Thursday, April 9, 2020

Houdini enhanced by Matt Loughrey

The UKs Daily Mail has a report on Matt Loughrey who has spent the last four-and-a-half years working on a technology to redefine and color portraits of well-known historical figures. The story shares several of Loughrey's creations, starting with Houdini! It's a truly remarkable image.



(The caption dates this image as 1912, but it is actually a 1914 shot.)

You can see more of Loughrey's work on his Instagram. Below are a few more glimpses of Houdini in color.

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Tuesday, April 7, 2020

REVIEW: A solid and scholarly Houdini biography

Houdini: The Elusive American by Adam Begley is not a biography out to break new ground. It's an entry level biography in the tradition of Death and the Magician by Raymund Fitzsimons or Houdini Master of Illusion by Clinton Cox. But it is superior to both those books. And even though it is the latest installment in the Yale's Jewish Lives series, it is not a quickie meant to tick the Houdini box. This is a solidly researched, well written biography that clears away the most recent accumulation of myths (no spies or spiritualist assassins to be found) and brings in a few of the most recent discoveries. The end result is a book of refreshing clarity.

At 200 pages, this is not a long book. But it doesn't need to be. Begley touches down on the major beats of Houdini's life with efficiency and a good feel for how much space to give any one incident. His style is also mercifully free of dramatizations and inner monologues. While many of the facts he relates will be familiar to Houdini buffs, there are a few nuggets that will be new (at least they were new to me). For example, Begley states that the first manacled bridge jump was performed by a British magician in Great Yarmouth in 1901. He says Houdini rebuilt the Margery Box "with ingenious Houdini alterations" for his later stage demonstrations. He also identifies H.P. Lovecraft and C.M. Eddy as being present at the 1926 dinner in which Bess got her famous ptomaine poisoning.

Begley also regularly weaves in how Houdini's Judaism may have played a role in his story, although when it comes to religion the author admits, "It's much easier to say what he wasn't than to say what he was." Still, Begley's insights during these interludes are welcome. He notes that The Torah expressly forbids seances ("Let no one be found among you...who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead"). While maybe not a motive in Houdini's own hostility towards the Spiritualism, it does help explain why spiritualists so often reacted to Houdini with both open and coded antisemitism (insisting on calling him "Mr. Weiss" for example).

A few errors do creep in. But there's no such thing as a Houdini book without errors, and they are all minor and will only be of consequence to the nitpickers. Overall, the book seems very carefully fact checked.

One criticism might be that the book doesn't relate the details of many of Houdini's challenge escapes. While we get nice coverage of his handcuff and jailbreaks, the book seems to skim past the more elaborate public challenges and lands quickly on the Milk Can and USD. (I recall no mention of the Sea Monster challenge.) I was also disappointed that Begley defaulted to a conventional and familiar telling of Houdini's final days and death that one can find in any standard text. Maybe he wanted to avoid the minefield of speculation, but I was hoping for at least a mention of the contract clause.

Begley's final chapter, "Ever After", assesses Houdini's continued fame and those who have tried to explain the psychological underpinnings of his art or turn him into a fashionable metaphor. Like the rest of his book, Begley's own conclusion is frank and straightforward:

Houdini wasn't trying to make a case or send a message or save Europe's Jews. He wasn't enacting a political or philosophical drama about liberation, let alone liberty. That kind of statement is spectacularly absent from the actual performance and from his own remarks. He liberated only himself.

Houdini: The Elusive American is a solid and serious biography by a fine writer. For me, it's like a symphony that I know well; but it's so exquisitely executed that it still provides joy and a sense of discovery. It's worthy of its place on the shelf as the most current Houdini biography.

Purchase Houdini: The Elusive American at Amazon.com and pre-order at Amazon.co.uk (UK release date May 12).

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Monday, April 6, 2020

Houdini (1953) released on DVD in Australia

Madman Entertainment has released the classic Houdini (1953) on DVD in Australia. I'm not sure if this is the first release of this movie "down under", but it's the latest.

It appears Madman is only offering the movie on DVD and not also on Blu-ray, as Olive Films did for the last U.S. release in 2016.

You can purchase Houdini (1953) at Madman Entertainment.

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Saturday, April 4, 2020

Houdini's 1923 LA Examiner straitjacket escape

It was 97 years ago today on April 4, 1923, that Houdini performed a suspended straitjacket escape from the Examiner building in downtown Los Angeles. Houdini was appearing at the Los Angeles Orpheum this week. This was his second suspended jacket escape in the city (the first being in 1915). The day of the escape the Examiner alerted angelenos with the following story.


A reported 20,000 people gathered to witness the feat. Houdini, wearing a green plush hat, arrived shortly before 12:30 PM, having had to push his way through the throng. He made a short speech in which he asked the crowd for as much silence they could give him. When someone asked him about a book he had written, he snapped, "I've no time to think of books. This is a big job and I have to concentrate."

Houdini removed his hat, coat and vest, and was strapped into a straitjacket by Police Chief Louis D. Oaks. Also on hand were Lieutenant M. Thornburg (who had also participated in the 1915 escape), Detective Lieutenant Jack Finlinson, and Detective Lieutenant Walter Barr. His ankles were then roped to the block and tackle which was extended from the fourth floor of the building. Houdini called out, "Haul away", and he was raised 50 feet above the sidewalk. The Examiner takes it from there:

And then the impossible happen; the police officers didn't believe it. Nevertheless, there started an agitation up there under the flying jibboom. The magician's arms we're moving in a quick but rhythmical way and his entire muscular composition was in a sort of rapid ebb and flow. After a minute his arms were no longer bound to his back, but working somewhat freely in front, although still within the sleeves. From that moment on no one doubted the conclusion.

It appears Houdini milked an extra bit of drama out of the proceedings by not immediately rising after he had been lowered to the platform. He took several minutes to recover from what the paper called "a spell of dizziness." When he finally did stand the crowd let out a fresh cheer.

The next day the paper gave the escape front page coverage with a nice spread of photos.

Click to enlarge.

"I was not sure whether the police would beat me this time or not; certainly they gave me all they had. And I want to thank The Examiner for making this the biggest open air exhibition of my career." -Houdini

The Examiner building still survives at Broadway and 14th Street and looks much as it did in Houdini's day. The building, which has stood empty since the paper went out of business in 1989, is currently undergoing a massive $56.4M renovation to become an office and restaurant space.

Below is a photo of the empty building in 2013 and an artist rendering of the proposed development.


A postscript. The straitjacket Houdini used that day surfaced on a 2011 episode of Pawn Stars. You can watch the full clip below. As you'll see, photographs from the Los Angeles escape (wildly misidentified as being Jan. 1, 1915 in St. Louis) were used to authentic the jacket. The straitjacket eventually sold at auction for $46,980.



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Friday, April 3, 2020

Houdini under doctor's care in September 1926?

The final days and weeks of Houdini's life continue to fascinate, largely because we keep discovering new information that kicks off fresh speculation. Much of that speculation has to do with exactly when he first became ill. Well, here's another new morsel for us to chew on.

On September 24, 1926, Houdini appeared as part of special "Midnight Benefit" show to aid the Red Cross and victims of the devastating 1926 Miami hurricane. The show was given at the Metropolitan Theatre in Boston. In the advert on the right you can see Houdini's name below Al Jolson and Georgie Jessel. Houdini was playing his 3 Shows in One for the third and final week at the Majestic Theater at this time (featuring Buried Alive).

On the day of the benefit the Boston Globe ran an article ("GREAT BENEFIT SHOW FOR FLORIDA TONIGHT") that singled out Houdini for a mention. But what's curious is the paper states he "is under the care of his physician."

The surprise of the evening will be the appearance of Harry Houdini, who promises the committee that he will show them how to extract more donations from the audience. Houdini, who is appearing at the Majestic, is under the care of his physician, but despite this handicap the mystifier will be on hand to do his stuff for this call of charity.

This is the first I've heard of Houdini being ill or injured in September 1926. This was before his accident in the Water Torture Cell and well before the famous punch. Two days earlier he spoke at an Advertising Club of Boston luncheon at the Hotel Bellevue, and the Boston Globe's detailed account of that gathering makes no mention of a doctor. Indeed, Houdini seemed to be in top form, even stating, "I'm 52, but physically I'm 35."

One possibility is this physician was with him for training purposes as this was only a few days before his second submerged casket test at the Worcester YMCA. Other than that, this one has me stumped and, of course, intrigued!

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Thursday, April 2, 2020

Bob Dylan name-checks Houdini in new song

For whatever reason, Bob Dylan has decided now is the perfect time for a 17-minute meditation on the Kennedy assassination. Boomers. But his new song, Murder Most Foul, does name-check Houdini, so it got my attention. You can listen to the song on Dylan's YouTube Channel (Houdini appears around 15:30). Below is the lyric excerpted.


Here's what one "Dylanologist" had to say about the lyric at the website Genius which offers a line by line dissection.


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Wednesday, April 1, 2020

March 2020 in review

Here's a rundown of posts by category that appeared on WILD ABOUT HARRY in March.

Most Viewed Post
Own an authentic brick from Houdini's 278

Houdini History
Yar, The Primeval Man by Harry Houdini (Part I)
Yar, The Primeval Man by Harry Houdini (Part II)
One last Yar
"Dr." Hardeen is in the house
Houdini on King Tut's Curse
Harry Ransom Center shares another 'Man from Beyond' poster
Houdini's 1923 San Francisco straitjacket escape in photos
Happy birthday Houdini
Houdini returns to Appleton in 1897

Auctions
Milk Can and Iron Box surprise at auction
Houdini's jock strap supports 17K at auction

Books
'Houdini: The Elusive American' released today
Listen to Houdini's 'The Right Way to Do Wrong'
'The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini' large print edition

Magazines
Houdini appears in The New Yorker and Skeptic

Video
"Houdini Didn't Like the Spiritualists" (Official)
Salt Lake City History Minute - Harry Houdini
Houdini and the art of faking photos

Television
Houdini returns to Murdoch Mysteries

Mystifier File
Mystifier, Second Quarter 2001

Links
Dean Carnegie dials in Houdini's Radio of 1950
Houdini's 278 now has an official website
LINK: Houdini's sensational swim in the rapids of...the Hudson?
LINK: Houdini’s Guide to Coronavirus safety

10th Anniversary
10 year flashback: Diggers Rest centennial festival

Misc
February 2020 in review
Houdini ('53) screenings cancelled and other closures

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

LINK: Houdini’s Guide to Coronavirus safety

Let's end this crazy month with a bit of levity and sound advice. Our friend Lisa Hansen of the blog HoudiniFan has created "Houdini's Guide to Coronavirus safety" and it's pretty clever. Click the headline to have a read and stay safe!

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Monday, March 30, 2020

LINK: Houdini's sensational swim in the rapids of... the Hudson?

Sean Doran is back with another groundbreaking post at his blog The Mysteriarch. This time Sean tackles the location of Houdini's famous swim of "Niagara" rapids at the conclusion of The Man From Beyond. While still somewhat speculative, I think Sean is onto something and on the brink of rewriting Houdini history. So click the headline and dive on in.

"From the first viewing of The Man From Beyond, I've had reservations that "the swim" actually took place at Niagara. Being from the region myself, and spending many summers exploring Niagara Falls State Park, something always looked a bit off for that scene to have been shot on the rapids of the mighty Niagara."

Below are more of Sean's recent discoveries.

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Sunday, March 29, 2020

'The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini' large print edition

A large print edition of Joe Posnanski's The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini is due for release this week from Center Point Large Print. The publisher's website shows very different cover art design from the standard hardcover.

The release date is listed as April 1st, but it appears it may already be shipping from Amazon.com. The online retailer currently shows only 2 left in stock with more on the way.

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini will be released in paperback in October.

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Saturday, March 28, 2020

Houdini and the art of faking photos

Here's a video by Dr. Joe Schwarcz using Houdini (and Abe Lincoln) to illustrate the ease and origins of fake photography. Enjoy.



Below are links to a few more Houdini inspired YouTube videos. All the third party videos I share here can also be found in the "Linked Videos" playlist at the WILD ABOUT HARRY YouTube Channel.

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Friday, March 27, 2020

Houdini appears in The New Yorker and Skeptic


Print media is still wild about Harry with two significant Houdini pieces in the March editions of The New Yorker and Skeptic magazines.

The New Yorker article is by David Denby and offers a very well-written profile of Houdini's art and career with references to the new books, The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini by Joe Posnanki and Adam Begley's Houdini: The Elusive American. It appears in the March 30, 2020 issue, but it can also be read online HERE.

In Skeptic Michelle Ainsworth gives a well-balanced review of Joe Posnanski's The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini. Unfortunately, that is not available to read online, but you can buy individual issues or subscribe via the Skeptic website.

The Wall Street Journal also recently published a combo review of the Posnanski and Begley books  by Robert Wilson in their March 14-15 issue. For subscribers you can read it HERE.

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Thursday, March 26, 2020

Houdini's 278 now has an official website

The owners of Houdini's New York brownstone have launched an official website devoted to their famous residence called "278 Houdini House" (https://house.278.nyc).

The site has just updated with a post announcing shipping of their first wave of 278 souvenir bricks.

Looks like this is going to be a terrific resource, so bookmark and follow 278 Houdini House today!

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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Houdini returns to Appleton in 1897

In my Facebook Live chat yesterday with the great Andrew Basso, I mentioned an article I had recently seen in the April 1, 1897 Appleton Post. I thought I'd put that up today so all can have a read. This was well before Houdini (a.k.a. Mr. Weiss) was famous. This is when he and Bess were touring with the Rogers' Orpheum Stars. So this is really just a story about a local boy's return to his home town and that's one of the things that makes it so interesting and special.


The reference to Houdini almost drowning as a boy is especially intriguing. Ken Silverman always made much of the potential psychological motivations this might have played in Houdini's later water escapes. The trip to England appears to be pure fiction on Houdini's part -- unless this is something waiting to be discovered. The reference to his sisters (plural) I find intriguing as it bolsters the idea that Houdini might have had a half-sister.

Houdini would return to Appleton many times during his career and he would always be interviewed by the Post (most famously by Edna Ferber). But how fun to have discovered the first.

I hope you saw and enjoyed the chat yesterday. This was my first live chat and it was an honor to do it with Andrew. I think the chat is re-watchable HERE.


UPDATE: I just realized that Bill Mullins sent me this clipping, I did not "discover" it on my own as implied in my opening paragraph. Thank you Bill!

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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Happy birthday Houdini

On his 146th birthday Houdini is following the advice of health professionals and socially distancing. Look how easy!


To celebrate Houdini's birthday today I will be joining escape artist extraordinaire Andrew Basso for a live online chat, platform and time to be announced. Follow my Twitter and the Wild About Harry Facebook page for details.

UPDATE: Andrew and I will be on Facebook LIVE at 6pm EST/3pm PST. Please join us!

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