Friday, July 3, 2015

Guest blog: William V. Rauscher on Houdini and the Hippodrome

Today I'm honored to share a contribution by noted magic historian William V. Rauscher, who takes us inside Houdini's historic New York Hippodrome. This first appeared in the journal of the New England Magic Collectors Association (Nov. 2014).

Houdini played many theaters during his illustrious career but none like the one he appeared in for 19 weeks beginning January 7, 1918, when he vanished Jennie the elephant on the stage of the colossal Hippodrome Theater in New York City.

In the history of conjuring great magicians have played many theaters throughout the world but the Hippodrome in size, technology, and sheer magnificence was beyond belief. People today are awed in Las Vegas when they see the Titanic sink on stage or watch the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall.

At the Hippodrome they saw spectacle after spectacle that dwarfed today's theaters. If you're lucky enough to come upon a Hippodrome Theater program, it makes you wonder, "What was the Hippodrome like when Houdini performed there?" Few remember this enormous theater and even fewer realize its grandeur and elegance. It was advertised as the “Center of the Universe.” Leave it to Houdini to perform in the “center of the universe” and above all things to vanish an elephant. His appearance there made an impact at the time and it is still being discussed today. In size and effect alone the Hippodrome was probably the only theater that could accommodate such an illusion.

Two men deserve utmost recognition for creating and building the Hippodrome. They were the entertainment entrepreneurs Elmer "Skip" Dundy and Frederick Thompson. Described as "theatrical dynamite," they specialized in grand displays, lavish buildings and architecture and were entertainment giants. They thought and built big attractions such as Luna Park at Coney Island which opened in 1903. When they designed the Hippodrome Theater they thought beyond big – they thought gigantic.

Construction started in July 1904, and the architect was J. H. Morgan who created the building in the Beaux-Arts style with Moorish Revival themes. Dundy and Thompson wanted a theatre that would be the greatest in the world and they succeeded. It was to be the equivalent of a great theatrical temple and so it was.

The location was on Sixth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets. Exotic beyond belief, the planned seating capacity was 5,200. When finished, it had state of the art technology including hundreds of ingenious stage mechanisms. The electrical system was staggering and lit the theater with 52,000 light bulbs. There were 5,000 in the ceiling alone and another 9,000 lit the stage. A platform 30 feet high was required to work the light board.

The stage was 110 feet deep and 200 feet wide and each performance required 196 stage hands. The stage was equipped with hydraulics, counterweights, and traps that could be raised, moved or lowered. In the front of the stage beneath the covered floor was a glass tank 14 feet high and 60 feet in diameter. It held 8,000 gallons of water, could be flooded at a rate of 4,000 gallons a minute for water spectacles, and had the ability to be raised or lowered at will by a system of hydraulic pistons. It was so constructed that a bevy of chorus girls could descend the steps and into the water and never be seen again. A special air pocket allowed them to walk under the water and into the wings.

The main auditorium was designed in Roman style with red, gold, silver and ivory and the carpet offered the same colors. There were wall hangings, draperies and upholstery in red velvet with gold and silver embroidery and tassels. Carved stone and marble dignified the lobbies.

The opening night Hippodrome performance on April 12, 1905, and featured “A Yankee Circus on Mars” with a cast of 1,200 actors and dancers in beautiful costumes. Scenery for the Hippodrome was also grandiose and filled the stage. Overhead cranes shifted scenery that weighed up to ten tons. There were areas underneath the stage similar to a zoo for elephants, horses and other animals. It was twice the size of the Metropolitan Opera house and the orchestra pit accommodated hundreds of musicians. The great theater organ was created by the Wurlitzer Co.

As time went on financial problems escalated and the Hippodrome could no longer support the extravaganzas and spectacles it once presented. Many factors contributed to its demise. The coming of talking pictures, the decline of Vaudeville, the failings of Keith-Albee and Schubert management and troubles encountered by Dundy and Thompson. Producer Billy Rose was the last to try and bring back the heyday of the Hippodrome. He leased the theatre and presented its final spectacular production “Jumbo,” staring Jimmy Durante. The show played five months until the Great Depression brought it to an end. The Hippodrome closed August 16, 1932, and was demolished seven years later.

One great theatre capable of staging spectaculars still remains in New York. It opened on December 27, 1932, with a seating capacity of 5,933. It features an Art Deco interior with a sunburst ceiling and it is still capable of presenting grand productions. Known as "The showplace of the nation," theatergoers know it as the famous Radio City Music Hall. We can be sure that if Houdini were alive today he might be presenting the vanishing elephant there but probably with the help of the many hydraulic lifts that raise and lower the stage sections that might make the illusion even greater than it was in his day.

Just as Houdini stood on the stage of the Hippodrome and fired a pistol to make Jennie the elephant disappear, so to did the Hippodrome disappear to the sounds of demolition. When you think of Houdini and his elephant Jennie you might also fondly recall of the mighty Hippodrome. They are both wonders now gone and only memories.

Thanks to William Rauscher and Tom Ewing for allowing me to share this here at WILD ABOUT HARRY. If you have your own piece of Houdini research that you'd like to share as a "guest blog," please get in touch via my Contact Page.



  1. Thank You for sharing this with us.
    Just curious, did Houdini really fire a pistol to make Jenny the elephant disappear? Not sure I had heard that before.

    1. I feel like I have heard that before, but I could find no mention of a pistol in Pat Culliton's "Notes on the Vanishing Elephant."

  2. John Hinson great. nephew. of Bess. and Harry. HoudiniJuly 4, 2015 at 6:05 AM

    Would it be blanks, in the gun?

  3. Jim Steinmeyer in Hiding the Elephant mentions a “Drumroll” and then “he clapped his hands”, followed by “a loud crash chord”.

  4. Silverman doesn't mention the pistol in his description of the vanish, and neither does Gresham. The Untold Story is temporarily out of reach for me. Can anybody check it?

  5. The Untold Story has Houdini firing a pistol.

    1. Ah ha! So he's the culprit. Probably Bill's source. But where did Christopher get this info?

      Unless maybe THIS ILLUSTRATION was stuck in his head.

  6. That was a great newspaper clip! Joe Lee repeated a few Houdini myths but overall, he knew HH personally and does a nice job of recounting his life. The Keith Ward illustration is nice but...weird. The stage has a chess board floor and the audience is a contemporary 1948 crowd. Jenny was supposed to be wearing a giant watch on one of her legs. Lee and Ward can be forgiven for the myths and omissions because it was still far up the road before the Gresham and Christopher books arrived.

    1. It is a great article. I did a post about it back in 2010: Houdini's secret code.

  7. Houdini Has New Elephant Trick

    To-morrow at the Hippodrome one may see a full sized, real, live elephant disappear in full view of the audience on a brilliantly lighted stage, before one's very eyes. This vanishing elephant illusion is an experiment conceived and perfected by Houdini, world renowned expert in extracation, whom Charles Dillingham has selected as a feature extraordinary of "Cheer Up! The engagement of Houdini is keeping with Mr. Dillingham's policy of introducing important new features in his big Hippodrome spectacles after the holidays.

    The disappearing elephant feat is is one which Houdini began experimenting upon during his visit to India four years ago, for it has long been the dream of the Indian fakirs to realize the reputation given to Chaucer hundreds of years ago, when he wrote that he had seen "an elephant crumble to the earth in piecemeal and then reassemble itself and walk away." Houdini's illusion, which can no doubt be classified as the "biggest" ever attempted on any stage, while it does not crumble the huge beast weighing over 6,000 pounds, it does actually vanish the elephant on the stage in full glare of the light, without the use of traps, as the tank of water under the Hippodrome apron prevents any such camouflage. Houdini has constructed a gigantic cylinder shaped container of such dimensions that the largest elephant obtainable can enter with ease. It walks through this tube and vanishes.

    A second new experiment which Mr. Dillingham will introduce next Monday will be in the final scene of "Cheer Up!" in the aquatic spectacle where Houdini will present his Submersible Mystery. In this daring exhibition he is manacled and leg-tied and imprisoned in a heavily weighted iron bound box, which is lowered into the tank of water. While submerged Houdini accomplishes his escape and comes to the surface unfettered. Now, to prove that he is actually inside the box when it is thrown overboard and that he really takes a risk and dares death in the problem of escaping he will invite members of the audience to nail up the box at every performance. He has further obligated himself to the management to forfeit the sum of $1,000 to anyone who can prove he is assisted to escape or that it is possible to breathe, or that he obtains air when he is once submerged. The submerged box being filled with holes, is completely filled with water, the audience seeing it all the time, no curtain to obscure the sinking or hide it from view.