Saturday, May 2, 2015

When Jim Collins went solo

Our good friend Joe Fox has uncovered an interesting nugget of information about Jim Collins, Houdini's trusted chief assistant and engineer. It appears that after Houdini's death, Collins performed a solo act in a tent show doing Houdini's effects. Here's the item Joe found in the December 1931 issue of The Sphinx.

Magic Under Canvas
By Julien J. Poskauer

Carnivals and circus side-shows have used magic as drawing card during the summer season which has just closed, to an extent never before reached in the outdoor show business. About two hundred and thirty professional and semi-professional magicians have been working under canvas.

Indicating the extent of magicians' popularity is the fact that at the Connecticut State Fair which closed October 16th at Danbury, Conn., there were six magic acts working at the same time. James Collins, for many years assistant to Harry Houdini and the only man in the word that knows the secret to the last master's "Upside Down" trick, is featured in a tent of his own.

Collins is working a large illusion owned by Hardeen and himself, the Houdini Chinese Execution Trick in which eight steel blades "penetrate" the body of a beautiful assistant, the Flying Bird Cage and escapes from restraints of all kinds.

This "Chinese Execution Trick" is almost certainly the "Slicing A Girl in Eights" illusion that Houdini featured in the second season of his full evening show.

So what should we make of this tent show appearance? In 1931 Collins was working with Hardeen. However, this may not have been a full time job as it had been with his brother. This was during the depression and Collins probably needed to make extra money during the summer. Hardeen was playing the RKO-Pantages Circuit, so performing a State Fair tent show would not have been a conflict. Or it could even be that Collins was fulfilling this engagement on behalf of Hardeen. How Collins was billed might provide us with more clues, but I've not been able turn up anything more on this performance.

I'm wondering if this was a one off, or if Collins had a minor career in tent shows and small venues under the radar. If anyone has any additional info on Collins' solo act, please share in the comments below.

By the way, the author of this piece in The Sphinx, Julien Poskauer, later performed the Milk Can escape himself, assisted by none other than Jim Collins.

Thanks to Joe Fox and Paul Zenon.

Tomorrow our special Jim Collins Weekend continues with: YES!--"Jim Collins is still with me".

Related posts:


  1. Hardeen and or Houdini also did a stand up version of the blade box that was on display at The Houdini Magic Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls. As I remember is was mostly black in color and looked quite portable for a stage illusion from those days.

    Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz
    The Houdini Museum
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini
    Our Mission is to do historic things for Houdini

    1. I know the one pictured above was in the museum. Never heard of an upright version.

  2. Really enjoyed both of these pieces about Jim Collins. I had no idea he had gone out on his own to do a solo show. Wow!

    1. Thanks Dean. I think even Joe Fox had forgotten he found this. Paul Zenon reignited our interest. He found an old post from Joe on the Magic Cafe about this.

  3. Collins performed as a solo act several times, in different venues.

    _Brooklyn Daily Star_ 1/10/1933
    In an article about a woman being installed as a Matron of the Eastern Star (Freemason organization):
    "James Collins, an associate of Houdini, entertained."

    _Brooklyn Daily Star_ 4/5/1929
    "A novel entertainment was given by Mrs. Harry Williamson of 198-39 Thirty-second avenue in honor of her son, Frank, to celebrate his birthday. Frank Williamson is associated with Hardeen, brother of the late celebrated magician, Houdini. The home was beautifully decorated. A dinner was served and later in the evening the guests danced. Many unusual feats in magic were performed by James Collins, who is also associated with the Hardeen Troupe, and by Frank Williamson. Congratulatory telegrams and cables were received by Mr. Williamson, among which was one from Mrs. Falla, of London, sister of Mrs. Harry Williamson. Those present were: Mr. and Mrs. Harry C. Williamson of Brooklyn; James Collins, Miss Claire Williamson and her fiance, Randall H. Pfleger of Dumont, New Jersey, and Mr. and Mrs. Harold S. Brown of Flushing."

  4. Very interesting information. Collins was known to be very shy. I can't wait to hear more about this.

  5. frank Williamson is possibly Frank Kukol? Maybe not since there seems to be an entire family of Williamson's.

  6. Hello, I do not believe the box was made or used by Collins.
    I was told by Walter Gibson, and Bob Lund the box was made by
    Dunninger, and sold to the Niagara Falls museum shortly before it
    Look close at the craftsmanship of this item and compare it to other
    known props made by Mr Collins, it is too rough.
    Jon Oliver

    1. So you don't think the box pictured here (which is the one from the Houdini Museum) was the prop used by HH and Collins? We do that Houdini did the effect in his show. The story I heard was that Dunninger made the effect for Houdini, but, as you say, the craftsmanship was so poor Houdini remade it. There is a letter in which Houdini voices his dissatisfaction with Dunninger's work.

      Pat Culliton was able to get a good closeup look at this prop as he put it together for the auction here in LA.

  7. I think Jons comment pertains to the statement above "almost certainly the work of Jim Collins"

  8. I wonder where the letter is located?

    1. Wayne Wissner transcribes it in his new booklet, The Houdini Correspondence File, so I'm assuming it's part of his collection? The letter is dated Sept 16, 1926, and it certainly sounds like the apparatus Dunninger provided was shoddy work. Houdini even describes the way it is painted as -- "looks as if it had been placed under a flock of pigeons."

  9. I found that clipping about the party thrown by Mrs. Williamson for her son Frank Williamson, associated with Hardeen and the late Houdini years before Bill Mullins published it. This is why I hadn't mentioned it before: I can't find any of these people on Ancestry. Oh, there are plenty of Harry Williamsons, but, none with a son named Frank or a child or sibling named Claire. The address didn't help. Collins performed. One of the old guys wrote in his column in one of the magic magazines that Jimmy always wanted to do a magic act. Williamson performed. If Frank Williamson was Franz Kukol, it was not the first time he and Collins had performed together. On at least one occasion, Houdini put them in a storefront across from his theater to "expose" Houdini's act. I say this whole celebration is a plant. Around this time, Hardeen made the outdoor film of the Metamorphosis. That's Kukol in a hat and coat who begins in the crowd and winds up on stage. In the KINO footage, when Houdini was doing the upside down S-J, Collins and Vickery are on the platform. Kukol looks like a civilian in the crowd, but, lends a hand to help Houdini clear the platform. I think Houdini and Hardeen were semi-hiding Franz. Finally, there is the phony Hardeen birth certificate that surfaced around the time Hardeen's sons were going into the service. Apparently, I hear from Roger Dreyer the Eliott Sanford manuscript mentions a man who was always with Houdini and knew all the secrets. Somebody we've never heard of. Frank Williamson isn't mentioned anywhere as a magician on Ask Alex.