Monday, December 28, 2009

Did Houdini’s Voisin land in the hands of Chung Ling Soo?

Lions Club President Rob Mackay reports on an interesting development in the search for Houdini’s lost Voisin biplane, which is being conducted in anticipation of next year’s centenary celebrations of Houdini's first flight in Diggers Rest.

Is it possible the plane wound up in the possession of magician and aviation enthusiast William Robinson a.k.a. Chung Ling Soo? Rob reports:

"Harry Houdini shipped his biplane to England and never flew again. That year John Bevins Moisant, famous for his barnstorming, crashed a plane and so Houdini offered to help repair the damages by volunteering a replacement propeller and biplane for GRATIS. In December 1910 John Bevins Moisant died by crashing another plane. 
The biplane was held in storage until 1913, when a gentleman named, “Donald Stevenson” picked it up from the warehouse. Stevenson then sold it to another aviation enthusiast, who it is believed to be Chung Ling Soo, known, from a technical viewpoint, as the greatest magician of all time. Although Chung Ling Soo acted as a Chinese man, he was an Englishman named, William Ellsworth Robinson. He was also fascinated with planes and created the first model plane factory in the world."

The intriguing connection was uncovered by a tipster who discovered that Donald Stevenson, who was a magician and engineer, worked in Robinson's workshop behind the magician’s home, sharing expenses. When Robinson wanted help with his magic effects, Stevenson billed him for his time. Robinson's house was a large three story brick mansion that comprised two addresses at 48 and 50 Lonsdale Road in London. Both men had a fascination with aviation and model plane building.

Robinson died tragically onstage on March 23, 1918 performing the bullet catch trick. (Houdini was talked out of performing the same effect by magician Harry Keller.) Donald Stevenson later wrote a series of articles for Model Engineering magazine, detailing his early model aviation work and connections with Chung Ling Soo.

So if the Voisin found its way into the Soo/Stevenson magic and aviation collection, what happened to it after Robinson’s untimely death?

Ragtime revival closing after only 57 performances

USA Today reports that the sweet, syncopated sounds of Ragtime will fall silent Sunday on Broadway.

The $8 million musical, which features Houdini in its cast of characters, will close after a disappointing run of less than two months at the Neil Simon Theatre. It will have played 57 performances.

"While we're saddened and disappointed to announce that Ragtime must close, bringing this beautiful and powerful production to Broadway has been a joyous experience," lead producer Kevin McCollum said Monday." We couldn't have asked for a more talented and dedicated company and creative team or a more passionate team of producers."

The ambitious revival opened Nov. 15 to generally positive notices but never took off at the box office.

UPDATE: Because an unexpected boost in ticket sales, Ragtime has been extended to January 10.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Houdini Quotable Notables note card

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild has included Houdini in their Quotable Notables note cards series. Part greeting card, part paper doll, these note cards are unique to say the least.

You can order the Harry Houdini Quotable Notables card from the UPG website for $3.95, or use their store locator to find a retail outlet that carries their products.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Houdini: The Temple of the Serpent

Fresh New Games has created a Houdini-themed online game called Houdini: The Temple of the Serpent.

The plot finds Houdini in Mexico City “where brightly clad assailants kidnap Harry and his lovely assistant Margaret from the city streets. He awakes on the sacrificial altar of an Aztec temple. He must escape the hidden temple before Margaret falls to a similar fate, facing fiendish booby traps, deadly scorpions and bloodthirsty guards.”

Houdini: The Temple of the Serpent is fun stuff, and slightly reminiscent of Houdini’s own Imprisoned With The Pharaohs.

Click here to play

Monday, December 21, 2009

Houdini Sounds of Mystery on CD

The Miracle Factory is offering a unique audio CD collection of Houdini related rarities. Houdini: Sounds of Mystery contains nine MP3 audio tracks for the Houdini buff, including:

  • Houdini’s voice in a 1914 Edison recording (the only known recording of Houdini’s voice).
  • The famous 1936 Final Houdini Seance featuring Bess Houdini and Edward Saint.
  • Groucho Marx’s hilarious Houdini anecdote.
  • 1937 Unsolved Mysteries Houdini radio program.
  • Audio recordings of Miracle Mongers and Their Methods, The Right Way to Do Wrong, The Master Mystery, and two vintage articles in audio form, “Handcuff Releases” from Scientific American in 1912 and “The Story of Harry Houdini” from The New York Times in 1918.

For more information and to purchase visit The Miracle Factory website.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Houdini Unlocking the Mystery re-released on DVD

A new retail version of The History Channel documentary Houdini: Unlocking the Mystery (not to be confused with A&E’s Houdini: Unlocking the Secrets) has been released on DVD.

Houdini: Unlocking the Mystery first aired on Halloween 2005. Produced by New Wave Entertainment and hosted by Lance Burton, this doc highlights footage from the 2004 Las Vegas auction where David Copperfield bought the Water Torture Cell for $300,000.

In my opinion this is the best of all the Houdini documentaries, with containing interviews with George Hardeen and even Margery's great granddaughter, Anna Thurlow.

A DVD copy had been available direct from The History Channel website, but that version came with generic cover art.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Poster for Diggers Rest Houdini Centenary celebrations

The good folks at the Melton Shire Council have sent us an official poster for the Houdini Centenary celebrations to be held at Diggers Rest, March 18-21, 2010.

The celebrations commemorate Houdini’s historic first flight in Australia and will include a special ceremony, a Houdini-Centenary air-show, magic performances, a one-third scale model of Houdini’s Voisin, and more.

Details can be found at the impressive new Diggers Rest Houdini website as well as the Melton Shire Council website.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Diggers Rest gears up for Houdini celebrations

A new roadside billboard has gone up near the entrance to Diggers Rest, Australia, as part of the preparations for a massive celebration commemorating Houdini’s first flight on that continent 100 years ago.

Diggers Rest resident Steve Samagalski was asked by the town's Lions Club to design the roadside billboard to mark the event. Mr Samagalski, an IT manager, was keen for the challenge, despite not having much artistic experience.

The preparation of the 6x2-metre billboard involved about 40 hours of work, and took about six weeks to complete.

"The expectations of the billboard were on a scale far larger than anything I had created before," Mr Samagalski said. "I presented the design to the Lions club in August and it was enthusiastically received."

Mr Samagalski said it was great to be able to be a part of such a proud moment in history. "Houdini's flights in his Voisin biplane March 18, 1910, are recognized as the first officially recorded powered aeroplane flights in Australia," he said.

The Houdini celebrations are set for March 18-21, 2010, and will include a special ceremony, a Houdini-Centenary air-show, magic performances, a one-third scale model of Houdini’s Voisin, and more. Details can be found at the impressive new Diggers Rest Houdini website:

The search for Houdini’s biplane is on!

As part of the Centenary celebrations of Houdini’s first flight in Australia, the Lions Club and Diggers Rest are launching a serious attempt to locate Houdini’s lost Voison biplane -- or at least discover exactly what happened to it.

A “treasure hunt” has been launched at the impressive new Diggers Rest Houdini website asking readers to contribute information or tips that can help track the Voison following Houdini’s historic first Australian flight on March 18, 1910. A map and timeline is being created with the hopes of tracking the plane to its final destination.

Whoever is the first person to e-mail the location of the original biplane will win a bottle of Houdini Pinot Noir wine.

Regardless of the outcome (the Lions Club tried to find the biplane twenty years ago when they celebrated the 80th anniversary of flight), Houdini’s Voison WILL make an appearance at the Diggers Rest Centennial celebrations in the form of a one-third scale model constructed by local resident Ian Satur.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The mystery of Franz Kukol

Houdini buffs are well aware of Franz Kukol, Houdini’s first chief assistant who served the great magician from 1903 to 1914. As the story goes, with the outbreak of World War I, the Austrian-born Kukol returned to his homeland to serve in the Army. Some say Houdini fired him because of his nationality. Either-way, Kukol abruptly leaves the Houdini story at the mid-point of Houdini’s career.

I’ve always found this a rather sad end to what must have been a very close personal and professional relationship. Afterall, Kukol thought enough of his boss to name his son Harry Houdini Kukol (born May 24, 1909 in Austria).

But now Houdini expert Patrick Culliton has uncovered what he believes to be a new chapter in the Franz Kukol story. According to Patrick, Kukol never left Houdini’s employee or his side (right to the grave). Houdini simply turned him into a new person: Frank Williamson.

In a detailed posting on the Genii Forums, Patrick (who has the ironic advantage of having played Kukol in the ABC TV movie The Great Houdinis), states; “On August 25, 1914, ‘Frank’ Kukol applied for naturalized citizenship. He renounced all foreign governments and signed an oath of allegiance to the United States. His application was rejected: ‘not enough information.’ In it, he documented that his wife Anna and their two children, Marie and Harry were living in Austria.”

Following this, the Conjuring Record for Sept 3, 1914 reported that Kukol left Houdini’s employee. In a story headlined, OBEYS CALL TO WAR; HOUDINI LOSES ASSISTANT it’s reported that “Mr. Franz Kukol, one of Harry Houdini's chief assistants, was called by his country, Germany, to the front. He left at once to fight for the cause of the Fatherland. Kukol assisted Houdini in his escape from the water cell and other experiments.”

Franz Kukol at work. Photo from Houdini Unlocked by Patrick Culliton.

However, Patrick notes there is some clear evidence that Kukol continued to work with Houdini, at least until America entered the War. While Houdini was playing the Maryland Theatre in 1916, a newspaper article noted: "Three of Mr. Houdini's assistants are Englishmen. The fourth is a German. 'I do not have to read the newspapers to learn about the war,' he said. 'Every once in a while I have to rescue the German from the Englishmen. They actually get to the coats-off stage in some of their arguments. It's all very funny to me, but they are not joking about it.'"

Furthermore, on Sept 12, 1918, both Harry Houdini and Frank Kukol registered for the draft at the same New York office. It’s at that moment that Franz AKA Frank Kukol disappears.

Patrick continues:

“I was told that the $500 bequest that Houdini left to Franz Kukol was sent to a New York address. If Franz was in New York when Houdini died, he would have to have been a pallbearer. Unless, perhaps, he was afraid of being picked up. Franz wasn't a pallbearer, but, Frank Williamson was.
I thoroughly believe that Frank Williamson was Franz Kukol.
After the funeral, Frank Williamson disappears from history -- so far. I think Houdini made Franz disappear. That rejected application for naturalized citizenship along with the signed loyalty oath kind of made Franz a man without a country.”

Patrick points to two photos of Houdini performing his 1925/26 full evening show which show an assistant who resembles Kukol without a mustache. Says Patrick, “He is standing by the Morritt Hello Summer illusion in the Big Show Photo in the Henning book; and he is holding Vickery's severed arm in the Paligenesia photo in the Kellock book.” That assistant is identified as Frank Williamson.

Is this Franz Kukol in action in Houdini's 1925/26 show?

Interestingly, this is not the first time this name shows up as an alias. In Houdini’s Conjurers Monthly Magazine there is a letter from a Frantz Williamson of Elberfeld, Germany (Houdini frequently misspelled Franz as Frantz) questioning the origin of the packing case trick (and allowing Houdini to establish a claim on the effect).

Patrick Culliton as Kukol in
The Great Houdinis (1976)
Also, in 1924, when a photo of Houdini and Teddy Roosevelt was disputed, Houdini states in a letter to R.W.G. Vail (now in the collection of Frank Saltman) that Franz will personally come to The Roosevelt Memorial Assoc. in N.Y.C. to swear he took the photos. This proves that Franz was still in the U.S. and a part of the Houdini organization well into the ‘20s.

Patrick concludes, “As to Frank Williamson being Franz Kukol, this is Culliton talking, I don't say this lightly, you can take it to the bank. The photos don't lie. Frank Kukol worked the full-evening show as Frank Williamson. Then they both REALLY disappear. So far. I never thought we'd come this far.”

UPDATE: Latest updates in the mystery of Franz Kukol.

GOP conjure another Houdini comparison

First Rush Limbaugh doctored Houdini’s King of Cards poster to show President Obama as “Barry Houdini” (I don't get it either), now presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has evoked Houdini’s name in criticizing the President’s economic policy.

Says Romney, “Focusing solely on jobs created while ignoring the far greater numbers of jobs lost is Harry Houdini economics.”

This appears to be a new spin on the expression “voodoo economics,” which is what George H.W. Bush called the policies of Ronald Reagan during the presidential primaries of 1980.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Challenge to Houdini first flight resurfaces

By The Australian

The Aviation Historical Society of Australia (NSW) and the Sydney branch of the Royal Aeronautical Society's Australian Division are both backing a move by the Powerhouse Museum to celebrate the 1909 flight of Englishman Colin Defries as the nation's first under control and power, reports Steve Creedy, aviation writer for the The Australian.

The claim is Defries flew a Wright Model A aircraft about 115 yards at Sydney's Victoria Racecourse on December 9, 1909. The Sydneysiders say this puts him well ahead of the man the Victorians consider to have made Australia's first powered flight, legendary American escapologist Harry Houdini, on March 18, 1910.

The question of who was responsible for the first controlled, powered flight has been muddied for decades and there was enough confusion in 1959-60 to prevent a special event for the 50th anniversary.

AHSA (NSW) president and Powerhouse Museum transport curator Ian Debenham says extensive research conducted by fellow ASHA member John Scott shows that it was and it had found "unequivocally" that the Englishman made the nation's first controlled, powered flight. However, Debenham agrees that it is a matter of historical record that "Houdini flew the wings off Defries".

But he notes that even though Defries' flights were "rather more tentative and straight line", it met the requirements for powered, controlled flight by the Gorell committee, set up to determine Britain's first flight.

"Returning to your point of take-off wasn't a requirement and even showing lateral control wasn't a requirement," he says. "You basically had to start off at certain height and finish no lower than that height.

"In other words, you couldn't start off with a run down a hill to get airborne, it had to be level ground, and you just had to go further than a ballistic hop would allow. (Defries) was flying out of ground effect, he was flying 15 to 20 feet and he was a trained pilot."

Scott points to several extracts from Sydney newspapers, including a report in The Daily Telegraph that says: "The Wright aeroplane accomplished its first flight yesterday afternoon at Victoria Park racecourse. After several preliminary tests, it succeeded in flying 115yds, the height from the ground varying from about 3ft to 15ft."

Houdini's first flight was also short and at little more than tree-top height but it was a controlled circuit of Plumpton's paddock at Diggers Rest.

"The first, and two subsequent flights that day were witnessed by at least nine people who signed a witness statement," he says "Reporters from The Argus and The Age were also present."

Not surprisingly, the Victorians are sticking by their man.

Brett Luxford, the manager of business growth and sustainability at the Melton Shire Council, says Houdini was still responsible for the first sustained powered flight and says one major difference was that the escapologist's flight was officially witnessed by the Australian Aerial League.

"I think some would acknowledge that Defries' was the first powered flight but in terms of controlling it and sustaining it, I think Houdini is widely recognised as the first controlled sustained and powered flight in Australia," he says.

Scott also dismisses a claim from South Australia that 19-year-old car mechanic Fred Custance beat Houdini to the punch with a controlled circling flight in a Bleriot XI monoplane on March 17, 1910, at Bolivar.

Diggers Rest will celebrate the Centenary of Houdini’s historic flight, March 18-21, 2010, with a special ceremony, a Houdini-Centenary air-show, magic performances, a one-third scale model of Houdini’s Voisin, and more. Details can be found at the impressive new Diggers Rest Houdini website:

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Houdini scrapbook on display at the Boston Public Library

The Boston Public Library in Copley Square has a rare Houdini scrapbook on display as part of their Cool + Collected: Treasures of the Boston Public Library exhibition which opened October 23.

According to the BPL website, “this remarkable scrapbook was compiled by Houdini’s good friend Quincy Kilby, a Brookline resident and Boston theater impresario. Materials in this large volume were collected over a twenty-year period and include personal letters, photographs, programs, newspapers clippings, and other unique memorabilia. Knowing that Kilby was amassing this collection, Houdini would send him items specifically ‘for your Houdini scraps book.’”

Cool + Collected is free and open to the public during all Library operating hours: Monday-Thursday, 9am-9pm; Friday and Saturday, 9am-5pm; and Sunday 1-5pm. The Central Library is located at 700 Boylston Street. The exhibition runs runs through February 2010.

You can see more photos at the BPL Flicker page.

Thanks to Bruce MacNab.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Deborah Harry sings Rosabelle

Houdini buffs are well familiar with the song, Rosabelle, and the significance it held for the Houdinis. Legend has it Bessie was signing this song when Harry first laid eyes on her in Coney Island in 1894. It became “their song.” (Never mind that it is actually a love song for an abandoned child with an incestuous twist.)

Rosabelle is a pretty yet haunting song that definitely conjures the spirit of a by-gone age. But did you know Deborah Harry of Blondie fame and Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller recorded a duet of the song in 1999? I actually recall Penn & Teller performing this as part of their act at the MGM Grand in the ‘90s.

The song appears on the album Tattoo Of Blood by The Captain Howdy. An MP3 can purchased on for .89¢. Lyrics can be found on Deborah Harry’s website.

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