Click for details and to buy tickets
Showing posts with label Martin Beck. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Martin Beck. Show all posts

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The gateway biography

Continuing my examination of books about Houdini using images and insights from my own collection.

First hardcover edition (1950).
When discussing important Houdini biographies, it's easy to overlook The Great Houdini, Magician Extraordinary by Beryl Williams and Samuel Epstein. That's because this 1950 book was geared to young readers. But I consider it "the gateway biography" because it not only "hooked" many young people on Houdini, it also ushered in the modern era of Houdini study by being the first book written for a generation that hadn't known the magician in life. This was the book that would tell the story of the legend, the immortal Houdini, which is the man we still study today. It also includes a nice forward by Walter B. Gibson.

While The Great Houdini did repeat some of the mythology of Kellock -- and even contributed some fresh mythology of it's own (young Ehrich learning magic from a magician named "Merlin"?) -- it also broke new ground. It was in this book that Martin Beck's contribution to Houdini's career was first recognized. And while this biography doesn't identify Bess as a fellow performer, it doesn't repeat the full acid on the dress fable from Kellock. Instead, it simply states that Houdini and Bess met and were married in Coney Island, which is true. Also absent is the infamous trapped under the ice story.

Unlike other books in this series, I can't confidently tell the story of The Great Houdini's publication history, because there are just too many editions of this book in existence and it gets a little confusing when we get into the Scholastic paperbacks, as you will soon see. But I can share what I have in my collection and maybe others can fill in the gaps in the Comments section. So here we go.

The Great Houdini, Magician Extraordinary was first released in hardcover by Julian Messner in March 1950. A second edition was published in July 1950. A later hardcover edition had a curious feature. While the dust jacket art matched the first edition (apart from slightly different title treatment), under the jacket on the front board was a similar illustration, but with an image of Houdini as an older man. I'm not sure if this older Houdini ever made it onto a dust jacket, but I really like the idea of two versions of Houdini on the same book.

Presto! Remove the dust jacket and young Houdini becomes old Houdini.

There are numerous library editions that used portions of the dust jacket artwork on their front boards. There was also a 1956 "Hall of Fame Series for Boys and Girls" which bound The Great Houdini with The Ringlings: Wizards of the Circus by Alvin F. Harlow. I have never seen one of these Hall of Fame editions with a dust jacket, so I'm assuinmg it was published without. A UK hardcover edition was published in 1971 by Bailey Bros. & Swinfen with original dust jacket artwork.

Typical library binding (left) and the UK hardcover from Bailey (right).

The Great Houdini was first released in paperback by Pocket Book, Jr. in February 1951 with dramatic cover art showing Houdini in chains underwater. A nicely illustrated summation of the Houdini story is on the back. The paperback dropped the subtitle Magician Extraordinary from the cover, and added illustrations by Louis Glanzman throughout.

First paperback edition from Pocket Book Jr. (1951).

In the 1960s the Scholastic Book Company made The Great Houdini available to schools through their unique network of mail order book clubs, and here's where things get a little confusing. As far as I can tell, the first Scholastic edition was first published as TK 76 in an edition that was somewhat taller than their later paperbacks. That edition used new cover artwork showing Houdini in chains (the famous pose).

When the Scholastic edition shrank down into the more familiar size, it lost the letter "K" and became T-76. Or could it be that the taller TK 76 was for retail and shorter T-76 was for schools? Just to add to the mystery, in my collection TK-76 is a second edition (no date), while my T-76 is a 14th printing from January 1971. But I also have Scholastic paperbacks dated 1965 with the original Pocket Jr. artwork that I recall seeing in schools and for sale in magic stores into the early '80s. So which cover came first on the Scholastics? I really don't know.

The two differently sized early Scholastic editions.

T-76 was a perennial book club selection and a permanent featue in many school libraries and classrooms for decades. For many, this was their first encounter with Houdini. (Recently a friend's wife told me she vaguely remembered reading a Houdini book in grade school, and she was thrilled when I showed her a copy of T-76 -- that was it!) Scholastic's The Great Houdini T-76 finally went out of print, I believe, sometime in the 1980s. Although for all I know, there could still be old copies on grade school classroom shelves to this day. I hope so.

The Great Houdini was last published in 1984 as a special hardcover edition limited to 80 copies by Amereon House. This edition contains all the Louis Glanzman illustrations from the paperback, the only hardcover to do so. It was a nice end and a fitting tribute to the great gateway biography.

A later (?) Scholastic edition and the Amereon special edition hardcover.

Also enjoy:

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The strolling magician

This is one of Houdini's earliest newspaper notices. It appeared on the front page of the Chicago Journal on January 5, 1899, a month before he was discovered by Martin Beck. What I love about this is it's a remarkably understated and mysterious introduction to Houdini. Notice how it doesn't even specify any venue where he is performing. He is simply a "strolling magician" who stopped in at police headquarters, escaped all their restraints, and went away laughing. Who is this mysterious Harry Houdini? Where might this strolling magician appear next?

Thanks to Patrick Culliton for this one.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Ebay auction dates first Houdini 'nude'

This signed photo of Houdini posing "nude" (apart from loincloth) recently appeared on eBay. It's a familiar shot and part of a series of photos that were used in early Houdini advertising material (like the Mahatma ad below). But what's nice here is this auction tells us exactly when and where this shot was taken.

According to the listing, this photo bares the stamp of the Bushnell company in San Francisco. On the back of the photo Houdini himself has written: "Taken 1899 July -- I was 24 years old." It appears Houdini had first written 1898, but then overwrote a "9", which actually makes him 25.

So this was taken during Houdini's first tour of the West Coast under the management of Martin Beck, which pre-dates his breakout fame by several months. It's interesting that publicity shots taken before this (the few that exist) all show Houdini in the guise of a very traditional magician. These were clearly taken to sell the new Harry Houdini -- King of Handcuffs! It worked.

Houdini would later do a new series of "nudes" in Germany in 1902, which would result in one of his most famous photos.

By the way, this was listed on eBay with a starting price of $3,300, but the auction was ended early by the seller before any bids were made.

Mahatma ad from 'Houdini A Pictorial Life' by Milbourne Christopher. You can see five different Bushnell photos on pages 48-49 of 'Houdini His Legend and His Magic' by Doug Henning.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Backstage with Houdini The Play

Here are some terrific behind-the-scenes photos of Houdini (The Play) currently touring the UK. Houdini features Evanna Lynch as Bess, Stuart Brennan as Theo, and Jamie Nichols as Houdini. It arrives tonight at the Swansea Grand Theatre in Swansea. It then moves to the Windsor Theatre Royal (September 30 – October 5) and the Dublin Gaiety Theatre (October 7 – 12).

Bess and Beck get into character.

Theo gets top billing at last.

Houdini is in the house.

houdinitheplay on Instagram

Visit for more details, to buy merchandise, and to book tickets.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

UK HOUDINI play announces full cast

Jamie Nicholas is Houdini.
Director Peter Snee has announced the full cast of HOUDINI, the UK production set to debut September 9, 2013 at the Stoke on Trent Repertory Theatre. Joining the already announced Stuart Brennan as Theo and Evanna Lynch as Bess is Mark Lyminster as Martin Beck, Ion Patrick Ridge as Douglas Geoffrey, and Jamie Nichols as Houdini.

Says Snee: "After many weeks of hard work and careful deliberation, we are absolutely delighted to announce that we’ve found the perfect cast for the UK touring production of Houdini. We actually held auditions at the Hippodrome in London which was particularly fitting because Harry Houdini himself performed at the Hippodrome more than 100 years ago with a thrilling handcuff escape performance. Jamie Nichols amazed us all with his own handcuff escape and it was swiftly clear that Jamie possessed the charm, charisma and physical prowess required to undertake the immense task of playing the greatest magician who ever lived."

"In casting the other principal roles – Theo, Bess, Martin, Douglas – it became clear that the actors expertly captured with incredible delicacy the light and dark tones of the script, making us want to laugh and cry in the same scene. I’m very excited that we have a truly talented ensemble and I can’t wait to start rehearsals and open at my home town of Stoke on Trent on September 9th."

I'm intrigued to see that Douglas Geoffrey is a character in this production. Geoffrey was an assistant to Hardeen in his later years and took over the Houdini-Hardeen show as "Hardeen Jr." in 1945. (Read my profile of Hardeen Jr. here.) I'm curious to know how Geoffrey figures into the plot of the play, which is said to be about the early careers of The Brothers Houdini.

Stuart Brennan (Theo), Evanna Lynch (Bess),
Mark Lyminster (Martin Beck), Ion Ridge (Douglas Geoffrey).

September 9th – 14th – Stoke on Trent Repertory Theatre
September 16th – 21st – Blackpool Grand Theatre
September 24th – 28th Swansea Grand Theatre
September 30th – October 5th – Windsor Theatre Royal
October 7th – 12th – Dublin Gaiety Theatre

You can get updates on HOUDINI via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the official website,

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The first great Houdini biography

Today I continue my examination of books about Houdini using images and insights from my own collection (and in this case some additional images from the Arthur Moses collection).

When Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls by William Lindsay Gresham hit bookstores in 1959, it had been a remarkable 31 years since the last major Houdini biography. That last biography was Houdini His Life Story by Harold Kellock, a book notorious for being "full of lies." With his new biography Gresham took a quantum leap forward, washing away many of the Kellock fictions and unearthing essential new information. Indeed, I consider this the first great Houdini biography, and one that all subsequent biographies own the biggest debt. It's also still the one with the best title.

It's in Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls that Houdini's real birthplace and birthday is revealed for the first time. Gresham also dismisses as apocryphal almost all of the familiar boyhood tales (picking the lock on the pie cabinet, the locksmith apprenticeship); tells the true story of Harry and Bess's meeting and marriage; debunks the trapped under the ice story; reveals Martin Beck's involvement in launching Houdini's career; exposes some of the sordid details of the Arthur Ford seance; introduces us to Daisy White ("one of the most mischievous little minxes ever to be shot through a trap door"); and introduces a myriad of new Houdini facts that are now taken for granted.

There is also some information that remains still largely exclusive to this book, such as a one-off underwater straitjacket escape in the New York Hippodrome pool and Houdini's advanced plans for a crusade against gambling cheats "after mediums wore out." Gresham also shows great reverence for Jim Collins and the role he played in Houdini's life and career. He even goes as far to say: "Had Collins been in the dressing room that fateful day in 1926, Houdini might be with us yet."

Part of Gresham's success was because his sources in 1959 where excellent. Many of them knew Houdini personally. His Author's Acknowledgments cite: Joseph Dunninger, Walter Gibson, Will Goldston, Milbourne Christopher (and his collection of 500 Houdini letters), Sidney Radner, Robert Lund, John Mulholland, Jean Hugard, Fred Keating (the book includes two wonderful personal memories of Houdini from Keating), and even Houdini's assistant, Lewis Goldstein (likely the source of an untold story of Houdini going "berserk" when his dog was accidentally delivered to the theater instead of his trained eagle which traveled in a similar box). Gresham dedicates the book to James "The Amazing" Randi, who also helped greatly in Gresham's research.

Sure, Gresham still falls into a few familiar traps. He embraces Will Goldston's version of the Mirror challenge, with Bess crying the key out of the rep (although it's impressive that he questions the traditional version at all). He says Houdini escaped from the Russian Siberian Transport Van by cutting through the floor (but he does qualify this by pointing out it was the version Houdini told reporters). He speculates on a method of the Water Torture Cell which we now know is incorrect (as we now know Sid Radner was withholding the real method from the author, which might have been wise as Gresham does reveal secrets in this book). He also reports that it was Houdini himself who survived the plane crash in The Grim Game, identifies J. Gordon Whitehead (whom he does not name) as a boxer, and includes the now discredited quote from "Jim Collins" saying that he put the ruler in the Margie Box.

Regardless, Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls is a top notch, well-written, and surprisingly accurate Houdini biography that provided a new and much needed fact-based foundation for magic historians to build on. It was also a book with a surprisingly long publication life.

Publication history:

Houdini The Man Who Who Walked Through Walls was first published in the U.S. as a hardcover by Henry Holt & Co. in August 1959. The book would go into a second printing that same month, a third printing in October, and a fourth in January 1960. The book included several pages of photos, an "Opinionated Bibliography," and an Author's Acknowledgments in the front.

1959 U.S. first edition hardcover and 1960 UK first edition with curios cover.

In 1960 Victor Gollancz, Ltd. published the book in hardcover in the UK. For some reason, the UK edition uses an image of Robert-Houdin on the cover. Hard to believe this could have been an error -- confusing Houdin and Houdini -- but I guess it's possible. The UK edition includes slightly different photos from the U.S.

Houdini The Man Who Who Walked Through Walls was first published in paperback by Hillman Books in June 1961. All new photos were used in the paperback edition, and the Author's Acknowledgments were moved to the back of the book.

Hillman 1961 U.S. paperback first edition.

Later paperbacks were published by Macfadden Books. Apart from different publisher markings, the only noticeable difference between the Hillman and Macfadden editions is the tinting of the photo of Houdini (credited to Dunninger) on the back. Macfadden released at least five printings. All use the same cover art, but show variations in price and the occasional inclusion of "Printed in the USA" on the back.

Macfadden 3rd printing October 1967 (Arthur Moses collection).
Macfadden 5th printing July 1970 (note "Printed in USA" on back).

Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls doesn't appear to have been widely published outside the U.S. and UK. As far as I know, there wasn't even a UK paperback edition. However, there was a Dutch edition published in 1964 (update: Russian Gresham).

1964 Dutch edition (Arthur Moses Collection).

The 1970s saw the return of Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls in hardcover by what was now Holt, Rineheart and Winston. I don't know the publication order of their two later hardcovers for certain, but it seems logical that 1973 hardcover, which uses the same artwork as the first edition, came first followed by what is only described inside as an 11th printings with brand new cover artwork (this edition eluded me for years).

1970s Holt, Rineheart and Winston hardcovers.

The last printing of Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls was a paperback by Manor Books in 1975 with all-new cover art. This was the first Houdini biography I ever bought and read, so this particular edition has always held a special place for me.

1975 Manor Books paperback.

Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls has now fallen long out of print, and that's a shame. Sure, some of the information is now out-of-date, but by and large it's a very solid Houdini biography and one that should always be remembered as a milestone. Even the great Max Maven once called it "the best of all the Houdini biographies." Some kind of collectible Anniversary Edition would not be unwelcome one day.

Also enjoy:

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Handcuff King's blog: Shipwrecked

When Houdini first toured Europe during his early fame as The Handcuff King, he penned a regular column for the American newspaper the Dramatic Mirror. The columns are filled with wonderful tidbits about Vaudeville performers of the day, and also contain many revealing opinions and slice-of-life gems about Houdini himself. In a way, these can be read as if they are Houdini's own personal blog -- The Handcuff King's blog.

I'm going to conclude this series with some advice from Houdini for all you American singers, comedians, magicians, jugglers, loopers, hoopers, ventriloquists, cakewalkers, animal trainers, clay modelers, contortionists, and, yes, even escape artists, who are looking to make their names and fortunes in Europe.

It's November 12, 1903, and Houdini writes to us from foggy London:

I arrived safe and sound in England and walked around the streets of London so as to become accustomed to the foggy air. While strolling about Leicester Square, I discovered quite a few "shipwrecked" American acts. When I say "shipwrecked," I mean acts that hail from America that failed to obtain a prolongation of contract, or that came over without being booked. I think that it is only fair and just to let Mirror readers know that you have to make good in England, just the same as in any other country, and if you have a hankering to come over and cut your "capers," you should also be prepared to "do or die." Out of respect and good fellow-feeling the failures are never mentioned, and you only hear of the acts that have made good. So if you wish to come over to England, it is a good idea to have some agent book your act up for a run of six or eight months, and then you don't have to make good. You will work your contracts, and that is your finish, as an English contract is almost as good as so much money.

Houdini knew first-hand the hazard of being "shipwrecked" in England. Legend says Houdini and Bess gambled on making it in Europe and set out with no bookings and only $20 cash in their pockets. But in truth, the European trip was the idea of Martin Beck, Houdini's new manager, who had successfully shaped Houdini's act and booked him on his Orpheum vaudeville circuit in 1899.

Beck entrusted Harry's advanced European bookings to an international agent, Richard Pitrot, was supposed to travel with Harry and Bess to England. But Pitrot stood them up on the dock, and when Harry and Bess landed in the UK, they found that no contracts had been secured. They were "shipwrecked."

It took a handcuff escape at Scotland Yard (maybe true) and several auditions (definitely true) to convince C. Dundas Slater, the manager of the Alhambra Theater in Leicester Square, to give "The Handcuff King" a trial run.

The rest is history.

Also enjoy:

Friday, April 26, 2013

New Houdini play coming to the UK

A new play, Houdini, will tour the UK from September through October of this year. The play is produced by Theatre Giant and focus on the early years of Harry and Theo Weiss -- "The Brothers Houdini" (which would have made a nice title). Here's the official plot description:

To be the greatest, you have to be willing to sacrifice everything. The highly successful Brothers Houdini soon find this out, as their death-defying feats start to draw in ever bigger crowds and ultimately attract the attention of the major theatre promoters.
Join us for what promises to be an explosive theatrical spectacle, when the prestigious promoter Martin Beck offers only Harry an opportunity that will change his life forever.
This intricate look inside the lives of two of the greatest performers the world has ever seen, explores the impact of family, love and jealousy. Watch as two masters of the stage perform, entrance, delight and surprise, performing a number of famous illusions in this gripping life story that is certainly not for the faint-hearted.
Discover the legend. Believe in the magic.

Houdini stars BAFTA award winning actor Stuart Brennan as Theo and Evanna Lynch (who played Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter films) as Bess. The producers are said to be "still looking for the perfect Harry."

Stuart Brennan as Theo Weiss and Evanna Lynch as Bess.

Houdini will have its World Premiere on September 9, 2013 at the Stoke-on-Trent Repertory Theatre. Tickets go on sale May 6.

You can get updates on Houdini via Facebook and Twitter. The official website,, is coming soon.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Houdini the golfer

I figured I'd go with a sports-themed post on this Super Bowl Sunday. Here is a never before published photo of Houdini on a golf course with his manager, Martin Beck, and two unidentified men. This comes from Jon Oliver who is generously sharing with us rare images from his remarkable collection.

Click to enlarge.

Jon also shares an amusing story about this photo and Houdini expert Milbourne Christopher. Says Jon:

"Christopher was not always as smart as he claimed. I asked him about Houdini's golf game, and he told me Houdini never played golf never even stepped on a course in his life. I showed him a photo of Houdini and Martin Beck playing golf and he shot back that the photo was staged!"

By the way, in March a book will be released called Houdini Shots: The Ultimate Short Game Survival Guide by Martin Hall and Dave Allen. No doubt a collection of techniques employed by Houdini on this very day! But you'll need to wear a three piece suit to pull them off.

Now we just need to find a photo of Houdini playing football. Happy Super Bowl Sunday, sports fans! And thanks again to Jon Oliver.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Under the hood of Houdini's Humber

A few weeks back I had a story in which I identified the make of Houdini's car as a Humber. Now, thanks to historian John Tarring of The Humber Register, I can bring you more details about Houdini's first automobile.

According to John, the car depicted in the photo on page 9 of Houdini Art and Magic (which I sent him for identification purposes) is a 1904 14 hp Humber Tourist Car that was made at the Humber factory at Beeston, Nottingham. This model car was only produced in 1904, confirming the 1900 dating of the photo in this book and elsewhere cannot be correct.

Says John, "You will see that the 14 and 25 hp were virtually identical apart from a different size of engine and a few other minor differences. It is possible to identify it as a 14 hp as the 25 hp had transverse front spring above the front axle whilst the 14 hp had two springs, these can be clearly seen in the photo."

Furthermore, John has generously sent pages from a 1904 Humber catalog detailing the precise specifications and options of the 14 and 25 hp models.

Click to enlarge

A very big thank you to John Tarring of The Humber Register for helping with this previously unknown piece of Houdini history.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

HOUDINI (1998)

On Sunday, December 6, 1998, writer/director Pen Denshem (who produced the 1979 documentary, Houdini Never Died) realized a dream when his cable film HOUDINI aired as a “TNT Original” movie. The film was supported with strong advertising, making the broadcast a cable television event. The network even broadcast two “encore” presentations immediately after the debut.

HOUDINI, which was filmed under the title, Believe, stars Johnathon Schaech as Houdini, Stacy Edwards as Bess, and Mark Ruffalo as Theo (Hardeen). Shimada also makes a cameo appearance as a street magician. Production design is magnificent, as is the musical score, and while not the best of the Houdini biopics, it has much to recommend it.

Notably, HOUDINI is the first Houdini biography to tackle and dramatize the issue of Houdini’s egotism. Certainly in this way Schaech’s manic Houdini is far different from Tony Curtis or Paul Michael Glaser. Of course, it also makes him less likable and more alienating. But as Bessie says in the film, “I fell in love with Ehrich Weiss. I put up with Houdini.”

While Houdini takes plenty of dramatic license (Houdini’s mother never kissed or held him?), it still does a good job of weaving in Houdini history. It is the first Houdini film to give an accurate account of how he and Bess met. In HOUDINI we see them come together as fellow performers; Bessie as part of the Floral Sisters and Harry performing with brother Theo as The Houdini Brothers (okay, they were “The Brothers Houdini,” but that’s a quibble). We also get to see the death bed promise young Ehrich makes to his father. Jim Collins (Karl Makinen) and Martin Beck (George Segal) play their critical rolls in Houdini’s life and career. Even Houdini’s authorship of The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin is given a mention.

Hardeen gets a larger role in HOUDINI than he's ever had in any biopic. But as with Houdini's relationship with his mother, the filmmakers twist the brothers relationship for their own dramatic needs. Here Houdini creates "Hardeen" as a way to repress his brother's own magic ambitions -- "It would be just too confusing; two Houdinis," Harry tells him. This film also sets up a class division between the two, with Houdini performing before royalty and Hardeen performing at a Union Hall. But it is nice that part of the dramatic arc for Theo in this film is to forgive his older brother for stealing the spotlight, and it's effective when he "exposes" the final Houdini seance just as Bess is starting to believe.

The film starts to get somewhat loose in both history and drama in the final third, with Houdini suddenly ensconced in a throne-like office space and, yes, failing to escape from the Water Torture Cell after being punched in the stomach. The great Hollywood myth of the USD contributing to Houdini’s death continues here. Unbelievable.

But the film keeps the pedal to the metal in its depiction of Houdini’s stunts, eager to show Houdini as the original king of “extreme” (is that still a thing?). Standouts are the suspended straightjacket escape and a rather flamboyant depiction of the Milk Can. Jim Bentley and Jim Thompson are credited as magic consultants.

The framing device for HOUDINI is a live radio seance. This is presumably the 1936 final Houdini seance which was held on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. Here it is presented on a theater stage, probably for budgetary or production reasons. Oddly, the film climaxes with Houdini making a rather star-child return from the dead. It’s a bit off the reservation, but it’s well written and beautifully performed, and does give the movie an emotional and, yes, magical conclusion.

Densham explains his ending by saying, “Well, you can look at it three ways: Either he dreamed it, or she dreamed it, or it really happened. I have my own theory, but I’d prefer not to say.”

HOUDINI was released on VHS in 2000, but it has yet to appear on DVD. While Death Defying Acts was released in 2008 making it the most recent Houdini film, HOUDINI was the last straight-ahead biopic of the great magician. Let's hope it isn't the last.

UPDATE: HOUDINI is now available on DVD.

Johnathon Schaech as Houdini

Also enjoy:


Receive updates via email