Saturday, November 3, 2012

Report: The Official Houdini Séance 2012

Last Wednesday I had the extreme honor of attending and participating in the 2012 Official Houdini Séance in Fort Worth, Texas. The event was held at The Masonic Center on Halloween and was organized by mega collector Arthur Moses and Derek Kennedy in cooperation with William Radner. For me it was a non-stop two day mind-blowing journey into the world of Houdiniana like I've never experienced. I will try to sum it all up here with the help of some terrific images provided by some new friends I made on this trip.

Day 1

I flew into Fort Worth a day early and had the great pleasure of staying in the home of Arthur and Linda Moses. Having acclimated myself to living a shoe-box size apartment across from a bustling movie studio, staying in a big, beautiful, quiet suburban house was an unexpectedly wonderful experience in itself. Oh, it was also nice to step out my bedroom door and be greeted with a gigantic 8-sheet Houdini Buried Alive poster!

But nothing prepared me for Arthur's magnificent "Houdini Room." I had seen videos and photos of the room, but I was still knocked back on my heels when I stepped through the door. Below is a stitched together photo courtesy of Scott Wells of The Magic Word. And this is just the first floor!

The Houdini Room. Photo by Scott Wells.

Overwhelmed? I was too. In fact, after spending an hour going through the bookshelves and artifacts on the first floor (and recording this podcast with Arthur and Scott for Magic Word), I found I couldn't muster the psychic energy to tackle the second story where two more full rooms of treasures reside. But this was also because the evening guests had begun to arrive, and it was time to meet some legends.

Arthur had invited all the VIP ticket holders to come over and enjoy some genuine Texas BBQ and to see his collection. Among the VIP attendees was Tom Boldt of Appleton, Wisconsin, who has been integral in arranging the Official Houdini Séances along with Sidney Radner for many years. He is also a very nice guy. Also on hand was Robert Somerdin from Florida, a top collector of Houdiniana (and pin ball machines) who had me gaping at his descriptions of what is in his collection. I was also thrilled to meet William Radner, son of Sidney Radner, who had brought along many clippings and photos from his father's collection. After we had finished our BBQ, Bill brought out the legendary "Séance Cuffs". For those following me online (via Wild About Harry on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram), you saw this pic of the magic moment.

"Bill Radner, the Séance Cuffs, and Texas BBQ! It's on."

One disappointment for all of us was that Official Séance regulars Fred Pittella and Larry Weeks were unable to travel due to Hurricane Sandy and would not be able to take their traditional places at the séance table. I've never met these men and I was sorry I wouldn't get the chance on this trip. Hopefully I'll get another chance in the future.

Houdini's pajama pocket.
After we finished our delicious dinner, the group enjoyed Arthur's Houdini Room. Fortified by food, I was now able to take on the second story. Here I saw Houdini's pajama pocket -- which he was wearing when he died -- his wallet, a case full of pitchbooks, countless photos, original posters, and a solid wall of periodicals neatly filed and classified (remember Arthur is the author of the definitive Houdini Periodical Bibliography). Part of the fun of experiencing something like this collection is how you can be knocked out by not just the major stuff -- like the Houdini straitjacket or the Houdini sidewalk stand -- but little things as well. For example, Arthur has on his wall a photo of Houdini in shackles dressed in what appear to be circus tights. While I've seen photos of Houdini imitators in this kind of garb, I've never seen a photo of Houdini dressed this way. It really blew my mind.

In that same mind-blowing category was a menu and an actual boutonniere from Harry and Bessie's Silver Wedding Anniversary dinner at The Alexandria Hotel in Los Angeles. There was also a fascinating letter from Bernard Ernst to Houdini regarding Hardeen's "salary" that I will do a full blog post about in the future.

We all lingered late into the night, talking Houdini and enjoying the collection and company. Arthur also presented us with our special gift bags that included a very cool heavy duty antique-looking padlock with the 2012 Official Houdini Séance logo. Inner Circle members also got some beautiful padlock bookends. I finally fell into bed around 2AM, looking forward to THE big day.

Day 2 - Halloween

I rose around 8:30am and joined Arthur, Linda, and Scott Wells (who was also staying at Arthur's house) at the breakfast table in time to see Arthur's interview air on ABC's Good Morning Texas. It was a very good segment that showed off the Houdini Room and also promoted the seance event. I was thrilled to learn that there would be close to 200 people attending.

Arthur Moses and Scott Wells watch the Good Morning Texas report.

It was then time for me to earn my keep as I scooted around Fort Worth with Arthur, helping make final arrangements and set up the séance room at the stunning Masonic Center. Not only was this a visually exciting setting for a séance, but also appropriate in that Houdini himself was a Freemason. I also had the terrifying pleasure of helping Arthur load the priceless Houdini sidewalk stand into his van (it would be displayed, along with the Houdini straitjacket, at the event). I couldn't help but think of how Jim Collins and James Vickery might have carried the sign in exactly this same way to set up in front of a theatre. We're all still working for Mr. H!

The day seemed to fly by and before we knew it the event was suddenly upon us! Guests, dressed formally, began to arrive around 7pm. The VIP ticket holders gathered in the lower ballroom for cocktails and appetizers. I was scrambling to get all my equipment set-up and in working order in the main room, but I was still able to slip downstairs and enjoy the company and food. I knew my presentation was going up first, so I was pumped to finally see "my" audience.

The Masonic Center in Fort Worth, Texas.

The séance room (chamber?) was beyond amazing when it was all finished. The photo below, courtesy of Bill Radner, captures it somewhat; but factor in the eerie organ music by Michael Reed playing from the balcony, the flickering candles, the chairs draped in black, and the armed security guard standing by the sidewalk stand and straitjacket. (The huge Houdini straitjacket poster is actually a backdrop from the stageplay Ragtime and belongs to Ash Adams, who was the MC for the evening.) The atmosphere was incredible -- almost funeral-like -- and the nearly 200 assembled guests all seemed to be speaking in whispered tones. A perfect setting for a séance on Halloween!

The Official 2012 Houdini Seance. Photo by William Radner.

With everyone settled into their seats, the evening began with Master of Ceremonies, Ash Adams -- an award winning magician with over 20 years experience -- welcoming everyone and giving a brief history of the Masonic Temple and also about Houdini's two visits to Fort Worth in 1916 and 1923. Ash set a spooky Halloween mood and challenged Houdini, just as he had been challenged by the people of Fort Worth during his visits, to again make an escape tonight.

Ash then introduced me, and I presented what I called a Houdini History Presentation, but the official program carried the much more impressive title, "Understanding Houdini in the 21st Century." I was really eager to give a good, entertaining talk that would appeal to both the hardcore Houdini experts in the room as well as the general audience members who might not know a thing about Houdini. I think my presentation went over very well; aided greatly by a Keynote slide show where I was able to share several rare images, including a beautiful unpublished photo of Houdini and Bess provided by David Haversat and a terrific photo of Houdini being tied to a stake by two Native Americans provided by Jon Oliver (I also snuck in one of the unpublished bear trap photos from the Motion Picture Academy Library's Grim Game file).

Much to my relief, the length of my talk seemed to be exactly right (I feared I would go on forever -- I had 90 slides!). I then showed two pieces of film footage -- the 1907 Rochester bridge jump and the 5 minute clip from The Grim Game. The Grim Game footage was a last minute addition when I saw how well it went over at the Hollywood Egyptian screening last week. Including it was a good call. Once again, the audience gasped when the planes crashed.

MC Ash Adams on stage. Photo by William Radner.

Having accomplished my mission of filling everyone's head with as much Houdini history as I thought they could stand, I was happy to sit back and enjoy the rest of the program. Bill Radner took the stage next and spoke about his father and the importance of the séances throughout the years. He then showed a video clip of Sidney talking about the Bean Giants, the Séance Cuffs, and a special key Houdini used to unlock any handcuff. The audience seemed to really enjoy this, and it was a wonderful to have the great Sidney Radner there in the room with us.

Jamie Salinas. Photo by William Radner.
Following Bill came magician Jamie Salinas, a skilled sleight of hand artist and a regular performer at The Magic Castle, who did magic tricks and also escaped from a straitjacket, which received a terrific reception. Then came magician and sideshow entertainer Shel Higgens, who did a spectacular sword swallowing act balanced atop a free standing ladder. It was a unique performance that worked wonderfully well in the big hall and provided a real unexpected treat for the audience (and for me as I had no idea of what he was going to do).

Closing out the first half of the evening was the recording of Houdini's Voice, generously provided by Tom Interval of It was a perfect way to bring the theme of the evening back to the spirit of Houdini. Frankly, I think Houdini was watching over us all. I was amazed at just how our completely unrehearsed "show" came off without a single hitch and how each presenter seemed to compliment and blend into the next. It was a darn good show!

Then followed a 15 minute intermission in which the guests -- a little less intimidated by the room now -- took photos of themselves standing beside Arthur's Houdini memorabilia and the séance table. But now came the big event of the evening...

The Séance

Following intermission the guest all retook their seats. Ash Adams again set the mood, explaining in a very serious tone the "rules" of the séance. Each of the "Inner Circle" attendees, including myself, were introduced one by one. Filling in for Larry Weeks and Fred Pittella was our MC, Ash Adams, and Kathy Tayefeh of Magic Etc. who also runs a local Fort Worth Spook Show attraction and is highly sensitive to ghostly phenomena. We all remained standing behind our chairs as medium Scott Wells was introduced. He entered dramatically from the parted curtains onstage. Scott then took over, instructing us to take our seats. Under a single spotlight, Scott explained a little Houdini history and what we would be attempting to do tonight.

The Inner Circle participants.

The séance commenced and Scott attempted to contact the spirit of Houdini in a way that would have made Edward Saint proud. He also encouraged everyone at the table to speak up if they experienced anything unusual. During his pre-talk he also told the assembled crowd to share anything that happened to them after the seance.

Now, believe it or not, the séance was not without a few odd occurrences. A program on the table appeared to move, as did a chair up on stage. However, from where I was sitting, I didn't see either happen, so I can't speak to these. Kathy Tayefeh did see what she described as some kind of a red cloud or energy in an upper balcony. After the séance some audience members claimed they had also seen this. Directed to the spot, I said I could see the vague figure of a man perched at the rail peering down at the table. I thought this was pretty strange, until it was pointed out that there were people watching the séance from up there. Doh! (But, you know, when the lights came on, the people up on the balcony were NOT what I had seen during the séance. Not even close. Just saying...)

However, I think all the odd "phenomena" might have been evidence of the true power of suggestion and the intense and spooky atmosphere that had been so successfully conjured by Scott and everything about that room.

After a final appeal, Scott then closed the séance and the guests went downstairs to enjoy a final reception back in the ballroom. There Bill Radner told me he already had an idea about where to hold the séance next year and that I would definitely be invited to participate. (Yes!)

All in all, it was a spectacular evening and a very successful Official Houdini Seance, even if once again Houdini didn't join the show.

As the night drew to a close, I helped break down and transport some of the artifacts back to Arthur's house. I once again had the pleasurable terror of moving the Houdini sidewalk stand back into the Houdini Room.

I then settled back with a beer and enjoyed a post séance wrap-up conversation with Arthur, Scott, and Jamie Salinas (our newest house guest), until I literally couldn't keep my eyes open any longer.

Day 3

My last day would only be a half day, but it was still great fun. Joe Notaro, who runs Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence and had come out from Los Angeles for the event, joined us at Arthur's house for breakfast and Scott Wells conducted a wrap-up podcast with the group. We then went into the Houdini Room, where I got to enjoy seeing Joe have the same near heart-attack reaction to the room that I had had. With time running out, I poured through a few final binders of amazing Houdini artifacts, but I never really scratched the surface of Arthur's amazing collection. In fact, I never even touched the full wall of Houdini periodicals. Maybe next time.

We then had some fun putting on Jamie's straitjacket and posing in front of the Houdini sidewalk stand.

The Great Houdinis: Moses, Notaro, Wells and Cox.

It was agony when noon arrived and we had to leave for the airport. As we were both heading back to LA, Joe and I traveled together in my little (Toyota Yaris) rocket of a rental car. But it was on this 40 minute drive to the Dallas-Fort Worth airport that the strangest -- even spooky -- phenomena of the entire trip occurred...

We didn't talk about Houdini once.

Here are some more images from The Official Houdini Seance, 2012:

John Cox and Tom Boldt. Photo by William Radner.
Arthur Moses and Robert Somerdin. Photo by William Radner
Ash Adams, Scott Wells and a hobo. Photo by William Radner
Derek Kennedy and Bill Radner. Photo by William Radner
Scott Wells does a pre-seance interview. Photo by William Radner


  1. Good stuff, John! Thanks for posting all this. And yes, you're right ... the last bit was definitely the spookiest. =)

  2. Replies
    1. I knew it would be good, but I really didn't realize just how good! I was sad more of my good HH friends didn't experience this.

  3. Sounds like it was a wonderful time!

    1. Indeed. Wish you could have been there, Julie.

  4. Wonderful John. Thank you so much for posting a detailed report for those of us who were not able to attend. Sounds as if it was a magnificent event.

  5. Thank you for posting John. Extremly interesting! To pitty its so far away...

    Johan Ahlberg

  6. Brilliant. Excellent as per usual. Regards from over the pond.
    Cheers. Narinder

  7. Great report John! Thank you! It was the next best thing to being there.

    Now about Houdini's wallet...did you check to see if there was anything inside?

  8. Hey John! Thank you for posting such a detailed and well-illustrated overview of the Big Event. For those of us unable to attend, your summary is the next best thing!

  9. John,
    Thank you for the Houdini experience as seem through your eyes. I can always depend upon you, my friend, to keep me informed and updated on "All Things Houdini". If there is a next time, I will certainly make every effort to attend.


  10. Thank you for the kind words everyone. I wish you could have all been there. It was a terrific Houdini event. Congratulations to Arthur Moses for really knocking this one out of the park.