Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The lost posters of Harry Houdini

Houdini and "Bobby" in
front of a lost poster
One of the highlights of the Houdini Art and Magic exhibition is the sudden appearance of largely unknown Houdini poster. But this isn't a surprise. I believe we've seen only a fraction of the posters Houdini used in his lifetime.

Look at this picture from Houdini His Life Story of Houdini with his dog, "Bobby The Handcuff King." In the background is a large poster showing Houdini gazing through the bars of a jail cell window that has never been published. This poster can also be spotted in the background of at least one other candid shot, so it appears to have been one he used often. But does a copy of the actual poster exist in any collection?

Furthermore, check out this photo of a Houdini theater display in Salem, Massachusetts. Three of the four Houdini posters shown here are completely unknown, and the fourth (back left) is extremely uncommon. I'm especially intrigued by the poster on the right behind the packing crate. It appears to show Houdini floating in a semi-disembodied state inside a jail cell, similar to the well-known Prison Cell and Barrel Mystery poster. Is it another poster for this effect, or something else entirely?

Three of the four posters in this shot are unknown

Then there are posters that are hiding in plain sight. Chief among these are two rare gems from the book, Houdini His Life and Art by James Randi. As far as know, these two posters appear nowhere except this book, and here only in black and white (a portion of one appears in color on the cover). What I especially love about the "America's Sensation!" poster is that it spells out Houdini's name as "Harry Handcuff Houdini." I've never seen this on any other poster. The poster for the overboard box is also unique in that it advertises an outside escape. Could he have ever produced a poster like this for the suspended straightjacket, I wonder?

These two rare posters have never been reproduced in color

Both these posters are credited as coming from the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Canada, so they belonged at one time to either Sid Radner, Henry Muller, or the Dunninger collection. But where are they today and why have these stunners never been reproduced in color?

Houdini isn't alone in having some tantalizing lost posters. His brother Hardeen used some spectacular posters in his day, but very few have survived. Also, as far as I know, no posters from his career before Houdini's death have been reproduced in color. Among the long lost Hardeen sheets is one that can be seen as part of an Oakland billboard. Oh to get a better look at this.

A Hardeen billboard provides a peek at a lost poster

Enjoy these image and join me in wondering just how many beautiful Houdini (and Hardeen) posters are out there just waiting to be discovered.

UPDATE: Lost Houdini posters FOUND!

UPDATE: NYPL shows us "America's Sensation" in color.


  1. Good points. I always wondered how much it cost performers to have posters made and how Houdini managed to have posters even in his days of poverty (Metamprphosis and King of Cards). Did the artists work for the printing companies? Who designed the posters?

  2. I believe the cost of these posters is in the Taschen MAGIC book. I can't remember at the moment, but I know they were surprisingly expensive, and magicians would order them by the 1000s. But this was THE advertising of the day. It was very important to travel with a good stock of posters. Unfortunately, those stocks were used and exhausted. They got their money's worth out if them. But this also means so few remain today. I sometimes think that's why we see more King of Cards posters than the posters Houdini used at the height of his career. He didn't have as much work, or use, for those King of Cards posters. And, you're right, those must have cost him a pretty penny when he was broke.

  3. Great stuff. I was actually planning on writing this exact blog myself, lol. You beat me to it and you did a great job. Among the missing posters are the 24 sheet posters. As far as I know, none of the 24 sheet posters remain and I don't think there are any photos of them either.

  4. The Jail Breaker poster is in the NYPL Library for the Performing Arts collection (see for a color picture) and the overboard poster is in the Norm Neilsen collection. It is a huge poster and the colors are beautiful. It was done by Howard K Elcock, the artist who did many illustrations for Will Goldston.

  5. Holy cats!!! Thank you, Chuck. There is the jail breaker poster in full color! Beautiful. And I'm thrilled to know the overboard poster is safe in the collection of Norm Neilsen. Maybe one day it will be reproduced in color or displayed somewhere. Thanks again.

  6. Is the "Jail Breaker" from the NYPL the same one from the Randi book, I mean the actual same poster? The reason I ask, there seems to be a fair amount of damage on the NYPL one, three of the corners are missing. That doesn't appear to be the case in the Randi version, though I suppose over time it could have happened. Also, I just noticed Houdini has 'American Flag' shorts on, very Apollo Creed-ish, lol.

  7. John, check out this link for a full color view of the Over Board Packing Case poster. The photo is at the bottom of the page so you'll need to scroll down.

  8. Thanks for all the emails and links on this, everybody. I've been out all day, still out, so I haven't had a chance to look at any of these goodies or respond. I've waited 33 years to see that overboard box sheet in color -- going to need to wait a few more hours, if I can stand it. :)

  9. It was worth the wait. Thanks. :)

  10. Update with all this great new info:

    Dean -- I don't think the NYPL poster is the same one from Randi. The NYPL copy has been stuck inside the SAM scrapbook and is only now being liberated.

    Re the 24 sheets. Is that one on page 22 of Christopher's Pictorial Life (you can also see the peering through the bar sheet there)? I woud die to see that up close and in color. Looks like there a dramatic illustration of a bridge jump there. I really should have included this in the article.

  11. Another little update. There is a better photo of that Salem theater display in Christopher's Houdini A Pictorial Life (page 7-8) where you read the text on that poster on the right. It is indeed an alternate version of the Prison Cell and Barrel "Transportation".