Thursday, June 9, 2016

Guest blog: The Houdini Museum of New York, Part II

Today Neil McNally continues his tour of the remarkable Houdini Museum of New York at Fantasma Magic and his interview with owner Roger Dreyer.

by Neil McNally

Every magic store has its own unique flavor and atmosphere and Fantasma Magic is no exception. There is literally something new to discover around every corner. Whether it’s David Copperfield’s own television special straight jacket or incredibly rare photos of Houdini performing at San Quentin prison, there truly is something for everyone. They even have their own live rabbit to boot.

However, there is one piece in Roger’s collection that stands out from the others as truly one of the most unique and rare pieces of Houdini memorabilia out there: The 1907 Houdini Escape Coffin!

The pedigree of the coffin is impressive and as the museum’s website states:

On Jan. 14, 1907, Houdini answered a challenge from the Boston Athletic Association, which runs the Boston Marathon, to escape from the coffin while manacled during an exhibition in the BBA’s headquarters on Exeter Street.

It took Houdini just 66 minutes to get out of the elaborate case which had been – get this – nailed shut with 6-inch nails!

In fact, when one enters the museum the coffin, along with the Metamorphosis trunk, are clearly the centerpieces of the museum, and Roger’s collection. The coffin is in pristine and polished condition, and you can’t help but have your eyes immediately drawn to this important artifact in the life of Houdini.

Roger’s passion for Houdini and the history of magic is obvious. As we sat down in his office, he went onto elaborate on his thoughts and views of Houdini and how he continues to profoundly influence him today.

What was the start of your initial love of Houdini and when did it begin?

Ray Goulet introduced me to a man named Chester Karkut. Chester Karkut was the most active performer in Connecticut…and best friends of Al Flosso. Anyone who knows the story of Al Flosso and owning Matinka’s and Hornmann's (Magic Shops) which were previously owned by Houdini in 1919. Al Flosso was then picking up all these Houdini pieces and giving them to Chet Karkut  Without me being even crazy about Houdini at the time, I slowly but surely was picking up Houdini pieces from Chet Karkut  Nothing like visiting a gentleman inside an 8ft by 8ft room with thousands of pieces and where he would have four to five cigarettes lit at once. I just love magic!

What was the first piece that you acquired?

The first piece was a photograph of Houdini performing in San Quentin [in 1915].

(These rarely seen and possibly never published photographs are framed and on display at the museum)

What is the most valuable piece in your collection?

As far as value, which is not why I do this, it’s one of Houdini’s Metamorphosis trunks [pic here]. This was acquired from John Gaughan, who acquired it from Mike O’Dowd, who acquired it from Houdini’s accountant. That may be the most significant piece we have on display. But, my personal pieces are the plum metal hand that Houdini used to expose spiritualists, his wide variety of picks that have the thread wrapped around them, unusual handcuffs, and a lot of his tools…

Do you have a personal favorite out of all of them?

I would say the plum metal hand. I think it’s brilliant how it would go around another person’s hand while it was dark and then being able to convince the people that your hands are still being held onto by the medium.

Of his long career what is your favorite Houdini moment?

I like how an unknown American hardly making it in the U.S. and just getting started had the chutzpah to go over to London and say “I Harry “Handcuff” Houdini, the American Sensation, am now here!” Then he ends up staying at the theaters for three to four years in London before heading back to New York. So, the fact that he could use his unknown to make himself act like he is known…was quite impressive.

How has he influenced your career as a businessman?

Houdini has influenced me tremendously. The Houdini Museum is my passion that I like to share with people. Our business is running Fantasma Magic which is the world’s largest manufacturer of magic sets. The way Houdini would use guerilla marketing and creative ideas that were unheard of to promote something… a lot of that I was influenced by.

How do you think Fantasma stands out from other magic stores and organizations?

We have been told that there is no other magic store in the world like Fantasma. You have the most famous actors, lay people, and a-list New Yorkers hanging out in our Suite 3 with wannabee wizards to the best magic pros in the world. So, we are an actual brick and mortar store…that attracts the largest amount of people into a magic store that are not just tourists….But, we encourage magicians to be able to utilize our stage, to hang out, to film, and to use Fantasma in any way they would like without any charge.

Why do you think close to ninety years after his death Houdini still commands people’s attention?

No one has been able to create the façade that “I challenge you to lock me up anyway you desire and I the Great Houdini will escape!” … The way he marketed his feats and the way he advertised and promoted his show by having these challenges in the town before he even got there was absolutely brilliant. So, the idea that he was able to accomplish things unlike anyone else is one reason why. Houdini himself is a common word. People may not even understand who Houdini is, but to Houdinize, or to Houdini, or escape like Houdini. It’s amazing when kids come in and say “I didn’t even know he was a real person!”

Roger Dreyer thank you very much.

When in town please visit Fantasma Magic and the Houdini Museum of New York at 421 7th Avenue, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10001.


  1. Is that the actual helmet to HH's diving suit? The one we see in that BBC documentary currently available on Amazon?

    Great San Quentin photos!

    1. That diving helmet has been around and I've always wondered about that myself. Think it came from Sid's collection. It was in the Houdini's Magic Shop museum in Las Vegas years ago.

    2. I asked Roger and, no, that is not Houdini's actual helmet.

  2. Jonny Cash gets all the San Quentin cred but Houdini was there first.

    Would love to know more about the "plum metal hand" and the picks with thread.

    Very interesting couple of articles, Neil. Thank you.

    1. Thanks Neil and John. The plum hand was bought from Larry Weeks through David Haversat. It was a part of Houdini's expose act and the hand came in a black tube (letter "H" stamped inside) along with spirit extension rods and a spirit trumpet. The hand is flexible to fit perfectly over the spectators wrist and the weight is spooky.

  3. I'm going next week, thanks for the info John.
    Wonder if he will sell me anything?

    1. I'm sure he'll sell you a magic trick or two. :)

  4. I've visited many times. Their are few photos of Houdini performing on stage and here we see two action shots of him doing the needles trick. Looks like he is performing on a large table which I always thought a bit odd. I've stepped up within inches of the coffin Houdini escaped from and two things strick me as odd. One is the coffin looks almost as new. You would never think it was 109 years old. The inside looks like nearly fresh wood! The other thing is I found no signs of a gaff to escape from this coffin. Do you have any newspaper articles that tell of this escape? Perry from NJ.

    1. According to Culliton’s The Key: Kevin Connolly who used to own the coffin, believes it is very ingeniously gaffed.
      According to Kalush Houdini Laid Bare footnotes: The story of Houdini’s coffin escape at the B.A.A. was taken from various newspaper accounts of the event including “Houdini Gets Out of Coffin at the B.A.A.” The Boston Herald, January 14, 1907, and “Houdini Near Suffocation” Boston Post, January 14, 1907, all from the Harvard Theatre Collection in the Pusey Library, Harvard University.

    2. OK so how was it done?? Thx

  5. Performing on a table or chair can be standard procedure for a working magician. I'm sure that when HH arrived at the venue, he realized that the sight lines were going to be bad.

    He must have requested a sturdy table to stand on so that he could be seen by the inmates all the way in the back. Remember that this location was not a ready made theater designed for paying audiences.

    1. Indeed. There's another in this set of photos taken from way behind the crowd and you can see the table was necessary for HH to be seen. This is in the prison yard.

      One thing I love about this shot is it tells us Houdini took off his coat to perform the Needles. A nice dramatic flair that, making the Needle as much a physical feat as an escape. Looks like he just tossed the coat down. You can see on the stage below.

      I really love these photos as there are very few images of HH actually in performance on stage.

  6. Yeah, I also realized long ago that images of HH onstage are almost nonexistent. In truth, there aren't that many photos of magicians performing until Irving Desfor arrived to take photos of onstage magicians in the 1940s.

    I thought HH threw his coat off because it was hot that day.