Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A week at Tony Pastor's

In early 1895, young Harry and Bess Houdini got what they believed was their big break; a week's engagement at Tony Pastor's prestigious 14th Street theater in New York. It was their first shot at "the big time."

Tony Pastor's was the pre-eminent theater for variety entertainment, or what Pastor coined as "Vaudeville", in all of New York City. Opened in 1881, Pastor's offered a wide selection of acts that guaranteed "refined" wholesome entertainment that could be enjoyed by women and families. It was a winning formula and Tony Pastor's 14th Street Theatre was enormously popular.

However, by 1895, Pastor was facing serious competition. Newcomers B.F. Keith and Edward Albee had opened the Union Square Theater that directly challenged Pastor with their own "refined" vaudeville. Looking for an advantage, the Union offered lower ticket prices and what it branded as "continuous vaudeville", shows that ran non-stop from 12:30 PM to 10:30 PM, divided into matinee, supper, and evening shows.

Pastor resisted the idea of continuous vaudeville which he called "Ferris Wheel Shows." His 14th Street theater offered matinee and evening shows only. But the Union began to drain not only customers away from Pastor's, but also talent. This meant Pastor had to broaden his search for new acts, and one of those acts where The Houdinis.

The Houdinis week long engagement at Tony Pastor's is nicely documented in Harold Kellock's Houdini His Life Story:

Tony Pastor's! Houdini could hardly believe it. That famous hall was still in its glory in the nineties, a national institution, as well known in its way as its immediate neighbor, Tammany Hall. Houdini was so excited by the prospect that he spent all his money advertising in the theatrical papers: "Next week at Tony Pastor's—The Great Houdinis, Harry and Bessie."

How thrilled they were when they walked out on the stage for their first show! The cleaning-women had hardly finished, and were still in evidence with their pails and mops. Instead of an orchestra there was only a lone pianist. Barely twenty-five persons were in the house. But Houdini, his head in the air, spoke to them as he did later to thousands. He had no doubt that such a stage was his proper place.

A regular Pastor's headliner was Maggie Cline (right), known as "The Irish Queen" and "The Bowery Brunhilde". Her repertoire consisted of Irish-themed rough and tumble songs and skits, performed in a deep brogue. At one point during the week, Cline encountered the young Bess Houdini backstage. Kellock recounts the meeting:

"My God, child!" she exclaimed. "Who made you up?"
"I did it myself," stammered Bess.
The older woman smiled. "Come in here, kid," she said. "Let me fix you."
She led Mrs. Houdini into her dressing-room. In a few minutes, after her practical fingers had done their work, the young performer hardly recognized her own reflection in the glass. As finishing touches, Maggie Cline fixed a bow here, [and] pinned a flower on the shoulder...

As the story continues, Houdini barely recognized Bess when she re-joined him in the wings. Maggie Cline watched their act and later recommended that Pastor move them to a better position on the bill, which he apparently did. No more performing for the cleaning crew.

Years later, when Houdini was headlining at Keith's in Boston, he again shared the bill with Maggie Cline who was then performing her farewell season. Bessie reminded her of her kindness. But try as she might, Maggie could not remember meeting the young Houdinis.

The Houdinis finished out their week and received a terse letter of endorsement from Pastor (below). Unfortunately, their week playing the big time did not lead to bigger things, and The Houdinis went back to playing dime museums and beer halls.

"The Houdinis act as performed here I found satisfactory and interesting."

Now, every available Houdini biography leaves the story there -- that Harry and Bess played this one week at Tony Pastor's and then went back to the small time. But the truth is they played Pastor's at least one more time the following year (and it wouldn't surprise me to learn they played Pastor's several times). Evidence of this return engagement has been hiding in plain sight.

On page 35 of James Randi's Houdini His Life and Art there is a photo of a Pastor's program dated Monday, October 12 with The Houdinis at the bottom of the bill. The book captions it as: "First appearance at Tony Pastor's in New York." However, Maggie Cline is not on the bill, and October 12 fell on a Monday in 1896. As Pastor's telegram establishes February 1895 as their first appearance, this can only be a return engagement.

By this time, Tony Pastor had given in and was now offering continuous vaudeville. No doubt in an effort to fill the bill, the Houdinis were "satisfactory and interesting" enough to book again. The program also shows Pastor's was now offering movies -- The Kineoptikon.

But even this second engagement did not lead to bigger and better things. In his scrapbook, which Houdini used to solicit bookings, he carefully altered the program, making it appear as if they had occupied a better position on the bill.

Keith-Albee, along with their west coast partner Martin Beck of the Orpheum circuit, would come to dominate and monopolize vaudeville in the new century. Unable to compete, Pastor closed his 14th Street theater on June 6, 1906. Houdini would go on to become a star on the circuit that has been Pastor's undoing.

Tony Pastor died in 1908. The building that housed his theater (and Tammany Hall) was demolished in 1927.

But Tony Pastor's rose again in the 1953 biopic Houdini with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. It's at Pastor's -- here portrayed as more of a dinner theater -- that Harry plays an old man in a "Fountain of Youth" act and steals Bess away from her date. It's a fitting nod to a theater that must have held nostalgic memories for The Houdinis.

Tony Pastor's Theater in Houdini (1953)

The information on Pastor's and the Union Square Theater comes from the book Vaudeville Wars: How the Keith-Albee and Orpheum Circuits Controlled the Big-Time and Its Performers by Arthur Frank Wertheim, which I highly recommend.

UPDATE: The great Fred Pitella sends over this image of the original newspaper playbill for The Houdinis first engagement at Tony Pastor's, which we see commenced Monday, January 7, 1895. Thank you Fred!

Click to enlarge.


Monday, August 29, 2016

Wisconsinite Gene Wilder dies at 83

Today's sad news is that the great Gene Wilder had died at age 83. During his long career Wilder touched on the edges of Houdini's world by playing Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother and a silent movie star in The World's Greatest Lover. But what I didn't know until today was that Wilder was from Milwaukee, where Houdini spent several formative years. A Google search revealed that the two men share wall space at the Fork in the Road restaurant in Mukwonago, WI. So I think that's reason enough to honor the passing of Gene Wilder here.

You can read Gene Wilder's obituary at the New York Times. The above photo is from Lake Country Now.


Restoring Terror Island (Reel 3)

Joe Notaro at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence has undertaken the task of "restoring" Reel 3 of Houdini's Terror Island using photos and script excerpts from the Margaret Herrick Academy Library in Los Angeles. While Terror Island is missing two full reels (3 & 4), Joe is just tackling just those scenes missing from the Kino explanation cards which fill in the gaps on the current DVD release. Below are links to all four installments.

As the action proceeds to Reel 4, Harper (Houdini) escapes from a burning wearhouse and an overboard box. Soon, all find themselves heading out to sea on their way to Terror Island.

Thanks to Joe for taking on this important work. Here's hoping one day we might see the film itself restored.

UPDATERestoring Terror Island (Reel 4)


Sunday, August 28, 2016

Tea & Talk with David Jaher, Aug. 30

David Jaher, author of The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World, will be the guest of a "Tea & Talk" event at Ventfort Hall in Lenox, MA, this Tuesday, August 30 at 4:00 PM. Details and tickets can be purchased HERE.

The Witch of Lime Street will be relased in paperback on October 11. Last year it was announced that STX Entertainment had purchased the movie rights to the book, but there has been no news on that since.


Houdini & Doyle filming locations

Houdini & Doyle may be behind us, but the HOUDOYLE fansite, run by the tireless Christopher Baker, is still going strong! Christopher has done an amazing job of tracking down all the shooting locations and offers maps and comparison photos at his site.

Also going strong is the Houdini & Doyle Fan Group on Facebook run by the also tireless Traci Porczynski. Now what I'm waiting on is any word on a U.S. DVD release. So far it is only available for streaming on Amazon.


Saturday, August 27, 2016

LINK: 57 Park Terrace West: The Houdini Connection

The blog My Inwood by Inwood resident and realtor Cole Thompson has a well-researched article about the death of Houdini's brother Dr. Leopold Weiss. It includes Leo's short New York Times obituary and photos of the apartment building at 57 Park Terrace West from which Leo took his own life on October 6, 1962.

I'm excited to learn that Leo's apartment still stands. I also never realized that Leo killed himself the day after the 70th anniversary of his father's death (Oct. 5, 1892).

Click here or on the headline to have a read at Cole Thompson's My Inwood.

Thanks to Perry from NJ for this one.


Friday, August 26, 2016

Houdini by Vernon

Potter & Potter's auction of "Old & New Conjuring" is set to go live tomorrow at 10AM CST. As always, there are several Houdini lots, including this scissor-cut silhouette portrait of Houdini by Dai Vernon from 1920 (Lot 393). This was probably done from life and is an excellent likeness. Estimate is $4,000- $6,000.

Vernon prided himself as being "the man who fooled Houdini" with a card trick. He later taught magicians such as Doug Henning, and provided silhouettes for the title page of Henning's Houdini His Legend and His Magic. Today he's venerated one of the all time great sleight of hand masters. Looks like he was pretty handy with the scissors as well!

Click here to view and bid on all the lots at Bidsquare.

UPDATE: Sold for a whopping $10,455!


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Houdini's hands

Here's a rare close-up look at Houdini's hands. This incredible unpublished image comes from the collection of Mario Carrandi, Jr. Mario shared this on his Facebook group, THE MAGIQUARIAN, and generously allowed me to share here as well. The photo is from the 1920s.

Click to enlarge.

I don't believe I've ever seen a better shot of Houdini's hands, certainly not with a palm up. You can also see what appear to be long scars running down and across his inner arm. Souvenirs of years of damaging handcuff escapes maybe?

Speaking of Houdini's hands, in 1900 a Kansas City newspaper reported that Houdini had his "hand examined" by a local palm-reader named Professor Paul Alexander Johnston (reproduced in Houdini His Legend and His Magic). The article featured an image of "Houdini's palm", and the professor was reported to have prophesied:

"Unless you are exceedingly careful during your thirty-seventh year a violent death is written in this Line of Life," said the palmist. "Your money making period began, I should judge, last year. Provided you save, you will attain great wealth."

For the record, Houdini turned 37 in 1911, a year notable for no close calls. I guess Houdini must have been "exceedingly careful"!

Thank you Mario. 


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Bess goes Beyond and Back

In the 1970s, Utah-based Sunn Classics Pictures produced a series of feature documentaries that investigated subjects such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster (The Mysterious Monsters), Biblical mysteries (In Search of Noah's Ark), and even The Lincoln Conspiracy. As a kid, I loved these, and the pseudoscience documentaries that today populate the History and Discovery channels own a debt to Sunn's productions.

In 1978, Sunn released Beyond and Back, which "dared to investigate" the question of life after death. While on-screen host Brad Crandall promised "one of the most extraordinary films of our times", Beyond and Back is more well-known today for making critic Roger Ebert's list of all-time "Most Hated" films.

But Beyond and Back contains a nice surprise for Houdini buffs. It includes a three and a half minute segment about Houdini with real footage, a reenactment of the Arthur Ford séance, and actress Beverly Rowland as Bess (she later appeared in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers). Oddly, they add the words "learn" and "idea" to the end of the Houdini Message Code. For the record, the real code was: Answer (B), tell (E), pray-answer (L), look (I), tell (E), answer-answer (V), tell (E).

The full film is available on YouTube, but I've excerpted just the Houdini sequence below.

Beyond and Back was released on VHS, but I don't believe it ever made it to DVD. As with all their documentaries, Beyond and Back was released as a tie-in paperback. For a review of film, check out one of my favorite blogs, Every 70s Movie.


Monday, August 22, 2016

Bob Loomis reveals 'Houdini's Final Incredible Secret'

A nice surprise landed on Amazon today. Bob Loomis, librarian at The Magic Circle and editor of The Magical Spectator, has published a new non-fiction work called Houdini's Final Incredible Secret: The True Story of How Houdini Mystified the Creator of Sherlock Holmes. Here's the cover and book description.

After twenty years of painstaking research, Houdini’s last great riddle has finally been solved. This unique book investigates the baffling intimate performance Houdini created for his friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The exploit made the creator of Sherlock Holmes insist that Harry had employed occult or supernatural powers to accomplish it. As bestselling author Richard Wiseman points out in this innovative book’s introduction, it also describes the very fabric of magic itself, including the complex relationships between each generation of performers, the way in which tricks evolve over time, and ultimately, the surprising truth about the fundamental nature of mystery.

I don't yet have the book in hand, so I don't know entirely what to make of this. But it's always exciting to have a new non-fiction work about Houdini, especially one written by someone as versed in magic history as Bob Loomis (follow him on Twitter @Spectator_Bob).

You can purchase Houdini's Final Incredible Secret at Amazon.com (U.S.) and Amazon.co.uk (UK).

UPDATE: Bob has now launched a Facebook page devoted to the book HERE.


Torture Cell and Milk Can displayed at Magic Live

Houdini's original (restored) Water Torture Cell and Milk Can were on display last week at Stan Allen's Magic Live! convention in Las Vegas. These come from the collection of David Copperfield. Also displayed were some of David's original Houdini lithographs. The photos below were taken by attendee Ondřej Pšenička.

At this year's convention, Stan announced that he will be retiring MAGIC Magazine. The final 25 issues will be a combination of new and archival material and will be sold only as a subscription set called MAGIC Legacy. Over the years MAGIC has had some nice Houdini articles, so I'm sorry to see it go. I'm hoping among the legacy issues there might be one devoted to Houdini.

Thanks to Ondřej Pšenička and Mark Willoughby.


Saturday, August 20, 2016

The saga of Houdini and Dr. A. M. Wilson

I've been so swamped this summer that I let an important Houdini 100th anniversary slip past. On June 15, 1916, Houdini appeared on the cover of The Sphinx, the official magazine of the Society of American Magicians. Why is this special? What's so unusual about the most famous magician of his time appearing on the cover of a popular magic magazine? Therein lies the story.

Houdini had a rocky relationship with the S.A.M. when he first joined the fledgling organization in February 1903. When he launched his Conjurers' Monthly Magazine in 1906, Houdini lobbied the S.A.M. to make it the new official organ instead of Dr. A.M. Wilson's The Sphinx. Apart from wanting his new magazine to have instant legitimacy, he also had personal reasons.

Dr. A. M. Wilson was an assistant and pupil to magician Robert Heller, who once performed for Abraham Lincoln. Wilson took over as editor of The Sphinx in 1904. Wilson was a magic traditionalist who didn't care for escapology in general and Houdini in particular. His magazine rarely mentioned the exploits of the Handcuff King, and when Houdini complained, Wilson simply reminded him that he could take out an advertisement at the normal rate.

When The Sphinx ran an (erroneous) report that the Western Vaudeville Circuit was going to relegate handcuff acts to their ten cent houses, Houdini blew his stack. Houdini lambasted Wilson, accusing him of "petty spite" and jealously and called him a "dog in the manger." Wilson countered: "Houdini is yet a young man with much to learn. I am sorry for him that money has become his god and self-conceit has caused him to idolize himself." He then vowed, "I will never again mention his name in The Sphinx, no matter how great the provocation."

Their private correspondence was even more incendiary. In one letter, dated May 20, 1908 and today housed in the Harry Ransom Center, Wilson writes, "...you are that type of Jew that has made the noble Hebrew race–God's chosen people–an execration in every country of the world." Houdini wrote back, "As to your slur against my religion, let me suggest to you that such things are best omitted from your letters."

Houdini had been having issues with the S.A.M., even beyond their support of The Sphinx as their official magazine, but his feud with Wilson appear to have been the last straw. In the July 1908 issue of Conjurers he announced:

Harry Houdini has resigned from the Society of American Magicians, and is no longer a member.

When Houdini folded his Conjurers Magazine that same year, Wilson wrote that had been "inevitable" as the magazine "was intended primarily as an advertisement for the owner." He then took the gloves off:

Can anyone with a modicum of reason or common sense compare Houdini's or any other such act with that of David Devant, Servais LeRoy, F. E. Powell, Kellar or Thurston?
Magic is an art, a science that requires brains, skill, gentlemaness and talent of high order. Brick walls, torture cells, straightjackets, handcuffs, etc., demand nothing but physical strength and endurance, nerve, gall, bluster, fakes and fake apparatus, etc., ad libitium, heralded by circus band advertising. In my opinion, magic is brought into disrepute by all such. Their place is in the side show or dime museums.

The Houdini and Wilson feud extended to others. When Thurston asked Houdini for a $250 loan, Houdini reminded him that when they were both playing Chicago, Thurston invited Wilson to his show. "I told him to go to Wilson for the money." Houdini ended friendships if someone wrote for The Sphinx. He even darkly claimed to have a list of names of 300 married women with whom Wilson "was holding criminal relations as an adulterer and fornicator."

In June 1915, Houdini and Wilson came face to face in Martinka's Magic Shop in New York. Houdini was preparing to step back into the S.A.M., and he asked Wilson "what crime I had committed to make him write in such terms about my brothers and my work." Wilson reminded Houdini of a 12-page letter he had written to their mutual friend, Don Turley, slandering him using the most "vile and obscene language." Turley's mother had called Wilson and read him the letter in full. Houdini assured him he had never written a 12-page letter about anyone in his life.

Houdini then reached out to Don Turley, who lived on the west coast, asking him about this alleged letter. Turley assured him he received no such letter, and, furthermore, his mother at that time did not even own a telephone, so how could she have called Wilson? Houdini sent Turley's response to Wilson, diplomatically suggesting, "some indigenous individual or individuals [...] with double-dealing methods has poisoned your mind against me."

A few months later, Dr. Theodore Blakesy, an amateur magician who admired both men, brought them together in his Kansas City office while Houdini was in town. One hour later the two men emerged arm and arm, bonded by a mutual love and knowledge of magic. "I apologized to Houdini; he made amends," said Wilson. "Now we are friends, as we should have been years ago."

At long last, Houdini appeared on the cover of The Sphinx that following June. The cover photo includes the inscription: "To My Friend Dr. A.M. Wilson. With sincerest best wishes and compliments of the season. Harry Houdini Xmas 1915." For the magic world, this was an announcement that the long feud was finally over.

In his column, Dr. Wilson explained:

I made a mistake in accusing Houdini of attacking me, and did not discover the mistake until last June, when I made ample and satisfactory apology to Mr. Houdini, since when we have been good friends and he has sent me a two-year subscription, and, as you see, has his picture in this Sphinx.

The profile of Houdini in the magazine itself (provided by Houdini himself) is a praise-fest, even by Houdini standards. Headlined "Houdini (Has legalized the name)", it plays 16 years of catch-up, ticking off Houdini's triumphs one by one. Among those is a claim that I don't think has ever appeared anywhere else:

Inventor of the Wardrobe Trunk, for which he never received any royalty, and which is now being made by almost every trunk firm that tries to be up-to-date.

Wilson's acquiescence to Houdini was so total (and so one-sided), that it makes me wonder if the reconciliation might have been forced on him by the S.A.M. in a bid to pacify Houdini and bring him back into the organization. Indeed, Houdini would rejoin the S.A.M. the following year and become its president, building the club into the national magic organization that it is today.

But even if the friendship was initially forced, the men did genuinely get along from this point forward. Wilson even became somewhat of a father figure to Houdini. In the 1920s, Houdini arranged a lavish S.A.M. banquet, and as part of the evening's entertainment, he surprised the magicians by "teleporting" Dr. Wilson, then in his 70s, from Kansas City to New York via a "radio" cabinet (possibly the genesis of his later Radio of 1950 illusion). In 1926, Houdini enlisted Wilson's help in drawing up the curriculum for his proposed University of Magic. He even gave Wilson a key to his home so he could come and go as he liked.

Houdini appeared on the cover of The Sphinx again in 1924 and after his death in 1926. In that November issue, Wilson wrote:

I knew his heart, his longings, desires, ambitions, all were noble and uplifting. I would that every one could have learned to know him as I did after our reconciliation. There is no one to take his place in the hearts of one who knew him; no one to fill the void in the world of mystery.

Dr. A.M. Wilson remained editor of The Sphinx until his own death in 1930.

Thanks to Arthur Moses for providing Dr. Wilson's May 1908 editorial. Sphinx cover images from my own collection. This post was updated in 2023 using new information from the Harry Ransom Center.


Friday, August 19, 2016

LINK: The Day Houdini (Almost) Came Back from the Dead

I realize I don't yet have anything on this blog that covers the infamous Arthur Ford seances of 1928-29 in which the "Houdini Code" was revealed. So I'm linking to this well-researched article by Massimo Polidoro, author of Final Séance: The Strange Friendship Between Houdini and Conan Doyle, that lays out all the details. This first appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

Of course, this remains controversial as the Ford seances are still used today by pro-spiritualists as "proof" that Houdini made good on his death bed promise to return from the grave. The story behind the story is that Bess provided Ford with the code in a moment of romantic and alcoholic weakness, but that's a story we'll save for another time.

Click here or on the headline to have a read at the CSI-Center for Skeptical Inquiry website. Next week I will share a unique little something that relates to the Ford seances.

Illustration from Ghost Stories: Houdini's Great Escape.


LINK: Mr Swallow: Houdini – a giddy feat of comedic derring-do

The Guardian has a five star review of the new comedic musical play Mr. Swallow - Houdini starring Nick Mohammed, now running at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe through August 28.

Real tension is skilfully stoked, before our hero performs a jaws-of-death trick you’d pay to see from Houdini himself, never mind an impostor comedian.

Click here or on the headline to read the full review at The Guardian. Tickets to the show can be purchased at the festival website HERE.


Thursday, August 18, 2016

This post by Tom Interval is Dynamite

The talented Tom Interval has a must-see post on his blog Interval Magic about the December 1980 issue of Dynamite magazine which contained an article about Houdini and a Houdini puzzle "punch-out" card. Tom has scanned and animated the punch-out, so at long last we can see how it works without destroying the magazine (finding an issue with the punch-out intact can be a trick).

Houdini also appeared in the May 1976 issue of Dynamite (cast of Welcome Back Kotter on the cover). That issue contained nice original Houdini illustrations by Katrina Taylor, as you can see below.

While I cherished this 1976 issue, somehow I didn't even know about the 1980 appearance! So a double thanks to Tom for his dynamite post.

Dynamite was published by Scholastic from 1974 to 1992, and will be very familiar to anyone who was of school age during this years. You can learn more about the magazine here.


Mysteries at the Museum repeat dates

If you missed last Friday's Mysteries at the Museum, which included a segment about Houdini and Eleanor Fletcher Bishop (mother of magician Washington Irving Bishop), below are a list of dates the episode will repeat on the Travel Channel. The show visited the Houdini Museum in Scranton and the story told is not widely known.

  • Friday
 August 26, 
11pm | 10c 

  • Saturday
 August 27, 
2am | 1c 

  • Thursday
 September 1
, 7pm | 6c 

  • Sunday
 September 11, 
10am | 9c 

  • Friday
 September 23
, 7pm | 6c

You can keep up with future repeat dates HERE at the Travel Channel website. The episode is titled "Muhammad Ali Saves the Day, Beast of Gevaudan, Before Hillary."

Thanks to Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz.


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The doctor, the nurse, and the Bible of Ehrich Weiss

Strap yourselves in, because what I have to share today is exciting on many levels. Not since the Houdini spiritualism scrapbook have I felt like I've stumbled on a bigger Houdini "scoop" in regards to an hitherto unknown artifact and some juicy Houdini family history. So here we go.

Let's start with the artifact. The photos below were sent to me by musician Tara O'Grady. This Bible, published in 1883 by The American Bible Society, has been in Tara's family since the late 1970s. As you can see by the inscription, it once belonged to Houdini's father, Mayer Samuel Weiss. In 1893, it appears to have became the personal Bible of 19-year-old Ehrich Weiss. He had already adopted the stage name "Houdini", but still used his real name on meaningful things such as this.

This is an incredible find and an important piece of Houdini history, and the story of how it came to be in Tara's family is just as incredible. But first, enjoy these photos of the Ehrich Weiss Bible.

Okay, now the history.

Houdini's brother, Dr. Leopold Weiss, was a successful New York radiologist. For a time he even ran his practice out of Houdini's home in Harlem. Around 1916, Houdini and Leopold had a falling out when Leo married Sadie, the divorced wife of another Weiss brother, Nathan. Speculation is that Houdini conflated the strain of the family scandal with his mother's death (even though his mother had died three years before). Houdini turned against Leo, banishing him from the family cemetery plot and even cutting his head out of family portraits. The brothers never reconciled.

Leopold continued his medical practice in New York City. His nurse was named Marguerite Elliott. And that's where Tara picks up the story:

Mrs. Marguerite Elliott lived across the street from me growing up in New York. She was a nurse and began working for Dr. Leopold Weiss from the moment she graduated nursing school until his retirement in 1949 due to blindness. Leo always showered her with gifts and her husband Robert did not appreciate it. He was quite jealous and he knew the doctor was also a married man. It was obvious Leo was in love with my neighbor. He gave her six plates that he purchased at auction, Myott Staffordshire China, made in England with gold trim. He also gave her his family bible, signed by his father Rev. Dr. M. S. Weisz, and his brother, Ehrich Weiss.

Houdini and Leopold Weiss.
According to Tara, one of the things that Marguerite remembered was that Dr. Weiss did not speak well of his famous brother. Leopold said Houdini "was an embarrassment to the family because he was a magician." Possibly Leo felt entertainment was a lowly profession compared to his own. Or maybe the hard feelings between the brothers went both ways. But it's fascinating to hear what Leo had to say because, until now, we've only heard Houdini's side of the feud.

In 1962, Leopold, elderly and now blind, killed himself by leaping off the roof of his apartment. He left all his belongings to Marguerite Elliott. But Marguerite's husband forbid her to accept, and what might have been left behind by the final Weiss sibling is now long gone. Marguerite's husband died in 1969. Marguerite, who never had children, lived alone.

Tara continues the story...

My parents moved across the street from [Marguerite] in 1970. My mother was a caring Irish immigrant who befriended the old nurse and took care of her when she needed help.
One day, around 1978, my mother was in the basement of Marguerite's house and asked her what the large book on the floor was. It had been sitting on her basement floor for 30 years. It was Houdini's bible, and she gave it to my mother because she had no value for it, and she said perhaps mom could get a "couple of bucks" out of it. She also gave mom the six English plates.

Marguerite Elliott died in 1982. The Weiss family Bible lived on in the home of the O'Grady family, as Tara recalls:

Throughout my childhood, I would occasionally point out the signed bible on my parents' bookshelf to my friends and claimed it was Harry Houdini's. But no one really showed any interest. My parents didn't even show much interest and didn't bother getting it appraised because they didn't know how to go about it. They also didn't know why a Jewish family would own a bible, and since it didn't say Houdini, they thought it wasn’t worth much.
So it sat on their bookshelf for another 30 odd years.
I finally looked into it the other day because I was walking in a Queens cemetery and posted a photo of a tombstone on Facebook. A friend commented asking if Houdini was buried there, and I replied no, but I had his signed bible. The friend asked if I would sell it to him. I said I'd have to research. That's when I realized it was worth a bit more than "a couple of bucks."
Thanks, Mrs. Elliott.

And that brings the story to all of us today. Having explored their options, Tara and her family have decided to sell the Bible privately. So if you are interested in adding this to your collection, EMAIL ME and I will put you in touch with Tara.

My thanks to Tara O'Grady for allowing me to "break the news" of this remarkable Houdini artifact here on my blog. Here's hoping the Houdini Bible will find a good new home.

UPDATEThe Ehrich Weiss Bible is going to Budapest.


Monday, August 15, 2016


Attention collectors! I have something exciting to share. Not since the lost Houdini scrapbook have I stumbled on a bigger Houdini "scoop" in regards to an hitherto unknown artifact and some juicy Houdini family history. And, yes, it's for sale.

Even if you're not a collector, you'll still love the story behind this. I'm working up the details and will unleash this tomorrow at 7:00 AM (Pacific Time).

UPDATEThe doctor, the nurse, and the Bible of Ehrich Weiss.

Houdini among 'Handsome Heroes and Vicious Villains'

The new book Handsome Heroes and Vicious Villains: More Cliffhanger Serials of the Silent-Movie Era by Ed Hulse contains a nice section on Houdini's 1918 serial The Master Mystery.

There's some fresh information here, including that the serial was shot at the Mittenthal and Standard studios in Yonkers, and that it was said to be the first serial to have all its chapters completed before release.

Quotes from exhibitors of the time attest to the serial's performance. A.B. Mendal of Galveston said: "Great. Brought people to my house that never came before. Best serial I ever played." But Jack Cairns of Detroit's Brooklyn Theatre said: "Leave it alone. Most impossible story I ever witnessed. Lost money on every episode after the seventh."

The book also includes several nice photos (although one is actually from Terror Island).

You can purchase Handsome Heroes and Vicious Villains: More Cliffhanger Serials of the Silent-Movie Era at Amazon.com (U.S.) and Amazon.co.uk (UK).

Thanks to Arthur Moses for the alert.


Sunday, August 14, 2016


I've been so swamped this summer that I let an obscure but interesting Houdini 100th anniversary slip past. In fact, I had cut it from my 1916 overview just so I could feature it on its own. I'm working on a post now, but does anyone care to guess what's significant about June 15, 1916? Here's a clue:


Saturday, August 13, 2016

Time Squad's Houdini Whodunnit

Time Squad was animated television series that aired on Cartoon Network for two seasons from June 2001 to November 2006. It follows the adventures of Otto Osworth, Buck Tuddrussel, and a robot named Larry 3000 who travel back in time attempting to correct the course of history. Creator Dave Wasson described the series as "a C-student's guide to history."

The first season found the trio traveling to New York in 1895 and meeting Houdini. The episode was called Houdini Whodunnit!? I don't know the original air-date, but you can watch the full first half of the episode which featured Houdini below.

Unfortunately, this video has been removed.

Houdini has become a popular presence in animated television. He's appeared on Jem and the Holograms, The Real Ghostbusters,  Madeline, Family Guy and even The Simpsons. He's also aided past time travelers from Doctor Who to the Voyagers.

Time Squad is currently not available on DVD.


Friday, August 12, 2016

Detroit's last Houdini theater

Houdini collector Jon Oliver took this photo of what is the last standing theater in Detroit where Houdini performed; the Madison. Today it houses Angelina Italian Bistro and office space, but the original theater marquee remains.

The Madison was built in 1917 as a movie theater. It was the largest theater in what was then Detroit's bustling theatre district, Grand Circus Park. In October of 1922, Houdini appeared on stage three times daily before showings of his film, The Man From Beyond. He also gave his lecture on spiritualism at the Madison. At noon on October 9, he did a suspended straitjacket escape from the Fyfe building at Grand Circus Park and Woodward.

Of course, the last theater in which Houdini ever appeared was Detroit's Garrick Theater. The Garrick was torn down in 1928.

Thanks Jon.


Thursday, August 11, 2016

'Mysteries at the Museum' uncovers Houdini and the con woman

This Friday's Mysteries at the Museum on the Travel Channel contains an all-new Houdini segment about his curious relationship with Eleanor Fletcher Bishop. Dick Brookz of the Houdini Museum of Scranton tells the tale of "a strange woman who cast a spell on Houdini" with reenactments featuring an uncredited actor as the great magician (below). It's an excellent and largely untold story.

Unfortunately, the online show description doesn't mention anything about Houdini, so this is your official heads up! The episode is titled "Muhammad Ali Saves the Day, Beast of Gevaudan, Before Hillary" and premieres this Friday, August 12 at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT. Houdini is the last story.

UPDATE: The actor playing Houdini here is Jonathan Shade.


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The imposter

In 1946, Maurice Zolotow penned The Great Balsamo, a novel about a famous magician and escape artist. Even though the author states in his introduction that his character "is not a lightly doctored version of any famous magician," the similarities between Barney Balsamo and Harry Houdini are hard to escape.

First edition hardcover (1946).

The Great Balsamo was first published in hardcover by Random House in 1946. It later appeared as an abridged paperback edition from Pyramid in 1954. I admit I've never read the book cover to cover. I've only scanned it. But even a scan tells me that Houdini was first and foremost on Zolotow's mind, and that he intended Houdini to be on the mind of the reader as well. Consider his description of Barney Balsamo in the first chapter:

He was not of commanding height, but when be began to speak in a firm, harsh voice, ungrammatical, but pervaded with unanswerable conviction, he could project any illusion about himself which he wished.

At the high point of his fame, Balsamo was a stocky muscular person with a large round face, curly black hair, and eyes of a murky marbled grayness, that fixed you with an immobile translucency. You were unable to escape from the eyes. They captured you like and insect on a scientific pin. You were lost in the eyes, like round, superbly polished stones in a ring, cloudy chrysophrase stones. Before an interview or a stage appearance, he placed a few drops of belladonna in his eyes to heighten the staring intensity.

The similarities continue. Balsamo, who doesn’t drink or smoke, performs with his wife Lami as The Balsamos. Their signature trick is the substitution trunk. When times get hard, they do a spiritualistic mind reading act that uses a word/number code. Zolotow spells out their code on pages 184-185 in a way that is very reminiscent of how the first Houdini biography, Houdini His Life Story by Harold Kellock, spelled out Harry and Bessie's own secret code.

In fact, it's pretty clear that Zolotow used the Kellock biography as a source in ways that border plagiarism. Compare these two passages from Kellock and Zolotow:

Houdini His Life Story (page 90):
Toward the end of the week he came home one evening with a whole packing-box for the fire. It was so complete that he obviously hated to break it up, and before tackling it he sat for a long time staring at it. At last, with a sigh, he began to wrench it apart.

"Bess," he said, "I have a new idea for a packing-box escape. I think I can get out without using a trick box. I'll work it out some day, and it will help make us famous.

In this curious fashion the idea of his famous packing-case escape had it's inception.

The Great Balsamo (page 207-206):
Lami could not help giggling when she saw what an absurd figure he made hauling the crate. It was the first time he had ever secured a box in such unbroken condition. He seemed to be reluctant to break it up and throw it into the stove. For a long time he stared at the box, and thumped its sides, examining the way the slates were nailed together. Finally, he began to dismantle the box.

"Lami," he said, thoughtfully, "I have a new idea for a packing-box escape. I think I can get out without using a trick box. I think I know a way where I can get a committee of carpenters to come on stage and build a box right on stage and nail me into it and I can escape and still leave the box it its original condition.

This was the germ of Balsamo's celebrated packing-box escape...

The similarities continue. Advised by vaudeville manager Sam Blitzer to focus on handcuffs escape, Balsamo hits it big as "The Handcuff King and Jail-Breaker." He travels to Europe and escapes handcuffs at Scotland Yard -- yes, his hands are locked around a pillar -- and experiences his own Hodgson-like challenge. (Both these sections again lift whole passages from Kellock). Back in the U.S., Balsamo performs suspended straitjacket escapes, vanishes an elephant, and is devastated by the death of his mother. In the end, Balsamo dies in an overboard box escape gone wrong.

Abridged paperback (1954).

The Great Balsamo is peppered with mentions of classic era magicians such as Thurston, Blackstone, T. Nelson Downs, and Horace Goldin. Zolotow also identifies S.W. Erdnase as being Edward Samuel Andrews. The name "Houdini" is conspicuously absent until near the end of the book when he warrants one quick mention (his photo is named among others on the wall of a magic shop).

It's also worth noting that Houdini himself used the name "The Marvelous Balsoma" for a fictional magician in his short story, "The Magician's Christmas Eve." Houdini was no doubt drawing the name from Cagliostro, who also happens to be a hero to Barney Balsamo.

So there's no question Zolotow is offering is a veiled portrait of Houdini in The Great Balsamo. However, it's not always a flattering one. Consider this passage near the end of the novel:

"Balsamo, growing older, resembled Cagliostro more and Balsamo less. In both, cunning and evil had gradually come to dominate and corrupt the physiognomy."

So who was Maurice Zolotow and what were his feelings toward Houdini?

Born in 1913, Maurice Zolotow was a prolific show business biographer. He penned the first biography of Marilyn Monroe, as well as biographies of John Wayne and Billy Wilder. He was also a magic buff who claimed to have seen Houdini perform at Coney Island. Later in life, he became friends with magician Ricky Jay.

In his psychological study, Houdini A Mind in Chains (1976), author Bernard C. Meyer (father of Houdini miniseries screenwriter Nicholas Meyer) repeatedly references Zolotow and Balsamo, stating, "it is clear that in fashioning the erotic aspect of his novel, Zolotow drew freely upon elements in Houdini's past."

Indeed, the erotic aspect of Houdini's life appears to have fascinated Maurice Zolotow. It was Zolotow who famously said, "Houdini loved only two women, his mother and Daisy White." (In Balsamo, Daisy is Myra Wilcox.) I don't know this for a fact, but I suspect Zolotow might have also influenced Melville Shavelson's 1976 biopic, The Great Houdinis.

In October 1979, Zolotow wrote a profile of Houdini for Los Angeles Magazine. It's surprisingly negative. He starts with an account of the Jess Willard confrontation and concludes: "All of Houdini's biographers relate this and similar stories about him, as if to prove what a heroic guy he was. To me, it suggests he was an arrogant bastard."

Zolotow goes on to quote conversations with Dai Vernon, a Houdini hater of the first order, which might account for the article's negative tone. And despite excellent sources, such as Manny Weltman, the article contains several factual errors.

Zolotow's Los Angeles Magazine profile of Houdini (1979).

In the same issue, Zolotow provided a short article about "The Houdini Gary Gilmore Connection" in which he spells out the claim by murderer Gary Gilmore that he was the illegitimate grandson of the famous magician. So it's clear Zolotow liked to dish dirt on Houdini.

Maurice Zolotow died on March 14, 1991.

The Great Balsamo stands as a curiosity. It's not a great novel, nor does it really work as a "veiled" Houdini biography. The real Houdini and his life remians just so much more compelling than any fictional version. But I still think it's an interesting book and a worthy addition to any Houdini bookshelf.

Other selections from the WILD ABOUT HARRY bookshelf:

Monday, August 8, 2016

Larry Weeks had a complete print of Terror Island

The Grim Game restorationist Rick Schmidlin dropped a bombshell comment at Joe Notaro's "Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence" blog. According to Rick, shortly before Larry Weeks passed away, he said he had a complete print of Terror Island, Houdini's second film for Famous Players-Lasky Paramount released in 1920.

This is huge news. Until now, the only known print of Terror Island was the one in the Library of Congress, and that print is missing two reels that contain two signature Houdini escapes. Also missing are the original Paramount title cards. This is the print that has been used to release Terror Island on DVD, with descriptive cards filling in the missing reels.

We all knew Larry had The Grim Game, so there was always hope we'd one day see it (that dream came true last year). But the existence of Terror Island was unknown (at least to me), so the possibility of one day seeing the complete film seemed remote at best.

But it's not all good news. The Terror Island print was among items stolen from Larry's apartment after his death. Also stolen was Larry's print of The Master Mystery, which also may be complete. Rick says the police do "have a lead."

Let's hope the stolen prints can be recovered and Rick can do for Terror Island what he did for the The Grim Game. Might 2017 be the year of Terror? Fingers crossed.

In the meantime, Joe Notaro is piecing together the lost Terror Island scenes using photos and script excerpts from the Margaret Herrick Academy Library. You can read his first installment, which reconstructs the Rosemary Theby "vamp" scene, HERE.


Final days to watch Houdini & Doyle for free

There are only 2 days left to watch Houdini & Doyle for free on FOX NOW. The last day the series will be available via the official streaming site is tomorrow, August 9. If you want to sample a single episode, I'd recommend In Manus Dei, which was my personal favorite (review here).

After the 9th, the only way to watch Houdini & Doyle will be via pay services such as Amazon and iTunes. The first season is available on DVD in the UK, but there is yet no news of a U.S. DVD release.