Sunday, September 30, 2012

Genii & Houdini: November 1975

In November 1975, Genii, now The International Conjurors' Magazine, celebrated on their cover a big moment in Houdini/Hollywood history -- the dedication of Houdini's star on the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame. (This was also the first issue of Genii I ever purchased.)

Houdini would join two of his cinematic co-stars on the famous boulevard; Nita Naldi (The Man From Beyond) and Lila Lee (Terror Island) were among the first stars honored when the Walk of Fame was established in 1960. The dedication of Houdini's star was a press event. Editor Bill Larsen covered the dedication in his The Genii Speaks column:

It took us three years to convince the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce that Houdini deserved a star in the "Walk of Fame." The stars are reserved for for famous people in films, television, radio or records. With the help of Houdini expert Manny Weltman, we finally convinced the Chamber that Houdini was a pioneer in films which indeed he was with his own studio in Hollywood. We will publish the excellent article Manny wrote in our next Houdini special issue...whenever that is.

Unfortunately, a Houdini special issue was not forthcoming, so I'm not sure whether Genii ever did publish Weltman's article. Houdini's star -- which sits on the corner of Orange and Hollywood within sight of the Magic Castle -- would be restored and rededicated in 2008.

But there's another reason to covet this particular issue. The Badgad column reproduces an ad from Variety for "Magician-Actor" David Copperfield, soliciting himself to the industry and even listing a New Jersey address where one could write and receive a video-cassette demo. On the same page is an item from The Hollywood Reporter about Bill Cosby signing to host a "Magic Special" featuring another relative newcomer, Doug Henning. This, of course, was Henning's now legendary first NBC World of Magic special in which he performed Houdini's Water Torture Cell and established himself as the foremost magician of the day.

But that Copperfield kid looks like a comer...

Coming next: The lost decade

Saturday, September 29, 2012

"Houdini key" sells for $310 on eBay

A Houdini key has sold on eBay for $310. There are a fair amount of keys out there that claim a Houdini connection. Most of these originate from the Sidney Radner collection. But this key has an entirely different provenance that I find interesting and worth sharing.

This key came from the collection of lock and key collector Paul Harter of Mansfield, Ohio. Harter began a correspondence with Hardeen in 1941, and Hardeen sold Harter some 78 locks and keys that once belonged to Houdini for 25 cents each. Hardeen then sent Harter 60 pounds of keys from the Houdini collection. After Hartner's death, his widow authorized the sale of the keys. This key was part of the 60 pound stash.

All this is nicely explained in a booklet called The Story Behind The Houdini Keys that accompanies each key. I've never seen one of these Harter keys before, but with a sale price of $310, it certainly appears collectors take these seriously. Or is the booklet the thing that draws the hardcore HH collector?

One thing I'd like to know is what year these keys were originally sold.

UPDATE: There's an interesting discussion going on at questioning the authenticity of this key. Also, another auction has appeared using this same pic. This might be a case of buyer beware. (I'm considering removing this story.)

The master mystery of the grim drain

Kevin Connolly has posted a terrific photo of Houdini tied between two drain pipes spouting water at his blog, Houdini Himself [UPDATE: Kevin's site is now offline so this photo is no longer available.] It's an image I've never seen before. According to Kevin, the shot appeared in a 1920 magazine and is from Houdini's silent serial, The Master Mystery. That's exciting because this means it is one of the "lost" escapes not on the existing print/DVD (according to Patrick Culliton, the original uncut serial has two escapes per episode).

I'm wondering if the photo below, from my own collection, is from this same sequence? This pic appears in Christopher's Houdini A Pictorial Life with photos from The Grim Game; but this isn't in The Grim Game screenplay and the clothes and ropes on Houdini seem to match Kevin's shot. However, he doesn't appear wet here.

Anyway, check out the terrific photo of Houdini lashed to "the grim drain" at Kevin Connolly's Houdini Himself.

UPDATE: Checking out The Master Mystery photoplay, I believe I've found the escape depicted in Kevin's photo. The scene is set inside a water tank on top of De Luxe Dora's apartment (page 138):

There were two spouts at the bottom of the tank through which water was pumped. Also there were pipes running upward. To these pipes they tied Locke. Then the men climbed out and, as their last fiendish act, turned the water on.
With a sneer Dora turned and led the way down-stairs again.
"They'll find his body when they have to clean the tank again," she exclaimed.

Having found this description, I now don't think the photo I posted above is from the same sequence. There we see brick walls and a wood floor. Certainly not inside a water tank. Kevin believes this pic might be from the acid vat sequence.

Harry Houdini - master of disguise

One of my favorite things about Houdini's anti-spiritualism crusade is the fact that he would don disguises to gain access to seance rooms. Mid-way through the seance he would leap up and reveal himself. Houdini actually started using disguises early in his career to gain access to theaters featuring rival Handcuff Kings. In his raucous exposé of Hilbert in Cardiff, he even wore a false nose fashioned out of wax.

Houdini's favorite character was that of a bespectacled old man with a cane. According to Christopher Sandford in Houdini and Conan Doyle, Houdini called this character F. Raud -- Fraud. (This name was also used by Houdini's agent, Rose Mackenberg, who went undercover as the Reverend Francis Raud). Houdini may have also used the names "Mr. Smith" and "Mr. White". Interestingly he also "hid" behind the name of White -- the anglicized form of Weiss -- during his days as a runaway.

Below are photos of Houdini in full disguise. Eat your heart out, Sherlock Holmes.

I'm surprised Houdini's adventures in disguise have yet to be dramatized in any of the films made about his life. Certainly this was one of his most cinematic activities. Although the 1953 Paramount film HOUDINI does show Harry playing an old man as part of a performance at Tony Pastor's dinner theatre, so this could be seen as a nod to Houdini's abilities as a master of disguise.

Tony Curtis in makeup for HOUDINI

Friday, September 28, 2012

Magicians conjure Houdini-themed shows for October

Amodei does the Needles

So if you think all it takes to get my attention and a shout-out is to somehow mention Houdini in your act...well, you're absolutely right! And as October looms, I'll do my best to keep up with the annual onslaught of Houdini-themed Halloween entertainment.

First up, magician Ivan Amodei, who performs at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, CA (apparently in one of the hotel suites), has announced a special series of Halloween-themed October shows in honor of Houdini.

"Harry Houdini is undoubtedly one of the most famous names in magic, but first and foremost he was an escape artist," says Amodei. "Those in attendance during one of my October shows will witness a technique done by the great Houdini that has not been attempted in a hundred years. I can't predict the outcome of summoning otherworldly forces, but I can predict great entertainment."

Amodei has earned a reputation as an illusionist to the stars and has entertained Hollywood luminaries including Ashton Kutcher, Jim Carrey, Steven Spielberg, and Larry David.

For more information and tickets visit

Douglas Ker

Next up is master magician Douglas Ker who will conjure the spirit of Houdini during two special shows at the La Cumbre Plaza in Santa Barbara, CA on October 21.

"Houdini is still remembered today, over 75 years after his death" says Ker. "Most people remember he did fantastic escapes but just like Madonna does today, he kept re-inventing himself and his magic shows. He started out as 'The King of Cards' who could do a thousand card tricks, moved into doing fantastic escapes like Water Torture Cell and at the end of his career exposed fraudulent spirit mediums who claimed to contact dead loved ones when he realized they were doing simple tricks to take people's money."

Ker's shows, which take place at 1pm and 3pm, will feature tricks from all three of Houdini’s specialties: A playing card found in a flaming ball of fire at the end of a dagger, escapes like Houdini’s Thumb Tie and Prisoner Transport Escape, and he will re-create a Spirit Seance that Houdini would expose as fake.

Visit for full details.


Finally, illusionist and medium Sean-Paul of Intrigue Theater will make an effort to contact Houdini during a special Halloween performance at the Crescent Hotel & Spa, "America's Most Haunted Hotel", in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The show is called The INTRIGUE of HARRY HOUDINI and takes place at 10pm.

Sean-Paul will also perform a suspended straitjacket escape from the top floor of the five-story hotel this Thursday, October 4th at Noon. The escape is being presented a Houdini-style challenge from the editor of The Citizen newspaper and is free to the public.

For more information go to Below is the video challenge to Sean-Paul from The Citizen.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

SAM proclaims National Magic Week in honor of Houdini

J. Christopher Bontjes, National President of the Society of American Magicians, has issued the official proclamation of the week of October 25 to October 31 2012 as National Magic Week throughout the United States and Canada.

For more that 40 years the S.A.M. has recognized the anniversary of the death of Houdini with this special week of charitable performances. The free shows are part of service programs sponsored by the S.A.M. and follow the example set by Houdini who served as the National President form 1917 until his death in 1926.

Each year governors, mayors and other governing bodies throughout North America are requested to issue proclamations declaring the last week in October as National Magic Week, encouraging magicians to participate in the activities.

More more information visit the official Society of American Magicians website.

Debit, credit, or Houdini!

These have been around for a while, but I thought it was worth a fresh shout-out as the manufacture is a reader and as I've always thought these kits were cool.

This is a genuine lock pick kit concealed inside a credit card featuring Houdini's "ghost-like" likeness. There are 4 individual Stainless Steel picks and a double-sided tension tool. The credit card is less than 1/8 inch thick and fits into the same wallet space as a normal credit card.

Notice the "Member Since" and "Valid Thru" dates represent Houdini's birth and death dates. Not so obvious is fact that the credit card numbers, if converted to the text letters on a telephone, spell out; "Nothing can hold me".

Purchase the Houdini Credit Card lock pick set at

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

LINK: Harry Houdini Coming to Fort Worth

Here's a nice article in the Fort Worth Weekly about the upcoming Official Houdini Seance in Fort Worth, Texas on October 31st. Click the headline to read. To buy tickets to the event visit

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Alpha releases Terror Island on DVD

Alpha Video has released Houdini's 1920 silent feature, Terror Island, on DVD. This was the second and final film Houdini made for Famous Players-Lasky in Hollywood.

Alpha had previously released The Man From Beyond and Mystic Circle Murder on DVD. While these tend to be nothing special as far as the print is concerned -- I expect this is the same incomplete Library of Congress archival print -- Alpha does go the extra mile with cover art and menus. For Terror Island Alpha has used original artwork from a rare French color lithograph which sold in auction in 2005.

You can purchase Alpha Video's new Terror Island DVD from or

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Great Unknown: Houdini's Castle

Following the success of Midnight Mysteries: Haunted Houdini, Big Fish has released another Houdini-themed computer game, The Great Unknown: Houdini's Castle.

Your honeymoon is cut short when your plane crashes on an uncharted island in The Great Unknown: Houdini's Castle. You awake to discover a madman has kidnapped your husband. To get him back, you'll have to use all your wits to pass his sinister tests and solve the mysteries of Houdini's castle. Along the way, you'll uncover Houdini's secret past and learn about the brilliant apprentice who changed his life. Can you expose Houdini's greatest trick to save your husband and escape the island? Take the challenge in this thrilling Hidden Object Puzzle Adventure game.

The Great Unknown: Houdini's Castle is available for the Mac and PC. You can download it and get more details at Big Fish Games.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sherry and Krall's 100th Anniversary Torture Cell tribute

For the 100th Anniversary of Houdini's Water Torture Cell, Richard Sherry and Dayle Krall of Sherry and Krall Magic have paid their own unique tribute by recreating the escape exactly as Houdini first performed it in 1912. As you can see, they are using the inner cage and locking cross bands that Houdini later abandoned.

According to Richard, "this version is a lot harder than the later version". And from how he explained the method of escape to me, it's also more dangerous.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The 100 year history of the Water Torture Cell

Photo: Homer Liwag

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of the first public performance of Houdini's most famous escape, The Chinese Water Torture Cell. To celebrate this anniversary, here's a look back at the history of the cell and its 100 year journey from England to Las Vegas.

Houdini's first death-defying onstage water escape was his famous Milk Can. However, the Milk Can had a problem. It was widely imitated by other so-called "Handcuff Kings." By 1911 Houdini resolved to rectify this by creating a new effect that would be more expensive to replicate, more difficult to stage, and far more dangerous to perform. He called it The Water Torture Cell.

Houdini had his cell built in England at a cost of more than $10,000. It stood 59 inches tall, 26.5 inches wide. The frame and heavy stocks were made of Honduras mahogany and nickel-plated steel with brass fixtures. The front consisted of a plate of half-inch tempered glass. It disassembled into pieces that fit into four custom traveling cases and three crates. The apparatus weighed around three-quarters of a ton and the cell held 250 gallons of water. Houdini had a nearly complete second cell created in case anything happened to the effect while on tour (on one occasion the glass did break because the water was too hot -- so Houdini believed).

The earliest performance of Houdini's Water Torture Cell was actually 18 months before its official public debut. On April 29, 1911, Houdini performed the escape in Southampton as part of a one-act play called Challenged or Houdini Upside Down. The purpose of the playlet, which was performed only once for a single audience member, was so he could copyright the new effect. In the play a "multimillionaire sportsman" named Tim Connor eyeballs his clubhouse aquarium and concocts the idea of locking Houdini inside it.

Connor: Well, my idea is to put this Houdini fellow into that aquarium head first, understand me, head first, with his feet in the air, then put a lid or cover on, fasten his feet to this cover and lock him in. This is my challenge, in the rough of course.

Houdini received his copyright ("Special Licence from the Lord Chamberlain") on May 2, 1912. The first public performance of the Water Torture Cell occurred on September 21, 1912 at the Circus Busch in Berlin, Germany. For the occasion, special solid brass presentation pieces were made (in 2007 one of these sold in auction for $37,500).

The Water Torture Cell became a staple of Houdini's vaudeville act and later his full evening roadshow. In 1914 it became The Chinese Water Torture Cell, although Houdini himself always called it the "USD" or "Upside Down". Of the USD, Houdini himself wrote:

"Imagine yourself jammed head foremost in a Cell filled with water, your hands and feet unable to move, and your shoulders tightly lodged in this imprisonment. I believe it it is the climax of all my studies and labors. Never will I be able to construct anything that will be more dangerous or difficult for me to do."

Originally Houdini compounded the difficulty of the escape by having a steel cage lowered into the cell (the "steeeel grill" as he calls it in one of the only known recordings of his voice). At some point the cage was discarded, possibly because the horizontal bars looked too much like a ladder that could aid in his escape. There's also speculation that Houdini used a smaller cell later in his career that would not hold the cage. The surviving USD is surprisingly small -- only 26.5 inches wide and 59 inches tall.

To ensure no trap doors could be used, Houdini would ask an audience member to name any part of the stage where he would then move the cell. He also invited audience members to bring their own padlocks that affixed to iron bands that originally encircled the cell. He had a standing offer of $1000 to anyone who could prove it was possible to obtain air inside the Torture Cell. Not advertised was the fact that the cell had two large plug holes on each side. Not only were these used to drain the cell after the performance, but with handles inside Houdini could also drain the cell himself in case of an emergency.

On October 11, 1926, Houdini had his only recorded accident in the Water Torture Cell. While being raised from the stage of the Capitol Theater in Albany, New York, one of the cables loosened and twisted, causing the heavy stocks to shift and fracture his ankle. He was attended onstage by a doctor from the audience.

The next day the papers made much of the accident and the doctor's comment that had the cable loosened only three seconds later, Houdini's foot would have been completely severed. Houdini himself quipped, "Into all kinds of danger I have thrown myself, and I have not been touched. Then I lie on my back and fracture my foot!"

Houdini died on October 31, 1926. The Water Torture Cell, along with all his magic apparatus, was willed to his brother, Hardeen, with strict instructions that they be "burned and destroyed" following his death. Hardeen did not perform the USD himself. Perhaps he was too tall for the cell, or maybe he found the Milk Can a less strenuous escape.

Hardeen gives Sidney Radner the USD in 1942.

In June of 1942, Houdini and magic enthusiast Sidney Radner acquired the original Water Torture Cell from Hardeen. At the time Sidney was aspiring to become an escape artist himself, and was considering presenting the escape on stage. However, military service and Hardeen's death changed those plans. The USD was stored in the basement of Radner's mother's house for nearly three decades. According to Radner, among the very few men to see the cell during this period were William Lindsey Gresham, Walter Gibson, and Milbourne Christopher (who wrote about the experience in a 1943 Linking Ring).

Shortly after Radner purchased the cell, Hardeen asked him what spare parts he had as he was trying to rebuild the backup cell. This second cell was never rebuilt and, according to Patrick Culliton, "the remains of it weathered and finally died in the backyard of John and Marie Hinson." What a loss!

Meanwhile, the myth that Houdini died in the Water Torture Cell was born in the 1953 Paramount film, HOUDINI, starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. In the film Houdini drowns during the first performance of his "Pagoda Torture Cell." It makes for a dramatic ending, but of course the trick had nothing to do with the real Houdini's demise. However, two subsequent television biopics -- The Great Houdinis (1976) and Houdini (1998) would again show the Torture Cell playing a part in his death. Many to this day still think Houdini met his end this way. But this could be part of the reason this escape still so fascinates the public.

In 1971 Sidney Radner leased the Water Torture Cell to the newly formed Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Canada. Run by Henry Muller, the building was more of an attraction than a proper museum, and here the cell suffered from neglect and vandalism for over 20 years. Muller also inexplicably put a fish tank inside the cell to achieve an aquarium effect. The leaky tank caused mold and damage to the cell wood and structure. At one point one of the two plugs at the base of the cell was stolen and held for ransom.

However, as shoddy as the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame was, it did give many magic fans the unique opportunity to see the real cell up close, as I did in 1990.

The neglected USD at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in 1990.

In 1991 the USD was finally pulled from the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame and given a full restoration by master illusion builder, John Gaughan. Gaughan marveled at the craftsmanship, saying, "It was built like a piece of furniture, rather than a stage prop -- put together with such care." The beautifully restored cell was exhibited at the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History and was also featured on the cover of the November 1991 issue of MAGIC magazine.

Unfortunately, the restored cell was then returned to the site of it's ignominy, the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame, where on the evening of April 30, 1995, it was destroyed in a suspicious fire. The irony, of course, was that Houdini's request that his props be "burned and destroyed" was finally fulfilled. It's even more ironic when you consider that the museum featured the quote from his Will above the entrance. The Houdini Magical Hall of Fame was actually scheduled to close later that year and the contents were to be auctioned at Christie's. The Water Torture Cell was expected to fetch $1 million. Insurance reimbursed Radner $750,000 for the loss of the cell.

John Cox and the USD remains in 1999.

While initial reports claimed that the Water Torture Cell was melted into nothing by the intense fire, the truth was the metal frame and some of the wood survived. These remnants were shipped back to John Gaughan in Los Angeles who once again restored the cell, using as much of the original as possible. (I was able to see the remains in John's workshop in 1999, and he even gave me a piece of the shattered glass.) Additionally, Houdini's original back-up glass from the Radner collection was used on the restored cell.

In 2003 a serious controversy erupted over the existence of an "unauthorized" reproduction. It was felt this reproduction, also created by John Gaughan, diminished the value of the restored original. Lawsuits were threatened. Happily, the matter appears to have been resolved by 2011 when the reproduction was showcased at the Houdini Art and Magic exhibition in Los Angeles, the opening of which was attended by both John Gaughan and Sidney Radner.

For a time it was said that the newly restored Water Torture Cell would be put on display at the Houdini Museum adjacent to Houdini's Magic Shop in the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. But on October 30, 2004, the restored cell went up for auction as part of "The Great Houdini Auction" held at the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas. The auction sold off the vast majority of the Sidney Radner collection. The USD was the auction highlight with an estimate of $150,000-$200,000. Check out the video below to see how it went.

The buyer, to no one's surprise, was magician David Copperfield. The $300,000 bid was the highest price ever paid for a piece of magic apparatus. However, irregularities with the bidding and an undisclosed reserve resulted in a settlement of the final sale price at $150,000. Copperfield performed further restoration work on the cell, primarily to re-age it and restore authentic period hardware throughout.

But what about the secret of the Water Torture Cell? After 100 years, do we know how Houdini escaped? There have been many published explanations claiming to reveal the secret in magazines such as Modern Mechanics, Genii, and even T.V. Guide. None of the explanations are correct. In fact, for a time it was said that even Sidney Radner could not fathom the secret from the cell he owned. It was said that possibly only when the cell was filled with water would the secret be revealed.

The truth is the secret of the cell is well-known to those who have had the pleasure of examining it up close. The method is ingenious and complex, and if you think I'm going to reveal it here, you're nuts! However, Patrick Culliton finally did reveal the true working secret of The Water Torture Cell, complete with photos, in his 2010 book Houdini The Key.

Today Houdini's Water Torture Cell sits proudly as one of the crown jewels of the David Copperfield International Museum of Magic in Las Vegas. There it is protected, preserved, and honored as the most famous magic prop of all time. A fitting end to its remarkable 100 year journey.

The USD today in the collection of David Copperfield.


Houdini trading card preview set released

Eachus Publishing and the Houdini Museum in Scranton have released their 18 card preview set of Houdini: The World's First Superhero trading cards. Only a limited number of sets are available. Each set includes a cover card, Houdini poster cards, original art cards, and a surprise insert.

This preview will be followed by the official 54 card set to be released at the Houdini Museum's Original Houdini Seance on October 31st.

Purchase the Houdini: The World's First Superhero 18 card preview set at Eachus Publishing or All About (beware sets on eBay that are only 16 cards).

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Genii & Houdini: October 1972

In October 1972, Genii The Conjurors' Magazine produced a beautiful "Special Houdini Issue." It started with a cover that featured a terrific unpublished photo of Houdini in handcuffs. However, a certain poison was starting to course through the Genii editorial offices regarding Houdini, and that can also be sensed in this issue.

The force behind this issue was Houdini collector, Manny Weltman, who provides photos and articles from his formidable collection. The magazine also reprints Weltman's article from the February 1971 issue of Westways, "Houdini The Man From Beyond...or waiting for Harry".

The issue also reprints Houdini's article about his straitjacket escape from a 1908 Conjurers Monthly Magazine (also reprinted in The Original Houdini Scrapbook by Gibson in 1976), and an autobiographical article written by Houdini reprinted from The Magician Annual 1909-10. An article by William Larsen, Sr. on "The Great Handcuff Escape Act" is also included with photos from the Weltman collection, including the famous nude photo of Houdini emerging from a jail cell.

The first hint of trouble appears in Bill Larsen's The Genii Speaks column. Larsen writes:

The fact that HOUDINI is a household word today speaks well of the man no matter what people say about him. By this I mean I've heard so many stories about Houdini over the years that one really doesn't know what to believe. Undoubtedly he was a great showman and fine performer. He died two years before I was born and therefore I cannot talk about the man.

This is certainly a tonal change from past Houdini issues in which Larsen paid great homage to Houdini as the man who "has done more to popularize magic than any living magician." So what's going on?

Well, by this time Dai Vernon was deeply involved in the West Coast magic scene. Known as The Professor, he was a fixture at The Magic Castle and contributed a regular column to Genii called "The Vernon Touch." He was also a well-known and very vocal Houdini hater. Vernon doesn't conceal his feelings even in this Special Houdini Issue. He opens his column with:

Although Houdini was, without doubt, the world's greatest handcuff king and also a great showman, he was not one of the "greats" that I admired by any stretch of the imagination. He was a supreme egotist, true, but we must be honest and say that it was this egotism that made Houdini the famous person he was and still is today!

Vernon goes on to talk about Hardeen, whom he enjoyed as being more "down to earth" than his brother, and also notes that Bess Houdini was godmother to his eldest son, Edward.

I suspect it's the influence and reverence for Dai Vernon that is responsible for Genii becoming a little gun shy in regards to Houdini from this point on. In fact, there would not be another issue devoted to him for over 20 years.

Coming next: November 1975

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


September 21, 2012 marks the 100th Anniversary of Houdini's most famous escape. Check out WILD ABOUT HARRY on Friday for a special look back at the history and mystery of The Chinese Water Torture Cell.

LINK: The Honor System

This is a must-read article in Esquire about Teller's battle with a man who is selling his magic secrets.

"Stealing magic has become a commonplace crime. Teller, a man of infinite delicacy and deceit, decided to do something about it."

The article includes a terrific photo of Teller in the "Houdini corner" of his Las Vegas home. Click the headline to read at Esquire online.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Russian Manacle and other Houdini rarities in Whittier

Houdini in the Russian Manacle
Houdini's famous "Russian Manacle" are among the items from the Society of American Magicians Hall of Fame and Museum currently on display at the Whittier Historical Society & Museum in Whittier, CA. The exhibition is called Behind Smoke and Mirrors: The History of Magic and Illusion and features an impressive display of rare Houdini artifacts.

The Houdini display -- which sits in a booth behind glass -- includes a dress worn by Bess, Houdini's die box, a brick from 278, signed photos, two original playbills and, most excitingly, three handcuff display boards created by Edward Saint in June 1936 (we know this because newspaper padding used in the boards bears this date). Two of the boards display authentic Houdini handcuffs and another is made up entirely of keys.

But what will be of most interest to Houdini fans is that affixed to one of the boards is the original Russian Manacle and key! This was a handcuff custom made by Houdini at the height of his Handcuff King career. Along with the Mirror and the French Letter Cuff, the Russian Manacle is probably the most famous and recognizable Houdini handcuff. There are several photos of Houdini in this cuff, and it's also featured on this famous poster. While handcuff collectors have crafted reproductions of the Russian Manacle over the years, this is the original. (Unfortunately, the museum does not allow photography, so I can't show it to you on display.)

The Whittier Museum hosted a very well-attended opening reception on Sunday with a magic show by SAM members and refreshments. I was there along with fellow Houdini aficionados Mark Lyons, Joe Fox, Jay Leslie, Jeffery Abraham, Mike Castle, and Mark and Sheila Cannon. Mark was able to examine the boards closely and provided me the information about the newspaper padding. He also pointed out that the keyhole slide on the Russian Manacle is now missing, and that all the cuffs on the board had been painted silver at some point, probably by Edward Saint so they'd look better on display.

While the Houdini items are certainly a major draw, not to be ignored are some of the other amazing magic artifacts on display. These include T. Nelson Downs top hat, Cooke's own linking rings with carrying case, and Alexander Herrmann's original cups and balls. There are also some beautiful original Thurston posters and a faithful reproduction of his colorful Sawing a Woman in Half illusion.

The SAM collection was originally housed in the basement of a Hollywood bank and viewable only by invitation. But in December 2004, an underground electrical blast contaminated the building with toxic PCBs and all access to the collection was sealed as the SAM settled with the LADWP over the cost of decontamination. This is the first time the collection has been displayed since the accident and the first time it has even been opened to the general public.

Behind Smoke and Mirrors: The History of Magic and Illusion runs through July 13, 2013. The Whittier Museum is located at 6755 Newlin Avenue, Whittier, CA 90601. Admission is FREE.

For more information on the collection and upcoming special events, check out the SAM Hall of Fame Facebook page and the official website.

Okay, maybe I did sneak just one pic...

Monday, September 17, 2012

Tickets to the Official Houdini Seance in Fort Worth available NOW

Tickets to the Official Houdini Seance event in Fort Worth, Texas are available now at the just launched website:

The Official Sid Radner Houdini Seance will be coming to Fort Worth this Halloween. Previously always held as a private event, this is the first time tickets will be offered to the public. With approximately only 275 seats available we expect a sellout so please purchase your tickets early. See rare Houdini original artifacts in a spectacular evening filled with film clips, escape acts, and maybe even Houdini returning during the seance.

The event will be held on October 31, 2012 at the beautiful Masonic Center. The seance will be conducted by Scott Wells. The evening is being hosted by Arthur Moses and Derek Kennedy in cooperation with Bill Radner, son of the late Sidney Radner.

This is going to be a terrific Houdini event. I'm going to be there. Hope to see you there as well!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Houdini aquarium revealed on Tanked

Photo by Hocus Pocus Focus. Used by permission of the AMA / Magic Castle.

The Magic Castle's new Houdini Water Torture Cell aquarium was revealed last night on Animal Planet's Tanked. The aquarium sits in the Inner Circle and was made by request of AMA President Neil Patrick Harris for the Magic Castle's 50th Anniversary celebrations next year.

The hour long episode chronicled the process of designing and building the 240 gallon aquarium, along with a lot of "reality" show complications, such as the tank springing a leak and threatening to flood the William Larsen Sr. Memorial Library. The episode gave a very nice look inside the Castle.

While they didn't show what the designers used as a photographic reference, the tank is a pretty respectable reproduction of Houdini's real Water Torture Cell. The stocks in particular evoke the real cell, with the front hand grips, properly shaped hinges, and lifting ringlets. I just wish they would have completely framed the glass with riveted "brass" strips instead of leaving it with just two on each side. There even appears to be space for two horizontal strips top and bottom. But that's me being picky.

The Houdini mannequin inside was created by Quantum Creation FX, who worked from a Houdini portrait photo. The vintage style straitjacket the mannequin is wearing was acquired from Houdini's Magic Shop in Las Vegas.

In the show, reproduction Houdini posters flank each side of the tank. But as you can see in the photo above -- which the Magic Castle has given me special permission to post -- original Alexander and Will Rock/Thurston Show posters have replaced the Houdini sheets, which I actually think looks much better. Also notice the addition of a nice handcuff display case in the corner. While this wasn't part of the show, it was added to the Inner Circle along with the tank and is a pretty cool addition in itself. The cuffs come from the collection of Jim Bentley and include reproductions of the French Letter cuff, the Russian manacle, and the Mirror handcuffs.

For those of you who are more interested in what's inside the aquarium, the idea was to fill the tank with "dangerous" fish, including: Sabertooth Barracuda (monster fish from the Amazon with huge teeth); Redtail Barracuda (called "Dogfish" because of their canine-like teeth); Spotted Metynnis (relatives of the piranha); Blue Eye Pleco (extremely rare fish from Columbia that can eat and digest wood); and an Asian Swamp Eel (known to be good escape artists who can survive out of water for several hours).

Neil Patrick Harris was very happy with the final result and gave AMA memberships to hosts Wayde King and Brett Raymer on the spot. He predicted that the Houdini aquarium would become a new "destination" inside the Castle for members and visitors. "I can't believe no one has thought of this idea before," he enthused.

However, someone did think of this before -- Houdini! In his original presentation of the escape, Houdini portrayed it as an aquarium. In a playlet called Challenged or Houdini Upside Down (which Houdini performed only once to copyright his new effect), a "multimillionaire sportsman" named Tim Connor eyeballs his clubhouse aquarium and concocts the idea of locking Houdini inside it upside down.

It's kind of ironic that after 100 years the Water Torture Cell has returned to its original purpose as a private clubhouse aquarium.

The real thing. Kevin Connolly Collection.

This Friday marks the 100th Anniversary of Houdini's first performance of the Water Torture Cell on September 21, 1912. Watch for a special look back the history of cell right here on WILD ABOUT HARRY.

UPDATE: Houdini has escaped!

UPDATE (6/9/15): The Magic Castle bids goodbye to the Houdini aquarium.

LINK: Harry Houdini dangled above Denver...

Here's a very good article with great photos from "The Archive" of The Denver Post about Houdini performing a suspended straitjacket escape from the Post building at 1577 Champa St. on December 30, 1915. Click the headline to read.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Wild About Harry hits 500,000 views

We've hit a milestone here at Wild About Harry. We've just crossed a half million views since our debut on Nov. 10, 2010. Houdini lives indeed!

The vast amount of our viewers are in the United States, followed by the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, Chile, Russia, China, France, and Ukraine. Users connect via Windows (60%), Mac (26%), iPhone (3%), iPad (3%), Android (2%), Linux (2%), and iPod (1%).

Thanks to everyone for the hits. We're now off to one million!

LINK: How many degrees away from Kevin Bacon is Harry Houdini?

I love playing the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, but I've never thought to try it with Houdini. Well, iTricks has discovered Houdini's Bacon number: 4.

Click on the headline to find the steps which take us in four moves from the Master Mystifier to Master Bacon (while I try to think of a way to do it in 3).

Calculating Bacon numbers is a new "easter egg" feature from Google. Just type in "Bacon number" plus any actor's name to get a result.

Radner-Houdini exhibit opens today in Holyoke

Houdini and magic memorabilia from the collection of the late Sidney Radner goes on display starting today at the Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, Massachusetts. The exhibition is called "Houdini, Holyoke & the Sidney Radner Collection" and runs until October 31.

Sidney Radner, who died last year at the age of 91, auctioned off much of his collection in 2004, including the Water Torture Cell. But he held on to a few precious items, including handcuffs, tools, and challenge broadsides. Sidney's son William Radner now controls the Houdini-Radner rarities that are to be displayed.

The museum will host a special opening night reception tonight from 6 to 8pm. Tickets to this special event are $10. Regular admission to the gallery is $3.

The Wistariahurst Museum is located at 238 Cabot St., Holyoke, MA 01040. It was the site of last year's Official Houdini Seance. Visit their official website for more information.

Click here for a video of William Radner talking about the exhibition. You might also enjoy David Bryon's personal remembrance of Sidney at his blog, Baroque Potion.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Houdini sculpture unveiling video

Here is video of the unveiling of Robert Toth's new Houdini and Blackstone sculptures at Fine Frame Gallery in Salisbury, North Carolina on August 23, 2012. The sculptures include a 9-inch Houdini bust, a 12-inch Blackstone bust, and a 15 x 18 Houdini plaque. The works were commissioned by Gary Darwin of the Gary Darwin Magic Museum in Las Vegas.

The sculpture unveiling starts at 06:00.


You can see and purchase more of Robert Toth's work at his Realm of Art website and Facebook page.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Houdini: The Man Behind The Magic

Here is the short promotional documentary, Houdini: The Man Behind The Magic, which appeared only on the Blockbuster Exclusive edition of the Death Defying Acts DVD. It features the cast and crew of the 2008 film talking about the real Harry Houdini.

It's interesting that Scott Penrose, the Magic Consultant on the film, mentions that John Calvert knew Houdini. I believe that could make Calvert, who just turned 101 (I attended his birthday celebration at The Magic Castle last month), the last known living person who actually met Houdini.

You can enjoy more Houdini video goodies like this on the WILD ABOUT HARRY YouTube Channel.

Houdini in latest Lapham's Quarterly

The Summer 2012 issue of Lapham's Quarterly contains an excerpt from Houdini's A Magician Among the Spirits.

Titled "Knowing When to Quit", Houdini tells the story of his "greatest feat of mystery" when he commanded a rain storm to start and stop several times during a 4th of July party at the home of his lawyer, Bernard Ernst.

Lapham's Quarterly is a literary journal edited by Lewis Lapham that collects fiction, nonfiction, poems, and essays from over four thousand years of history. Published four times a year, each issue adopts and explores a single theme. This latest issue is devoted to "Magic Shows".

Visit the Lapham's Quarterly website to subscribe.

Thanks to Joe Fox for the alert.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Genii & Houdini: October 1964

In October 1964, Genii The Conjurors' Magazine produced their most unique "Houdini Memorial Issue" to date. Interestingly, the name of the magazine does not even appear on the cover, which shows the escape artist Steranko sitting before a collection of Houdini posters and playbills.

In his Genii Speaks column, editor Bill Larsen writes, "I had the help of Steranko who started out to write a special issue and ended up writing what I believe to be a sensational book on escapes. I'm sure this is going to be one of the most sought after issues ever published."

Indeed, the Steranko section, called "Steranko's World of Escapes", is a whopping 48 pages and makes up almost the entire magazine. It is an incredible resource for anyone interested in escape techniques. In his introduction, Steranko writes:

Houdini was, in fact, only a fair magician. But the heart of a magician is dark and contradictory for Houdini is considered the Prince of Showmen. The ideas that poured forth from this pioneer and prime exponent of escape, were sometimes outrageous, often incredible but always fascinating. To him we dedicate our book.

The "book" is then organized into seven profusely illustrated sections on: lock picking ("Have Locks...Will Travel"); ropes, chains, and straitjackets ("A Matter of Technique"); jail escapes ("Stone Walls Do Not a Prison Make"); quick release escapes ("Dynamic Magic"); death defying escapes ("Danger is My Business"); new and experimental escapes, inducing frozen in ice ("Escape no More"); and tips for building, publicizing, and performing an escape act ("I, Liberationist").

Unrelated to magic, but still interesting, is an advert in this issue announcing that "Don Post Studios has been chosen to be the official licensed manufacturer of producer character masks of The Munsters for commercial sale."

Coming next: October 1972

LINK: "I’m going to piss where Houdini pissed."

Yes, I know the headline is a little indelicate, but this really is a must read over at Nathan Allen's The Maniac of Magic blog. He has our madness.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Salvaged S.A.M. collection will go on display in Whittier, CA

A rare collection of magic memorabilia from the Society of American Magicians will go on display at the Whittier Historical Society & Museum in Whittier, California starting September 16, 2012.

The exhibition is called Behind Smoke and Mirrors: The History of Magic and Illusion and will fill an entire floor of the museum.

This collection of posters, apparatus, costumes and ephemera was originally displayed in the basement of a bank in Hollywood and viewable only by appointment. Founded in 1967, "The Society of American Magicians Hall of Fame and Magic Museum" included significant Houdini items from the collection of Beatrice Houdini, such as original Houdini handcuff displays.

But in December 2004, an underground electrical blast contaminated the building with toxic PCBs. Access to the collection was sealed, accessible only by trained personnel in hazmat suits, as the SAM battled the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power over the cost of decontamination.

Now it appears the collection has been retrieved and saved and this will be the first time it has ever been wildly available for public view. The SAM Museum Facebook page says "a significant portion" of the original collection will be on display. So far I've been unable to confirm whether that portion includes the Houdini items.

A special opening reception featuring magicians and refreshments will take place on Sunday, September 16 at 2:00pm. I'll be attending the opening and, of course, will report back on what Houdini items are on show.

Behind Smoke and Mirrors: The History of Magic and Illusion runs through July 13, 2013. The Whittier Museum is located at 6755 Newlin Avenue, Whittier, CA 90601.

One of the contaminated Houdini handcuff displays at the original
SAM Museum in Hollywood. Photo from Houdini The Key

UPDATE: Russian Manacle and other Houdini rarities in Whittier