Friday, September 7, 2012

The Final Houdini Seance redux 1986

With the big news that the 86th Official Houdini Seance will be held this year as a public event in Fort Worth, Texas, I thought it was a good time to look back on another semi-public Houdini seance that many not not be aware of.

On the night of October 31, 1986, a handful of lucky participants, including myself, attended a Houdini seance at the Variety Arts Center -- a short-lived sister club to the Magic Castle housed in a historic theater in downtown Los Angeles -- that honored and recreated the famous 1936 Final Houdini Seance on its 50th Anniversary.

Organized by Houdini collector and historian Manny Weltman, the reenactment started with the tickets. Each ticket was an exact replica of the gold invitations from the 1936 seance with the modern details on the back. To enhance the event, guests were encouraged to come dressed in "optional 1930s dressy attire" (my buddy Mark and I rented vintage tuxedos from Western Costume).

Guests arrived at 7pm for an 8:30 seance, just as they did in 1936. On the seance table were laid out the items exactly as they were laid out 50 years earlier, including a custom built copy of the Houdini shrine and a replica of the Mirror handcuffs, reported to have been "brought from Montana".

John Cox and "Edward Saint" (Stefan Krayk).

Bess was portrayed by Geraldine Larsen Jaffe, matriarch of the famous Larsen magic family, who was also good friends with Bess Houdini and attended the 1936 seance. For the occasion, Gerrie wore a jeweled Russian brooch given to her by Bess. The part of Edward Saint was played by Stefan Krayk, complete with fake beard. Magic Castle co-founder Milt Larsen introduced the seance, and "Bess" and "Ed" read from the same script the real Bess and Ed had prepared for the original seance.

Sitting in the "inner circle" at the seance table were: Manny Weltman and his wife Nanette; Milt Larsen; ventriloquist puppeteer Shari Lewis and her husband Jeremy Tarcher; Gerald Kosky, who had attended the original 1936 seance; Universal Studios Vice President and Houdini enthusiast Tom Thayer; Penny and Michael Grosz-Salomon; legendary Famous Monsters of Filmland publisher Forrest J. Ackerman and his wife Wendy; and KABL-TV reporter Fred Anderson. Guest attendees included Batman creator Bob Kane, a long time Houdini buff. (My girlfriend's most vivid recollection of the night was meeting "some guy who told me he invented Batman.")

"Bess Houdini" (Geri Larsen) heads up the seance table.

Much like the evening in 1936, Houdini did not return, and there were no mysterious storms that night which would have really made this a true recreation. After the seance, guests lingered for an informal chat with Gerrie who shared stories about her friendship with Bess.

At the close of the evening, all the guests received a bottle of Magic Castle Houdini labeled wine, which were spirits enough for most.

Thanks to Joe Fox, who was also there that night, for loaning me "ESCAPISM" January 1987 which contained a full report on the seance and provided the details I've long forgotten.


  1. After reading your blog, I dug out my Escapism from January 1987; I found it interesting that the recording of the famous séance in 1936 was actually made at a recording studio several days after the séance occurred.

    1. So you have that issue? There's some real gold in there.

    2. I used to have a subscription to Escapism back in the day, so I have all the issues; I will have to do some gold digging.

  2. Thanks for that info Joe. I always thought somebody recorded it at the Knickerbocker Hotel when it happened. Another piece of misinformation laid to rest.

    1. According to the Late Great Manny Weltman, the idea of the recording supposedly came to Edward Saint when he realized the séance should be preserved. Therefore he and Bess re-enacted the event from a script that they had carefully prepared for that famous Halloween night. Many are not aware that they had written a script for that night, but they had wanted to be sure and not leave out anything important due to the emotions of the evening.

  3. Oops. I used patriarch instead of matriarch in describing Geri Larsen. Fixed. This is why online publishing is a good thing. :)

    BTW, I'm spelling Geri the way it's spelled today by the Larsens. But back in the day she spelled it Gerri.