Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Houdini's plan to tour East Asia in a 500-seat super car

"You wanna do what now, boss?"

One thing that is notable about Houdini's career is that he never performed in Asia. Many magicians of the time made tours of countries like China, Japan and India, scoring great success and coming back to the West with trunks full of exotic bragging rights. Some performers like Dante and Murray made world touring their life's work. But apart from his 1910 Australian tour, Houdini confined himself to North America and Europe.

However, an article in a July 1914 New York Dramatic Mirror reveals that Houdini was indeed planning to tour East Asia at the beginning of 1915. His plans were, of course, pure Houdini. In an article titled "How Harry Houdini Picked the Lock of Success", the paper reports:

Houdini plans to sail to the Continent in January, crossing to Russia and going by way of the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Japan. While he is an excellent swimmer, he doesn't like sea travel, and is going as far as possible by land. He is now having a huge motor car constructed according to his own ideas for a trip into the interior of Japan and China. The car will be built so that it can be opened to six times its own length, and will seat 500 people. With the van open and a stage arranged in front of the seats, Houdini can give entertainments at will.

One thing that should be pointed out is that the Trans-Siberian terminates in Beijing (then Peking), not Japan, so one wonders how Houdini and his 500-seat super car would deal with the body of water that separates China and Japan.

While it sounds wild, I do believe this East Asia tour was on the level. In fact, I expect the roadshow Houdini was going to present would have been his Grand Magical Revue, which he was performing at this time. This is especially interesting as it's evidence that Houdini was planning his evolution from Vaudeville headliner to touring magician as early as 1915.

So what happened to Houdini's ambitious plans? It seems likely that World War I scuttled the idea. The war broke out on July 28, 1914, just a few weeks after this article was published. Houdini would not even be able to travel back to the UK until 1920. He would remain in the U.S. and in Vaudeville for the duration of the war, and would not head up his own roadshow until 1925.

It's too bad, because oh what a chapter in the Houdini story this super car tour would have made! Thanks a lot, War. Now it's personal.

Thanks to Steve Knight at The Magic Cafe forums for putting on the path to this discovery.


  1. I can totally buy that Houdini was planning on touring Asia (so sad that he wasn't able to). But a 500-seat super-car? That... seems like it would have been a pretty incredible feat of engineering, especially for 1914! (Then again, I guess "Houdini" and "incredible" are often synonymous) :)

    1. Yeah a 500-seat car seems pretty outrageous. But I expect what they mean here is they are transporting a set-up for a 500 seat theater, so it could just be a trailer with 500 folding chairs.

  2. Houdini received fan mail from admirers in Japan that had seen his films. He no doubt must have contemplated a tour there and other parts of Asia.

    A great photo here! I've never seen this one before, John. That's Collins next to him?

    1. Yep, that's Collins. It's a screen cap from film footage of a suspended jacket escape. Might be on the Houdini The Movie Star DVD set.