Tuesday, February 7, 2012

When Houdini went LIVE

After Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone's vault on live TV in April of 1986 (and found nothing), there was a brief explosion of "Live" television events that hoped to capture some of the ratings magic enjoyed by the Capone show. One of these was The Search for Houdini, a two-hour magic variety show and seance created by Dick Mincer and Ken Ehrlich. It was broadcast "Live from Los Angeles" on Halloween 1987.

The show was hosted by William Shatner, who made the much-hyped broadcast somewhat of a debacle with unwelcome ad-libs, flubs, and a general attitude of ridicule toward the evening's proceedings. Nevertheless, there are some highlights, such as a terrific comedic "Tribute to Houdini" performed by Penn & Teller; an eerie buried alive escape by Steve Shawn; James Randi's bizarre hospital bed bound participation in the seance (Joe Fox tells me this was all an act); and Charlotte Pendragon's famous wardrobe malfunction during Metamorphosis, which Shatner made certain did not go unnoticed.

The seance itself was treated seriously, at least by the table participants, as it was Sidney Radner's Official Houdini Seance for that year. Houdini failed to appear (can you blame him?), however the spirit of Houdini must have gotten into William Shatner, who in 1992 co-authored Believe, a "novel of psychic adventure" featuring Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

You can view Penn & Teller's segment from The Search for Houdini below. This has everything that makes Penn & Teller my favorite magic act, then and now.


  1. I pretty much agree. I loved Penn and Tellers bit. In fact, it was this bit that turned me from a P&T hater to a big fan. I realized they are actually quite funny. I enjoyed the Pendragons two versions of the sub trunk, the first one is never mentioned due to the accident of the second one.
    Dean Gunnerson makes his debut as an escape artist here in the Milk Can and a sack escape.

    I remember Bill Shatner on a talk show a short time later talking about BELIEVE and he said that they were working on turning it into a play where he would be Houdini and Leondard Nimoy would play Sherlock Holmes. But it never came about to my knowledge.

    1. That was Dean Gunnerson's debut? Seems like Dean's been around forever but, yeah, '87, guess that could have been his debut.

      Shatner and Nimoy as Houdini and Holmes? Wow. There's a new one for my "men who almost played Houdini" blog.

    2. I was there. It was nice to be in the audience watching this being taped.

      I heard that the reason for mess up was that they had union people moving the Pendragons trunk, much to their dismay.

      Doug Henning had problems with non trained assistants handling his props. There is a good reason for it and it affects the trick.

      That night when the stage hands moved the trunk, Charlotte, costume inside of the trunk jostled. So, when she was making her costume change in the dark, she could not find it in time.

  2. Regarding "The seance itself was treated seriously, at least by the table participants, as it was Sidney Radner's Official Houdini Seance for that year. Houdini failed to appear (can you blame him?)", I was there doing the special lighting effects. One such effect was lighting inlaid into the seance table with plexi glass over the top for dramatic effect on each person around the table. During rehearsals it was determined to bring the levels of the lights down from 70% full to 25%. Just perfect for that glow effect up the faces. So starts the seance. I was told that the people around the table were relatives of Houdini and seance experts. This part of the show was not scripted. (I still have Shatners script). Towards the end of the seance, one end of the plexi glass started to warp, Live on TV. This must have raised 6 inches above the table. It could not have been from the heat of the lights under. They were barely on. Producers screamed to go to commercial. The people at the table wanted to continue do to the fact there was a sign. Mr. Shatner had no choice other than to listen to the producers and go to commercial. I left the lighting board that was in the audience and dashed on stage. There was shear Chaos on the stage. The plexi was cool but it was lifted. The crew started clearing the stage and the screams from Houdini's family rang through the theater to continue the seance. That was the last anyone spoke of this. I was there and so was Harry.

    1. Wow! This I've never heard before. I'd love to do a blog post about this using your quote from above. Would that be okay? Would you like to share your name? If not, you can remain anonymous.

    2. I was there I do not remember this happening. Or maybe I do not remember. But, this kind of event I would have. I remember everything else especially meeting Randi backstage on his stretcher.

    3. There was a reporter from the LA Times at the seance. He said he would rather they bring back Elvis. Anyway, if this anomaly did occur like was stated above, he would have reported it. Plus, since the entire purpose of the show was to bring back the ghost of Houdini, why would they cut away if he really came back?

      And finally, James Randi was there. If there was any sort of visit, fake or real, he would have addressed it and he didn't. I saw him afterwards and nothing was brought up.

  3. That's an awesome story ... I don't think Harry will be coming back ... He already did in 1929.


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