Thursday, May 6, 2021

Barry Spector will end his 278 magic wands with #150

Barry Spector's amazing creations using wood salvaged from Houdini's New York home (278) have become renowned, and it all started with his very first work; a magic wand. Over the past two years Barry has made and sold wands on request, but he's now decided to end the run at 150. This is to keep the wands limited and to conserve what wood he has left for future projects.


That means if you want one of these wands, now is the time to act! Barry will make just 20 more. And while there are now others crafting some very nice 278 collectibles, including wands, Barry's wands remain the most affordable and they are made with the first batch of wood out of the house by the artisan who started it all!

To get one of these last 20 wands, contact Barry at negrilman15@gmail.com.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Deconstructing Houdini '53: Dime Museum

Today I continue my scene by scene deconstruction of Paramount's 1953 biopic, HOUDINI, in which I'll attempt to make the case that it's much more historically accurate than it is given credit. Also anything else that comes to mind. Last time we examined the Main Titles. Today we FADE UP on...

Chapter 2: Dime Museum

The sequence that opens Houdini (1953) is a delight on many levels. While a fabrication from start to finish, it nevertheless still contains many elements from Houdini's real life. It's also just good old fashioned Hollywood storytelling that sets up the movie and our main characters beautifully. But let's tackle it beat for beat.

We open with a group of uniformed school girls passing "Schultz's Dime Museum," ignoring the busking of the mustachioed owner Mr. Schultz (Sig Ruman) at the door. But then one of the girls, blonde-haired Bess (Janet Leigh), encourages her classmates to slip in for a quick look. "The man said it was educational, didn't he?"

Something to consider here is the association of a school uniform with a Catholic school education. Is Houdini slyly establishing that Bess is Catholic as she was in real life? (Harry's Judaism will later be slyly established.) Irregardless, meeting Bess as a schoolgirl nicely comports with the "approved mythology" of the Harold Kellock book and Bess's own colorful version of events. But in reality, Bess was a performer like Harry when they met. Of course, with her long blond hair and full figure, Janet Leigh looks nothing like the real Bess Houdini. But I don't think Bess would have objected being portrayed by such a glamours movie star.


Inside the girls step up to the first exhibit, Bruto The Wild Man, who snarls and carries on like, well, a wild man! Showing courage and compassion, Bess steps in to stop Mr. Schutz from whipping him. "Treat him like a beast and he becomes one," she says. If we didn't already love Bess, we do now. (Notice how Bruto casually leans on the bars during this exchange.) We then reveal backstage that the Wild Man is actually Harry Houdini (Tony Curtis). In case we need help with that, a passing showgirl conveniently says, "Hi Harry."

This is all rooted in fact. Houdini did play "Projea The Wild Man of Mexico" during his tour with the Welsh Bros Circus in 1895. Harry and Bess were already married at this point and the Wild Man had nothing to do with a dime museum, but using the Wild Man here works wonderfully well and is one of the best examples of how Houdini builds its master narrative using select facts. No need to invent fictions when Houdini's real life provides such great dramatic clay.


The girls now approach the platform for "The Great Houdini" (billing he never used, incidentally). Like the main title, this should send a thrill of recognition through any Houdini buff as the production took great care in bringing to life the famous photo of "Mysterious Harry" from 1897-8. Even the costuming matches -- note the loosely rolled up sleeves. No future biopic would attempt anything close to this level of accuracy and it's a treat.


It's also worth pointing out that Houdini appearing in a dime museum is also entirely accurate. This was his bread and butter for many years. In fact, Houdini played dime museums so often he earned the nickname "Dime Museum Harry." As far as I know there was never a "Schultz's Dime Museum." Huber's located at 106 East 14th Street was Houdini's go-to dime museum in New York City.


While we're on the topic of the dime museum in general, this scene also contains uncredited appearances by Tor Johnson as a strong man; Marion Dempsey as the sword swallower; contortionists Audrey Washburn and Betty Yeaton are the Pretzel Twins; and little person "Mr. Bigger" is played by A.J. Buster Resmondo.

The Great Houdini begins his magic act with a milk pitcher trick. Here the movie establishes how it will present its magic. Tricks are performed by the real actors start to finish with few if any cuts. During these moments the movie very much stops and becomes a magic show. In fact, when I've seen Houdini with an audience they instinctively applaud the conclusion of each trick. The magic in Houdini is also almost all contemporary, or at least performed in a 1950s style. As far as period goes, Houdini has a light touch. It is filled with deliberate anachronisms, starting with Tony Curtis's hairstyle which is the actor's own. But all this is meant to keep Houdini a breezy entertainment for audiences of the day, and the anachronisms are likely not even noticed by modern audiences as the 1950s now seem pretty old-timey as well!


As the magic show continues, we take a beat with the sour Schultzs. Business-minded Mrs. Schultz (Connie Gilchrist) complains that the magic act "slows up the turnover." Mr. Schulz agrees, but says Harry has refused to play the popular Wild Man unless he's allowed to do his magic, thus establishing magic as Harry's true love. "That boy's got something," growls Mr. Schultz. "If only he'd forget the magic."

Of course, this is meant to play as high irony as Houdini will show Harry rising to the ranks of a Master Illusionist. But this beat actually reveals an inadvertent truth. Schultz's words echo the real life Martin Beck who famously advised Houdini to "drop the magic." Schultz, like Beck, can see Houdini is a natural with larger dramatics (such as the Wild Man) and that standard magic is not his strong suit. In fact, this movie suggests that Houdini's early struggles are largely due to his clinging to traditional magic instead of embracing his larger (and darker) destiny. Destiny and fate are huge themes of this movie as we shall explore.


Harry now invites Bess on stage to assist in a trick (notice how he ignores the man in the front row who raises his hand -- funny). We now get a trick from the 1890s. In fact, it comes right out of Bess's own real-life recollections in Kellock. In the book Bess related how, shortly after their marriage, Houdini divined the name of her deceased father, Gebhard, from a burned piece of paper rubbed on his arm. (This actually terrified her and the only way Harry could calm her down was to explain how the trick was done.) Here we see the same trick, but this time Harry divines Bess's own name. Again, this is a beautiful way to use something from real Houdini history to create a fictional "meet cute" moment. The only thing that mars the scene is Harry's extended hand rubbing "vibrations" beat, which now plays as inappropriate and generally slimy.

Things then take a turn for the worse. As his act ends and Bess tries to leave the stage, the smitten Harry comes on a little too strong and good girl Bess soundly rejects him.


Looking to salvage the situation, Harry puts back on his Wild Man mask and re-approaches Bess out in the museum. However, the patrons think the Wild Man has escaped and pandemonium ensues. Harry is fired and Bess vanishes into the city streets. I like how Bess calls Harry a "Fake!" when he reveals he's the Wild Man, thus establishing that she, like Houdini later in life, is personally offended by fakery. I might also add that the real Bess did not care for dime museums, sometimes forcing Harry to perform in them solo.

As far as I know, Houdini was never fired from a dime museum, so there is no correlation to Houdini history here. But it's a great way to conclude the sequence. We love both these characters and can see they have chemistry. If only they could meet again...


Chapter 3: Coney Island (coming)

Related:

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Exclusive Houdini in Kansas poster offering

Our friend Don Creekmore is hard at work on his upcoming book about Houdini's early tours of Kansas, Escaping The Sunflower State. Now Don is offering an exclusive "Escaping The Sunflower State 1897-1898 Tour Poster" to help fund his ongoing research. Below are details.

During the cold winter of 1897 & 1898, Harry & Bess Houdini toured South Eastern Kansas with a medicine show called The California Concert Company. While no posters exist from this time, one inspired by Don Creekmore's research into his future book, Escaping The Sunflower State, has been designed. ​ 

An iconic image of Houdini is flanked by each Kansas town Houdini performed in. Until now, some of these performance locations were unknown to most! The Celebrated Psychometric Clairvoyant is a novel quote from a newspaper reporter's description of Houdini in 1897. The title of the upcoming book is highlighted at the bottom. ​ 

Only 50 posters measuring 27" by 19" were printed. Each poster will also be hand-numbered and signed by Don Creekmore. Proceeds will go towards further research and publication of the book, planned for 2023. ​Signed & Numbered Posters Priced At $44.99 each, shipping included. 

You can purchase the poster and read up on Don's latest research HERE.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Are there Houdini handcuffs at the bottom of the Harlem River?


Here is an account of a little-known Houdini underwater escape in New York City on April 3, 1912. Houdini had planned to leap from the Willis Avenue Bridge into the Harlem River. But police forbade a jump from the bridge itself, so a rowboat had to suffice. But there's another detail here that really stands out. Houdini left his handcuffs and irons at the bottom of the river!

New York Tribune, April 4, 1912.

This isn't the only time Houdini did an underwater escape from a rowboat, so I can't say whether the below image from Shutterstock is from this specific jump. But his age looks right. The escape was also filmed.


So what about the claim that Houdini left his manacles in the river? This is the only time I've ever heard of him doing such a thing. Did the reporter get this right? If so, I doubt it was intentional as these would have been his own special "jump cuffs." So he might have accidentally dropped them. That would mean they are still there!

Wouldn't it be something if these cuffs could be recovered? They would have instant provenance and be valuable handcuffs indeed. The original Willis swing bridge was replaced with a new one 2010, but the location remains the same. So maybe it's time to break out the scuba gear!

This week Houdini was playing the Bronx Theater, located at 149th and 3rd Avenue. This was his first and only appearance in the Bronx. The theater survived until 2010 when its auditorium was finally razed. The exterior of the building survives as part of a hotel.


Related:

Sunday, May 2, 2021

LINK: WILD ABOUT HARRY WEEKLY #2

Click the headline to see the second issue of my new WILD ABOUT HARRY WEEKLY email newsletter. But you'll have to subscribe to receive the special EXTRAs.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

April 2021 in review (final)

Here's a rundown of posts by category that appeared on WILD ABOUT HARRY in April. This will be my final monthly update as I think a better summery of blog content going forward will be my newsletter, WILD ABOUT HARRY WEEKLY (subscribe here).

Most Viewed Post
Deconstructing Houdini '53: Main titles

Houdini History
Collectibles

Podcasts

Movies

Other

Friday, April 30, 2021

Houdini the spoiler


I've read a lot of newspaper reports of Houdini's escapes, but I've never read anything quite like the one below. This is an account of a challenge packing case escape at the Majestic Theater in San Antonio, Texas, on November 15, 1923. Enjoy.

Victoria Advocate, Nov. 16, 1923.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Dai Vernon does the trick that fooled Houdini

There are no shortage of videos on YouTube of magicians demonstrating Dai Vernon's famous "trick that fooled Houdini." One of the best is by Steve Cohen. But here's a video of The Professor doing it himself! I don't know what show this is from and it's too bad we don't have the lead up to the trick, but it's still pretty great as Vernon references Houdini throughout.


Vernon performed this for Houdini during an S.A.M. banquet at the Grand National Hotel in Chicago on February 6, 1922. Vernon did the trick for Houdini three times and, it's my understand, varied his method. While I don't doubt this happened, I've never heard an account from anyone who witnessed it. Vernon's own mementos from that night recently sold at a Potter & Potter auction. 

What I'd love to know is what happened to the signed four of diamonds?

UPDATE: Our good friend Joe Fox has identified this as the Canadian show Celebrity Revue hosted by Carol Taylor and Peter Pit. Also, the guest in the tuxedo who we briefly see applauding near the end is none other than Steve Baker aka Mr. Escape! The below appeared in the December 1976 Genii.


Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Here comes that crazy Houdini guy

It's a slow Houdini news day, so I thought I'd share this little bit of inspiration I had today. 

I live near a fantastic year-round Halloween store called Halloween Town. On my walks I sometimes stop in and browse, and I've always loved that they carry the three Dover Houdini books: The Secrets of Houdini, Houdini on Magic, and Houdini's Paper Magic. They also have a Houdini postcard in their racks. You just never know where Houdini is going to appear!

Now, I have many editions of the Dover books and hardly need another. But I noticed that The Secrets of Houdini recently refreshed with a new spine featuring a thumbnail image of Houdini and a new black back. Still, I don't need it. But it occurred to me today that buying this in a Halloween store made it somewhat special. Their last copy was a little beat up and being sold at a discount, so why not? And I threw in the postcard for good measure.

Here's where the madness comes in. Because this was "as-is," the girl at the register stamped the receipt with a red "no refunds" stamp, which also displayed the name of the store. As soon as I left, it suddenly occurred to me that it would be great to have that stamp inside the book itself, forever showing that it was bought in a Halloween store. So I went back and asked if she could stamp it and she was happy to oblige. Hey, she works in a year-round Halloween store, I'm sure she's seen stranger things!

Anyway, here's how to turn something that really has no collectibility into something that kinda does. At least I think so. But I'm that crazy Houdini guy.


Have you ever done something like this? Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Sailor rope tie challenge revealed at last

One of Houdini's go-to challenges was to be tied with heavy rope by Navy sailors or seamen of some sort. The precise manner in which Houdini would be bound was always spelled out step by step in the challenge handbills, and it always involved him lying on a plank with a broomstick under his legs. No photos exist, and try as I might, I've never been able to envision exactly how Houdini was tied.

That's why I was very excited to discover this illustration from the Boston Post following one these challenges from "T" Wharf fishermen on September 22, 1911. Now that's a rope tie!


Not only did the paper do a great job of illustrating the rope tie, but their description of the challenge itself is pretty terrific. Below are a few excerpts:

Harry Houdini made the escape of his life last night on the stage of Keith's Theatre, when he extricated himself from hundreds of knots and fathoms of rope, tied by four veteran T wharf fishing captains.

On the stage was a large committee of seafaring men. They were men who could appreciate skillful knotting of cordage, for many a time their safety has depended on the trustworthiness of knots in ropes and lines.

There was a sort of grimness to the preparations that did not escape the audience, for the honor of T wharf and Atlantic avenue was at stake. 
Captain Richard McDonald of 336 Summerfield St., East Boston, who has had 40 years' experience, calmly removed his coat and prepared for business after Mr. Houdini had made a short speech.

The article details the process of tying Houdini, then...

For the first few minutes it seemed impossible that he could get slack enough to escape. He struggled, but the cordage would not give. It seemed that the captains had made good. High up in the gallery a roughly clad man gave a cheer.

Houdini worked away, wiggling, pulling and twisting, until he kicked off one shoe. The other then followed, and soon he had slack enough in the ropes binding his legs to permit him to pull out with his teeth one of the knots that held his right hand.

In the audience were hundreds of women, some of whom seemed to grow faint at the sight of the struggling man, but when freedom was assured they cheered him on. 
When Houdini had freed his hands the rest was simple and he stood erect, bowing to the valley of cheers. 
"It was the hardest experience of my life," said Mr. Houdini, as he exhibited cuts and scars made by the ropes and cords. 

Among the first to congratulate Mr. Houdini were the captains.

Below are links to more Houdini rope tie escapes. For those who have subscribed to my WILD ABOUT HARRY WEEKLY newsletter, you can expect and a nice rope-tie related EXTRA this Sunday.

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Monday, April 26, 2021

Audition to be Houdini

Ever wanted to be Houdini? If you live in the Houston area, you have a shot at your dream. The Man From Beyond Escape Room is searching for a new Houdini. Auditions will be held tomorrow. Details below.

Strange Bird Immersive is growing our company of immersive theatre actors: announcing open auditions for the role of Harry Houdini in our world-famous production, The Man From Beyond: Houdini Séance Escape Room (Houston, Texas). 

Age 20s-50s. Must be willing and able to fit in a small space (email for details if needed). Role includes minor stage management/game mastering. 

Auditions are over Zoom by appointment on Tuesday, April 27, 2021, or by custom appointment only. 

Good luck! 

The Man From Beyond: Houdini Séance Escape Room is currently open and Covid compliant. Here's their (pretty freaky) trailer. 

Sunday, April 25, 2021

WILD ABOUT HARRY WEEKLY #1

Today I released the first issue of my new WILD ABOUT HARRY WEEKLY newsletter. Those who have subscribed should have it in your email (along with a surprise EXTRA). For those who haven't, you can still see the premiere issue by CLICKING HERE.

If you've been a subscriber to my daily email updates, those are now deactivated and you will need to resubscribe to receive the weekly. If you miss having a daily update, it is possible for me to recreate them in this new format if enough people want it. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Finally, if you subscribed but never received a confirmation email, try subscribing again or shoot me an email. Also check your spam filters.

Hope you all enjoy this latest way to stay Wild about you know who!


FYI, I'm using MailerLite to create and send these newsletters. You can read up on the safety of MailerLite HERE.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Lupe Nielsen on bidding high for a Houdini poster

The YouTube channel Magical Women with Connie Boyd interviews the great Lupe Nielsen of Nielsen Magic. In this you'll see many of the Houdini posters that were part of Lupe and Norm Nielsen's amazing collection. Lupe also tells the story of how they acquired their Dangerfield Water Torture Cell poster.


Much of Norm and Lupe's collection was sold at auction in 2016 and 2017. The Water Torture Cell poster sold for $114,000, which is now the highest price ever paid for a magic poster at auction. Many of the posters are available as reproductions from Nielsen Magic.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Houdini debuts 3 Shows in One, but not where we thought

Looks like it's time to revise some Houdini history. It has generally been accepted that Houdini debuted his full evening 3 Shows in One at the Maryland Theater in Baltimore on August 31, 1925. Turns out that isn't entirely correct. While Houdini did debut the show at the Maryland on that date, it was the Maryland Theater in Cumberland. Below is the ad for that very first show from The Cumberland Evening Times.


The Cumberland Maryland was located at 37 N. Mechanic Street. It first opened in 1907 and sat 1,800. Houdini appeared here for three days from August 31 to September 2. On his final day he gave a special matinee tailored to children in addition to his evening show. 


The Cumberland Evening Times also printed the entire show program. Nothing revelatory here, but nice to have this record of the earliest incarnation of the 3 Shows in One. You can see that Paligenesia is a standout of the first act. I recently learned Houdini performed the effect using a cockney accent in the style of Dr. Lynn. I bet his cockney was terrible!

Click to enlarge.

This was the only time Houdini played his 3 Shows in One in Cumberland. But Houdini had been to Cumberland at least once before. The Welsh Bros. Circus played the city on September 24, 1898, during The Houdinis second tour with the troupe. It was here Houdini famously recored in his diary, "Rain hard. No dinner."

The Maryland Theater eventually became a movie theater and remained so for decades. It finally closed in October 1963 and was razed in December 1966. Below is the site of the theater today.


Postcard image from Cinema Treasures, an essential resource for information on old theaters.

UPDATE: I embarrassed to say that Dean Carnegie already made this Cumberland discovery using Pat Culliton's Houdini The Key. Dean included it an an excellent post on his Magic Detective blog back in 2017 called A Forgotten Houdini Associate. So all credit goes to them. Sorry Dean and Pat!

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Forgotten Films remembers Houdini '53

This review from the blog Forgotten Films is a few years old, but I still wanted to share as I love the reviewer's personal memories of seeing the film as a kid. He begins:
Growing up in the Chicago area we had a program that aired on Sunday afternoons called Family Classics. The kindly host Frazier Thomas, who also was on Bozo’s Circus, would introduce the films sitting in a big chair in front of a fireplace. I’m pretty sure that I saw a portion of today’s movie on that show when I was a kid…and it terrified me.

This is not the first time I've heard of kids being frightened by Houdini '53, and this has always intrigued me. While the movie didn't scare me, it certainly got under my skin!

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