Saturday, May 31, 2014

'THE ESCAPE ARTIST: Harry Houdini in Russia' to be published in Fall

Some great news today. THE ESCAPE ARTIST: Harry Houdini in Russia, which our friend David Saltman has spent 11 years writing and researching, will be published by Maiden Lane Press, a boutique New York publisher specializing in quality fiction. It's scheduled to appear by Christmas 2014.

Here's the full press release with synopsis:

THE ESCAPE ARTIST is a rich, 100,000-word multilayered historical novel. It's based on Harry Houdini's tour of Russia in 1903, when he performed his astonishing illusions and escapes for Tsar Nicholas and his wife, Tsarina Alexandra. Harry was so phenomenally successful that they believed he had magical powers. So much so that they invited him to stay at court and become their spiritual advisor. President Theodore Roosevelt learned of this and persuaded Harry to undertake a dangerous mission: to spy for the United States. During the spring and summer of 1903, Harry and his wife Bess became stars of the Tsar's court -- until they fell afoul of the leader of the secret police, Count von Plehve. Von Plehve plotted to undermine Harry. He finally succeeded, in a deception in which the fate of the entire world depended on a single glass of wine. Harry lost his position at court, leaving an opening which was soon filled by Rasputin.

THE ESCAPE ARTIST is based on deep research set in the last golden moments of imperial Russia. This period saw the rise of serious political unrest as well as the flowering of an opulent Russian culture: minor characters include Chekhov, Gorky, Diaghilev and Durov the Clown. It will appeal to fans of The Alienist as well as lovers of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

About the author, David Saltman:

THE ESCAPE ARTIST is David's fifth book, his first novel. His last book, Gilda, a biography of the late comedienne Gilda Radner, was hailed by the Los Angeles Times as “elegiac” and “more exciting than prime time.” He has authored or co-authored three other critically-acclaimed books: The Sports Book, The Great Escape, and The Marrakech Express. His humor pieces in TV Guide, his science writing in Omni and his travel writings in Rolling Stone and The New York Times have been hailed as setting the standards for the art.

David has also written, produced and directed nearly two hundred documentaries for CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC and public television networks and has written or collaborated on three feature film scripts. He has won Emmy and Ace awards, shared a Peabody award, and has had his film work inducted into the Smithsonian Institution.

David has taught writing and filmmaking at the State University of New York, the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, University of California at Santa Cruz, and St. John's University in New York City.

David serves as a consultant to the Library of Congress on Houdini. His blog, The Houdini File, has recast the history of Houdini and his family as a result of David's original research. THE ESCAPE ARTIST, though fiction, is based on original historical research and hews to real historical events and real historical characters.

Congratulations David!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Rick D. Wasserman is Houdini

Here's a sensational photo of actor Rick D. Wasserman in full costume and makeup as Houdini in the new Malibu Playhouse production, Flim Flam: Houdini and the Hereafter. This photo is by Brian McCarthy and is one of several posted to the Malibu Playhouse Facebook page. I love this!

(Photo: Brian McCarthy)

Wasserman, who says he's been reading every book and watching every documentary he can on Houdini (as well as working on his sleight of hand with technical advisor Jim Bentley), recently shared his thoughts about Houdini on his blog, Conjuring Harry. Says Rick:

"What makes him so fascinating? Why is he so adored? How did he reach the heights? I believe he was compelled to. Driven. He was obsessed with perfection, attention, respect, and notoriety. He was noted as being a uncontrollable egotist, focused only on ensuring his name went down in history much as it has. Perhaps it was being a child among four brothers that he developed this hunger for attention, and this drive was powerful even from a young age. Druglike, the more attention he received, the more he needed. He was further compelled to become the most well-known something by a need to prove himself an intellectual despite little formal education, a need to make-up for the shame he may have felt when his Rabbi father was dismissed from his job, a need to make sure his mother would never want for anything according to his father’s dying wish, and a need to prove to the world he was the best among the thousands of imitators. This is a key to playing Houdini."

Flim Flam: Houdini and the Hereafter is written by Gene Franklin Smith and directed Thomas James O'Leary. The play is set to debut at the Malibu Playhouse on June 20 with an "Opening Night Gala". The play will then run through August 3rd. (I have a ticket for opening night and will be reviewing it here on WAH.)

Other cast includes Melissa Kite as Bess, Sabra Malkinson as Mina Crandon (aka Margery), Cameron Mitchell Jr as Dr. Leroi Crandon, Peter Van Norden as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Gigi Bermingham as Lady Jean Conan Doyle.

Tickets may be purchased through the box office, online at or by calling 323-960-7711. There will be previews on June 18th and 19th. Malibu Playhouse is located at 29243 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, CA 90265.

For more information visit the Malibu Playhouse website. You can also follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

More Houdini miniseries cast revealed

Two new characters from HISTORY's Houdini miniseries have been revealed on IMDb. Szofi Berki is playing Madame Marcanti, and Patrick McCullough is Sheriff Olson.

Sheriff Olson is, obviously, a police officer. Perhaps Madame Marcanti is a medium? Neither of these are names I recognize from Houdini's real life.

Houdini stars Adrien Brody as Houdini and Kristen Connolly as Bess. The 4-hour miniseries will air over the course of two nights starting Labor Day, September 1st, on HISTORY. Click here to watch the teaser trailer.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Here is HISTORY's Houdini teaser

Here is the teaser trailer for HISTORY's upcoming Houdini miniseries. This aired last night during The World Wars. I recorded this off the TV with my iPhone, so picture and audio is not the best, but I think you'll still find this first look exciting.

Houdini stars Adrien Brody as Houdini and Kristen Connolly as Bess. The 4-hour miniseries is directed by Uli Edel from a script by Nicholas Meyer. It co-stars Evan Jones as Jim Collins, Eszter Ónodi as Cecilia Weiss, and Tom Benedict Knight as Theo Hardeen. It will air Labor Day weekend on HISTORY.

Deadline Hollywood throws cold water on Johnny Depp Houdini report

Deadline Hollywood has thrown some cold water on The Hollywood Reporter's "exclusive" yesterday that Johnny Depp is in negotiations to play Houdini in Lionsgate's The Secret Life of Houdini. Deadline says that the talks are "not much further along" now than back in January when Deadline first reported this news.

Click here to read at Deadline Hollywood.

I do trust Deadline over The Hollywood Reporter for news. As I stated in my own post yesterday, The Reporter has rushed several Houdini "exclusives" into print lately that have proven to be extremely premature and have gone nowhere. And should we be suspicions about the timing? Odd that this big Houdini news would hit the day after HISTORY officially launched the promotional campaign for their Houdini miniseries with Adrien Brody. It wouldn't be the first time this project made a timely reappearance.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Hollywood Reporter: Johnny Depp in talks to play Houdini

When it rains it pours. Not only did we get news today that HISTORY's Houdini miniseries with Adrien Brody is set to air on Labor Day weekend, but now comes this bombshell from The Hollywood Reporter.

by Tatiana Siegel, Borys Kit
1:49 PM PDT 5/27/2014

Is Johnny Depp looking to pull a vanishing act?

The actor is in negotiations to star as famed magician Harry Houdini in Lionsgate/Summit's The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero. Dean Parisot is directing.

The story, which is said to be in the vein of Indiana Jones, recasts Houdini as not just a master escape artist but an investigator of the world of the occult. Noah Oppenheim wrote the screenplay, which is based on William Kalush and Larry Sloman's book of the same name.

Depp is coming off two box-office disappointments in Transcendence and The Lone Ranger. But he also is set to revisit two blockbuster franchises in the coming year with Pirates of the Caribbean 5 and a sequel to Alice in Wonderland, both at Disney. Alice 2, also known as Through the Looking Glass, will shoot next, after he finishes the Whitey Bulger crime drama Black Mass. The only question is whether Secret Life of Houdini will shoot before Pirates 5. Lionsgate is eyeing a November 2014 start, which would push Pirates' production to early 2015.

Christi Dembrowski, Depp's producing partner at Infinitum Nihil, also is in negotiations to produce Secret Life of Houdini alongside Frank Marshall (The Bourne Legacy) and Bruce Cohen (Silver Linings Playbook).

This is potentially gigantic news. A star like Depp would certainly yank this project out of Development Hell where it has been trapped since its sale made a big splash in 2009. However, The Hollywood Reporter has been very quick to claim Houdini "Exclusives" that have not panned out (such as the ABC series), so the real news will be when/if Depp makes a deal.

Obviously, this is one we will watch VERY closely.

UPDATE: Deadline Hollywood throws cold water on Johnny Depp Houdini report.



A member of the Magic Castle Facebook Group says that last night while watching The World Wars on HISTORY a commercial ran for the Houdini miniseries saying it would air on Labor Day (presumably over two nights on Labor Day weekend).

So far, I can find nothing online to confirm this. Did anyone else see this ad?

The World Wars continues tonight on HISTORY. You can bet I'll be recording it and hoping to catch this first Houdini advertisement.

Thanks to Jill Marci Sybalsky.

UPDATE: Confirmed.

LINK: Smoking in Australia

Houdini prided himself on the fact that he did not drink nor smoke. He mentions this in several interviews. But now our friend Joe Notaro over at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence has uncovered evidence that Houdini might have fired up the occasional cigarette, and maybe even partook in a "nip of opium." This is good stuff as always, so click the headline and have a read at Joe's site.

(And on this topic, don't be shocked if we see a drunk Houdini in the upcoming HISTORY miniseries.)

Monday, May 26, 2014

What Culture discovers 'A Night At The Magic Castle'

Entertainment website What Culture has posted "20 Obscure Movies With Hilarious IMDB Descriptions," and at #15 is the most obscure (and bizarre) of all Houdini movies, A Night At The Magic Castle.

Click to enlarge.

For the full article by Sara Rowe visit What Culture. To read more about this true Houdini/Magic Castle curiosity and to watch a few clips, check out THIS POST.


Saturday, May 24, 2014

Houdini lying in state at Elks Lodge #1

This is said to be the only known photo of Houdini's open casket lying in state at the New York Elks Lodge #1 on 43rd street. This was the last viewing of Houdini before he was taken to Machpelah Cemetery. This photo has never been published and was provided to me by a collector of Elk material who wishes to remain anonymous.

Click to enlarge.

Along with this remarkable photo comes a remarkable story. According to our source, Houdini's body arrived at the building at 9AM on November 4 in his glass-topped bronze "show coffin." But the Elks purchased another coffin, a traditional wooden coffin, and placed the bronze coffin inside of that for the viewing. Houdini was then given last rites by two Rabbis, and also received traditional Masonic Rites.

Some 2000 people then filed past the open casket (which gave a view of the glass-topped casket inside). After the last person left the building, the Elks removed the bronze coffin and carried it to the front door of the lodge room. There they handed it over to the pallbearers who carried it down the stairs, through the lobby, and out the front door to the waiting hearse. What's interesting is our source says the Elks placed flowers over the top of the casket to hide the glass top and obscure any view of the body inside. Indeed, in all the film footage of Houdini's casket being transported to Machpelah, the entire top is covered with flowers or foliage of some kind.

But the story doesn't end there. The Elks kept the wooden casket they had used that day, and after a few months in storage, they put it on display in the lobby roped off with a portrait of Houdini. As NY #1 was a private clubhouse, it was only ever seen by members. The Elks would also use the coffin during initiation ceremonies. The candidate/initiated would be blindfolded, placed inside Houdini's coffin, and carried up the stairs into the lodge room while a pipe organ played a funeral march. There it would be opened and the candidate asked if he wished to continue. (Our source emphasizes that the Elks do not do these kinds of initiations today.)

After the Elks lost the building in 1934, Houdini's coffin was moved to a few different locations, before settling at the Elks Temple in North Tonawanda, N.Y. There it was kept, and possibly displayed, until the building burned down in 2010-11.

Wild stuff, eh?

Now, I can't personally vouch for this photo's authenticity. All I can do is trust our source and share what he shared with me. But the photo is definitely the inside of NY #1, and was identified as Houdini's funeral by high ranking Elks in a position to know. The details of the funeral where taken from actual Elk meeting minutes. Also, our source sends over this photo of Houdini's gold Elks Club membership card case. Just another secret Houdini Elks artifact that has remained unseen...until now.

Postscript: Because I expect this will prompt some discussion in our Comments, below are the two other photographs said to be Houdini in death. One comes from a morticians trade magazine and is captioned as being Houdini at the West End Funeral Chapel (this photo also appears in The Secret Life of Houdini). The other is a personal photo from the collection of Jon Oliver. On it Bess has written: "This is the last photo of Houdini."

Click to enlarge.

UPDATE: You can see the uncovered casket as it was lowered into the ground HERE. There's also a reference to this Elks Card Case in a letter from Kit Clarke to Houdini dated May 14, 1918. Clarke writes: "That was very nice of the Elks to present you with a diamond studded case for your card."

Friday, May 23, 2014

Tickets on sale for 'Flim Flam: Houdini and the Hereafter'

Tickets are now on sale for Flim Flam: Houdini and the Hereafter, a new play by Gene Franklin Smith set to debut at the Malibu Playhouse in Malibu, CA on June 20, 2014.

The cast features Rick D. Wasserman as Houdini, Melissa Kite as Bess, Sabra Malkinson as Mina Crandon (aka Margery), Cameron Mitchell Jr as Dr. Leroi Crandon, Peter Van Norden as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Gigi Bermingham as Lady Jean Conan Doyle. Jim Bentley is the magic coordinator.

Director Thomas James O'Leary says, "I find this play intriguing on many levels - Houdini's attachment to debunking spiritualists juxtaposed with his attachment to his mother after she died is such a rich paradox explored throughout the play. I'm fascinated by the relationship between Houdini and his close friend Arthur Conan Doyle who fervently believed in the hereafter, and the relationships between those two iconic figures and their powerful wives. With this incredible cast, we get to explore many levels along the spectrum of truth, and why it matters so much to those who seek for it."

Tickets are $30 for Fridays, $34 for Saturday nights and Sunday matinees, and may be purchased through the box office, online at or by calling 323-960-7711. There will be previews on June 18th and 19th for $20. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. Malibu Playhouse is located at 29243 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, CA 90265 (near Zuma Beach, between Kanan-Dume Road and Morning View Drive, near Heathercliff Road).

Rick Wasserman (Houdini), Melissa Kite (Bess), Sabra
Malkinson (Margery), Peter Van Norden (Conan Doyle).

For more information, and to read Rick Wasserman's "Conjuring Harry Blog", visit the Malibu Playhouse website. You can also follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

With thanks to Broadway World.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Houdini (1998) Greek VHS

Here's one I've never seen before. This is an international PAL VHS of the 1998 TNT biopic Houdini with Greek subtitles. Love the cover art. This is currently listed for sale on

Houdini stars Johnathon Schaech as Houdini, Stacy Edwards as Bess, and Mark Ruffalo as Theo (Hardeen). It's a traditional biopic with outstanding production values. Click here to read my overview of the film.

Houdini, Chung Ling Soo, and Woody Allen walk into a bar...

Woody Allen has frequently featured magicians and magic in his films. Now here is the trailer for his new film, Magic in the Moonlight, with Colin Firth playing a magician who is clearly a cross between Chung Ling Soo and Houdini. The plot might also seem a little familiar.

Magic in the Moonlight will be released on July 25, 2014.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

LIVE from Machpelah Cemetery, it's Saturday Night!

On the night of October 30, 1976, Saturday Night Live (which in those days really was live) performed a sketch at Houdini's grave in Machpelah Cemetery. Host Buck Henry introduced the segment with a brief biography of Houdini and the idea that he would return on this the 50th Anniversary of his death. He then went live to correspondent Garrett Morris at Houdini's grave in Queens. This was near then end of the show so it was just after midnight. Halloween.

The nervous Morris reported that he had been approached by "a very strange looking dude" with Spanish accent, but he "was not Houdini, that's for sure" and he'd stand by. After another sketch, Henry checked back in on Morris, who was found quivering at the grave with his hair standing on end.

Pretty funny, and the grave itself looks terrific with the bust that was then only a year old (it replaced the bust smashed in '75). Even though this was played for laughs, there is still something somber and powerful about Houdini tomb, and you can hear nervous laughter throughout the audience when it's reveled Morris is at the actual grave site. You can really feel Houdini's spirit in the stone.

The episode is also notable in that it is Chevy Chases's last, and early on host Buck Henry cuts his head during a sketch with John Belushi. For the rest of the show the cast all wear bandages on their foreheads in solidarity. Live television indeed.

I missed this back in '76 and for many years never thought I would see it. But now the episode is available from Amazon Instant Video: 6. Saturday Night Live (SNL) October 30, 1976 - Buck Henry / The Band.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

"Harry" (Houdini) by Kevin Sysyn

Musician Kevin Sysyn, a "lifelong Houdiniphile", shares with us today a song he wrote and performs about Houdini. It's a good song and a nice tribute to the Master Mystifier. You can read more about Kevin and his music at and Also enjoy the lyrics below.








Words & Music Copyright Kevin A Sysyn 2012 All rights reserved

Thanks for the share, Kevin.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Houdini escapes Walden Media

Since 2006, Walden Media and director Mark Waters have been developing a kid-friendly Houdini movie. The last news on the project was in 2012 when Chris Fedak was hired to write a new draft of the screenplay. But now Waters tells Movies With Butter that he's shopping the project, now called The Houdini Inheritance, to other studios. Says the director:

Mark Waters
"The company that was developing the movie with us, Walden, went out of business essentially. They're no longer making movies. So we've taken it ourselves and we're trying to get it set up someplace else but we're still very interested in making it. Houdini is in the movie in flashback. It kind of posits a story where Houdini and Bess had a child that they hid from the world. We're talking about a kid who's 18 who's the great great grandchild of Houdini who has the master's gifts. He doesn't know where it came from but it's him discovering that he has a legacy."

The article reports that Walden Media "ceased funding its own productions last year" and this "left The Houdini Inheritance in limbo." Although looking at Walden's official website, it's clear the company is still in business.


LINK: Did Houdini lie?

"In today’s world of no-fly lists and full-body scans, it’s doubtful magician Harry Houdini would have been free to roam the world. At least not based on the details he include on his 1919 passport application."

Click the headline to read this very interesting article about Houdini's tricky passport application at

Thanks to Bill Mullins.

Kindle Conjurers curiosity

Here's an unusual offering that recently appeared on Amazon. This is the first issue of Houdini's Conjurers' Monthly Magazine for the Kindle. It's a facsimile of the original, yet all the text, including advertisements, is in Spanish.

I don't believe Conjurers' was ever published in Spanish, so this must be computer magic. It also appears to be annotated, which is a great idea. Too bad there isn't an English version as well.

Click here to purchase Revista Mensual de prestidigitación for the Amazon Kindle.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Master Mystery photoplay lands $585

A photoplay edition of Houdini's 1918 serial The Master Mystery by Arthur B. Reeve and John W. Grey sold today on eBay for $585. The photoplay was listed as being in Fine condition and also had the original dust-jacket.

Copies of The Master Mystery do show up on eBay from time to time, but it's rare to see one that's still in the original dust-jacket. Because the book contained a torn page, the auction included a second copy (no dust-jacket) with the page intact to allow restoration.

A Master Mystery in dust jacket sold last year for $545.

If you don't want to pay $500+ to read the adventures of Quentin Locke and the Automaton, know that several public domain reprints of The Master Mystery can be purchased on Amazon. There is also a free eBook version for the Kindle.

Unfortunately, none of these modern reprints feature Houdini or Master Mystery artwork on their covers.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Gone With The Handcuff King: David O. Selznick's Houdini

David O. Selznick and friends.

In the 1940s, Gone With The Wind producer David O. Selznick wanted to do for Houdini what he had done for Scarlett O'Hara and produce what could have been a lavish, Oscar-worthy Houdini biopic. This was after a few attempts to make a Houdini movie had fallen through at other studios. The film was to be made by Selznick's newly formed Vanguard Films, the company he established after the dissolution of Selznick International in 1943.

In early 1944, The Hollywood Reporter announced that Dore Schary would produce the Houdini biopic for Selznick. Schary had been deeply involved in Paramount's aborted Houdini project in the 1930s, and was now the head of production at Vanguard. In fact, it's likely Schary brought the idea of a Houdini biopic to Selznick when he became head of production, so it's probably more accurate to call this "Dore Schary's Houdini" (but I went with the bigger name -- that's showbiz).

Selznick first approached Alfred Hitchcock about directing the film. The duo had recently scored a huge success with the Oscar winning Rebecca. In a July 21, 1944 memo to the famous director, Selznick wrote: "Houdini with either Cary Grant or Joe Cotton can, I think, be an outstanding and enormously popular picture with very great opportunity for treatment by you." But Hitch wasn't interested, and instead the duo made Spellbound their next film.

Garry Moore as Houdini.
But it didn't take long for Vanguard to lock down a director and star. Radio personality Garry Moore was tapped to play Houdini, and William Dieterle, who had made the celebrated biopics The Story of Louis Pasteur and The Life of Emile Zola (which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1937), would direct. The screenplay was by Schary himself. Presumably, the movie would be released by Selznick's new distributor RKO (who had attempted to make their own fictionalized Houdini biopic in the 1930s).

In October 1944, Film Daily announced that Houdini's brother Hardeen was now aboard the Vanguard project as the technical advisor (an inspired idea), and that it "may go before the cameras in January." Then, like so many Houdini biopics before, it vanished in a puff of smoke.

It's unclear what happened to Selznick's Houdini project, but according to Shep Hyken's excellent website devoted to Houdini (1953), producer George Pal read the Vanguard script when he was preparing the Paramount classic with Tony Curtis. He didn't care for Schary's script, but as both projects were based on the Harold Kellock biography, he recommended Paramount buy it to avoid problems. But Paramount refused to pay the $5,000 price. When the film was finished, Selznick complained, and Paramount ended up paying $17,000 for the rights to keep from being sued for more.

Garry Moore, the man who was almost Houdini, went on to fame in television with his popular talk show, The Garry Moore Show. Moore was a magic buff and his show was generous to magicians, especially Milbourne Christopher who would guest host from time to time. Moore also once had the pleasure of being sawed in half by Dorothy Dietrich.

David O. Selznick dissolved Vanguard in 1951 and died in 1965. Today all the scripts and material related to Schary/Selznick Houdini movie is housed in The David O. Selznick Collection at Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin (which also happens to house a massive Houdini collection).

Thanks to Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz at the Houdini Museum in Scranton for uncovering the Hardeen connection. Selznick-Hitchcock memo is in the collection of The Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences Margaret Herrick Library.


LINK: Did this man live at 278 before Houdini?

Once again Tom Interval at Houdini Museum has knocked it out of the park with a post about the identity of the man who originally owned Houdini's Harlem home at 278 W 113th Street. It's another great piece of detective work by Tom, so click the headline above and enjoy.

Friday, May 16, 2014

'Saving Houdini' now shipping

While the official release date is May 20, Saving Houdini by Michael Redhill is available now from the Canadian This novel for young readers mixes magic, time travel, and the events surrounding Houdini's death. Below is the cover art and a synopsis:

A classic adventure story set in historic Toronto—with a dash of humour and a lot of heart

Dashiel Woolf is ecstatic when famous magician Bloom the Beguiler brings him onstage during a special performance to mark the eighty-fifth anniversary of Harry Houdini’s death. But a century-old trick invented by Bloom’s grandfather goes inexplicably wrong—sending Dash back to 1926. Wandering the historic streets of Toronto, he barely recognizes his city but with the help of his new friend, Walt, he hatches a plan to invent the trick that will transport him home. In doing so, they just might prevent the Great Houdini from taking part in the event that ended his life, possibly changing history forever.

Saving Houdini is released by HarperCollins Canada. It does not yet have a U.S. publisher, so at the moment is only available from and Canadian bookstores.

Thanks to Shannon Parsons at HarperCollins.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Sam Smilovitz at McGill

Here's another selection from the archive of McGill University yearbooks recently uncovered by our friends at the Houdini Museum in Scranton and Joe Notaro of Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence.

Below are images of Samuel J. Smilovitz a.k.a "Smiley." Sam was the art student who sketched Houdini during his lecture at McGill's Union Hall on October 19, 1926. Houdini was so impressed with the sketch that he invited Smiley to come see him backstage at the Princess Theater and do another for him. Smiley invited a friend, Jacques Price, and together they visited Houdini on October 22. It was during this visit that a third student, J. Gordon Whitehead, who was unknown to both Smiley and Price, joined the gathering. The rest is Houdini history.

Above is Sam Smiley's graduation photo from the 1927 yearbook. Below is a shot of Smiley with fellow members of the Maccabaean Circle, a student group devoted to Jewish culture and ideas.

Click to enlarge.

Unfortunately, I could find no photos of Jacques Price in the yearbooks. But you can see his photo in my recent interview with his daughter, Karen Mann. That post also includes a photo of Smiley in 1994.

Thanks again to Dorothy Dietrich, Dick Brookz, and Joe Notaro. You can check out all the McGill Yearbooks HERE.


    Wednesday, May 14, 2014

    Zombie Houdini is calling for yooou...

    Here's an eBay oddity for you. This iPhone 5 case appears to feature Houdini. But give it a slight turn and it becomes...Zombie Houdini!

    The packaging doesn't specifically say this is Houdini, but it appears to be a modified version of this famous shot. The facial modification probably has something to do with the zombification effect.

    So far no takers at $5.00.

    LINK: The Abracadabra Kid meets Bess Houdini

    Check out Tom Interval's Houdini Museum blog today for a great post about Sid Fleischman and Bess Houdini and a nice "then and now" shot of their meeting place. Just click the headline above to go.

    Tuesday, May 13, 2014

    Houdini's film lab - then and now

    Perry from New Jersey, a self-described "Houdini freak the past 40 years", recently took a photo safari on our behalf and returned with these terrific shots of 216 19th Street in Union City, NJ. In Houdini's day, this was 216-222 Weehawken Street and was the location of Houdini's Film Developing Corporation (FDC).

    The FDC was not a movie production company, as is sometimes confused, but an actual lab that processed motion picture film. Houdini started the business in September 1916 and convinced Hardeen to leave his own career as an escape artist to run the company. Along with serving outside clients, Houdini used the FDC to process his own movies, The Man From Beyond and Haldane of the Secret Service.

    The building is remarkably unchanged. Heck, even the telephone pole is still in place! And Perry actually got a photo of the building from the exact same angle as the only existing photo of the FDC, which appeared in a trade magazine as part of a Christmas greeting/advert.

    Unfortunately, the FDC would prove to be a difficult business to run, and it cost Houdini and his investors dearly (including magician Harry Kellar). An ugly legal battle with rival Powers Film Products hurt the reputation of the company when Powers charged that it was foreign owned and some customers withheld payment. To cover expenses, Houdini mortgaged the building through a new company he called The Weehawken Street Corporation, and rented it back to the FDC. Hardeen developed ulcers and Houdini would later confess, "It will be a Godsend for all of us if we get away from it in a legitimate manner."

    Eventually, Houdini did escape the FDC. As for the building, Patrick Culliton believes it became Houdini's workshop where he prepared the large scale illusions for his full evening show. It was later used by Hardeen and Jim Vickery. Below is a less common shot of Houdini in his New Jersey workshop from Pat's own Houdini The Key. Clearly a brick building, and the window seems right...

    Here are a few more shots of the building that Houdini and Hardeen knew very well. Today it is a rental space managed by Union City Studios. Good place for a Houdini seance?

    Thank you Perry!


    Monday, May 12, 2014

    S.A.M. reveals a gem on their birthday

    To celebrate their founding 112 years ago, The Society of American Magicians shared this incredible photo of Houdini on their Facebook page over the weekend. I don't believe this image has ever been published before. According to the S.A.M, this was taken at a very early meeting of the organization. Very nice.

    Click image to view a larger version.

    While this is an unpublished photo, you still might feel that it's somehow familiar. That's because Houdini used a slightly different pose from this same session (with the rest of the room airbrushed out) as the bases for a very rare early poster.

    Thanks to Adam Steinfeld for the alert. Airbrushed photo from Houdini His Life Story.

    Sunday, May 11, 2014

    The mothers Houdini

    On this Mother's Day, here's an unpublished shot of Bess, Cecelia Weiss, and Bessie's own mother, Balbina Rahner. This photo comes from the collection of John C. Hinson and appears to have been taken in Southampton when the Houdinis brought both their mothers on a tour of Europe in 1909. I expect the photographer was Houdini himself.

    Let's treat all our moms as well today!

    Click to enlarge.

    Happy Mother's Day.

    Friday, May 9, 2014

    Is this J. Gordon Whitehead at McGill in 1926?

    Recently our friends at the Houdini Museum in Scranton and Joe Notaro of HHCE turned up an amazing archive of yearbooks from McGill University. Of course, it was a student from McGill, Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead, who punched Houdini in his dressing room at the Princess Theater on October 22, 1926. Could these books give us our first look at Whitehead as a student?

    There is only one known photo of Whitehead, taken almost 25 years after the Houdini incident when he was in his 50s. Because he never graduated, there is no individual yearbook photo of him as a student. However, this group shot of the "Arts '28 Class" in the 1926 yearbook is said to include a "Whitehead, J.G." (as well as Gerald Pickleman, who also "tested" Houdini that week). Unfortunately, it doesn't specify which student is Whitehead.

    Click to enlarge.

    Sam Smilovitz (aka "Smiley"), who was also present in the dressing room, gave a good description of Whitehead. Smiley described him as: "At least six foot two – wearing a blue gabardine coat that seemed much too small for him. An oldish looking young man about 27 or 28 years of age [he was actually almost 31]. He impressed one as being the very genteel type of student. His face was ruddy, his hair very thin on top; his frame was powerful though loosely-knit, and his neck was inordinately long."

    My candidate for Whitehead is the individual below. He seems to match Smiley's description quite well -- right down to what might be his blue coat -- and I just feel like he might be our man.

    What do you think? If this is indeed J. Gordon Whitehead, it is only the second known photo, and the only one taken at the time of the Houdini punch. Wild indeed.

    Thanks to Dorothy Dietrich, Dick Brookz, and Joe Notaro. You can check out all the McGill Yearbooks HERE.


    Houdini (1953) streaming on Amazon

    Paramount's 1953 classic Houdini starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh is now available for streaming via Amazon Instant Video. This is the first appearance of the biopic for streaming. (It's still only available as a DVD rental on Netflix.)

    Houdini is being offered as a High Definition (HD) rental for $3.99 and purchase for $17.99. Standard Definition (SD) is $2.99 rental and $9.99 purchase. Amazon Prime members can stream for free.

    Click here to stream Houdini via Amazon Instant Video. You can also watch the original trailer for free.

    Thursday, May 8, 2014

    Houdini's plane has nowhere to land

    The Herald Sun Leader reports that the model of Houdini's Voisin airplane made by Ian Satur for the 2010 Centenary celebrations of Houdini's historic first flight in Australia is now "homeless." Here is the full article:

    Houdini model plane left homeless until 2019
    MAY 09, 2014

    DIGGERS Rest’s iconic Houdini model aircraft may have to wait until 2019 to find itself a permanent home in the town.

    Originally funded by the Diggers Rest Lions Club, the plane was built by volunteer artist Ian Satur for the 2010 commemoration of 100 years since Harry Houdini flew into Diggers Rest.

    Most recently the 3x3m plane has been housed at the Moorabbin Air Museum, but at the request of the Melton Model Aircraft Association, the plane was returned.

    The association had asked Melton Council to permanently house it at one of its facilities, namely the Melton Library and Learning Hub.

    That request was squashed when library staff raised concerns about potential vandalism and difficulty in cleaning the plane.

    Council officers instead suggested it would be more appropriate for the plane to be housed in Diggers Rest.

    But until a community centre is built as part of the town’s development, proposed for 2018/19, there is no suitable facility to house the plane in the town.

    Council officers claim until then there could be potential temporary homes found in Melton or Caroline Springs, but have asked for more time to find the right location.

    Melton councillors agreed to ensure housing of the plane is taken into consideration when designing the future Diggers Community Centre.

    Let's hope they can find a place to land Houdini's plane. It would be a shame to see this vanish as did Houdini's original Voisin!

    By the way, the Ian Satur model is not to be confused with another working replica made by Gary Sunderland. The Sunderland plane failed to fly at the Centenary celebrations, but it later did take flight at the Twin Cities Model Aero Club in May 2010. I don't know if the Sunderland model is displayed anywhere.

    The Sunderland model in flight. (Twin Cities Model Aero Club)


    Was this Kickstarter campaign a scam?

    Jazz & Georgina's promised Houdini DVD has yet to materialize.

    Last year when the Houdini stage play was touring the UK, a Kickstarter campaign was launched by "vibrant individuals" Jazz & Georgina to fund a "Magic in the Making" DVD about the behind-the-scenes of the production. The campaign also offered several nice premiums, including original artwork from WETA Workshop. It all looked great and appeared to be endorsed by Theater Giant. In August the campaign met its funding goal of £7,502 ($12,561). Estimated delivery was September 2013.

    It's now been eight months and no one has received their DVDs or premiums. The excuses started in November when Jazz and Georgina reported that their computer "exploded in excitement" and needed to be repaired. In December, after repeated enquires from backers, they explained there had been "unforeseen problems with some of our footage" but "all rewards will be sent out at the earliest available date in January." In February they sent out a pack of playing cards and a letter (with no return address) saying the DVDs and premiums would be delivered soon.

    Three months later and they have again gone quite. There has been no update nor any response to the many posts by unhappy backers on the original Kickstarter page. The project's Twitter has been deactivated, and it appears Jazz and Georgina abandoned their Facebook page as soon as they met their funding goal. I hate to think this was a scam from the start, but hard not to think that at this stage. Apparently, scammers are a growing problem on Kickstarter (check out this article).

    But it's also possible the young Jazz and Georgina discovered that creating an "exciting" Kickstarer page was much easier than actually making a documentary film. They are good talkers. But even if they can't complete the DVD, why shouldn't the backers at least be sent out their premiums, some of which cost £1,250? At the very least, full refunds should be offered at this point.

    Hopefully this post is premature and we'll see the DVDs and premiums delivered tomorrow. But if we never hear from Jazz and Georgina again, I'd say this is a blight on Theater Giant, Kickstarter, and the entire idea of crowd funding. I, for one, will be very wary about promoting any more Kickstarter projects here on WILD ABOUT HARRY.

    UPDATE: Looks like this project has been noticed by VaporStarter which polices "murky" crowdfunding currents.

    Wednesday, May 7, 2014

    Hairy Houdinis

    2014 is shaping up to be a big year for Houdini in popular culture. Not only are we seeing new novels, plays, a documentary and a miniseries, but now comes word of two new additions to the growing sub-catagory of Houdini animal adventures.

    First up: Screen Daily reports that Circus Road and Canal Street Films will begin filming Houdini in Los Angeles in September. The family film directed by William Dear from a script by Marty Colasuonno and Julian Ericsonn centers on "a young magician trying to save his family's animal rescue shelter with the help of a famous escape artist dog on the run from kidnappers."

    "We are thrilled that Bill Dear has agreed to direct," said Circus Road founder Glen Reynolds. "We are big fans of his films and we believe he will deliver a great movie."

    Next: Amazon has a new listing for a book called Orangutan Houdini by Laurel Neme. This illustrated children's book tells the true story of an orangutan named Fu Manchu "who escapes his enclosure at will and spends sunny days with the elephants in another part of the zoo." The book will be released by Bunker Hill on September 17, 2014. Below is the official book trailer.

    Monday, May 5, 2014

    The Pickleman punch

    McGill University's Union Hall.

    We all know J. Gordon Whithead punched Houdini in the stomach in his dressing room at the Princess Theater in Montreal on October 22, 1926. It's debated whether or not the punch caused or just masked his fatal appendicitis, but all agree that Whitehead's punch was the start of a chain of events that would lead to the magician's death on Halloween. But in his seminal work, The Man Who Killed Houdini, author Don Bell uncovered evidence of two other punches delivered by McGill University students during Houdini's stay in the city that might extend that chain a little further back.

    One of those punches is said to have occurred in the lobby of the Prince of Wales Hotel. However, that incident is questionable as it only comes via second-hand sources, so I'm going to save it for another time. The punch I want to discuss today is the first of the three for which there is strong evidence. This punch or "test" occurred on October 19, 1926, when Houdini was giving his lecture at McGill University. Bell calls it "the Pickleman punch."

    Bell first learned of the Pickleman punch from a former McGill University student named Dr. William Cohen. Dr. Cohen said that a student named Gerald Pickleman had tested Houdini with a blow at the McGill Union Hall (today the McCord Museum). Unfortunately, Dr. Cohen could not remember specific details, although he did recall Houdini putting a needle through his cheek during this same meeting with students.

    Eventually, Bell tracked down a key eyewitness to the Pickleman punch, another former McGill student named Jack Hausner. Bell interviewed the 84-year-old Hausner in Palm Beach, Florida in 1991. As you'll see, Hausner confused it with the Whitehead blow, as would others. Hausner recalled:

    "It was in a public room where students went to socialize -- to shoot a game of pool or snooker. Houdini was passing through and we engaged him in conversation. He was very warm when we met him.

    I remember clearly his challenge to anyone within the group to punch him -- with all his might! -- in his stomach so that he could demonstrate his powers of concentration to withstand physical pain and survive unharmed.

    I must differ with you concerning the identity of the person who delivered the blow which apparently resulted in his death a week or two later. That person was not Gordon Whitehead, as you believe. If my memory serves me correctly, it was an undergraduate known to many of us at the time, name Gerald Pickleman (or Pickelman). ... He came from a family who lived in upper New York State.

    Pickleman was a pretty burly fellow, but as far as I knew he wasn't a boxer and didn't work for the McGill Daily, although anyone could have contributed an article from time to time. Houdini had time to prepare himself. The blow wasn't unexpected. Pickleman was 170 pounds or so, five feet seven or nine. It was just one blow."
    Site of the Pickleman punch?

    Gerald Pickleman died in 1981, but Bell was able to find his widow, Annette Pickleman, who independently confirmed the events at Union Hall:

    "Gerry told the story many times," she said, "whenever Houdini's name came up, but in later years people hadn't discussed it with him as much. It wasn't a thing he boasted about, but nor was it a secret or anything he ever tried to hide. He had the normal guilt a person would have. He was a sensitive man, not the kind of person who would go around punching people. He wasn't aware [that the punch had caused Houdini's death] until after the autopsy. That's when he began to talk about it."

    What's tragic here is it appears Pickleman blamed himself for delivering the blow that "killed Houdini." But one can see how this happened. After Houdini's death, the newspapers only reported that he was struck by a "student of McGill University." In fact, the name of J. Gordon Whitehead did not appear in print until 1953. So it's understandable that Pickleman believed that he was the "McGill student" who fatally injured Houdini. Poor guy.

    Now, I'd be remiss in not mentioning that Dr. William Tait, head of the McGill psychology department, who had invited Houdini to give his lecture at the University that day, denied that Houdini was struck by a student at the meeting. He said Houdini left in a taxi immediately after the lecture. But he may have been unaware of the informal meeting with the students (which could have happened before the lecture), or was trying to protect the University. He also said Houdini appeared ill at the meeting.

    I do believe the Pickleman punch happened as independently described by William Cohen, Jack Hausner and Annette Pickleman (by way of her husband). I also believe it's likely that this "punch me as hard as you can" challenge and successful first demonstration at Union Hall is what motivated the drunken students at the Prince of Wales to test Houdini and, of course, J. Gordon Whitehead in the dressing room at the Princess Theater on the fateful day. You might even say Houdini's death began here.

    Union Hall is today the McCord Museum in Montreal.


    UPDATE: Thanks to our friends at the Houdini Museum in Scranton and Joe Notaro, here is a photo of Gerald Pickleman from the 1929 McGill yearbook.