Saturday, December 31, 2011


I've just launched a dedicated WILD ABOUT HARRY YouTube Channel where I will showcase videos from this blog and also goodies from my own collection, such as this rare uncut promo trailer for the 1998 TNT Original Movie, HOUDINI. If you like the channel, please subscribe. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The man who wanted Houdini's brain

Okay, I'm breaking up my "vacation" commitment to bring you a link to this very interesting article at the Smithsonian Institution Archives about Houdini's visit to the lab of Dr. Ales Hrdlicka (above), curator of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution, in 1926. Dr. Hrdlicka was convinced Houdini possessed measurable physical abnormalities that aided in his escapes, and was even interested in acquiring Houdini's brain after his death. What did the good doctor discover?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Back on January 1st

WILD ABOUT HARRY is on vacation. But we'll be back on January 1, 2012 with another full year of all the latest Houdini news and whatnot. See you then!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Happy Holidays from the Hardeens

Thanks to the always awesome MSW for allowing me to share this never before published 1928 Christmas card from the Hardeen family.

Here's wishing all my readers a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a very Happy New Year. Thanks for making WILD ABOUT HARRY's first full year of life such a blast! I'm going to attempt to take a few days off from posting (think I can do it?). See you all in 2012.
                                                       - John

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Did 'Real Deal' buy a Houdini fake?

Just a couple of quick TV alerts before I take a break until the new year. First, there will be a repeat of The History Channel's Real Deal that features a Houdini autograph on December 27th at 9:30am. The episode is called "Autograph Anarchy" and first aired December 11. You can also watch the full episode online or buy it on Amazon.

I gotta say, I would not be comfortable authenticating this autograph (below), which the show bought for $1,200. It could be legit, but it looks a little suspicious to my eye. The seller says he bought the autograph in Las Vegas, but has lost the certificate of authenticity.

Also watch out for an episode of The Discovery Channel's Oddities featuring what is said to be a Houdini throwing knife. The episode is called "Piece of Mind" and repeats on January 31 at 6:30am.

Houdini had throwing knives? That's a new one to me. I've not seen this episode yet, but I hear the seller does supply a letter of provenance, so I'll be curious to check it out.

UPDATE: Well, the "Houdini" throwing knife on Oddities seemed as sketchy as this autograph. It sold for $1,300.

Houdini in action!

Houdini's career as an action hero is amped up to eleven in the terrific new graphic novel, The Secret Adventures of Houdini, written by Todd Hunt and illustrated by Sean Von Gorman. This is the first of what promised to be a series from AHF Media and GH Comics.

Harry is in full Batman mode here as he tangles with a mysterious cult determined to raise the spirit of the undead evil saint, Thascius Cipriano. Most of the book finds Houdini slugging it out (literally) with the evil cultists in their underworld lair. But we also get a good depiction of the Water Torture Cell in the opening pages, a nice moment with Bess inside 278, and when Hardeen makes his timely appearance...well, it's a hoot! All in all a superb job and a really fun book. I'm looking forward to Part 2.

You can purchase The Secret Adventures of Houdini has an an online comic from Lush Comics, or as quality paperback from Indy Planet. You can also get updates on the official Facebook page.

UPDATE: The Secret Adventures of Houdini can now be purchased at Forbidden Planet.

One last jab

Not long ago I did a post about Houdini's famous clash with boxing champion Jess Willard at the Los Angeles Orpheum in 1915. Now our friend Dean Carnegie of Carnegie: Magic Detective has uncovered this terrific advert that takes full advantage of the incident. I don't know. Think Houdini might have had something to do with this ad?

Dean has been on fire lately finding vintage Houdini ads and newspaper stores. Check out his lastest post, Houdini's Challenging Time in Trenton, which offers a terrific day by day account of Houdini's performances in Trenton, NJ, in 1912.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Doug Henning vanished his elephant 35 years ago today

It was 35 years today ago on December 23, 1976, that NBC aired Doug Henning's second live World of Magic television special. Having scored a major sensation with his performance of Houdini's Chinese Water Torture Cell on his first special the year before, Henning returned with yet another legendary Houdini feat -- the Vanishing Elephant!

Henning actually made the elephant vanish at the very beginning of the show. This was somewhat of a surprise as the elephant vanish was touted as the big event of the evening (as you can see in the original TV Guide ad right) and it was odd that it would not be saved for the finale.

However, that was all by design, as Henning ended his special by making the elephant reappear. Once again he took a Houdini classic and gave it a fresh new spin.

Henning would perform Houdini's Walking Through A Brick Wall illusion for his third special in 1977...but we'll save that one for next year.

You can watch a later version of Henning's Elephant Vanish in this 1981 clip from his Broadway show, The Magic Show. For the full story of the great Doug Henning, check out Spellbound: The Wonder-filled Life of Doug Henning by John Harrison.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Houdini mystery poster depicts the cannon challenge

Steven Bingen, author of MGM: Hollywood Greatest Backlot and the Warner Bros. archivist who helped me uncover RKO 589, has shared another discovery. While taking a tour of the historic Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio in Newhall, CA, Steve spotted this Houdini poster in the studio museum. The poster shows Houdini lashed to a cannon with the word "Challenge" beneath.

It's tantalizing to think this might be an actual Houdini poster, but the style and size almost certainly precludes this (dang-it). Still, it's an intriguing piece. Houdini did accept a challenge by four Navy petty officers to escape from the mouth of a loaded cannon in England in 1911, and he was tied in very much the same manner as we see depicted the poster, right down to having a rifle inserted behind his back. (Publicity for The Grim Game claimed this challenge took place in Pershing Sq. in Los Angeles.)

However, the cannon escape is one of Houdini's more obscure challenges. There are no photos (that I know of), and only one drawing (in Gibson's The Original Houdini Scrapbook, p. 211). So this is not artistic fantasy. This required research. But for what purpose?

It's possible this poster was made for a movie or TV show shot at the Melody Ranch studio. That's what this museum is all about. But what movie? And while this is not a real Houdini poster, could it be based on a real poster image? Houdini did use imps on his prison cell and barrel mystery poster, so it's not usual that we see imps in action here (I love that one is lighting the fuse). But that's probably wishful thinking.

I've always wondered why Houdini didn't make more of this challenge in his publicity. It's certainly a dramatic image. But maybe he didn't want to encourage a repeat. In the original challenge letter, the officers specified that he escape in the allotted 20 minutes or "be blown to Kingdom Come."

Click to enlarge

Thanks to Steve Bingen for sharing his photos and his find.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

John Belushi almost played Houdini

I've just updated my article from last August about the men who almost played Houdini with a new contender; John Belushi.

In 1980 it was reported that 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. When the film was released in 1981, Houdini was played by Jeffrey DeMunn in just a few cameo appearances.

Click here to read more about the men who almost played Houdini.

Google's Houdini Doodle makes list of top ten most talked about

The website has compiled a list of the top ten most talked about Google Doodles for 2011 (using the Brandwatch tool). At #8 is the Houdini Doodle, which Google posted on their homepage on March 24, 2011 in celebration of Houdini's 137th birthday.

However, as revealed on the piechart below, the Houdini Doodle generated more "negative buzz" than "positive buzz", but this could have been because of the hoax story which claimed the Doodle contained "secret animation." (It didn't.)

Click to enlarge

The appearance of the Google Houdini Doodle gave WILD ABOUT HARRY it's best day of the year with 5,780 hits.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

NYPL Digital Gallery invites us into Houdini's backyard

Check out these photos from the New York Public Library's amazing Digital Gallery website. These pics appear to be Houdini in the backyard of his New York home, "278". Certainly those windows look like the rear of the famous house (or the adjacent building), and Marie Blood spoke about 278 having a small fenced in backyard with flower beds where she played as a child. And yes, in that second shot (which includes Dr. A.M. Wilson, editor of The Sphinx magazine), we get a peek at Houdini's dirty last!

While I can't say with complete certainly that the location of the above photos is 278 (there might be too many windows back there), there's no doubt about the photo below. Notice the wing extension, drain pipe, and arched window frames that can all be seen in photos I took of the back of the house in 2005. By the way, that's magic dealer Frank Ducrot, Frederick Eugene Powell, and the great coin magician T. Nelson Downs with our Harry.

While we're on the subject of backyards, check out the photos below, also from the NYPL Digital Gallery, of Houdini taking a dive into a swimming pool. While this is not 278, I can't help but wonder (hope) that these might be shots of Houdini at the Walker mansion in Laurel Canyon, California, which over the years has come to be known as the "Houdini Mansion".

While we know Houdini didn't own the Laurel Canyon house -- he and Bess rented a smaller house belonging to the estate across the street while he made movies in Hollywood -- he almost certainly spent time there, and his appearance in this pics looks to be correct for his movie star days. Also, the Walker mansion did have an outdoor swimming pool with white titles as we see in the pics (I have a shard of that tile), and the surrounding foliage looks very Laurel Canyon to me. It's a long shot, but it would be great to finally put Harry on that property, if even just for a quick swim.

NYPL Digital Gallery provides free and open access to over 700,000 images digitized from the The New York Public Library's vast collections, including illuminated manuscripts, historical maps, vintage posters, rare prints, photographs and more.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Wild About Hardini?

Here's a curious window card from the 1950s for someone calling themselves "HARDINI". This is clearly a fusion of Hardeen and Houdini, but it's a name that I think works much better than the "Nordinis" and "Boudinis" of Houdini's day.

Also note the "Direct from Hollywood - Paramount Pictures" and "Company of Entertainers from Movie Land." What's that all about? I'm also curious about what might be underneath the Hardini name as that is clearly a paste over.

But the real mystery is the man himself. Who was Hardini?

A quick search of Ask Alexander reveals a Hardini from Sweden whose first name is, you guessed it, Harry! But I've also found a few other Hardinis. Jim Sallias, aka Hardini, is active in the 1950s, which puts him in the right frame for this poster. And then there's Cliff Harden, aka Hardini, who is still active today. I've also discovered a "well known" escape artist in the 1930s going by the name Hardini.

The poster is being auctioned on eBay by Potter & Potter. So far it has received no bids.

UPDATE: Looks like Hardini found some love with a last minute bid.

Houdini traveling trunk arrives in the Copperfield collection

Check out these pics of a Houdini traveling trunk that is new to the David Copperfield collection and museum. According to the caption on WhoSay, this trunk "housed all of Houdini's most important documents."

David Copperfield's photo New to the museum: Houdini's traveling trunk.

David Copperfield's photo This trunk housed all of Houdini's most important documents.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Holmes and Houdini team up again

With Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows the #1 movie this weekend, I thought it fitting to bring news of a new Holmes-Houdini mash-up adventure.

Sherlock Holmes: The Crossovers Casebook in a collection of new Holmes short stories that finds the great detective teaming up with notables of his era such as Arsene Lupin, Lawrence of Arabia, Calamity Jane, Sexton Blake, Colonel Savage (Doc's father), and, yes, Houdini!

The Houdini-Homes story is called THE ADVENTURE OF THE MAGICIAN’S MEETINGS and is written by Larry Engle and Kevin VanHook. In it Holmes and Houdini investigate a mystery involving a fake medium.

Sherlock Holmes: The Crossovers Casebook hits stores January 10, 2012 and can be pre-ordered now on

It's elementary!

UPDATE: The release date for this now shows as March 27, 2012.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Houdini and his eagle shine in auction

This absolutely stunning signed photo of Houdini with his pet eagle, "Abraham Lincoln", sold Thursday at a Profiles in History auction for $2000 (plus $460 buyers premium). The photo is a gelatin silver glossy 6 7/8 in. x 7 1/8 with an inscription that reads: "The only tame eagle in the world ‘Abraham Lincoln,’ Houdini, N.Y. Hippodrome Season 1916-1917."

Houdini produced Abe from the folds of an American flag during the patriotic review show, Everything, at the Hippodrome. (It was actually the 1918-19 season.) I've never seen this particular image before. I must say, both man and bird look amazing in this shot!

Thanks to Brad Henderson at the Genii forums for the alert.

LINK: Restoring Houdini's 'Spirits'

Check out this terrific article about the painstaking restoration of the original dust jacket for a signed copy of Houdini's A Magician Among the Spirits by the conservation experts at Poster Mountain. This would be interesting even without the Houdini connection!

Click on the headline to have a read at the Poster Mountain blog.

Boudini is back!

In 1905 Houdini and a rival escape artist, Jacques Boudini, had an underwater "shackle breaking match" in New York harbor. This is not one of Houdini better known encounters, and newspapers at the time, as well as magic historians today, smelled a rat. Was this a staged "challenge" to showcase Houdini's skill over a "rival"? Was Boudini a hired stooge? The outcome of the challenge certainly favored Houdini, as Boudini not only failed to escape his cuffs, but was nearly drowned.

Courtesy Carnegie: Magic Detective

Now the tireless Dean Carnegie over at Carnegie: Magic Detective has uncovered a remarkable page of theatrical ads from a 1907 Boston Journal that features Houdini, Thurston, The Keatons (Buster's parents), and, incredibly, Boudini! This is two years after the challenge and strongly suggests that Boudini -- and the underwater match -- was on the level.

We see in this ad that Boudini is still dogging Houdini, and even stealing the wording from Houdini's own advert: "Nobody Can Hold Him." Also, "Never Anything Like It in Boston" is a pretty aggressive statement, considering Houdini is playing his second week in the city.

Would setting Boudini up at a rival theater with this aggressive billing benefit Houdini in any way? It's true that Houdini would sometimes plant a rival act in another theatre to expose handcuff tricks, but Boudini is doing the challenge escape act ("All Challenges Accepted"), which was still relatively new in 1907 and near and dear enough to Houdini that he even forbid his brother Hardeen from accepting challenges (for a time).

I'm thinking Dean (who has been on fire lately finding amazing old Houdini newspaper clippings and photos -- like this) has given us solid evidence that Jacques Boudini was the real deal and a legitimate pain in Houdini's backside.

Click here to read the full newspaper account of the Houdini-Boudini underwater challenge.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Houdini makes it onto the Hollywood Walk of Fame...again

Houdini has once again made it onto Hollywood's famous Walk of Fame, this time by being selected as one of 50 celebrities that make up Topps new American Pie "Hollywood Walk of Fame" subset trading card set. Houdini joins Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. as the only silent film stars in the pack. Way to go, Harry!

Houdini received his Walk of Fame star on Halloween 1975. It is located on the corner of Orange and Hollywood Blvd. next to the Chinese Theater and within view of The Magic Castle. The star was restored and rededicated in 2008.

Arthur Moses takes us on a Houdini world tour in the next Magicol

Word from the MCA (Magic Collectors Association) is that Magicol No. 181 is now at the printers, and it looks like this will be another must have issue for Houdini collectors! Our good friend Arthur Moses, who penned an article on how to spot Houdini fakes for issue No. 179, is back with another Houdini piece. Here are the details from the MCA blog:

Continuing our tour of the globe, Arthur Moses shares his research on Houdini (as the subject) in foreign titled books. This nine-page database pain-stakingly details titles on or about Houdini in over twenty languages! You will find an incredible table of information with Houdini titles organized in alphabetical order of their language; first listing the title, language, author, publisher, publication date, and the original (English) translated title of the book. Whew!

Click here for information on how to join the MCA and subscribe to Magicol. And get ready for the 43rd Magic Collectors Weekend set for May 10-12, 2012.

The House Theatre of Chicago revives 'Death and Harry Houdini'

Press ReleaseThe House Theatre of Chicago continues its 10th anniversary season with an all-new re-imagining of the company’s inaugural production and first ever hit, Death and Harry Houdini, opening on January 29, 2011 at The Chopin Theatre (1543 W. Division St.).

Artistic Director Nathan Allen returns to his very first script having spent the last decade developing The House’s voice. The House’s original production featured magic, music, dance, and film. Now Allen, along with The House’s incredibly diverse ensemble of artists, bring their experience in creating ensemble theater and devising story to the life of history’s greatest magician, while reaching deep into its bag of tricks to create an altogether new theatrical event.

Company Member, actor and nationally renown magician Dennis Watkins brings a lifetime of creating magic to the character of Harry Houdini. Watkins has designed a magical landscape for The House to play in that includes many of Houdini’s original creations, as well as an onslaught of classic magic driving the story’s narrative.

Additionally, Watkins performs Houdini’s most infamous stage escape, The Water Torture Cell, in which he is locked upside down in a tank of water, with only as much time to escape as he has air in his lungs. The Water Torture Cell, as performed by Houdini, is a rarely-seen stage escape. Furthermore, The House boasts the first-ever recorded performance of The Water Torture Cell in the round. This escape gives the audience the one-of-a-kind opportunity to witness magical history from inches away!

House Company Member Carolyn Defrin takes on the role of Houdini’s wife, Bess and Company Member Shawn Pfautsch (recently seen as Cyrano at The House) plays Houdini’s brother, Theo. Company Member Marika Mashburn plays Houdini’s mother, Cecilia. Visiting artists Abu Ansari, Kevin Stangler, Trista Smith join the cast. The ensemble is led by Company Member Johnny Arena as The Ringmaster.

The show features the work of an all-star Company Member Design Team. Collette Pollard has designed a bold industrial set, which is lit by Ben Wilhelm. Composer Kevin O’Donnell brings a new sound to the show and Lee Keenan designs costumes.

Join The House for the epic story of Harry Houdini and his life-long battle against Death beginning January 29th and running through March 11th. Previews begin January 19.

For more information and to buy tickets visit the official House Theater of Chicago website.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Original Houdini portrait photo nabs $887 on eBay

An original Houdini Type I portrait photo has sold on eBay for a surprisingly high $887.00. The auction received 28 bids. Just goes to show that a Houdini photo doesn't need to be signed to be valuable. I expect the real appeal here was the beautiful image and the excellent condition.

This photo, taken in 1915 by the LaPine Studios of Seattle, WA, was a favorite of Houdini's. He used it extensively on advertising material related to his anti-spiritualist lecture tour in the early 1920s. This image can be found on programs, window cards (one of which sold on eBay for $1000), and a beautiful color poster that is currently on display at the Houdini Art and Magic exhibition.

This photo can also be seen inside Bess Houdini's famous "Houdini Shrine" during her cameo in the film Religious Racketeers (although I've also seen the shrine with a portrait of an older Houdini inside).

The Houdini family portraits

I've yet to visit the Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA, but when I do I will be especially eager to take a look at these highly personal pieces of Houdiniana. These two portraits of Houdini's father and mother hug inside 278 during Houdini's lifetime. Yes, these were the pictures he lived with everyday, complete with the original gilded frames.

When you think about it, these two portraits probably meant more to Houdini than any of his escape apparatus or magic props. Curators Dick Brookz and Dorothy Dietrich acquired these in the now legendary 1980 auction of items from 278, which I've dubbed, The greatest Houdini auction ever.

Hey, forget about bringing a pair of handcuffs to the next seance table. I say bring these portraits! Maybe that's how we'll finally coax Harry back from the great Hippodrome in the sky.

Speaking of the Houdini Museum, Dorothy Dietrich -- who is now sporting the moniker "The Female Houdini™" -- received a nice name-check in a recent episode of House. You can check out the clip on YouTube (until it gets pulled). Dorothy has also just completed a new interview for The History Channel's Decoded that promises to reveal "some interesting facts" about the infamous dressing room punch. That is set to air in January.

Thanks as always to the gang at the Houdini Museum for keeping me up-to-date on all their Houdini related activities.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Houdini tribute edition of Porchlight with James Randi, Jan 12

The Contemporary Jewish Museum have announced one more special event as part of their Houdini Art and Magic programing. This time the legendary James Randi will be joining a special "Houdini tribute edition" of San Francisco's popular Porchlight storytelling series. Here are the details:

Abracadabra! Stories about Magic with Porchlight
Thursday, January 12 @ 7 – 8:30 PM

In this special, one-time-only Houdini-tribute edition of San Francisco’s popular Porchlight storytelling series, hosts Beth Lisick and Arline Klatte present a cast of magicians, mentalists, and spiritualist debunkers, who brave the audience to confess first-hand accounts of brushes with magic. Storytellers include magic show maestro, Stallion; professional magician and “debunker,” James (The Amazing) Randi; mentalist and comedian Eric Mead; and All Things Considered contributor and magician Dayvid Figler.

Porchlight, now in its 8th year, is San Francisco's premier storytelling series. People from different backgrounds are invited to tell 10-minute true stories without using notes or memorization. Past storytellers include some of the area's most entertaining school bus drivers, mushroom hunters, politicians, socialites, sex workers, musicians, authors, systems analysts, and social workers.

Click here to buy tickets at the CJM website

In related news, James Randi will return to The Magic Castle on Monday, January 16, 8pm to 11pm, for the second part of his interview with Max Maven. Randi last appeared to a standing room only crowd at the Castle back in September 2010. The interview is a "Castle Perk" open to AMA members.

David Copperfield has a big one

Poster, that is!

Our buddy Dean Carnegie (Magic Detective) has alerted me to this video of David Copperfield giving a tour of his famous warehouse and magic collection in Las Vegas. In this installment (which promises to be the first of several) Copperfield shows off mostly artifacts from his own career, but at 2:43 he shows us an original Houdini straitjacket poster/lithograph which he says is "the only known version of this image."

While this poster is familiar (click to see the whole thing), the real revelation here is just how GIGANTIC it is! For some reason, I always imagined this as being a smaller sheet, even though 100 Years of Magic Posters does say it's 76.5 x 110 in (194 x 279 cm). The size certainly adds drama to what is already a pretty dramatic image. Can you imagine traveling down the street and seeing a dozen of these lining the block? Wild.

One thing I've always wondered; is this supposed to be Houdini in the jacket, or some unfortunate inmate in an asylum -- one of "the murderous insane"? In a way it works as both, which is quite clever and provocative. Just shows how Houdini's posters really were dramatic works of art in their own way. This poster was made for Houdini by the Strobridge Lithographic Co. of Cincinnati in 1912.

Come to think of it, there is actually a second, probably earlier version of this same poster with different text and a different face that can be glimpsed in part on page 20 of The Original Houdini Scrapbook by Walter B. Gibson.

Check out the full video of "David Copperfield's Magic Tour" below. You might also want to click over to Dean's site and read his very interesting post on how Houdini Outdoes David Copperfield, What?!

UPDATE: Unfortunately, the YouTube video has been removed as it was not sanctioned by Copperfield. I actually thought it was put out by Copperfield as it looked so professional. My apologies to DC. But I'm still in awe of his big one.

LINK: The Strange Life of a Different Houdini

Yes, it's another MUST READ on Dean Carnegie: Magic Detective. This time Dean takes a look back at the career of Jacob Hyman, Harry's original partner in The Brothers Houdini, who actually went on to perform as "J.H. Houdini" for many years.

Dean's post includes some rare photos and adverts from the life of "J.H. Houdini", including this remarkable shot of Harry and Jacob with the Metamorphosis trunk in 1893.

Click the headline or here to read The Strange Life of a Different HOUDINI.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Tour Houdini Art and Magic with Joshua Jay (Part 1)

The Contemporary Jewish Museum has just posted this first in a series of "one-stop" video tours of Houdini: Art and Magic with renowned magician Joshua Jay.

In this first installent, Joshua shows us the writings of Houdini and talks about his career as an author. Something to watch out for here is the photo of Bessie on the wall behind Jay. This is the mystery photo I mentioned in my own report on the exhibition (and Ken Silverman lecture) that was not part of the exhibit when it was here in L.A., nor is it in the Houdini Art and Magic companion book.

Yes, Houdini was a Mason

The Mill Valley Masonic Lodge No. 356 has an interesting article on their website about "Masons and Magicians." So many of the great magicians from the Golden Age of Magic were Freemasons, including Houdini.

According to the article, "Bro. Houdini" was initiated as an Entered Apprentice on July 17, 1923 in St. Cecile Lodge No 568 in New York City. He passed to the degree of Fellowcraft on July 31, 1923, and was raised to the Degree of Master Mason on August 21, 1923. In 1924 he entered the Consistory, which is the fourth and final degree in the Scottish Rite.

Houdini's masonic activities included giving a benefit performance for the Valley of New York which filled the 4,000 seat Scottish Rite Cathedral and raised thousands of dollars. In October 1926, just weeks prior to his death, he became a Shriner in Mecca Temple. His last rites, held November 4, 1926 at the Elks Clubhouse in New York, concluded with traditional Masonic Rites.

Other famous Freemason magicians of the day included Thurston, Carter, Chung Ling Soo, Blackstone, Kellar, and Houdini's brother Hardeen.

You can read more about the Masonic Magicians at

UPDATE: For the most up to date facts on Houdini the Mason please see: Guest Blog: Author-Lecturer-Mystifier-Mason.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Ken Silverman at the CJM: "Houdini was the first modern magician."

Houdini biographer Kenneth Silverman gave a marvelous lecture at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco on Thursday as part of the CJM's Houdini Art and Magic special programming. I was lucky enough to attend the sold out event (those who follow me on Twitter @HoudiniWild got a blow by blow of my trip north). I was also lucky enough to chat with Mr. Silverman before and after the talk, but I'll get to that.

Ken divided his talk into sections spotlighting Houdini's most famous escapes, his magic, his anti-spiritualist crusade, and his involvement with Jewish culture and organizations. He hit on all the highlights that will be familiar to readers of this blog, but there were a few nuggets that were new to me. For example, Ken said that during his research, he consulted with a CIA (lock?) expert who told him there was "no way" Houdini could have picked the Mirror Handcuff. When talking about Houdini's advertising and poster art, Ken mentioned that a "collector in India" recently paid $300,000 for a Houdini poster (a "huge one"). I also liked it when Ken placed Houdini at the dividing line between old and new magic, saying that Houdini really was "the first modern magician."

Interestingly, when Ken was talking about the Shelton pool test, he appeared to break from his script and explained that there was a "theory" that Houdini could have received air via his telephone line. The audience seemed to rise to that and I got the sinking feeling they believed Ken had just revealed the dirty little secret of the test. I had to restrain myself from jumping and explaining that Houdini did the test a second time in Worcester, sans telephone, to show there was no trickery. But I kept myself in check, and it occurred to me that the revelation of the second and third tests might have been news to Silverman himself (not sure it's been discussed outside this blog, if fact).

I was especially interested when Ken reached his section about Houdini and Judaism, which is something we really don't hear much about, and this was certainly the place for it! Ken spoke about how Houdini founded the Rabbis’ Sons Theatrical Benevolent Association, whose membership included Al Jolsen and Irvin Berlin, and also the Jewish Theatrical Guild, which counted Eddie Cantor and William Morris among its leaders. Ken also explained how Houdini visited the scene of a Jewish massacre near Kishinev in Russia, which occurred while he was performing in that country in 1903 (the massacre occurred on Houdini's birthday, in fact). This was news to me. Ken also mentioned how Houdini wrote of his encounters with anti-Semitism for journals, and how his diaries give insights into his faith, such as eating at a kosher restaurant with his brother, Nat. Yet Ken pointed out that Houdini also celebrated Christmas, so...go figure.

The Q&A after the talk was lively and yielded some astute questions from the audience. Of course, Ken had to do some mythbusting here, as the first question out of the box was whether Houdini worked as a spy for the U.S. government. "There's nothing to that story," said Ken. He was also highly doubtful that Houdini was murdered. After first stating that he thought the idea was "ridiculous", he tempered his response and said he's just never seen any proof, and that for it to be true, all his doctors would have had to been in on the plot. (I'm with Ken -- it's "ridiculous."). When an audience member asked if Houdini ever did product endorsements (see, good questions!), Ken couldn't recall any off-hand. Again, I had to hold myself back and not shout out, "Zam-buk!" But I remained quiet. I was there to learn from the master. And learn I did.

As I said, I was lucky enough to chat with Mr. Silverman before and after the talk. He told me how there is still a lot of Houdini information and material out there that has not yet come to light. One example (also mentioned during his talk) is the voluminous correspondence between Houdini and Harry Kellar that even Ken hasn't examined. Of course, I sung the praises of his biography, Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, which I had brought along and Ken generously signed for me. I mentioned how I'd love to see it reprinted, especially as an eBook so I could more easily search it for research He agreed that he'd like to see it back in print, and seemed somewhat distressed that it wasn't, but he said doing so was "complicated."

Of course, I wasn't going to travel all this way and not take a stroll through the CJM's Houdini Art & Magic exhibition, even though I saw it several times at the Skirball Center here in Los Angeles. I was giving the VIP treatment by the lovely and exquisitely named Gravity Goldberg (who once performed as an assistant to her magician father).

I must say, the CJM has done a wonderful job with the exhibition! They've laid it out in a manner that I actually found superior in some regards to the Skirball, and that's saying something. Of course, they don't have the John Gaughan Water Torture Cell replica. Instead they have the reproduction that was in New York, which is really more of an art piece. However, the CJM does have a terrific photograph of Bessie standing with a pile of Houdini's books that is as tall as she is. This was NOT at the Skirball, nor is it in the Houdini Art and Magic companion book. This photo, which I've never seen, is credited to the Library of Congress, and seems to have only appeared now. Curious. I also loved paging through the exhibition guest book, which contains gems like THIS.

Finally, it's worth noting that San Francisco is festooned with banners advertising Houdini Art and Magic using the CJM's key art of Houdini in shackles. They line Fisherman's Wharf, in fact. (I also discovered a repro Buried Alive poster in a bar called Black Magic near my hotel, where I made several cocktails disappear.)

There's something poetic about all this attention. Houdini's fame really kicked off in San Francisco, which was the first city in his tour of the Orpheum circuit in 1899 after he was discovered by Martin Beck. Now, over 100 years later, it's clear that Houdini is still very much a star in the City By The Bay!

Thanks to Ken Silverman and everyone at the Contemporary Jewish Museum for making this such a memorable event.

Link: Houdini Straight Jacket History

Dean Carnegie has a terrific article on his blog today about the history of Houdini's straitjacket escape, including modern day interpretations (both serious and comic), and his own experiments performing the metal straitjacket as seen in the Tony Curtis Houdini movie.

Great stuff as always from Dean, so click the headline and have a read at Magic Detective.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

New cover illuminates Luminaries

Luminaries by Timothy M. Brenner, which was first published in June, is now available with this slick new cover (left).

Luminaries is an "an alternate history mystery-thriller set in the early 1930's" that finds Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Orson Welles tracking down a serial killer who murdered a member of the British Royal Family. The three famous protagonists are each gifted with supernatural abilities, with Houdini being "a master of telekinesis".

Author Timothy Brenner tells me that he's currently working on a sequel tentatively titled, Luminaries: Black Dragon. While the first book is told mostly from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's point of view, Book 2 will be told from Houdini's viewpoint.

Luminaries is available as a paperback and Kindle eBook from

Houdini still a star in San Francisco

I've returned from my trip north to visit Houdini Art & Magic and hear Ken Silverman speak at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. I'm working on my full report... In the meantime, check out these light-post banners which line Fisherman's Wharf and dot the city. Yes, Houdini is still a headliner in the City by the Bay!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Wild About Harry is hitting the road

Tomorrow I will be gassing up the Humber and hitting the road for San Francisco to see Houdini Art and Magic at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and hear a lecture by the great Kenneth Silverman, author of Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss (still the best Houdini biography, IMO). Here are the details on Ken's talk from the CJM website:

Kenneth Silverman: Harry Houdini—Jewish Star of American History - Thursday, Dec 8 ∙ 6:30 – 8 PM.
Kenneth Silverman, Pulitzer-prize winning biographer and author of Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, discusses Houdini’s leadership in creating the Rabbis’ Sons Theatrical Benevolent Association, a group that included the most famous Jewish entertainers of the day. Silverman addresses how Houdini used his fame to combat anti-Semitism and comments on the significant legacy of Jews and magic in American history. Silverman, professor emeritus of English at New York University, has also published biographies on Cotton Mather, Edgar Allen Poe, and Samuel F.B. Morse. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he has received the Bancroft Prize in American History, the Pulitzer Prize in for Biography, the Edgar Award of the Mystery Writers of America, and the Christopher Literary Award of the Society of American Magicians.

You can follow my adventures on the road via Twitter @HoudiniWild. I'll post a full report on my return.

UPDATE: Ken Silverman at the CJM: "Houdini was the first modern magician."