Thursday, April 30, 2015

New Houdini play gets reading in May

The Westchester Collaborative Theater will present a reading of their new play, Rosabelle, Believe, on May 22 and 23 at the Ossining Library in Ossining, NY. The play is written by Joseph Lauinger and directed by Alan Lutwin. The reading on the 23rd will be followed by a Q&A with the playwright, director and cast. Tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets.

Rosabelle, Believe is about the fractious friendship between Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (a popular subject these days). The official website describes it as "a delightful meditation on cross cultures, sexual gamesmanship and the afterlife." The cast features Deacon Hoy as Houdini; Michelle Concha as Bess; Ward Riley as Conan Doyle; Sharon Rowe as Lady Doyle; and Jim Brownold as "Eddy" Saint.

For more information visit the Westchester Collaborative Theater website.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Greatest Magicians coin series kicks off with you-know-who

Gray Water Ops, a specialist in commemorative coins for fundraising, has launched a new "Greatest Magicians Series" with a Houdini Coin. The company says that $10 from every coin sale will be donated to the S.A.M. Houdini grave site restoration fund.

This is the first in a 20 coin series featuring great magicians through time. Every coin will have a different charity selected to receive the funds. In the image above you can see the list of all 20 magicians. Great to see Doug Henning on the list. But I wonder what image will be used on that Erdnase coin?

For more information and to pre-order the Houdini Coin, visit Gray Water Ops.

Thanks to Keith Hanshaw.

Related posts:

Houdini portrait in leather

Here's something unique. This is a portrait of Houdini hand tooled in leather by Kyle Landas. It's a one of a kind piece being offered at the Sandman Collection.

One of a kind portrait of the legendary magician/escape artist Harry Houdini. Created out of hand tooled leather! Yes, leather! After carving the image into the leather, it was hand painted using acrylics and metallic paints. Set in a bold, metallic accented custom frame. Very stunning, classic piece of fine art in leather. Size: 18" x 15" Signed and dated on the leather dustcover on the reverse side.

Thanks to Carrie Johnson-Smith for the alert.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

What's next, Hollywood?

Now that we've had the Houdini miniseries, is Hollywood done with Harry? If the current list of Houdini projects set up around town is any indication, they are just getting started. But are any of these ever going to get made? Here's a rundown of some of the Houdini projects Hollywood currently has in development:

Houdini and Doyle - FOX (series)
Just last month it was reported that Sony Pictures Television had sold a 10-episode TV series called Houdini And Doyle to Fox, ITV, and Shaw Media. The series would be produced by David Titcher, David Shore and David Hoselton, and would feature Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle solving mysteries with a paranormal twist.

Are we Wild? This same concept has come up again and again (as you will see below), but I'm excited about a TV series and this doesn't sound as silly as some of the other Houdini TV projects in development. And it has some serious talent behind it. Could be good.

UPDATEIt's on! Michael Weston and Stephen Mangan are ‘Houdini & Doyle’

The Secret Life of Houdini - Lionsgate/Summit (feature)
Houdini as a spy! (*sigh*) That's the "hook" of The Secret Life of Houdini, which has been percolating at Summit-Lionsgate since they picked up the rights to the Kalush/Slomon biography of the same name back in 2009. The project has since gone through a turbulent development. Jeff Nathanson, Gary Ross, Joe Wright, and Dean Parisot have all come and gone as potential directors. Johnny Depp is said to be interested in starring, but his commitment may have been overstated. Ryan Gosling has also been rumored.

Are we Wild? After the Houdini miniseries, I really don't want to see Houdini as 007, with or without Johnny Depp. But I think Lionsgate might also be over it as well. The studio were co-producers on the Houdini miniseries, which might explain why it tipped so heavily toward the spy angle.

Houdini - Sony/Columbia (feature)
Can you believe this project has been in development for 40+ years? [Read: The saga of Ray Stark and Houdini.] It looked like this was finally coming together with Francis Lawrence attached to direct and a fresh new concept involving Houdini and Chung Ling Soo. But then in 2014 Max Landis was signed to write yet another new screenplay. Since then, all has gone quite.

Are we Wild? I don't really know what Landis and Sony now have in mind, so I'm ambivalent about this one. Also, news of yet another new script and writer is not progress. This one feels like a full time resident of Development Hell.

Modern-Day Houdini - ABC (series)
The Hollywood Reporter has been in the habit of breaking Houdini "exclusives" that go nowhere. That appears to be the case with ABC's "Modern-Day Houdini" TV series. In 2013 THR reported that David Hoberman's ABC-based production company, Mandeville was developing the project with writers Jeff Addis and Will Matthews. The plot involves the ghost of Houdini partnering with "an unusually gifted female detective to solve the cases that baffle the LAPD." Yep.

Are we Wild? As silly as this concept sounds, I like the idea of a weekly Houdini TV series enough that I could live with this for a season or two. But as we've heard nothing in over a year, I suspect Harry's ghost is D.O.A.

Among The Spirits - Syfy (series)
In February 2011 Syfy announced plans to make Among the Spirits, a dramatic "steampunk" television series featuring Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle solving mysteries in the 1920s. The series would be written and produced by Steve Valentine and Paul Chart, and is reportedly based on a graphic novel of the same name (although I've never been able to track down a copy). Last I heard the series had moved to NBC.

Are we Wild? I think this has potential and, again, I'd love a weekly Houdini TV series to blog about. Certainly seems more palatable than the ABC idea. But news of the FOX series may have knocked this out for good.

Voices from the Dead - DreamWorks (feature)
In 2011 DreamWorks purchased the original screenplay Voices from the Dead from screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski. The script finds Harry Houdini and, you guessed it, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle teaming up with a psychic to solve a set of murders in 1920's New York. Since the purchase, there has been no news.

Are we Wild? While I want a Houdini feature film, a Houdini-Doyle detective mash-up isn't really the movie I want to see. But I'd still be there opening day.

The Houdini Box - 20th Century Fox (feature)
In 2012, 20th Century Fox-based Chernin Entertainment purchased the film rights to Brian Selznick's illustrated children's book The Houdini Box. The book tells the story of a young boy who receives a box from Houdini just before the magician's death. In 2013 Chernin announced that Irish filmmaker Kealan O'Rourke would write and direct the project. O'Rourke is a veteran of short films and animation, The Houdini Box would mark his feature film debut. There's been no word since.

Are we Wild? Ambivalent.

Carter Beats the Devil - Warner Bros (feature)
Based on the superb 2001 novel, Carter Beats The Devil by Glen David Gold -- which features Houdini in a small but significant role -- this project has long been in development. Paramount originally optioned the book in 2002 for Tom Cruise to star and produce. Once that deal lapsed, AMC took a stab at turning it into a TV series. That also didn't work out. Then in 2010 the project got back on track when Michael Gilio was tapped to write the screenplay with Jon Shestack producing for Warner Bros. In 2012 it was reported that 21 Jump Street directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were in talks to direct. There's been no news since.

Are we Wild? Yes, it's a brilliant book.

The Arcanum - Gold Circle (feature)
Based on Thomas Wheeler's fantasy-adventure novel, The Arcanum finds Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft and Marie Laveau teaming up to fight demons in 1919 New York. Wheeler penned the screenplay which was first purchased by Miramax in 1999. Gold Circle acquired the property in 2004. In 2007 it was reported that writer/director Randall Wallace had signed aboard to direct. No word since then. But Gold Circle is still in business, so presumably this one is still on the books.

Are we Wild? These multi-historical character action mash-ups never seem to work. But I'd still see it!

Houdini - Canal Street/Circus Road (feature)
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." In 2014 Screen Daily reported that the Circus Road/Canal Street Films production would begin filming in Los Angeles in September. It now appears production will most likely happen in Canada in 2015.

Are we Wild? Sounds cute, but I hope they change that title. Calling it Houdini will cause confusion.

Young Houdini - Unknown
The film rights to Simon Nicholson's series of Young Houdini books have been sold, but to whom I have no idea. But there's a producer out there who believes the adventures of Young Houdini would make a good movie.

Are we Wild? Sure, I think Young Houdini could be fun. My hope is this was picked up by a UK production company for British television.

The Houdini Inheritance - Walden Media (feature)
In July 2012 The Hollywood Reporter broke the "exclusive" (again) that Chuck co-creator Chris Fedak had been hired to write an untitled Houdini project for Walden Media. According to the report, the story centers on "an unsuspecting high schooler who finds himself in grave danger when he discovers a family secret leading back to the legendary illusionist." Walden's is now out of business, but director Mark Waters said in 2014 that he was shopping the project to other studios.

Are we Wild? Mark Waters has said Houdini is in this movie in flashbacks, so that makes me excited to see it made. I hope he can set it back up at a new studio.

If you have news of another major Houdini project set-up with a studio or producer, or have fresh updates on any of the projects I've listed above, please contact me.

"Harrywood" sign image by Tom Interval of Houdini Museum.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

'Resurrecting Harry' new edition

Constance Phillips' 2013 romance novel Resurrecting Harry has been re-released in a new paperback with beautiful new cover art by Kim Jacobs of Calliope-designs. This 2nd edition also includes an excerpt from the upcoming sequel, Liz's Legacy, due in early 2016.

Resurrecting Harry is a paranormal romance novel that tells the story of Houdini returning from the dead in the guise of a younger man, Erich Welch, to help Bess get over her loss. The author says, "As someone who loves and writes romance, I wanted to tackle what is (in my mind) one of the Great Romances of our time."

The new edition of Resurrecting Harry can be purchased at You can learn more about the author and check out her other work at


LINK: Houdini’s bronze of Bernhardt

In 1917 Houdini came to the rescue of actress Sarah Bernhardt. The famous French theater star had been presented with a bronze cast of herself on behalf of the "Actors of America," but then later billed for it. Unable to pay the bill, the actress had to return the gift with great embarrassment. Houdini swept in and paid the bill on her behalf, and his generosity paid him back in publicity.

It's a story that always gets a mention in major Houdini biographies, but the bronze itself has remained somewhat of a mystery. What ever happened to it? That mystery is now solved in a nice post at the Houghton Library Blog. They not only tell the story of the bronze, but also have a photo of it from the Harvard Theatre Collection. So click the headline above and read all about "Houdini’s bronze of Bernhardt."

Thanks to ​Dale Stinchcomb.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Rick Schmidlin (Bonus): Where did Larry Weeks get The Grim Game?

Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Rick Schmidlin who produced the TCM restoration of Houdini's The Grim Game. I posted my Q&A with Rick in two installments: Finding The Grim Game and Saving The Grim Game.

Today I have a BONUS excerpt in which Rick and I discuss the mystery of the original 35mm nitrate print. This was said to be the last surviving print of The Grim Game, and it was disposed of in 1959 when Larry had the film transferred to 16mm safety film. But where did he get it?

WAH: Did Larry tell you how he got the original nitrate print?

RICK: He said he got it from Bess. I don't... Where would Bess have been in 1943?

WAH: Dead. Well, she died in early 1943, she was in Hollywood before that.

RICK: Exactly. So I don't think he got anything from Bess. He kept on saying that he got it from Bess. But Larry was just a kid, he wasn't even in the army in 1943. He definitely wasn't in Hollywood and he definitely didn't go to Hollywood to get this stuff.

WAH: Right.

RICK: Now, my guess is this. And this is just educated. Houdini had the lab in New Jersey. And when The Grim Game and his other film projects came they went to the lab. Basically it was like, "I've done the projects, and, by the way, guys, can you give me a print, I want to keep it for myself." Because he was an archivist, he saved his books, he saved his scrapbooks, he's gonna save his films. He was interested in films and he had the facility to keep it. Now when the lab closed...what year was that?

WAH: It's unclear when he closed to lab, but it was by mid '20s.

RICK: 1922, wasn't it?

WAH: Well, Haldane of the Secret Service was released in 1923, so I've always thought the lab closed down around that time. It took a while for Houdini to unravel his movie businesses.

RICK: Right, so the lab closes down, and the film elements of his negatives go to...probably Hardeen's Estate?

WAH: Hardeen ran the film lab, so, yes, he might have taken possession of a lot of that stuff.

RICK: That's what I'm thinking. So he took the films. Now if you look at what was said on the Kino, and you look at the history of the film, which makes perfect sense, around 1947 all this nitrate film is sitting in New York, and they have their house inspected. And they have a young Larry Weeks who's been in This Is The Army trying to buy everything he can. He may have bought a bookshelf [Larry had a Houdini bookshelf in his apartment], he may have gotten a scrapbook, he had a little money. Remember, he had been in an Irvin Berlin play on Broadway.

WAH: Now when you say this, you mean he's at Hardeen's home, correct?

RICK: Yes, that's what happened.

WAH: And Hardeen died in 1945, so Elsie Hardeen was unloading stuff.

RICK: Right. Again, this is where the deceive works comes in, and where we think logical.

Film reels showing nitrate decomposition.

So the film is sitting in New York, and the insurance man comes in to inspect the house, knowing nitrate in this day...people are watching it. I know many people who in the 1940s had to throw away many great nitrate films because, you know, they could explode an entire city block. So they have to get rid of them. And they were probably told they had to bring them somewhere that would have cost them money. So they call this kid who been pestering them for anything he can get on Houdini, and ask if he wants them. And he was up there like a flash. So Larry in 1947 obtains the films. That's my hypothesis. But if you think about it -- lab, Hardeen, the location...that's why I say "Houdini heirs" in the beginning. Does that make sense to you?

WAH: It makes sense to me. When Bessie sold 278, much of her stuff went with her to her sister's house -- the Hinsons. A lot of it remained with them when she went to Hollywood. The Hinsons did have a great many Houdini movies, and they were visited by the insurance man. That's where that story comes from. Marie Blood tells it. So when Larry said he got his stuff from "Bess", I always felt what he was saying was that he got it from the Hinsons. But the Hinsons say they threw out all their films after the visit from the insurance man and that Larry did not get The Grim Game from them. They are clear on that to this day. So, like you, I think Larry could only have gotten it from Elsie Hardeen, especially at that time. I heard that's what happened. And then he later acquired some things from the Hinsons because I do know that he visited them in 1956. And eventually it just all sort of melded together. That's why there's a confusion of when and where he got what. It all just became one collection of artifacts from the "Houdini family."

RICK: Right.


As a postscript, in 1958 Larry Weeks formed the "Houdini Film Restoration Fund." Larry knew that his nitrate prints were in danger of decay (recall that Rick said The Grim Game probably only had six months left). Check out this item written by Larry himself in a 1960 issue of Abacradabra:

Reading this 55 years later, one thing becomes clear. A lot of people were involved in this effort to find and restore The Grim Game, and a lot of people deserve credit. But the person who truly saved The Grim Game, the person who is most responsible for us now being able to see and enjoy Houdini's best film, is the late Larry Weeks, "Houdini's Biggest Fan."


Thursday, April 23, 2015

In search of Houdini in Rochester

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle has a nice article by Justin Murphy about Houdini's jump from the Weighlock Bridge in Rochester on May 7, 1907 (Mystery surrounding Houdini in Rochester). This is reportedly the jump we see in the famous film footage on the Kino DVD set, which is currently the earliest known film footage of Houdini.

The article also reproduces the famous photo of Houdini kissing his mother in "Rochester 1908" and have asked their readers to offer ideas of where the photo might have been taken. So far theories have suggested: Fitzhugh Street between Broad and Main streets, by the old City Hall; on South Clinton Avenue near Main Street, in front of the Universalist Church and East Side Savings Bank; or farther down West Main Street, near the current site of Nick Tahoe's.

The site has layers of aggressive pop-up ads (so many I gave up on my first attempt), but if you can navigate through, it's well worth the read. CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Houdini Milk Can returns to stage for one-time only performance

Today I have news of the next big Houdini event of 2015. Houdini's famous Milk Can escape will be performed by escapologist Joseph Patire (a.k.a. Hatari) at the upcoming Midwest Magic History Weekend in Marshall, Michigan. But here's the historic twist. Joseph will be using the original Houdini-Hardeen Milk Can from the collection the American Museum of Magic, and the escape will take place 70 years to the day that Hardeen last performed the escape in public.

This will be the first and absolutely last time the can will filled with water, and will be an incredible feat to witness (I will be among the onstage committee members). Here is the full press release:


The final performance of Houdini’s legendary Milk Can Escape – using the original apparatus – will be presented by escapologist Joseph Patire on Saturday evening, May 30th as a part of the Midwest Magic History Weekend, held in cooperation with the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan, the owners of the Milk Can.

“This is an unbelievable turn of events,” said David Charvet, Producer of the History Weekend. “I have been negotiating with the Museum board for months. They are rightfully very protective of the apparatus, which has not be filled with water in 70 years.”

Houdini debuted the escape at the Columbia Theater in St. Louis on January 27, 1908 after the manager of the theater told the Handcuff King that his manacle escapes were becoming old hat. The galvanized steel can, resembling an oversized milk can, was examined by a committee from the audience and filled with water. Houdini folded himself into the tight confines of the can and ducked his head below the water as the lid was quickly slammed in place and secured with six padlocks.
The can – with Houdini submerged inside – was surrounded by a cloth cabinet as the seconds ticked by. After three minutes a gasping, dripping Houdini appeared from the enclosure, revealing the can still securely locked with no indication of how he had made his escape.
The feat became the feature of Houdini’s act through 1911 when he developed his famous “Water Torture Cell” that he performed up until his death in 1926.

For years the Milk Can was stored in the basement of Houdini’s home in New York. Following his death, all of his props were willed to his brother, Theo Hardeen, who began performing the Milk Can in his vaudeville act because he was too large to fit inside of the Water Torture Cell.

For the next 18 years Hardeen presented the Milk Can as the closing feature of his show, actually performing it more times than Houdini. He had several close calls where he had to be released from the can before he made his escape.

Hardeen’s final performance was on May 30th, 1945 at the RKO Madison Theater in Brooklyn. He featured the Milk Can in that last show. 13 days later, on June 12, 1945, Theo Hardeen died at age 69.

Following Hardeen’s passing the Milk Can was acquired from his estate by magician, Martin Sunshine. He revered Houdini and never performed the escape. The can was stored in a warehouse in Three Lakes, Wisconsin for thirty years until it was purchased by Robert Lund, founder of the American Museum of Magic, where it became the centerpiece of the museum from its opening in 1978.
The performance on May 30th marks the 70th anniversary – to the day – of Hardeen’s final show in 1945. The can has not been filled with water since that day. “Bob Lund allowed several people to attempt the escape over the years, but the can was never filled with water,” said Charvet. “There is a real element of danger presenting a water escape with equipment this old. The museum has assured me that they will never allow the Milk Can to be performed again after this show on May 30th.”
Chosen for the honor of the final performance is magician and escape artist, Joseph Patire. No stranger to water escapes, he has presented variations of the Milk Can in the past. “But to perform it with the original Houdini-Hardeen can – and knowing I will be the last person ever to do so - is a real honor,” Patire said.
The escape attempt will be the climax of the Magic History Weekend, a three-day gathering of magic historians and collectors from around the world. The show will be held at the Franke Center for the Arts, 214 E. Mansion Street in Marshall, Michigan on Saturday, May 30th at 7:30pm. Limited tickets are available to the public by contacting Susan Collins at the American Museum of Magic: 269-781-7570. Details about the Magic History Weekend are at:

This certainly promises to be a spectacular closing event! The weekend will also kick off with a Houdini event -- I will be giving my "Houdini in Hollywood" talk on Thursday, May 28 at 7:30pm. Hope to see you there!

Clarification: The Milk Can in the collection of the American Museum of Magic is one of several used by Hardeen and possibly Houdini. The can Hardeen used in his final performance on May 30, 1945 is currently housed in the collection of Dr. Timothy Moore.

UPDATEREPORT: Houdini-Hardeen Milk Can reappears on stage.


Sherlock Holmes vs. Harry Houdini #5

Today sees the release of Sherlock Holmes vs. Harry Houdini #5, the final issue in this graphic novel series written by Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery with artwork by Carlos Furuzono. As with the previous issues, Dynamite has released #5 with variant covers (below).

The thrilling conclusion to the critically acclaimed series sees two become the sign of the one… Rasputin, the mad Russian monk, has forced either Holmes or Houdini to take their final bow, leading our remaining adventurer to rally his spirits to combat the man who cannot be killed.

You can purchase Sherlock Holmes vs. Harry Houdini #5 at the Dynamite website. A collected volume of all five issues will be released in September and can be pre-ordered now on Amazon.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The next big Houdini event of 2015...

With the return of The Grim Game, 2015 has certainly been a big year for Houdini. And it's about to get even bigger. Check out WILD ABOUT HARRY tomorrow at noon (EST) when I will unlock news of the next big Houdini event of 2015.

Arthur Moses updates his Houdini Periodical Bibliography

Arthur Moses has released a new and updated edition of his essential Houdini Periodical Bibliography: References From 1898 - 2015. First released in 2006, this updated edition includes 935 new listings for a total of over 2500 entries from 46 countries. It also has new color images, great new cover art, and contains introductions by renown magic periodical bibliophile, Raymond Ricard, and yours truly.

Few legendary men, real or imagined, retain their celebrity nearly 100 years after their passing. However, Harry Houdini was one such man. Covering a time period from 1898 to 2015, this revised bibliography includes 935 individual title listings with over 2500 entries from 46 countries which chronicle all significant articles by or about Houdini in magazines, periodicals, journals, etc. A must for any collector, historian, and researcher of "Houdiniana". There is no greater Houdini literary reference bibliography than this extensive resource. 154 Pages Over 90 B/W and Full Color images.

You can purchase Arthur's updated Houdini Periodical Bibliography: References From 1898 - 2015 at (U.S.) and (UK).

Houdini evening in Toronto, April 29

The Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, Canada will host an evening dedicated to Houdini on April 29, 2015 at 7:30pm. "Harry Houdini: Poster Child of the Jewish Immigrant Experience" will feature magic by magician Ben-Zion Train and a talk on Houdini by Barbara Rusch. The official website also promises that "artifacts once belonging to Houdini will also be on display."

Sounds like a great evening. For more information, visit the Beth Tzedec Congregation.

Thanks to Canada's Magic for the alert.

Houdini by Ben Edge

The Leyden Gallery in London currently has a display called "Contemporary Folklore" featuring paintings by artists Ben Edge and Ben Clarke, both London-based figurative painters. Among Ben Edge's series of "outsider figures" is Houdini.

"Ben Edge makes paintings, which commemorate, and celebrate the extraordinary lives of those he considers as unsung heroes. Within each of his portraits he intends to present the viewer with a critical and psychological insight into a unique human story, through recurring themes such as masculinity and the artistic impulse."

"Houdini" by Ben Edge will be on display at The Leyden Gallery through April 25. You can get more information at the official website.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Rick Schmidlin (Part II): Saving The Grim Game

Today we continue our interview with Rick Schmidlin, the man who produced the restoration of Houdini's The Grim Game. From the first hint of its existence to the Hollywood premiere, Rick oversaw every aspect of the project. Now he tells us of his remarkable journey.

When we left off in Part I, Rick had confirmed the only known print of the film in the home of collector Larry Weeks, and had arranged for TCM to buy it. But then 2 days before Rick was due to return to Brooklyn to close the deal, Larry Weeks called to inform him that he was in the hospital and that "he might not get out"...

RICK: So that sunk everyone’s heart. I had sent him a copy of the paperwork so he could review it before, so it wasn’t just put in front of his face. But I did not want to pressure him. Fred [Pittella] was there when I talked to him on the phone, but Larry wanted to do everything himself. He was worried very much that somebody was going to steal the limelight. He was completely worried that somebody else would claim credit for something that he had found and that he had kept safe all these years. That was his biggest fear at that point.

So I called [TCM] and cancelled the entire trip, the hotel, the air, everything else, and we waited. We waited for about two or three weeks. Then I called Larry and he said, “Okay, I’m home, I feel better,” and then he told me about his whole hospital ordeal, and I felt for him because it sounded like he was going through hell.

We had put the film in the closet in a safe place before I had left, so we knew where it was. The plan was I’d meet with him and go over all the paperwork. So at the end of June, I was there again in Larry’s apartment, and the nurse kept on telling Larry, “They’re going to make millions of dollars off of you.”

WAH: Oh my. Oh no.

Larry Weeks
RICK: But Larry at this point was happy about what was going on, and he wanted to make it to the premiere. He really wanted to be at the premiere for TCM. And they had agreed that they would fly him and his nurse there. He was excited about a Hollywood premiere.

So now what I had to do was get him to sign the paperwork, then immediately after meeting with him, scan it and send it to TCM who had to turn around a check in 48 hours, because Larry would not wait for a check. That was a hard thing. Studios don’t do things that quick. But there was a guy there, Lee Tsiantis, he worked with Charlie [Tabesh] and he moved mountains. He was excited, so he deserves credit for what he did. Without his help the deal may have fell through!

So I made sure when Larry signed his paper, with the nurse who was basically watching him, that he did everything in a sound mind. There was no manipulation of any kind. Again, it was just the nurse, Larry and I. Larry signed everything, the nurse left and we talked for about 2 more hours. He showed me a scrapbook he had which he opened and it was falling apart.

WAH: That was the Houdini scrapbook?

RICK: Yeah. But you got to remember that Houdini’s scrapbooks were only for about six months worth of time. He was a meticulous archivist. Most of his scrapbooks are at the Harry Ransom Center in Texas. So Larry always eluded that he had "Houdini’s Scrapbook." But he had one of Houdini’s scrapbooks.

WAH: Do you recall what was in it? What time period it might have been from?

RICK: I believe it was from around 1924. And then he showed me a film can that said, “Mrs. Houdini doing laundry.” But Larry kept on saying, “It doesn’t look like her. I don’t think it’s her. I don’t know why it’s labeled that.” So that was kind of a strange thing.

So that following Friday, I met Larry with a limousine that took him and the nurse to NYU. I sat in the front seat with film cans in my lap. When we got there [the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation & Conservation Department] we were greeted by Ben Moskowitz who brought Larry down to Special Collections. There was a girl named Viv who was also there. Larry wanted to have her there. She had no real interest in Houdini or magic, she was interested in Larry because of his juggling. She was a Harvard graduate who became a juggler and a clown in New York. She wanted to talk to him about all his juggling stuff. That was a whole different part of Larry’s world, and I was getting into Larry’s world.

So went down and Ben cleaned the film, inspected the film, made sure there weren’t any tears in it, and that it could be put on a flatbed. It was an oversized reel so it was a little difficult. And we looked at it on a flatbed. We looked at the whole film. Viv was not interested, so they gave her a tour of the facilities while we watched the film. There were jitters and this and that, but the whole film was there. And that’s when we knew we had a remarkable thing. It was intact, and it was a half a reel longer than reported. But running it at 24 frames per second seemed very fast. Twenty-two seemed fast. Twenty was perfect. That was what we realized right there.

WAH: What was the frame rate in 1919?

RICK: Between 18 and 20.

WAH: Was there a standard, or was it just however fast the cameraman or projectionist cranked it.

RICK: It was how they cranked it. But you’ve got to remember, when you see Houdini at the gate, he's cranking it so the action is slow and meticulous. When you see the comedy sequence between the maid and the butler, also when you see Houdini going up the stairs when he’s escaping from the asylum, they are going faster. So in 24 frames per second, he would be flying up those stairs. Also, theaters in those days, if they didn’t like the film, would run them fast too. So a film would be reported at one length, but because the distribution company didn’t believe in it, they made it a faster movie.

WAH: Oh, that’s interesting. You always hear conflicting runtimes of movies, and I’ve never considered it could be because of that.

RICK: You've got to remember, I’m coming from it as a person who understands it’s Houdini, and it’s the best Houdini, and having seen by this point The Master Mystery and Terror Island and everything else – but I’m a person who coming at it as a silent film historian. That’s what separates me from the others in the Houdini world. I’m interested in silent film. And that’s what made Larry interested. I was not a Houdini fan trying to claim Larry’s glory. I was somebody who was interested in silent cinema. He could talk about silent cinema and he liked that. He was interested in a lot of silent cinema. He said his favorite film was The Cat and Canary with Lon Chaney and it still gave him nightmares.

WAH: Had you researched the film before? Was there anything in that surprised you – such as Mae Busch being in it?

RICK: The whole thing is it was an A-cast. An A-cast 100% throughout. It was like an A-film of today. They gave him great villains. Tully Marshall is in it, he was a great villain. Mae was becoming a major star and would be a major star through the 1920s. So you’ve got people who are going places and would work all throughout the 1920s and some into the 1940s.

WAH: It’s also a very well made film for the time, that’s what really struck me.

RICK: It’s a well made film. One of the things you have to remember -- and you can think of it in today’s market -- is if you are a fan of movies in 1919, you’re watching a young Chaplin, a very young Keaton, and Douglas Fairbanks is happening. The Victorian melodramas of even Griffith were waning. Houdini was not the young Fairbanks that caused the girls to go pitter patter over. He came from a different kind of generation and that was why the film was probably a little less well received. It was a well made movie, but he wasn’t a teen idol.

WAH: That seems to be especially true of some of is other films. They do seem Victorian.

RICK: They’re melodrama. And that’s what happened with some of these actors. When you look at D.W. Griffith, you see melodrama, in a day when DeMille is going bonkers. It’s the Jazz Age. And Houdini was not a member of the Jazz Age. The turn of the century was Houdini’s big day. Houdini was part of the melodrama. But today when we look at it, we’re forgiving because the Jazz Age is old too. So that’s the biggest thing have to remember when going into a project like this. I’m looking at Lasky, I’m looking at Willat the director, I’m looking at all the actors. I’m looking at a great silent lost film. And it is a Houdini film, which make it even more exciting. But it’s still a lost film and you have to realize that to the audiences who will see on television and at festivals and other locations around the world, they’re going to see a lost silent film and then they are going to be excited about Houdini as the star. The majority of the people in the audience are into silent cinema. That's what makes it exciting. Now, it introduces them to Houdini, and it gives them a great star, but the interest is lost silent cinema. And that’s where I came from.

WAH: Let’s go back now to the restoration itself. You said Larry’s print was showing signs of vinegar syndrome?

Kimberly Tarr
RICK: This is what happened. Kimberly Tarr comes into the picture, and Kimberly inspects the entire movie. She looks at the edge codes of the negative and the print and sees they were done at the same time, and that was 1959.

WAH: So 1959 was when the 16mm negative and print were made?

RICK: Right.

WAH: And those were made from a 35mm nitrate original?

RICK: Exactly. It came from the nitrate. What Larry did was he made a new 16mm negative. He could not afford a 35mm negative. And off the 16mm negative he made a print. And that was the print we had. All that survived of the negative were two reels. My guess is the rest of it just shriveled and died.

WAH: And the original 35mm nitrate print was probably tossed by the company who made the dupes?

RICK: It was probably tossed at the time. It had bad cancer going into it, which you can see in reels 4 and 5. It was going to disintegrate and it was highly flammable. And Larry knew this. He knew he was dealing with danger and he was dealing with something that was going to fall to dust.

RICK: So Kimberly Tarr does a complete inspection on the film frame by frame. And she does a meticulous job. They have a nice vault down there, which is where the film now permanently sits. And she said there is a little vinegar syndrome in it. Just a slight bit of vinegar, not much. But it if it had sat there for five more years it would have fed in and just stunk.

WAH: So you think the film only had about five more years left?

RICK: And that’s being very liberal…. So Kimberly inspects it, cleans it and prepares it. The next step is it goes to Metropolis Post, where they now digitize it and make the first transfer at 22 frames per second. And we see it’s out of registration, which is not rare.

WAH: And what does “out of registration” mean exactly?

RICK: It means a little of the top is at the bottom of the fame. When it was transferred [in 1959], it was transferred very quickly and it wasn’t registered correctly. There were actually four reels out of registration, it was happening constantly.

So we screened it, and at that screening were Dick and Dorothy, Metropolis, Brane, and Kimberly Tarr. Also the colorist, who was there to do the black and white, just to make it look as good as we could. We all looked at it for the first time. Then I made solid deals with Metropolis. Dick and Dorothy were paid as consultants. And that’s when we posed for the photos. Now, if you look at the title card there, you see that the Paramount logo is on the top of the screen and The Grim Game title is underneath it. If you look at the picture that was taken at the premiere, the Paramount is below. That’s the registration change.

Title card at first screening (top) and premiere (bottom) shows registration change.

WAH: And you were able to correct that?

RICK: Yes. That was a ton of work. That was work that Thomas Eberschveiler at Metropolis spent hundreds of hours on. So that night after the screening, we all went to dinner. It was Brane, Kimberly Tarr, and Dick and Dorothy. And that was the night that we all talked about the film and were happy and cheerful.

After that screening, I learned that Larry had passed away. At that point everyone was worried about what was going on in his apartment, if there was anything else there, and I was getting alarming emails. So, through Viv, this girl I met at the screening, I got Fred Pittella’s email. And Fred filled me in on everything that was going on. And Fred and I started good communication. He helped a lot when it needed to be done and was part of the process.

Thomas Eberschveiler
So from that point on we just went on into the project and into the restoration. Thomas Eberschveiler worked every day. Metropolis let him work as many hours as he needed. It was like a week before Thanksgiving and we all met in New York again. It was Paula [De Stefano], Ben, Kimberly, Brane, Fred, and Dick and Dorothy. So with Brane’s score on it, we all watched the film and everybody likes it. Then Charlie Tabesh and another executive from TCM come and they watch The Grim Game, and they love it.

Then Jack Rizzo, who owns Metropolis Post, comes in after we watched it and said, “Rick, I’d like to put in two or three more weeks of work on it just to make it perfect.” And that was not on the clock. They went beyond. They worked on it very hard through the nights and I got the final around December 1st. And from that point on we started doing the mastering and everything else.

WAH: So all the restoration work was done digitally, not on film?

RICK: Digital. Yes.

WAH: And what exactly was the restoration work – cleaning and...

RICK: There was a lot of cleaning, there was a lot of picture adjustments, we were timing, getting it perfect. There were a lot of washed out faces, especially with Old Banks. There were some jitters in the picture that needed to be smoothed out. Basically just a lot of clean up. Remember, this was a film that was processed in ’59 and run through a projector several times.

WAH: I also noticed there were these distinct white plus signs that appear throughout…

RICK: Those are the reel changes.

WAH: But they are not in the corner like changeover marks, they are sometimes in the center of the screen.

RICK: Exactly. In the teens they did it like that. They just put them wherever. They didn’t care. They just punched.

WAH: Did you ever consider fixing the nitrate damage?

RICK: To fix the nitrate damage you’d have to spend hundreds and hundreds of hours. But it did not interfere with the story and it did not interfere with the picture, so why alter it? No action was lost and no title was lost. I wanted to persevere what is there. And it’s a good history lesson for schools because it shows you how close that film was in 1959 to having those scenes 100% lost. I would say within six months they would have been gone.

WAH: Six months it would have been gone? Wow, that’s terrifying. It’s seems this movie was rescued at the last minute several times, wasn’t it?

RICK: Yes.

WAH: So it was it always the plan to debut the film at the TCM Festival?

RICK: From day one. Charlie said, “This would be great to premier at the Festival”, and I agreed. And I also said wouldn’t it be great to also show the Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis film there. That came from me.

Rick Schmidlin with Grim Game music composer Brane Živkovic.

WAH: I think the premiere came off wonderfully well. It was packed and the audience really responded to the movie. Have you received feedback from TCM? Are they happy they got into the Houdini business?

RICK: Oh yes. TCM is totally happy with it.

WAH: What’s the future hold for the film?

RICK: It’s going to be on TCM. They’re still deciding what date, and that’s all we know right now.

WAH: A lot of people are asking me if there will be a DVD release?

RICK: That has not been announced.

WAH: Finally, would you ever become involved in another Houdini film restoration project, possibly restoring Terror Island or The Master Mystery if the lost footage could ever be located?

RICK: Yes, I would love to be involved in more Houdini projects. Again, Houdini is a fascinating subject. Houdini is someone who should be explored more, and my interest in silent film has a burning passion.

Thank you, Rick!


Friday, April 17, 2015

Rick Schmidlin (Part I): Finding The Grim Game

Today I'm thrilled to offer the first of my two part interview with Rick Schmidlin, the man who produced the restoration of Houdini's The Grim Game. From the first hint of its existence in April of last year to the Hollywood premiere last month, Rick oversaw every aspect of the project. Now he tells us of his remarkable journey and what it took to bring Houdini's best film back to the silver screen.

WAH: First off, were you aware that Houdini made silent films before you became involved in The Grim Game project?

RICK: The interesting thing is, like yourself and others, when I saw the [Tony Curtis] Houdini film on television when I was young, I loved Houdini. And then later on, it was the '60s, I got the Kreskin ESP set and the Blackstone magic set. But I found out I wasn't a good magician. I always enjoyed magic, but I decided I was a good audience for it, not a practitioner. Years later in Hollywood in the ‘80s, I used to go to the magic store on Hollywood Boulevard [Hollywood Magic], and at one point I started buying little magic tricks. But, again, with the rings and the tricks I bought, I was not good. When people would ask me to do it again, I would and would sometimes get caught. So I decided I was not a very good magician.

What made me also very interested in Houdini was that I lived for a short time in the ‘70s at the corner of Lookout and Laurel Canyon in a massive log cabin which had a lot of Frank Zappa alumni living in it. The house next door was empty. It was the big white house with a big pool, and we used to hang out there sometimes. So when I lived in Laurel Canyon over the years -- and I lived in the ‘80s on Kirkwood -- when I would go to Universal or go over the hill to the valley, I would pass that house everyday. So I always knew as I passed the big white ghost, that that was where Houdini had been once. So in regards to Houdini, I was familiar with him since a child in the ‘60s watching on television, and he stayed with me throughout.

Now, like the rest of you, I have other areas I go into, which is partly silent film. I produce restorations of silent film and I’m considered for my work in silent film restoration and preservation, a historian. So that's what draws the interest and the connection.

WAH: So how did The Grim Game adventure begin for you?

RICK: I was in Colorado for a week doing some work cataloging an art collection for a group in New York, and I had been invited to speak on my film Touch of Evil by Brane Živkovic at NYU -- once for the students and once for faculty. In route, I stopped at Scranton, Pennsylvania to visit my mother who was there. She was in a home and I spent the whole day with her. Before I went, I asked her if there was anything I could do in Scranton, and she said, “You know Dick and Dorothy from the Houdini Museum?” I said yes, because I had given lectures on The Doors at Keystone College back in the ‘80s, and that’s where I had met them. I called them and asked if they would like to get together for dinner.

The Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA.

So I met them and took them out for dinner. During dinner we chatted about different things, the social issues of the times, and I told them that I was now involved in film preservation and restoration. It was the first nice day of spring, I’d say it was around April 14 or so. We went to the Houdini Museum, it was so nice, we went on the outside patio and we talked, and they told me about The Grim Game. What they told me was a man in Brooklyn -- and they didn’t say Larry’s name at the time – had it, but he was holding out for a lot of money. Everyone was after him, and he was not allowing it to be sold. Also, they were not sure if he even still had it. They were very clear that they weren’t sure that he had it, that he had possibly loaned it to somebody and they had never returned it and maybe the wrong film was in the can. So that was how that started.

Grim Game Godfather, Charles Tabesh
When I got to New York, I wrote an email to Charlie Tabesh, the senior VP of programing at Turner, and said there’s a possibility that we may have found the lost Houdini film, The Grim Game. Is there any interest for TCM? In my original pitch, I sent him links to your site, including the Everson article. He read all that. So you were involved, but didn't know it. And he said, “Yes, find out what you have, create a budget, and investigate further and get back to me.”

WAH: If TCM wasn’t interested, would you have still pursued it?

RICK: Of course, yes. But I knew this was the only place that would have been a slam-dunk. And I know this is where the slam-dunk was because I had done Greed and London After Midnight for them. So I had done those projects for them and I knew they were the right avenue and would have enough to fund it. So I wrote Dick and Dorothy and said, “Give me more information, TCM may be interested.”

Then I did my lectures, met Brane [Živkovic], and had a wonderful time in New York. Then I went back to Stratford, Ontario where I was living at the time. I had not heard from Dick and Dorothy for almost two weeks. I finally sent them a email asking, “What’s going on – TCM is interested and I hadn’t heard?” And one evening, I remember vividly, I got a phone call from both of them and they said they talked to Larry. They said, “He won’t talk to us about any kind of deal or anything, but he’s willing to talk to you.” They said they had talked about my work. I asked if they wanted to set everything up and they said, “No-no, you have to talk to him. We just set the introduction up for you.”

So I called Larry up on the phone, and Larry’s hearing was not great, as anyone who’s spoken to him in recent years knows. I told him who I was, and all he wanted to talk about was, “How much?” “How much?” I told him I was in Ontario, but I could fly down immediately and meet with him and talk to him. TCM had agreed to that. He knew the name Warner Bros., but he had never heard of Turner Classic Movies. But he said he would like to meet with me.

WAH: At his home in Brooklyn?

RICK: Yes. So it was arranged in a week that I would fly down. I stayed in a hotel in midtown, right across from Radio City Music Hall, where the NFL draft was going on. Everyone else was concerned around me with media and the NFL draft, and I’m wondering about The Grim Game. Have I found a lost film? Because for people in my field, that’s very important. It happens maybe once in a lifetime.

The next day I took a cab to Larry’s. I got there early, so I walked around the neighborhood a little bit. At the appropriate time, I walked up the five floors to his apartment where I was greeted by Larry and his nurse – a woman who had been working with him and taking care of him. We sat down, and for about the first 1 1/2 hours we did not discuss The Grim Game. We discussed everything else under the sun. He told me his stories of Irvin Berlin. He told me his stories of the war years, because he was very much interested in that. He had been to the veterans hospital recently and he had his little veterans hat on. He told me about his juggling and showed me brochures of his juggling, and pointed out in the room -- "this is one of Houdini’s bookshelves, this is his brass shaving urn…" He told me he had scrapbooks, which he had one, and it was in very bad shape. And we just chatted for a while. I talked to him about Dick and Dorothy and he said, “Yeah, yeah, I know them. Is that how we got in touch?” He wasn’t sure how the loop had gone in. He said, “Yeah I knew Dick as a kid.”

So what happened then was that I eventually mentioned the name of man named Zinn Arthur, whom I knew. Zinn Arthur had been a big band leader in New York in the 1930’s, and was big in the Borsht Belt back in the pre-war years. And Larry lit up like a Christmas tree. All the magic connections, studios, everything else were just like, "Okay, I’ve heard it before." But here I know somebody that was from his past. Who was a contemporary. And Zinn Arthur has done some home movies with Larry during This Is The Army. So that was the connection: Zinn Arthur. When you do something like this, you have to remember that sometimes the littlest name is the biggest key. And that was the key. I was a buddy of a buddy of his, and that made me good.

He then pulled out a few film cans. Now, what had happened that I did not know prior to my visit was Fred Pittella, who was a close friend of Larry’s, had been there a couple days prior to search through Larry’s closet to see what was there was on The Grim Game. Larry didn’t pull the film out. He had a closet full of film and The Grim Game was buried somewhere in there. So Fred prepared that for Larry so when Larry sat with me he could say, take a look at this.

WAH: So Fred Pittella was involved.

RICK: Fred was very involved. But I didn’t realize that until late, near the end. I did not know Fred’s name at that time.

Fred Pittella with Larry Weeks and Dorothy Young (Houdini's assistant).

WAH: So what did Larry have exactly?

RICK: There was one short reel I couldn’t inspect because it looked a little fragile. But there was another reel that was an oversized reel. It was a sunny day in Larry’s apartment, and it said on the can, “Possibly The Grim Game.” It did not say The Grim Game. It was a label that would have come from even maybe the ‘60s that was kind of falling off. So I open that up and there was an oversized reel. I had to by hand very carefully unspool it, and at first I wasn’t sure because the first thing you see is the end, and the next thing you see is them reading the newspaper, which is not what I had seen on the Kino video segment. That scene did not exist.

WAH: Yeah, that Kino short ends after the plane crash.

RICK: So, of course, my heart went down. So then I looked a little further, and it was 16mm so very small, and I saw fields and then I saw them [Houdini and Ann Forrest] again, and they were dressed differently. Hmmm. It might be. Then I went a little further and I could see the plane coming down. Because it was tails out, which was lucky.

WAH: That was your eureka moment?

RICK: That was the moment I know I had a major big reel that was bigger than even five reels. It was on one reel.

WAH: Oh, the whole movie was on one reel?

RICK: On one reel. And that was when I had the moment where it was like, okay, yes, this is the film.

WAH: So what you saw on that one reel was a 16mm positive print, correct?

RICK: Yes. The other was negative – it was heads up but very fragile and so I couldn’t tell what it was. There were two cans. One had two reels and one was a full.

After that, Larry and I went through everything -- the kind of money we’re talking -- and agreed to get together after I talked to the studio. He was excited and he almost didn’t want me to leave. He enjoyed talking about the war years and he enjoyed talking about Zinn Arthur. He said, “Don’t you want to project the film?” I told him I had to arrange for a facility. We didn’t want to put it on his little projector and just run it. So I said I would be back. And he said, “You promise?” And I said, “Yes.” And that was how we left it. He stood by his little door after about 4 hours and waved.

WAH: That's great.

RICK: Then I met with Brane, and he told me Kimberly Tarr had given a tour of the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation & Conservation Department at the NYU library. So we went there and I met with Paula De Stefano, because Kimberly wasn’t there, and I told her about finding The Grim Game. I said my plan would be to bring it there as soon as I could and put it on a flatbed with Ben Moskowitz, and that we could bring Larry and inspect the film. They all agreed 100%, and I asked if they would come onboard and help on the project and they said yes. That night I had dinner with Brane and I said, “You’ve been teaching for 26 years composition for film and television at NYU, you would be great for the score.” So Brane agreed. Then I went back to Ontario.

I called TCM and they were very excited. I told them the money we had talked about with Larry, and they said that was fine, and that they would arrange for another visit. I asked them to make it a simple bill of sale, because that explained all rights. I didn’t want to give Larry a 10-page studio contract. He didn’t need that. He was selling something. So I called Larry and made arrangements and booked the whole thing for the first part of June.

And then I got a phone call from him 2 days before I was supposed to leave. He was in the hospital. He was sick. And he didn’t know if he was going to get out.

Watch for the next installment on Sunday: Rick Schmidlin (Part II): Saving The Grim Game.