Monday, October 13, 2014

When Houdini returned to Hollywood

Last Wednesday, October 8, I had the great pleasure of speaking at a special "Houdini in Hollywood" event at the Hollywood Heritage Museum. I'm happy to report that the evening was a resounding success, and I think all who attended had a great time. It was a true celebration of Houdini and his film career, and the museum was a perfect venue for this.

The Hollywood Heritage Museum is housed in the historic Lasky-DeMille Barn, which sits across from the Hollywood Bowl. This was the very first movie studio in Hollywood. It was here in 1913 that Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille filmed The Squaw Man. For many years the Barn made up the cornerstone of the Famous Players-Lasky studio on Selma and Vine. This was where Houdini made two of his films, The Grim Game and Terror Island, so, yes, Houdini was here!

The museum threw open the entire front room for our use, and we turned it into a Houdini museum. Three display cases were filled with Houdini memorabilia from my own collection along with memorabilia and handcuffs from the collection of Joe Fox. (The items will remain on the display until October 18.) On the night of the big event, Mark Willoughby provided what I called "the star of the show": an original lobby painting for The Man From Beyond owned by Houdini himself. This is one of only four paintings made for the Houdini film and it has never been displayed before. A stunner!

Original The Man From Beyond lobby painting.

The event sold out at the door and we had standing room only when I took to the podium at 7:30pm. I was excited to see some major magic luminaries in attendance, such as Mike Caveney, Rob Zabrecky, Mark Cannon, Patrick Culliton, and Flim Flam playwright Gene Franklin Smith. I was also happy to see so many friends and family in attendance. (I tried not to think that if I bombed, I would be doing so in front of many people who are very important to me.)

Rob Zabrecky, Mike Caveney, and Patrick Culliton.

I am happy to say my talk went extremely well. The Keynote presentation I had been building for the past month played to perfection (the movie clips had frozen up in my last practice run, so I was biting my nails). My talk, which lasted an hour, followed Houdini's life and career with an emphasis on his involvement in cinema. Despite the fact that the air-conditioning wasn't working, I felt I had the audience with me the entire time. They applauded each film clip as if it where a Houdini performance, and they even applauded some moments in the talk itself. There were also some nice laughs, including a tremendous laugh when I shared Jesse Lasky's assessment of Houdini's acting: "He did his best acting handcuffed and locked in a trunk at the bottom of a river." I have to thank James Hamilton for providing me with this great quotation.

I made a few mistakes that I can remedy here. I said "Lilly" Lee when it should have been Lila Lee. How Green Was My Valley was made in 1941, not '59 (see, I should never go off the topic of Houdini). Also, I think I gave the impression that Nita Naldi was absent from the surviving prints of The Man From Beyond. Not so. I was making the point that any scenes she might have had with Houdini are no longer present.

I had time for a few questions before introducing Jim Steinmeyer. Jim is a living legend who has designed and built magic apparatus for every great modern magician starting with Doug Henning and David Copperfield. Jim is also a best-selling author of several excellent books on magic, including Hiding The Elephant, which I consider one of the very best books ever written on the art. Jim took the podium and spoke briefly about how Houdini tied into his books, The Glorious Deception, The Last Greatest Magician in the World and Hiding the Elephant. Jim had copies to sign and sell during intermission. I have to say, it was a real honor to be sharing the stage with a giant like Jim Steinmeyer.

With Hollywood Heritage President Bryan Cooper and Jim Steinmeyer.

We then held our raffle, which was chaotic and fun. We gave away passes to The Autry National Center; a signed copy of The Glorious Deception (the rare hardcover); a DVD of the Houdini miniseries which Lionsgate had donated for the evening (a friend won this); and a pass for 4 to the The Magic Castle with dinner included. This last prize came from Jim Steinmeyer who sits on the AMA board, and was a real treat for the happy winner.

We then had intermission in which people gathered and enjoyed our Houdini museum. Food and refreshments where provided by Grub on a table nicely themed to Halloween. Interestingly, one of the displays case lights had failed to work during our preparations, and we had given up on it. I was surprised to see that the lights were now all mysteriously blazing away. Are you here, Harry?

We then settled back in the main room for a screening of Terror Island. Hollywood Heritage had selected this particular film because of the connection to Jesse Lasky and the Barn, but I think it was the best choice regardless. Most venues screen The Man From Beyond because it is the most complete Houdini film. But I think Terror Island plays much better for a modern audience. The movie played especially well to this audience of silent movie enthusiasts, who laughed and applauded several sequences. Of course, I really wish we could have shown The Grim Game. Maybe in the future.

This was the debut of my "Houdini in Hollywood" talk and I'm really happy that it went so well. I had to cut it down to fit the full Hollywood Heritage program, but I think an audience would enjoy a slightly longer talk with more clips. I'm now looking to present an extend version of this talk, and I'm currently eyeballing locations. Stay tuned.

I want to thank all the amazing staff at Hollywood Heritage, especially Richard Adkins, Bryan Cooper, and George Kiel. This organization is devoted to the preservation of Hollywood history, from film and photos archives to historic buildings and landmarks. It's a non-profit and a true labor of love for all who work very hard.

Also thanks to Ben Roman at the Magic Castle for arranging a discount to the event for AMA members. Thanks again to Mark Willoughby and Joe Fox for making our display extra special. And a big thanks to the multi-talented Athena Stamos for being my official photographer and taking all these awesome photos you see here.

It was a glorious return to Hollywood for Harry.

Houdini was here.



  1. I'm happy to hear everything went so well and hope to see your extended talk! Great description and photos of an obviously fun evening.

    1. Missed you Tom! Hope you can catch the next one.

  2. A GREAT time was had by all! Excellent evening!

  3. John Hinson Great nephew of Bess and Harry HoudiniOctober 13, 2014 at 12:15 PM

    It would be nice to see at different events around the us.

  4. Looks like it was a fantastic time. I have full confidence that you can deliver a knock out Houdini program. Hope I can make one in the future.

  5. John, it was a great event and your slideshow presentation was very entertaining. The 'Man from Beyond' painting was way cool, as were all the exhibits, (Did you notice the museum has an Edison wax cylinder like the one Houdini's voice was recorded on?). Also fun was just overhearing all the conversations between so many erudite Houdini-philes. Oh, and Pat Culliton's story about John Wayne's dog was pretty awesome too.
    Anyway, it was great to meet you, thanks for doing this and please do it again sometime, hopefully with The Grim Game...

    1. It was great meeting you, Bullet. Thank you so much for coming and all your support.