Monday, September 14, 2015

A Houdini Milk Can mystery in Studio City

Recently a talented young magician named Riley Siegler ("That Magic Kid") appeared on Penn & Teller Fool Us. While Riley didn't succeed in fooling the great magic duo, he did perplex me. That's because during his introductory video, Riley stood in front of a Milk Can that looked alarmingly familiar.

As you can see from the screen capture (right), the can has a unique design in which bands connect the lid to the body of the Milk Can instead of the neck. This is an imitation of a famous Houdini poster that shows this particular configuration. However, this was an invention for the poster. Houdini's actual Milk Can locked to the neck as do most working cans. But one place a physical Can with this unique configuration did appear was in the 1976 TV movie The Great Houdinis starring Paul Michael Glaser. In scenes shot at the Wilshire Ebel Theater in Los Angeles on April 28, 1976, Glaser performed the Milk Can using what to my eye appears to be this very can!

Turns out Riley's segment was filmed at "The Magic Apple" in Studio City, which just happens to be right down the street from Wild About Harry Headquarters (i.e. my apartment). So I went and had a look for myself.

The Magic Apple is a terrific independent magic shop that serves both beginners and professionals and has become a part of the L.A. magic scene. Owner Brent James was there the day I stopped by, and he shared what little history he knew. He said the Milk Can is owned by magician and magic consultant Tony Clark and has "been around forever." It is not a functioning prop; the store rents it out primarily for use in TV and film work. (Brent said they could gaff it for escape, but it would be dangerous and the store could supply a safer can for performance.)

The Magic Apple's Milk Can is surprisingly light weight, as one would expect from a film prop. Brent did not know about any connection to The Great Houdinis, but he agreed that it seemed possible. (I later emailed Tony Clark, but never heard back.)

According to Patrick Culliton, who played Houdini's assistant Franz Kukol during those scenes, Abb Dickson provided the Water Torture Cell and the Milk Can to the production. He says the Milk Can was rigged for escape, but no escape was attempted during the shooting. Glaser was put in the can and taken out. However, the actor did attempt the escape without water.

The Great Houdinis Water Torture Cell reappeared for sale on eBay in 2011. But the Milk Can has been off the radar. The fact that this Can is a movie prop, has the unique cover configuration, and has been around for a long as most can remember had me convinced that I had found the Milk Can used in The Great Houdinis.

However, when I returned home, I looked at the film closely and saw something that deflated me a bit. While the Milk Can in the movie and the Magic Apple Can share all the same key characteristics, I noticed that the Milk Can in the movie clearly has more rivets on the shoulders. The Movie Can also has a line of rivets running down the side that are not on the Magic Apple Can.

Now, it's possible the production dressed their can with more rivets for effect. Recall they added a false front to the Water Torture Cell. There is a welding seam running down the Magic Apple Can exactly where we see the line of rivets on the Movie Can so, again, maybe placed for effect or to conceal the seam. It's also possible false rivets were an original feature of the Magic Apple Can, but may have fallen off over the years. But the discrepancy in rivets knocks this down from being a certainty in my mind to just a possibility.

The Milk Can as seen in The Great Houdinis.

Nevertheless, it is an exciting possibility, and if this is The Great Houdinis Milk Can, it's great to see that it's still in excellent condition. It's also nice that we now have a fix on two Houdini movie Milk Cans. The Can used by Tony Curtis in a cut scene in Houdini (1953) sits today in the Houdini Seance Room at The Magic Castle, just a few miles away from The Magic Apple.

Below is a clip from The Great Houdinis showing the Milk Can escape. This was the very first scene shot for the movie. Watch for Patrick Culliton playing Franz Kukol.


  1. Tony Clark purchased the Milk Can from escape artist Steve Baker.

    It was Baker's Can. End of story.

    I have pictures showing Baker with the Can, which I have previously shown to Tony.

    I must admit, it is my favorite-looking Milk Can ever.

    --Joe Fox

    1. You know, I knew I should have turned to you first, Joe.

      Did Steve have the can made himself? One thing that's odd is it's a non-working can. Why would Steve have/build a non-working can?

      Think it's possible he got it from The Great Houdinis production? I'm still clinging to that hope. :)

    2. Unless maybe I misunderstood Brent. Maybe it was a working can, but has since been turned into a non-working one for movie rentals.

  2. I have no further information on where and/or who made the Can for Baker.

    There is contact info. for Steve Baker, however, he is not in the best of health.

    I'll see if I can locate any further information.

  3. You know, I might be crazy, but I recall someone once telling me Steve had some kind of involvement with The Great Houdinis, but was never credited. Harry Blackstone Jr. got all the credit. But maybe I'm crazy.

  4. I wish you had posted this yesterday, as I talked to Steve for a while on the phone. This is his can. Joe is correct, it was sold to Tony Clark. I could even tell you for how much, LOL. I have video of Steve performing the milk can. Steve also told me he was working with The Great Houdini's movie folks at one point but I don't think it was long. In fact, he told me something about Glaser calling him in regards to the Milk Can now that I think about it. I'll have to dig through my notes. I never asked Steve where he got his can however. I can ask him the next time I speak with him, but he may not remember at this point. His memory is very poor and he is not in the best health. I know John Gaughan built Steve's Water Torture Cell and it was built non gimmicked. Steve added his own secrets after he took possession of the WTC. So he might have done something like that to the can...I will ask

    1. Thanks Dean. Yo know, I was going to post this yesterday, but another story popped up. Dang.

      Glad to hear that you talked to Steve. Hope he's doing well.

      So we've definitely established that this was Steve's Can. But if he did work on The Great Houdinis, there still could be a possibility that his Can was somehow used.

      Obviously, don't trouble Steve, but would be great to solve the mystery.

  5. FYI both Abbs water cell and milk can were sold by Taylor Reed on
    his website in 2013.
    $5,500.00 for the cell(which was a shower stall with a glass front) and
    $600.00 for the can without the gaffed lid,
    Jon Oliver

    1. Oh! Do you happen have a photo of Abb's can, Jon? If it's the same one from The Great Houdinis, then that's that.

      I've sent an email to Taylor.

  6. You know, it's funny how difficult it is to track a Milk Can from 1976. Makes you wonder how its possible to have any confidence at all in a Milk Can that's supposed to date back to 1908. :)

  7. Precisely why purchasing Houdini manacles, keys and picks is dicey at best.

  8. Troy Milligan owns that can and the water torture cell. He's on Facebook.

    1. Indeed! I've posted a pic of Troy in the Milk Can here.