Friday, December 31, 2010

Auld lang syne

In 2010...

We celebrated the centenary of Houdini's first flight.

Houdini once again went on tour.

Patrick Culliton revealed the secrets of Houdini.

We lost the greatest Houdini.

And in 2010 we launched this take Houdini into the future.

Have a happy and safe New Year's Eve and we'll see you all in 2011!

Houdini's favorite song as performed in 1910 by Frank C. Stanley

Polish Houdini biography

The mighty Kevin Connolly (Houdini Himself) alerts us to this book, 10 copies of which are currently being offered for sale on eBay.

This appears to be an original Polish biography of Houdini by Paul Sherman (as opposed to a Polish translation of one of the well-known english language biographies). Can't say I've seen many foreign language originals in my day.

Some further detective work reveals the book is 284 pages, a paperback, the publisher is Videograf II, and the release date was April 29, 2010. I can't find any indication whether the book is illustrated or not.

With shipping the total price comes out just under $20 U.S. Going to think about this one...

UPDATE: The same publisher appears to have released another original Houdini book in 2009.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Adroit Harry and ancient hokum

It's easy enough to find contemporary takes on Houdini's movies and acting ability, but how were his films received by critics when they were first released? I took my curiosity to the Motion Picture Academy's Margaret Herrick Library and dug out reviews of Houdini's two Paramount features, Terror Island and The Grim Game.

Terror Island, Motion Picture News, Vol. 1, 1920: 
The sponsors of this picture made an apology for it in the introductory caption and so disarmed the spectator to some extent from being unduly critical. The result is one must accept it for what it is -- a mere vehicle for the exploitation of the handcuff king, Houdini. The apology was kept up throughout the length of the feature, which proves how those in charge erred in putting over something on the public. Really, Terror Island goes back to the nickelodeon days, there being an absence of rhythm and reason in theme, treatment and interpretation. A sophisticated audience will surely kid the life out of it, just as they did at the Rialto. The picture is nothing more or less than a wild serial compressed into five reels and the incidents contained in it might have been conceived in a nightmare.
Highly impossible as the ancient hokum is, it is going to take a lot of explanation as more apology than what is offered to make even a child believe the stunts that take place underwater. Houdini might get away with it on a bet, but not Lila Lee.

While Terror Island is not a masterpiece, it's not this bad. Feels like Motion Picture News had it out for Harry somewhat. It is interesting to find the phrase "goes back to the nickelodeon days" in a review from 1920. Cool how the industry had already developed a sense of advancement.

But it wasn't all bad for Harry in Hollywood. His first Paramount feature fared far better with the critics, including this review in the November 1919 issue of Photoplay:

The Grim Game, Photoplay, November 1919:
This is the best play Harry Houdini has ever grappled with, or wiggled himself out of, and it is the best of school which may be described as trick melodrama. In other words, all of Houdini's celebrated stunts, such as shaking off a set of bracelets, withering out of a straight-jacket, or breaking half a ton of manacles are included, but there are also many new and entirely localized manifestations of his diabolic cleverness; and almost all the feats, escapes, and what-not are part of a well-woven, logical plot. Includes in this five-reel fracas, also, is the actual air-collision which stirred Hollywood a few months ago. Two machines, performing at altitude for Houdini's play, accidentally crashed together and fell to earth wreaking themselves, but fortunately not killing and of the occupants. Ann Forrest -- who, at Triangle, was known as Ann Kroman -- is a delightful ingenue lead in the adroit Harry's adventures; and the cast includes, also, Mae Busch -- reappearing after nearly two years absence: she was formally at Keystone -- Anothy Boyd, Tully Marshall and Augustus Phillips.

This last review almost seems too good to be true -- and maybe it is. Recall that Photoplay was a part of Macfadden Publications where Houdini had a good friend in editor, Fulton Oursler (who would later write his own "Houdini" movie for RKO).

Nevertheless, The Grim Game is supposed to be Houdini's best film, so while this review might be a touch effusive, it's overall assessment is shared by many. One bit of nice info is that Ann Forest was also known as Ann Kroman. That I didn't know.

Harry gets comfortable and catches up on his latest reviews in Variety

LINK: Houdini and Lincoln

There's a must read post today over at Carnegie: Magic Detective about Houdini and President Abraham Lincoln. Dean contends that Lincoln, not Robert-Houdin, was Houdini's true boyhood hero (and I concur).

Click on the headline to read the interesting history of the Master Mystifier and the Great Emancipator at Magic Detective.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Adrienne Barbeau on seducing Houdini

Here's one from the old site that I thought was worth reposting here.

In 2006 horror movie website The Terror Trap interviewed the great Adrienne Barbeau. While she's had an illustrious career in films such as The Fog and Escape from New York, Houdini buffs know her best as the seductress Daisy White in the 1976 TV movie The Great Houdinis (a movie we love around here).

The following is an excerpt from the interview in which Adrienne recalls her days playing the "other woman" in Houdini's life.

TT: We're going to jump ahead a few years to The Great Houdini, a supernatural-tinged Made-for-TV movie that you made in 1976...
AB: Oh yes...
TT: We love Houdini. It's very rare, having never been put out on video, but we have a copy and remember seeing it when it aired. Do you recall how the role of Daisy came your way?
AB: That was an offer. I had just signed with Creative Artists. I didn't even know who they were. They were just getting started, but through a series of coincidences, I ended up signing with them. And they called one day and said "we've got this offer for you to do this part." It was the first film that I had ever done and I knew nothing about films. I had only done stage and tape up until that time. We did Maude the same way you do a stage play. We just rehearsed for 4 1/2 days and then did it for an audience straight through, no stops or anything. So we did the master...the first establishing shot...on Houdini...and I didn't know that people did close-ups. I went off and started to change clothes to do the next scene! (Laughs.)
TT: That's funny. You know, in particular one of the things that strikes us about The Great Houdini is that you got to work with such a fantastic cast: Paul Michael Glaser, Ruth Gordon, Sally Struthers, Peter Cushing...that must have been a very fascinating experience for you.
AB: My husband would remind you that we had Vivian Vance on that one...he's a big I Love Lucy fan!
TT: Yes!
AB: I've had a fascinating career...because I've worked with so many wonderful actors and interesting people. I knew Sally, of course, because she was doing All in the Family at the time. Unfortunately, I didn't have any scenes with Ruth or Peter, so I didn't get to spend any time with them. As I said, it was my first film experience and a real learning process.
With Paul Michael Glaser in The Great Houdinis

Head on over to Terror Trap to read the full interview with Adrienne Barbeau. Also check out her official website:

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Link: Special offer from Edge of the Unknown artist Marco Roblin

Edge of the Unknown artist Marco Roblin is offering buyers of the new Collected Edition a special offer via his blog. Just click the headline above for details.

Watch for my review of this latest Houdini-Conan Doyle adventure in the new year.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Aviator

Here's another beautiful original photo from our mysterious benefactor, MSW (who last helped us bust Bess). This pic shows Houdini in Australia behind the wheel of his Voison Biplane, possibly on the day of his historic first flight.

From the collection of MSW. Click to enlage.

A beauty! Thank you MSW.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Doug Henning's World of Magic aired 35 years ago today

It was exactly 35 years ago on December 26, 1975, that Doug Henning performed his first live television special on NBC, The World of Magic. Of course, what made this night so memorable, and now legendary, was Henning's performance of Houdini's Chinese Water Torture Cell.

Henning was not a death-defyier by nature, and he would later admit that performing the USD was a harrowing experience, and one that he would never repeat. But he also noted, "I reached 50 million people through my first TV special. That's more people than saw Houdini in his whole lifetime."

I was one of those 50 million, and I'll never forget the experience of seeing this show. Along with seeing the movie HOUDINI with Tony Curtis (which I think all happened in the same month), it sparked my interest in magic and obsession with Houdini. In fact, the TV Guide advert for the show (below) was the very first image I ever saw of the real Harry Houdini. This image bewitched me.

Original TV Guide ad. (Click to enlarge)

Henning's special was a huge hit, and not only did it make Doug Henning the preeminent magician of the day, but it reinvigorated magic and opened the door for other magicians to mount their own Prime Time TV specials, which continue to this day. Henning would go on to perform several more live TV specials and tour until 1987 when he retired to study Transcendental Meditation (he reportedly sold many of his effects to David Copperfield). He died of liver cancer in 2000 at the age of 52 -- the same age as Houdini when he died.

Doug Henning is one of the all-time great names in magic. And on this day 35 years ago, he proved himself to be a showman worthy of Houdini.

Thanks to Andrew Martin ( for reminding me of this important anniversary. You can read the full story of Doug in Spellbound: The Wonder-filled Life of Doug Henning.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Wishing everyone Happy Holidays

1925 Houdini Christmas card recently displayed at the Boston Public Library

Houdini and Conan Doyle venture into Edge of the Unknown

Horror website Bloody Disgusting reports that Jack Reher (Red Machine) is penning a live-action adaptation of Jon Vinson's 2009 graphic novel, Edge of the Unknown, which features Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle investigating a series of brutal murders in 1920's Hollywood.

The project is said to be "out to directors." No studio or producer mentioned, so this is probably an independent endeavor, as was the original graphic novel.

I admit I had not even heard of this book until I saw this article. Happily, I was able to find that you can still order all four issues, or a new 160-page Collected Edition, at Indy Planet.

Judging by this sample artwork, I'd say this endeavor looks bloody cool!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A new Houdini graphic novel for 2011

Just in time for Christmas Capstone Press has released Houdini: The Life of the Great Escape Artist by Agnieszka Biskup with illustrations by Pat Kinsella.

This graphic novel biography for young readers runs 32 pages and does a very nice job condensing Houdini's life into its major and most visual moments. Using the performance of the Water Torture Cell as an anchor, the story flashes back to his influence by Robert-Houdin, his early career performing Metamorphosis, the handcuff escapes, and even the Mirror Challenge. Bess doesn't find her way into the story, but we do get a mention of Houdini's film career. The illustrated story ends before the 1920s, leaving an addendum to describe his Spiritualist crusade and details of his death. There is also a glossary and study aids in the back.

The book appears to be well researched (it cites The History Museum at the Castle in Appleton as a consultant). Of note is some authentic Houdini patter used during the USD, Mirror, and Metamorphosis performances.

All in all, a very nicely done little book, and definitely one for the kids or collection.

Houdini The Life of the Great Escape Artist is available now in paperback. It will be released in Library Binding on January 2, 2011.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Houdini and Genii go for cover #18

Here's a great way to kick off the new year. Houdini has made the cover of the new January 2011 issue of Genii: The Conjurors' Magazine. And it's a beauty of a cover at that!

Inside the magazine contains a spectacular 18-page spread on the new traveling exhibition, Houdini Art and Magic, with lots of rare photos of Houdini and images from the exhibition, along with articles by Ken Silverman and curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport, as well as blurbs by James Randi, David Blaine, and Richard Kaufman.

The issue is out now to subscribers and should be available in stores soon.

By my count, this makes the 18th Houdini-Genii cover (including one Bessie cover). Ironically, the poster image on this 2011 issue uses the same photograph that graced the very first Houdini-Genii cover in October 1936.

A history of Houdini on Genii
1936 to 1942
1953 to 1964
1972 to 2011

LINK: Lessons in Manliness from Harry Houdini

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The King of Cards in 1926

In his new book, Houdini The Key, Patrick Culliton reveals some details of a lost short film Houdini apparently made for Pathe in early 1926.

In this film Houdini demonstrates some of his famous card flourishes, including his 32 card forward and back palm, an armspread turnover, a waterfall, and an amazing armspread toss and catch. Later in the film Houdini reportedly demonstrates some card cheat methods.

I threw the net out to some of my fellow Houdini thinkers and collectors for more info, but no one could tell me anything more about this curious short. There's also no mention of it in Matthew Soloman's seminal study Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century. The small amount of footage that survives appears to have come from the 1950 feature documentary, The Golden Twenties.

Why was it made? How long was it? Why did Houdini do this with Pathe and, most intriguingly, could it have been a sound film? It's not impossible.

Both Fox's Movietone and Warner Bros. Vitaphone sound systems came into use in 1926. The first feature sound film, Don Juan (music only), was released that same year. In fact, 1926 was a year filled with sound film demonstrations across the country in newsreels that bear a striking resemblance to this Houdini footage. So the technology was there. Was Houdini there as well? It would seem out of character for him not to jump on this new technology.

Sound or silent, it would be nice to see this entire film. In The Key we see images of Houdini performing in tux and tails on a full dress magic stage. It is poetic that the last moving images of Houdini shows him as he began -- as the "King of Cards."

Image from Houdini Art and Magic

UPDATE: It appears more of this rare footage can be seen on the 3-DVD set "Vintage Magic Films" produced by The Miracle Factory.

UPDATE 2: Here's a piece of the footage from the 1986 documentary, Hollywood Ghost Stories.

UPDATE 3: CLICK HERE for details about where and when this short film played, and the title!

Bessie does her bad, bad thing

Here's a terrific photo of Bess Houdini that I've never seen before from a private collection. The caption reads, "Mrs. Harry Houdini; oldest lady magician and the youngest man magician; Howard Brant 4/26/1935." You can also clearly see her famous wedding band in this pic.

From the collection of MSW. Click to enlarge.

But what is the "bad, bad thing" that we've made such a fuss about? Lifting a rabbit by the ears! A real rabbit should never be picked up by the ears (kids). That technique belongs in the dustbin of magic history along with killing the dove.

(And here you thought it was going to be something else.)

A big thanks to MSW for this one.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bessie busted!

We received from a private collector a rare photo of Bess Houdini doing a bad, bad thing in 1935. What kind of evil deeds could our sainted Bessie possibly get up to, you ask?

Check back here tomorrow when we will bust Bess.

The search is on for Houdini's WTIC radio broadcast

Last week I shared the complete text of a rare and, until now, unknown radio address that Houdini gave over station WTIC-CT on December 3, 1925 (click here to read the full article and speech). At the end, I speculated whether it might be possible that a recording of this broadcast still exists.

Well, I've just exchanged emails with the very helpful Chief Engineer of WTIC who is going to make a search of their archives. He says it's a long-shot as only a handful of recordings from 1925 still exist, but WTIC does archive special and historic broadcasts such as this. He also said he believes the WTIC guestbook contains Houdini's signature. How cool is that?

Stay tuned!

The Weed Chain Tire Grip challenge

One of Houdini's most visually spectacular escapes was when he was challenged to free himself from chains provided by the Weed Chain Tire Grip, Co. Houdini accomplished the feat on April 10, 1908 at the Keiths Theater in New York City.

The image of Houdini in the "grip" of the weed chains is a famous one. Houdini would make good use the dramatic photos in his pitchbooks, and the image of him laying flat has gone on to appear in many biographies. However, details of the escape itself have always been somewhat scant.

Now, super collector Arthur Moses (Houdini Speaks Out) sends over the Weed Chain Tire Grip Co's own account of the challenge from their company pitchbook, The Weed. One interesting revelation is that Houdini repeated the escape a second time in Philadelphia.

Is it just me, or does it sounds like Houdini wrote this article himself? Enjoy.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

Thank you, Arthur!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Building Houdini’s Voisin

Melton resident Ian Satur, president of the Melton Model Aircraft Association, has dedicated 700 hours of work over 10 months to building the one-third scale model of Houdini’s Voisin II biplane, reports the Melton Telegraph.

The replica has a wingspan of about three metres and is capable of flight.

It can fly with the correct motor,” says Satur, “but that is not the intention; it will be used for display purposes only.”

Making model aircraft is both a passion and a hobby for the retired teacher, 69, who described the construction of the replica as “a labour of love.”

“I started my research mainly using the internet and old magazines. I managed to obtain one page of three-view drawings and some useful articles from the internet, including pictures of the aereoplane, some with Harry Houdini in view.”

"First was a trip to the local hardware store. Then began the arduous task of measuring, marking, cutting and shaping the materials required for the basic fuselage shell. Having settled for a nearly four-metre long fuselage and a three-metre wingspan, everything that had to be done became increasingly difficult, just because of the sheer size of the model.”

“In many cases, materials to be used were only decided upon after spending hours in the hardware store looking at all the possibilities. The model is made of hardwood dowels, balsa wood, plywood, wire, steel rods, cloth and more. It is as close to the actual aeroplane that Harry Houdini flew as I could get.”

The replica will be on display as part of the Houdini Centenary Celebrations at Diggers Rest, Australia, March 18-21, 2010.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

HOUDINI (1953)

Unquestionably the most famous Houdini biopic is Paramount's 1953 HOUDINI starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. It's amazing just how many magic and Houdini buffs, including myself, cite this one film as the reason they became interested in the subject. While HOUDINI is almost entirely a work of fiction, it does capture the glamor, drama, and danger of Harry Houdini in a way that I think would have made the Master Mystifier proud.

Since the 1930s, Hollywood had worked to tell the life of the great magician. RKO developed, but never produced, a movie that would be a thinly veiled fictional biopic called Now You See It. In 1936, Beatrice Houdini and her manager Edward Saint sold film rights to the book Houdini His Life Story by Harold Kellock to Paramount. Under the supervision of Dore Schary, several scripts were developed, but no movie ever resulted. In May 1949, a former drug store operator, Joseph Raboff, and a real estate man, Earl Cohen, acquired the rights to the Kellock book in the hopes of making a movie and a television series with either John Garfield or Lee Cobb in the lead role. Again, the project never materialized.

Then in September 1951, Paramount reacquired the rights to the Kellock book from Cohen and Raboff when producer George Pal expressed interest in the project. This time the result was the big, bold Technicolor treat we know today as HOUDINI. Pal and director George Marshall cast real-life husband and wife Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh in the roles of Harry and Bess Houdini. Other cast included Angela Clarke as "Mama", and Torin Thatcher as Harry's fictional assistant and manager Otto. Dunninger receives a lavish credit as technical advisor, but according to Tony Curtis, the true technical advisor on the film was George Boston. "Dunninger was a blow hard," Curtis would tell a Magic Castle audience in 2009. And speaking of The Magic Castle, that's co-founder Bill Larsen, Jr. (uncredited) performing the Guillotine act at the SAM convention in the film.

HOUDINI is mounted as a lavish magic show within a movie. Several magical effects are played out in their entirety and primarily in long shot. In fact, it plays as such a magic show, live audiences I've seen it with applaud the conclusion of each trick. As for the stars, Curtis and Leigh are nothing less than glamorous!

The film also beautifully recreates many of Houdini's most famous escapes, including the straitjacket escape both onstage and suspended, a safe escape, a metal straitjacket (said to be an authentic Houdini prop), a jail escape, and Houdini's ordeal trapped below the ice following his escape from a submerged metal box. This is one of the most dramatic and memorable scenes in the film, and while Houdini himself was responsible for this fiction, it was actually first slated to appear in the unmade RKO film in 1932.

Most interesting to long-time fans of HOUDINI is the revelation of several cut scenes. Set photos posted on the LIFE magazine website show Curtis and Leigh performing the Cremation illusion, and a recreation of Houdini's Milk Can escape (the prop can used in the film now resides in the Houdini Seance Room at The Magic Castle). Also, the plane to plane transfer from Houdini's silent film The Grim Game was re-staged on the Paramount backlot for this film, making it the only biopic to acknowledge Houdini's silent movie career (well, it made an attempt to, at least).

The Milk Can and Grim Game airplane stunt were cut from HOUDINI

While HOUDINI starts off light and breezy with wonderful romantic byplay between Harry and Bess, the movie actually grows quite dark as Harry's obsession gets the better of him. One of the best scenes in the film is when Harry and Bess have an argument in an empty theater with a bubbling Water Torture Cell in the background (here called the Pagoda Torture Cell). "I wish it was another woman who took you from me, Harry, that I can fight. This I can't," says Bess. Faced with losing his wife, Harry promises to cut the Cell from his show.

However, on show day, Harry cannot resist the cheers of the audience and the cries of "more", and brings out the bubbling cell for an encore. But a tender appendix and an accidental blow backstage (he walks into a prop sword) weakens him and he becomes trapped in the cell and drowns before Bess and the horrified audience (establishing the myth that persists to this day that Houdini died in the Water Torture Cell). As his limp body is dragged from the smashed cell, the camera drifts off the dying magician to his first innocent magic poster and we are reminded just how far Houdini has traveled in pursuit of applause. It's a remarkably dark and tragic ending that makes a powerful impact.

HOUDINI was well received by the critics of the day. However, the magic community was less enamored. Magician and Houdini biographer Milbourne Christopher (Houdini The Untold Story) led the charge in a review that took the movie to task for its many fictions and inaccuracies. Said Christopher, "I won't attempt to list the anachronisms and inaccuracies in the film. Generally speaking, if any phase of Houdini's life is shown on the screen you can be sure it didn't happen the way it's pictured."

Perhaps this attitude is understandable. The magic community had waited years for a Houdini biopic, and one could see how a largely fictional treatment would disappoint. Of course, no one then had any idea just how influential the film would be, and how many magicians and Houdini enthusiasts it was inspire. In that regard, Paramount's 1953 HOUDINI is certainly the most successful of all the Houdini movies.

Happily, HOUDINI is also the most accessible of all the Houdini movies. It first aired on television (NBC) in January 1965, and is repeated on a regular bases to this day. It has also been released on VHS, LaserDisc, DVD and Blu-ray. It's even periodically still screened in theaters. To this day, HOUDINI remains one of star Tony Curtis' most well remembered and well regarded films.