Friday, January 26, 2018

David Copperfield has Houdini's bookcase and a message for all of us


Yesterday I had the extreme pleasure of talking to David Copperfield on the phone. David was excited to confirm that he now has Houdini's bookcase in his Las Vegas museum. He also wanted to express his sincere gratitude to all of us who helped him on this particular quest. He said not only did my blog help, but so did "all the comments and contributions" from all the Houdini fans involved. He said we are not only helping him, we are also "helping magic history," and therefore he wanted us to be the first to have the full details of this acquisition and where it fits into his plans for an expanded Houdini display.

Some backstory first. The bookcase, one of two from Houdini's library in his New York home (278), had, amazingly, remained inside the residence all these years. This was discovered when the house went up for sale in June 2017. But the bookcase vanished after the first open house, and there were conflicting reports about what happened to it. But now we know David got it, which is kinda what we suspected anyway.

David told me the bookcase was in VERY poor condition when his team examined it, barely held together by old glue and crude fixes. He suspects the other bookcase had fallen apart at some point and was discarded. I suspect this would have been the fate of this bookcase as well. I doubt it would have been able to support a full load of books, and it may have been seen as a hazard and discarded by the new owner. So while at first I was sad to see the bookcase leave the house, I now believe it was rescued by the right person at the right time. (Not unlike how the last known print of The Grim Game was saved from Larry Weeks' apartment before it was too late.)

David's team is now rebuilding and reinforcing the bookcase, preserving it using the highest restoration standards. They are well aware of the missing moulding and other defining features, all of which will remain. His team are also building a replica of the second missing bookcase. The idea is to have the two cases side by side, exactly as Houdini had them in his home, and able to receive books. That's where the real fun begins.

David owns many of the same books that once filled these shelves. Using the famous photo of Houdini by the case, David and his team are looking to return as many of the original books as possible. They will also take pains to place the same photos of Hermann, Kellar, Tom Thumb, etc. inside the case. David is excited by the idea that visitors can then stand in Houdini's shoes and take a picture in front the fully restored case, recreating the famous image below. A blow-up of this photo will hang beside the bookcase.


In interviews, David has often said that if Houdini himself walked into his museum he would feel right at home among all his familiar props. I now think David has brought it to the next level. I think Houdini would be brought to tears at the sight of his beloved library painstakingly brought back to life, and I think many Houdini fans might have that same reaction!

David also confirmed that he bought the bathtub from 278. This was the larger of the two original tubs that had remained on the property, and likely the one from Houdini's bathroom. "If there was any practicing going on, it was in this tub," said David. The tub was also in very poor condition, having been exposed to the elements for decades, and was certainly destined for the dump. So it looks like it was also rescued just in time.

The tub is now being restored by David's team using authentic vintage fixtures. David says he may set up the tub using a lighting effect that will make it appear to be filled with ice. I love this idea, and I have a suspicion the tub might actually steal the show with visitors and press. "Houdini's bathtub" has always held mythic appeal.

And in case you are wondering, David did not get the piano, which he admits "might have been a mistake."

David is currently working on a major expansion of his museum that will take up to a year to complete. The bookcase and tub will be part of a greatly expanded Houdini area, which in itself will be the greatest Houdini museum on earth. I'll be getting a chance to see the work in progress soon. I'll bring you all along for the ride.

So there we have it. We now know David Copperfield has the bookcase and bathtub. We know they will be restored, protected, and celebrated in a most spectacular way. And we have a nice thank you from the great man himself. So a good day!

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27 comments:

  1. You MAGNIFICENT bastard! WELL DONE.

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  2. This makes me very happy, and I look forward to seeing (at least in photos) the restored bookcase and the replica of the second bookcase, plus books! Bravo, Mr. Copperfield! (I'm also very happy I got to see the bookcase before it left 278.)

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  3. Great job John,
    At the time of the first open house, i noticed some loose moulding pieces next to the cabinet.they could be connecting parts to the missing cabinet. whatever they were,they were definetly components of the cabinets

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  4. Does Fred have the bookshelf Larry Weeks had?

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  5. I never doubted for a second that the fate of this bookcase was the correct one. Interesting that the bookcase became too old and worn out to hold books.

    Should have gotten that piano as well. Perhaps a lifelike Houdini mannequin could be placed in that tub with fake ice all around him.

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    1. Well, that's just my speculation that the case might not hold a full load of books safely. But it's a good thing New York doesn't have earthquakes!

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    2. Actually the East Coast does have earthquakes but not as frequent as the West Coast. The DMV area was rocked by 2 quakes in the last 10 years. The Washington Monument suffered damage.

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    3. I was surprised to hear about the precarious condition of the bookcase, because it looked so solid when I saw it (and touched it). But being that old, it was inevitable it would be fragile, I suppose.

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  6. How exciting!!! Can’t wait for you to take us along for the ride.

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  7. Outstanding!! Great work!

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  8. Great! I'm very happy he got the case and tub. Did you notice it was in poor condition when you saw it?

    Is David going to open his museum to the public in the future?

    Jack

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    1. There was nothing noticeably wrong with it. Looked great to me. But I think when someone who knows furniture gets into they can see the issues.

      Don't know if David will one day will open his museum to the public. Maybe.

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    2. I'd be delighted even with a virtual tour of Mr. Copperfield's collection. The photos and videos I've seen are amazing. In any case, thank you again John for looking into all of this and sharing this invaluable information; it is greatly appreciated!

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  9. Fabulous! Now if we could only get the full versions of the voice recordings. Baby steps ...

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  10. The key will be whether the public will be able to see these treasures. More importantly, who bought the house?!! Dale

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  11. I always thought the tub HH used for his ice training was a large built in tub that one normally sees in the master bedroom of larger houses. Does John recall what kind of tub he saw in the bedroom HH and Bess slept in?

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    1. The tub David has is, presumably, the tub from Houdini's bathroom as it is the larger of the two tubs. It may have been considered a "giant tub" by the standards of the time, but to us now it looks normal, even small. The Houdinis did not have a master bathroom in the way we think of them now. Houdini's bathroom was at the back of the 3rd floor (the bedroom was in front) and Bess's bathroom was on the 4th floor. Both bathrooms are small by our standards.

      Just to throw a wrench into the ice bath thing. The only record of Houdini taking ice baths was in Philadelphia as he was getting ready for a Winter bridge jump. So that was likely a hotel tub. Houdini didn't do any bridge jumps in NYC, so there was no reason for ice baths at home. Unless he came to like them!

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    2. Ah! Scratch what I just said about HH not preparing at home. I just found a terrific article about his 1907 Rochester jump saying Houdini spent a week at home in NY in training. BTW, there is a wealth of great info on this jump. I feel a post coming on!

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  12. There were two tubs in 278 and the other cast iron tub is 50% larger. It isn't "sunken," but a Victorian iron tub with claw feet. Even with HH's smaller frame, the smaller tub from the back yard is too small to completely submerge a body. The stone smaller one may indeed be from his bath, but I don't see how it could be used except for washing oneself.

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    1. It seems logical that the larger tub is from Harry's bathroom because his bathroom would better accommodate it. I had a good look at Harry's bathroom. There's a modern tub in there now, but the clawfoot tub would fit right in the same spot. I didn't get a great look at Bess's bathroom, but it's much smaller. The right size for the smaller tub.

      Biographers have exaggerated Houdini's bathtub for years, growing it into a "giant sunken bathtub with mirrors so he could watch himself practice." I think they were thinking about Joan Crawford. :p

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    2. I think you're right, John! That was my thinking too when I saw the modern tub installed at the back of the bathroom. His or Hers, both – as you wrote – were being used as planters! I was glad to see one tub was stone and hoped the years of snow had not cracked the porcelain interior of the clawfoot! And Joan Crawford, ha indeed!

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  13. According to Silverman who was interviewed by Richard Kaufman for March 1997 Magic Magazine p42: “It’s one thing when you read all of the newspaper stories. You sort of discount them. But when you see him in his diaries, recording for instance, his underwater stays in his bathtub, holding his breath, adding ice to the water, practicing day-after day, then saying he has to do some more running to increase his lungs, you know it’s for real. It isn’t hype."
    See Silverman’s book, p112 (sourced from his diaries Jan 1907, Jan 1908, Feb 1908) where he presumes it is the large sunken (?) tub he installed at 278 for the purpose.

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    1. Great quote! Gotta love Silverman.

      I actually have those diary entries in my just added 1907 chronology. They appear in Kellock. Wasn't aware of the 1908 ones. Man I would love to read HH's diaries!

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  14. I agree that David Copperfield has done more than anyone else to preserve Houdini and the things he both used in his shows, loved and touched. Now that also includes historic things from his home and my hat is off to him. I am glad he has the financial ability to preserve our magical heritage of both Houdini and so many others in The International Library and Museum of the Conjuring Arts in Las Vegas. I have never been to Las Vegas and probably never will but have been a serious student of Houdini and magic for the 42 years I have been a member of the I.B.M. I wrote to the curator of the museum last year, seeking pictures of the USD for a study I was doing. I offered to pay for copying and mailing. I didn't even get the courtesy of a reply. I love what little I have seen of the museum and am excited it is growing, especially as it comes to Houdini. I only wish there were some way for the serious magic student to share in what they cannot see in person. I have tried to find a way to contact Mr. Copperfield himself but there are many layers of people between him and the general public to insulate him. I am not your average curiosity seeker but a magician, albeit amateur, with a serious love for all things Houdini. Perhaps you can share my sentiment with Mr. Copperfield about the need to improve access to the museum for those who live afar. The serious students of magic and of Houdini who would like to share the wonder Mr. Copperfield has created but will never be able to go there to see it in person, much less to be invited in, would be most appreciative. I have e-mailed you personally regarding the USD so you know who I am and of my love for Houdini and the USD. Perhaps you could pass that on to the right person? It can't hurt to ask.......

    Meanwhile: You go, David. Thanks for all your hard work!

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  15. I've now seen a pic of Houdini's piano and it is NOT that one that we saw in the house. I'm now thinking that piano belonged to the Bonannos. So a good thing DC didn't buy.

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