Recently I visited Wilshire Coin in Santa Monica, California, where I've long heard that two "lost" pieces of Houdini history are on display. Just how historic we will discuss (and maybe debate), but both are instantly recognizable and have been off the radar for many years. Let's tackle them one at a time.
The Steel Overboard Box
The steel overboard box will be familiar to anyone who's seen Houdini (1953). This is the box that Tony Curtis frees himself from under the ice of the Detroit river. The steel box was provided to the production by Joseph Dunninger who claimed it was an original Houdini escape prop. According to his daughter, Dunninger always kept the box in the garage of his home and not with his other warehoused magic props.
The box was ultimately acquired along with the rest of Dunninger's memorabilia by the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Canada. The museum's souvenir booklet described what it called "The Steel Trunk" like this:
Houdini's Steel Trunk was used by the master escapist for the presentation of his most dangerous underwater escape.
Houdini only used the steel trunk twice. His limited use of such a spectacular escape can be acredited to the extensive weight of the steel and the apparent threat it posed to the success of his escape. On each occasion that Houdini undertook the Steel Trunk escape, he came extremely close to losing his life. Unlike the wooden packing cases he often used for these escape, the steel trunk descended in the water very rapidly and handicapped his ability to free himself before the trunk before it became lodged in the silt at the bottom.
Houdini's Steel Trunk although it only enjoyed limited use during his life was used by Paramount Pictures in their production of the film "Houdini," which starred Tony Curtis in the feature role.
Unfortunately, there is no photo of Houdini with this Steel Box, nor any newspaper clipping or advertisement (that I could find) for the times he might have performed it. I'm wondering if he maybe used the Steel Box when he did the onstage version of the overboard box escape in the water tanks at Hammerstein's Victoria and the Hippodrome in New York?
It's unclear how long the Steel Box remained on display at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame (I did not see it when I visited in 1990), but at some point it made its way to Santa Monica where it sits today.
While I don't expose Houdini secrets on this blog, I will tell you that the box is gaffed (the store pointed it out to me). This shows it was a working escape device and not just a movie prop. However, to my mind, it's gaffed in such a way that makes the escape surprisingly dangerous, which is maybe the real reason Houdini only used it twice, if at all.
The steel box in action in Houdini (1953).
The (Double Fold?) Milk Can
Wilshire Coin's second Houdini artifact is a Milk Can which also came from The Houdini Magical Hall of Fame by way of Dunninger. This particular Milk Can might be more important to Houdini history than has ever been understood. But I'll get to that in a minute.
You'll immediately notice the lid is unlike any other Houdini Milk Can lid. I believe this is not the original. In 1998, Sid Radner told me Henry Muller had "lost" the Milk Can lid. So this appears to be a replacement made by someone who didn't know what the original looked like or just wanted to create a dramatic new design. The replacement lid is extremely heavy. In fact, it's so heavy, my fear is it might slowly be damaging the can.
Now, why do I think this is such an important Milk Can? As I first theorized in this post in 2014, I believe this was the Milk Can used in Houdini's Double Fold Death Defying Mystery. In the one photo of the Double Fold Box with the Milk Can inside (below), you can see a distinctive rectangular lock or hasp on the neck. The hasp is clearly visible in photos of the Milk Can at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame and on this Can in Santa Monica. I've never seen this hasp on any other Milk Can.
Another reason I think this was the Double Fold Can is because of the curious base. The Can has a ring around the base with wing-nuts. It seems logical that this would be used to secure the can to the bottom of the Double Fold box. (That box sold in 2014 for $55,000 and now sits in the David Copperfield collection.)
As with the Steel Box, the Milk Can is sitting out on the open floor of the store accessible to all. (When I was there a customer even sat on the box while waiting to be served.) While Wilshire Coin advertises their Houdini artifacts and even invites customers to take photos (here's some), know that they are also a serious business -- to enter you need to be admitted through two locked doors. So showing up strictly as a Houdini looky-loo might not be entirely appreciated. (They didn't seem overly thrilled with me.)
So what does the future hold for these? As far as I know, they are not for sale, although I did not speak with the owner himself. But it's nice to know these important Houdini artifacts still exist and that there's a little bit of Houdini history sitting in Santa Monica.
UPDATE: Chuck Romano on his blog My Magic Uncle has more information on the "Iron Box" and its origins. Check out his post: Whose Box is it? Houdini's or Blackstone's?