Monday, April 23, 2018

Houdini's low point

Houdini had a long hard road to success. But along that road he developed all the aspects that would eventually make him a superstar; Metamorphosis, the challenge handcuffs act, police station challenges, the straitjacket escape, even exposing fraudulent mediums.

But having mastered his performance, in 1898 he found himself sliding backwards. He had given his all in a string of failed tours with outfits like the American Gaiety Girls, the California Concert Company, and the Marco Co. Now he and Bess rejoined to the Welsh Bros Circus, going back to where they had effectively started in 1895. Houdini's diary entries for this period reflect his depressed mood. He records that the last two weeks of the tour "felt like an eternity."

After their circus engagement ended, the Houdinis returned to New York and Harry put his act up for sale in a self-published catalog of magic. Even that failed. In December, he set out to play engagements at the Dime Museums he had first worked as teenager. It's interesting to note that Bess does not appear with him during these late 1898 dates. Did she quit and had remain home in New York? It's possible.

And then came the night of January 11, 1899 at Middleton's Clark St. Dime Museum in Chicago, which I can only think was Houdini hitting his lowest point. The next day the papers recorded the event.


Houdini attempted to spin the incident as an "unfair test", but a failure was a failure and it must have devastated him. Luckily -- or unluckily -- at this stage in his career no one seemed to notice that the Handcuff King had been bested.

But the old saying "it's always darkest before the dawn" seems to apply here. Just two months after this embarrassment, Houdini would be discovered by Martin Beck and was on his way to fame and fortune.

Many biographers say this incident is where Houdini learned to always test handcuffs before an escape, and that he would insist all handcuffs be regulation. But there's evidence to the contrary. Later that same year, Houdini again became stuck in a pair of doctored cuffs. (He was able to free himself from one side and did the rest of his act with the cuffs dangling from one wrist.) He also did not always refuse doctored or non-regulation cuffs. When he discovered a pair of cuffs had been tampered with, he would inform the audience exactly how the cuffs had been rigged to defeat him, but that he would try them anyway if they would grant him extra time. This was a terrific bit of showmanship which certainly got the audience on his side.

Stay tuned for another tale of an on-stage embarrassment; one that I've never heard of before and was painful in more ways than one!

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Saturday, April 21, 2018

Mystifier, Fourth Quarter 1992

Continuing my look back at Mystifier, the quarterly newsletter of the Houdini Historical Center that ran from 1991-2003. In many ways, this was the forerunner of blogs like WILD ABOUT HARRY.


The Fourth Quarter 1992 Mystifier is a standout issue in that it reprints a full account of a challenge packing crate escape at the Zoo-Hippodrome in Glasgow in 1904. This challenge had an interesting added element, as you can read below:

During the day representatives of the firm had visited the Zoo and complained that there was a trap door on the stage. They proposed to erect a platform on which the packing case should be placed. To that Houdini had no objections, so he called upon the carpenters present to proceed to business, and the band played. Four tradesmen immediately threw off their coats. Long stout beams were dragged on to the stage, and they set to work with hammer and nails to baffle, if possible, the daring performer. The music of the orchestra was almost drowned in the noise of the active woodworkers. By and by the platform was completed. It was about a couple of feet high, supported by struts, so that a clear view of the stage floor could be obtained underneath.

The newsletter continues with an article by Tom Boldt about the newly opened La Maison de Robert-Houdin-Centre National des Arts de la Magie et de I'illusion in Blois, France. A Christmas greeting from Houdini's December 1907 issue of the Conjurer's Magazine is reprinted along with "Helpful Hints for Young Magicians Under Eighty" from the August 12, 1908 issue.

Regular contributor Dr. Morris N. Young then provides an interesting article about the books Houdini traveled with on tour in 1911. Among the some 19 mentioned books that Houdini felt were important enough to keep with him at all times are curiosities such as The International Scientific Series Animal Locomotion and Grimms Fairy Tales.

In "Backstage with Sidney Radner", Sid reports on the recent discovery of a large cache of uncatalogued Houdini material in the Library of Congress. Incredibly, this material had remained unboxed since its arrival in 1927! Sid talks about meeting Dorothy Young for the first time at the 1992 Official Houdini Seance at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame. He says that the BBC and National Geographic are both working on Houdini documentaries. Sid also notes that the first volume of Frank Koval's Illustrated Houdini Research Diary -- "an absolute must for Houdini researchers" -- is available from the museum shop for $20. So too is Pat Culliton's Houdini's Strange Tales.

Sid finishes by reporting that David Copperfield visited Appleton and the Houdini Historical Center on November 19, 1992, and "gave us a very generous plug during his performance in nearby Neenah, for which we give great thanks."

Mystifier
Volume 2, Number 4
Fourth Quarter, 1992
6 pages

Contents:
Looking Through Scrapbooks
Center to Honor Robert-Houdin
Queries
Houdini's Bookshelf on Tour
Helpful Hints for Magicians
Backstage with Sid Radner

Thanks to Gary Hunt of Handcuff Queens for providing me with this issue.

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Friday, April 20, 2018

LINK: Houdini film ‘Terror Island’ subject of Island Museum exhibition

Full details of the upcoming "Houdini: Terror on the Magic Isle" exhibition at the Catalina Island Museum have been revealed by The Catalina Islander. Instead of re-posting here, click the headline and have a read at the Islander itself. It seems appropriate to learn about this at the paper that was around in Houdini's time and reported on the movie as it was made...as you'll learn in the exhibition!

I've been working with the museum on this, so I already know how special it's going to be. I've withheld the many discoveries that have been made, so the exhibition itself will reveal all and write Houdini history. On May 4, I'm heading over to the island to give a short introductory talk on Houdini during the museum's "First Friday" event at 6pm. And, of course, there's the big Terror Island screening at the Avalon Casino on May 19 (tickets and details here).

So click the headline and read all about "Houdini: Terror on the Magic Isle", and visit the Catalina Island Museum website for more information and upcoming special events. It's gonna be a summer of Terror!


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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini

The Jewish Museum of Maryland has released details of their upcoming Houdini exhibition, Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini, curated by local magician and performer David London.

On view June 24, 2018 – January 21, 2019

Harry Houdini wasn’t born. He was invented. 
The world’s most famous magician began life as Erik Weisz, the son of a Hungarian rabbi. In 1878 immigration to the U.S. transformed Erik Weisz into Ehrich Weiss. It was the first of many transformations for the man who would become the first international superstar. 
Inescapable, curated by local performer and magician David London, tells the story of how Ehrich Weiss became Harry Houdini and investigates the technologies, marketing prowess and entertainment trends that transformed him into a superstar. On one level, the exhibit is pure fun – incorporating magic, escapes, seances, films, rare artifacts and hands-on illusions. On a deeper level, the exhibit pulls back the curtain, revealing the story of the man behind the image. 
In addition to the exploration of his early life, visitors will find sections illuminating stages of his life and career:
  • Setting the Stage describing the struggles of Houdini’s early life and the difficulties faced by his father, artifacts include a Hebrew bible that belonged to Rabbi Weiss.  
  • The Self Liberator featuring a spectacular display of reproduction posters, photos and press clippings, as well as original apparatus, including a straitjacket and milk can that he used in his performances.  
  • On the Cutting Edge investigates his exploration of new technologies and also features clips from his film career and a chance to listen to a rare recording of his voice.  
  • Houdini’s Third Act: Exposing Frauds showcases his crusade against deceptive spiritual mediums.  
  • The Final Bow/Curtain Call sets the record straight on the events that led to his death and explores the séances to contact him by his wife, Bess.  
  • Houdini in Maryland shines a spotlight on his appearances in the state where he performed close to 100 shows during his career. This section also features Houdini’s personal diary from 1898 turned to the page recording his first tour of Maryland (before his success) where he where he repeatedly reports “no dinner,” as he could not afford to eat. 
Throughout the exhibit, visitors also will have the opportunity to try out some of Houdini’s magic tricks, including the world’s smallest version of Houdini’s biggest illusion – making a five-ton elephant “vanish.”

The museum has also revealed a slate of related public programs, one of which features yours truly:

Houdini Unbound
Speaker David Saltman
Sunday, July 15th at 1pm 
Mrs. Houdini: The Woman Behind the Magician
Speaker: Victoria Kelly
Sunday, July 29th at 1pm 
Street Show, Sideshow, Stage Show
Speaker: James Taylor
Sunday, October 7th at 1pm 
Capturing Houdini
Speaker: Ken Trombly
Sunday, October 21st at 1pm 
Houdini in Hollywood
Speaker: John Cox
Sunday, November 4th at 1pm 
Film Screening: The Grim Game
Sunday, November 4th at 2pm

Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini runs June 24, 2018 to January 21, 2019. For more information visit the Jewish Museum of Maryland website.

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The Great Nicola Magic Festival, April 21

This Saturday, April 21, The Warren County History Museum will host "The Great Nicola Magic Festival" in Monmouth, Illinois, the hometown of Nicola. "He was on par with Houdini," says Kellen Henrichsen, executive director of the history museum. "He's still a big name in the magic community."

The Warren County History Museum aims to bring the memory and legacy of the Great Nicola back and remind our community of the great magician that once called Monmouth "home." The first annual Great Nicola Magic Festival will combine magic, history, and entertainment in a family friendly carnival atmosphere. We invite those in our community and beyond to come out, have fun, see some magic, and learn about a man from Monmouth who went on to mystify the world!

During his career, Nicola imitated many of Houdini's signature feats, including the Handcuff Act, Metamorphosis, the Milk Can and even the Vanishing Elephant.

More information of The Great Nicola Magic Festival can be found HERE.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Rough Riders: Ride or Die #3 digs Houdini

The third issue of Adam Glass's Rough Riders: Ride or Die! is out today. It features a nice "buried alive" Houdini cover and storyline with the familiar title "Under the Pyramids".

Volume Three of the hit AfterShock Series continues! In 'Under the Pyramids', Harry Houdini walks on through to the other side and discovers that the Rough Riders are up against the legendary Dutch 'Bokkenrijders 'who have returned to this earthly plane to settle a score with one of his teammates! But Harry's truest challenge may be a visitor from his past who can spell his end...unless he listens to his newest teammate H.P. Lovecraft! Created and written by Adam Glass (executive producer of Supernatural and writer of Suicide Squad) with artwork by Patrick Olliffe (Untold Tales of Spider-Man).

You can buy Rough Riders: Ride or Die #3 at Midtown Comics.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Houdini hopefuls of 1952

In 1952 Paramount launched what it claimed was a "worldwide talent search" for the actor who would play Houdini in their upcoming biopic. I'm expect this was more ballyhoo than a genuine search (Tony Curtis was announced in July), but here's a news item that appeared in several newspapers across the country at the time. This is terrific for a number of reasons.


Of course, Milbourne Christopher was one of the greatest of all Houdini and magic historians, and would go on to write Houdini The Untold Story in 1969. He would also finally play Houdini on stage in 1976. And Gerrie Larsen was the mother of Bill and Milt Larsen who founded The Magic Castle in Hollywood.

I actually think they make a pretty good Harry and Bess!

But there's another reason I like this clipping. You'll note that it mentions Gerrie's famous Royal Crown brooch, given to her by Bess Houdini. That brooch sold last year in auction to David Copperfield for $72,000. The brooch and sale was the subject of a recent episode of Strange Inheritance with Jamie Colby, on which I appeared to suggest that the brooch did not come from Czar Nicholas II, as had been long claimed by the family, but more likely came from the Grand Duke (Sergei Alexsandrovich). Well, this article confirms exactly that!

I'm now thinking neither Bess nor Gerrie ever claimed the brooch had come from the Czar. I expect over the years the family just misremembered what their mother had told them. Hey, it's hard to keep all those Russian royals straight!

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Monday, April 16, 2018

New Italian Margery book by Massimo Polidoro

Massimo Polidoro has a released a new book in Italian devoted to Houdini and Margery called Il mago e la strega: Indagine sulla più celebrate medium di tutti i tempi (The Magician and the Witch - An investigation on the most celebrated medium of all time).

The book includes Houdini's Margery pamphlet translated into Italian for the first time, an introduction by Massimo, my own "Margery File" posts from 2013, including my interview with Margery's great granddaughter, Anna Thurlow, and a second interview with Anna by Massimo.

A Kindle version of the book is available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. You can buy a printed edition from CICAP.

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Sunday, April 15, 2018

Houdini was a "wireless telephone" pioneer

Here's an interesting item from The Pittsburgh Press dated February 12, 1922. Looks like we can add this to the lists of Houdini firsts.


What a minute, a "wireless telephone"? Wouldn't that be a cellphone? Now that would be a first!

However, wireless telephone didn't mean then what it means today. For a full explanation, check out this terrific article at Smithsonian: A Mobile Phone From 1922? Not Quite.

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Saturday, April 14, 2018

New Houdini Escape Room opening in Detroit

A new Houdini-themed escape room will open this month in Detroit, MI. The "Houdini Trap Room" can be experienced at The Fifth Wall Escape Room in Ferndale.

Just as Harry Houdini was arriving in Detroit for his fateful last stage performance, a mysterious room was under its final preparations. An unknown person or persons built the room for one purpose: to trap the famed escape artist! 
You and your family, friends, or co-workers are tasked with two goals: uncover the cryptic plan, and free yourselves before time runs out! 
OPENING APRIL 2018

For more information visit The Fifth Wall Escape Room website and Facebook.

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Friday, April 13, 2018

Hardeen's Double Fold debut was almost his last

Today I discovered this photo and a fresh account of Hardeen's 1935 accident in the Double Fold Death Defying Mystery. Interestingly, it was Dash's first time performing the escape.


Houdini's Magic Bar opens in Canterbury


Kent Online reports that Houdini's Magic Bar has opened on St Peter's Street in Canterbury in the UK. The new establishment promises "a heady mix of cocktails and conjuring."

Among its 13 resident magicians is escapologist, Stuart Burrell, a member of the Magic Circle in London, who will try to break his own world record for freeing himself from a pair of traditional prison transport leg irons this weekend. His attempts are scheduled outside the bar at 2pm and 4pm on Saturday and Sunday, weather permitting.

Houdini’s Magic Bar is the brainchild of Sam Watson and partner Claudette Cairns.

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Thursday, April 12, 2018

President Harding was wild about Harry


Houdini's encounters with Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson are well recorded, but for some reason Houdini's meeting with President Warren G. Harding gets sidelined. This is a shame because it's the only meeting that actually took place inside the White House. Harry and Bess met Harding on January 11, 1922, as can be read in this article from The Baltimore Sun.


It certainly sounds like Harding (Hardeen?) was a genuine Houdini fan. And the feeling seems to have been mutual. The only vote Houdini is ever said to have cast was for Harding in the 1920 presidential election.

The day after this meeting, Houdini performed a suspended straitjacket escape from the Riggs Building at 15th and G Streets in Washington D.C. One expects super-fan Harding didn't miss that performance either.

UPDATE:

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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini #4 released

The fourth and final issue of the adult comic Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini by Cynthia von Buhler is released today by Hard Case Crime and Titan Books. Issue 4 comes in two variant covers; one with art by Dean Haspiel and the other by Cynthia von Buhler.

Unappreciated at her father's detective agency, the fabulous, rabbit-loving Minky Woodcock straps on her gumshoes in order to uncover a magical mystery involving the world-famous escape artist, Harry Houdini. Created by acclaimed artist, author, director, and playwright Cynthia Von Buhler.

You can buy all four issues of Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini at Midtown Comics. A collected edition will be released July 24 and can be pre-ordered now at Amazon.com.

Cynthia von Buhler has hinted on her Facebook and Twitter that there is movie interest in the series. For more visit minkywoodcock.com.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

White Shadows in the South Seas (1919)

Recently I was excited to add this first edition to my shelf of Houdini movie-releated books. But how exactly is this a Houdini collectible?


White Shadows in the South Seas was released in 1919 and provided much of the background inspiration for Houdini's Terror Island, including the cannibal village and the gibbet device from which Houdini escapes (a real thing). The book is even quoted on-screen in the movie itself (below). I've also wondered if the green tint to the Terror Island lobby cards were meant to evoke the cover of this popular book.


The curator of the Catalina Island Museum, Julie Perlin Lee, is the one who pointed out the full significance of this book to me. Julie is putting together an exhibition called Houdini: Terror on the Magic Isle, set to run May 5 to October 7, 2018. A special screening of Terror Island will be held on May 19. Visit the museum website for more details.


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