Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Houdini never ceases to surprise

To mark their 100th Anniversary, the McCord Museum in Montreal is is allowing free use of their online digital images believed to be in the public domain. This includes select images from their Houdini collection. What's especially nice is these are high resolution downloads that can sometimes reveal details not seen before. That's what brings me to this.

The below photo shows the Princess Theater in Chicago during Houdini's record 8 week run of his 3 Shows in One in 1926. I've seen this photo before and never thought all that much about as there are better images of the theater facade showing Houdini's sidewalk displays. But in this higher res version I noticed there is someone changing a lightbulb on the Princess marquee, which is kind of fun. But then I had a closer look.

Now, call me crazy, but I think the man changing the lightbulb is Houdini himself! Certainly his hair and body resembles Houdini in 1926. And if this was an electrician or stagehand, wouldn't he be in coveralls and work boots? This guy is wearing dress shoes!

But why would Houdini be doing this himself? We can only speculate. The 3 Shows in One played legitimate theaters that may not have the same level of upkeep as a vaudeville house. It could have been just a just single bulb that was out. But I could see that irritating Houdini to the point that he'd grab a ladder and change it himself, especially if he had requested it be done and it was not. We know he wasn't afraid of heights! And we know he was a bit of a show off.

I can also see Houdini handing off his camera to an assistant and saying, "Get a picture of me doing this." Because why else would this picture be taken? That might actually be the best argument for this being Houdini.

Or maybe I just want this to be Houdini so we have something in common.

So what do you think? Is this Harry? And what's your guess as to why he might be doing this himself? Illuminate us in the comments below.

Thanks to the McCord Museum.

Monday, May 23, 2022

'Death and Harry Houdini' free workshop at UC Davis

The UC Davis Department of Theatre and Dance will present a free workshop of a new musical Death and Harry Houdini on June 2 and 3 in the Wyatt Pavilion Theatre at 8 p.m. Below are details.

Created by Keaton Wooden, Granada Artist-in-Residence, the project is based on an original play by Nathan Allen. Alumna Lisa Quoresimo (PhD, performance studies, ‘18) directs the piece which features musical staging by graduate student Edward Talton-Jackson and music direction by Graham Sobelman.

This musical in development centers on young Erik Weisz, who after witnessing the death of his father, becomes haunted by death and vows to prove himself its greatest opponent in history. Terrified, but stubborn, Erik transforms his life to become “Harry Houdini” and uses his skills for showmanship, strength, and illusion to prove to death, and himself, that he fears nothing. Along the way Harry meets his future wife, foils charlatans, and inspires a nation to believe in the impossible. How will Harry finally defeat the greatest foe every magician, human, and artist faces?

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Earliest known professional photo of Houdini sells for $78,000

The earliest known professional photo of Houdini and his brother, Theo, sold today for a whopping $78,000 (including 20% buyer's premium) at Potter & Potter's "Houdiniana and Magic Memorabilia" auction. The photo captures "The Brothers Houdini" at the start of their careers and was taken by Feinberg in New York. The auction dates it as 1892/3. There are at least three other known images from this photo session, but this is the only original I've ever seen. A treasure indeed and a new record for a Houdini photo.

The auction contained many other rarities from the family of Houdini's brother, William Weiss, and the collection of Manny Weltman (which you might recall I mentioned here). One of the stranger items was a carved cigarette holder presented given to William by Houdini. The auction says this rarity demonstrates "not only their close relationship, but Houdini’s generosity and self-love." But I can't help but think it might have been a gag gift. I can see his brother saying something like, "Every time I open the paper I see Harry's ass." So Houdini gives him this. Well, someone paid $20,400 for that view today.

SOLD for $20,400.

Speaking of Bill Weiss, his inscribed portrait sold for $660. An hitherto unknown photo of Houdini inscribed in 1904 took in $21,600. A portrait of a very young Theo Weiss sold for $3600. A photo of the young Cecelia Weiss with her mother and sister dated 1874--the auction listing speculates she may be pregnant (with you know who)--sold for $2400. This was the first appearance at auction for any of these rarities.

Inscribed Houdini ($21,600) and brother Bill ($660).
Young Theo ($3600) and Cecelia Weiss ($2400).

But the biggest seller in the auction was a spiritualism and magic scrapbook given to Houdini by Henry Ridgley Evans in 1924. This came from the Manny Weltman collection and was one of the items that failed to meet the reserve in the Weltman Swann auction in 2002. Today it blew away the auction estimate of $30,000 - $60,000 and landed at a wild $102,000 (including premium).

SOLD for $102,000.

However, the item that most bewitched me personally was a framed engraved print showing Moses transforming a staff into a serpent before a Pharaoh. This was obtained by Larry Weeks from the Houdini family and once hung inside Houdini's home. This blew past its $400-800 estimate and landed at $6,600. Happily, the winner was our friend Lee Terbosic. Congrats Lee! Now the hunt is on for a photo of this hanging inside 278.

SOLD for $6,600.

Afraid the only thing I came away with was the auction catalog. But it's a beauty!

Congrats to all the winners and to Gabe Fajuri at Potter & Potter for another wildly successful Houdiniana auction.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Pecoraro Files

Here's a news item that was widely syndicated in late December 1925. This occurred during Houdini's 3 Shows in One at the National Theater on 41st Street in New York City. An evening with Houdini was never dull!

The Cincinnati Post, Dec. 30, 1925.

Nino Pecoraro (misspelled Pecoriaro in the above) was an Italian spiritualist who claimed his spirit guide was the deceased medium Eusapia Palladino. Pecoraro's reputation was greatly bolstered when he impressed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle during a seance at the offices of the American Psychical Institute in New York City in 1922. However, Doyle was dismayed when full details of the seance appeared in newspapers the next day "with the copyright mark below it, to show that it had been duly paid for."

The incident at the National wasn't Houdini's first encounter with Pecoraro. In 1923 the famed "boy medium" was tested by the Scientific American committee on which Houdini served. Houdini was on tour and did not attend the first two tests, during which Pecoraro impressed the committee with his ability to manifest ghostly phenomena while securely bound. The head of committee, J. Malcolm Bird, who would later collude with Margery, even wondered if the smell of garlic on the Italian's breath could be "celestial garlic." No joke.

Things looked good for Pecoraro. That is until Houdini arrived for the third test on December 18. He was mortified to see the committeemen securing Pecoraro with a single piece of long rope. Houdini cut the rope into pieces and tied the medium himself. That put an end to Pecoraro's ghost show and his shot at the Scientific American prize. (For an excellent account of all this check out The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher.)

While Houdini biographies all contain the story of the Scientific American tests, none of them mention this follow-up incident at the National. Was it really a "riot"? One thing I find intriguing is the photo below. This shows Houdini and Pecoraro around the time of this confrontation. In fact, Houdini and the young medium took a series of portraits together at a New York photo studio. Why would they do this? Were they planning a public test, as alluded to in the article, that never came to pass? Could the theater incident have been a publicity stunt that got out of hand? There may be an untold story here.

After Houdini's death, Pecoraro gave Bess a private seance at her home on Payson Ave. Joseph Dunninger was also in attendance. Nino went through his regular routine but failed to deliver the all important Houdini Code to Bessie.

In 1928 Pecoraro was at it again. This time the medium offered to produce Houdini's physical spirit at the offices of Science & Invention magazine which offered a $21,000 prize for genuine spirit phenomena. Bess attended the seance and cameramen surrounded Pecoraro's cabinet, ready to snap a photo of the master magician. Nothing happened. "Not Even for $21,000 Would Houdini Show Himself at Seance" read a newspaper headline the next day.

A few days later Joseph Dunninger recreated Pecoraro's seance using trickery for better results. The photo below shows "Houdini" making his reappearance with Bess looking on. Pecoraro's manager, Charles E. Davenport, asserted that Dunninger had mediumistic powers even if he didn't know it.

In 1931 Pecoraro finally confessed to being a fraud. He demonstrated his methods, which included producing a message from Houdini, at a New York press conference. The resulting United Press story is pretty amusing.

The Ogden Standard Examiner, April 9, 1931.

It's unclear if Pecoraro ever did become a cement salesman, but he did continue to paint. In fact, two of his paintings are on exhibit at the Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA.

On April 27, 1973, Pecoraro collapsed while walking with a friend in Naples and died on his way to the hospital. He was 74.

Painting by Nino Pecoraro at the Houdini Museum in Scranton.

Thanks to the Houdini Museum in Scranton for the photo of their Nino painting. Other images come from Houdini: A Pictorial Life by Milbourne Christopher, Houdini's Sprit Exposes by Joseph Dunninger, and Newspapers.com.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

McNulty's Book Corral is wild about Harry (and Gresham)

Here's a fun review of William Lindsay Gresham's 1959 biography Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls by McNulty's Book Corral on YouTube. Mr. McNulty gives WILD ABOUT HARRY a very nice unsolicited shout-out near the end of the video, so I thought I'd return the favor! Enjoy.

Thanks to Diego Domingo for the alert.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Channel 44's Houdini Halloween of 1976

Okay, one last nostalgic post about The Truth About Houdini before we move on to other things. After the documentary first aired on KTLA in Los Angeles on May 15, 1976, it rolled out across the country on other local stations. In Tampa, WTOG Channel 44 had the inspired idea of airing the documentary and the 1953 biopic Houdini back to back on October 29 as a Halloween weekend tribute to Houdini on the 50th anniversary of his death.

The below article by Kathleen O'Brien in the Tampa Tribune is a treat in itself. She speaks eloquently and with real insight about Houdini's legacy, the documentary, the Tony Curtis movie, and even The Great Houdinis which has only recently aired. I think she's one of us! And the photo of Houdini here is an uncommon one. Enjoy.

The Tampa Tribune, Oct. 29, 1976. (Click to enlarge.)

So did anyone live in Tampa in 1976 and remember seeing Channel 44's Houdini Halloween double feature? I wonder how Channel 44, if it's still around, will celebrate the 100th!


Monday, May 16, 2022

The Truth About Houdini's mysterious missing scene

I'm happy to see how many people enjoyed re-watching (or watching for the first time) the great 1970 BBC documentary The Truth About Houdini, which I've uploaded to my WILD ABOUT HARRY YouTube Channel.

One thing that came up in the comments was the cut scene of Sidney Radner demonstrating a wooden cross escape. The scene was originally in the film at 00:13:06, right before James Randi talks about the safe escape. But it is no longer in any existing print that I've ever seen.

The scene runs just over a minute and a half and after Sid escapes he exposes the method. Could this be why it was cut? I have read that The Magic Circle was upset by exposures in this doc, so perhaps it was cut after the initial UK airing? Or maybe it was cut from the U.S. version for fear that the quasi-religious imagery might offend in some markets?

If anyone knows the story of this missing scene, I'd love to hear it!

By the way, I've yet to find any account of Houdini actually doing a cross escape during his career. So there's that mystery as well!


Sunday, May 15, 2022

Watch 'The Truth About Houdini' on its anniversary

It was 46 years ago today that The Truth About Houdini first aired on American television. The documentary was co-produced by the BBC and Patria Pictures in 1970 and is highlighted by rare film footage of Houdini in action and interviews with the leading Houdini experts of the day. It's narrated by Don Davis.

When I saw this broadcast on May 15, 1976, it blew my mind every bit as much as the Tony Curtis movie had exactly six months earlier. When it repeated in 1978 I was able to record it (on Beta -- I still have my tape) and watched it continuously. It remains my favorite Houdini documentary and watching it always brings me back to those early days of my Houdini mania. And now seeing the likes of Milbourne Christopher, Walter B. Gibson, James Randi and Sidney Radner talking about Houdini in their prime feels as special as seeing the footage Houdini himself.

The Truth About Houdini was never released commercially. (Bill McIlhany sold a VHS through the Houdini Historical Center in the 1990s.) So on this anniversary, I've decided to upload a full HD version to my WILD ABOUT HARRY YouTube channel. I'm not sure about copyright so I might have to take this down. But for the moment, here is the first great Houdini documentary for all to enjoy.

For fun, here's the Los Angeles Times review of the documentary from May 15, 1976 and my original Beta tape.

Thanks to Brad Hansen of Retro Cars Forever for his help converting this to HD and improving the video quality.

Friday, May 13, 2022

"An Open Letter to Harry Houdini"

Here's a curiosity from the September 11, 1925 Pittsburg Post. I'd love to know if this "Open Letter" was the sole idea of the Aldine Theater manager or something he and Houdini cooked up together as nice bit of cross promotion. Houdini was performing his "3 Shows in One" at the Alvin Theater in Pittsburg this week.

The Pittsburgh Press, Sept. 11, 1925

Did Houdini take Mr. Sidney up on his offer? Afraid I don''t know the answer, but I'm sure the medium-debunking theme of the movie would have met with his approval.

Despite being a work by Dracula and Freaks director Tod Browning, today Wikipedia calls The Mystic "a little-known film with a cast of now-forgotten names." However, the movie survives complete and can be viewed on YouTube.

Image: Newspapers.com

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Taking aim at Houdini's abandoned bullet catch

Most Houdini biographies contain the story of how Houdini announced he would perform the infamous bullet catch trick shortly after the onstage death of magician William Robinson, a.k.a. Chung Ling Soo, in 1918. But magician Harry Kellar wrote Houdini a heartfelt letter talking him out of it and Houdini cancelled the performance. Turns out that scenario isn't strictly accurate. But we will get to that.

Milbourne Christopher in Houdini The Untold Story was the first to identify the event at which Houdini proposed to do the trick as a gala S.A.M. benefit for the Showmen's Hospital Fund at the New York Hippodrome on April 21, 1918. It's said the bullet catch was widely advertised. However, I've never been able to find any advertisement that confirms this. Below is a typical advert for the benefit that mentions "his new death defying sensation." But this could be the Water Torture Cell.

The New York Sun, April 20, 1918.

Likewise, the program for the event itself--an original of which is in the Harry Ransom Center--makes no mention of the bullet catch. It only shows that Houdini would perform his Water Torture Cell that evening.

I began to consider the possibility that famous cancelled bullet catch might have been a back engineered Houdini myth. But while searching for something completely unrelated, I finally found the smoking gun!

New York Tribune, April 21, 1918.

So, yes, it appears Houdini did intend to do the bullet catch at this Hippodrome show. A fantastic new detail here is that Houdini's firing squad would be made up of real doughboys from the 71st Regiment using regulation army rifles. What a terrific modern piece of staging. I'm actually sorry this didn't happen. But why didn't it happen?

Here's where the truth diverges from the familiar telling. While Kellar did indeed write a heartfelt letter of warning to Houdini, he wrote that letter after the benefit (on May 1st). So the reason Houdini dropped the bullet catch wasn't Kellar. He dropped it on the request of the Hippodrome management.

The following is from an account of the benefit that appeared in the April 1918 issue of MUM:

Houdini had been advertised in the leading newspapers through reading notices, as intending to do the Bullet Catching Act. He was dissuaded by management of Hippodrome from taking up this dangerous feat, for he announced his famous Chinese water torture cell, which is probably just as, if not more, dangerous than the bullet catching business, as in either, the slightest error means a tragedy.

(To give credit where it is due, Bill Kalush in The Secret Life of Houdini was the first and so far only biographer to present the correct chronology of the bullet catch and Kellar letter.)

It's been suggested that Houdini never actually intended to perform the bullet catch and that he just announced it for the publicity. Maybe. But Houdini felt strongly about doing what he advertised and not "breaking faith" with his audience (a prime example here). Also, this was a prestigious S.A.M. event for charity that Houdini himself emceed. Doesn't seem like the kind of event in which you would want to be disingenuous in any way. But it is a possibility.

It's also worth pointing out that in the weeks following Chung Ling Soo's death there was gossip in magic circles that the magician may have been murdered. Joe Hayman, who informed Houdini of Robinson's death, offered some dark speculation that Houdini shared with Harry Kellar. Hence Kellar's warning that the same fate could befall Houdini -- "some dog might 'job' you." But an inquest into Soo's death discovered faulty equipment was the culprit.

So there we go. We've confirmed when and where Houdini planned to do the bullet catch. We've learned how he intended to stage it. And we know why he didn't. There's also the possibility that Houdini did the effect early in his career, but that's another story.

Thanks to Joe Fox at the Magic Castle Library for the MUM clipping and Eric Colleary at the Harry Ransom Center for a look at the original program.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Did Houdini do a "bag jump" in Providence?

Yesterday's Providence Journal article about a relation of Bert V. Clark opening a safe for the city of Bristol made me look back on some of the 1950 articles about Houdini's trusted locksmith. Of course, I found something that sent me down a new rabbit hole! Here's the relevant excerpt:

Evening Star, Nov. 29, 1950.

A jump from the Crawford Street Bridge in Providence isn't something I have in my chronology, nor do I have a record of any bridge jump in which Houdini was put inside a bag. But I have seen it mentioned. In Rochester Houdini announced that he would be "sewn into a sack like Monte Cristo" and thrown from the Weighlock Bridge. But when Houdini did the actual escape on May 7, 1907, the bag was left behind.

I do trust Clark's recollections so I'm assuming that this happened. But when? My guess it would be early in Houdini's bridge jump career, so probably around the time of the Rochester leap. Candidates would be the two weeks he played Providence in 1907 (Jan. 28 to Feb. 10) or the week of April 13-19, 1908. In 1911 Houdini jumped handcuffed from the upper deck of the steamer Warwick into the Providence river, but no bag involved.

Here's a photo of the Crawford Street Bridge as it appeared in 1906. Looks like a perfect spot for a "bag jump" to me!


Sunday, May 8, 2022

LINK: Safecracker with a link to Houdini opens mystery safe for the town of Bristol

Several people have sent me this story from the Providence Journal today. You'll have to click the link to find out if they discovered anything inside the safe, but I can tell you Francesco Therisod's claim that his relative worked with Houdini is legit. Houdini did indeed employe the talents of locksmith "Bert" V. Clark of Providence and the two men became good friends. Bert revealed his connection to Houdini and some choice secrets in 1950, including how Houdini escaped from a riveted boiler in Boston. He died at age 80 in 1955.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Locating Houdini's lion

Below is a photo that I think most people are familiar with as it appears in the book The Secrets of Houdini (although I don't recall it appearing anywhere else). It shows Houdini doing a headstand atop a stone lion. Because why not!?

Of course, when I see something like this I want to know the where, when, and why of it. The Secrets of Houdini identifies this as Houdini "practicing a handstand at the Lasky Studio, Hollywood." But I have a different idea about where this was taken.

Last year I did a post in which I was able to identify (with the help of John Bengtson) the famous photos of Houdini hanging from a large wall as being the retaining wall that fronted the old County Court House in downtown Los Angeles. Here he's dressed the same, he's doing yet another piece of public acrobatics, and that appears to be his Grim Game co-star, Ann Forrest, who is also present in the wall photos. So I had another look at the photo of the old Court House and, sure enough, it had two stone lions out front!

Below is a better photo of one of the court house lions. Sure looks the same to me!

I would say it's almost certain one of these court house statues is "Houdini's lion". I guess we won't know which one unless another photo surfaces. But as the statues and the court house are now long gone, this is a photo op that can only roar in the past.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

"The New Houdini" and an old myth

As far as I know, the myth that Houdini died in his Water Torture Cell began with the 1953 Houdini biopic starring Tony Curtis. But the myth was carried forward by a public who didn't know any better, and by magicians who should. Below is what might be one of the first examples of the latter.

Click to enlarge.

Here we see someone billing themselves as "The New Houdini" performing "The Death Defying Act That Ultimately Took the Life of The Great Houdini". The poster artwork, showing two axe-wielding assistants hacking at the cell's glass, is actually pretty impressive. The performer himself is in the foreground with his feet up in stocks above what I think is the partially water filled tank below.

I don't know anything about this performer and I don't know anything more about this photo. In fact, I'm not even sure where I got it. (If this belongs to you, let me know and I will credit.) I'm also assuming this photo is post 1953. But if this pre-dates the Curtis movie...well, that would be very interesting.

Check out the links below for some other times the myth of Houdini's Water Torture Cell demise was presented as fact.

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Houdini helps a fellow Hungarian from beyond

Recently magician Richard Hatch sent me a collection of original Houdini press clippings from the 1930s and '40s. Some real gems in the batch, including the below. The movie being referenced here, "Vampires of Prague", would ultimately be released as Mark of the Vampire by MGM in 1935.

I don't know what this "net trick" of Houdini's would have been, but I don't think we need to go looking for it. I suspect this entire news item is the invention of the MGM publicity department. I just enjoy the intersection of Houdini and classic horror films, which have always been a side passion.

Mark of the Vampire was directed by Tod Browning, who also directed the Hungarian Lugosi in Dracula. Coincidently, I've just worked up another post with a Houdini-Tod Browning connection. Click here for that.

For more vampiric Houdini adventures, check out the links below.

Thanks Richard.