Sunday, January 10, 2016

Houdini relics resurface in Santa Monica


Recently I visited Wilshire Coin in Santa Monica, California, where I've long heard that two "lost" pieces of Houdini history are on display. Just how historic we will discuss (and maybe debate), but both are instantly recognizable and have been off the radar for many years. Let's tackle them one at a time.

The Steel Overboard Box

The steel overboard box will be familiar to anyone who's seen Houdini (1953). This is the box that Tony Curtis frees himself from under the ice of the Detroit river. The steel box was provided to the production by Joseph Dunninger who claimed it was an original Houdini escape prop. According to his daughter, Dunninger always kept the box in the garage of his home and not with his other warehoused magic props.


The box was ultimately acquired along with the rest of Dunninger's memorabilia by the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Canada. The museum's souvenir booklet described what it called "The Steel Trunk" like this:

Houdini's Steel Trunk was used by the master escapist for the presentation of his most dangerous underwater escape.

Houdini only used the steel trunk twice. His limited use of such a spectacular escape can be acredited to the extensive weight of the steel and the apparent threat it posed to the success of his escape. On each occasion that Houdini undertook the Steel Trunk escape, he came extremely close to losing his life. Unlike the wooden packing cases he often used for these escape, the steel trunk descended in the water very rapidly and handicapped his ability to free himself before the trunk before it became lodged in the silt at the bottom.

Houdini's Steel Trunk although it only enjoyed limited use during his life was used by Paramount Pictures in their production of the film "Houdini," which starred Tony Curtis in the feature role.

Unfortunately, there is no photo of Houdini with this Steel Box, nor any newspaper clipping or advertisement (that I could find) for the times he might have performed it. I'm wondering if he maybe used the Steel Box when he did the onstage version of the overboard box escape in the water tanks at Hammerstein's Victoria and the Hippodrome in New York?

It's unclear how long the Steel Box remained on display at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame (I did not see it when I visited in 1990), but at some point it made its way to Santa Monica where it sits today.



While I don't expose Houdini secrets on this blog, I will tell you that the box is gaffed (the store pointed it out to me). This shows it was a working escape device and not just a movie prop. However, to my mind, it's gaffed in such a way that makes the escape surprisingly dangerous, which is maybe the real reason Houdini only used it twice, if at all.

The steel box in action in Houdini (1953).

The (Double Fold?) Milk Can

Wilshire Coin's second Houdini artifact is a Milk Can which also came from The Houdini Magical Hall of Fame by way of Dunninger. This particular Milk Can might be more important to Houdini history than has ever been understood. But I'll get to that in a minute.


You'll immediately notice the lid is unlike any other Houdini Milk Can lid. I believe this is not the original. In 1998, Sid Radner told me Henry Muller had "lost" the Milk Can lid. So this appears to be a replacement made by someone who didn't know what the original looked like or just wanted to create a dramatic new design. The replacement lid is extremely heavy. In fact, it's so heavy, my fear is it might slowly be damaging the can.



Now, why do I think this is such an important Milk Can? As I first theorized in this post in 2014, I believe this was the Milk Can used in Houdini's Double Fold Death Defying Mystery. In the one photo of the Double Fold Box with the Milk Can inside (below), you can see a distinctive rectangular lock or hasp on the neck. The hasp is clearly visible in photos of the Milk Can at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame and on this Can in Santa Monica. I've never seen this hasp on any other Milk Can.


Another reason I think this was the Double Fold Can is because of the curious base. The Can has a ring around the base with wing-nuts. It seems logical that this would be used to secure the can to the bottom of the Double Fold box. (That box sold in 2014 for $55,000 and now sits in the David Copperfield collection.)


As with the Steel Box, the Milk Can is sitting out on the open floor of the store accessible to all. (When I was there a customer even sat on the box while waiting to be served.) While Wilshire Coin advertises their Houdini artifacts and even invites customers to take photos (here's some), know that they are also a serious business -- to enter you need to be admitted through two locked doors. So showing up strictly as a Houdini looky-loo might not be entirely appreciated. (They didn't seem overly thrilled with me.)


So what does the future hold for these? As far as I know, they are not for sale, although I did not speak with the owner himself. But it's nice to know these important Houdini artifacts still exist and that there's a little bit of Houdini history sitting in Santa Monica.


UPDATE: Chuck Romano on his blog My Magic Uncle has more information on the "Iron Box" and its origins. Check out his post: Whose Box is it? Houdini's or Blackstone's?

Related:

29 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing these incredible treasures. I wonder if they would appreciate David Copperfield showing up? I think I just became a serious coin collector.

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    1. You'd think DC might like to reunite this Milk Can with his box (if I'm right about that).

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    2. I might go back with some legit business. They buy antique watches and I have one I'm looking to sell. And, of course, that will buy me another look at these. :)

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  2. Well that is quite the discovery. Thanks for sharing these great photos and story!

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    1. I feel like I can't even call it a discovery because it's been right in front of our noses. People have been posting pics of themselves with these online for years.

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  3. That can brings to the fore lots of questions. I am very familiar with the gaff of the WTC as per my story about being able to examine the cell at the Houdini museum back in the early 90's. By looking at photos of the wooden box used during the double escape from the milk can/box I can see that a similar gaff is used to allow release from the box. NOW I see more details of that milk can can I infer that this can used a similar gaff to allow release??? If the answer is yes then my next question is why? Why does this specific milk can have a rather different mode of escape than other milk cans? Was this one a very early version that was then used for this specific escape? OR is there some technical reason that this mode of release works better while also contained within the wooden box? Perry from NJ.

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    1. I'm afraid I don't know how this Milk Can works. I didn't examine it that closely.

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  4. I am just opening up questions for everyone to speculate. The hasp/key mechanism on this can is unique for this can and mimics a similar mechanism on both the wooden box and the USD.

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    1. I see what you're saying. But as far as I can tell, that hasp/lock has no practical use. You can see there's nothing on the other side of it and nothing on the rim of the can that would make it a lock for the lid. It almost appears decorative.

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  5. Nice find and thanks for the share. Let's hope it doesn't disappear before you go back. ;-)
    The ring clasp and wing nuts at the base of the milk can, match the one shown in the larger museum photo from 2014, as you said. You can just see the ring and wing nut in the lower part of the photo.
    Just thinking out aloud. Could they possibly have added the ring clasp... to secure the can and mannequin ?

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    1. The mannequin was just sitting inside. And the museum didn't take any steps to secure any other items (not even the USD), so my guess is the ring came with the can.

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  6. Looking at the pictures, I would say the base was removable. The wing nuts & ring clasp hold the base on. After the act, the wing nuts could be loosened, the can lifted & this would quickly empty the can. I know you are thinking, " that would flood the stage", so let's say it's a safety feature in case they needed to empty the can quickly.
    Just a thought!!!

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    1. Sounds logical.

      I'm wondering of the base might have been attached to the bottom of the Double Fold box. I can't find it now, but I swear I saw a pic or some film of the box during the Potter auction, and you could see a round outline, like a stain, inside the box. With age, whatever was holding the base dried up and the can one day came out with the base stuck to it, and that's how it has remained ever since.

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  7. The lid was not the original to the can and its very possible that the older photos the hasp that fits into the slot just was not on the side that the photo was taken. When I see that type locking mechanism on a Houdini effect I think WTC and that type locking mechanism is functional and important to effect the escape. It's on the WTC, it's on the wooden box and its here on this specific milk can. There must be a reason why it's there and based upon the WTC and the wooden box I can't see a reason to have it on this milk can unless it's an integral part of the escape. I would bet that this can, for an unknown reason, was made with a different type gaff vs the other milk cans. I can venture a logical reason but don't want to reveal any secret where.

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    1. Makes sense. BTW, there is a hasp on the other side as well, so it has two hasps.

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  8. The base certainly was somehow attached to the bottom of the inside of the box.

    Do I see a hole (damage) at the bottom inside of the can?

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    1. No, that's just a spot of some kind.

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  9. So there are two of those "box" like structures with keyholes on the side of the neck of that can? If so I suspect because of the cylindrical shape they needed two mechanisms to better hold the gaff in place. Perry from NJ..

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    1. That's correct. Two. One on each side of the neck.

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  10. Is that a circle of felt below one side of the can? Why's that there? Does the can not sit level?

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    1. You know, I saw that and I thought the can had just slipped off it. But you could be right. It might be there to level the can.

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  11. How is it that these do not have any fire damage, if they were in the Houdini museum fire? How did they "escape" purchase by Copperfield?

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    1. These are a mystery in that regard as they were not in the 1999 auction of artifacts from the museum that was held in LA. It's possible there was an earlier auction that I'm not aware of. Or maybe these were sold privately.

      Many items from the museum have surfaced over the years and none show any fire damage. Maybe the fire was was contained to the restaurant next door and the USD room? That's also a mystery.

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  12. Great work, John. I think the steel box may not have belonged to Houdini. Go to http://mymagicuncle.blogspot.com/. Sorry to drive people away from your site, but I needed some room to go into detail.

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    1. No problem, Chuck. Great article. I've added a link to my story as an update. Like you, I always assumed that Blackstone story was about a wooden box. But you might be onto something. LINK.

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  13. Interesting that items from the museum have wound up on the West Coast in California.

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    1. Like I said, I didn't speak to the owner (even though he was there), but the sense I got was no one there was all that into Houdini. These were store decorations and a gimmick for their business.

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  14. Very interesting. Houdini modified the gaff in this can to better allow escape from BOTH the can and wooden box. So both this can and the wooden box have gaffs similar to the WTC. The traditional milk can you see Houdini within has a bit different methodology. Perry from NJ.

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  15. And I wonder if they have the keys to those two locking devices on that can? Without the keys the can is non functional as an escape. Perry from NJ.

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