Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Midnight Mysteries: Haunted Houdini now available for download

The new Houdini computer game, Midnight Mysteries: Haunted Houdini Deluxe, is now available as a download for $2.99 from Big Fish Games. You can also download a free sample at the site. So far it looks like players are giving the game very positive reviews. Here's a description:

When Houdini’s promises of contact from beyond go unkept, his wife comes to you in a final plea to unravel his mysterious passing in Midnight Mysteries: Haunted Houdini Deluxe! When he promised his wife that he would try to reach her from the afterlife, it was seen as the ultimate stunt But after years of séances, Bess was never able to reach Harry in this life or the next, and her spirit has come to you in a final plea to reunite her with her partner!

Deluxe games include an Integrated Strategy Guide!
  • Meet other apparitions
  • Help Bess contact her love
  • Unravel Houdini’s mysterious death!

Midnight Mysteries: Haunted Houdini Deluxe requires Windows XP/Vista. Check out the trailer below.

Madeline meets Houdini

Continuing our French theme today, if you've never seen the episode of The New Adventures of Madeline in which Madeline and her friends meet Houdini, you can now purchase it on Amazon (Prime members can stream it for free). It's a pretty cute episode. We even get to see Houdini and Madeline sing a duet!

"Madeline and the Magic Show" first aired on February 12, 2001 and was episode 14 of Season 3. I've captured a few choice images below.

Les chroniques complètes

Book 4 was tricky, but I've finally managed to acquire all five books in the Les Chroniques du jeune Houdini series. These paperbacks tell fictional adventures of the young Houdini and are only available in French. Here's hoping a publisher might pick these up and offer English translations. As much fun as these are to have on my shelf of Houdini fiction, I would love to actually read them!

Click here for more about the series (including a plot breakdown of each book).

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Is this Houdini in a past life?

Yesterday I did a blog post about Houdini's belief -- according Walter B. Gibson -- that he was the reincarnation of a "German magician named Von Treck." I noted that I couldn't find any magician by that name. But now David Byron, a magic historian for The Mandala Magazine and blogger at Baroque Potion, thinks he may have found our man.

David suspects that the person Houdini had in mind (and body) was Friedrich von der Trenck. While he was wasn't a magician and he didn't die doing a Buried Alive stunt, he was German and famous for having made several daring escapes from a Prussian jail in 1746. He was later accused of being spy during the French Revolution and executed by the guillotine on July 25, 1794. (Oh dear, is this now ammunition for the "Houdini was a spy" theorists?)

As David points out, this illustration of von der Trenck from Wikipedia (above) "makes perfectly clear why Houdini might've had him in mind!"

Sensational find! Thank you, David.

UPDATE: The plot thickens! Joseph Pecore has sent me a link to Friedrich von der Trenck's autobiography where he talks about being buried alive!

UPDATE 2: Armed now with the correct spelling, the great Bill Goodwin at the William Larsen Sr. Memorial Library at The Magic Castle has sent over several articles from Houdini's lifetime that draw parallels between Houdini and Friedrich von der Trenck (called "Baron Trenck" in most of them). There is a lengthy article by Irvin S. Cobb titled, "Houdini Not First Handcuff King", and Houdini's own Conjurers Monthly Magazine cites an article about Houdini in New Age by Henry Ridgely Evans called, "A Twentieth Century Baron Trenck." Below is an example from The Sphinx, July 1920.

Click to enlarge

Thank you, Bill!

No, The Magic Castle did not just sell Bessie's furniture

This morning The Magic Castle in Hollywood had a parking lot "Fire Sale" of items from inside the club that are being discarded after the recent renovations. It was a rare opportunity for members to own a piece of magic and Hollywood history.

I showed up at 8:30am sharp because I knew choice items would be snatched up fast, and I wasn't wrong. The first thing I saw was a fellow member walking away with an original Dante poster from the Dante Dining Room.

But then I saw something that made me stop in my tracks. For years I have been telling my guests that the large oak sideboard which sat in the Cherub Room and later in the Terrace Dining Room had belonged to Bess Houdini. This is because I recalled that it once sat inside the Houdini Seance Room along with a small organ which is also said to have belonged to Bessie. When I went to the Castle for it's reopening earlier this month, I noticed the sideboard was no longer there. Now, much to my horror, here it was in the Castle parking lot in two sections and tagged SOLD!

How could they sell Bessie's sideboard!?

I was then fortunate enough to encounter the legendary Milt Larsen himself, so I asked him about the sideboard and whether it belonged to Bessie as I had once heard. Milt set the record straight. While the sideboard is a beautiful piece of furniture that he hated to part with, it had no history.

"We lie about a lot of things, but this isn't one of them," said Milt with a smile.

Milt then spoke about how he remembered going to Bess's apartment on Vermont, and despite my recollection, the sideboard had never been in the Houdini Room. (However, there is a photo of what appears to be the sideboard in the Seance Room on page 158 of Milt Larsen's Magic Castle Tour. But that same book later identifies it as coming from "a stately home in Pasadena", so...not Bessie's.)

Having solved the mystery of the sideboard (which I'm still sorry to see go), I was happy to come away with a beautiful wooden blade from a ceiling fan which Milt signed for me; "From The Magic Castle - Milt Larsen - 2012."

Be sure to check WILD ABOUT HARRY on Monday for a special milestone post.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Houdini, reincarnation, and a man named Von Treck

This one is a bit off the wall. Just want to warn you up front.

Recently I re-read Norman Bigelow's self-published 1983 book, Death Blow, which examines the question of whether Houdini was murdered (yes, that again). I'm not a fan or a supporter of the murder theories, especially after the recent Brad Meltzer's Decoded debacle, and I didn't find anything here that changed my mind. However, near the end of the book, Norm writes something that did catch my attention:

"In 1975, I spent and entire afternoon talking shop with historian Walter Gibson. He spoke freely about Houdini's belief in reincarnation. Gibson told us he had research material in his files on two people whom Houdini claimed to be in former lives. One of them was a German magician named Von Treck who failed in a buried alive stunt. He also told us Houdini went around everywhere talking about reincarnation."

Houdini believed he was the reincarnation of a German magician named Von Treck? This is pretty far out stuff. But there is ample evidence that Houdini did have an interest in reincarnation.

Bigelow cites The Detroit Free Press, November 1, 1926, which has a section headlined, "Reiterates Reincarnation Belief". And then there's Houdini's 1922 film, The Man From Beyond, which uses reincarnation a key part of its plot. In fact, The Man From Beyond press book contains a very pro story about "The theory of reincarnation", and Houdini featured the concept on advertising, such as the teaser on the right.

And then there's this little gem of a title card near the end of the film:

"Our personal beliefs are of no importance. The great teachers of the earth -- Zoroaster down to Moses and Christ -- who who have made civilization possible -- have taught the immortality and progression of the soul...reincarnation."

Okay. But what of Von Treck?

Unfortunately, I could find no record of any magician named Von Treck. Houdini's The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin -- a suburb source for pre 20th Century magic -- makes no mention of him (at least in the index). Even the eminent Bill Goodwin at the William Larsen Sr. Memorial Library at The Magic Castle could turn up no record of a magician named Von Treck. And would a magician really be doing a buried alive stunt before 1874, as this would have to have been in order for Von Treck to slip into the new born Ehrich Weiss?

Norman Bigelow (who it should be noted is a is a bit of provocateur when it comes to Houdini) says he doesn't know what ever became of Gibson files. But if this information did indeed come from Walter B. Gibson, who knew Houdini well, it's worth the mention.

Told you this was an odd one.

UPDATE: Our friend Joe Notaro over at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence has posted a remarkable ad and article from The Grim Game pressbook that is even more aggressive in stating Houdini's "belief" in reincarnation. You know, I'm starting to think there really is something to this.

UPDATE 2: It now looks like we may have found "Von Treck". See: Is this Houdini in a past life?

Cover art for The Secret Adventures of Houdini #2

Artist Sean Von Gorman has revealed cover art for The Secret Adventures of Houdini #2 on the graphic novel's Facebook page. Says Sean, "We don't currently have a release date as we are still working on the script for book 2 (which is a bit more complex then the last issue). I will say this: Houdini Vs. GOLEM of Prauge. We also have a big Meeting with the EIC of Marvel Comics on Tuesday so Fingers Crossed!"

You can purchase The Secret Adventures of Houdini #1 as an online comic from Lush Comics or as quality paperback from Indy Planet. You can view the book trailer here.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Is this a lost silent Houdini biopic?

This is one I've been meaning to post for a while. In the 1993 BBC documentary, Houdini, The Life of the World's Greatest Escapologist (a good documentary that's notorious for showcasing Ruth Brandon and her impotency theory), there appears this 35 second clip of what looks to be an unknown silent Houdini biopic.

So is this really a lost Houdini biopic? The documentary credits only add to the confusion, calling this a "1928 Bio-Pic 'The Great Houdini' © Ealing Film Studios MCMXCIII." The roman numeral on the copyright is 1993, so that might be the tip-off that this was created just for the doc.

But if that's the case, where are the credits for the actors, and why call it specifically a "1928 Bio-Pic"? Being English, it's not impossible to believe that it had slipped under the radar for this long, and the 1993 copyright could simply mean that's when it was uncovered.

As exciting as the idea of a lost Houdini biopic is, I'm pretty sure this was made for the documentary, and it's probably tagged with the 1928 date because that was the year Ealing was founded. And the documentary does indulge in several other "artist" moments, so....

What do you think?

UPDATE: Looks like the mystery has been solved by an unimpeachable source:

Hi John, I was the actor who played Houdini. It was made specially for the documentary, and that was the only scene we shot, and I've never seen it up until today, so thanks! -Jonny Whiting

Houdini and Margery may not rumble until 2013

I have an update today on David Jaher's new non-fiction book about Houdini and Margery, The Witch of Lime Street.

My spirit guide tells me that the manuscript is not due to be delivered until June, so there's a question now whether the book will be still be released this year as expected or tip over into 2013. The book was originally announced as a 2010 release.

I will continue to consult the spirits for updates on this intriguing project.


UPDATE: 'The Witch of Lime Street' will finally manifest in October (pre-order).

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Watch the complete 'Houdini: Art and Magic' tour with Joshua Jay

The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco has posted all seven parts of Joshua Jay's tour of the Houdini Art and Magic exhibition in one 22 minute YouTube video (below). This video also contains an intro by Jay not found in the other parts. You can view the individual parts via this playlist at the WILD ABOUT HARRY YouTube page, or take the full tour below.

Houdini: Art and Magic opens at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in Madison, Wisconsin on February 11.

The Spencers revive Houdini's Walking Through A Brick Wall

Magic duo The Spencers have added to their "Theater of Illusion" show a modern recreation of Houdini's Walking Through A Brick Wall. They will perform the illusion this Friday at the Performing Arts Center at Lincoln-Way Community High School in New Lenox, IL. Here's a description of their effect from Kevin Spencer and the The Courier News:

"One of the things we are featuring this year is a re-creation of Harry Houdini’s walking through a brick wall," he said. "In 1914, Houdini walked through a solid brick wall on the stages of Broadway. He did it for only a few months, and then he stopped. Lots of speculation about why he may have stopped, but nobody knows for sure. But since 1914, no other magician has ever attempted that illusion live onstage. So what we’ve done is taken that concept … and made it very hip, very sophisticated."
When audiences come into the Performing Arts Center at Lincoln-Way Community High School for the 7:30 p.m. show, walk in, they will see eight concrete cinderblocks. People are even invited to inspect the blocks and make sure they’re real.
Then, a member of the audience is invited onstage to watch the Spencers stack the blocks into place, with bars connecting the blocks. That audience member then holds onto the wall while Kevin Spencer visibly walks through the concrete to the other side of the wall.
"It’s not only a great piece of magic, but the fact that we get to use someone from the audience makes it a great piece of theater too,” he said. "It’s a really fun illusion for me to perform."

Sounds pretty cool. However, it isn't entirely correct to say that "no other magician has ever attempted the illusion live onstage." Doug Henning performed the illusion on his third live television special in 1977.

Houdini and his wall from Houdini The Key

You can check out The Spencers tour schedule and more information via their website spencersmagic.com. To buy tickets to this Friday's performance in New Lenox, visit the Lincoln-Way series website.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

BODacious Starwalk honors Houdini

This is from April 2010, but I only now just discovered it, and you gotta love this! It also gives those who have never seen it a good look at Houdini's Hollywood Walk of Fame Star.

UPDATE: Unfortunately, this video has been removed.

First dedicated in 1975, Houdini's star commemorates his work in Motion Pictures. The star is located on the corner of Orange and Hollywood Blvd. within view of The Magic Castle. It was restored and rededicated in 2008.

Two Houdini plays now showing in Chicago

It's a great time to be a Houdini fan in Chicago. There are currently TWO stage productions playing in the city featuring Houdini as their subjects.

Starting today is The Houdini Box, a musical adventure from The Chicago Children's Theatre based on the book by award-winning children's author Brian Selznick. The Houdini Box plays at Chicago's Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave, through March 3. It then moves to North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. The Chicago Tribune named it as one of the "Top 10 shows to see in early 2012."

Over at The Chopin Theatre (1543 W. Division St.) you can find an "all-new re-imagining" of The House Theatre of Chicago's first hit, Death and Harry Houdini, with escapes performed by Dennis Watkins. Death and Harry Houdini opened January 21 and runs through March 11th.

By the way, The Houdini's Box's Brain Selznick also wrote The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The film adaptation, HUGO, received 11 Oscar nominations this morning. Might this inspire Hollywood to make a film version of The Houdini Box?

UPDATE: Death and Harry Houdini extended to April 15.

AKA Houdini

The Amazing Adventures of John Smith, Jr. AKA Houdini by Paul Johnson is released today in hardcover by HarperCollins.

The "Houdini" of this book is a young boy who decides to write a novel about himself while he and his friends have adventures starting a leaf raking business. So this isn't really a Houdini book per se, but the cover art is evocative enough that I think I'll still add it to my shelf of Houdini Kid Lit.

Purchase The Amazing Adventures of John Smith, Jr. AKA Houdini on Amazon.com.

Monday, January 23, 2012

'Mrs. Harry Houdini's Rendezvous'

Continuing our Bessie Houdini birthday celebration, here's a look back at "Mrs. Harry Houdini's Rendezvous", the tea room that Bess ran for a short period of time in New York which sat where Rockefeller Center is today. I could write about it, but I really couldn't do a better job of capturing the flavor of the place than this article from The Lewiston Daily Sun, Feb. 12, 1930 (I've merged it with a pic from The Pittsburg Press, Feb. 9, 1930).

Enjoy your visit to Mrs. Harry Houdini's Rendezvous.

Happy birthday(s) Bess

My God, I forgot Bess's birthday.

Bess Houdini was born Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner on January 22, 1876, in Brooklyn, New York. At least that's the date that is most frequently cited. But as with her famous husband, Bess's exact birth date is not without controversy. Some sources, including the California Death Index, say she was born on January 23.

So maybe I have wiggle room and it's still okay to hold our birthday party for Bessie today. As more than one of my fellow Houdini buffs said to me, "If Houdini could have two birthdays, why not Bess?"

Like Houdini, Bess came from a large immigrant family and was also bitten by the showbiz bug in her teens. Bess was working at Coney Island in a song and dance act called The Floral Sisters when she was first courted by Houdini's younger brother, Dash (aka Theo. Hardeen). But it was the older Houdini brother, Harry, that she fell in love with and married on June 22, 1894.

Bess and Harry worked as The Houdinis for several years before Houdini hit it big as The Handcuff King. But Harry and Bess continued to occasionally perform the Metamorphosis together on stage. Bess also saw after their menagerie of pets, collected dolls, and made the costumes for Houdini's full evening roadshow. She also said it was her duty to make sure her absent-minded husband was dressed well and had clean ears (yeah, a little mothering -- but this is Houdini we're talking about here).

By all accounts, Bessie was strong-willed, feisty, and very spirited. While her husband was a teetotaler, Bessie enjoyed her champagne. After Houdini's death, Bess continued promoting his legacy along with her manager and companion (and some say secret husband), Edward Saint. She occasionally performed magic herself, and also ran a tea room at 64 West 49th Street in New York called Mrs. Harry Houdini's Rendezvous (now the site of Rockefeller Center). In the 1930s she and Ed Saint moved to Florida and then to Hollywood.

In 1936 Bess and Saint held the legendary Final Houdini Seance atop the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel just off Hollywood Blvd. The event garnered headlines around the world, which may have been the actual intent. When asked candidly what they would have done had Houdini come back that night, they are both said to have laughed and Saint is reported to have said, "Bess would have dirtied her pants if that had happened!"

In 1939 Bess helped form the MagiGals, a group of female magicians and enthusiasts, which included Irene Larsen, co-founder of The Magic Castle. She also appeared as herself in the film Religious Racketeers. Bess remained a much loved and respected fixture at magic conventions until her death on February 11, 1943, aboard a train in Needles, California.

So today we say, Happy Birthday Bess. You are also The Great Houdini!

UPDATE: John Hinson, the great nephew of Bess and Harry Houdini, tells me Bessie's birthday was January 23. So it looks like I wasn't late after all! :)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Man From Beyond released on DVD in France

Houdini's 1922 silent film The Man From Beyond is released today on DVD in France as L'Homme de l'au-delà.

The DVD also includes a 47 minute documentary, The Fabulous Destiny of Harry Houdini, The Master of Mystery by Roland Lacourbe; a 15 minute documentary on The Magic of Blackstone; and an audio CD of original music of the film on a second disc.

As far as I know, this is the first foreign language release of one of Houdini's silent films. I'm curious to know whether this is the English version with French subtitles or an actual French print with original French title cards from 1922?

Purchase L'Homme de l'au-delà on Amazon.fr.

Midnight Mysteries: Haunted Houdini

A Houdini videogame, Midnight Mysteries: Haunted Houdini, has been released for PC platforms by Mumbo Jumbo and Big Fish Games. It appears the game was first released as a Beta download in November 2011, but it's now available in a nice package with dramatic cover art (left).

I'm not finding a listing on Amazon just yet, but a seller on eBay has copies for a Buy It Now price of $21.99 (which, of course, could mean that it's not officially released yet).

Below is a YouTube video showing the gameplay. Looks pretty cool! You know, I've been wondering why we hadn't seen a Houdini videogame yet? I wonder no more.

UPDATE: You can now download this game for play on your PC from Big Fish Games.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Finding the grave of Edward Saint

Embolden by our success at finding the grave of Jacob Hyman, my fellow Houdini buffs and I recently went in search of the final resting place of Charles David Myers aka Professor Sesrad aka Sir Edward St. Ra-Diem aka Dr. Edward Saint. Saint was the business manager, companion, and some claim secret husband of Bess Houdini in her later years. Saint tirelessly promoted Houdini's name and legacy and was the driving force behind the Final Houdini Seance. He died in 1942.

The location of Saint's grave has long been somewhat of a mystery. But then Joe Fox discovered that he was buried under his real name, Charles David Myers, in Hollywood Forever, a famous old cemetery in the heart of Hollywood which holds Valentino, Cecile B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. & Jr, and many other stars from the early days of Hollywood.

So on Sunday, January 15, 2012, we set out to find the long forgotten grave of Edward Saint. Instead of telling the whole story in words, I'll let this 7 minute video (from the new WILD ABOUT HARRY YouTube Channel) tell the tale instead. As you'll see, Saint turned out to be as tricky in death as he was in life.

Thanks to Lisa Cousins, Joe Fox, Patrick Culliton and Mark Willoughby for letting me film and share our adventure. This video-blog post was somewhat of an experiment, so let me know what you thought of it in the comments below.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Bessie goes Hollywood

Check out these photos of Bess Houdini (and Ed Saint) hobnobbing with show biz friends including magician Jack Gwynne at Sardi’s restaurant on Hollywood Blvd. in 1936. The man in the second photo is identified as Ray Gamble, a Tacoma business magnate and amateur magician. These photos come from the Tacoma Public Library collection.

According to the superb blog Hollywoodland, Sardi's Hollywood opened in 1932 and was the sister of the famous New York Sardi's. It was designed by the world-renowned architect Rudolph Schindler and was a favorite restaurant of stars like Charlie Chaplin, Maurice Chevalier, Wallace Beery, Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford. Below is its current incarnation.

Sardi's today

Watch WILD ABOUT HARRY this weekend for another Houdini related Hollywood adventure when we'll go in search of the final resting place of Dr. Edward Saint! Ed turned out to be far more elusive then we ever imagined.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Randi reappears at The Magic Castle

The legendary James "The Amazing" Randi made his reappearance at the (now re-opened) Magic Castle on Monday to continue his interview with Max Maven in the Inner Circle. It was, once again, standing room only, and Randi at age 83 was as energetic as ever.

Randi again told terrific stories about his life and career, and this time showed clips from The Tonight Show (the infamous psychic surgery segment) and Not For Women Only with Barbara Walters. Randi was especially keen to show the Walters clip, where he shared the stage with Mark Wilson and Doug Henning, and he revealed how he accomplished his feat of psychic drawing, which he says still baffles Walters to this day (you can check out the clip on Randi's JREF YouTube Channel).

Houdini got a few mentions in the course of the 2 hour interview. Randi and Maven talked at length about William Lindsay Gresham, who wrote Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls in 1959. Maven chided the book for being "filled with inaccuracies", which I didn't think was an entirely fair characterization. Sure, errors and embellishments crept in, but the Gresham book was a quantum leap forward from what had come before and exploded many of the myths created by Kellock. In fact, Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls was the first book to reveal that Houdini was born in Budapest on March 24. This was at a time when no less than Walter B. Gibson was insisting on an Appleton April 6 birth. I think the book deserves a lot of credit for that alone.*

Randi assisted Gresham on the book, and for his trouble Gresham promised Randi would be the "first and last name mentioned in the text." If you have a look at the book, you'll see that he kept his promise.

A special treat for every guest in attendance was a $1 million check from the James Randi Educational Foundation, redeemable "for proof of any paranormal activity." Randi has offered this challenge since 1996, and the prize has never been claimed.

At the conclusion of the talk, Maven presented Randi with a surprise. Sitting beside the stage was a covered easel. The black cloth was then draw away to reveal Randi's famous "The Man No Jail Can Hold" poster beautifully framed. The poster will be added to the Magic Castle's portrait gallery that joins the dinning rooms with the showrooms, a wonderful addition and a well deserved honor for one of the great men of magic.

Randi took delight in noting that the poster contains the name "Harry Houdini" hidden somewhere in the artwork, and promised "a quarter" to anyone who could find it. After the talk, people swarmed over the image, searching every detail, some using the lights of their cell phones. As far as I saw, no one found the hidden Houdini. (Yes, I know where it is.)

All in all, it was another magical evening with The Amazing Randi.

Looking for the hidden "Harry Houdini"

Thanks to Mark Willoughby for the photos. You can watch Randi's first Castle interview here.

*UPDATE: Along with correcting me on Randi's age (83 not 82), Max Maven also pointed out that while he did say that Gresham was filled with inaccuracies, he also said it was, to him, "the best of all the Houdini biographies." Thanks for the corrections, Max.

Link: Opening the door on Daisy White

Dean Carnegie has uncovered an amazing amount of information on the elusive Daisy White, the magician's assistant and Martinka counter girl who was long rumored to be the original Houdini mistress. Daisy was memorably played by Adrienne Barbaeu in the film, The Great Houdinis.

But there's much more to Daisy, including the fact that Daisy White was not even her real name. So head on over to Carnegie: Magic Detective and let Dean introduce you to the real Daisy White.

"Unbelievably rare" Grim Game promo card sells on eBay

A unique promotional "Movie Card" advertising an upcoming showing of Houdini's The Grim Game at Kinema Theater in San Francisco has sold on eBay for $260.01.

According to the seller, these cards were exclusive to the Kinema, Franklin and the T&D Theaters in Oakland and San Francisco (all owned by the Turner & Dahnken Theatre Circuit based in San Francisco) and were not nationally distributed. The seller believes it to be the only one in existence and called it "unbelievably rare."

This card contains an image of Houdini holding co-star Ann Forrest after the climatic plane crash. It also features a facsimile Houdini signature in white. The back of the card also promotes Charles Ray in The Egg Crate Wallop.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

This blackout brought to you by SOPA and PIPA

WILD ABOUT HARRY is joining the internet strike today.

Click here to learn about the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act and how this legislation, if passed, would affect all of us.

Click here to take action.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Houdini A Circus Opera (1977)

Today I continue my look back at musicals that have celebrated the Master Mystifier. Last week we hit the London stage with Man of Magic (1966). Today we're off to the opera!

Houdini, A Circus Opera debuted at the Carre Theater in Amsterdam on September 29, 1977. It was a theater that Houdini himself had performed in. Part of the play was staged inside a circus ring (the theater had to clear out stalls to accomplish this), and the pre-show atmosphere was enhanced with fire eaters, clowns, and film footage of Houdini flying his Vision biplane. Music was by Dutch composer Peter Schat with a libretto by British writer Adrian Mitchell.

A true novelty of the show was that Houdini was played by three different men in the course of the evening. Tenor Jerold Norman -- who in makeup looks strikingly like Houdini -- sung the role of Houdini in the dramatic scenes. Clint Farha played Harry in the dance numbers. British escape artist Howard Peters performed Houdini's escapes, which included a suspended straitjacket, the Milk Can, prison cell, iron box, and the Water Torture Cell.

Making up the rest of the cast was Cecelia Weiss (Sarah Velden - soprano), Bess (Jenny Veeninga - mezzo-soprano), Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle (Pieter van den Berg - bass), Lady Doyle (Elise Galama - contralto), and Houdini's un-named manager and doctor (baritones). Jim Collins (Bart Kiene), Franz Kukol (Arend Bulder), and Hardeen (Ricardo Anemaet) also put in appearances.

Two Houdinis: Jerold Norman (left) and Mark Mazzarella (right).

In August 1979 Houdini, A Circus Opera traveled to the U.S. where it played as a special feature at the Aspen Music Festival in Aspen, Colorado. The show was ideally suited to the venue, as the stage for the Aspen festival was inside a giant circus tent.

For this U.S. production, Daniel Lordon took over as the dancing Houdini while Mark Mazzarella took over the escape artist role from Howard Peters. Mazzarella was only 19 at the time and had dropped out of the University of Hartford to star in the show. He touted himself as the youngest magician to ever escape from Houdini's Water Torture Cell. Walter B. Gibson was brought on to work with Mazzarella, and Sidney Radner loaned several authentic Houdini escape props to the production.

During the first performance, a power outage occurred during the finale in which Bess (played by Vivian Thomas in the U.S. production) tries to contact Houdini. Time magazine quipped that it caused a "brief, wild surmise that Bess had succeeded." The show had to be concluded via the headlights of an automobile that was hurriedly moved to the rear of the tent. Audience members also helped out with flashlights that they aimed at the stage. The New York Times noted, "It was not a planned effect, but it added to the fun."

While reviewers gave high marks to Mazzarella's escapes and the lavish production, the music was largely panned (the same fate that befell Man of Magic). The New York Times said "almost everything about Houdini was attractive except the music." Time magazine complained that "both the music and text were upstaged by the magic" and "Houdini offered almost no plot, almost no human interplay."

Following Aspen, Houdini A Circus Opera played one last run back in Amsterdam in 1981. A television recording of this second production at the Carré Theatre was done by the National Theatre Institute.

Houdini A Circus Opera spawned a fair amount of collectible merchandise, including a three album box set (below), a paperback edition of the libretto illustrated with photos of the real Houdini, and a few different style posters, one of which hung in The Magic Castle for many years.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Rebecca Rubin meets Houdini

The intrepid Rebecca Rubin, a young sleuth growing up in a Russian-Jewish family in New York City in 1914, encounters Houdini in The Crystal Ball: A Rebecca Mystery by Jacqueline Dembar Greene. This is the lastest in a series of historical character books published by American Girl.

According the helpful folks at American Girl, the first two chapters of The Crystal Ball describes a scene where Rebecca and her family go to see Houdini perform one of his escape acts in Times Square (this one perhaps?). The book concludes with a nonfiction essay that further delves into the historical aspects of the book, including four pages on Houdini and his work with pictures and illustrations.

The Crystal Ball: A Rebecca Mystery will be released February 28, 2012, and can be pre-ordered in hardcover or paperback from Amazon.com.

Thanks to Kevin Connolly at Houdini Himself for first alerting me to this book.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Night at the Magic Castle (1988)

Here's a look at what is certainly the most obscure "Houdini movie." A Night at the Magic Castle, released in 1988, starred Arte Johnson as the ghost of Houdini who brings a young boy to Hollywood's Magic Castle for an evening of magic and adventure (man, there's just no of way of writing that without it sounding creepy). I can't say this is a great movie, but it has its merits, such as it features HOUDINI (duh), and you get to see inside the real Magic Castle in 1988. You also get to see lots of great '80s hair.

Recently someone was good enough to upload the entire movie to YouTube. Below I've attached two short segments that give a good taste of the film. The first shows Johnson as Houdini arriving at the Castle with his date -- I mean, friend! The second shows our hero, Max, pulled into a Houdini seance, filmed in the actual Houdini Seance Room. Enjoy.

If you'd like to watch the entire movie, I've added a Night at the Magic Castle playlist to the new WILD ABOUT HARRY YouTube Channel.

Link: Tracking the Body of Houdini

Superb blog today over at Carnegie: Magic Detective about the journey Houdini's body took following his death in Detroit on Halloween 1926. A few details here that are new to me. Click the headline to have a read.

Speaking of graves, I'm heading out today with my fellow Houdini cohorts on an expedition to find a Houdini notable whose final resting place as been a bit of a mystery...until now. Watch for it this week.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Link: L302-55 versus L302-60

Joe Notaro's blog devoted to The Grim Game, Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence, is going strong. Joe is drilling down into all kinds of minutia related to Houdini's best (lost) film -- just the kind of stuff I crave!

A good example is Joe's two part blog on "L302-55 versus L302-60." These are the ID numbers of two versions of the famous Houdini jail cell still from The Grim Game. Joe is tracking down all appearances and use of these stills, including this magic wallet card trick from the 1970s (right).

Click the headline and have a browse of Joe's mounting "evidence" at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence.

Houdini on the covers of Ragtime

By far the most well regarded piece of "Houdini fiction" is the 1975 bestseller Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. Houdini is featured in this book alongside several other famous personalities of the age, including Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, and Sigmund Freud. The book has seen many printings and many different covers, but for me the best was this 14th printing paperback from January 1981. Of course, that's because it's the cover that features the best image of Houdini himself.

Here are the only other editions of Ragtime (that I know of) that show Houdini on their covers; the first edition paperback from 1976 (there is also an orange version of this cover) and a 1976 hardcover book club edition.

Click to enlarge

Ragtime -- which went on to be adapted as a movie and stage musical -- is still in print and available from Amazon.com.