Saturday, November 21, 2015

Houdini vs. Hardeen in Oakland

It was 100 years ago today on November 21, 1915, that Houdini and Hardeen both opened in Oakland, California. The brothers would play out the Thanksgiving week in direct competition in theaters only a few blocks apart. While they had played against each other in San Francisco the week before, Oakland was a much smaller city. Would it prove too small for two Handcuff Kings?

The papers heralded this first appearance of Houdini at the Oakland Orpheum with news of two challenges awaiting "The Genius of Escape." The first was from Alameda County Sheriff Frank Barnet to perform a suspended straitjacket escape from the First National Bank building at Broadway and 14th Street, then home to the offices of the Oakland Tribune. (Today we tend to think of Houdini's suspended straitjacket escapes as standalone publicity stunts, but they were always promoted as challenges from local police or newspapers.) The second challenge came from the firm of H.C. Capwell Co. to escape from a "strong packing case which we will especially construct." The Tribune enthused:

Interest in Houdini's engagement at the Oakland Orpheum, which begins next Sunday, has apparently risen to a fever heat, for their are a dozen challenges ready to be hurled at Houdini from all kinds of business men, private citizens and firms who wish to test his alleged powers. It is evident that Houdini is too create the same remarkable sensation in Oakland that he has achieved elsewhere. It would be strange if he did not.

Hardeen also came into town with a packing crate challenge awaiting him from the Kahn Bros. Co. Advance publicity for his appearance at the Pantages Theater ("Oakland's Vaudeville Temple") did not hide the fact that he was Houdini's brother, but it did play a little fast and loose with the facts:

Hardeen is the older brother of Houdini, also famous as a handcuff artist, and is the man who taught his brother the first rudiments of the art of making escapes. For years they traveled together as the Houdini Brothers, laying the cornerstone of their fame, and lately they have starred separately, Harry Houdini under the original name and his brother under the name of Hardeen. He is the highest-priced Illusionist in the world.

For the record, Hardeen was Houdini's younger brother, and the Brothers Houdini had dissolved 21-years earlier. As for the claim that Hardeen taught Houdini the "first rudiments" of escape and was the highest-priced Illusionist in the world...well, that's for the brothers to fight out.

Two packing crates await the Brothers Houdini in Oakland.

When Houdini arrived in town on November 21st, the Tribune gave him a reception worthy of show-business royalty:

Houdini is here. He arrived at the Orpheum at midnight last night from San Francisco, and with him came fifteen men who will constitute his entourage. Houdini travels in state as befits one of his rank. A special car conveys him and his enormous quantity of apparatus which he uses in his feats on the Orpheum stage. All is bustle and excitement on the stage of the Orpheum, where everything has been made ready to receive him.

As one might expect, Houdini dominated the papers with his suspended straitjacket escape on November 22, 1915. But the stunt did not go smoothly. Not only was it raining, but as Houdini was being raised, the guide line slipped and he swung hard against the building and hit his head. It was thought at first that he had been knocked unconscious, but then they saw he was smiling.

After Houdini had struggled free from the jacket, he asked to be lowered. But the ropes didn't budge. It was then discovered that his gyrations had tangled the block and tackle. Houdini had to hang for a full eight minutes before the ropes could be reached and fixed. He told the Tribune afterwards:

"The blow on the head I did not mind so much––one gets used to hard knocks––but the trouble with the ropes was different. The exertion of freeing myself so tightened the ropes that they stopped my circulation. My limbs were throbbing painfully, and one of them was bandaged from a previous accident at the time. I was a pretty sick man by the time they got that tackle working. I don't blame the men, of course, they were not used to the thing, but I'm mighty glad I am free again."

There was one other twist to Houdini's escape that day. Hardeen hired boys to fan out into the massive crowd and hand out cards with his photo and the words, "All This Week at Pantages," leading many to assume that it was Hardeen doing the escape. "It took Houdini years to think that was amusing," Hardeen told The Sphinx in 1939.

Wait, who did what where now?

Hardeen garnered his own newspaper attention with his challenge packing crate escape on November 23. In a story headlined "Hardeen Escaped Heavily Nailed Box" the Tribune reported that the box was built onstage and roped with "a hawser that looked strong enough to hold a battleship." Hardeen freed himself in 5 minutes and the box was immediately carried over the footlights, through the audience, and put on display in the Pantages lobby "where those skeptical may examine it." Not to be outdone, Houdini accepted a second packing crate challenge that week from the Roos Bros.

During their respective stage shows, the brothers not only matched each other with their challenges, but each offered up a dash of underwater death-defiance; Houdini with his Chinese Water Torture Cell and Hardeen with the Milk Can. One big difference was that Hardeen rounded out his act with handcuff escapes while Houdini performed traditional magic. Houdini did his famous Needles trick and also "The Illusion of the Burning Turban," in which he cuts and burns the middle section from a long turban and then restores it. The Tribune called it "one of his most mysterious puzzles."

Houdini featured the Burning Turban in Oakland (from Houdini The Key).

This 1915 engagement is notable in Houdini history for another reason. It was during this week in Oakland that Houdini met author Jack London and his adventurous wife Charmian. The Londons came to see Houdini twice at the Orpheum (Jack served as a member of a committee), and they also shared Thanksgiving dinner with the Houdinis at their hotel. The Hardeens and Alexander Pantages were also invited to the Thanksgiving gathering. When the bill came, Houdini presented it to his brother and left. Payback for the straitjacket prank.

Hardeen closed his week with a challenge from Chief of Police Woods to escape from what the papers described as a "torture suit" (a full body straitjacket). Houdini closed with a challenge from the Riggers' and Stevedores' Union in which he was lashed with ropes to a seven foot plank with a broomstick between his knees (which sounds uncomfortably similar to the torturous Hodgson challenge of 1902). The papers noted:

Houdini has accepted this challenge, the last he will accept in Oakland, because he believes it to be the most unique as well as the most difficult test to which he could possibly be put.

While Hardeen returned to Oakland in 1917 (and announced his retirement), Houdini wouldn't make it back until 1923. During these later engagements, the brothers had the city all to themselves.

Oakland today

Last month when I attended The Official Houdini Séance in San Francisco, I hopped across the Bay to see if anything remained of Houdini and Hardeen's Oakland. The Orpheum Theater where Houdini performed sat at 574 12th Street near the intersection of 12th and Clay. It closed in the 1930s and was demolished in 1958. Today modern office buildings occupy the entire block.

Houdini's Orpheum is long gone.

Hardeen's Pantages is also gone, but not forgotten. Part of the building exterior remains at 414 12th Street and a replica of the original Pantages marquee hangs on the outside. Seeing this was a very pleasant surprise! It was Sunday and the offices where closed, but through the window I could see a large photo of the original Pantages Theater. This is the only photo of Hardeen's Pantages I've ever seen.

A memento of Hardeen's Pantages remains!

The Pantages in the day.

The First National Bank Building where Houdini performed his head-banging straitjacket escape still stands at 14th Street and Broadway. Today it is better known as the Lionel J. Wilson Building and is a city landmark.

Site of Houdini's 1915 suspended straitjacket escape.

When Houdini returned to Oakland in 1923, he repeated his straitjacket escape from the new Tribune offices at 409 13th Street. The newspaper was in the process of building a 305-foot clock tower at the time, and it was from the construction site that Houdini dangled in his straitjacket. This time the escape came off without a hitch.

The Tribune Building where Houdini dangled in 1923.

The Tribune Building and Tower still stand, and I'm happy to report that they are also well aware of their Houdini history. On the ground floor is the Tribune Tavern and above their bar hangs a terrific shot of Houdini doing his straitjacket escape from the tower construction.

Houdini remembered inside the Tribune Building.

So which brother won the great Oakland face-off of 1915? Well, the citizens of the city might no longer recognize the name Hardeen, but his theater is well remembered, and that's something. Houdini's performance space has been long forgotten, but the man himself lives on in memory.

So I think we can call it a brotherly draw!

UPDATE: This image from Bill Counter's excellent Bay Area Theatres Facebook group shows Houdini's Orpheum at 574 12th St. in relation to the Tribune Tower and the Pantages (which sat behind the Tribune building on 12th).

Click to enlarge. (Bay Area Theatres)



  1. Replies
    1. Thanks David. This one was fun to write and research. The fact that HH performed the Burning Turban here really surprised me.

  2. Great stuff! Thanks John! HH also did the cut and restored turban later in in the 1920s. Gibson describes this in Scrapbook.

    That Hardeen Pantages theater photo looks like double exposure "spirit photo."

    1. Ah, yes, great find. All just more evidence to debunk the notion that Houdini didn't perform magic.

  3. BTW, how about Houdini mentioning that he had a limb "bandaged from a previous accident." Wonder what that was?

  4. I;m relying on my cluttered memory, but, I think Houdini performed the turban on the same shipboard show during which he fooled Teddy Roosevelt. I am also pretty sure that he performed the turban in the course of his three weeks at Hammerstein's Victoria Roof that summer (during which he introduced Walking Through a Solid Brick Wall).

  5. HH performed the burnt turban at Sea as the fourth item on the program at a special mid-ocean performance on 7/12/1913. Not sure about the shipboard show with Teddy Roosevelt in 1914. He did perform it at the Hammerstein’s Victoria Roof in 1914. In 1920, he closed with the “Cut and Restored Turban” at the London Palladium after he escaped from a series of straitjackets, performed the USD and told the audience of his many terrifying close calls on the set of The Grim Game.

    1. Good work, Joe. He did it as early as July 1913? That's interesting. I was thinking it came out of his Grand Magical Revue, but this is a full year before.

      BTW, Bill Mullins uncovered a mention of HH doing this in the Roosevelt shipboard show.

    2. Thanks! WRT to the Roosevelt shipboard show: Here is a link to a 1914 program for a performance by Houdini onboard the Imperator:

    3. In case you can’t make it out on the link to the 1914 program, it is listed as item g: “Egyptian Priests burnt turban”

  6. Fifty+ years later, Steve Baker did an upside-down straightjacket escape from The Tribune Tower, drawing a huge crowd and a lot of publicity that made him a local celebrity at the time

  7. Another fascinating piece of history. LOVE the site!

  8. Yeah, that shipboard performance on the Imperator where HH also did the Jesse James Hanging Trick.

  9. Excellent stuff as usual. Diego is correct, Steve Baker also hung upside down in a straitjacket from the Tribune Tower Building. Steve always referred to this as 'The Birth of Mr. Escape', in other words, the real start of his career as an escape artist.

    1. I see there's a clipping with a great photo posted HERE at Steve's site.

  10. Really great work John !!

    1. Thanks Joe! I think it's really fun and interesting to drill down on a single week in Houdini's life and I love seeking out locations today. It can be so revealing. I always learn something new. This kind of thing really can't be done in a general biography. This is a perfect task for a Houdini blog.

  11. Great Story :-)

  12. Thanks for a nice article. I've got several exterior views of the 12th St. Orpheum (not to be confused with the later one on Broadway) as well as several Pantages shots (including an interior view) in an Oakland Theatres album on the Bay Area Historic Theatres Facebook page.

    1. Oh, wow, your page is sensational! So happy to finally see the Oakland Orpheum. Thanks for sharing the link.

  13. I just today had to attend jury duty in downtown Oakland, and ended up walking right by the Pantages awning. Thanks for lightening my bureaucratic afternoon! I had never paid any attention to that building before. Now it has a whole backstory.

    1. Ha! I love that. :) Thanks for sharing, Christine. Hope you don't get stuck on Jury Duty for too long!