Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Houdini and Dorothy Parker set a date for December

A new book teaming Houdini and Dorothy Parker will be released in December. You Might As Well Die by J.J. Murphy is the latest "Algonquin Round Table Mystery" and will feature Parker and Houdini puzzling out a crime with a spiritualist connection in 1920s New York.

When second-rate illustrator Ernie MacGuffin's artistic works triple in value following his apparent suicide off the Brooklyn Bridge, Dorothy Parker smells something fishy. Enlisting the help of magician and skeptic Harry Houdini, she goes to a séance held by MacGuffin's mistress, where Ernie's ghostly voice seems hauntingly real...

You Might As Well Die is due for release as a paperback from Signet on December 6, 2011 and can be pre-ordered now on

LINK: 10 Greatest Escape Artists in History

What!? No Hardeen, Murray, Steranko, Steve Baker, or James Randi on the list? Well, at least they got #1 right.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Last week for 'Houdini Art and Magic' at the Skirball

This is the last week to see Houdini Art and Magic at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. The exhibition closes on September 4th for its trip to the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, where it opens on October 2.

However, know this will be your LAST chance to see the breathtaking John Gaughan reproduction of Houdini's authentic Water Torture Cell (below). This was exclusive to the Skirball and will not be part of the exhibition as it moves on.

© All rights reserved by Skirball Cultural Center. Used with permission.

While Houdini Art and Magic leaves the Skirball on September 4, Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age has been extended to January 8, 2012.

Water Torture Cell
Modern replica
Metal, glass, and wood
Collection of John Gaughan, Los Angeles
Photograph by John Elder

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Houdini and the Transatlantic Flight

In 1910 Houdini became the first man to fly a plane in Australia. This put Houdini's name into the historical record of early aviation, but the feat is largely forgotten by the general public today. Now, thanks to an intriguing clipping in The Culliton Papers, we have evidence that Houdini considered a dramatic return to aviation in 1920 in a feat that could have cemented him as one of the greatest aviators of all time.

On June 19, 1920, a news flash appeared in the Los Angeles Times stating that Houdini was planning to make a transatlantic flight from Paris to New York. This is fundamentally the same flight (in reverse) that, seven years later, would make Charles Lindbergh the most famous man alive. And here's Houdini talking about doing it in 1920!

Under the headline HOUDINI TO FLY, the paper says news about the flight has come from "no less authority than Houdini himself", who at the time was staying in the Grand Hotel in Scotland. The plan was for Houdini to depart London by air on June 27 for Paris. On July 2 he would fly from Paris to Cherbourg. Then, on July 3, he would depart Cherbourg "and cross the Atlantic for New York City."

The report continues: "He doesn't say say how long he expects the trip to take, nor who is accompanying him. However, he does say that he expects to rest three months after he reaches home, before he begins work in pictures or anywhere else."

Unfortunately, the article doesn't say what kind of a plane Houdini planned to use.

Transatlantic crossings were big news at the time. In June of 1919, British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown had made the first non-stop transatlantic flight in a modified World War I Vickers Vimy bomber. Winston Churchill presented them with a prize for the first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in "less than 72 consecutive hours" and they were knighted by King George V.

How serious was Houdini about this flight? It's hard to say. This was during a time when Houdini was downplaying his role as magician and escape artist in favor a new identity as all around man of action and adventure (a better way to tie into his movie career). Just a year before he had announced plans to wrestle a live shark. But the fact that he had a time table suggests this might have been more than an idle boast.

However, transatlantic flights where quite dangerous back then. Alcock and Brown's flight nearly ended in disaster several times owing to engine trouble, fog, snow and ice. Houdini would have needed to be highly skilled aviator to pull it off, or he would have needed an experienced pilot to accompany him. Maybe it was this realization that led him to abandon the idea and return to America by ship, where he entertained the passengers as, "Houdini The World Famous Cinema Star."

But what a chapter it would have been in the Houdini story had he made his Transatlantic Flight.

After 1910, Houdini's aviation exploits would be confined to the movies,
The Grim Game (1919)

    Saturday, August 27, 2011

    LINK: The psychic phenomena that Houdini couldn't explain

    Patrick Culliton has posted on his website, Houdini's Ghost, two pages on "The Psychic Phenomena that Houdini Couldn't Explain" -- this being the mysterious streak of light that appeared in a photo he took at the First Spiritualist Temple in Los Angeles on April 11, 1923. It includes some terrific photos, newspaper accounts, and Houdini's own written testimonial about exactly what happened that day.

    This isn't one of the more well-known episodes in Houdini's career, but Patrick has always had a keen interest in it, having recently discovered the location of church, which still stands today. He also has a suspicion that the entire thing might have been engineered by Houdini himself. But if so, how did he do it?

    Click on the headline to have a read at Houdini's Ghost (and make sure you click to page two via the link at the bottom of the page).

    Friday, August 26, 2011

    Oh, baby...

    I've just received an advance proof copy of Christopher Sandford's new book, Houdini and Conan Doyle, from the fine folks at Duckworth Publishing. Looks like I know what I'm doing this weekend!

    Houdini and Conan Doyle will be published in the UK by Duckworth on October 27, 2011. The U.S. edition, which sports the variant title, Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan on November 22, 2011.

    UPDATE: So I finished the book, and while I might just still be in the thrall of the moment, I'm willing to say right now that this sits besides Silverman as one of the best Houdini books yet written. Certainly it is THE best book written about his anti-spiritualist activities. I can't publish a full review until publication, but know this is good one, gang. :)

    Thursday, August 25, 2011

    Water Torture Cell used in 'The Great Houdinis' up for auction

    The Water Torture Cell used in the ABC TV movie, The Great Houdinis, is up for auction on eBay with a starting price of $6,500. The cell comes from the collection of magician and past President of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, Abb Dickson, who provided the escape apparatuses for the 1976 movie. It is also mentioned in the Doug Henning biography, Spellbound. Henning came to Atlanta to examine the cell (and its secret) when he was preparing to do the feat on his first TV special.

    Looking at the seller's photos on eBay, the cell at first appears to be different than the one used in the film. However, I believe this is because the production dressed up the cell with a false metal frame on front, maybe to give it a more dramatic look or because it would photograph better.* If you look at the sides of the cell, the interior, and especially the stocks, it is clearly the same cell. It's also pretty well documented that the cell used in the film was the Abb Dickson cell, which some media even claimed to be an original Houdini cell (it isn't).

    The Abb Dickson cell today (left) and as it appeared with the metal frame
    dressing in The Great Houdinis (1976).

    It will be exciting to see what happens with this great piece of magic and movie memorabilia. Check out the auction (#260841901287) on eBay.

    Click here for a detailed look back at the Making of The Great Houdinis.

    *UPDATE: Gay Blackstone, who served as Sally Struthers' stunt double and magic coach on the film, has confirmed that a false metal front was indeed added to the cell to balance the lighting during filming.

    Wednesday, August 24, 2011

    Cover for 'Houdini: The British Tours'

    Here's a first look at the full cover art for Derek Tait's new book, Houdini: The British Tours, which is set to be be published by Driftwood Coast Publishing on September 30, 2011. As the title suggests, the book will focus on Houdini's exploits "across the pond."

    Click to enlarge

    Derek says, "I've always been interested in Houdini and realised that there seems to be no book that deals with just his British tours alone and I think that it would be of great interest to many people. I hope to include as much as I can about Houdini's tours of Britain. So far, I've managed to gather together many newspaper stories from the the period, they all make very interesting reading. It's almost like being there sometimes!"

    Houdini: The British Tours can be pre-ordered now on Thanks to Derek Tait for the preview!

    New Houdini book by Dixie Dooley

    Dean Carnegie over at Magic Detective alerts us to a brand new Houdini book, Houdini - Question Reality, by Las Vegas magician and long-time Houdini buff, Dixie Dooley.

    I don't have the book in hand yet, but it appears to be a collection of unusual and uncommon stories about Houdini, with some intriguing chapter titles, such as: "Blinded in his left Eye?", "Houdini's Son?", "Sue-Dini", "Curious story of Frieda Brown Sower", and "Hardeen the Gambler."

    One item in my collection that I greatly enjoy is a tape recording of Dixie telling the extraordinary story of his visit to 278 in the 1980s. Dean reports that this tale is recounted in Houdini - Question Reality with sketches of the inside of the legendary Houdini house. For this alone I'd say this book is a must!

    Houdini - Question Reality is available as a print-on-demand paperback and a file download from

    Tuesday, August 23, 2011

    The men who almost played Houdini

    The list of the men who have played Houdini on screen is impressive: Tony Curtis, Paul Michael Glaser, Harvey Keitel, Guy Pearce... But even more impressive is the list of actors who at one time or another have been considered for the role of the master magician, but ultimately never saw the inside of the straitjacket. Here is a list of actors who almost played Houdini.

    Paul Muni
    Paul Muni - Best known for the Howard Hughes hit Scarface, Paul Muni was considered for the lead in the 1932 RKO biopic, Now You See It, based on a story treatment by Houdini's friend and ghost-busting colleague, Fulton Oursler. Because the studio had acquired no life-rights, the script would call the main character Harry Pinetti, but it was clearly the story of Houdini, and even included a sequence in which Pinetti/Houdini gets trapped under the ice during a bridge jump (later used in Paramount's 1953 HOUDINI). Now You See It went through several drafts, including one that suggested "a musical treatment" before being shelved indefinitely in 1936.

    UPDATE: Actor Adolphe Menjou was signed to play Pinetti/Houdini when the movie came close to production in late 1932.

    John Calvert
    John Calvert - Magician and actor John Calvert knew Bess Houdini and Edward Saint when they lived in Hollywood in the 1930s. When Bess saw Calvert's show, she is reported to have said, "Calvert plays the part of a magician better than any actor I have ever seen, except for Harry, of course." Bess would send a letter to Calvert, who had a seven year contract with Columbia, saying, "In my opinion, you are the only actor capable of portraying the life of my late husband, Harry Houdini. Are you interested?"

    Calvert was interested. Unfortunately, the head of Columbia, Harry Cohn, was not, complaining that Houdini's story was "lacking in romance and needed a better ending than a punch in the solar plexus."

    Chester Morris
    Chester Morris - After years of effort, Bess Houdini and Edward Saint finally set-up a Houdini biopic at Paramount in 1936. The film would be based on Houdini His Life Story by Harold Kellock. Bessie is said to have insisted on a stipulation in the contract that no secrets would be revealed in the film. But who would star as Houdini?

    Not long after the sale, Arnold Furstenberg in The Linking Ring announced an "Exclusive Scoop" that Chester Morris was being considered for the lead role in The Great Houdini (later called Houdini The Great). Apart from being an actor, Morris was an amateur magician and a member of the IBM. "He is by far the most logical man for the role," said Furstenberg.

    Houdini The Great would languish in development for many years with drafts written by Frank O' Conner and Pierre Collins. Despite Chester's lobbying for the role ("He spent time and money" reported George Boston in Genii), the studio never gave the project the green light.

    Cary Grant
    Cary Grant, Joseph Cotton, Garry Moore - In 1944 producer David O. Selznick (Gone With The Wind) pitched the idea of a Houdini biopic to Alfred Hitchcock "with either Cary Grant or Joe Cotton" in the lead role. Said Selznick, "I think [it] can be an outstanding and enormously popular picture with very great opportunity for treatment by you."

    Hitchcock turned down Houdini, and Selznick eventually cast radio personality and future television star Garry Moore as his Handcuff King. But like so many other proposed Houdini biopics, Selznick's Houdini failed to materialize.

    Lee Cobb
    John Garfield or Lee Cobb - In 1950, a former drug store operator, Joseph Raboff, and a real estate man, Earl Cohen, acquired the film, radio, and TV rights to Kellock's Houdini His Life Story. Teaming with a former Paramount executive, Endre Bohem, the indie producers announced production of The Life Story of Harry Houdini with "either John Garfield or Lee Cobb" in the lead role. There was also talk of a half-hour TV series following the film's release.

    It's unclear what happened to Film Producers, Inc. ambitious project, but it's likely Raboff and Cohen found they had bitten off more than they could chew and used Endre Bohem's connections to sell their valuable Houdini life rights to Paramount.

    Orson Welles
    Orson Welles - When Paramount announced renewed plans to make a Houdini biopic in 1951, names such as Edward G. Robinson and Glenn Ford were mentioned. But influential gossip columnist Hedda Hopper lobbied in print for Orson Welles to play the lead.

    Did the studio ever seriously consider Welles? This isn't known, but I agree with Hopper that Welles would have been an inspired choice, and it's somewhat amazing the actor, who was a magician and had seen Houdini in his youth, never played Houdini on stage or screen. However, Paramount did pretty well when they ultimately cast Tony Curtis in the part.

    Welles would later collaborate with Another Burgess on a Houdini stage musical, but it's not clear if he had plans to star in the show himself.

    James Caan
    James Caan - In 1974 producer Ray Stark, fresh off his success with Funny Girl (a musical biopic of Vaudeville star Fanny Brice), announced plans to make The Magic Man: The Story of Houdini based on William Lindsay Gresham's, Houdini: the Man Who Walked Through Walls. Stark teamed with producer John Houseman (who would also appear in the film a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) and hired James Bridges to write and direct. Variety announced that James Caan, who had rocketed to fame in The Godfather, was the top choice to play Houdini.

    On the strength of the talent involved, Columbia Pictures agreed to distribute the film, which promised to be in production within a year (it was in a race with yet another Paramount Houdini project). Unfortunately, Stark's Houdini movie would never emerge from development hell.

    Robert Blake
    Robert Blake or Charles Bronson - In 1976 NBC developed a Houdini TV movie that would air on the 50th Anniversary of Houdini's death on Halloween. The project was called, The Heart Is Quicker Than The Eye, and would be produced by Playboy productions from a script by Jean Holloway. The network was actually in a race with rival ABC, who had similar plans to air their own Houdini TV movie written by Melville Shavelson.

    Patrick Culliton, who worked as a technical advisor on the project, says two names producer Bill McCutchen mentioned to him to play Houdini were Robert Blake and Charles Bronson. Bronson was a big movie star at the time so that was probably wishful thinking, but Robert Blake was a real possibility and pretty good choice. Blake was the star of the hit TV show Baretta at the time.

    The Heart Is Quicker The Eye never made it beyond the script stage and NBC lost it's race with ABC, which aired The Great Houdinis in October of 1976 with another TV star in the lead, Paul Michael Glaser.

    John Belushi
    John Belushi - In 1980 it was reported that comedy star John Belushi was the favorite to play Houdini in the big screen adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's bestselling novel, Ragtime. It's not known how close Belushi came to getting the part in the Milos Forman directed film (he was starting to branch out into dramatic roles at that point), but Belushi did bare a resemblance to Houdini and his intensity could have been interesting. However, Houdini's role in the movie would be greatly reduced from what it was in the novel, and when the film was released in 1981, Houdini was played by Jeffrey DeMunn in just a few cameo appearances.

    Tony Curtis in the '80s
    Tony Curtis - No, this isn't a mistake. While Tony Curtis did play Houdini in the 1953 classic HOUDINI, he almost played Houdini for a second time in a sequel of sorts called, Harry's Back! Written by David Simon & Michael Norrell for CBS, Harry's Back! was a comedy that had Houdini suddenly appearing in present day New York, where skeptics must decide if it's the real Houdini come back from the grave or just some nut.

    The project was announced for production in Fall of 1988 with Curtis reprising his famous role. Unfortunately, Harry never came Back.

    Don Ferguson - In 1986 it was announced in The Linking Ring that a new "Magical Music Show" called HOUDINI LIVES AGAIN! was headed to Broadway. With a book by Walter B. Gibson and music by Scott Joplin, the ambitious $2,500,00 musical would feature a cast of twelve "portraying forty-seven different roles" and star "magician-escape artist illusionist, Don Ferguson, in the title role as Houdini." Houdini Lives Again! never saw life, and Don Ferguson would later cause controversy when he claimed to be a blood relative of Houdini.

    Tom Cruise
    Tom Cruise - In 1992 Ray Stark and his Houdini project made a dramatic reappearance when mega-director Robert Zemeckis signed aboard what was now called The Great Houdini. The new movie promised to tell Houdini's story as "a magical special effects-laden adventure" and would be a Colombia/Universal co-production. Tom Cruise was the favorite for the lead.

    But Zemeckis would suddenly leave the project in September of '92, saying he wasn't "100 percent certain what direction the project needs to take". Director Paul Verhoeven signed aboard in 1997, but dropped out a year later, also citing difficulties with the script. Stark would continue to try and get his Houdini/Tom Cruise movie made until his death in 2004.

    Hugh Jackman
    Hugh Jackman - In 2008 development of a major Houdini Broadway musical was announced. The show would be produced by Scott Sanders and David Rockwell with music by Danny Elfman and a book by Aaron Sorkin. In 2009 Hugh Jackman confirmed plans to star in the play. He described his fascination with Houdini, saying, "He was a showman basically. He was probably the first rock star. A master manipulator of the media and a showman through and through."

    Periodically news about the Houdini Broadway musical surfaces, but as of yet, there is no firm date for when we might see Jackman's Harry. (UPDATE: Jackman dropped out of the project in 2014.)

    Jeremy Piven
    Jeremy Piven - In 2009 Entourage star Jeremy Piven said in an interview that he would like to play Houdini. "He was a fascinating guy," said Piven. "He was one of the first hard working artists and magicians. He was one of the first real icons, ever. And he died tragically and he just blew people away all over the world. There is a tremendous story there and I'd love to do that one day."

    With all the recently announced Houdini movie and TV projects in development (no less than five are currently making their way through the Hollywood machinery), maybe Piven will get his wish?

    Thanks to Bill Goodwin of The Magic Castle's William Larsen, Sr. Memorial Library for helping me nail down the date of 'Harry's Back'. And thanks as always to Patrick Culliton for the information on 'The Heart Is Quicker Than The Eye'.

    Monday, August 22, 2011

    Sporting Life 'distressed' Houdini card

    Last month I posted a Houdini trading card from Goodwin made in a vintage style. Now here's a company that takes the "throw back" concept even further, and also feature Houdini among their collection of Famous Personalities.

    Sporting Life offers up a series of cards that are not only made with a vintage look, but the cards have been physically "distressed" to simulate age and use. The cards also feature printing anomalies and imprecise cutting so that each card is truly unique, much as cards where back when the hobby was in its infancy.

    It's a cool concept, and I love that Sporting Life has used a very uncommon (and not particularly flattering) shot of Houdini for their card. That just adds to the authentic flavor. The Houdini card also comes in a tobacco size "test" issue. Only 100 or less of these test issue cards were produced.

    Unfortunately, I'm not the only one who likes these cards, as I've yet to be able to score one on eBay at a reasonable price (for a non card collector). The last series card sold for $21.70 and a test sold for $17.28.

    Sunday, August 21, 2011

    No 'Secret Life of Houdini' movie until 2014?

    Summit Entertainment's The Secret Life of Houdini movie (that's the Houdini as action hero one) is back in the news...somewhat.

    Noah Oppenheim, who was announced as the film's screenwriter in February, has just been tapped to write MGM's remake of WarGames. Various blogs and movie news sites have picked up the story and each mentions Oppenheim's involvement with the Houdini project, but TG Daily adds one bit of additional information. The site states:

    He’s currently also working on a film called The Maze Runner, and another called The Secret Life of Houdini, but we won’t be seeing those until 2013 and 2014, respectively.

    So no Secret Life of Houdini movie until 2014? Unfortunately, the website doesn't give a source for this exclusive bit of information.

    UPDATE: Ah, I expect their source was IMDb, which is not a reliable source when it comes to movies in development. Heck, IMDb still says that I have a movie coming out in 2011, but I can assure that sucker was killed in the development crib in 2009.

    Houdini imitator gets his wish

    Here's one for fans and collectors of Houdini imitators. The Maine Historical Society website has posted this vintage image of an escape artist whom they identify as Houdini in 1908. It's clearly not Houdini, but who is it?

    Click here to have a look at the full length photo at Maine Memory Network. You can also purchase a reproduction of the picture from the site. And if you think you know who this fine fellow is, let us know in the comments below.

    UPDATE: The site has now updated this photo as "NOT Harry Houdini, ca. 1908".

    What do these men have in common?

    Saturday, August 20, 2011

    Now you can sponsor or advertise on WILD ABOUT HARRY

    Do you like the work we do here at WILD ABOUT HARRY? Would you like to support our continued efforts to uncover even more information about Houdini's past, present, and future? Would you like to advertise your own magic website or business on this blog? Well, now you can!

    I've launched a new Sponsorship & Advertising page where you can see a list of sponsorship levels and advertising flat rates. (Unfortunately, I'm not set-up to do any kind of pay-by-click system.)

    Your generous support will go into my continued efforts keeping this blog updated with ALL the latest Houdini news and new findings, as well as helping fund my own research for a soon-to-be-announced Houdini book. I've also been toying with the idea of publishing a collection of each year's WILD ABOUT HARRY posts in book form.

    Thank you for your support and encouragement, and a big thanks to those who have already contributed. It's truly my pleasure to offer up this hub of Houdini news and research on the web. - John Cox

    Friday, August 19, 2011

    Lady Gaga gives Houdini a nod in her latest video

    It looks like Lady Gaga has joined the ranks of Kate Bush and Gwen Stefani in drawing inspiration from Houdini. According to, in her latest video, Yoü And I, we'll catch a glimpse of Gaga inside her version Houdini's Water Torture Cell. I love it when this happens!

    The video will makes its TV premiere tonight at 7:49 p.m. ET/PT on MTV and Logo, followed by a live Q&A with Gaga on

    When Orson met Harry

    Check out the article, Bits of Coincidence, on Meredith Grau's terrific blog, L.A. La Land: Fame, Fortune, and Forensics. It tells the story of when Orson Welles as a boy met Houdini, and the life lesson he took away from the encounter.

    Now, I knew Welles said he saw Houdini in his youth (commenting on how Houdini's show was filled with "German illusions"), but I've never heard this story of a personal backstage meeting. Of course, Welles was as much a teller of tall tales as Houdini, so maybe this didn't really happen (or maybe it wasn't Houdini). But, hey, it's still a cool story, so click on over to L.A. La Land and have a read.

    Welles and wife Rita Hayworth perform The Houdinis Metamorphosis.

    UPDATE: The above photo does indeed show Orson and Rita Hayworth performing the substitution trunk. This was part of Orson's USO Wonder Show. In the show Orson also performed Houdini's Needles.

    Link: Appleton backs Houdini Plaza designs

    Here's the latest in the ongoing saga to redesign "Houdini Plaza" in Houdini's hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin. (Click the headline to read.)

    Thursday, August 18, 2011

    Mr. Electric illuminates the Skirball, Sunday

    Just a reminder that the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles will host a conversation between magic historian Mike Caveney and the legendary Marvyn Roy (a.k.a Mr. Electric) this Sunday at 2:00 p.m. inside the Skirball's Magnin Auditorium. The talk will be followed by a book signing.

    For this final Houdini Art and Magic event, the Skirball is generously offering WILD ABOUT HARRY readers a two-for-one discount on tickets. Just enter the promo code 99731 when booking online or over the phone, (877) 722-4849. Click for more details and to order tickets online.

    Houdini Art and Magic leaves the Skirball on September 4, so this Sunday might be an ideal time to visit or revisit the exhibition. I'll see you there!

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011

    Saint John historian claims Houdini straitjacket origin story a myth

    There's a very interesting article today in the Canadian Telegraph Journal in which local Saint John historian, Harold Wright, challenges the wildly accepted story that Houdini got the idea for his straitjacket escape after visiting Saint John's Provincial Lunatic Asylum in New Brunswick at the invitation of Dr. James Steeves, the director of the facility.

    While Write acknowledges that Houdini was in Saint John in 1896, he says "no proof exists that Houdini ever knew Steeves or that he ever visited the asylum." Wright says Houdini invented the story about the birth of his straitjacket routine "around 1908" as a way "to create a myth around his show while distinguishing himself from the countless other magicians and illusionists that were touring North America at the time."

    I've never heard anyone suggest that this story was a myth, but Wright might be on to something here. Kalush and Sloman give a vivid account of this Saint John Asylum discovery in The Secret Life of Houdini (which is quoted in the Telegraph article), but their only referenced source is Houdini's own account in his Conjurers Monthly Magazine in January 1908, and, as we all know, Houdini is not the best source for the truth.

    Kenneth Silverman puts the story in what I think is the proper perspective in Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss. He cites Houdini's first documented straitjacket escape as taking place in San Francisco in 1899, and then briefly mentions the Saint John story as Houdini's "later account" of its origin (his source being Handcuff Secrets, 1910). Bruce MacNab's authoritative article about Houdini's first Canadian tour in The Beaver, June 2009 ("Hard Times in the Maritimes"), does not mention the Saint John/straitjacket story at all -- maybe because of the lack a reliable source?

    I'm not sure where I come down on this one. Reading Houdini's own account in Conjurers, it doesn't seem like he's making any great Houdiniesque exaggeration or boast, and it's not surprising there wouldn't be any documentation of his visit in 1896 as Houdini was a nobody then. And if Houdini were making this up, why set it in New Brunswick? Unless maybe he was looking to absolve U.S. asylums as straitjackets where, even then, considered cruel forms of "treating" the mentally ill.

    But what's this about Houdini being in Saint John only "as a stagehand for his wife Bess"? I wish Wright would have elaborated on this. While this at first sounds absurd, know that this was during the hectic days of the Marco Company when Harry and Bess took on many different roles in the ill-fated travelling magic show.

    Click to read 'Escape artist: Historian says illusionist created myth, which had Saint John link' at the Telegraph Journal.

    Tuesday, August 16, 2011

    HOUDINI on channel 13

    Here's one for no reason other than I'm feeling nostalgic for those days when I would scan every line on every page of the new TV Guide hoping to catch something about Houdini. One day I opened up to the full page ad below. It still impresses me that the umpteenth repeat on a local L.A. station of what was then a 30 year old film would warrant a full page ad in TV Guide. But, hey, it's HOUDINI!

    Of course, Houdini always got nice attention when he periodically appeared on good old KCOP 13. Here are a few more TV Guide ads from my scrapbook for airings in the '70s and '80s.

    Monday, August 15, 2011

    PRESS RELEASE: Houdini and Conan Doyle by Christopher Sandford

    Christopher Sandford

    How two famous friends became bitter enemies in a battle over life, death – and the afterlife

    Praise for Christopher Sandford’s McQueen
    ‘Highly entertaining… a compelling portrait of a true original’ Mail on Sunday

    ‘[A] penetrating and entertaining biography’ Sunday Express

    In the early 20th century, in the English-speaking world, Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini were two of the most feted and famous men alive. And their relationship is extraordinary. As strange as it may seem Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the ultra-rational detective Sherlock Holmes, was a believer in Spiritualism. He came to his belief that one could communicate with the dead, after his son was killed in World War I, and became an expert in the field.

    Harry Houdini, the world’s foremost magician, was a friend of Conan Doyle's, but was sceptical of his belief in the supernatural. Houdini took every opportunity to use his knowledge of illusion to expose psychics who he thought were fakes, particularly incensed by their exploitation of grief and insecurity.

    Based on original research, this sensational duel biography conjures up the early 20th century and the fame, personality and competing beliefs of two popular geniuses.

    Christopher Sandford has been a professional writer for 29 years. A regular contributor to Cricketer International in the eighties, he has written biographies of English cricket legends Godfrey Evans and Tom Graveney, as well as biographies of Keith Richards, Steve McQueen, Roman Polanski and, most recently, Imran Khan. His articles have appeared in, among others, The Times, Daily Telegraph, The Spectator, Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair and the New York Times. He divides his time between Seattle and England.

    HBK £20.00 ISBN 9780715641460 Published 27/10/2011

    Thanks to Jessica Thompson at Duckworth Publishing. You can pre-order Houdini and Conan Doyle (UK edition) at The U.S. edition can be pre-ordered here.

    Life-size Houdini mystery mannequin

    A life-size Houdini mannequin wearing a straitjacket is currently listed on eBay with an opening bid price of $2,700.00. The seller doesn't have any history on this, but he says the face made of a rubber material and the hair is "punched in."

    From the looks and description, this appears to be a professionally made prop, right down to what the seller says are vintage clothes and boats. I suspect it was used to show Houdini suspended in the jacket -- it looks to me like the rope that is now wrapped around his neck was originally used as the suspension line.

    But what could this be from? As with the coffin that cycled a while back, could this turn out to be a prop from Ragtime? Or did it come from another Houdini stage or screen project? The face sculpt appears to be Houdini himself, not an actor, so we don't have any clues there.

    I doubt the seller is going to get anywhere near his price without some information where this came from. So does anyone recognize this fella? Who are you, Houdini?

    Thanks to Kevin Connolly at Houdini Himself for the find.

    UPDATE: Reader Timothy Randall has provided the following:

    "It's a figure sculpted by a guy from Niagara Falls and was displayed in the Ripley's Museum in Orlando. An exact replica was used in the Water Torture display at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame (and was destroyed in the fire) and a copy also was/is displayed in the Louis Tussaud's Waxworks (also in Niagara)."

    Thank you, Timothy.

    Sunday, August 14, 2011

    WILD ABOUT HARRY Facebook page

    In a move to unify all my annex sites and feeds (Twitter, mySpace, Tumblr, Facebook) under the WILD ABOUT HARRY "brand", I've created a new Wild About Harry Facebook page. I'm not going to delete my Harry Houdini community page (and it's 1200+ fans), but I would encourage everyone to "Like" the new page as this is where I will post all the update links from this blog from now on.

    So head on over to Wild About Harry (Houdini) on Facebook and give it a "Like" today!

    Saturday, August 13, 2011

    Willard's side

    Every Houdini biography contains the story of how, in 1915, Houdini traded verbal blows with heavyweight champion Jess Willard from the stage of the Los Angeles Orpheum. Hearing that Willard was in attendance, Houdini invited him onstage to be part of his committee. Willard refused, calling Houdini as a "faker." The verbal battle went back and forth until Houdini delivered the knockout line: "I will be Harry Houdini when you are not the heavyweight champion of the world." (A wire release reported that he said, "I'll be in the spotlight when you are in the discard.")

    The audience of nearly 2000 sided with Houdini, and Willard left the theater, reportedly to boos and hisses. The papers also sided with Houdini, especially the Los Angeles Record, keeping the story alive for days until Willard left town. Houdini wrote gleefully to his sister Gladys that when he now walks down the street he's greeted with, "Hello champ."

    I don't know. I've never been a big fan of this story. I don't think it shows Houdini in his best light. He had the advantage over a member of his audience and he certainly pressed it. In Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, author Ken Silverman says Willard's bluster that night might well have been a cover for stage-fright -- that outside the ring Willard was self-conscious about his enormous 6 ft. 6 1/2 in. size. I don't know much about Jess Willard, but it seems he not only found himself on the wrong side of Houdini that November day in 1915, but also the wrong side of an emerging media machine. What we would call a "media backlash" today. Also, history has only recorded Houdini's side of the story.

    Now, thanks to The Culliton Papers, we can hear Willard's side. This letter he wrote to the Los Angeles Examiner on December 3, 1915 has never been transcribed or quoted (as far as I could find) in any Houdini biography. It's a pretty good counterpunch, and despite calling Houdini's act "moth-eaten" (kind of funny), it's hard to not sympathize with Willard's point about how, as paying customer, he was "entitled to decent treatment."

    Willard also shows a pretty crafty understanding of media himself by not using Houdini's name in his letter, thus not giving Houdini the publicity Willard claims was the real intent behind this episode (and certainly Houdini openly boasted he'd received "at least a million dollars advertising space from this fray"). Ironically, not using Houdini's name also makes this letter hard to find via modern keyword searches, so Willard's side of the story has been lost to history. Until now.

    By the way, I was surprised to learn that Jess Willard lived until 1968! But this article in the Examiner seems to be the last time he spoke publicly of his encounter with Houdini.

    UPDATE: Make sure you click in and read Patrick Culliton's own comments on this. Did Willard use an anti-Semitic slur against Houdini that night that went unreported in the papers? If so, that certainly explains why Houdini and the audience turned on him as they did. Very interesting notion. Thank you, Pat!

    Also enjoy:

    Friday, August 12, 2011

    First installment of The Culliton Papers this weekend

    This weekend I will post the first installment of my special series, The Culliton Papers. This first story might come as a surprise to those who think we are just Houdini's cheerleaders here at WILD ABOUT HARRY, as we'll climb back into the ring and take: "Willard's side."

    Thursday, August 11, 2011

    Time is running out for Houdini at the Skirball

    Houdini is about to escape from the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. On September 4, Houdini Art and Magic will close for the journey to its next stop at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. (Masters of Illusion will remain through January 2012.)

    If you haven't yet made it to the exhibit, or if you want to make one last return visit, there might be no better time than this Tuesday, August 16, when Erin Clancey will be giving a special Curatorial Walkthrough at 1:30 p.m. Reservations are required and each ticket includes museum admission for that afternoon. There are only a handful of spots left for this special inside look at Houdini Art and Magic, so act fact! Click for more details and to order tickets online.

    Also, on Sunday, August 21 at 2:00 p.m. inside the Skirball's Magnin Auditorium, there will be a conversation between magic historian Mike Caveney and the legendary Marvyn Roy (a.k.a Mr. Electric), followed by a book signing. For this final scheduled Houdini Art and Magic event the Skirball is generously offering WILD ABOUT HARRY readers a two-for-one discount on tickets. Just enter the promo code 99731 when booking online or over the phone, (877) 722-4849. Click for more details and to order tickets online.

    This is it. See Houdini before he slips away!

    Houdini artwork by Mark Summers from Los Angeles Magazine (May 2011).

    Houdini Birthright released for Kindle

    The 1995 Houdini-Holmes mash-up novel, Sherlock Holmes and the Houdini Birthright by Val Andrews, has been released for the Amazon Kindle. The book is set in 1922 and also features Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

    Andrews has written a great many Sherlock Holmes pastiche novels, including the magic-themed Sherlock Holmes and the Theatre of Death (featuring The Great Lafayette) and Sherlock Holmes and the Egyptian Hall Adventure (featuring Maskelyne and David Devant).

    As far as I know, this is his only Holmes adventure that features Houdini. Time for a sequel perhaps?