Saturday, January 14, 2017

A new vanishing elephant pic appears

Check out this image of Houdini with Jennie his vanishing elephant on stage at the Hippodrome theater. This comes from Houdini's The Adventurous Life of a Versatile Artist pitchbook and is an image that we are all familiar with. Or is it?


Now look at the image below. This is actually the familiar photo we see in books, etc., and it's pretty clear that it's not the same image as the above. Houdini is in a very different position. However, Jennie is in the exact same pose, although she's in a different position in relation to the background. That means she's one well trained elephant, or this famous shot is not what it seems.


I've always looked this photo with some skepticism. Not only does it seem like an improbable moment to capture on camera, but the light on Houdini, Jennie, and the cavernous Hippodrome does not seem achievable. The Hippodrome appears to be a backdrop. But is Jennie herself artificial? That is not as clear to me, but these two photos seem to suggest that she is.

This photo is credited to the famous White Studio, and was likely taken in the studio itself. In the un-cropped version one can see a person standing just off the edge of frame. The audience directly behind Jennie's right foot also appears to be painted, possibly onto the negative itself. So what's going on here? Break out the magnifiers!


No matter how the photo was created, it's still a great shot, and it's exciting to see an alternate version (which has been hiding in plain sight). These two images remain the only known photos of Houdini's vanishing elephant illusion.

Thanks to Perry from New Jersey for bringing this photo to my attention.

Related:

24 comments:

  1. Great observation.
    If you look at ad for the Cheer Up Revue at the Hippodrome, it uses the image of Houdini from the pitchbook that has his hands above his head. See link below to compare ad with the familiar image: https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-i-BzrjQjDsw/ULKUvJuXg_I/AAAAAAAAMIQ/XoDEAIj6eOI/s1000/elephant%2520vanish.jpg

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    1. Exactly. It does. I always looked at that ad it struck me that he looked different. Same with this pitchbook pic. I've been looking at it for years, but I never made a direct comparison. It took our buddy Perry from NJ to finally make me do that.

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  2. I've been reading Jennifer Ashley Tepper's histories of Broadway theatres, and in the chapter on the Belasco, more than one person talks about the building's double basement and elevator system that was (by their accounts) built specifically for Houdini to vanish an elephant before he moved the act to the Hippodrome. Is there any accuracy to the stories?

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    1. I believe that to be a myth. To my knowledge, Houdini only did the vanishing elephant at the Hippodrome and the Time Sq. Theater. I'm not even sure he ever performed at the Belasco.

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    2. I stated that badly. What I should have said was that the theatre was built with the vanishing in mind, but Houdini moved it to the Hippdrome before performing the feat there.

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    3. Ah, okay, but still probably a myth. The way current Houdini history records it Houdini came up with the vanishing elephant expressly for his Hippodrome engagement with Cheer Up. In fact, it said the Hip manager asked him to come up with something spectacular for the circus-themed revue, and because the Hip had elephants on hand, it all came together nicely.

      But you never know with Houdini history. It is being rewritten all the time. If there was a letter or something that mentioned the possibility of the vanishing elephant at the Belasco that pre-dates the Hip commitment (Dec 1917), that would be interesting!

      I guess it's also a possibility that HH was planning on taking the illusion to the Belasco after the Hippodrome, but his engagement there kept getting extended. It turned into the longest single engagement of his career. And then he signed for the Hippodrome's next revue show, Everything.

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    4. Also the method HH used to vanish his elephant, at least at the Hippodrome, had nothing to do with elevators or traps, from what we know of how he likely did it (but no one knows for sure).

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  3. Great stuff John! I also agree that the Hippodrome? in the photo is some kind of backdrop painting. You can clearly see where the backdrop meets the floor right at the level of Houdini's hip. It is not unlike The Wizard of Oz film where you see Judy Garland dancing down the yellow brick road right toward the backdrop.

    The elephant looks real to me. It might possibly be another smaller pachyderm that was trained to stand on its hind legs. The shadows behind HH and the elephant look correct. The lighting must have been coming from the left side.

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    1. Trouble is the elephant is in the EXACT some position in both photos. Identical. I just can't imagine that would be the case. And while being Identical, she's in a somewhat different position in relation to the background, which to me suggests she's been placed into these photos in some way.

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  4. Here re more photos of the Hippodrome with one interesting interior shot. The fake backdrop we believe is a good copy of the interior:

    http://www.nyc-architecture.com/GON/GON027.htm

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  5. Sir, I recently signed up to receive updates from your site. I probably shouldn't have done this (smile!). Because of all the fascinating information on this site, my dishes are not getting washed, my dog is not getting petted, my sweeping is not getting done, and other internet business is suffering, but keep the updates coming. I just love this site. So much to read and learn about one of the most interesting people who ever lived -- Mr. Houdini.

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    1. Wow, thank you so much for the very kind words, Margie. Yes, my dishes are being neglected as well. That Mr. Houdini does tend to hold one spellbound. Hope you continue to enjoy. :)

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  6. Don't encourage her, John. She will continue to fall behind on her chores. :)

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  7. I do not buy the idea this is an elaborate backdrop that matches perfectly the Hippodrome. White studios was well known for their photos of performers generally during dress rehearsals. I am quite sure this indeed was taken at the Hippodrome otherwise we are taking the construction of an elaborate work of art that matches the interior of the Hippodrome exactly.....just for these two photos? I do agree the position of Jenny in both photos are curiously identical. Could it be that the second image of Houdini with both his arms over his head was inserted into the original photo? To me it's the only scenario that makes sense. Perry from NJ.

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  8. It's a challenge to figure this one out!

    The reason I think it's a backdrop is I don't know how they'd light every bit of the Hip the way we see here, especially with a full audience in place. And in the better quality pic, you can see what appears to be the backdrop along the floor (there's an attempt at an optical illusion, which works well in the top photo). I think it's possible the White Studio, who specialized in Broadway photography, created backdrops like this of all the major Broadway theaters for photo shoots in their studio.

    My own feeling is this is HH in the White Studio against a backdrop. Jennie (if that is even Jennie) was photographed elsewhere and inserted into the image somehow. The touching up around her foot is suggestive of that. But this is just my own guess.

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  9. Backdrop or no backdrop the elephant is slightly different. Look around his trunk area. Either the photographer moved or the elephant did, or if a cut and paste job in the negative, the studio changed it there. Keep in mind an elephant on his hind legs moves slow once he's in position. Houdini's pose is different, but not by much. I think it's two separate photos taken within a second or two of each other.... David

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    1. That's what I mean by being in different position in relation to the background. The elephant is exactly the same. Same shadows, same spots, everything. But she's "standing" in a slightly different spot in the stage. That's what makes me think she's somehow added.

      However, I just noticed Houdini's hand in the top pic is in front of her foot. This not makes me now question my theory. Maybe Houdini is added? Or maybe she's a giant cutout as Leo suggested below.

      Or, hell, it's all real!

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  10. Looking at this shot: http://nyc-architecture.com/GON/027-hippo2.jpg, one can see that it's possible to light the Hippodrome house so that much of the audience is visible. In this shot: https://www.ibdb.com/theatre/hippodrome-theatre-1305# it looks like HH is in a proper position on stage to make Jennie vanish. How she came to apparently hold still, though, is another matter.

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  11. I wonder if the elephant is a large cardboard cutout of the type seen in movie theater lobby displays. Sounds crazy and the technology to make realistic cutouts may not have existed back then.

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  12. To me, these look like two genuine pictures, taken moments apart within the actual Hippodrome, of a real elephant and a real Houdini.

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  13. The actual Hippodrome...that left hand sticking out is positioned exactly where the backdrop meets the floor. The second tier balcony seats are a blob of dark paint strokes. There are no people there, and can't blame the artist for not wanting to deal with illustrating more tiny faces.

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  14. Some sort of doctoring of the crowd has taken place, yes. And the crowd in one doesn't match the crowd in the other, which suggests it's neither a backdrop nor a matte. Possible scenario: stage the photo in the Hippodrome while it's empty, and then paint an audience.

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    1. Paint in the audience. Yes, that could be.

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