Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Great Houdinis (1976)

For my money, the best Houdini biopic is the 1976 made for TV movie, The Great Houdinis. Not only does it have an amazing cast, but what at the time seemed to be steamy confection of fictionalization has over the years turned out to be fact -- such as Houdini’s affair with Daisy White and Bessie’s alcoholism.

The Great Houdinis stars Paul Michael Glaser as Houdini. At the time Glaser was a major TV star from Starsky & Hutch and a ‘70s sex symbol. Glaser gives us the most likable Houdini since Tony Curtis. Sally Struthers, also a major TV star from All in the Family, turns in a stellar performance as Bess (more on that later).

Other cast includes Ruth Gordon as Mama Weiss; Bill Bixby as the Reverend Arthur Ford (sans southern accent); the underrated Adrienne Barbeau as Daisy White; Peter Cushing as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; Vivian Vance as the fictional maid Minnie (who also narrates the film), and Jack Carter shows up briefly as Theo. Hardeen. Oh, and if you look closely you can spot Houdini expert Patrick Culliton playing Houdini’s assistant Franz Kukol.

The Great Houdinis was conceived by writer-producer-director Melville Shavelson for ABC Circle Films. Harry Blackstone Jr. is credited as Technical Advisor, but magic notables such as Manny Weltman, John Gaughan, Don Bice, and Abb Dickerson also contributed. It was filmed at the 20th Century Fox studio with the theater scenes shot at the historic Wilshire-Ebell Theater. It first aired on Oct 8, 1976, from 9pm-11pm, as part of ABC’s Friday Night Movie. It was repeated on April 6, 1977.

While The Great Houdinis took great liberties with the truth -- such has having Bessie miscarriage when Houdini fails to escape plugged handcuffs during a bridge jump -- but it also recreates real-life moments not found in any other Houdini biopic. We see Houdini escape Darby handcuffs in London by giving them a hard rap. Houdini buys Mama a dress worn by Queen Victoria and presents her like a Queen to relatives in Budapest. We get to see the famous Atlantic City seance with Sir Arthur and Lady Conan Doyle, as well as Houdini testifying before the U.S. Congress. We also get a memorable encounter with Margery the Medium (Barbara Rhoades), and get a good recreation of the notorious 1927 Arthur Ford committee seance. The film also makes wonderful use of the song Rosabelle and the significance it held for the Houdinis.

The film was also the first to dramatize the infamous dressing room punch. In this version, Houdini is having an argument with Bess and that is what causes the fatal moment of distraction. But the drama of Houdini dying onstage was just too great for the filmmakers to resist, and they go on to show Houdini failing to escape from the Water Torture Cell, perpetuating the myth first started in the 1953 Tony Curtis movie (although voice over does tell us Houdini died in Grace hospital).

But it’s the characterization of Bess where The Great Houdinis digs deep to reveal the truth. A better picture of Bess was starting to emerge in 1976, thanks to Doug Henning’s relationship with Marie Hinson, but it had not yet been chronicled. But here in The Great Houdinis we get a strong-willed, showbiz savvy Bess, dealing with always being the second most important woman in her husband's life, who develops a taste for alcohol and throws out more than a few curse words along the way. While it’s up for debate how much open tension (if any) existed between Bess and Mama, I think anyone who knew Bessie Houdini would recognize her more in Sally Struthers than in the sunny disposition of Janet Leigh or later Stacy Edwards.

The Great Houdinis was also published as a novelization written by Shavelson. The well-written book contains one scene not in the finished film -- an early flashback of Harry and Bess in a graveyard lifting information from headstones for their spiritualist act. Houdini’s amorous feelings for his frightened bride get the better of him and they make love between the tombstones. “It’s okay, my father’s a Rabbi,” says Harry. This scene is also in the script, but it’s unclear whether it was shot. The novelization was published as a paperback in the U.S. and UK. There is also a rare UK hardcover edition illustrated with photos of the real Harry and Bess Houdini.

There is a little confusion about the title. While all the advertising, the script, and the novelization shows the film as being called The Great Houdinis, the title that appears on the film itself is The Great Houdini (no “s”). While I can’t say for certain this was the case in ’76, I do know this was the case on the ’77 repeat (which I have taped). All surviving prints show the title without the “s”, hence the film is better known today as just The Great Houdini. (Update: The '77 change is now confirmed.)

The Great Houdinis was released on home video in the UK and in some international territories, but as far as I know it has never appeared in the U.S., which is a great shame. There is a brisk trade in bootlegs of varying quality online. Cosmic Hex, a website the specializes in TV rarities, has a very good transfer available for download in various formats for $3.95.

The Great Houdinis is great indeed.

Click for the full behind the scenes story of the Making of The Great Houdinis.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

When Groucho met Houdini

Have you ever heard the story of when Groucho Marx went onstage to assist Houdini during his East Indian Needles trick? Well, here's the story told by the great Groucho himself.

This story is also recounted on page 6 of Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx by Stefan Kanfer.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Rare Houdini props headed to Houston

The Battle Creek Enquirer reports that about 20 items from the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan are going to the Houston Museum of Natural Science to be featured in "Magic: The Science of Wonder," an exhibition running Feb. 26 to Sept. 6. Among those items are Houdini's original Milk Can, a packing crate, and his ‘East Indian Needles’ effect.

After appearing at the Houston museum, those same items are expected to be moved to the Jewish Museum in New York, according to Jeff Taylor, who started this month as the American Museum of Magic's first full-time director.

"They've looked around and realized there's a pretty significant collection of magic right here at the American Museum of Magic," Taylor said. "This is a hard-to-find, privately owned but publicly accessible collection."

The Marshall museum has been around for more than 30 years, when Bob and Elaine Lund offered to share their private collection. "To their credit, they wanted to share it with the public," Taylor said, "which is pretty unusual."

John McAlpin, registrar and loan coordinator for the Houston Museum of Natural Science, said the items are treated with extreme care. "We cannot touch the object unless we have gloves on," McAlpin said. "When displaying artifacts we can't reveal how the trick was done."

McAlpin explained the careful process of crating and transporting the delicate items. He was overseeing some of the packing on Wednesday morning at the magic museum library on Mansion Street in Marshall.

The material will be transported in an air-cushioned, climate-controlled truck with special suspension, McAlpin said.Taylor said loaning items to such a big museum gives Marshall and the magic museum exposure.

"Our name's going to be in one of the largest museums in the country," Taylor said. "The Houston museum is huge. It's a great opportunity for us."

Shelton test in Houdini's own words

The blog Letters of Note has reprinted and transcribed a five page letter Houdini wrote after his famous 1926 underwater test, in which he remained sealed in an airtight casket submerged in the pool of the Hotel Shelton in New York for 91 minutes. The letter was sourced from the Library of Congress Houdini collection and is a fascinating read.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Is this the original Anna Eva Fay gazing ball?

Our recent report on The Official Houdini Seance, which took place this year at the former estate of Anna Eva Fay in Melrose MA, featured a group photo of seance attendees on the estate grounds. Houdini fans may have spotted a very familiar landmark amid the group -- the gazing ball and birdbath that we’ve come to know from the famous shot of Houdini and Anna Eva Fay taken in 1924.

So is that the original gazing ball and birdbath?

Jennifer Yee, the great-grandniece of Anna Eva Fay who currently resides on the property with husband Gene, has graciously provided the answer, along with some wonderful details about this fascinating property:

“The gazing ball and birdbath were lost to the ages; when the previous owners bought the estate from Anna Eva Fay's sister in 1941, it was already gone. After we bought Heathman Manor in January 2007, our magician friends asked about the bird bath/gazing ball as well as secret passages. 
The bird bath is from a garden shop in nearby Peabody, and the gazing ball was hand blown by an artisan in OK, as well as the stand poured by hand that approximates that captured in the famous picture. The gazing ball is hand blown glass that even survives harsh NE winters, and is a sea mist color, to complement the green trim of the Victorian. And of course, there is that log cabin in the back, which was Anna Eva Fay's study, sometimes lecture area, and rehearsal space--complete with 2-story stone fireplace, and original lead stain glass. An alabaster sculpture remains in the rafters from her time here. That is where the Houdini Seance took place this year.
There is also a secret staircase inside on of the kitchen cabinets in the main house leading upstairs outside the bedrooms--we believe to allow wait staff to "disappear" after serving distinguished guests, like, well, Houdini and Conan Doyle.”

Jennifer and Gene Yee occasionally preform under the stage name Yee Magik, recreating the Spirit Cabinet with their own unique twist. Thank you Jenn and Gene for a peek behind the curtain!

Houdini visits The Office

Did you happen to catch Houdini’s stealth appearance on NBC’s The Office last Thursday?

In an episode of Season 6 called “Shareholder Meeting,” Jim dresses down lazy temp Ryan. In the background, tacked up on the Dunder Mifflin bulletin board, is what appears to be a Houdini postcard. You can catch it on HULU at 17:20.

The postcard image is one of Houdini’s most famous lithographs, now referred to as the “Houdini for President” poster (this may have started when Grosset & Dunlap first suggested this resembled a presidential campaign poster in 100 Years of Magic Posters, 1976). It was originally created in 1911 by the Strobridge Lithograph Company in Cincinnati and was used by Houdini throughout his career.

The image we see in The Office is a little odd in that it has been shortened -- the name block has been moved up over Houdini’s folded arms.

So why is there a Houdini postcard on the Dunder Mifflin bulletin board? I’m not sure, but as The Office is set in Scranton, Pennsylvania, it is possible this is a clever nod to the Scranton Houdini Museum run by Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz, a popular Scranton tourist stop.

Interestingly, this poster has a history of showing up in the background of films, including the famous “vanishing man” short film featuring Houdini himself.

Here is the full “Houdini for President” lithograph, truly one of my favorite Houdini images. The original poster stands over six feet.

UPDATE: The Office continues to tease us with hidden Houdinis.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Taschen's MAGIC makes Magic Castle debut

Art book publisher Taschen has released MAGIC 1400-1950 by Mike Caveney, Jim Steinmeyer, and Ricky Jay. The book was conceived and created by Taschen editor Noel Daniel, who also created Taschen’s bestselling The Circus.

The book is a massive 650-page hardcover packed with over 1,000 incredible images from magic collections around the world. Of course, Houdini is well represented in the book with photos and posters reproduced, including a remarkable photo of the young Houdini as the “King of Cards” that I have never seen before.

Noel Daniel, authors Mike Caveney and Jim Steinmeyer, and much of the creative team behind MAGIC were on hand last night at The Magic Castle in Hollywood, showing slides and talking about the sixteen month odyssey it took to create this amazing book.

MAGIC 1400-1950 retails for $200 (but Amazon is currently selling it for $126). Considering the size, quality, and scarcity of the images inside, this price is remarkably reasonable.

Editor Noel Daniel signing MAGIC 1400-1950 at The Magic Castle

Monday, November 16, 2009

A plea from Patrick Culliton: Save the Houdini films before it’s too late!

This article by Patrick Culliton is published on Patrick’s website Houdini's Ghost and is reprinted here with his permission:

Everyone who is interested in Houdini, even casually, should buy the three DVD set of extremely rare footage of Houdini, the Silent Screen star recently released by KINO. It is a wonderful set. To those interested in early cinema, the silent screen, vaudeville, sci-fi/fantasy, magicians and superheroes, this set is invaluable. This is the first time that a collection of Houdini film footage has been made available to the public.
Up until recently, the one brave soul who fought to find and distribute Houdini footage was William McIlhany, who released Terror Island, The Master Mystery, and the BBC Houdini documentary on VHS. Most recently, he and Todd Karr have released a three dvd set of silent films of magicians which includes rare Houdini footage from a 1926 Pathe Review.
KINO has created a beautiful product in Houdini, the Movie Star. In doing so, they call our attention to footage that is missing. That is what I want to discuss.
In the KINO set, there is a great deal of footage I've never seen before, and this is “Houdini's Ghost” speaking. One bit of film shows Houdini running through a park in Paris. Two pairs of handcuffs are locked on his wrists. He stops at the wall outside the Paris morgue, strips off his clothes to his boxer trunks, then climbs a gate and stands atop the wall of the morgue. Then he jumps into the river Seine.
He surfaces a couple of times before he frees himself from the cuffs, then, he swims to the opposite shore where men are waiting for him. They throw a coat over his shoulders and hustle him into a car which drives away, pursued by four French policemen who look very much like Keystone cops.
Here's the point: in 1909, Houdini starred in a 10 minute Pathe short. I have never seen the opening sequence, but some private collectors do have it and I have been told that Houdini is seen on a street in Paris. He observes a Parisian policeman arresting a drunk. Houdini protests the treatment of the drunk and is arrested himself. The next segment I have seen. Houdini is taken inside the police station and tied to a chair. A policeman sits in a chair nearby and dozes off, and Houdini escapes from the ropes and ties up the sleeping cop.
I've also seen the next segment in which Houdini is strapped in a straitjacket and locked in a padded cell. He escapes. Apparently, what follows is the piece of film in the KINO special features in which Houdini, handcuffed, jumps into the Seine. To my knowledge, all these segments have never been put together, or rather, put back together.
There are two shots missing from the Paris Seine footage in the KINO set. One is a close-up of the cuffs on Houdini's wrists as he stands atop the wall. The other is the actual shot of him jumping into the water. The missing shots are acknowledged in the DVD. I happen to know where those two shots are. They were used in a BBC documentary on Houdini back around 1976 [The Truth About Houdini - ED]. I remember the filmmakers insisting on first-generation footage. Somebody cut those shots from the Paris footage to be used in the BBC documentary, and they never got put back.
Likewise, there is footage missing from The Master Mystery. We see, for example, Houdini placed in a packing box and thrown off a pier. An inserted title card explains that Houdini escapes underwater. Well, the underwater shot was also used in the BBC documentary. And also never replaced.
Probably the man responsible for scattering so many elements of The Master Mystery to the four winds was Ray Rohauer, who can also be thanked for removing three chapters out of the 15 chapter Serial, and losing them. At one time, Houdini performed approximately two escapes per episode. Many of them are now missing. A particularly unfortunate loss was of a chain escape Houdini performed. I also missed seeing a scene in which Houdini is locked in a jail cell. He stares at the keyhole and we get an x-ray view of the lock as his mind causes the bolt to open.
This lost Houdini footage may still exist in private collections. What must happen is that collectors must unselfishly help to gather the distaff elements together. In the KINO Houdini DVD set, are five minutes of the feature length Houdini film The Grim Game. Actually, an hour long version of that film still exists and a man who considers himself Houdini's greatest fan has been sitting on it for 50 years. Incidentally, while collectors hoard their Houdini film footage, it is dying.
In 1976, a film archive, Sherman Grinberg, screened about an hour of Houdini footage for me when I was technical advisor on a TV movie about him. A couple of years later, I tried to get another screening, but, the nitrate film had shrunk and would be too expensive to try to salvage. When the director/writer Mel Shavelson went to Houdini collector Larry Weeks to look at some very rare footage, they found that quite a bit of it had degenerated to a volatile goo.
In the sixties, I bought a 16mm print of The Man From Beyond which had considerably better quality than the restored versions which are now on dvd. The old man who struck that print died, and no one knew what happened to his negatives.
I have a special perspective about this lost Houdini footage. Back in the late fifties, I saw the entire 15 chapters of Master Mystery twice and each chapter was complete and intact. We are losing these films almost faster than anybody can rescue them, but, we all should make an effort to save every scrap of film we possibly can.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Rare Houdini meets Holmes novel reprinted

Daniel Stashower’s The Adventure of the Ectoplasmic Man -- a fictional teaming of Harry Houdini and Sherlock Holmes -- has been reissued in a new paperback edition by Titan Books.

Stashower’s novel was first released in hardcover in 1985. The book finds Houdini framed and jailed for espionage with Sherlock Holmes working to clear his name by taking on blackmailers who have targeted the Prince of Wales.

This current reprint is part of The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series -- a collection of Sherlock Holmes pastiche novels reprinted under a uniform name and cover art.

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Ectoplasmic Man is available from

The 1985 hardcover and the 1986 paperback

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Australia mints coin commemorating Houdini’s first flight

Here’s a fantastic Houdini collectible. Australia is minting a limited supply of dollar coins commemorating Houdini’s first flight on that continent on March 18, 1910.

This commemorative coin is struck by The Perth Mint from 1oz of 99.9% pure silver in proof quality. The coin’s reverse depicts Houdini’s French-designed Voisin bi-plane in color along with the inscription ‘DIGGERS REST MARCH 18th 1910’ and ‘AUSTRALIAN CENTENARY of Flight’. The coin bears the Ian Rank-Broadley effigy of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on its reverse.

The Perth Mint will release no more than 7,500 of these coins. Each coin is accompanied by a numbered Certificate of Authenticity and is housed in a presentation case and illustrated shipper.

To order visit the Perth Mint website.

Jim Bentley performs suspended straitjacket escape at Magic Castle

Jim Bentley recreated Houdini’s suspended straitjacket escape in front of the world famous Magic Castle in Hollywood on Tuesday. The escape was part of the Castle’s 100th Anniversay celebrations going on all this week.

Bentley was strapped into the vintage jacket by actress Tippi Hedren who witnessed the escape along with other celebrity guests including Fred Willard, JoAnne Worley, Judy Tenuta, Rose Marie, Dee Wallace, Gloria Allred, Rip Taylor, and several Magic Castle magicians.

Bentley has made a career of performing authentic recreations of Houdini escapes, including the Milk Can. He also played Houdini in his own one-man show.

The Magic Castle’s birthday festivities will culminate with "It's Magic" at the Kodak Theatre on Nov. 8 featuring performers such as Lance Burton, Jorge Blass, Rudy Coby, Kevin James and Shimada. Ticket information: at

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Official Houdini Seance held in home of Anna Eva Fay

The Boston Globe reports that The Official Houdini Seance took place this year in Melrose, Massachusetts, at the former estate of Anna Eva Fay.

Fay was a longtime friend of Houdini's and a famous mentalist and entertainer in her own right. Houdini and Fay corresponded for over 12 years. Houdini visited her home in 1924 and wrote a lengthy report about their afternoon meeting.

Unlike many Houdini-Halloween seances, The Official Houdini Seance is a serious and sincere attempt to contact Houdini on the anniversary of his death. Says Seance Director Sidney H. Radner, "We honor his memory each year with this seance. We create the proper conditions at locations we feel can lead to success."

The Official Houdini Seance was by invitation only. The medium for the 2009 Séance was Nancy Garber, a renowned Boston-based psychic/medium. 

This post originally appeared on