Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dead Men’s Tales: Harry Houdini

Documentary Heaven has posted the documentary Houdini - Dead Men's Tales. This appears to have aired on the Discovery Channel in Canada and, as far as I know, is not available on home video or DVD.

Heeeere's Milla!

Mistress or stalker?
If you recall, in my infamous and much-viewed post from last December, The illicit loves of Harry Houdini, I couldn't find a picture of prime suspect, Milla Barry. Now, thanks to Houdini biographer and Conjuring Arts Research Center maven, William Kalush (The Secret Life of Houdini), we have our girl!

As a refresher, in 1903 Houdini shared the bill with singer/actress Barry and appears to have become personally entangled with her in some way. He confided in a close friend that Barry was attempting to break up his marriage. "I am having a hell of a time, and it will become worse," he wrote.

But was this an affair, or just a fatal attraction situation? I tend to think it was something other than romantic. Most of Houdini's mistresses come into his life in the late teens and early 1920s, when Houdini was in prime male mid-life crisis age. I also don't think Houdini would cheat while his mother was still alive.

Thanks again to Bill Kalush.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Get Harry on the go

I've now optimized WILD ABOUT HARRY for mobile devices. Now you can get your Houdini news on the go with a clean, fast, easy interface. You don't need to do anything special, just enter our normal URL,, and what comes up will look like what you see on the left.

Also don't forget about our new Updates by email feature. And remember that we are also on Facebook and Twitter.

By the way, we've now topped 50,000 views since we launched in November 2010. Thank you!

Hitch and Harry

A Houdini biopic directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Cary Grant? It could have happened. In July 1944 mega producer David O. Selznick (Gone With The Wind) sent Hitchcock a memo in which he pitched two projects for the director's consideration. One was a biopic of Houdini. Wrote Selznick:

"Houdini" with either Cary Grant or Joe Cotton can, I think, be an outstanding and enormously popular picture with very great opportunity for treatment by you.

Unfortunately, Hitchcock turned down Houdini as well as Selznick's second suggestion, a Technicolor version of SHE with Ingrid Bergman. Instead, Hitchcock and Selznick would settle on doing Spellbound with Bergman and Gregory Peck as their next film.

Just another tantalizing what could have been.

The Hitchcock and Houdini names did finally come together in 1988 with an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents called, Houdini on Channel 4. The episode featured a magician (Nick Lewin) seeking the assistance of Houdini's spirit to unmask his murderous wife. Jan Filips played Houdini.

With thanks to the The Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences Margaret Herrick Library.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Harry Houdini, fashion trendsetter

In this 2009 interview about his film, Is Anybody There? (which recently made a list of Top 5 Magician Movies), actor Michael Caine had this interesting nugget of information about Houdini’s influence on other

Q: Did you learn any magic tricks while doing The Prestige?

CAINE: No, I didn’t play a magician in The Prestige, you see, I played the guy who made the tricks. It was Hugh and Christian who were the magicians. No, but in this, the first thing I saw that I’d got right, was before we ever started shooting the movie, I decided to part my hair in the middle. And then I had to meet the real magician to learn the tricks, the technical advisor, and he came in, and his hair was parted in the middle and I thought I haven’t even started the movie and I’ve got something right. (Laughs) And I said to another magician, who I met later, I said, I told him that story I said, and he had his hair parted in the middle, and he said a lot of magicians have their hair parted in the middle. And I said, “Why is that?” He said, “Houdini. Houdini parted his hair and all the young magicians copied him.”

You can read the entire interview HERE.

Link: Looking for Houdini cards for project

Super collector Kevin Connolly is working on a project to catalog as many Houdini cards as possible. "I am in search of every Houdini card ever produced; as long as it is on heavier stock than a sheet a paper," says Kevin. "Houdini cards were used to advertise his movies, tobacco, candy, bread and even yogurt."

Click the headline above for all the particulars at Kevin's excellent website, Houdini Himself.

Monday, March 28, 2011

American Museum of Magic opens new season with Houdini exhibit

The American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan will open its 33rd season this Friday, April 1, with a new featured exhibit, American Idol: Becoming Harry Houdini. This replaces last season's highly successful Penn & Teller: Bad Boys of Magic.

American Idol: Becoming Harry Houdini uses artifacts and photographs from the Museum's extensive collection. Because several of their best known Houdini artifacts (like The Milk Can) are traveling this year as part of Houdini Art and Magic, AMM will be showcasing Houdini items that the public rarely sees. In addition, visitors from within the state will be especially interested in the story of Houdini’s final days, which, of course, have a Michigan connection.

To help celebrate this season's opening, award winning magician Jeff Grow will be at the Museum on Thursday, April 7th, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Grow, recipient of several New York Innovative Theatre awards, will both perform and assist with tours of the museum. His visit to AMM will coincide with his performance locally at the Franke Center for the Arts.

The coming season also promises a continuation of their highly popular Behind the Curtain lecture series produced by author, magician and historian Dennis Laub, and the realization of a summer day camp for young magicians. Details of these activities will be made available on the AMM website and Facebook page.

The American Museum of Magic is open Thursday through Saturday from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM during the months of April, May, September and October, and Tuesday through Saturday in June, July and August (Adults $5/Children $3.50), or by request (269-781-7570).

Disney giving Mickey a Houdini makeover

Our friends at the Magic Newswire report that Walt Disney World in Florida will convert their Town Square Theater on Main Street, U.S.A., into the new home of Magician Mickey Mouse. Guests can go backstage to visit Magician Mickey in his rehearsal room along with the Disney princesses. The new attraction is set to open in early April.

But here's the part I really like. According to a Disney Imagineer, various posters featuring Mickey’s magic acts will be placed throughout the queue line and are designed to enhance the experience even more:
“You will recognize the poster style as that of turn-of-the-century magicians such as Houdini, but these posters carry Mickey’s magical touch that can bring them to life and interact with you while you wait.”
This makes the second Houdini/magic themed feature to hit the Magic Kingdom recently. In 2009, "Houdini's Magic Shop" took control of the historic Main Street Magic Shop at the original Disneyland park in California. It now displays authentic Houdini artifacts from the Geno Munari collection.

Looks like it's time for a trip to Disneyland!

Houdini Art and Magic heading to L.A.

The popular exhibition, Houdini Art and Magic, has closed at The Jewish Museum in New York and is now traveling to the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles where it's due to open on April 28, 2011.

The Skirball Center will also feature an additional retrospective of Jewish magicians, Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age, along with special programing.

One notable change to the Houdini Art and Magic exhibition will be the inclusion of John Gaughan's authentic working replica of Houdini's Water Torture Cell. The Gaughan replica will ONLY be displayed at this L.A. stop.

I live not far from the Skirball, so you can count on complete coverage of the exhibition and special events here at WILD ABOUT HARRY.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Free Houdini artwork by Marco Roblin

Marco Roblin, the talented artist who illustrated the Houdini/Conan Doyle mash-up graphic novel, Edge of the Unknown, is now offering a high resolution digital image of his special Houdini birthday artwork FREE to anyone who sends him an email.

Just head on over to Marco's blog, Bocetos de Carne, for all the details.

Marco tells us he is currently hard at work on Edge of the Unknown 2. Looking forward to it!

Dorothy Young obituary in L.A. Times

Just a heads up that Dorothy Young's obituary appears in the Los Angeles Times today (March 27, 2011). Dorothy, who worked as an assistant in Houdini's full evening roadshow, died last Sunday at age 103.

Dorothy Young obituary in the Los Angeles Times, March 27, 2011

Thanks to my dad, Ron Cox, for the tip and pic.

Houdini Doodle animation claim was a hoax

It looks like the claim put fourth by San Narciso "video game expert" Meyrian Dofskelge and The Bennington Vale Evening Transcript that Thursday's Google Houdini Doodle contained secret animation was a hoax.

Michel Wester of, who originally confirmed for us that the doodle was genuine, contacted Google about the secret animation and received a prompt response from an official Google spokesperson:

"No secret animation in the Houdini doodle."

It's baffling what anyone thought they would gain from this. Guess I should have been suspicious when Dofskelge refused to explain how he "unlocked" the animation. "Like any good magician, I keep my secrets," he said.

The real secret was that he was lying.

UPDATE: The Bennington Vale Evening Transcript as now added a disclaimer to the site and story: "All stories are works of satire and parody."

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Houdini Triumphant sells for $25,000


A 1902 stone lithograph depicting Houdini's victory in the German courts sold today for $25,000 (plus 20% commission) at Potter & Potter's Rare Posters auction. The color one-sheet by J. Zier, which the auction house calls "Houdini Triumphant", is one of only five known copies. The auction estimate was $15,000/20,000. The poster went to a floor bidder.

A Houdini Challenge broadside from 1915 ("A Peculiar Challenge") sold for $1,900 to an internet bidder. Auction estimate was $1,500/2000. A very nice 1920 Nicola poster featuring terrific Houdini-like escape imagery sold for $4000, beating its estimate of $2,500/3,500.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Now receive Houdini news by email

Now you can keep up with all the latest news on Wild About Harry via email. This is a brand new Blogger feature. Just scroll down to the bottom of the page and enter your email address in the field marked "Receive updates via email." You'll receive a confirmation email. Click the link and you're all set.

You will then receive a daily email notification of the new published posts, which includes a copy of the new content as well as links back to the actual stories. You can opt out anytime by clicking the "unsubscribe" button at the bottom of the email. I've given it a test drive (right) and it works pretty darn well!

So if you can't make it to the site everyday, no worries. We will now come to you.

Video gamer unlocks secret animation in Google's Houdini Doodle

UPDATE (3/27): Looks like this was a hoax.

According to The Bennington Vale Evening Transcript, there was more to yesterday's Houdini Doodle than met the eye. The news blog reports that a gaming expert in San Narciso County discovered a way to cause the image to animate and "free Houdini."

Meyrian Dofskelge, a business analyst who specializes in the electronic gaming industry, claimed that when he first saw the doodle on Thursday, he immediately began experimenting with it. But he refused to explain how he solved the puzzle. "Like any good magician, I keep my secrets," he said.

The only clues he would reveal were that clicking on the doodle directly would lead to a dead end -- merely generating a search for Houdini -- and that to figure out how a magician’s illusions operate, one must "inspect all the elements inherent in the environment."

According to Dofskelge, once the doodle is unlocked, an HTML 5 animation depicts Houdini upside down, with his wrists chained together. After a few seconds of writhing around the doodle and squirming, Houdini breaks the chains and settles in the lower right hand corner of the image, as it appears in its static form. As an added bonus, if users with Google accounts are logged in, Houdini causes a message to appear beneath the doodle, which features the user’s name and information specific to his or her online activity. However, Dofskelge admitted this aspect of the animation was "notably creepy and a bit unsettling."

Maybe not coincidently, Google patented its doodle technology yesterday.

LINK: Dorothy Young, Houdini’s stage partner, dies at 103

Click the headline to read Dorothy Young's obituary at The Washington Post.

Leno includes Houdini in monologue

Joe Fox alerts us that Jay Leno included a mention of Houdini and the recently deceased Dorothy Young in his Tonight Show monologue last night (March 24). The joke didn't make it into the highlights posted at, but apparently the big punchline was that Dorothy's last words were: "TA DA!"


No wonder it didn't make the highlights.

Big Brian and Houdini's walking stick

Last Tuesday I watched the premiere episode of Big Brian the Fortune Seller as I saw there would be a Houdini reference. The truTV series follows estate seller "Big Brian" Elenson and his motley crew as they sell off years of accumulated goods from various homes in the New Jersey area.

While searching a home in this particular episode, Brian stumbled on a silver tipped Victorian walking stick engraved HH. Well, that can only mean one thing -- it must have belonged to Harry Houdini! Brian went on to say Houdini was "known to have used sterling walking sticks" (news to me) and that the item could be priceless. To his credit, he said he would need to research it.

The show continued with catfights, screaming matches, and the destruction of a piano that was so obviously staged it was embarrassing (and this from a guy who watches America's Next Top Model). At the end of the show the cane came back and, much to my surprise, Big Brian's "research" found that it was genuine! He based his conclusion on the handle inscription, pointing out that the double HHs matched Houdini's unique double HH signature (it doesn't). The show ended with Brian saying he would contact one of the major auction houses and "let the world decide the real value of the cane."

So who will start the bidding?

Yet another Houdini birthday

Today is the birthday of actor Paul Michael Glaser, who played Houdini in the 1976 ABC biopic The Great Houdinis. I had no idea Glaser was born the day after the real Houdini until this week when it appeared on his Facebook and Dean Carnegie's terrific Magic Detective blog (in fact, I'm stealing Dean's idea here). Glaser turns 68 today. Happy birthday, Paul!

Recently I took a thorough look back at the Making of The Great Houdinis, which remains my favorite Houdini biopic.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Harry Houdini trending worldwide on Twitter

What a birthday Houdini is having! Not only is Google honoring him with a special Doodle, but "Harry Houdini" is now trending worldwide on Twitter. What does this mean exactly? I'm not sure, but I know it's good!

Hash mark those tweets #Houdini and be sure and follow me @HoudiniWild.

Looks like Houdini is now officially a 21st Century superstar.

137 years ago in Budapest...

Botond Kelle, editor of the Hungarian magic news site,, has just sent over this copy of Houdini's actual birth record along with a translation below. The photograph was taken on November 9, 1932, at the Registrar's office at the Pest Jewish Community and was first published in the German magazine Die Magie (December 1932). This was the first published evidence that Houdini was born in Budapest and not Appleton, Wisconsin as he always claimed.

No.: 392 published
Name of the newborn: Erik
Date of birth: 24th of March
Father's name and profession: Samu Weisz (legal adviser)
Mother's name: Cecilia born. Steiner
Address of the parents: Rákosárok street 1.
Midwife's name: Anna Fleischmann
Date and executor of the circumcision ceremony: 31th of March Schill.
j. c. (Jewish chaplain)
Godfather: Miksa Dick

Thank you Botond!


Today is the birthday of Harry Houdini, born 137 years ago in Budapest, Hungary to Mayer Samuel and Cecilia Steiner Weiss. Click here for a look back at the adventurous life of the world's greatest magician and escape artist. Also be sure and click over to Google at some point today and check out their honorary Houdini "Doodle". Because today everyone is wild about Harry!

The Birthday Boy

More birthday wishes from the blogosphere:
Carnegie: Magic Detective: Happy Birthday Houdini
Sleighted: The Vintage Magic Blog: Happy Birthday, Harry!
Houdini Himself: Happy Birthday From Houdini
Robin Toujours: Happy birthday Harry Houdini
Disney Parks Blog: Happy Birthday, Harry Houdini
Bocetos de Carne: Happy Birthday, Harry!
Sabotage Times: Harry Houdini: The Man That Could Not Be Held
The World of Mr. Escape: Happy Birthday Mr. Houdini

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

We've just had our best day (update)

Wild About Harry has just had it's best day ever with 1,112 pageviews (Blogger measures a day 5PM to 5PM). This was powered by the early news of Google's honorary Houdini Doodle, and the late in the day surprise of yet another Houdini film project from Sony. Let's call this an early birthday present for Harry. Thanks for the hits, everyone.

UPDATE: Well, so much for that record. We have already blown past this number in just four hours of the new 24 hour cycle. Looks like it's going to be a big birthday for Harry! I'll post the new pageview number here tomorrow.

UPDATE (3/24): Okay, page hits for Harry's birthday -- 5,780! Wow.

Sony reviving Houdini movie

Francis Lawrence
Yes, we have news today of yet another Houdini film project in the pipeline!

Variety is reporting that director Francis Lawrence is in talks with Sony Pictures to develop a fresh take on what is described as a "high-profile biopic", though so far no deal has materialized.

Jimmy Miller, who's produced such Sony comedies as The Other Guys and the upcoming Bad Teacher, will produce through his Mosaic Media Group banner.

The revamped project will take a new approach, sources said, though it will still have a period setting.

Lawrence directed 2007's I Am Legend for 20th Century Fox. His most recent helming effort, Water for Elephants, is set to bow on April 22 through the same studio.

Sony/Columbia has long been passionate about bringing Houdini's life to the bigscreen. In the late '90s the studio tried to get a Houdini movie off the ground, first with director Robert Zemeckis, then Paul Verhoeven, and finally Ang Lee.

This marks the fourth Houdini film project announced this year (and I happen to know there's a fifth).

I say keep 'em coming, Hollywood! Houdini is ready for his closeup.

Google celebrates Houdini's birthday

Now this is too cool! Google will honor Houdini on his birthday tomorrow by changing their logo to this terrific image.

Since 1998 Google has created special logos called doodles to celebrate holidays, birthdays and special events. This Houdini doodle is currently live in Australia, New Zealand and some other countries where it is already March 24th.

Looks like 2011 is truly the year of Houdini!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Dorothy Young tribute video

Here is a wonderful video about Dorothy Young, made for the occasion of her 100th birthday. Dorothy, who acted as Houdini's assistant in his full evening show, died on Sunday at her home in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, at age 103. What a full life she had.

Dorothy Young passes away at 103

Sad news. Dorothy Young, who acted as Houdini's assistant in his full evening show, has passed away at age 103. Patrick Culliton just posted the news on Genii forum. He says he was notified by Stanley Palm. Young was the last living person to have worked with Houdini. R.I.P., Dorothy. A true legend.

Dorothy Young and Houdini perform "Radio 1950"

Link: The Great Houdinis behind the scenes photos by Dave Stevens

Patrick Culliton has posted on his website, Houdini's Ghost, some wonderful and rare behind the scenes photos from the first day of filming The Great Houdinis at the Wilshire Ebell Theater on April 28, 1976. These photos were taken by the legendary artist Dave Stevens (The Rocketeer). Pat has also posted a portrait of Houdini drawn by Stevens.

Click on the headline to view the images at Houdini's Ghost.

Last week for Houdini Art and Magic in New York

This is the final week to see Houdini Art and Magic at The Jewish Museum in New York City. After Sunday, March 27, the exhibition closes and heads to the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles where it opens on April 28, 2011.

So if you live in the New York area and haven't yet seen Houdini Art and Magic, this is your last chance!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Making the great Great Houdinis

Unused promo art for The Great Houdinis (from the collection of MSW)

Anyone who has spent any time reading this blog knows I have a bit of a thing for the 1976 ABC TV movie, The Great Houdinis. Maybe that’s because it aired during the first year of my burgeoning interest in Houdini. Maybe it’s because it’s damn good! One thing that has always puzzled me is where exactly this film was shot. Even actress Adrienne Barbeau was unable to recall which studio was used. Houdini expert Patrick Culliton was able to provide some information, but the filming of this movie has always been a mystery… until now.

The Great Houdinis, ABC Production #7602, shot for 20 days between April 28 and May 25, 1976. The film utilized five major locations, with the final location set for a major scene that was either cut or never filmed (we’ll get to that). The film was directed by writer/producer Melville Shavelson. His production manager was Don Goldman. Assistant directors were F. A. Miller and Penny L. Vaughn. The executive at ABC who oversaw the production was Marty Katz.

The title was The Great Houdini! (singular) up until at least the April 13th draft of the script. By the final revision on May 17, it had become The Great Houdinis (plural). The change might have been a reflection of how writer-director Shavelson viewed his story. "It's as much a love story as it is a story about a magician," he would say. (Update: According to Patrick Culliton, the title was changed when Sally Struthers was signed to play Bess as part of her deal.)

Two scripts show change in title (click to enlarge).

One thing not generally known is that The Great Houdinis was in a race with a rival Houdini movie at NBC called The Heart Is Quicker Than The Eye. That film was written by Jean Holloway and was being produced by Playboy Productions. The NBC project got the jump by announcing a start date of March 15, 1976. Both films were intending to air on or near Halloween to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Houdini's death. Possibly a buy-out agreement was reached between the two networks as Heart never materialized and Playboy Productions is mysteriously listed among The Great Houdinis producer credits on the novelization.

On April 28, 1976, the cameras rolled on The Great Houdinis at its first location:

Wilshire Ebell Theater, 4401 W. 8th Street, Los Angeles, CA (April 28 to April 30, 1976)

The first three days of filming were done at the Wilshire Ebell Theater, a historic 1,270 seat theater dating back to 1927. Long a popular filming location, the Ebell would double for the Alhambra, the Hippodrome and Hammerstein's Victoria, as well as unnamed theaters in San Francisco, Paris and Detroit.

The first day of shooting involved all the complex stage escape apparatuses. The first scene shot was The Milk Can Escape. Then the Water Torture Cell action was shot, with star Paul Michael Glaser failing to escape as a horrified Sally Struthers (Bess) looks on. Abb Dickson provided the cell, which would be touted in some media as “the original cell,” which of course is not correct.

Harry Blackstone Jr. helps prepare Paul Michael Glaser for
the Milk Can escape (Photo by Patrick Culliton, Genii)

The first day wrapped by filming another escape which only appeared in the opening credits -- Houdini's escape from a casket after Bess passes him a key -- or "feke" as the script calls it -- in a kiss. This was arbitrarily noted as taking place in the Hippodrome in 1920. Houdini expert Patrick Culliton was also on set that day playing Houdini’s assistant Franz Kukol. Artist Dave Stevens, famous for The Rocketeer, accompanied Culliton and spent the day taking behind the scenes photos (some of which can be viewed on Patrick's website, Houdini's Ghost).

One hundred and fifty extras were brought in on Day 2 to act as audience members. All audience reactions to the various stage escapes and spirit exposes were shot on this day. Glaser and Struthers then filmed the scene in which Harry helps Bess with her French during Metamorphosis, which is described as taking place in a “French Theater” in 1900. Harry Blackstone, Jr., who received credit as technical advisor on the film, appeared in the scene as a police officer. Newsreel footage was then shot projected against a backdrop screen on the stage.

All the backstage scenes were shot in the third and final day at the Ebell, starting with Harry coming to see his brother, Theo Hardeen (Jack Carter), at what is supposed to be Hammerstein's. This was also Adrienne Barbeau’s first day of shooting. Filmed was Daisy and Bess's conversation backstage in 1926 ("I tried. Not a damn thing."), along with the moment that Bess bumps into the hanging witch and says, "Sorry, Mama."

Queen of Angels Hospital, 2301 Bellevue Ave., Los Angeles, CA (May 3, 1976)

After a few days off, the production moved for a single day to Queen of Angels Hospital near downtown Los Angeles. Here one of the movie's best dramatic scenes was shot -- when Bess comes to see Harry after his nervous breakdown and pulls him from his funk by suggesting they make spiritualist exposes "part of the act." This was also the first day of shooting for the legendary Vivian Vance, playing Minnie the nursemaid. Vance, of course, is best known for her role as Ethel on I Love Lucy.

The Queen of Angels Hospital closed this location in 1989. After remaining vacant for many years, it became The Dream Center, a Pentecostal Christian Church mission, in 1996.

Queen of Angels, now The Dream Center, today

Home of Peace Memorial Park & Mausoleum, 4334 Whittier, Los Angeles, CA (May 4 to May 5, 1976)

Home of Peace Memorial Park
doubles for Machpelach
The fifth and sixth days of shooting found The Great Houdinis crew at the Home of Peace Memorial Park & Mausoleum, Los Angeles' oldest Jewish Cemetery. The first scene shot had Bess and Harry copying information from headstones for a spiritualist act, and then making love among the graves. This is described as taking place in a “small cemetery” in the 1890s. This was going to be a flashback at the start of the film, and would have been Glaser’s first appearance as Houdini. It's a terrific two-page scene that appears in both the script and novelization, however, the scene doesn’t appear in the final film. Instead, a beat where Bess hears Harry's disembodied voice signing "Roseabell" was inserted. Also shot on day one was Harry lingering at his mother’s grave with Bess unable to reach him.

Where is this bust today?
On the second day Home of Peace was dressed as Machpelach Cemetery in Queens, with a replica of the famous Houdini exedra erected in a quite corner. Here was shot the scene in which Bess meets the Reverend Arthur Ford (Bill Bixby), and her catty encounter with Daisy White that opens the movie. A "bust" is listed among the props at this location. Where is that bust today, I wonder?

One thing to watch for in this scene -- even though Bess/Struthers kneels and plants flowers in front of the exedra, as she enters the plot one can spot a fairly accurate reproduction of Houdini's tombstone sitting approximately where it does in the real cemetery plot.

20th Century Fox Studios, 10201 West Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA (May 6 to May 21, 1976)

The 20th Century Fox lot with The Great Houdinis shooting locations marked in red

On May 6, production moved into the historic 20th Century Fox Studios in Century City. Here the bulk of the filming would take place over the course of the next two weeks. The production would utilize Stage 5, Stage 20 and Stage 4, as well as shooting on the studio's two remaining exterior sets (Fox sold their large backlot in 1961).

On the Hello Dolly street
Shooting commenced on May 6 on the still standing Hello Dolly street set. Here, the scene where Harry and Bessie are "riding in style" in a horse-drawn buggy was filmed, as was Houdini stopping to admire Queen Victoria’s dress in a store window. At the same time, on the adjacent "Brownstone Street," the exteriors of 278 were shot, including the spooky Halloween night scenes that involved creating wind and rain effects. Also filmed was Reverend Ford’s arrival by taxi near the end of the film.

Only a small section of the Hello Dolly street (seen here in 1976) remains on the Fox Lot today. But the Brownstone Street (aka "New York Street") still looks very much as it did in the film.

Brownstone Street as seen in the film and today

Soundstage 20 was also put into action on the first day of lot shooting. Here, the scene in which Bess gets trapped in the sub truck and Harry has to chop her free was shot. Over the following days, stage 20 would also house a train car set where Harry tells Bess what it means to be a magician, and she tells him she’s pregnant (shot on May 7). Stage 20 was also home to the Scotland Yard sets (jail cell and Melville’s outer offices). The Scotland Yard scenes would all be shot on May 12.

278 was housed on Stage 4
Soundstage 4 was used solely for the interiors of Houdini’s New York home. Here all the scenes with the older Bess and the Arthur Ford séance were filmed (on May 20), as was the famous Houdini-Daisy seduction scene (on May 19). In her 2007 autobiography, There Are Worse Things I Could Do, actress Adrienne Barbeau says a slightly more racy “semi-nude” version of this scene was to be filmed for a European cut. If that happened, it wasn’t included, as the international version (available on VHS) is identical to what aired in the USA.

The 28,274 sq. ft. Soundstage 5 was used for a wide variety of single scene locations. It was here on May 7 that Houdini exposes Margery the Medium (Barbara Rhoades). The stage also housed the Congressional hearing room where Bess, under oath, confesses that she still loves Harry (May 10). The legendary Nina Foch appears in this scene as the Rev. Le Veyne. Stage 5 was also the site of the Budapest Hotel, where Harry throws a “Royal” reception for Mama, and Bess rebelliously sings “Onward Christian Soldiers,” shot on May 14.

Cushing fresh off the set of Star Wars
May 11 was a special day on Stage 5, when legendary actor Peter Cushing arrived for two days of filming his scenes as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Interestingly, Cushing had just come from the set of Star Wars in England – The Great Houdinis was his first post-Star Wars work. (Star Wars would have as much impact on my life as Houdini – strange to think of all these converging forces at play in 1976.) Cushing started on the London Pub set, where Houdini impresses him and Superintendent Melville (Wilfrid Hyde-White) with a handcuff escape. The following day, May 12, he would film the Atlantic City séance on Stage 5 before moving over to Stage 20 for the Scotland Yard jail escape action.

The Weiss home was on Stage 5
Stage 5 would then be outfitted with all the interiors of the Weiss family home, including Harry’s bedroom (where Mama “meets” Bess), the kitchen (aftermath of meeting and Harry does the Needles), and the living room (New Years Eve wedding party). These scenes would be shot over three days on May 14, 17, 18. Among the principle characters listed on the schedule for the wedding party are Nathan, Leo, and Nathan's bride "Dorothy" (Marilyn Brodnick), who would actually be the infamous Sadie Weiss. Theo is also in the scene -- the script identifies him as the man who quips "Open Sesame" when Harry kicks open the bedroom door -- but here he's played by someone other than Jack Carter.

Shooting on the Fox lot wrapped on May 21 with, appropriately enough, the fatal dressing room punch, shot on Stage 20.

Malibu Pier, 23000 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, CA (May 24, 1976)

After two days rest, The Great Houdinis production was again on location, this time at the Malibu Pier off Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. Originally built in 1905, the pier was expended in 1938 and was made a historic landmark in 1985. The script has this down as being the Peekskill Bridge in New York in 1895, even though in the film a cop calls Houdini "that New York jerk." Here, Houdini’s failed underwater handcuff escape action was shot. A double was used for Glaser’s dive – the only time a double is mentioned on the schedule. Another desirable prop used on this day is the banner that is hung between the two fishing houses at the end of the pier. Nice to see the production designer used authentic Houdini letting from his early European tour posters.

Malibu Pier in The Great Houdinis (top). The pier doesn't
look any different today (bottom)

Belmont Amusement Park, 3000 Mission Park, San Diego, CA (May 25, 1976)

The final day of principle photography for The Great Houdinis was planned for the Belmont Amusement Park in San Diego, which was to double for Coney Island. Here a scene in which Harry proposes to Bess aboard a roller coaster would be filmed.

While it appears in the script, this scene didn’t make it into the final film. Was this scene cut, or never shot? This is something I haven’t yet to be able to discover, but it seems unlikely that a TV movie would cut a scene that took this much effort and expense to film. It’s my guess the scene and location were scrapped, and the last day was used instead to complete a schedule that may have run over (update).

Belmont Park was scheduled to double Coney Island

The Great Houdinis was edited by John Woodcock and scored by Peter Matz, who would also serve as musical director for Doug Henning’s second World of Magic TV special.

ABC promoted The Great Houdinis with an impressive four page photo spread in the popular gossip magazine, Preview (October 1976), as well an article in TV Guide that claimed to reveal the secret of the Water Torture Cell (it doesn't). The image of Glaser reenacting Houdini's famous semi-nude chained pose was used extensively in advertising. A novelization, written by Shavelson, was released in both the U.S. and UK. In the UK the book was serialized in Reveille, and also released in hardcover with photos of the real Harry and Bess Houdini.

The original TV Guide ad for the October 8, 1976 airing.

The Great Houdinis aired on October 8, 1976 as part of ABC’s Friday Night Movie. In some markets it aired from 8-10, others from 9-11 (including Los Angeles). Competition that night was from the 1975 John Wayne movie, Brannigan, on CBS and The Rockford Files with James Garner on NBC. In some markets the final line, "I believe the son-of-a-bitch loved her," was edited out. It would repeat once on April 6, 1977 (April 6 was the day Houdini celebrated his birthday, which may or may not have been coincidental). For this '77 broadcast the title was changed to the singular, The Great Houdini, which is what the movie is better known by today.

Reviews were generally good, although, as had been the case 23 years earlier with Paramount's HOUDINI, the magic community took the film to task for its inaccuracies. David Lustig, who performed as La Velma and knew Houdini well, said watching the film made him "feel nauseated." Another reviewer called the film "an object lesson in the abuse of dramatic license."

However, over time, what in 1976 seemed to be a steamy confection of dramatic license (Houdini's affairs, Bessie's alcoholism) has turned out to be fact. No evidence has ever surfaced that hostility existed between Bess and Houdini's mother, however. This notion of a fractious household was first put forth by author Maurice Zolotow, who also spoke openly about Houdini's supposed affair with Daisy White. I've often wondered whether Zolotow had any direct influence over Shavelson's creation of the story. Regardless, it all made for great TV drama.

A very big thanks to The Magic Castle's William Larsen, Sr. Memorial Library and librarian Bill Goodwin for helping me uncover the story of the making of my favorite Houdini biopic. Also thanks to Patrick Culliton, MSW, Dean Carnegie (Magic Detective), and Steve Santini.