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.



  1. I pulled out Volume 6 of my Koval diary and there is no listing of HH performing in Frisco. His 3 in 1 show stayed pretty much on the East Coast in the Spring of 1926. HH took the summer off and focused on the Shelton Miracle.

    The museum people made a mistake and probably don't want to come clean.

  2. Here in Detroit, the Majestic Theatre, clams to be the one where Houdini
    performed his last show.
    Reality is The Grim Game played there in 1919.
    Thus without talking to the researchers, I would go with this theory.
    Jon Oliver

  3. No? Does John know about this? He's a man who insists on hearing bad news immediately...

  4. Great man! Did you know he is considered to be on of the most famous locksmith too? Found it quite amusing...