Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Houdini in 1899

Houdini began 1899 adrift and discouraged. He had begun his career as a professional magician in 1891. Now, eight years later, he had not made a name for himself and was stuck playing dime museums to make a living. In fact, he worked the lowly venues so much, he was now nicknamed "Dime Museum Harry." He was also dead broke. A year earlier, he had attempted to sell his entire act, including his handcuff act. There were no takers.

During the first week of the new year, Houdini walked into a Chicago police station and amazed the officers for over an hour by escaping from their manacles. But there is a strange melancholy that hangs over the newspaper account of this exploit by the "strolling magician." It appears Houdini had no real purpose behind the stunt, except to exercise his escape muscles. Omitted from the article was that he was working at Middleton’s Clark St. Dime Museum. But the article made the front page of the Chicago Journal, a city that housed some important people in show business, including the all powerful Martin Beck.

Martin Beck oversaw the western Orpheum vaudeville circuit, which offered "refined" entertainment via a chain of well-appointed theaters. Beck had a business agreement with B.F. Keith and Edward Albee, who controlled vaudeville in the east. Eventually, the men came to monopolize vaudeville, not just with their nationwide string of theaters, but also with an all-powerful booking agency that fed their own chains (collecting commissions every step of the way). With their prestigious theaters and nationwide influence, Keith-Albee Orpheum was "the big time."

The popular story goes that Martin Beck, traveling with a party of sightseeing theater managers, saw Houdini at the Palm Garden Beer Hall in St. Paul, Minnesota. Beck even sent a pair of handcuffs on stage to test Houdini, "perhaps more in joke than sincerity." But on March 14, Houdini received a telegram from Beck that changed his life:

Beck's statement that he would "see his act" in Omaha makes me wonder if the story of Beck challenging Houdini with cuffs at the Palm Garden might be mythology. It always struck me as a little odd that a man like Beck would be trolling beer halls for acts. Perhaps it was a scout who saw Houdini and alerted Beck. Or maybe Beck had learned of Houdini via the "strolling magician" article a few months earlier. However it happened, Houdini now had his first real shot at the big time, and the timing couldn't have been better.

Houdini opened the week of March 27 at the Creighton-Orpheum Theater in Omaha, and was held over for a second week. "Was the talk of the town" Houdini reported. He then played another two week stint at the Orpheum in Kansas City where he received a glowing review for what appeared to be a new effect: The East Indian Needle Trick. In Lexington, Missouri, he performed handcuff escapes at the City Council Room on May 3. A stint at the Pavilion Theater in Joplin followed. Then, on June 2, Harry and Bess arrived in San Francisco.

To publicize his opening at San Francisco's prestigious Orpheum Theater, the birthplace of vaudeville on the west coast, Houdini marched into the Central police headquarters. Newspaper accounts the next day reported that Houdini, "who claims Austria as the land of his nativity", escaped from four pair of handcuffs and two sets of leg irons in seven minutes. When asked how he did it, Houdini replied, "Oh, I just sneak out of them."

Houdini played two weeks at the San Francisco Orpheum to good reviews. While the billing of "The Houdinis" had now been abandoned in favor of "Houdini King of Handcuffs", below Houdini's name on the program in equal size was "Assisted by Mlle. Beatrice Houdini." While in the city, Harry and Bess also got to experience their first earthquake.

Houdini then traveled to Los Angeles, opening at the Orpheum which was then housed in the Grand Opera House at 110 S. Main St. (Beck would build a new Orpheum Theater in 1903). Once again Houdini visited a police station and, after warming up the officers with his needle trick, was "trussed up like a turkey" in five pairs of handcuffs, a pair of leg-irons and an Oregon boot. He escaped in six minutes. Interestingly, the Los Angeles Record noted that an Officer Hill, "who had been for years the butt of the Los Angeles police force because of his belief in Spiritualism" was jubilant after Houdini's escape, turning to his fellow officers and saying: "I told you so." He then proceeded to "preach a batch of spiritualistic truths."

While in Los Angeles, Houdini became embroiled in an apparent controversy as a man named Professor Benzon published an exposé of Houdini's feats. Benzon's article, which was syndicated in newspapers in both Los Angeles and San Francisco, claimed:

In reality, this trick is absurdly simple. Handcuffs not being an article in extensive demand, there are but a few kinds made. Professor Houdini is supplied with these, and with the keys that unlock them. He keeps conveniently about him all keys known to the handcuff trade.

Beck advised Houdini to ignore Benzon. But that was not his style. He would refute his challenger in dramatic fashion, and in doing so evolve his handcuff act in a startling and original new way.

When Houdini returned to San Francisco on July 13, he once again escaped from shackles at police headquarters. But to disproved the claim that he used keys, Houdini allowed himself to be stripped nude and searched by a police surgeon and two assistants. After the test, Houdini visited the Bushnell Company and took a series of semi-nude photographs in shackles. These are the first of Houdini's iconic nude portraits, and they would feature prominently in newspapers and magazines. Certainly Houdini was not like any other magician the world had ever seen before.

I should point out that some, including the great Patrick Culliton, believe Professor Benzon was a plant and his "exposé" was written by Houdini himself. Indeed, the following year, an almost identical article appeared in Boston penned by a "Professor Pooley." So it's very possible that along with the nude test, Houdini had created another signature during his west coast tour; the rival challenger.

After San Francisco, Houdini traveled to St Louis where on September 2 he escaped handcuffs at police headquarters "in a costume so brief he had no place to conceal keys or wires." On this occasion, his mouth was sealed with "sticking plaster." He also performed card tricks and his Needles (which he once also did in the nude). The only snafu was when the St. Louis Dispatch spelled his name HUDINI in its headline.

Along with his reputation, Houdini's weekly salary under Beck was also on the rise. He started at $60 and was now bringing in $250 (a large portion of which he sent home to his mother). Beck was overseeing his career, telling the magician, "I have laid out the plan for you very carefully. My aim especially at present to make a name for you."

Beck proposed a European tour where many American acts went to build up an "International" reputation that would sell well back home. The tour was even announced in papers on October 5. However, the recent Boer War had depressed the UK economy, and Beck thought it prudent to postpone the tour. Europe could wait.

Instead, Houdini performed at the Grand Opera House in Memphis in October and Hopkin's Grand Theater in Nashville in November. In Nashville he shared the bill with The Great Lafayette, a flamboyant German magician whose real name was Sigmund Neuberger. The two seemed to hit it off, and Houdini gave Neuberger a dog as a gift. Lafayette's attachment and devotion to his dog "Beauty" would become legendary.

In December, Houdini arrived in Cincinnati to play the Columbia Theater. By now he was doing a straitjacket escapes as part of his act. Beck arrived in town on December 16, and the men finalized a three year contract. Beck and his wife saw Houdini perform at the Columbia on December 17.

Before the end of the year, Houdini performed one more police station handcuff escape in his home town of New York. However, when he began to strip, the sergeant protested: "That don't go... You've got to keep your clothes on."

The year of 1899 had been transformative. The moniker "Dime Museum Harry" was long gone. "Houdini The Handcuff King" was now a success on the big time Orpheum circuit. The new year, and the new century, looked promising. But even Houdini could not have foreseen the extent of success that still lay ahead.

Telegram and newspaper images from Houdini His Legend and His Magic by Doug Henning.

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  1. You know, in doing these "deep dives," I always feel like I get a new perspective, not just on the particular year, but Houdini's career trajectory in general. In this one, I realized that his great breakthrough might have been when he discovered the attention getting power of getting naked! #Kardashian

  2. Wonderful details, otherwise lost to history, about the beginnings of Houdini's career. Thanks, John!

  3. The May 20 Columbus KS Daily Advocate says "Charles H. Barton, traveling salesman for a Boston firm, made a wager of $100 last night with Houdini that he has among his samples a pair of handcuffs from which the magician cannot extricate himself without the aid of a confederate. Houdini promptly covered the bet and furthermore agreed that he will remove the cuffs in full view of the audience. The test will be made during the performance at the Pavilion theatre tonight. Houdini has never yet failed to release himself from any handcuff placed upon him."

    Is this the earliest known challenge? Do you suspect that Barton was a plant?

    1. No, Houdini was doing challenge handcuff escapes as early as 1895, I believe.

      It's interesting to note here the HH did the escape in full view of the audience. He did that more often than we think.

  4. I wonder if "in full view" was actually a small tri-fold screen that HH would kneel down behind to exhibit his handcuff escapes on stage.

  5. Excellent John! Love the deep dive into a single year. Nice to see my little discovery about the contract in there.

  6. That post aged well. Fascinating.

  7. When M. Christopher's Houdini bio came out, it had references to the 1899 articles in the San Francisco Examiner, so I went to the downtown main branch of the S.F. Library, where they had the actual newspapers, bound by the month(?) to stay on a shelf. I was able to see the actual clippings, (one filled half a page). That was as high tech as it got decades ago, but great to see articles that only few like Christopher had seen. Can't recall if there was a copying machine in that dept. or big enough to copy the entire articles.

    1. That is very cool. Must have been a thrill. The images are fantastic. (I take it you navigated here from my latest newsletter "Extra" showing the rope ties article?)