mixed with dancing girls and where the public drank freely and generally ignored the strict social proprieties of the times.
Attached is a map of 1895 so you can get a feel for what the area looked like. In the 1895 map, look at the intersection that is immediately above and to the right of the number 77. Vacca's likely was the "Hall" directly across the street from Connor's Hall. Alternatively, Vacca's may have been one of the smaller venues at the northeast corner of the intersection. We'd have to find actual photographs to know for sure.

1895 map showing the likely location of Vacca's (X).

Overhead of the Bowery today (Google Earth).

As for Milbourne Christopher's claim of an engagement at "Vachress Casino," he was likely sourcing Gresham and confused the name. Again, according to David Sullivan, there was no such theater called Vachress. And while it's tempting to think Vacca's was maybe a nickname for Vachress, David says: "We know that 'Mr. Vacca' and 'Mrs. Vacca' actually did exist based on the newspaper articles (assuming the reporting was done properly), and at that time, almost all halls were named after the proprietors because of the way land/rents were handed out by a corrupt local politician to specific individuals."

In his book, Coney Island - The People's Playground, author Michael Immerso says the Floral Sisters were at the Sea Beach Palace and the Brothers Houdini were at Vacca's. I don't know Immerso's source for his info on the Floral Sisters, but this nicely squares the reports of them at both venues, and it has a romantic ring to it. The boy from the Bowery falls for the girl at the Palace.

Bowery Street still remains today. However, all the structures from Houdini's time are long gone. Today the area is mostly empty lots. Bushman's Walk, which was not a street but a wooden planked sidewalk that ran down to the beach, is no longer marked in any way, so it's hard to pinpoint precisely where Vacca's Casino once stood. But we now know it was somewhere along this short stretch of Bowery Street, so visitors to Coney Island can still walk in the footsteps of the young Harry and Bess Houdini.


Interestingly, while doing my own search for Vacca's, I found a clipping from a May 6, 1894 New York Times that announced: "OLD CONEY IS NO MORE - Law and Order to be Established in the Lawless Realm of McKane." According to Brooklyn's Mayor Schieren: "Nothing in the way of entertainment would be permitted to go on except sacred concerts." Among those venues singled out to be "suppressed for good" was "Sea Beach Palace and Vacca's Pavilion."

This article appeared a month before Harry and Bess arrived. If any of the mayor's reforms took place, they were not as far reaching as threatened, and thank goodness for that! Had Vacca's and Sea Beach Palace been shuttered, the Houdinis may have never met.

While they never had to play the Bowery again, Coney Island remained a favorite spot for the Houdinis. If they were in town at the time of their anniversary, they would always spend the day at Coney and have an anniversary photo taken at one of the tourist photo stands or a playful photo on the beach. For Harry and Bess Houdini, Coney Island was magic.


A very big thanks to David Sullivan of www.heartofconeyisland.com for all the valuable information and images, and to Colleen Bak whose recent trip to Coney Island was the inspiration for this investigation.

UPDATE: A few updates thanks to our readers. Vacca's full name was "Vacca's West End Casino" and it did indeed sit at the South-East corner of Ocean Ave and Bushman's Walk, exactly as marked on the 1895 map above. It appears the mayor's edicts did take effect in 1895 and Vacca's license was revoked (Sea Beach Palace survived). Finally, Manny Weltman in his great work Houdini Escape Into Legend, The Early Years: 1862-1900 confirms that The Floral Sisters were performing at the Sea Beach Palace while the Brothers Houdini were at Vacca's.

Related:

17 comments:

  1. Great stuff! You know how much I enjoy reading about Harry and Bessie! Regarding Vacca's, the full title was Vacca's' West End Casino, and it was indeed located on the Bowery (see the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 16, 1894). I've always wondered if both Bess and the Brothers Houdini were playing at Vacca's, at least for a time. It would at least give an easy explanation of how Theo met Bess.

    As for the Sea Beach Palace, Joseph Rinn wrote on page 15 of "Sixty Years of Psychical Research" that he went roller skating at the Sea Beach Palace in 1885, which made me believe it was something more than just a train depot. I did some digging and found that it began life as a hotel, restaurant, and train terminal, and was later converted into a skating rink, though it seemed to be used almost as a multi-purpose building. A newspaper from 1895 mentioned a boxing-match held there by the American Athletic Club, and an ad from the New York Entertainment Gazette in 1889 noted that the Sea Beach Palace had been leased to the American Amusement Company for the next three years, promising to turn the Palace into a "pleasure ground... in the fashions of the pleasure Garden[s] of Vienna" while offering "high-class entertainment for very little money," including such acts as a Seneca Indian and Italian Gypsy bands, aerial artists, bicycle riders, and singers. Even before then, it seemed that a lot of shows and concerts were held there. There was even a court case in 1891 involving an eviction from a barroom!

    On a related note, I was recently reading a newspaper interview with Bess where she mentioned that because Harry's writing was often unintelligible, she wrote things for him, which you can see in the difference on the writing of the two photographs. Several biographers (naming no names) have erroneously referred to certain photos or documents as being in Harry's hand, while they are in fact in Bess's. Just thought that she should be given her due!

    -Meredith

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    1. Hey Meredith. Thanks so much for this! So "Vacca's' West End Casino" -- you found a full name that eluded both David and I. Great work.

      Yes, the handwriting on the photo at the top of the post is Bess's and the photo below Harry's. Difference is clear.

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  2. Not sure if this is Michael Immerso source, but Weltman mentions: “In early June of 1894, among other acts on the bill at the Sea Beach Palace, was a song and dance act: The Floral Sisters. One half of the act was a petite brunette…Her name was Willhelmia Beatrice Rahner…At the same time, the Brothers Houdini were playing at Vacca’s Theatre, a small concert not far from the Sea Beach Palace.”
    Weltman also mentions: “And there were the many places where aspiring vaudevillians could break in their acts. One of these was the Sea Beach Palace on Neptune Avenue, near West 8th Street. Built in 1879, the hotel claimed it could hold up to 10,000 guests and serve 15,000 dinners at a single serving.”

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    1. Weltman! How did I not check that book? That could be Immerso's source. Regardless, It's confirmation that the Sisters were at Sea Beach while the Brothers were at Vacca's.

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  3. What a fun historical post! i greatly enjoyed this one!
    For a good look at the Coney Island of 1917, check out Arbuckle and Keaton's movie 'Coney Island' (which features a smiling and laughing Buster Keaton -no, really). Wonder if Harry and Bess visited that film set?
    i will speculate that Houdini may have told Gibson that he was performing at the Palace because that was a more prestigious venue than the Bowery. Houdini was something of a fabulist about his own life's history. Of course i'm only speculating...

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    1. Thanks Bullet. That speculation crossed my mind as well. I rewrote this three times. That was in the first version. :)

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    2. John, minds suffering from HOS (Houdini Obsessive Syndrome) think alike. See you Sunday.

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    3. Ha! HOS indeed.

      Excited you're coming on Sunday. I hope it will be interesting.

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  4. Very interesting post!

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    1. Thanks Joe. At least we now know where to go in Coney Island to walk in their footsteps.

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  5. Joe -- per the NY Sun 8/20/1895, Vacca's was at the SE Corner of Ocean Ave and Bushman's Walk -- the very building you suspected.

    http://fultonhistory.com/highlighter/highlight-for-xml?uri=http%3A%2F%2Ffultonhistory.com%2FNewspaper%25209%2FNew%2520York%2520NY%2520Sun%2FNew%2520York%2520NY%2520Sun%25201895%2520Jun-Dec%2520Grayscale%2FNew%2520York%2520NY%2520Sun%25201895%2520Jun-Dec%2520Grayscale%2520-%25201000.pdf

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    1. Oh, wow, that is fantastic! Thanks Bill. It certainly does confirm David's suspected location of Vacca's (X on map). And as they appear to have had their license revoked in 1895, maybe we can assume that was the end of Vacca's?

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  6. John;

    Great work here. This is what you are so good at. Digging in and getting all the little overlooked details. Years ago on our website we had just a little bit about this along with Coney Island pictures, but this is superlative.

    Thank you so much!

    Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz
    The Houdini Museum
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini

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    1. Thanks D&D! Appreciate it. For me, the details are what makes Houdini come alive. :)

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  7. So well done John! I'm jealous of your research. I've been away from the Magic Detective for a while now due to performing...but hope to get back to it soon and back to digging up hidden magic history. Keep going strong, you're doing GREAT!

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    1. Thanks Dean. A lot of credit here belongs to David Sullivan. If you ever need a great source for Coney Island history, he's your man.

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