Thursday, June 4, 2015

REPORT: The Midwest Magic History Weekend 2015

Recently I had the great pleasure of attending the Midwest Magic History Weekend in Marshall, Michigan. The event was organized by David Charvet in conjunction with the American Museum of Magic, which is located in Marshall. It proved to be a full 5-days packed with magic history, good friends, and Houdini (of course).

May 26
My multi-day Houdini odyssey began the night before I left for Marshall with a screening of Young Harry Houdini at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. This "Castle Perk" was hosted by Steve Valentine; in attendance was star Wil Wheaton. Wil hadn't seen the movie since it was first broadcast way back in 1987, and said of all the film and TV work he's done, this is the one project he thinks about most often. He also said there is family lore that his great grandfather, Frank O'Conner (director of Religious Racketeers), did some ghostwriting for Houdini. It was a terrific perk and great way to kick off a week full of magic!

May 27
On Wednesday I flew to Michigan, arriving in Detroit in the afternoon. I had done research and part of my weekend plan was to visit some famous Detroit Houdini locations. I was tempted to hunt those down right away, but I figured I'd stick to my plan and save them for the end of the trip. Marshall was still an hour and a half away by car.

Arriving in Marshall, I met up with Houdini mega-collector Arthur Moses and Derek Kennedy. We enjoyed dinner and gossip at the historic Schuler's Restaurant & Pub. I must say, I wasn't prepared for the sheer beauty of Marshall. It's an historic town with beautifully preserved Victorian homes and a main street from the 1900s. It was like time travel! I'm not sure if Houdini himself ever visited Marshall (it's equidistant between Chicago and Detroit), but if he did, the streets he walked still look exactly the same.

DAY 1 - May 28
The weekend officially kicked off on Thursday, May 28, with noon registration at The Franke Center For The Arts in Marshall, a beautiful old church converted into a theater space. Everyone agreed this was an excellent facility for the convention, and the theater size was perfect for the approximately 150 attendees.

After getting my registration materials and taking a quick pass around the dealers room, I decided to walk over to the American Museum of Magic and get an early look (the next day would be the official tours). The American Museum of Magic was founded by magic collector and historian Robert Lund on April 1, 1978. It's famous in the world of magic, and ever since I first become interested in Houdini, I've longed to visit. Now here I was at the front door.

I was warmly greeted by the museum staff who were very excited to have the convention in town. The museum and its Research Center (located across the street) were open free to all convention attendees. Museum administrator Keli Hindenach and her son, Alex, really rolled out the red carpet for me. I purchased some Houdini paperbacks in perfect condition that the museum had recently discovered in a box that had remained untouched probably since the 1980s.

Of course, I spent a good amount of time in front of the museum's central Houdini display. There before me was the Houdini-Hardeen Milk Can (more about that later), a spirit trumpet, a pack of Houdini's Needles ("with his DNA on it") and a nice Coast to Coast advertising sign which I'm guessing was for his 1926-27 tour. But what I think is the most impressive item in the entire museum -- yes, even more so than the Milk Can -- was his overboard box. The staff and I spent a lot of time looking it over very carefully, comparing it to the photos on display. It indeed appears to be the same box Houdini used in both his 1912 and 1914 overboard box escapes in New York harbor. It's extremely heavyweight and there's something about the wood that seemed to hold the spirit of Houdini. I was mesmerized.

I then toured the rest of the museum, which is jam-packed with amazing artifacts from great magicians of all eras (it even has suits worn by Penn & Teller). I told the staff that I wrote letters to the museum when I was 15-16, and they said there was an excellent chance that Robert Lund had saved those letters in his files. Traveling across the street to the Research Center, Alex brought me out a file marked: Cox, John. It was strange and moving to re-read my letters from so long ago. I especially loved that I had to wear gloves to handle the file.

It was then back to the Franke Center to set-up my "Houdini in Hollywood" talk, which I would be giving as part of the opening night events. It took a little doing to figure out how best to screen the "Top Secret" Houdini movie I had brought along to show. But David Charvet had brought in an excellent A/V staff, and soon everything was ready to go.

Following a nice reception with food in the Franke lobby, the night kicked off with a few words from Marshall's Mayor, Jack Reed. Then a video of Dan Waldron remembering his friend Bob Lund and the opening of the American Museum of Magic was shown. Susan Collins, the incoming chair of the museum board, then spoke. Diego Domingo then gave a talk about his first visits to the museum.

Next was Bill Spooner who presented a fascinating and funny talk about the infamous "Sex Detector." Then came David Meyer who blew my socks off with a slide show presentation on his 1900-05 Houdini scrapbook called: "What I bought when I was seventeen." Every image he showed was new to me! Even Arthur Moses was drooling beside me. (This weekend I learned just how much unseen Houdini material is still out there.)

After a short intermission (and popcorn), it was my turn to give my talk. Knowing this was a savvy crowd, I modified the talk and tried to show film clips they might not have seen before. Based on the many nice compliments I received throughout the rest of the weekend, I think the talk went really well.

Photo by Wayne Wissner.

My original plan was to screen Terror Island or an episode of The Master Mystery following my talk. But a few weeks before the convention, I decided to go for broke and contacted TCM's Charles Tabesh and distributor Park Circus to see if there was any way I could show the new TCM restoration of The Grim Game. To my great pleasure, they gave me permission to do so!

I kept this largely a secret -- it was not mentioned in any of the convention materials -- and I revealed it as dramatically as I could during my talk. So the first night closed with The Grim Game on the big screen, which was only the third public screening ever. Everyone seemed to enjoy the film. In fact, more than a few people over the course of the weekend told me the movie had changed their minds about Houdini's appeal as a cinema star.

The Grim Game in Marshall. (Photo by Wayne Wissner.)

DAY 2 - May 29
Friday kicked off with official tours of the American Museum of Magic. While I had gone through the museum the day before, it was a blast to be there with magic luminaries such as: William Kalush, John Gaughan, Mike Caveney, David Ben, Julie Eng, and many others. The museum had opened a storage closet where they kept Doug Henning's original Zig Zag Girl illusion. The museum is unable to publicly display the prop because the paint is peeling, and it was a thrill to see this important piece of magic history (you know I'm wild about Doug!). Attendees later gathered in the Research Center to discuss the health and future of this great institution of magic.

The afternoon talks at the Frank Center began with host David Charvet interviewing Adele Friel Rhindress, who worked as Harry Blackstone's Elusive Moth in his big touring show. Adele did card flourishes she learned 67 years ago from fellow assistant, Del Ray, and she was an absolute joy both onstage and off. (She sent me a nice text after my talk saying how much she enjoyed it.) Bill Smith then presented a fascinating and funny talk about working with Harry Blackstone, Jr.

Blackstone's "Elusive Moth" Adele Friel Rhindress.

Keith Stickley, a.k.a. Dr. Scream, gave a talk on the history of "Spook Shows Past and Present." During the talk a gorilla suddenly burst from behind the curtains and chased one of his assistants who let off one of the best and most bloodcurdling screams I've ever heard. Just a taste of what was to come that night.

The last speaker of the afternoon was the great Mike Caveney, who presented a riveting talk on "America's Zig Zag Scandal" of the late 1960s. Hearing Mike lecture is always a highlight of any gathering.

After a quick rest and dinner, it was back to the Franke for the Friday night events. First up was Gabe Fajuri who presented a talk on the history of Abbott's Magic Company, which we would be visiting the next day. He then moderated a nostalgic discussion about Abbott's with Tim Wright, Gordon Miller, and current owner Greg Bordner. Magician and author Al The Only then gave a moving talk on the The Magic Graveyard in Colon, Michigan.

The evening concluded with Dr. Scream's Spook Show Revival. It had all the classic spook show elements: magic (including a nice Cremation illusion); lovely girls (Dr. Scream's own "Devil Dolls"); and a signature "Blackout" in which spooks and bugs invaded the audience in the dark. In the tradition of the spook show, a film was then shown, Monsters Crash the Pajama Party, which has to be seen to be believed.

After the show, I got a quick photo with the Devil Dolls, because a man cannot live on magic alone!

DAY 3 - May 30
The third day opened with a trip to Colon, Michigan, the "Magic Capital of the World." Colon is home to the famous Abbott's Magic Company, which has been in continuous operation since 1934. It was great to see the store and workshop, and a hoot to watch Tim Wright perform vintage Abbott's magic tricks as a store pitchman.

Abbott's supplied props to the Tony Curtis Houdini movie in 1953, and there were several posters for the film on the walls, including two large U.S. 2-sheets that I had not seen before. These were even new to Arthur Moses who could not find them in the pressbook. (I posted pics of these in my live tweets.) Abbott's also built props for the 1966 London stage production, Man of Magic, including a working recreation of the famous De Kolta expanding die, which was never used in the production.

Outside I also noticed that Abbott's had an authentic Siberian Transport Prison Van, still in amazing condition! At least that's what I think it was.

Oh, maybe not...

We then visited nearby Lakeside Cemetery ("The Magic Graveyard"), which holds dozens of magicians, including the great Harry Blackstone Sr. and Blackstone Jr. While Thurston tends to be celebrated as the second most famous name in magic, I've always believed that title actually belongs to Blackstone. Robert Lund is also buried here, and I love that his headstone reads: "Among Friends."

Al The Only tries on his plot for size. Perfect fit!

Following lunch at the beautiful River Lake Inn, we headed back to Marshall. After resting up (during which time the Milk Can was transported to the Franke Center, which I'm sorry I missed), we all gathered at the 176-year-old Trinity Episcopal Church for a dinner served by the generous Rev. Anne Schnaare. It was delicious home cooking (I'd forgotten how much I like Swiss Steak), and I was honored to be sitting at a table with John Gaughan and Edward and Adrian Dawes.

It was now time for the big show! Mike Caveney emceed what was billed as "The International Stars of Magic." This was open to the public and there was a full house. The show kicked off with Gene Anderson performing his amazing paper cutting act. David Ben and Julie Eng of Magicana then performed classic and elegant magic.

After a short video explaining the history of Houdini's Milk Can escape, the curtains opened to reveal the Houdini-Hardeen can from the collection of the American Museum of Magic. As advertised, the museum had given special permission for the historic prop to be used this night, which just happened to be the 70th anniversary of Hardeen's last performance of the escape on May 30, 1945. The escape was performed by Hatari (Joseph Patire), and I was thrilled to be invited on-stage to help lock the can. (Read more about this historic performance here.)

Hatari in the Houdini-Harden Milk Can. (Photo by Wayne Wissner.)

After intermission, Skilldini (Tim Wright) did his brilliant magic comedy act. I always enjoy seeing Tim when he performs at the Magic Castle, so it was a real treat to see him here. Throughout the evening, emcee Mike Caveney performed tricks, including a routine with a young volunteer from the audience that was truly hysterical. David Charvet, assisted by Lisa Patire, closed the show with some classic magic.

Following the show, the performers signed autographs in the Franke lobby. We then all gathered in the dealers room for dessert reception.

May 31
While the big show was the official end of the weekend, it was not over for those who stayed on for an extra day (including me). From the stage of the Franke Center, Potter & Potter held their auction of "Old and Rare Magic Books." It was exciting to be there with all the heavy hitters, both in the room and on the phone (two phone bidders took most of big ticket items). One lot I was watching was a rare Russian Houdini book, which sold for an estimate busting $7000. (Read more about that here.) The highest price realized was an astounding $45,600 for a copy of Discoverie of Witchcraft, considered to be the first book on magic.

Before I left town, I made one last stop at the museum archives. Alex had told me he found some more Houdini material that I could look through if I liked. Yes please! Waiting for me was a table filled with file folders, and I plunged in. I came across some real treasures that even the museum didn't know they had. One discovery is of major historical significance, but I will leave it to the museum to reveal it when and how they want. Before I left, Alex made me copies of a few rare photos and letters, some of which I will be sharing here on WILD ABOUT HARRY. (Watch for: "The photo Houdini didn't want you to see.")

My heroes Alex and Keli Hindenach of the American Museum of Magic.

It was late afternoon when I left Marshall, but I still had time for my planned photo safari of Houdini's Detroit before I had to catch my flight home.

My first stop was the site of Grace Hospital, where Houdini died on October 31, 1926. The old Grace Hospital was torn down in 1979 and replaced with the Harper Professional Building at 4160 John R St., which is part of the larger Harper University Hospital complex. It struck me that, unless the streets have changed, Grace probably sat in what is now the parking lot.

After taking a few pics, I slipped inside and had a look around. In the main lobby of the larger hospital I chatted with a friendly and helpful security guard. He told me that a Staff Only area had on the wall some historical information about the building being Grace and Houdini's death. I quipped, "This is the only place he never escaped." That cracked him up, and something tells me that's not the last time that joke will be told there.

Just a few blocks away is the building that once housed Wm. R. Hamilton's Funeral Home where Houdini was embalmed. That building is still standing at 3957 Cass St., although it appears to be abandoned and may not be standing for long. Recent pics of the funeral home show it from Cass St. But if you walk around the corner, you get a better perspective on the building and can see what was most likely the main business entrance in 1926.

I was running short on time, so I decided to skip the Garrick Theater, which stood on the site of what is now the David Stott Building at 1150 Griswold St. Instead I made a dash for the MacArthur Bridge, which in Houdini's day was the wooden Belle Isle Bridge. This is where Houdini made his 1906 bridge jump, but the location has become more famous as being the supposed site of his fabled entrapment under the ice.

I was now in big trouble time-wise, so I only had time for a quick photo of the bridge before I had to race back to the airport and catch my flight home (I just made it).

The Midwest Magic History Weekend was one of the best magic conventions I've ever attended, and these five days proved to be an amazing Houdini vacation for me. Congratulations to organizer David Charvet and the American Museum of Magic. I'm very honored to have been included in this magical event.



  1. I so wanted to attend, but couldn't fit it in due to my performing schedule. Truly looks like a fantastic event. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Excellent report, John! Wish I had been there! Looking forward to your new material!

  3. Kudos to you and David Charvet for making it was a great weekend. I loved the popcorn to watch The Grim Game and the home made pie to close the convention was spectacular.
    Elaine Lund was born in Grace Hospital while Houdini was was a patient there October 25, 1926. I doubt their paths crossed!
    Thanks for the review, so good to meet you there!

  4. Elaine was born in Grace when Houdini was a patient there!? Wow, I didn't know that. That's a very interesting connection to the museum. Thanks for letting us know that.

    It was great meeting you, Brad. Really enjoyed our time and conversations.

    1. Bob always referred to Elaine as an artifact since she was in the hospital the same time as Harry.

  5. Wow! Double wow! Thanks for the report John, and those great photos! It's no exaggeration to say it almost felt like being there. I wish I had a plate of Rev. Anne's dinner. You answered a Houdini mystery by letting us know that the overboard box was not left on the floor of the Hudson River. Apparently the box was too valuable to abandon and rebuild on a regular basis.

    The photo HH did not want us to see...please don't keep us in suspense!

  6. Awesome report John. I think it was Del Ray who taught Adele Friel Rhindress the card fans?? Thank you for your talk Thursday night and bring and showing the movie of Houdini . Thank you so much.
    Andrew Martin Portala

  7. Excellent write-up John!

  8. Thanks all for the kind words. It was really a terrific event. Ran like clockwork. Once again, kudos to David Charvet.

    BTW, the convention program is a Houdini collectible in itself as it has a nice history of the Milk Can with some great photos.

  9. Thanks so much, John for the wonderful report and your talk at the Weekend and of course, presenting The Grim Game for our audience. It was the icing on the cake!