Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Barbara's Vaudeville Scrapbook

I recently stumbled upon a remarkable Facebook page called Barbara's Vaudeville Scrapbook where the relatives of George Channing Eggleston, an electrical engineer and stage lighting man from the vaudeville era, share photos from a scrapbook they inherited.

In 1907, Eggleston traveled with the O Hana San & Co. and shared the bill with Houdini in San Francisco and Los Angeles. While there are no photos of Houdini himself, there are many photos of Franz Kukol and the Houdinis dog, Charlie (with a fresh haircut). I've never seen any of these images! Below is a sample shot of Franz and Charlie.

You can see more photos on the page itself. Unfortunately, it hasn't been updated since 2021. I reached out to page owners but haven't heard back. I've also shared all the Houdini-related images on my Patreon.


Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Houdini's humor

Once, during a Q&A, someone asked me if Houdini used humor in his act. I told them I didn't think so. That Houdini took himself pretty seriously. In fact, he once kicked a comedian (hard!) in the leg when he began telling jokes as Houdini struggled in a straitjacket.

But Patrick Culliton later told me I was mistaken. Houdini did use humor in his act. From that moment, I've kept an eye open for evidence of this, and, by gosh, it's out there! Check out the below from Houdini's appearance at the Regent Theater of Varieties in Salford, England.

This point was further driven home when I was shown a remarkable document at the Harry Ransom Center last year. It's a typewritten page of all the jokes Houdini had at hand during his performances. The jokes are pretty corny, largely dependent on puns and colloquialisms, but they apparently worked on audiences of the time. It's a fantastic glimpse at a part of Houdini's act that is (almost) forgotten.

Where can you read this remarkable document? The Harry Ransom Center, of course! Or you can read it as a member of my Patreon by clicking below.

Thanks to my patrons for supporting my research and content like this.


Monday, November 27, 2023

Songs Called 'Houdini': Who Did it Best?

Here's a clever video by YouTuber Naomi Cannibal that breaks down three pop songs called "Houdini," including the most recent single by Dua Lipa.

Here's another "Houdini" for your consideration. In 1962, Walter Brennan released his own "Houdini" single. You can hear it on YouTube by clicking the image below. It's plenty folksy!

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Attention Holiday shoppers

Here's one for you Black Friday and Cyber Monday shoppers. While I've seen Houdini tie-in advertisements before, I've never seen one on this scale. This ad for O'Gorman Co. "The Big Store" in Providence, Rhode Island, takes up nearly an entire page and is designed around Houdini. Not that I'm complaining!

The Evening Bulletin, Jan. 28, 1907.

Houdini was playing Keith's Theater in Providence this week. The O'Gorman Co. challenged him to escape from a packing case made by their shipping department on the night of February 5, 1907. Houdini got free in 38 mins. But he could never escape the great deals at O'Gorman's!

The Evening Bulletin, Feb. 5, 1907.

Happy shopping.


Thursday, November 23, 2023

Harry's Thanksgiving run

Here's an interesting find that ties nicely into Thanksgiving today. The New York Herald of November 27, 1891, ran an article covering footraces held by various New York Athletic Clubs on Thanksgiving day. Headlined OVER MUDDY HILLS, AND DALES, it reports that "roads were in wretched condition, the heavy rainfall making them so slippery that few of the contestants escaped headers in climbing up the hills on the course."

But it's the last two paragraphs that are of interest to us here:

    The annual championship run of the Olympian Athletic Club took place yesterday over the famous Mamlok-Reid course. The start was made from the Xavier Oval at 135th St. and Railroad avenue. Twenty-five men competed. After a stiff run over bad roads, ditches and hills H. Griffin won by fifteen yards over Harry Weiss, the second man. "Tom" Creed was third, "Billy" Meyer fourth and the others bunched. The distance was six and a half miles and the time 33m. 51 2-5s.
    After the run the boys repaired to Captain Smith's Jerome avenue roadhouse, where a fine turkey dinner was eaten. In the evening, the athletes attended the club's annual ball, held at Arlington Hall, where the all around championship prizes were awarded to the athletes having done the best general athletic work during the year. The awards were as follows:–M. Brever and H. Weiss each tied for the first prize with fifteen points, and on the toss, Breyer won and received the championship emblem.

I think there is an excellent chance that "Harry Weiss" is our Houdini. This was when he was a runner with New York Athletics clubs, and I'm reminded of the comment in his later show program that he was "one of the strongest cross-country runners and was looked upon as a dead sure winner on a rainy day or a muddy track." 

Unfortunately, here Harry missed first place by 15 yards and then missed out on his best athletic work emblem on a coin toss. Unlucky day! But at least he got a free Thanksgiving dinner.

Arlington Hall, where the runners held their annual ball, was located 19-23 St. Marks Place in what is now the East Village. It was a community hall and ballroom for the immigrant community of Little Germany in the Lower East Side. The photo to the right shows the hall around 1892. In 1966 it became the location of Andy Warhol's Electric Circus discotheque. So there's your Houdini-Andy Warhol connection! You can read more about the colorful history of the building HERE.

Here's wishing everyone a happy and lucky Thanksgiving.

Want more? You can see the full New York Herald article as a "Scholar" member of my Patreon below.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Newark's (barely) surviving Houdini theaters

I've long known that Houdini began 1925 with a week's engagement in Newark, New Jersey. What I didn't know was the theater. Thanks to an advert in the January 2, 1925 Jewish Chronicle, I now know it was Proctor's Palace located at 116 Market Street.

Whenever I learn of a new Houdini theater, I always jump over to the excellent Cinema Treasures website for more information and to see if the theater still stands. Turns out, the theater is still there, although it has been largely derelict since 1968.

An excellent overview of theater can be found in the blog The Forgotten Past of New Jersey. Proctor's was a rare double-decker theater, meaning it had two theaters stacked on top of each other. I've never heard of such a thing. The post also notes that the building was sold in 2016 with plans to demolish it. But a check of Google Maps shows the building still standing, seemingly untouched today. 

This isn't the only surviving Houdini theater in Newark. In November 1925, Houdini brought his "3 Show in One" to the Shubert Theater on Branford Place. Below is an ad for the engagement. I like the tagline: "WHY GO TO NEW YORK?... ALL THE GOOD SHOWS COME HERE!"

The Shubert later became the Adams Theatre and remained active into the 1980s. Like Proctors, the building survives today and is just waiting for its comeback.


Tuesday, November 21, 2023

The Haunting of Johnathon Schaech

Here's a unique episode of Houdini-related television. In this episode of The Haunting Of..., actor Johnathon Schaech, who we know as the star of Houdini (1998), returns to the Paramount Theater in Austin to tell of his strange experience during the movie's premiere.

I'm a skeptic when it comes to reality ghost shows like this. I also think the real Houdini would have made mincemeat of this medium/host. But Johnathon tells an intriguing story and comes off as very sincere.

Last year I had the pleasure of visiting the Paramount in Austin. It's a beautiful theater and certainly one of the best-preserved Houdini theaters. I got a full tour, including the haunted projection booth. It was ghostless, as far as I could tell.

Thanks to Dean Carnegie at The Magic Detective for this. Check out Dean's recent post about Houdini (1998) HERE

Monday, November 20, 2023

Dua Lipa's 'Houdini' reaches #1

Dua Lipa's single "Houdini" is #1 on the UK charts this week. The song is also #1 on the Global YouTube Music Videos Chart. While many pop stars have released songs that evoke Houdini's name and legend, I don't believe one has ever reached #1. Dua's doing Houdini proud!

You can purchase "Houdini" on Amazon Music U.S. or Amazon Music UK or watch the video on YouTube. Check out more Dua/Houdini whatnot via the links below.

UPDATE: Billboard has a breakdown of where some of the past "Houdini" songs charted:
Walter Brennan spent a week at No. 100 on the Hot 100 in 1962 with “Houdini”; Kon Kan hit No. 33 on Dance Singles Sales in 1989 with “Harry Houdini”; and Foster the People’s “Houdini” hit No. 37 on Alternative Airplay in 2012.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

LINK: Houdini comes to the Keansburg boardwalk

Here's a nice article by JF Grodeska about the time Houdini corralled a collection of S.A.M. members to throw a surprise party for Frank and Antonio Martinka at their home in Keansburg, New Jersey. I've always meant to do a post about this, but as Jersey Shore Scene did a fine job, I will let you enjoy it there.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Deconstructing Houdini '53: Europe's Eclipsing Sensation

It was 48 years ago today that I first saw Houdini on television, and it changed my life! So what better day to continue my scene-by-scene dissection of the movie. Last time Harry beat two challenges in London. Today he takes on the rest of Europe...

Chapter 13: Europe's Eclipsing Sensation

We're just over an hour into Houdini (1953), and Harry has become a sensation. What better way to show this than with a montage! I love a good Houdini movie montage. It's a chance to quickly touch down on some key events and see some cool recreations, and that's what we get here.

The montage begins with a shot of Houdini entering his 26th Week at the Alhambra in London. Oddly, this is being pasted over his "12th Week." Shouldn't it be Week 25? Anyway, it is true Houdini was held over for many weeks at the Alhambra in 1900, eight weeks during his first run and nine weeks at the end of the year. So a lengthy run at the Alhambra is right in sync with real Houdini history.

The next establishing shot is pretty vague, but it looks appropriately Europe-ish. Here we see Harry and Bess doing the Needles. This is a trick Houdini was famous for, so getting a recreation shot is a treat. The Needles is also on the cover of the Kellock book on which Houdini '53 is based, so that makes this extra special. It's worth noting that all the montage scenes, including several that did not make the cut, were filmed on Halloween 1952.

Paris is the next stop. Nothing vague here as we see a shot of the Eiffel Tower. Here Harry and Bess do an arrow through girl effect. This isn't a trick that comports with any known Houdini history, but this one falls into the category of contemporary magic for audiences of the time. In reality, Houdini's card magic won the day during his first Paris engagement. While Houdini's "big game hunter" costume might seem out of character, recall the photos of Houdini in his "ice cream suit" and pith helmet during his travels to Australia and publicity for Terror Island. So a pith-helmeted checked!

A shot of an overnight train takes us to Germany and the Hotel Europea in Berlin. Here we see Houdini is playing the Wintergarten, another real theater from Houdini's first European tour. As the montage ends, we learn that Harry's many letters sent to the enigmatic Herr J. Von Schweger have been returned.

In Chapter Eight I hinted that Von Schweger is rooted in reality. These returned letters should be the tip-off. To my mind, von Schweger is clearly Wiljalba Frikell. Houdini tried to visit the famous German conjurer during his first European tour, and Frikell repeatedly and mysteriously rejected him. The similarities will become even more evident in a few chapters.

We seem to have taken a leap in time as Houdini now shows grey at his temples. This is our first look at the successful and wealthy Houdinis, and Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh slip into these new roles perfectly. They were, after all, a wealthy and famous married couple!

Bess comments that it's his birthday, which Harry doesn't seem to want to celebrate. But then his mother appears as a birthday surprise. Houdini's mother did come to Europe at this time, so we are once again right in line with real Houdini history. I've also always thought this scene of Harry celebrating his mother in a hotel before an admiring crowd is a nod to the famous reception Houdini had for his mother at the Royal Hotel in Budapest.

Here the movie also reinforces Houdini's great love for his mother. "That's my girl," he says at the end of their dance. This echoes the famed "My two sweethearts" photo of Houdini with Mama and Bess in 1907. The waltz that plays during their dance is also going to come back later.

Houdini is then encouraged to do a trick. He does an impromptu broom levitation with Bess. This is not a trick the real Houdini ever performed, but it's another contemporary magic piece performed from beginning to end without a cut by the actors, and it's terrific! It's probably my favorite magic trick in the movie and the most effective.

It's worth noting that this hotel sequence is one that would be truncated or cut entirely when the movie was shown on television in the 1970s and 80s. The version I had recorded on Beta tape and watched endlessly went from the montage to the courtroom scene. It was many years before I ever saw this sequence in its entirety.

We end with Houdini being served a summons to appear in a German court for fraud. "I might go to jail," he tells Bess. Of course, this is also rooted in reality, and it's where we will be traveling next.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Dua Lipa drops by the Houdini Estate

Our new friend Dua Lipa held the Los Angeles launch event for her new single "Houdini" at, where else, the Houdini Estate! Billboard reports:

When Dua Lipa announced a trio of release-week fan events for her new single “Houdini,” taking place in London, Los Angeles and Tokyo, she kept the exact locations a secret. But was there ever any doubt where the LA party had to be held? 

Lipa invited hundreds of her biggest fans to the mysterious Houdini Estate in the winding hills of Laurel Canyon Boulevard on Tuesday night to navigate an escape room (fitting for the famous illusionist and the slippery new song) and to dance the night away at an open-air disco party.

When the second go-round wrapped up, Lipa teased that she wouldn’t be leaving the estate just yet. “You guys are the f—ing best, thank you so much! I want you guys to stay, enjoy your time, those that haven’t, try the escape room. I’m going to do a little walk around. I’ve got to go and see this spooky-a– place.”

It's not really apparent in the pic, but she's making that expression because she's just discovered the bookcase opens and is a secret passage to the master bedroom. People love that.

Okay, that's the last Dua Lipa post, I promise. At least until she drops her next single, "Hardeen."

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Did Houdini ever see the Hollywood(land) sign?

Los Angeles Evening Express, Dec. 8, 1923.

This year marks the 100th Anniversary of the famous HOLLYWOOD sign. The sign originally read "Hollywoodland" and was made to advertise a housing development. Houdini enjoyed Hollywood and even named it his favorite "holiday resort." But did he ever see this famous landmark himself?

When Houdini made his two films in Hollywood in 1919, The Grim Game and Terror Island, there was yet no sign. But Houdini returned to Los Angeles in April 1923, the very month the Hollywoodland housing development was announced. No one seems to know exactly when construction began on the sign. The first evidence of a completed sign comes in December 1923 via the Houdini-friendly Los Angeles Express (above). The City of Los Angeles officially celebrated the sign's 100th anniversary on Halloween this year.

Nevertheless, the excellent 2011 graphic novel The Edge of the Unknown picks up on the idea that the sign could have been under construction while Houdini was in town. They even feature it on their cover art (right). So here we have Houdini and the Hollywood sign joined in fiction at least.

But there's still one more chance Houdini could have seen the sign. It's not generally known that Houdini returned to Los Angeles for two days in October 1924 to give his spiritualism lecture at the Philharmonic Auditorium downtown. So he might have seen the sign in the distance, especially as he was staying at the new Biltmore Hotel which afforded views of the city. The sign was also illuminated back then, so it would have been even easier to see at night.

If Houdini did see the Hollywoodland sign, what might he have thought about it? Would he have seen it as a blight on his beloved Hollywood, a sign of overdevelopment? Or would he have admired it as a clever advertising scheme worthy of himself...

Bess would have been the Houdini who was most familiar with the Hollywoodland sign as it was very much part of the landscape during her years living in Los Angeles in the 1930s and early '40s. In fact, the sign can be seen from the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in a photo from the Final Houdini Seance.

You can enjoy more photos and history at the Hollywood Sign website, and more tales of the Houdinis in Hollywood below.

Houdini sign image created by Tom Interval. Vintage filter by PhotoFunia.