Saturday, April 2, 2011

Dorothy Young remembers her days with Houdini

On April 6, 2000, Rhoda Newman of the Monmouth Library interviewed Dorothy Young as part of the library's Remembering the 20th Century: An Oral History of Monmouth County project. It's a wonderful interview filled with interesting remembrances from Dorothy, who passed away on March 20 at age 103.

Here is an excerpt from that interview in which Dorothy talks about her experiences with the Houdini roadshow. I especially love the story of her and Bess smuggling booze over the border from Canada. That's our Bessie!

Ms. Newman: And you were how old at this point?

Ms. Young: Seventeen. And, I went to the Longacre Theatre up at 48th Street and Broadway, and when I arrived the stage was full of girls auditioning. I saw two men down in the Orchestra viewing the audition. I had no idea who they were. One was Houdini and the other was his manager, Mr. Smith. I was about the last one to audition. I did a Charleston. And they chose me right away and took me over to their lawyer over on 44th Street. I called Mrs. Houdini "Mrs. H." Sometimes an interviewer would say to me, "When you are so close, why do you call her Mrs. H?" I said a seventeen year old girl is not about to call a mature woman by her first name. So, she was always Mrs. H. to me. She took me over to choose material to make my outfit, my costume, and then I signed the contract. I dashed to my father and said, "I'm going to dance on Broadway," and he said, "No way." I went to Houdini. They must have been flabbergasted because they were to open in one week, and they had gone through these auditions. Anyway, I told them my father and mother wouldn't allow me to. They asked to speak to them, and they convinced my parents that they would look after me as their very own daughter, which they did. It was a wonderful, wonderful year. Mrs. H. was a second mother to me. She taught me how to sew and put on makeup. We spent our days together. I've done five documentaries about Houdini. One thing they never put in is that I say Houdini was a very kind, compassionate man. They liked to picture him as egotistical and temperamental. And, my year with them was really, really wonderful. Another thing they never put in: he had been famous for about thirty years, but his dream, his project dream was to always star in his own production on Broadway, and this was his dream come true. Well, we opened, and my father arranged for me to live with a widow with two daughters for the week I would be in New York, before leaving to break in the show at Hartford, Connecticut. And, one of the daughters said, "Oh I'm going to a party tonight, and would you like to go?" I said, "Surely." I remember it was the day I had my costume fitted up at 103rd Street at Houdini's home.

Ms. Newman: Can you describe the costume?

Ms. Young: Oh, I have pictures of them. They were very, very scanty. I'll show you a picture of them later. And, Mrs. H., who was a wonderful designer, always made all of hers.

Houdini and his roadshow girls. Young is second from the right.

Ms. Newman: Where they silk? And what colors?
Ms. Young: Oh, beautiful bouquets and metallic. So, after I had my costume fitted, I jumped in a taxi at 103rd Street. A young girl and I went down to The Village where the party was to be. The girl introduced me around. We danced in a club. I met this man. He seemed very, very sophisticated to me. I guess he was around thirty. He said, "Oh you are so young to be in New York all by yourself. You need a big brother to take care of you." I didn't care for him. So, he was smart enough not to ask for my phone number, but he asked the girl I was staying with for her phone number. And he called up the next day and took us both to lunch. For the whole week, he took me to all the best places in New York City. And during the whole year I was with Houdini, he called me once a week. On the way to Hartford, I still didn't know who Houdini was. They had a drawing room and I had the parlor. Houdini came out with a deck of cards and he did all of his card tricks for me. And then he proceeded to tell me a lot about his childhood, which was very interesting. Well, when we arrived at Hartford, it was on a Sunday night. And Rachmaninoff had a concert there, and we went directly to the theatre to unpack. I remember I stood in the wings and listened. And I was so thrilled. And when he came out, I guess he wondered why a young girl like that would just be standing there listening the whole time. It is a very happy memory having had a visit with Rachmaninoff. He was very tall and slender. I remember when he said goodbye, he patted my head. After I fulfilled my year contract, of course, Houdini wanted me to stay on.

Ms. Newman: What did you do as part of the Houdini act?

Ms. Young: At first they had a very beautiful curtain made of mementos of things they had been given in Europe, and this curtain was very beautiful. Mrs. H. was dressed as Marie Antoinette, and I her escort. Mrs. H came out on one side and I the other. We joined in the center and did a little minuet, and pulled back the curtains. Then a big stage was there, and a black back drop and Houdini came out in his magnificent entrance. Two years ago, Harvey Keitel, an actor, I didn't know who he was, he was doing an impersonation of Houdini, and he sent his limo down for me to go up and have dinner with him, and I did Houdini's entrance for him about twenty times, and he studied the mannerisms. Houdini was not a tall man. He was very muscular, and the way he carried himself, you didn't think of height. He was dressed in full dress, immaculate. And the jacket was designed that he could remove the sleeves from the elbow down so that while he worked, you could see that he wasn't concealing anything. Well, the show opened with the proverbial magic thing with the scarves and the birds and all that. Then Mrs. H. had her famous, famous trunk trick. It's now called "Metamorphosis." Houdini purchased it when they were young in Coney Island for $25.00 from a retiring magician, and now that has become so famous. And Mrs. H. must have been almost, I bet she was, no she must have been at least fifty or fifty-two, but from the back of the stage she looked like sixteen, the way she was made up in her little gown. She kept herself beautiful. My first number was a Radio Girl. Collins and Vickory, his two assistances, would bring out a large table. Houdini would go in back and show nothing underneath the table, no mirrors or anything like that. Then Collins and Vickory would bring out a big radio. And Houdini would open the doors, would prop them back and show there was nothing inside. He'd lift out a panel like tubes and things. Then he would close it up and tune in like, for instance, Pittsburgh would be KDKA, and it's say, "KDKA, Ms. Dorothy Young doing the Charleston." And, that was my cue to put my foot out, then the other foot, then I'd kick them together, jump up and do a curtsey.

Dorothy as the "radio girl"

Ms. Newman: You were inside the radio?

Ms. Young: Yes. Then Houdini would take me by the waist and lift me down, and I would go into a Charleston. And, my other number was called the "Slave Girl." The big stage was empty and there was just a pole in the middle of the big stage. And Collins would bring me out with my hands tied behind me. And I had a little skimpy burlap costume. And, Houdini would say, she has been a naughty girl, so I have to tie her up. So they tied me up to the pole from my throat down to my ankles. And then Houdini said, she has been naughty, so we will have to put her in darkness. He would press a button, and the curtain would fall to the floor. And I would come out in a beautiful butterfly costume on my toes and do a ballet number. And then another number I did: there was a big cabinet, and Houdini would walk through it and turn it around to show it was absolutely empty. Then, he would say presto, and Mrs. H. in a very beautiful elaborate costume, and myself, and Julia, his secretary, in an elaborate costume, and Kosher, in an elaborate costume, would all came out. And once in a while when Mr. Smith's wife would be there, we would add her to it. And, then the very, very exciting thing was Water Torture Cell. I think it was sad the way they made the movie about him dying in the water. The whole movie was terrible. Houdini would turn over in his grave. It was terrible. Well, Mrs. H. always stood in the wings. They had this large cabinet and Houdini would come out in swim trunks. They'd lift him up by his feet and lower him head first with his hands tied behind him and lower him in the tank. And then, to make it more dramatic, the orchestra would play, "Asleep In the Deep," which made it very dramatic. I stood with Mrs. H. often, and she said only once in their life, did he have to give the signal to be taken out. And, when I appeared at any magicians' conventions they always want to know what the secret was, of course. I would tell them I was sworn to secrecy.

Ms. Newman: You were aware of the secret, but were sworn to secrecy?

Ms. Young: Yes. The last half of his act was devoted completely to exposing spiritualism. He felt spiritualism was wicked; it preyed on poor people who'd spend their last dollar to hear the voice of their loved ones. And, he had a person we called the Reva woman who would visit the entire spiritualist, the mediums, and card people in the city before we would play. And then she would come to report to Houdini. We never could eat dinner before the show because we had to be as thin as possible. So, we always, Mrs. H., Kosher, and Julia, and Mr. Smith, Houdini, and I always had dinner after the show. And, in all those years, I never remember once Houdini showing any anger or anything. Mrs. H. was a real cut up. She was a lot of fun, and she, when we were playing Buffalo, she suggested that we go to rent a limo and go over to Canada. We went through the Mist and everything.

Ms. Newman: Niagara Falls?

Ms. Young: Yes. She was a lot of fun. And just before we left the border, she said, "Let's get a bottle of liquor and see if we could smuggle it in." Well, that night at dinner, somehow we joked about it.

Ms. Newman: This was during prohibition?

Ms. Young: Oh yes, and Houdini snapped, "Do you realized the publicity we would have had if they had caught you bringing liquor in?" And that is the only time I ever heard him express anger. He was just the most wonderful compassionate person to work for. The last act involved a very famous medium called Marjorie. He dressed up, he put on a wig and a cane, and dressed up as an old man, and went to Marjorie and told them to get in touch with the spirit of a loved one. And he copied her séance completely in the last act of the show. He would ask people to come up who would invariably be interested in spiritualism. And, they would sit at a table, and they would ask to speak with a loved one. And then, Houdini would go through the seance, and it really was weird to see. And then after he did it, he broke it apart to show the whole audience how it was done.

Ms. Newman: He would show that it was a fraud.

Ms. Young: Yes. Houdini was like a father to me, but never personal, you know. Before I left the show he said to me, "Dorothy, did you ever wonder why you were chosen over 200 girls?" I said, "No." He said, "Mr. Smith and I are opposite personalities, and you appealed to both of us. And we knew you were the one that we wanted." As I look back, I think it might have been in the first place all of those girls were typical Broadway girls, and they weren't going to have someone like that travel with them closely. It was a close unit. That is one thing, and the other thing, I was shorter than Houdini, and most of them were taller. That was my experience with Houdini.

Ms. Newman: So you had a year's contract and that was the end?

Ms. Young: Yes. And he died two months after. Two young boys were visiting him backstage. They had seen the show, and Houdini had had a pain and the doctor didn't diagnosis it right. His appendix was in the center rather than at the side. He had appendicitis, but the doctors didn't diagnose it that way. And then, one of the boys said, "You mean you could withstand a punch with all my might?" And Houdini said, "Yes." What the boy didn't realize was that Houdini had to prepare himself first, and the boy struck him, and his appendix burst. So, they rushed him to the hospital, but it was too late. He fought for a whole week. He thought he could lick it, but he couldn't, and finally he had to give up.

Ms. Newman: Did your father ever see you perform?

Ms. Young: Oh, yes, when we were in Pittsburgh, my father was in the audience, and Houdini asked him to stand up. And when I was in Chicago, my Grandmother Caldwell was there, and we were sold out. I don't know. Somehow or another, he got her a seat in the first row center. And when I took her back stage to meet Houdini, Houdini kissed her forehead and said, "Now I know where Dorothy gets her charm." (Laughs)

Ms. Newman: He does sound like a dear man. Were there other people traveling?

Ms. Young: No. We were a close unit. Collins was his main assistant, and Victory was his helper. Mrs. H., Houdini, Julia, Kosher, Mr. Smith, and I. That was our entourage.

Ms. Newman: And you went across the country.

Ms. Young: Oh, yes. And we played Broadway twice.

Ms. Newman: Were these one night stands?

Ms. Young: Oh, no, I think we played Chicago four weeks.

Ms. Newman: And you traveled by train?

Ms. Young: Yes, by train. I'd spend my day with Mrs. H. I don't remember what salary I had, but it must have been plenty, because I always stayed right in the next room to them, and I always had my breakfast sent in my room and I felt so sophisticated. I remember I had a black satin negligee with white marabous. And in those days, eating breakfast for one, they would wheel it in on a whole table. Now days if you had breakfast for one, they'd just bring it on a tray. I remember I would drape myself and feel so grown up.

Ms. Newman: What year was this?

Ms. Young: 1925 and 1926. So, that was my story with Houdini.

CLICK HERE to read the entire interview at the Monmouth Library's "Remembering the 20th Century: An Oral History of Monmouth County" website.


  1. Thanks for posting this. I've heard Dorothy speak of Houdini many times but there were a few things in this interview that I had not heard before. Very enjoyable.

  2. To me it is always so obvious that Houdini was a good and decent person but it is good to hear it from her. She would know. I can quite believe she'd told interviewers this but they'd chosen not to mention it. It isn't as interesting as him being a self-promoter or an egotist or a mummy's boy.

  3. Great stuff! Thanks for posting.

  4. Welcome to visit my exhibition about Bess. Go toällningar - Mrs Houdini.

  5. Thanks all. And thank you, Karin, for the link to your Mrs. Houdini exhibit. Very interesting work!

    I really love this interview, and there's so much more to it over at the site. This is just the Houdini section.

    I believe the most recent PBS documentary, No Escaping Houdini, finally included Dorothy talking about how kind and even quite Houdini was.

  6. Also interesting that she says Houdini had "his hands tied behind him" during the WTC.

  7. Interesting that there is no mention of Frank Williamsen/Kukol. What could have occurred by 1925 that caused him to leave Houdinis show? I think there was references concerning a Frank Kukol just the year before. 1925 rolls in and he vanishes. Yet he seems to reappear as a pallbearer at Houdinis funeral in 26. Strange indeed....would love to solve this mystery....I am sure there is some story behind it.