Harry and Bess Houdini first met while they were performers at Coney Island in 1894; Harry as part of the Brothers Houdini and Bess with a song and dance troupe known as The Floral Sisters. But where exactly were they performing? As with so many aspects of Houdini's life, biographers over the years have offered up different answers.
Walter B. Gibson, who knew Houdini and sourced information from the man himself, says in The Master Magicians
(1961) that they were at the Sea Beach Palace. Milbourne Christopher in Houdini The Untold Story
(1969) says the Coney engagement was "first at the Vachress Casino, then at Sea Beach Palace." Some non-Houdini sources, such as the unpublished Last Stop, Coney Island,
also name Sea Beach Palace as the location, so let's take a look at that candidate first.
Sea Beach Palace was not actually on the sea or beach. It sat inland north of Surf Avenue and was a hotel, pavilion, and the depot for the New York & Sea Beach Railroad. Below is a description of Sea Beach Palace from the excellent website, Heart of Coney Island
The Sea Beach Palace had originally been constructed on the grounds of the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia [the first World's Fair held in the US], where it served as the United States Pavilion. Dismantled and shipped to Coney Island by barge over the winter of 1876-77, it was one of several structures from the exposition that were later moved to Coney Island and helped create the amusement area's distinctive profile in the first years of the nineteenth century. The main building of Sea Beach Palace was a domed structure 375 feet long and 60 feet deep, with spacious wings on either end. The facility included a dining room that could seat 3,000 guests, and the railway terminal was to the rear of the structure."
Sea Beach Palace was demolished in 1920 and today the site is the Luna Park Co-op
at 2879 West 12th Street. Sea Beach Palace stood at the site of what is now Building #5.
|Modern map showing location of Sea Beach Palace.|
While it's easy, even logical, to believe that Harry and Bess performed at Sea Beach Palace, there actually isn't any documentation to confirm it. And that brings us to William Lindsey Gresham who suggests a different and long forgotten venue that was, literally and figuratively, on the other side of the tracks. But Gresham has the evidence to back it up.
On page 25 of his classic work Houdini The Man Who Walks Through Walls
(1959), Gresham reproduces a news item from the Coney Island Clipper
dated June 22, 1894, the day the Houdinis were married. The clipping concerns a challenge to the "Hunyadi" Brothers box trick from a local man named Risey, and it specifically names the theater where the Brothers Houdini were performing: Vacca's
. It also suggests a location in the sub headline: "Much Merriment Along Coney Island's Bowery."
The Bowery lay south of Surf Avenue and was Coney Island's main draw before the great amusements parks of Steeplechase, Luna Park, and Dreamland grew up around it. For help locating the precise location of Vacca's (which was probably called Vacca's Casino, Vacca's Hall, or Vacca's Pavillion), I turned to David Sullivan who runs Heart of Coney Island
website. David came through and provided maps and a terrific description of the area:
Vacca's Casino was at the corner of Buschman's Walk and Ocean Avenue. Ocean Avenue was better known as "the Bowery." The Bowery was the heart of the social scene at Coney Island, filled with bars, restaurants, dance halls, performances, arcade games and even roller coasters. It is fair to say that Houdini performed in the heart of Coney Island's raucous social district, which frequently made the newspapers as a place where the police looked the other way and where patrons mixed with dancing girls and where the public drank freely and generally ignored the strict social proprieties of the times.
Attached is a map of 1895 so you can get a feel for what the area looked like. In the 1895 map, look at the intersection that is immediately above and to the right of the number 77. Vacca's likely was the "Hall" directly across the street from Connor's Hall. Alternatively, Vacca's may have been one of the smaller venues at the northeast corner of the intersection. We'd have to find actual photographs to know for sure.
|1895 map showing the likely location of Vacca's (X).|
|Overhead of the Bowery today (Google Earth).|
As for Milbourne Christopher's claim of an engagement at "Vachress Casino," he was likely sourcing Gresham and confused the name. Again, according to David Sullivan, there was no such theater called Vachress. And while it's tempting to think Vacca's was maybe a nickname for Vachress, David says: "We know that 'Mr. Vacca' and 'Mrs. Vacca' actually did exist based on the newspaper articles (assuming the reporting was done properly), and at that time, almost all halls were named after the proprietors because of the way land/rents were handed out by a corrupt local politician to specific individuals."
In his book, Coney Island - The People's Playground
, author Michael Immerso says the Floral Sisters were at the Sea Beach Palace and the Brothers Houdini were at Vacca's. I don't know Immerso's source for his info on the Floral Sisters, but this nicely squares the reports of them at both venues, and it has a romantic ring to it. The boy from the Bowery falls for the girl at the Palace.
Bowery Street still remains today. However, all the structures from Houdini's time are long gone. Today the area is mostly empty lots. Bushman's Walk, which was not a street but a wooden planked sidewalk that ran down to the beach, is no longer marked in any way, so it's hard to pinpoint precisely where Vacca's Casino once stood. But we now know it was somewhere
along this short stretch of Bowery Street, so visitors to Coney Island can still walk in the footsteps of the young Harry and Bess Houdini.
Interestingly, while doing my own search for Vacca's, I found a clipping from a May 6, 1894 New York Times
that announced: "OLD CONEY IS NO MORE - Law and Order to be Established in the Lawless Realm of McKane." According to Brooklyn's Mayor Schieren: "Nothing in the way of entertainment would be permitted to go on except sacred concerts." Among those venues singled out to be "suppressed for good" was "Sea Beach Palace and Vacca's Pavilion."
This article appeared a month before Harry and Bess arrived. If any of the mayor's reforms took place, they were not as far reaching as threatened, and thank goodness for that! Had Vacca's and Sea Beach Palace been shuttered, the Houdinis may have never met.
Coney Island remained a favorite spot for the Houdinis. If they were in town at the time of their anniversary, they would always spend the day at Coney and have an anniversary photo taken at one of the tourist photo stands or a playful photo on the beach. For Harry and Bess Houdini, Coney Island was magic.
A very big thanks to David Sullivan of www.heartofconeyisland.com for all the valuable information and images, and to Colleen Bak whose recent trip to Coney Island was the inspiration for this investigation.
UPDATE: A few updates thanks to our readers. Vacca's full name was "Vacca's West End Casino" and it did indeed sit at the South-East corner of Ocean Ave and Bushman's Walk, exactly as marked on the 1895 map above. It appears the mayor's edicts did take effect in 1895 and Vacca's license was revoked (Sea Beach Palace survived). Finally, Manny Weltman in his great work Houdini Escape Into Legend, The Early Years: 1862-1900 confirms that The Floral Sisters were performing at the Sea Beach Palace while the Brothers Houdini were at Vacca's.