Wednesday, November 4, 2015

REPORT: The Official Houdini Séance 2015

Last weekend I had the great pleasure of participating in The Official Houdini Séance 2015 at the Brava Theater in San Francisco. The séance this year was co-hosted by magician Robert Strong and Wonderfest and was a gala public event. I'm happy to report that the séance was a great success (well, apart from Harry not showing up). I made the most of my visit to the City by the Bay, so here's my blow by blow.

Friday - October 30th

I drove up to San Francisco in the morning and settled into the very nice Hotel Kabuki where Robert and the organizers generously put up the Inner Circle attendees. That night Robert had a meet and greet at his beautiful home. I enjoyed mingling with Robert's friends and my fellow summoners. There Jamy Ian Swiss showed me a copy of a remarkable document telling an "untold story" of Houdini's vanishing elephant (hoping to do a post on this in the future). I was able to pull Bill Radner aside and snap a few pics of him with the famous Séance Cuffs. Would tomorrow be the night that they finally open?

Bill Radner and the Seance Cuffs.

I also had a nice conversation with our medium Terrie Huberman who said she didn't want to know anything about Houdini. She wanted to remain pure and have no pre-knowledge of the people or events in his life. She was taking it very seriously, which I respected. Hey, it isn't easy being a medium at a Houdini Seance/Skeptical Conference. I was also happy to finally meet in person the great David Saltman of The Houdini File. I was updating on Twitter (#WildSeance) and posted this photo of David with "The Official Houdini Pumpkin."

Later, Bill shared photos from past seances, which everyone enjoyed. We then made our way back to the Kabuki. It was a toss up which was discussed more that night -- Houdini or the wonders of Uber!

Saturday - October 31st (HALLOWEEN)

The Official Houdini Séance would be made up of three different shows at the Brava Theater this day. At 2:00 PM would be "The Greatest Halloween Family Magic Show of all time!" with host Robert Strong, magician Justin Willman, and mentalist Paul Draper. Unfortunately, magician and escape artist Brian Brushwood could not attend as planned because he was stuck in Austin due to a hurricane (and, yes, Robert got off a nice joke about Austin being the only thing Brian could not escape). At 5:00 would be a discussion of "Skepticism and the Supernatural" with Jamy Ian Swiss and Michael Shermer. Then at 8:00 PM would be the main séance and show.

I had the morning free, so I decided to go in search of a few San Francisco Houdini sites. I was joined on my expedition by fellow Houdini nuts Tom Boldt, Fred Pittella, and Midge Markey.

Our first stop was, coincidentally, right near the hotel. The Orpheum Theater where Houdini performed in 1907 stood on Ellis Street somewhere near the intersection of Fillmore. Today there are only modern buildings and no signs of this area ever being any kind of entertainment district. But Houdini was here and that was good enough for us! (UPDATE: A recent blog post about Houdini in San Francisco by Christine U'Ren explains that the Orpheum was located in this area while downtown was being rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake.)

Our next stop was another theater that Houdini played, but this one is happily still around and quite magnificent! While Houdini played the main Orpheum in 1923, he also did an additional week at the year-old Golden Gate Theater. This was a "Junior Orpheum," but there seemed nothing "junior" about the building we saw this day. It's huge! Unfortunately, the theatre was dark so we couldn't go inside.

Tom Boldt tries to get into the Golden Gate to see Houdini (in person).

During my research for this trip, I discovered that Houdini gave his anti-spiritualist lecture at the Golden Gate during a Friday matinee on April 20, 1923. This was one week before his lecture at the Hillstreet in Los Angeles, so it looks like we have to once again rewrite Houdini history and relocate the birth of his ghostbusting to San Francisco. (That is, until we inevitably discover an even earlier date.)

We then walked a few blocks to the beautiful and historic Hearst Building at the corner of 3rd and Market Street. This is where Houdini performed a suspended straitjacket escape on March 19, 1923. It was reported that 30,000 people packed the street that day to watch. The helpful security guard, who knew a lot about the building's history, was nevertheless unaware of the Houdini connection. Unfortunately, I don't believe I've ever seen a photo of this escape.

The Hearst Building.

We then had lunch at nearby John's Grill, famous for its connection to The Maltese Falcon. The restaurant was founded in 1908, so it's very possible Houdini himself might have had a meal here. It was during lunch that 1:26 PM came and went, clocking exactly 89 years since Houdini died.

Our morning expedition took longer that I had anticipated, so Tom and Fred headed to the magic show at the Brava while I decided to head back to the hotel to rest up and get ready for the big night.

I arrived at the Brava Theater around 5:00 PM (Gwen Stefani's Houdini-inspired The Sweet Escape was playing in the Uber on my way over -- a good sign!). The Brava was built in 1926 and the historic space was a great venue for a Houdini séance. I was happy to see Joe Notaro of Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence there with his son and daughter-in-law. Word was the magic show had been a big success with a near capacity crowd. We all then enjoyed Jamy Ian Swiss and Michael Shermer's talk on "Skepticism and the Supernatural," which was also very well attended and interesting.

Jamy Ian Swiss and Michael Shermer on stage at the Brava.

It was then time to prep for the big event. I was to be the first guest speaker, so I got everything ready (great staff at the Brava and huge shout-out to show producer Tucker Hiatt of Wonderfest). The Brava Theater played Houdini footage in the lobby (I brought them Todd Karr's Houdini Captured on Film DVD) as attendees arrived. I was excited to see how many people came in period dress and costume. It was going to be a great Halloween.

The Main Event

Dead for 89 years, Houdini proved he could still sell out a theater! Every seat was filled when Robert Strong kicked off the show promptly at 8:00 PM with introductions and some terrific comedy magic.

Host Robert Strong.

It was then my turn to take the stage and give a short history of Houdini and the Official Seances themselves. I think my talk went over really well and it was a true honor to have been asked to be a speaker at this event. Below is a pic Robert Somerdin snapped of me on stage. Love the background slide he captured!

It was then time for the Official Séance, or what was billed in the program as the "Earnest Séance" (there would be a "Magical Séance" later). The table was set up center stage and Robert introduced the members of the Inner Circle who took their seats one by one. Bill Radner and Tom Boldt took their traditional places. Also making up the Inner Circle this year were Dr. Bruce Averbook, Midge Markey, Fred Pittella, Robert Somerdin, and myself. In addition were two guest attendees who had purchased a seat at the table via the Official Séance Kickstarter. While the program read Sophia Liu, it was actually her 11-year-old son who took her seat. Also joining us was Houdini Enthusiast John Michael Zorko from San Francisco.

Medium Terri Huberman then took her seat at the head of the table and worked to summon Houdini... or any spirit who might like to drop by the Brava. At least three spirits came to her during the session. While none of them appeared to be connected to Houdini, one did appear to have connections to Midge. Houdini would certainly understand that the show must go on, so after 20 minutes we decided to let him rest in peace for another year and move on with the evening.

UCSF Neuroscientist Melina Uncapher then took the stage and gave a thought provoking talk that at times seemed more mystical than the séance! (I'm still trying to figure out if "I'm a brain" or "I have a brain.") Jamy Ian Swiss then delivered a terrific talk about Houdini's career exposing fraudulent spiritualists. Jamy also played the Houdini voice tape and the recording of Bess Houdini at the Final Houdini Séance.

Justin Willman

Magician and comedian Justin Willman then took the stage and brought down the house! You might recall Justin played Houdini at the recent Houdini Historical Roast in Los Angeles. He has made appearances on The Tonight Show and Comedy Central and is clearly on his way to becoming a major star in the world of magic. His performance was fantastic with tricks that were modern and mind-blowing. I have a feeling in the future we will remember this séance as the one in which superstar Justin Willman performed. Oh, and he and his wife Jillian are very nice people.

Speaking of celebrities, Michael Shermer, founder of The Skeptics Society and monthly contributor to Scientific American magazine, then spoke on the topic of skepticism, science, and doubt. After Michael came Mentalist Paul Draper who, before he began his set, sang Asleep in the Deep (he's also a trained singer). Paul then did magic while gathering audience members for the "Magical Séance" which delivered spooky results.

Robert Strong then closed the Official Houdini Seance event for 2015. It was a fantastic show that ran like clockwork. The audience seemed to really enjoy the entire experience, as did I!

Bill Radner, Tom Boldt, Robert Strong, Bruce Averbook, Robert Somerdin, John Cox.

After the show we all went out to grab some drinks. While we were walking down the streets of the lively Mission District, a young woman approached me and asked why we were all dressed up -- which seemed an unusual thing to ask considering it was Halloween and the street was teeming with people dressed as zombies and ghouls.

I told her we had just held the Official Houdini Séance at the Brava Theater. She looked stunned for a moment, then shook her head and said, "No, sorry, I don't believe that."

Sunday, November 1st

It was time to head home, but I wanted to make the most of being in the Bay Area, so I planned a few stops along the way. The first was in Oakland where Houdini and Hardeen famously performed in November 1915. I made some discoveries, but I will save those for a special 100 year anniversary post later this month. Suffice to say that Oakland is well aware and proud of its Houdini history.

(Coming Soon)

My last stop was the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Niles, California. The museum is filled with memorabilia and equipment from the pioneering days of silent film and home to a genuine Thomas Edison Movie Theater. The small community celebrates Charlie Chaplin who made shorts in Niles for the Essanay Film Co. I've always suspected it was here that Houdini met Chaplin in 1915 and is where they took their famous photo.

With the help of the friendly staff, I learned that Chaplin had used the Niles studio earlier in the year, but by November 1915 he was renting studio space in Los Angeles. So the famous pic was more likely taken in Hollywood. Sorry, Niles, I tried! But even though Houdini wasn't here, it was still a great place to visit and a perfect way to end my 2015 Official Houdini Séance adventure.

Thanks to Bill Radner, Tom Boldt, Robert Strong, Tucker Hiatt, and all the folks at the Brava and Wonderfest. Also thanks to Bill Radner and Robert Somerdin for the use of their photos. Speaking of which, here are a few more.

Midge Markey and Fred Pittella.

John Cox and Jamy Ian Swiss.

Robert Somerdin and Paul Draper.

Houdini footage playing in the Brava lobby pre-show.

Back of the official program.

CLICK HERE to see more photos from the event by Yau-Man Chan.



  1. Excellent report! It was really fun, and full of energy, as you depict.

  2. Great coverage, John. It sounds like it was a fun evening, even if Harry was a no-show. I loved the picture you had on your Twitter feed of a smiling Houdini; do you know when that image was taken and why?


    1. That's a publicity still for The Man From Beyond.

  3. Who the heck is Robert Somerdin?

  4. Great report John! Sorry HH passed up again. Look forward to the future posts on your new discoveries. That untold elephant story? Wow!

    About that Chaplin photo...HH looks a bit older than he appeared in 1915. At that time, his hair looked bushier. In the Chaplin photo, his hair looks thinner. Could it be the photo was taken while HH was paying CC a visit before filming the GG? His hair is gray in the picture, so it must have been before the studio hairstylist slathered on the Grecian Formula.

    1. Check out the Henning book. There's another pic of HH with Chaplin and Bessie taken at the same time. It's dated 1915. Also look at the pic of him surrounded by the Christie Girls (back of Kalush). That's also him in Hollywood in 1915. In fact, he's appears to be wearing the same clothes as in the Chaplin pic. Could even have been taken on the same day.

    2. Looks like you got that right John. Strangely, on the next page of the Henning book, the photo of HH and CC is dated 1917. I think the authors slipped up on that. Here's HH with the Christie Girls:

  5. Great read. I'm the guy from Cleveland who emailed you recently about Harry's trips to Cleveland. It was fun seeing a picture of you on stage with the background slide of the first page of The Cleveland Press and a story about Harry. Oddly, I was once a reporter for The Cleveland Press. Any idea how I can get a copy of that paper or even of the first page to read the article(s)? --Dale

    1. Hey Dale. That pic is of an actual clipping from Houdini's spiritualism scrapbook that I had a hand in uncovering a few years back. I will send the original pic to you. I've seen this reproduced elsewhere. But at the moment I can't recall where.

  6. Hi John--just curious--did you speak to Bill Radner for any length of time? did he share any new info on his father or the Séance/Hungarian cuffs?

    Did you purchase the item you Tweeted about? Was this something at the dealer's booth?

    1. I did speak with Bill all weekend, but nothing new re his dad or the cuffs -- although I got to take a good look at the cuffs and take a nice closeup pic.

      I did indeed make my purchase. I shared it on my Instagram and Facebook. I will share here as well, but not sure yet if I'm going to do so as its own post or in an overall report on the Conference. It was a purchase in the dealer room from Ken Trombly.

  7. It was great to see this taking place in San Francisco. I think the greatest trick Houdini ever did, was to keep people talking about him almost 90 years after his death. Very few people pass on and are remembered by so many people. Most of those people never even met the man, but only know him through stories from others. In a way, Houdini is still with us.