Friday, February 7, 2014

American Pickers find Houdini in Leadville

Houdini turned up on American Pickers on Wednesday (2/5) when Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz picked the historic Tabor Opera House in Leadville, Colorado. Here's how it went down.

The fact about Houdini teaching American soldiers how to escape German handcuffs needs a touch of clarification. While it is true Houdini taught soldiers how to escape German restraints, it's not quite right to say he took a year off to do so. Houdini never took a year off in his life. A quibble.

As to Houdini performing at the Tabor Opera House. The only Colorado appearances of Houdini listed in Koval's Houdini Research Diary are in Denver at the Lyceum Theater (1899) and the Denver Orpheum (1907/1915/1923). But Koval is far from complete, and while the Opera House is unsure of the exact date, Houdini's performance was witnessed by Theresa O'Brien who shared the story with tourists until her death in 1981 age 86. Houdini's performance is also remembered by stagehand Fred Reichle in the book, The Tabor Opera House - A Captivating History by Evelyn Livingston Furman.

Evelyn Furman with Theresa O'Brien who saw Houdini perform in Leadville.

The trap cut in the Tabor stage by Houdini could have been for the Water Torture Cell (which puts his appearance after 1912). Houdini required a trap in the stage in order to drain the cell after the performance. In fact, you can hear Frank Fritz say "water tank" in the clip, so the Pickers seem to know their stuff.

As with the airing of Houdini Unlocking the Mystery on H2 this week, is this another sign that HISTORY is looking to gin up curiosity about Houdini in anticipation of their upcoming Houdini miniseries? I expected to see Houdini show up on American Pickers, but I hadn't expected it to be this soon. I'm betting Mike and Frank are going to encounter the Master Mystifier again in their upcoming travels.

Thanks to Sharon Bland of The Historic Tabor Opera House for the information about Houdini's performance and the photo.

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  1. If I am not mistaken Houdini specified a small trapin the stage not a huge trap door that a personcould walk through.

    1. Actually, you are quite correct about that. Houdini's USD specifications were for a trap "no less" than 8 inches square.

      So why such a large trap?

      Sharon Bland at the Opera House tells me her mother had a program from Houdini's appearance, but she can't find it. If only we could get a look at the program and see what exactly he did, it might help answer that question.

  2. A History of Leadville Theatre by Gretchen Scanlon states: “Local lore says that Harry Houdini graced the stage of the opera house. Unfortunately, after exhaustive research no documentation has been uncovered to prove that he was here”
    I could not find any evidence either, but would love to see some.

    1. I admit I was skeptical when I first saw the American Pickers episode. Seems every old theater claims Houdini appeared there. But we know Houdini pretty much worked a strict circuit of Orpheum/Keith theaters that were in major cites. It would be unusual for him to appear at a theater off the circuit.

      But he did do it from time to time, and the Tabor seemed to be a theater that hosted some special events and big stars. Even Thurston performed there. Houdini also performed in Colorado Springs in 1916, which was an even smaller city than Leadville.

      After talking to Sharon Bland and learning that their info comes from two people who actually saw Houdini there, I'd like to believe it's true. But it would be good to nail down some definitive evidence.

    2. For what it is worth, the following is quoted from page 107 of The Tabor Opera House book by Evelyn E. Livingston Thurman:
      “When I was here, this Opera House was a one-night stand,” continued Mr. Reichle. “There were two circuits out of Denver. One played the Denver Tabor Grand and perhaps the Auditorium or Broadway theater. After three or four nights billing in Denver, either one circuit or the other would always come up here to Leadville“, he explained. “These circuits played Salt Lake City and San Francisco, Leadville’s legitimate theater was associated with the Tabor Grand in Denver, and the performers and theatrical companies appeared in both cities.” Fred Reichle related the astounding entertainments given by Houdini, the magician, who did everything from pulling rabbits out of hats to the most complicated magic acts of all time. “Most magicians of the day had a table with a purple velvet cover situated in centerstage. It was located near the uncovered trap door for obvious reasons, and I guess that’s how he fooled us!”

    3. Thanks Joe. Good to know that the Opera House was a one night stand venue and that it was associated with one of the major circuits. If that the circuit was Orpheum, then it makes an appearance by Houdini there more likely. But pulling rabbits out of a hat? Maybe just an expression.

  3. I have a reference to Houdini's performing in Colorado Springs in 1915, which would track with his Denver Orpheum appearance. It'll be mentioned in the next edition of The Houdini File, going live Thursday.

  4. Koval shows Houdini in Lincon NE in the first week of Jan 1916, but there are numerous ads for him appearing in Colorado Springs on the 3rd and 4th of Jan at the Burns Theater of the Orpheum circuit.