Friday, October 30, 2015

Follow me at The Official Houdini Seance in San Francisco

I'm hitting the road and heading to San Francisco for The Official Houdini Seance 2015. This year's seance is being hosted by magician Robert Strong and promises to be a spectacular Halloween event. The day will be made up of three different shows at the historic Brava Theater, with magic by top magicians and discussions about spiritualism and skepticism.

This year's official seance will be unique in that two seances will be held on the stage of the Brava. The first will be an "earnest seance" in which Medium Terrie Huberman will attempt to contact Houdini. If that draws a blank, there will be a "magical seance" presented by Mentalist Paul Draper with guaranteed results.

I'm very excited to part of this year's event. I will be presenting a short history of Houdini's career and of the Official Houdini Seances themselves.

Tickets to the main seance show at 8:00 PM are now sold out. But as of this writing, tickets are still available to the two earlier shows at 2:00 PM and 5:00 PM via the Official Houdini Seance website.

I will not be updating WILD ABOUT HARRY until I return, so I'm embedding my Twitter feed below where I will keep you up-to-date with all the happenings in SF via hashtag: #WildSeance (if you are not seeing the feed, refresh your browser). And should Harry return, expect to hear about that as well: #HoudiniLives!!


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Official Houdini Seance is SOLD OUT

Robert Strong reports that tickets to The Official Houdini Seance at the Brava Theater in San Fransisco are now SOLD OUT. It's great to hear that Harry will have a full house on Saturday...should he decide to attend.

Tickets are still available to the two daytime shows at the Brava: a 2:00 PM "Halloween Family Magic Show" featuring magicians Robert Strong, Justin Willman, Paul Draper, and Brian Allen Brushwood, and a 5:00 PM discussion of "Skepticism and the Supernatural" with  Michael Shermer and Jamy Ian Swiss. Tickets to those can be purchased via the Official Houdini Seance website.


Bess appears from 'Smoke & Mirrors'

If you're in Los Angeles and don't have Halloween plans, why not catch the acclaimed Smoke & Mirrors now playing at The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. The play will have two special Halloween performances this Saturday at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM.

Smoke & Mirrors stars magician Albie Selznick and features Bess Houdini as a character. Bess has been played in past productions by Laura Stahl, Alix Koromazay, Laurie Huff, and Meagan Daine. This weekend she will be played by actress and Burlesque artist Brianna Hurley.

Named “Critic’s Choice” by the Los Angeles Times, Smoke and Mirrors is a heartfelt comedy-drama with mind-bending magic. Created by and starring actor and magician Albie Selznick (Lifetime member of Hollywood’s Magic Castle), Smoke and Mirrors is a semi-autobiographical, fantastical, coming-of-age story about a boy who uses magic to escape reality and face the world after the death of his father

Smoke and Mirrors is a poignant yet humorous play packed with sleight-of-hand and amazing illusions. Selznick takes the audience on his journey while enlisting the assistance of Rabbit, The Oracle and Bess Houdini, who makes a startling appearance!

The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles, CA 90025. Buy tickets here.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Secret Life of Houdini Boxed Set 50% off for Halloween

The Conjuring Arts Research Center is offering a special Houdini Halloween deal. By using the code HOUDINIHALLOWEEN at check out you can save 50% on all Houdini eBooks as well as the magnificent The Secret Life of Houdini Boxed Set.

The Secret Life of Houdini Boxed Set includes a special edition of The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Slomon with a colored frontispiece signed by both authors. But what makes the set a must is the companion book, The Secret Life of Houdini Laid Bare, which compiles all of the author's notes and sources aloha with material edited out of the biography and more than seventy additional photographs. Each book is numbered and only 1,000 sets have been produced. If you didn't get this back in the day, this would be a great time to grab one.

Use the code HOUDINIHALLOWEEN at check out.

Wendy Edwards talks Houdini, Oct. 31

Podcaster Wendy Edwards will present a special Houdini-themed show this Saturday, October 31 (Halloween). I recorded an interview with Wendy yesterday, so it looks like I will be part of the show.

Conversations With Wendy airs on news radio 1070 WINA in Charlottesville, VA. You can listen to the broadcast live on Halloween at 8:00 AM (ET) via the 1070 WINA website.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Niles Museum holds Houdini event

The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Niles, California held a special Houdini event on October 18th. Called "Halloween With Houdini," the evening featured a screening of the documentary, Harry Houdini: Magic Among The Spirits (a.k.a. The Annual Harry Houdini Séances) presented by the film's director Tom Wyrsch. Following the film was a reenactment of a Houdini seance and a chapter from The Master Mystery.

I'm sorry I didn't learn about this event until now as I would have helped get the word out and also included it on our Houdini Calendar. But this has been a jam-packed month for Houdini, and October 18th was an especially busy day. It also saw my own talk on "Houdini Among the Spirits" and the premiere of The Grim Game on TCM.

The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum covers the history of Niles, the Essanay Film Company, and silent films with an emphasis on pioneering film companies of the San Francisco Bay Area. I'm hoping to visit the museum during my upcoming trip to San Fransisco for The Official Houdini Seance 2015. It's my belief that Houdini himself visited Niles in 1915 and is where he took his famous photo with Charlie Chaplin (who was making movies for Essanay at the time). Maybe I'll feel those ghosts!

You can learn more about The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum at their official website. For more on Tom Wyrsch's Houdini documentary visit Garfield Lane Productions.

UPDATE: Having now visited the museum and spoken with the helpful staff, it appears this photo of Houdini and Chaplin was not taken in Niles. By November of 1915, Chaplin was renting studio space in Los Angeles. Sorry, Niles, we tried.


Chung Ling Soo is a True Nightmare

The Discovery program True Nightmares hosted by Todd Robbins recently aired a segment about Chung Ling Soo and his fatal accident while doing the bullet catch. In the reenactments, Soo is played by magician Frederick Falk and his wife Dot, a.k.a. Suee Seen, is played by my good friend Callie Cleaves (below).

The segment also features Jim Steinmeyer, who wrote the definitive biography of Chung Ling Soo, The Glorious Deception.

Houdini and Chung Ling Soo (actually magician William Robinson) were close friends. In fact, the week Houdini had his career breakout at the Alhambra in London, Chung Ling Soo was on the same bill. Dot and Bess Houdini were also close friends. When Soo was killed doing the bullet catch in 1918, Houdini announced plans to do the trick himself. But he was talked out of it by magician Harry Kellar.

The True Nightmares episode is called "Too Rich, Too Thin" (Season 1/Episode 2) and is streaming at the Investigation Discovery website (the Soo segment starts at 18:15). It also repeats on the Discovery ID channel.


Monday, October 26, 2015

Catch Harry at the Houdini

TCM's restoration of Houdini's The Grim Game will screen at the aptly named HOUDINI cinema in Zürich, Switzerland. The cinema has been closed since it experienced a fire last February. It will reopen on November 4th and The Grim Game will be among the first films screened.

The Grim Game will play on November 7, 8, and 11. It will feature the original score by Brane Živkovic.

The Houdini Kino/Bar is located at Badenerstrasse 173, 8004 Zürich, Switzerland. For more information and showtimes visit the official website.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

REVIEW: The Witch of Lime Street is no fraud

When The Witch of Lime Street was first announced back in 2007, there was some skepticism among Houdini buffs (myself included). The press reported a "high six figures" advance for a book by an author no one in the Houdini world had ever heard of. Indeed, David Jaher (spelled Jehar in the original reports) had never written a book before, and while he was said to be a screenwriter, he had no produced credits. Furthermore, he worked as a professional astrologer. It didn't help that the release date was continually postponed. Originally set for release in 2010, it jumped to 2012, 2013, 2014, and finally 2015. So you couldn't blame Houdini buffs for suspecting The Witch of Lime Street might turn out to be as fraudulent as, well, "the Witch of Lime Street" herself!

Having now read David Jaher's 436-page The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World, I'm happy to report that all our fears were unfounded. The book is a triumph! It's exhaustively researched, beautifully written, and easily stands as one of the best books ever written on Houdini's anti-spiritualism crusade. It is certainly the finest work ever produced on Mina Crandon a.k.a. "Margery" (admittedly, there have only been two others). It also might be one of the best books ever produced on the subject of Spiritualism itself. For those wishing to better understand Houdini's encounters with Margery and his participation in the Scientific American committee, this is now essential reading.

For me, the "test" of the book was in how the author handled the infamous ruler incident. This is the controversy over how a folding carpenter's ruler got inside the Margery control box during one of her seances with Houdini. Margery believers blame Houdini. Houdini supporters blame Margery. And informed magic historians -- especially those who don't care for Houdini -- quickly cite a damning quote from Houdini's chief assistant Jim Collins (which first appeared in Gresham) confessing that he "chucked it in the box" on the boss's orders. So which side would the author take?

Well, not only does David treat the ruler controversy objectively, describing all that occurred without inserting his own opinion (a relief in this day of opinions as fact!), he also reveals the source of the Collins quote as magician Fred Keating, a Margery convert who had been J. Malcolm Bird's select magician committee member during the seances preceding Houdini's arrival in Boston (the full extent of Keating's involvement was something I didn't know until this book). So not only did David pass my test with flying colors, he also took a step to debunk something that has been used to indict Houdini (and Collins) in the past. Bravo!

While there isn't a single momentous revelation in the book (no, Margery was not a government spy), there are dozens of small ones. Among these is the mind-blower that Margery channeled her spirit guide Walter during a radio broadcast in January 1934. That is one recording I'd love to hear! Jaher takes us a few more troubling steps down the road that suggests Margery's husband, Dr. Le Roi Crandon, may have been involved in child abductions -- maybe even murder -- which was first uncovered by Bill Kalush in The Secret Life of Houdini. This is weird and troubling stuff, and while it is still unclear exactly what was going on, it appears Houdini himself might have been pursuing the case via his English agent, Harry Day. Jaher also delves into the seductive side of Margery (a favorite topic), and even reveals that Margery did try to work her "applesauce" against Houdini in her own son's bedroom at Lime Street. (You can bet I'll be doing a post about that one soon.)

As to Houdini himself, Jaher's portrayal feels very similar to that of Ken Silverman in his masterful Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss. It's not wholly positive or worshipful, but it feels honest and true, showing us Houdini at his best, worst, or usually somewhere in-between. One thing I didn't care for was the author's continued use of "The Great Houdini." Houdini himself never used this moniker, and it seemed like an unnecessary Hollywood flourish in an otherwise controlled and scholarly work.

For such a weighty topic, the book flows beautifully. I especially enjoyed the brevity of the chapters. Here I think Jaher's skills as a screenwriter came into play. Not for any ability to create fiction, but for an ability to condense information into packets of dramatic movements that carry the reader along. The book never bogs down or meanders. It's what one would call "a quick read."

It's when Jaher moves outside of his area of core research (1920-25) that he falls into a few familiar traps and errors do creep into the text. He says Houdini appeared in the Welsh Bros. Circus as the "Wild Man of Borneo." It was actually the "Wild Man of Mexico." (Borneo comes from the movies.) He suggests the sea monster challenge took place underwater. It was a stage escape (but Houdini sometimes told an underwater version). And the provider of Houdini's last meal of Farmers Chop Suey was Dr. Daniel Cohen, not Dr. Kennedy. But these types of forgivable errors appear in all Houdini biographies. I spotted no whoppers, nor did David indulge in any wild speculations. Instead, the author finds his story -- which is as thrilling as any Hollywood fiction -- in the facts.

So while it may have taken a few years longer than we expected and, yes, it's a skeptical work written by an astrologer, The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher is a major contribution to the world of Houdini scholarship and a gift for all Houdini buffs.

Oh, and the dust jacket glows in the dark! That alone makes it a must for your Houdini bookshelf.

The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World can be purchased at (U.S.) and (UK). It's also available as an Unabridged Audiobook.


Saturday, October 24, 2015

National Magic Week, October 25-31

As they do each year, The Society of American Magicians (S.A.M.) has proclaimed October 25-31 as National Magic Week in honor of their "Most Illustrious" past president, Harry Houdini. Here is this year's official proclamation:

David Bowers, National President of The Society of American Magicians, proclaimed the week of October 25 to October 31, 2015 as National Magic Week throughout the United States and Canada.

For more than forty years the Society has recognized the anniversary of the death of Harry Houdini with a special “week” of events to highlight the charitable work of the Society throughout the year. During the year the members of the Society donate performances for senior citizens in nursing homes, in VA hospitals, for schools and libraries, and for children who cannot afford the luxury of live entertainment. The free shows are part of service programs sponsored by The S.A.M. and follow the example set by Harry Houdini, a past National President of the Society.

“Magic Week” is when the magicians celebrate this service. Public magic events and exhibits will be taking place all over the country.

Each year governors, mayors, and other governing bodies throughout North America are requested to issue proclamations declaring the last week in October as National Magic Week, encouraging magicians to participate in the activities.

For more that 50 years the S.A.M. has recognized the anniversary of the death of Houdini with this special week of charitable performances. Houdini served as the National President of the S.A.M. from 1917 until his death in 1926. Below is a membership card from Houdini's reign.

More more information visit the official Society of American Magicians website.


Young Houdini arrives in Italy

Simon Nicholson's first Young Houdini novel has been released in Italian with what the author describes as "heart-thundering illustrations" by artist Iacopo Bruno.

Il piccolo grande Houdini: L'Ordine del Corvo Bianco is published by Piemme and is available to purchase from the Italian

So far there have been two books in Simon Nicholson's Young Houdini series: The Magician's Fire and The Demon Curse. A third book, The Silent Assassin, will be released in the UK in early 2016.

Related posts:

Friday, October 23, 2015

Out West With Houdini

Here's a unique new take on Houdini fiction. Out West With Houdini by Robert M. Fells finds the Handcuff King in action in the Old West! Here's a description:

Young lawyer Arthur Jeffries travels out west in the 1890s to locate some fortunate individuals who are unaware they have inherited wealth. Finding them is easy but extricating them from jail or worse seems impossible. That is, until Arthur meets an unknown magician named Houdini who reveals the secrets of mind reading, handcuff escapes, disappearing from a locked trunk, and the Indian Fakir Mind Control. Arthur puts this knowledge to good use on behalf of his clients.

Before you think this is pure fantasy, know that Houdini lived at the time when there was still an American frontier. During his struggling years of 1891-1900, he certainly would have played towns still populated by cowboys and frontier types.

Purchase Out West With Houdini at (U.S.) and (UK). The book is available as a paperback and for Kindle.

Houdini Tribute Show in Milwaukee

This Sunday, October 25, magician and comedian Glen Gerard will present a special "Houdini Tribute Show" in the ballroom of the historic Astor Hotel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The show starts at 2:00 PM and will highlight Houdini's connections to Milwaukee. Below are the details.

The Astor Hotel is located at 924 E Juneau Ave, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202. Click here for more details.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Daytime shows added to The Official Houdini Seance events on Oct. 31

Two additional daytime shows have been added to The Official Houdini Seance​ events on October 31, 2015 at the historic Brava Theater in San Fransisco.

2:00 PM: Comedy magician Robert Strong, magician Justin Willman, mentalist Paul Draper, and Brian Allen Brushwood will perform "The Greatest Halloween Family Magic Show of all time!" The show is being presented for The Buddy Club in San Francisco, the Bay Area's longest-running shows for families. Click for more info and the buy tickets.

5:00 PM: Michael Shermer, founder of The Skeptics Society and monthly contributor to Scientific American magazine and Jamy Ian Swiss, world-renowned magician and skeptic, discuss "Skepticism and the Supernatural." This program is being produced by Wonderfest and the Bay Area Skeptics. Click for more info and the buy tickets.

At 8:00 PM comes The Official Houdini Seance 2015, which will feature all the performers and guest speakers and the Official Houdini Seance itself. Tickets to this main event are still available via the Brava Theater website.

To keep up with all the day's events visit the official website or join the Official Houdini Seance Facebook Event page.

See you at the show(s)!


Houdini at UCLA

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of being a guest speaker at Tom Ogden's class on the History of Magic at UCLA Extension. Yesterday's class focused on magic in the 20th century, and Tom kindly invited me to cover Houdini. It was a real honor and the students seemed to enjoy it.

Houdini and I took up the first hour of the class. In the second, Tom discussed other famous magicians of the 20th Century and also demonstrating several magic tricks. I was "volunteered" to be sawed in half on a classroom table, which I'm happy to report was a success! (Only afterwards did Tom admit that he's never attempted that trick before.)

Thanks to Tom Ogden and Mark Willoughby for the fun and informative day. Be sure and visit Tom's official website.

Discover "Houdini in Milano" today

A major Houdini exhibition is part of Expo Milano 2015 which kicks off today in Milan, Italy. "Houdini in Milano" is being presented by escape artist David Merlini in cooperation with the General Commissioner of Hungary. It marks the first major Houdini exhibition in Europe.

On display are original Houdini artifacts as well as props from last year's Houdini miniseries starring Adrien Brody (David Merlini was the technical advisor on that film). The image to the left is the robe worn by Brody's Houdini.

The "Houdini in Milano" exhibition runs through October 29 at the Hungarian Pavilion. You can get more information via the  official website or my earlier post here.

As a conclusion to the event, on October 29 at 9:00 PM in the Expo Auditorium, David Merlini will attempt an updated version of Houdini's Water Torture Cell "in a way never before staged." Below is the flyer for "Houdini in Milano: The Grand Event." Admission is free but seats are limited. Book tickets here.

Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Take a bus tour of Houdini's Detroit

The Detroit Bus Company is offering a special Houdini-themed tour this month called "Houdini: The Final Day - A Suspenseful Mystery Adventure Of Deadly Consequences." The tour runs on selected days through October 31. Here are details:

One fateful day in October, world famous magician and escape artist Harry Houdini had a life-altering encounter that ultimately took his life. Retrace his final journey and discover the facts might not be what they seem.

You might think you've heard this one before, the tale about the punch, the show, and the fall. As with all of Houdini's great illusions, appearances aren't what they seem. There are many unseen layers and unexpected players involved in this story never told to public audiences in full. Join us on a gripping journey as we take you deep into the narrative and awaken names previously trapped in forgotten books and clippings. Hear about how the "most dangerous and violent cult America had ever seen" is involved. We'll visit the actual sites which lead to Houdini's undoing and experience the story first-hand.

This is a rare glimpse into Detroit's dark history. Come along.

You can book at seat for "Houdini: The Final Day" at The Detroit Bus Company website. The company says the tour will be given "This year only. Never again."

For a taste of what to expect, check out my own recent tour of Houdini's Detroit today.

Thanks to Colleen Bak.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Center For Inquiry welcomes Houdini (and I)

On Sunday I had the great pleasure of giving a lecture on "Houdini Among the Spirits" at the Center for Inquiry (CFI), a national skeptical organization committed to fostering a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. I presented the lecture twice that day -- first at the CFI's Los Angeles headquarters in Hollywood and later in Costa Mesa for CFI Orange County.

The lecture in Hollywood was held in the CFI's Steve Allen Theater, and I'm happy to report that it was a full house. I was very pleased to see many of my fellow "Houdini Nuts" in attendance, and also magician and TV star Michael Carbonaro ("The Carbonaro Effect") who was working with TCM that day promoting via Twitter the debut of The Grim Game. It was a happy coincidence that my lecture fell on the same day as the TV premiere of the Houdini movie, and I gave it a nice shout-out during my talk.

This was my first time giving this particular lecture, which covers Houdini's life-long involvement with Spiritualism and his career as debunker. I thought my performance in Hollywood was a little wobbly and the lecture a touch long, so I made some quick cuts and think I found the correct rhythm in Costa Mesa. The audience reaction at both locations was very kind, and we had a lively Q&A session. (Love doing Q&A.)

I'm always interested in what parts of the Houdini story seem to most captivate a crowd. I never really know. It's all interesting to me! But that's one of the reasons I like doing these lectures -- I always learn from the audience. In this case, the ladies seemed to steal the show. The crowd seemed especially fascinated with Margery and her battles with Houdini, and also appeared to really sympathize with Bess and her ordeal in 1929 with Arthur Ford. The Bessie clip from Religious Racketeers -- which I also show in my "Houdini in Hollywood" talk -- really seemed to move the audience as never before. Having felt this reaction so strongly in Hollywood, I almost teared up when I played it again in Costa Mesa.

While I don't have any commitments at the moment to give this particular talk again, tomorrow I will be a guest speaker at Tom Ogden's class on the History of Magic at UCLA Extension. The week's class is on magic in the 20th century, and Tom has kindly invited me to cover Houdini. A real honor. And then it's off to San Fransisco for the Official Houdini Seance 2015, which promises to be a spectacular event. Tickets are still available.

Thanks to everyone who came out on Sunday. Also thanks to James Underdown, Bob Ladendorf and Christine Jones for allowing me to bring Houdini to the CFI.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Amy Schumer closes HBO special with Houdini joke

Amy Schumer, one of my favorite comedians, closed her new HBO comedy special with a joke about Houdini. I didn't see the show, but I was able to track down a clip at Decider. It's dirty, so don't watch if you are sensitive. But I think it's pretty funny and I love her last line: "It's not fair to Houdini."

You can catch Amy Schumer: Live at the Apollo on HBO.

Thanks to the magical Callie Cleaves (@calliecleaves) for the tip.

Sunday, October 18, 2015


UPDATE: Please share your reactions to last night's screening(s) in the Comments below.

This time last year it was inconceivable that we would all be gathering around our television sets to watch The Grim Game, a film many Houdini fans feared they would never see. But now we are only hours away from enjoying Houdini's best film work. The Grim Game is here!

The Grim Game will air on TCM at 8:00 PM (ET)/6:00 PM (PT) and again at 11:45 PM (ET)/8:45 PM (PT). The first showing will feature the original ensemble musical score by Brane Živkovic. A second airing will feature the new piano score by Steve Sterner.

To mark the occasion, TCM and magician Michael Carbonaro (The Carbonaro Effect) will be live tweeting throughout the day, including from my talk on Houdini Among The Spirits at the Center for Inquiry in Hollywood. The hashtag is #HoudiniEffect and I'm embedding the Twitter stream below.

Enjoy the shows!


Friday, October 16, 2015

It's getting spooky...

While preparing my upcoming CFI talk on Houdini Among The Spirits, I noticed something odd in this photo of Houdini at his mother's gave circa 1913. Maybe it's just the amount of time I've been spending with the spirits, or maybe it's the spirit of Halloween, but I see something a little spooky here. Can anyone else spot it?

Hope to see some familiar faces at my lectures this Sunday, October 18th. Below are times and locations.

Houdini Among The Spirits
Sunday, October 18, 2015
11:00 AM: Center For Inquiry, 4773 Hollywood Blvd. 
Los Angeles, CA 90027.
4:30 PM: Costa Mesa Community Center, 1845 Park Ave. Costa Mesa, CA 92627.

For more info visit the details page at the CFI Los Angeles website and the CFI Costa Mesa website. Facebook event page HERE.

UPDATECenter For Inquiry welcomes Houdini (report)


Haversat & Ewing auction now LIVE

Haversat & Ewing Galleries latest magic auction is now LIVE. The auction features 28 Houdini-related lots, including a rare original 1902 Amsterdam prison break poster and a terrific original photo of Houdini with his dog Charlie.

The auction is made up of "over 220 choice lots cosigned by 20 of the nation's leading collectors including items from the late Ed Hill and Walter Gydesen."

Click here to view and bid on all the live auction lots. The auction ends October 17.

In other Houdini happenings today, author David Jaher will be giving an illustrated lecture on his new book The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in New York at 8PM. Full details here.

UPDATE: The 1902 Houdini lithograph topped out at $16,000, but failed to meet the reserve. The photo of Houdini and his dog Charlie fetched a very respectable $5,775.


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Coney Island: Where Harry met Bessie

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 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.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Houdini spooks Portland in 1924 has a great article about Houdini's visit to Portland in 1924 with his spiritualism exposé lecture. Houdini's lecture tour is is not very well covered in most biographies, so it's nice to get a taste of it here. Interestingly, Houdini included 20 minutes of magic as part of the evening.

But Houdini's talk at the Public Auditorium happened to be on the same night as the Presidential election of 1924 (Calvin Coolidge vs. John W. Davis) and that presented a problem, as the article explains:

So how was the production? 
Well.. it wasn’t very well attended. Maybe it was due to Election Night (the promoters promised that the returns would be read at Houdini’s performance, but thousands of Portlanders and their families took to the streets to read or hear the results instead). A few hundred folks came to the Public Auditorium to see the magician’s show, which the reporter still considered “a goodly crowd.” But maybe Portland people have always been into the woo-woo shit, and didn’t want to pay good money to hear Houdini diss their beliefs. None the less, it would seem that those that did manage to attend had a good time. “The audience was frankly delighted and was friendly to Houdini, bursting into frequent and prolonged applause.”

CLICK HERE to read the full article at The site says they will be covering more Houdini history during their upcoming Halloween "Kick Ass Oregon History" podcast.


Monday, October 12, 2015

Watch 10 minutes of The Grim Game

TCM has posted to their website three clips from their restoration of Houdini's The Grim Game. The combined clips amount to approximately 10 minutes from the movie and feature the new score by Steve Sterner.

The Grim Game will air on TCM this Sunday, October 18th. The first showing at 8:00 PM (ET) will feature the original ensemble musical score by Brane Živkovic. A second airing at 11:45 PM (ET) will feature the new piano score by Steve Sterner.

In other Grim Game news, yesterday the film screened at the Barbican's Cinema 1 in London with live piano accompaniment by Neil Brand. According to the official website, the screening was sold out.

Thanks to Dick and Dorothy at the Houdini Museum in Scranton for the alert.


Sunday, October 11, 2015

Houdini home in Budapest

Escape artist David Merlini reports that a Houdini statuette was donated Friday to a cultural center in Budapest's 7th District where Houdini was born. It will be on permanent display. Says David, "I have placed a white rose on the sculpture in the name of Wild About Harry, and myself."

David Merlini in cooperation with the General Commissioner of Hungary is presenting a major Houdini exhibition and magic show at the Expo Milano 2015 in Italy, October 22-29. Click for details.


Friday, October 9, 2015

Did Houdini really perform in San Francisco in 1926?

The Official Houdini Séance 2015 will be held this year at the historic Brava Theater in San Francisco. The seance is open to the public and promises to be a spectacular event. The official website notes that Houdini himself performed at the Brava -- then called the Roosevelt Theater -- in 1926, the year it opened. But Houdini in San Francisco in 1926? Can that be right? As the attending Houdini Historian for this event, I felt like this was something I had a responsibility to investigate. Here's what I found out.

According to organizer Robert Strong, the source of the Brava claim is a plaque on the wall of the theater lobby which states that Houdini performed there in 1926. So I contacted the good folks at the Brava Theater who were very nice and eager to help. They said the plaque was actually put up by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) who held an event at the Brava last year. They are the one's who researched the history and discovered the alleged Houdini connection. One certainly can't blame the Brava for leaving the plaque up and taking pride in this famous association!

So I fired off an email to SFMOMA to discover the source of their information. Unfortunately, the museum is closed for construction and no one was available to answer my email (another possibility; they blew me off). So the trail went cold.

But knowing what we know about Houdini, and especially how much we know about his activities in 1926 (the year he died), how possible is it that he performed in San Francisco that year?

First off, it should be pointed out that San Francisco was a very important city in Houdini's career. It was the first city he played under the management of Martin Beck in 1899, and is where he achieved his first real recognition and success. Houdini returned in 1907, 1915, and 1923. He performed an overboard box escape in San Francisco Bay (ad left) and a suspended straitjacket escape from the Hearst Building at Third and Market above a reported 30,000 spectators. So Houdini and San Francisco are linked in meaningful ways.

Now, as I said, 1926 is a year very well documented in the life of Houdini, and there is no record of him in San Francisco that year. Not even close. Also, the Roosevelt opened as a vaudeville/movie house, and Houdini had moved well beyond vaudeville by 1926 and was touring with his own full evening show ("3 Shows in One"). Houdini's roadshow did not make it beyond Detroit in 1926.

So we have a few possibilities to consider. Houdini made a trip to San Francisco in 1926 that has somehow gone unrecorded (seems unlikely). The Roosevelt showed a Houdini movie and over the years it has been confused with the real man (seems possible). Or could it be that Houdini had pre-booked the Roosevelt as the San Francisco stop for his "Coast to Coast" tour in 1926-27? So Houdini shows up in the old theater archives -- possibly uncovered by the researchers at SFMOMA -- as being scheduled to perform there, and the assumption was that he made it.

I admit this last theory is a speculative stretch, but I do like it. If Houdini was scheduled to perform at the Brava/Roosevelt, then there's something poetic about holding The Official Houdini Séance there. The theater has been waiting for Houdini to arrive for 89 years!

However, my spirit guide offers another explanation from the great beyond:

It's true! On March 24, 1926, Harry jumped into his Voisin biplane and flew out to the West Coast for a quick canoodle with Charmian London. While out getting some Farmers Chop Suey, he stopped in and gave an impromptu performance at the Roosevelt. Then with Nikola Tesla's help, he teleported back to New York before Bess sobered...I mean, woke-up.

So we can believe whatever version we like.

Recent seance publicity has focused more on the fact that Houdini performed in San Francisco 100 years ago this year, which is certainly true. But regardless of the history, the Brava is a beautifully restored theater from Houdini's time and I think it's going to make a terrific venue for The Official Houdini Séance 2015.

Tickets to the Official Houdini Séance 2015 are now available direct from the Brava website. But you also have SIX days left to buys tickets through the Official Houdini Séance Kickstarter where you can choose from a whole host of special premiums. Either way, it's time to make your plans for Halloween, and I hope to see some familiar faces at the Brava.

And, who knows, maybe Houdini's face will appear as well!

With thanks to Anastacia Powers Cuellar of the Brava Theater, Robert Strong, and Theatre Histories for the then and now image at the top of this post.