Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Death in Asbury Park

In July of 1913, Houdini departed New York for a Scandinavian tour that would see him perform for the first time before the King of Sweden in Stockholm. After bidding an extended goodbye to his mother at the dock -- and promising to bring her back a pair of woolen slippers, size six -- he set sail on the German ocean liner Kronprinzessin Cecilie.

His brother Hardeen stayed closer to home, accepting an engagement in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Thinking his mother would enjoy a vacation by the sea, Hardeen brought along Cecelia Weiss.

Asbury Park is a seaside community located on New Jersey's central coast. Developed in 1871 as a resort, the city features a mile-and-a-quarter stretch of oceanfront. In its heyday, as many as 600,000 people a year vacationed in Asbury Park. In 1912, The New York Times estimated that the summer population could alone reach 200,000.

Opening day ad for Hardeen at the Lyric, July 14, 1913.

Hardeen opened at the year-old Lyric Theater on July 14, 1913. The Lyric was located at 214 Cookman Avenue. It featured vaudeville and even early movies -- "The Lyroscope Animated Photo Plays." Here Hardeen did his usual act; escaping a straitjacket, accepting challenges, and closing with the Milk Can. On July 15, he leapt manacled from the Asbury Park Fishing Pier.

The following day Hardeen escaped from a packing crate made by The Tusting Piano Co. But unbeknownst to the audience, the real drama was playing off-stage. The next day, July 17, the Lyric ran a special Announcement in the Asbury Park Press that said it all:

Special announcement on July 17, 1913.

Upon their arrival in Asbury Park, Cecelia Weiss had suffered a stroke that left part of her body paralyzed. She was tended to in Room 18 at the Imperial Hotel by Dr. James Ackerman, who put her on the critical list. Hardeen phoned his brother Leopold and sister Gladys who quickly arrived from New York. After escaping from the Tusting packing crate at the Lyric, Hardeen rushed back to Cecelia's bedside. She struggled to communicate a message for Houdini, but was unable to speak. She died at 12:15 AM on July 17.

Hardeen sent a cable to Houdini notifying him of their mother's death. Thinking it was simply a welcoming message from "the folks", he delayed opening it. After performing his Water Torture Cell at the Circus Beketow in Copenhagen before an audience that included the royal princes (Houdini did his act in Danish), he finally read Hardeen's cable at a press reception and fell unconscious to the floor.

Houdini and Bess quickly reboarded the Kronprinzessin Cecilie for its return voyage to New York, leaving Jim Collins behind to deal with the show. In Denmark, breaking a contract was a serious offense, and Collins was jailed until the situation was explained to the theater manager.

Following her death, it was reported that Mrs. Weiss has been taken by "Undertaker Burtis" on the 1:10 train to Brooklyn. The funeral had been planned for the following Sunday, but was delayed until Houdini returned. Houdini arrived several days later to find his mother laid out in the parlor of 278. He had brought along the woolen slippers she asked for and placed them in her casket.

Cecelia's death devastated Houdini. On the one year anniversary, Leopold drove Houdini and Hardeen back to Asbury Park to photograph Room 18 at the Imperial Hotel (what happened to those photos, I wonder?). That night Houdini wrote in his diary: "Things have never been the same, since, and I know that they can never be the same again."

The Imperial Hotel is, presumably, long gone (at least I couldn't find any information about it, past or present, online). But the Lyric Theater remained a fixture on Cookman Avenue until the 1960s. Renamed Park Cinema, it became a pornographic movie theater in the 1970s and '80s. It also appeared in the Robert DeNiro film City by the Sea (2002) and in The Sopranos.

The building was finally demolished along with the rest of the block in 2005. Today the site of Hardeen's Lyric Theater is an empty lot.

For more on Asbury Park, check out A Seaside Ghost Town Trying to Rise Again by Christopher Clay.

Thanks to Ron Armstrong for providing additional details.

UPDATE: Our friend Perry Reed has discovered this postcard image of the Imperial Hotel at the website side-o-lamb.com:



  1. WOW! This is such great stuff. You once again have outdone even yourself. So much here not commonly known. Thank you,

    Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz
    The Houdini Museum
    Scranton, PA
    The Only Building in the World dedicated to Houdini
    The Original Houdini Museum in NYC

    1. Thanks D&D. I really enjoy "deep dives" like this. And like so many other, it's just a simple find that kicks it all off. In this case it was the ad from the Lyric announcing the death. Thought that was worth sharing. But then I became curious about Asbury Park. Think my biggest surprise was that the Lyric appeared in a City By The Sea and The Sopranos. Shame we didn't get to it before 2005.

  2. Great stuff John! This Asbury Park postcard looks to be about mid 1920s based on the automobiles.

    1. Yeah, think you could be right about that date.

  3. I found an old newspaper online which had within it an ad for a job opening at the Imperial hotel in Asbury park for "three white waiters". The hotels location was given as.....2nd and ocean ave. that's a block or two from the boardwalk and it is now an empty lot. It would have been within walking distance from the Lyric. Maybe a 5-10 minute walk. I have no idea when it was torn down.

    I live only 30 minutes from Asbury park and my wife and I go there all the time in the summer months. Back in the 80's this town was actually listed as a Ghost town. It was a horrible boarded up mess that was practically deserted even at the beach in the summer. Today it's made a huge comeback...beautiful beach, renovated Boardwalk and lots of great restaurants. Anyway I remember years ago parking right by the Lyric and walking down to the amusements on the boardwalk. I never knew until now it's important connection with Hardeen/Houdini.

    1. Thanks for the info on the location of the Imperial. And I'm glad to hear Asbury Park has made a comeback. Maybe a good place for a future magic convention or Houdini seance.