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.
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.
- The strolling magician
- Ebay auction dates first Houdini 'nude'
- Discovering Houdini's Los Angeles Orpheum
- LINK: Houdini, Martin Beck, and Herrmann in Cincinnati