Friday, January 1, 2016

Houdini in 1916

Welcome to another year of WILD ABOUT HARRY! Let's kick off 2016 with a look back at what Houdini himself was up to 100 years ago.


Houdini's first interview of 1916 begins like this:

Houdini walked into the Orpheum office yesterday afternoon at the close of his "escape act," threw himself into a chair, took a very long breath, sank back as far as possible, then took another deep breath inhalation, and relaxed with a "well-I'm-glad-that's over" sort of expression on his face.
"Say, describe that sensation," said the interviewer. "How do you feel when you emerge from that cell of torture?"
Houdini sat up straight, looked into the distance and began to think. "Well I can't describe it," he replied. "I've tried to, but it's no use. It's such a peculiar sensation, it's hard to tell what it's like. I feel as though a great weight was thrown off, or that I had been relieved of a great responsibility. Yes, I am always a little exhausted, and can't help feeling glad that the act is over in safety."

Houdini had good reason to be exhausted. At the start of 1916, he was a year into a nationwide vaudeville tour that would not let up until summer. His act at this time primarily consisted of the Needles, Water Torture Cell, and select challenge escapes. The suspended straitjacket escape, first performed in 1915, was now his standard outdoor stunt.

Houdini also appears to have been thinking about his own mortality. His first letter of the new year was to Bess with instructions on what to do should he die first: "I ask you from my tomb to protect yourself, then I will be able to sleep easy and know that I have succeeded in helping you to a restful and happy old age." He would periodically re-read the letter and countersign it.

Following January engagements in Colorado Springs and Lincoln, Nebraska (where he gave the above interview on January 7), Houdini embarked on his very first tour of Texas, playing a circuit of Majestic theaters for the Interstate Amusement Company. He kicked off on January 10 in Fort Worth. While it's generally believed Houdini developed no new escapes in 1916, in Fort Worth he did an outside stunt that appears to have been something new. He was shackled and tied behind a motorcycle, freeing himself as he was dragged down the street. Houdini then travelled to Dallas where he performed a suspended straitjacket escape from the Dallas News building. Houston and San Antonio followed. He ended his tour in Austin where he accepted a packing crate challenge from students at The University of Texas. (I'll have more on Houdini's Texas tour later this month.)

After playing stints in New Orleans, Chicago, Milwaukee (another suspended jacket escape from the Milwaukee Journal building) and Ohio, Houdini found himself back home in New York in time for his 42nd birthday. But it wasn't 278 that Houdini returned to for these few weeks. After his mother's death, Houdini and Bess had left their Harlem Brownstone and moved in with Hardeen and his family in Flatbush, which certainly must have been cozy. To make matters worse, Houdini had embarked on building what he hoped would be one of the world's greatest dramatic collections, and the mounds of new material he acquired flooded into Flatbush.

By mid April, Houdini was back on the road in Washington, D.C. where he performed a suspended straitjacket escape before a crowd that police estimated at 100,000. On April 22, President Woodrow Wilson and the new first lady came to see Houdini perform at Keith's Theater. That same day Houdini visited the Senate and was recognized by Vice President Marshall who invited him into his chambers. Houdini called it the proudest day of his life. But his weariness once again manifested when he told the Washington Times that he intended his D.C. straitjacket escape to be his last:

"I'll still be entertaining the public for many years to come, but I intend to do it along lines not quite so spectacular. As an escapist extraordinary I feel that I'm about through."

Houdini took the summer months off, building his drama collection and also preparing for what would be the next chapter in his life and career. Movies had captured his attention during his travels out west in 1915, and Houdini now entered into business with a German inventor, Gustav Dietz, who had created a new process for developing motion picture film. In September Houdini founded the Film Developing Corporation (FDC) with offices in Manhattan and a film lab in New Jersey. In was Houdini's first major step into the movie business and his first attempt to make a living outside of magic. Unfortunately, the FDC would become an expensive albatross in the years that followed.

On August 10, Houdini gave a 3-hour performance for the inmates at Sing Sing Prison. He also struck up his famous friendship with Harry Kellar, who first visited him in Flatbush. Houdini would cherish his friendship with the great magician. Kellar also invested in Houdini's Film Developing Corporation.

It was also during these summer months that Houdini oversaw the completion of a major building project that had been ongoing for over a year. Having bought a family plot in Machpelah cemetery in 1904, he was now erecting a large granite exedra "in the memory of his parents." The exedra cost him $40,000 ($911,891 today). It was finally unveiled in a special ceremony on October 1, 1916.

Harry Kellar friending, film lab developing, and exedra building.

In Fall, Houdini was back out on the road, playing various cities in New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio. He also played a week in Toronto, Canada. Forgoing or forgetting his statement in Washington about no more escape spectaculars, he ended the year with a flurry of suspended straitjacket escapes in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland.

You didn't really expect him to stop, did you?

Houdini spent the final week of 1916 playing the Palace Theater in New York, opening on Christmas Day. He then traveled alone in Philadelphia. Bess remained home in New York due to the death of her sister. Houdini once again penned her a New Year's Day letter tinged with sense of mortality:

"Keep up your courage, sweetheart, and bear your loss like the brave little soldier that you are, for we are all more or less an army fighting our way to our own graves, but let us do so stout of heart, smile and cheer our less fortunete brethren who are also in the trenches of life and who are not as well equipped with mates as you and I are, nor with the world's goods."


Related:

More years in the life of Houdini:

42 comments:

  1. Well you've come out of the gate swinging! Nice article! Looking forward to many many more on your excellent blog!

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    1. Thanks Dean! We are so accustomed to looking at Houdini's life as a whole that it's revelatory to just focus on a single year. I will do one of these each year forward, and I think I might go back and start filling in earlier years as well.

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  2. Good piece! What do you make of the hints that he may have flown with the Army's First Aero Squadron during that stint in San Antonio?

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    1. Hmmm...I don't recall that. Is that in Kalush? I'm afraid I didn't consult Secret Life for this. But I want to do a post about this first Teaxs tour, so I will look into this.

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    2. Kalush has a reference and apparently HH gave an interview corroborating it later. Can find nothing in military archives, however. Still checking.

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    3. I had a look at that in Secret Life. Nothing fact based. In Laid Bare it even says the First Aero Squadron didn't fly until March 12, 1916. (HH was in San Antonio in Jan/Feb.) They speculate that maybe they flew secret missions early and Houdini could have flown with them because, you know, he was there and he was a Spy! Oye.

      As to the quote, Houdini said should there be war he "will surely be a member of the aviation corps." Nothing about actually flying with them.

      I think everyone's dreaming. ;p

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  3. What do folks think about the idea that the Houdinis lived with the Hardeens at this time? All the biographies say this, but I've seen nothing that puts them at the same address. HH lived at 394 East 21st St. Dash's (later) address is 537 East 21st St. And Hardeen's house shown in the back of his pitchbook is on a completely different street.

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    1. Also, I had trouble finding a portrait shot of Houdini to use at the top of the post that I could confirm as 1916. So I went with the famous Needles image. I did so because this photo was used in a late 1916 newspaper clipping, so I know it wasn't taken after 1916. But it could have been taken before. Could have been 1914 when Dietz, the NY studio that took this photo, also photographed his Battery Park escape. Nevertheless, I think it works well for this year.

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  4. Great story. I like the full year coverage. I work in downtown Cincinnati on the very spot B.F. Keith's once stood. I walk the building HH did his Straitjacket escape everyday going to work. I wrote a blog about it if interested. https://houdiniandhardeen.wordpress.com/2015/10/04/cincinnati-1916-thriller-is-promised-houdini-to-wriggle-out-of-straight-jacket/

    Happy new year!

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    1. Whoa! How did I not know your awesome blog, Houdini and Hardeen? I love it. Thanks for the post and link. I'm sorry this comment didn't appear yesterday. I only now discovered it in my spam folder (Google doesn't like anonymous post that contain links). I will be checking out your blog regularly. Welcome to the club! :)

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    2. BTW, I linked my mention of the Cincinnati escape to your blog post.

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    3. Thanks so much John. I'm honored to get a mention on Wild About Harry. I'm a big fan of you blog.

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  5. Happy New Year John!
    WRT to the Houdini’s living with the Hardeens, I am with you and believe they may have been just down the street from each other. The Life & History of Hardeen lists 394 Kenmore Place Flatbush N.Y. as the Hardeen’s residence; And Houdini lists 394 E 21st St Brooklyn N.Y in a New York Evening Post ad about acquiring stuff for his collection. According to Google maps, they are a 0.3 mile walk on E 21st St/Kenmore Pl from one another.

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    1. And Hardeen's letterhead after Houdini's death is 537 East 21st St. Same street, different address. What we need is something that shows us Hardeen's address during 1914-1918. These were the Houdini Flatbush years. Then we will have our answer for sure. Paging all collectors! Please check those Hardeen letterheads and Xmas cards.

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    2. The Life & History of Hardeen that has a picture of Hardeen’s home and lists his address as 394 Kenmore Place Flatbush N.Y. is from 1914.

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    3. Wait a minutes! Could 394 Kenmore Place and 394 E 21st St be the same house? The streets intersect and it could have been on the corner. (Maybe Hardeen used Kenmore instead of E 21st because it sounded more affluent and suburban). If so that does put HH in Hardeen's house.

      (But when does Hardeen move to 537 E 21st?)

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    4. Well IF the 394 addresses (Kenmore Place and E 21st St) are the same today as they were back in 1916, then they are not the same place. According to Google Maps, they are a third of a mile apart. Google earth confirms this as well.

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    5. Hard to say if addresses back then match those today. Think we're back to needing something of Hardeen's that shows the 394 E 21st address. Like I said, one to investigate this year! :)

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    6. Boom! Bill Mullins provided me with a very cool Hardeen advert from 1916 listing his address as 394 E 21st St. Done. Will eventually work up a post on all this.

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    7. Will your post include when Hardeen left 394 after HH died to go to 537 on the same 21st street? From Google map, that area looks filled with apartment buildings.

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    8. If I can find out when Dash moved from 394 to 537, definitely.

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    9. That's easy! Just ask Bill Mullins!

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    10. Ha! I might just do that. :)

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    11. Well, Dash may have been at 537 East 21st Street by July 11th, 1921 based on a letter from Kellar to Dash that sold at Potter & Potter (Lot 436) in February of this year. The envelope had the 394 crossed out and 537 written in its place, implying Dash had moved. Hopefully Bill Mullins can confirm a date.

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    12. Bill sent me census data that still has Dash at 394 in 1920. So it looks like he moved around the time of that letter. Thanks for that, Joe.

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    13. Good call Joe. I now remember seeing that Kellar letter to Dash in the Potter Auction. Letters up for bid can sometimes give up their secrets through the auction photos.

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  6. This Houdini in 1916 post felt like getting hit with a Bruce Lee lightning triple punch. I'm in sensory overload:

    Punch #1: HH may not have shared living quarters with Dash? According to Silverman, HH used the 394 East 21st address in the New York Evening Post ad. I thought that was Dash's house because Silverman alluded to a tension between the brothers that began simmering when HH moved in with him. On the other hand, HH could have afforded to rent his own house. I love the way WAH questions our HH assumptions.

    Punch #2: That detailed interview where HH slumps into his chair a bit tired. First hand accounts like this by eyewitnesses are like seashells found at the beach.

    Punch #3: HH possibly flew with Army 1st Aero Squadron in Texas?

    A great epilogue that featured HH's suggestion to Bess not to forget those less fortunate than them. HH
    NEVER forgot the poor because he was once among them.
    A great start to 2016 John!

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    1. Thanks Leo. I hate to go against Silverman, and I also chuckle at the idea of Harry and Bess and their animals and never ending boxes of purchases driving the Hardeens crazy... But I feel like I need to see something that confirms Dash's address as the same as Houdini's at this time.

      Yes, I also LOVE first hand accounts from someone who was actually in the room with HH.

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  7. You're welcome John! Remember also that HH rented out 278 for a time to students attending Columbia University right across the street. He could have used that rental money to cover his rent at the house in Flatbush. It would have maintained a positive cash flow.

    That Needles photo may not have been taken in 1916 but it looks close enough. The grey is sprouting out. What about that other Needles photo of HH standing in front of Collins et al.?

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    1. I think Houdini was flush with cash in 1916. The FDC, etc., hadn't drained it away yet. So he would have had no trouble renting or even buying another house. But after what Joe posted, I'm now thinking he might have been at Hardeen's after all. Think this topic might now require its own post!

      That other Needles shot was taken at this same time. Like I said, while I know it wasn't taken after 1916, could have been before. But it's very much Houdini around this time.

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  8. So for how many years did Houdini not live at 278? This is news to me.

    Is there other home still standing? Or to better phrase the question are any of the other homes we think belonged to Houdini in NY still standing? Perry.

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    1. They were in Flatbush for about 3 1/2 years. From Sept 1914 to early 1918. The Flatbush house is no longer there.

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    2. BTW, this is why the Houdini voice recording, made in October 1914, identifies the location as "Flatbush, New York."

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  9. Makes sense. I always thought the voice recording was at some third party location rather than his own home. I looked up one of the addresses and it is now an apartment complex. Built in the early 60's. Perry.

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    1. Another reason I suspect the recording was made at home is that his sister was with him. Recall she also read a poem (which we have yet to hear). But I don't know for sure.

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  10. WRT Hardeen and Houdini in Flatbush. The great Bill Mullins has found a 1915 Census that shows, yes, the brothers lived together at 394 E 21st St. So there we go. Thanks Bill!

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  11. Bill Mullins is a real wizard! Hard to believe that HH crated all of his books et al. into Hardeen's home. Where did it all go? Into the basement? Maybe that other house down the street was just for storage?

    HH could have afforded to rent his own place or purchase another house. Why didn't he do this instead of putting his brother through the wringer? It's also telling that he held on to 278 instead of just selling it and moving on to another place.

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    1. The whole thing cracks me up. I can imagine Houdini not asking, just showing up and saying, "I'm living with you now, Dash."

      My guess is he still used 278 to house his equipment, etc. But we know the drama collection came to Flatbush because he invited people over to see it.

      The only saving grace is that HH was only in NY for the summer months during these years, and Hardeen was on tour as well. In 1918, when HH spent much of the year in NY, he moved back to 278 (it took 2 moving vans).

      I'm going to amend my paragraph on this to remove my doubt. Yes, Bill Mullins is a marvel!

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    2. Bill has continued to supply me with some great info and the full story is now starting to come together. A proper post on "The Flatbush years" is now a must. Adding it to the dozen other posts I have in the works. :p

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  12. Eventually Hardeen did get a bit miffed and annoyed at HH, and who can blame him? Even Kellar told HH to man up and move on from Mama's passing.

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