Thursday, May 13, 2021

Edwin L. Scanlan remembers his neighbor Houdini

On the 50th anniversary of Houdini's death in 1976, the New Jersey Sunday Register ran an article featuring the boyhood recollections of Edwin L. Scanlan who lived next door to Hardeen in Flatbush. This was when Houdini and Bess were living with the Hardeens, and Scanlan came to know both brothers well. I love stuff like this, and Scanlan's memories provide a few new insight into Houdini's Flatbush years. I've excerpted choice selections below. Enjoy.

I had the rare privilege of knowing this remarkable man for 10 years, starting in 1916. My Dad, relocating his business from Philadelphia, Pa., bought a large house in Flatbush, Brooklyn that year, and it was not until we were settled did we realize that Houdini and his brother, Hardeen, a magician and escapist in his own right, shared a similar house next to ours.

Houdini owned a house in Manhattan too, but the Flatbush property was the general headquarters for the brothers, because it had the advantage of a big barn-like structure at the rear of the plot which housed the wondrous array of magical apparatus and stage illusions used in their performances, ready to be moved out as required by their schedule of engagements.

At first I became acquainted with Houdini's little dog, Bobby, and got to know the brothers through him, doing little chores and errands for the magicians. I was just going on 10 years of age at the time. They took a liking to me, especially Houdini; the Houdinis had no children. The following year (1917) I was given the job of keeping the big storage building neat and tidy – I was then in seventh heaven.

I earned their implicit trust in regards to "keeping mum." In return for my work they, particularly Houdini, taught me the fundamentals of magic when at the GHQ, though they traveled considerably, often worldwide.

I never divulged any of the secrets of the spectacular apparatus, despite the fact that it did not take me long to catch on, due to the amount of time I spent figuring things out. I also watched them perform on stage and elsewhere whenever they were in the New York metropolitan area or even in Atlantic City, one of Houdini's favorite spots. Hardeen had two sons around my age but neither one took any interest in magic.

The topic then turns to aviation. Scanlan notes that after Houdini's historic first flight in Australia ("Long before I knew him") newspapers ran articles about the dangers of Australia possibly being invaded by aircraft from Japan. Scanlan continues:

Houdini was deeply impressed by these new stories and recalled them for years thereafter, when I knew him, and long after he had given up flying – "a young man's game," he would say. 

Houdini was the one who later inspired me to take to the 'wild blue yonder' – I was 14 at the time – and he said, "It's fine to build those model airplanes you occasionally turn out but learn to fly the real thing; it's never too early to start learning." Despite the fact that here was a man who was continually risked his own life, sometimes two or three times in a single day (which he took great enjoyment in doing), shackled handcuffed, sealed up in a crate or trunk and dropped off a bridge, for example, and yet he said: "life's greatest thrill is flying – alone."

I'll always be indebted to Houdini for arousing my interest in flying, alone, and even when I moved to an apartment in Greenwich Village – still in my teens – I kept in touch with the two brothers. 

Houdini could escape from anything – except from those minds and hearts of those who saw him, who knew him, who loved and admired him.

In 1976 Scanlan published a book about overcoming alcoholism, The A to Z Systemis which he mentions his friendship with Houdini and Hardeen. He died at age 82 at his home in Red Bank, New Jersey on August 2, 1990.

Hardeen's Flatbush home.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Man Who Walked Through Walls AGAIN!!


Today I'm back on the always enjoyable Transatlantic History Ramblings podcast with Lauren Davies and Brian Young talking about the recent discovery of Houdini window cards in the walls of a house in Rhode Island. Plus lots of other random stuff (including my senior cat). It's always a joy to join Brian and Lauren and a lot of laughs, so have a listen below. Interview begins at 26:15.


You can listen and subscribe to Transatlantic History Ramblings on Apple, Spotify, Google, Anchor, or your favorite podcatcher. You can also follow them on Twitter @HistoryTA.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Thurston's strangely familiar window card

When Houdini launched his "3 Shows in One" in 1925, Howard Thurston was touring with the 19th season of his own full evening magic spectacular. Houdini was certainly looking to emulate Thurston's success, and eventually hired away one of Thurston's assistants to help buck up the magic portion of his show. But it wasn't just Houdini who did some borrowing.

Below is a window card for Thurston's 23rd tour in late 1928. Look familiar? It's strikingly similar to Houdini's now well-known 1926 window card featuring Halloween imagery. There's even an owl perched over the first letter of his name. I've not dove too deeply into this, but it appears this artwork was unique to Thurston's 1928-29 tour.


For comparison, here is Houdini's window card.


So was this a delibrate effort by Thurston to evoke Houdini's show? Could this just be coincidence? Or maybe these elements are part of a basic template used by printers of the time? It's hard to say for sure, but the similarities here are unmistakable.

Reproductions of the Thurston card are available from the Museum Outlets website.

Monday, May 10, 2021

The Zanetti Mystery by Houdini

I'm re-sharing this as Joe has now completed posting all eight chapters. A standing ovation for Joe's work here! Now who's brave enough to read it?

Joe Notaro at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence is sharing all eight chapters of Houdini's The Zanetti Mystery, which was serialized in newspapers beginning in December 1925 and marked Houdini's last piece of published fiction. The story nicely combines Houdini's love of mystery and detective yarns with his crusade against fraudulent mediums. The character of Zanetti can also be seen as the dark side of Houdini -- maybe what Houdini feared he would have become had he remained a fraud medium. Houdini would sometimes play Zanetti on stage during his exposure act.

Joe is sharing the original newspaper installments with illustrations by Edmund Fredrick. Chapter 1 is available now. I will add links as Joe posts each new installment below. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 9, 2021

LINK: WILD ABOUT HARRY WEEKLY #3

Click the headline to preview the third issue of my WILD ABOUT HARRY WEEKLY email newsletter. This will be the last preview I'll offer here on the site. In order to see future issues you'll have to subscribe. As a subscriber you will also receive the special WILD ABOUT HARRY EXTRA. Thanks to everyone who have already subscribed!

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Houdini's Motherly Love (video)

Here's one that seems right for Mother's Day. This YouTube video from "Ripley's After Dark" is well done. Enjoy.


You can watch all the outside videos I share here on WILD ABOUT HARRY via my Linked Videos list at my YouTube channel.

Friday, May 7, 2021

No hard feelings

One of the things Hollywood gets wrong about Houdini is showing him bellowing onstage how no one ("Not even God!!!") can hold him a prisoner. But had Houdini done this in reality, audiences would have surely turned on him and rooted for such a braggart to fail. While Houdini was a boaster off-stage, on-stage he actually presented a more humble persona. He would famously say to his audience, "I don't know if I'm going to get out of this, but I assure you I am going to give it my best." He presented himself as the underdog and audiences rooted for him.

Of course, Houdini always did escape. But he also went out of his way not to humiliate his challengers. No escape was ever presented as easy, even when it was. Houdini would frequently say he had never faced such a well-made packing case or a more expert rope tie. He left good will in his wake.

The below is a nice example of this. This ran in the The Wisconsin State Journal following Houdini's suspended straitjacket escape from the State Journal building in Madison on January 23, 1924.

Click to enlarge.

Of course, there were exceptions, such as William Hope Hodgson in Blackburn. And later in his career Houdini did do some on-stage boasting. A 1922 review in the Baltimore Evening News complained, "Houdini spends about 10 minutes telling of his greatness, then performs two tricks that he has been showing for years." But in this case he was boasting of past triumphs.

Okay, so maybe Hollywood got it half right.

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 preview 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.


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