Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Houdini, the Hillstreet, and the birth of a ghostbuster

The Hillstreet Theater in 1928/9.

In 1923 when Houdini performed for a week at the Hillstreet Theater in Los Angeles. The Hillstreet was not a first run theater. It was a "Junior Orpheum," presenting 5 act vaudeville and films throughout the day instead of just twice a day as in more prestigious theaters. It was also said to have "the world's worst orchestra." Typically when in Los Angeles, Houdini appeared at the Orpheum Theater. So why was he playing this lessor venue?

Image from Houdini's Ghost.
Because it was at the Hillstreet on Friday, April 27, that Houdini would try out a new identity very different from the escape act. He presented his anti-spiritualist lecture for the very first time. [*Or not. See UPDATE.] According to Patrick Culliton, Houdini had "four-walled" the Hillstreet for this purpose. While he had engaged in debate with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle over the issue of Spiritualism in print, this was the day he truly launched his campaign against frauds by presenting a talk that was very much a counterpoint to Doyle's evangelical lecture touring the U.S. at that very time. (Doyle had undertaken his tour in part because his new spirit guide, "Pheneas," warned that the end of the world was imminent.)

Houdini had generated additional interest in his talk by becoming involved in a local news story. A medium by the name of Mrs. Fairfield McVickers had passed away, and during her funeral at the First Spiritualist Church of Los Angeles, photos taken of her casket showed spirits hovering above. The medium had predicted this would happen. Houdini attempted to recreate the photos under test conditions, and in his experiments he produced a photo with a mysterious streak of light. This photo that "Houdini couldn't explain" would be part of the Hillstreet presentation.

The Los Angeles Express reported on Houdini's lecture that day. Under the headline HOUDINI NOT CONVINCED OF SPIRITUALISM, the paper wrote:

It was probably the most unusual audience gathered in a local vaudeville house as the "king of handcuffs" showed 30 odd slides of mediums and seances, embellishing them with the result of 25 years investigation in the spiritualistic field. Most of the lecture dealt with the work of mediums and Houdini's investigations. The latter denied his being a sceptic, but contended that his observations prevented him from being convinced regarding the supernatural character of feats performed by mediums.

Interestingly, the paper reports that Houdini urged his audience to also attend Conan Doyle's lecture, which would be coming to Los Angeles at the end of May.

Houdini would continue to refine his anti-spiritualist lecture at colleges before signing with the Coit-Alber Lyceum lecture bureau in 1924 and embarking on a full lecture tour of the U.S. His lecture now included 50 lantern slides -- a set of which is owned today by collector Arthur Moses who reproduced Houdini's lecture in his excellent book, Houdini Speaks Out.

The Hillstreet Theater was renamed the RKO-Hillstreet in 1929, and offered a mix of vaudeville and films even after the main L.A. Orpheum switched to movies only. In 1941 the Hillstreet played host to another master of his medium, Orson Welles, when it was one of only two theaters in Los Angeles to play his Citizen Kane (the film had been blackballed by the powerful Hearst press).

The RKO-Hillstreet closed in 1964 and was demolished in 1965. Today the location is a parking lot and largely forgotten, even by Houdini buffs. But that really shouldn't be. Because it was here on the morning of April 27, 1923 that Houdini launched the last act of his life and career -- Houdini the ghostbuster.

Site of the Hillstreet Theater today | Map.

Related posts:

* UPDATE: Having continued to research this, I'm afraid I have to throw out the idea that Houdini's spiritualism lectures began here in Los Angeles. I've found evidence that Houdini had given his lecture in San Fransisco the previous week. It also appears he gave talks on spiritualism as part of his The Man From Beyond roadshow in 1922. But this Los Angeles lecture appears to be the first one that was widely advertised as a standalone event.


    1. Wow, very interesting.

    2. John Hinson great nephew of Bess and Harry HoudiniJanuary 28, 2014 at 1:38 PM


    3. I have been waiting for this post with bated breath and was not disappointed. Thank You John and Patrick for sharing this.

    4. It was, but with a lot more detail than I could find. Great job!

    5. Any insights on why he continually denied being a skeptic, as the newspaper reported? Bess recounts episodes where he really did "pierce the veil." It's obvious in The Man From Beyond that he seriously entertains these ideas. Where did his residue of belief come from?

      1. I think he just always wanted to reinforce the idea that his mind was open to any possibility. But he needed proof.

    6. Always interesting! Thank you for sharing.