Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Houdini and Brindamour: Showdown in San Francisco

Magic historian Gary Hunt, who blogs at Magic Footnotes and has made a specialty of researching escape artists of Houdini's era, has uncovered a story about Houdini and a rival "Handcuff King" that I don't think has ever appeared in print before. I'm excited to share that story today.

In September of 1907, Houdini was appearing in San Francisco at the Orpheum Theatre on Ellis Street near what's known as the Fillmore District. The Orpheum had relocated to the area while downtown was being rebuilt after the devastating earthquake and fire of 1906. Right next door to the Orpheum was another vaudeville house, The Princess.

During the final week of Houdini's engagement, a rival escape artist, Brindamour, was booked into the Princess Theater. Below is a photo from Brindamour's own scrapbook showing the side by side theaters at this time. In fact, you can see a Brindamour poster in front of the Princess.

Click to enlarge.

George W. Brindamour was born to French Canadian parents in Cannon Mills, Minnesota on April 5, 1870. A one time photographer, Brindamour began performing handcuff escapes at the turn of the century. He claimed to have been the originator of the handcuff act. With his mustache and goatee, it was said he also sometimes doubled on stage for Herrmann the Great (presumably Leon).

In 1900, when Houdini was first finding success in the U.S. under the management of Martin Beck, Brindamour twice appeared in opposition theaters in Providence and Philadelphia offering an exposé of Houdini's act. Soon Houdini was off to Europe and super stardom; but his absence allowed Brindamour to gain a foothold in America vaudeville with his own version of the handcuff act.

Gary reports that a confrontation between Houdini and Brindamour had been building during the summer of 1907. The men sniped at each other in the pages of Variety, which ran an ad touting Brindamour's $1,000 per week salary as the highest ever paid by the Western States Vaudeville Association. Rumor had it that the William Morris Agency had signed Brindamour to play against Houdini who had recently signed with a rival agency. As if to tweak Houdini even more, the Princess advertised Brindamour as "King of All Handcuff Kings." Variety predicted that "fur should fly" when the two rivals finally met in San Francisco.

So did Houdini march over to the Princess with his Bean Giant, Mirror Cuff, or one of his other "handcuff king beaters"? Did he send confederates to gum up Brindamour's act or knock down his advertising? (Recall Houdini once allegedly threatened to shoot down a balloon advertising Blackstone that flew within sight of his own theater.)

The September 21, 1907 issue of Variety reported what happened:

Jail Breakers at Peace
Despite the predictions of open warfare when the rival jail breakers (Houdini and Brindamour) came into as close a competition as they were last week in this city, the dove of peace reigned supreme over Ellis street. Both lock defiers pursuing the even tenor of their ways as though oblivious of the other’s existence.

Anticlimactic, I know, but that's also what makes this interesting. Why didn't Houdini go after Brindamour (or vice versa)?

Well, in 1907, Houdini was already looking beyond handcuffs and jail-breaking as his bread and butter. His feature that week was a challenge to escape from a box made by employees of the Emporium department store. The week prior he had escaped from a paper bag without tearing the paper. In fact, while Brindamour's was billed as King of all Handcuff Kings, Houdini's billing at the Orpheum was: "Houdini in New Sensations." So Brindamour might have seemed less of a threat to Houdini at this time, and to have engaged him would have just given him publicity. The best way to hurt Brindamour (and William Morris) was to do nothing.

But it's also possible Houdini and Brindamour might have made a truce. It's possible both men could sense that a spat over who was the superior "handcuff king" might seem trivial and petty to citizens of a city that was still digging out from one of the worst catastrophes of the 20th century.

After San Fransisco, Brindamour and Houdini never again crossed paths, and Brindamour would meet what The Santa Cruz Sentinel called his "waterloo" just a few weeks later in Sacramento.

Brindamour keep doing the handcuff escape act long after it went out of fashion. When bookings got slim, he would sometimes put on a full evening show or just do magic. He performed on all the major vaudeville circuits through the 1920s. He retired to Los Angeles in 1930 and was said to have played character roles in movies. George Brindamour passed away on July 31, 1941 at the age of 71.

Today the Orpheum and Princess are long gone, and Ellis Street has been subdivided with a shopping center and condos. (I visited the area last Halloween while I was in San Francisco for the Official Houdini Seance.) But it's fun to know that, for one week in 1907, Houdini and Brindamour shared the street as co-handcuff kings.

Thank you Gary Hunt for this story, photos, and additional background information on Brindamour.

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  1. Awesome! Gary does a great job of researching. Glad you posted this!

  2. I also agree with John that HH saw Brindamour as small potatoes. With the Milk Can soon to be unveiled, Brindamour and other imitators were way behind in the dust.

  3. Great story. Seems that it would be difficult to be a HH copy cat. Brindamour's audience grew impatient after a half hour. I wonder if they could heat him sawing away at his chains!

    1. With a challenge act, there's always a risk the audience will root against you. I believe that happened to Houdini during the Hodgson challenge.

  4. Nice job! Brindamour played a few more weeks in the San Francisco area and got good reviews. I think the real difference between Houdini and Brindamour was that Brindamour just wanted to build a solid and successful vaudeville act. He did not seem to have any ambitions of being a worldwide celebrity. He played all of the large and small circuits and was always booked until the 1920's. Not a bad career.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this article.
    I have a Brindamour postcard which I won at an auction some time ago but did not know much of his history.
    I particularly enjoyed the reference about the Bean Giant handcuff.
    Not many know the history of that cuff let alone make mention of it.
    I have owned this cuff for about a dozen years and show it around when the need arises.
    It was featured on a Florence Henderson talk show a few years back and more recently, I presented a talk about it to an audience at the L.A. Lock Show last February.

  6. I am a close blood relative of george whom I did'nt even know existed until recently while doing a heritage search.Imagine how surprised I was to find out that he was a competitive rival to the great Houdini!As far as I can tell it seems he was doing escapes years before Houdini,and it appears that he was considered to be on par with him.My name is Michael Brindamour and the first thing I noticed when I saw his posters is how much he looked like my dad!The San Francisco act on Feb.10th just happens to be my birthday.If there are other relatives out there who happen to have any more info as far as children etc.I would like to hear from you. Any memorabelia and such I would sure like to see please! You can email me any info would be greatly appreciated.

  7. this is the second time I had to post this thanks to the wonders of technology.I am also a Brindamour and George is a close blood relative whom I had not heard about until I recently did a heritage search.The first thing noticed from his posters was how much he looked like my dad!I am very excited to know that he was considered to be one of the best on par with the great Houdini!The San Francisco gig on Feb 10th happens to be my birthday amazingly.I would love to know more.Any other relatives,or persons close to this history,I would love to hear from.Any posters or other props or materials I would love to see.Please contact me thanks for the article it was great info

    1. Thanks for the comment Michael. As you can see, but your comments were received. It's just on older posts like this, comments are moderated, so that's why you don't see them post instantly.

      I have another Brindamour post in the works, btw.

  8. Funny how people claim that they have been doing a trick many years before the originator, but after the fact. I have found this to be the case as well when I did my research on Channing Pollock.

    Many claimed this and that, but they did so later which proves nothing.