Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Derek Tait follows Houdini in Britain

Having now read it, I just wanted to give a fresh shout-out and a hearty recommendation for Derek Tait's, Houdini: The British Tours. I always enjoy these passion project/specialty books, and this one is an invaluable resource for us Houdini nuts. Derek has pretty much nailed down every engagement Houdini played in the UK and Scotland, and for the great majority of them he's uncovered newspaper clippings and reviews that he reproduces in full. (I'm going to sit down and use this book to fill in some of the gaps in Koval's Houdini Research Diaries.)

Reading this book one really gets a very good sense of what Houdini's day to day act consisted of -- what remained the same and what he varied. I was especially taken with the great many descriptions of how he presented his challenge packing crate escapes. It was somewhat of a revelation to me that he would encourage the challengers to insert fresh nails into the box onstage (so much for Houdini replacing the nails while the box was in his possession), and that the ropes used to encircle the crate were also nailed to the boards. I don't think I've every heard about this nailing of the ropes, yet this detail is in just about every newspaper account of these challenges. I was also interested in a review from Houdini's final tour in 1920 that says he performed the Milk Can!

I also like that Derek does not just excerpt the Houdini sections from these reviews, but reproduces the entire thing so you can see what other acts were playing alongside Harry. It gives a great sense of the time and place and who Houdini's fellow performers were (I was actually surprised by the lack of variety in some of these variety shows). And did we all know that Houdini shared the bill with Chung Ling Soo during his historic first week at the Alhambra in 1900? Because I'm not sure I knew that! But Derek reproduces the Alhambra program for that week, and there they are! Houdini and Chung Ling Soo on the same bill. Oh to be a time traveller.

The book is profusely illustrated and includes lots of challenge broadsides and newspaper clippings. There is also a terrific drawing, made by an audience member, of Houdini on stage, which gives a great idea of how he laid out his props. At 188 pages, it's also one of the longer specialty books. A few forgivable errors do creep into the text (Herman was the Weiss sibling who died at a young age, not Gladys), but Derek promises updates in the future as he uncovers more about Houdini's appearances in Great Britain.

Houdini: The British Tours is available in two covers (above). If you order direct from derektait.co.uk, you can choose which cover you want and also get the book signed. It's also available on Amazon.co.uk, but availability there has been sketchy. You can also purchase it for the Kindle via Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

UPDATE: Derek has announced a new and greatly expanded edition: The Great Houdini: His British Tours coming in 2016.


  1. Here is a question to ponder......let's say you were able to travel back in time to see any Houdini performance. What specific performance would you choose and why? Mirror challenge? Young Houdini performing with Bess? prime Houdini doing the Milk can or WTC, older Houdini with his full evening show, his final performance? Or some other specific show? Second question......do you think we would feel that his show exceeded expectations or would we return to 2011 disappointed in what we saw? I throw this in since we all imagine how Houdini performed and presented his effects but we really don't know in reality. Would his turn of the century style and manner disappoint an audience member from 2011?

  2. I've thought of this many, many times, and I can't make up my mind. It would be incredible to be on the scene during the Mirror challenge, but with Houdini's full evening show you would see it all, including the USD.

    Hard to say how we'd perceive it as a modern audience/people.

  3. Another question that comes to mind......let's say Houdini is never punched in the stomach as he was. How does the rest of his career pan out going into the crash of 29, through the depression years as vaudeville disappears, WWII and potentially into the 1950's? Is HH remembered as he is today an almost mythological figure? Or does he fade into time as the years pass dying in relative obscurity....or something in-between?

  4. My choice would be prime Houdini circa 1914 doing the WTC along with some wild challenge escape. I would be able to then see Houdini at the very top of his game. I live close to NY and have been to the Palace theatre several times and it's magnificent. Here is where I would like to be in the fall of 1914.....front row center watching Houdini perform his greatest escape.

  5. Again, something I've thought about a lot. I think Houdini would have continued to perform his full evening show into the 1930s and would do very well. I know he was planning on going after the tricks of gamblers (and by extension, gangsters) and I think he could have become something of a crime buster, which would have played great in depression era '30s. I think he would have become even more of an elder statesman of magic into the 40s, and would have probably created some kind of a permanent theater showcase for magic under his name. He also would have had a radio show, maybe the host of a mystery hour. No way his fame would have faded. He would have just become a LIVING legend, and would have worked that masterfully.

  6. Yes......but the fact he died relatively young at the top or near the top of his game...dying on Holloween lends itself I think to his everlasting fame and the mystery and mythological status of his name. Similar to James Dean, Marylyn Monroe etc....don't you think?

  7. Somewhat, but I don't think it's critical to everlasting fame. Elvis didn't die young.

  8. Still, I wouldn't want to remember him as a wizened old man still getting out of milk cans as the pre-entertainment entertainment at a movie theater.

    It's hard to say what he would have gone on to do had he lived to age 72, say. I suppose it would depend on what his personal finances were in the Great Depression.

    At least we might have had a chance to see him in a talkie newsreel from the '30s or '40s.

  9. I think it would have lessened his enduring fame. Over and above everything else it's even more of a mystery since we can't and never will see him actually perform. All we can use is our imagination and generally imaginations run wild.

  10. Hey, if you're good at something, you're good for all time and however long you happen to live doesn't lessen the impact of that.

    What might is if you continue to do the same thing without variation and it becomes tired. Knowing what sort of person he was - constantly innovating and ahead of the game - I seriously doubt that would ever have been a problem for Houdini.

  11. Your missing the point. If Houdini lived into the 1950's everyone would have a perfect idea of how he performed, his voice, his ability. He would have been filmed in perfect black and white speaking, performing etc. He would no longer be a figure mostly shrouded by mystery. As it is though we have none of that...we mostly use our imagination as to how he performed and the level of his ability. Our imagination I am very sure raises his greatness many times over. Not to say he was not great, he was the greatest. His legacy is so very strong not only because he was a great performer but also his feats multiply over time because we cannot see them.....except in our imagination.

  12. Wow, I just about missed a great discussion here. I don't know which particular performance of Houdini's I would like to see. Perhaps Houdini's Hippodrome shows, with everything including the disappearing elephant. It's hard to say what a modern person seeing Houdini back in time would think of his show---depends on their expectations I suppose.

    As for Houdini's legendary status being affected by a latter-day death...well, perhaps. But it's really hard to say. Houdini had already made big transitions in his forties and fifties to get out of the acts that made him famous, but were wearing him out. That's why he went into movies and on to Broadway in the '20s. I suspect if he'd live to see the crash of '29, he would have been hit at least somewhat by the ensuing depression--he was carrying a hefty debt-load when he died, after all...but if he'd started writing more books in the late '20s, the sales might have buoyed him through at least some of the '30s.

    I could see him doing other things to get by during the '30s, like starting up a new benefit show of some kind, writing more books, doing radio specials and commercials. But he would have been hitting his sixties by then. Perhaps he would have made it one more time through the war years doing USO shows and promoting bonds-sales, but by the end of WWII he would have been 71. **Perhaps** he could have finished his days on the stage with another magic show, perhaps even a revived anti-Spiritualist crusade or something. But by the early 1950s at the latest, he'd have been out, retired.

    I think if Houdini had lived that long, he'd still be just as famous as he is in this reality, but people would remember him differently. "Anonymous" has a point--living so long, we'd have a much more accurate picture of how he looked and performed, and this would reflect on how we'd remember and revere/revile him. Kind of like we look back on Vincent Price or Jimmy Stewart as legends of the silver screen, and they both lived to a ripe old age (but Jimmy Stewart also lived long enough to be stained by his own racist comments and highly conservative views, and this still taints his image today. Perhaps Houdini too would have made off-color comments about black people or whomever in his dotage). Houdini certainly wouldn't have that creepy "died on Halloween" "burst appendix" legend to spur generations-worth of morbid fascination, and he might not have that mythical status, but his position as a much-remembered and revered legend would be assured.

  13. Tait's book is available through Lulu.com, and it is cheaper for Americans to order it that way than directly from Tait.



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