Sunday, January 1, 2017

Houdini in 1917

Welcome to another year of WILD ABOUT HARRY. Let's kick off 2017 with a look back at what Houdini himself was up to 100 years ago.

Quick! Name a significant Houdini escape, piece of magic or performance associated with the year 1917?

One can easily do this for nearly every year of Houdini's life: 1903/Carette; 1908/Milk Can; 1914/Walking Through A Brick Wall. But 1917 is tricky. That's because for the first time in many years, Houdini didn't invent or perform any new escape or feat of magic. In fact, his act was basically the same one he had been doing since returning to the U.S. in 1914. Of this period Silverman writes: "Much of what had brought Houdini to this height he was now preparing to downplay or abandon."

But in regards to his significance and impact on the magic community, 1917 might actually be the most significant year of Houdini's life, and it's why the year appears on his Machpelah monument. But we'll get to that.

Houdini kicked off 1917 in Philadelphia, heading up a Keith's bill advertised as "A NEW YEAR RIOT!" Houdini's January 1st show drew capacity crowds who saw him escape from his Chinese Water Torture Cell. The Philadelphia Inquirer enthused, "It is really the most uncanny trick of any that he has offered here and would impress one with the belief that this modest little fellow is gifted with superhuman powers, although he disclaims any such thing."

Houdini then returned to New York and played the Orpheum Theater in Brooklyn and the Alhambra in Manhattan. It was during this time that he played a different kind of hero role. Acclaimed French actress Sarah Bernhardt had been presented with a bronze statuette of herself on behalf of the "Actors of America." She then received a second surprise; the bill for $350 ($7,136 today). She returned the statuette to everyone's embarrassment. Learning of this, Houdini paid the bill and promised he'd return the tribute to the great actress personally. Bernhardt insisted he keep it, but she did reportedly ask if he could use his magic powers to restore her amputated leg.

February saw Houdini at Keith’s Theater in Washington, D.C., escaping a wet-sheet "Lunatics' Bed" provided by the Government Hospital for the Insane. At Baltimore's Maryland Theater he beat a packing box constructed on stage by the Crown Cork and Seal Company. In Boston he hung 100 feet in a straitjacket from the B.F. Keith’s Building on Tremont St. The outdoor stunt was witnessed by his new friend The Divine Sarah.

Houdini and Sarah Bernhardt in Boston.

Houdini kicked off March by accepting a challenge from the Boston Athletic Association to escape from a straitjacket and packing crate at the same time. In Providence he did a suspended straitjacket escape from the Brownell Building at Exchange Place.

Then in April came news of a dramatic development in Houdini's career. He would make a movie! And not just any movie. It would be a land, air and undersea spectacular for which he would receive the highest salary ever paid to an actor for a single film. The movie would be produced by the Williamson Bros., specialists in underwater photography, and was due to shoot in the Bahamas in May for release in November 1917.

The movie never materialized for reasons unknown. Some have suggested that America's entry into the war scuttled plans for the international shoot. But the idea of Houdini as a movie star was now out there. It was just a matter of finding the right vehicle.

Houdini had actually already entered the movie business, behind the scenes, a year earlier with his Film Developing Corporation. But the business was proving to be a struggle, and in early 1917 Hardeen announced his retirement from the stage to help run the company. The stress would give him ulcers. It may not have helped that the Houdinis were still living with the Hardeens in Flatbush at this time.

On their regular anniversary visit to Coney Island in June, Harry playfully posed beside Bess with his pockets turned out and wrote the word "Broke" on the photo. While not broke, the FDC and related business ventures were a serious drain on the fortune he had amassed during his career. But Houdini was still flush enough to make several major purchases for his growing Dramatic collection, as well as a writing desk said to have belonged to Edgar Allan Poe.

On June 2, 1917, Houdini became president of the Society of American Magicians. Houdini had left the S.A.M. in 1908 due in part to his feud with Dr. A.M. Wilson. Four years later, the S.A.M. voted to make him an honorary member. But Houdini considered the S.A.M., which met in Martinka's magic shop in New York, old fashioned and unambitious. So along with past president Oscar Teale, he set out to reshape it.

Houdini had long dreamt of a magic organization modeled on fraternal orders like the Masons. He first tried this by founding the Magicians Club in the UK with Will Goldston. Now Houdini envisioned the S.A.M. as that great nationwide Order. He personally solicited magic clubs all over the country to join the S.A.M., whose motto was "Magic - Unity - Might." Where there were no clubs, Houdini brought together groups of magicians to form S.A.M. Assemblies. "This is the biggest movement ever in the history of magic," he enthusiastically wrote to Teale.

Houdini and Teale worked for a year to build the new national S.A.M. For good measure, Houdini purchased Martinka's magic shop. His election as president was the culmination and reward for his efforts (Teale became Secretary). His first official act was to call for a council to investigate the entry "Conjuring" in the Encyclopedia Britannica, which failed to mention any American magician (including himself). He also threw a lavish banquet for members at the McAlpin Hotel, gaining the S.A.M. recognition in the New York press.

Houdini would reign as president of the S.A.M. for the rest of his life. The organization that he created in 1917 still exists today with over 250 active assemblies. A living tribute to Houdini's vision of a unified magic fraternity.

Houdini's M.I. (Most Illustrious) presidency on his grave.


The day before Houdini celebrated his 43rd birthday, his brother Leopold married the ex-wife of another brother, Nathan. This would cause a rift between Houdini and Leo that would never be resolved. But it was what happened on Houdini's birthday, April 6 (the date he celebrated), that was to define the rest of his year. The United States Congress declared war on Germany.

Despite his affinity for things German (the family language), America's entry into World War I ignited Houdini's inherent patriotism. When a draft was initiated in June, Houdini marched himself and his assistants to the nearest enlistment office. On his registration card Houdini noted his profession as "Actor - Manager Film Factory." Too old to serve, he nevertheless dropped and did pushups for the assembled recruits.

After performing at Keith’s Theater in Atlantic City, Houdini cancelled his Fall tour and devoted himself entirely to the war effort. He toured army camps and performed at numerous Red Cross benefits where he once made an entrance escorted by a company of marines. He gave soldiers lessons in how to escape from German handcuffs and rope ties, and handed out $5 gold pieces he produced during his "Money For Nothing" routine. (By the war's end he had given out over $7000.) He also sold over $1 million in war bonds and committed $1000 of the S.A.M. surplus fund to the war effort. "My heart is in this work," he said. "WE MUST WIN, and that is all there is to it."

Regretting that he had given flight lessons to German soldiers in 1909, he destroyed photos showing himself with the soldiers and his biplane. He also relocated much of the history of his early aviation accomplishments to Australia (causing confusion that can still crop up today). Having patented a quick release diving suit (which he planned to showcase in his underwater film), Houdini gave the design to the Dept. of the Navy. The non-smoker also appeared as part of a Hippodrome benefit for The Sun Tobacco Fund. Ads read: "Smoke Up and Help Smoke The Kaiser Out."

On October 22, 1917 the Army transport ship SS Antilles was torpedoed by a German U-boat killing 67. Houdini organized a benefit for families of the victims at the Hippodrome. The magic spectacular would see him share the stage with Harry Kellar (brought out of retirement for the occasion), Howard Thurston, Charles Carter and Adelaide Herrmann among others. To promote the charitable event, the city of New York finally granted him permission to perform a suspended straitjacket escape "for the purpose of advertising a patriotic performance."

The Times Sq. escape.
Houdini performed the escape on November 5 in Times Square (then called Longacre Square), dangling 60 feet above 7th and Broadway from a crane being used to construct the new New York subway. In return for the favor of permission, Houdini voiced his support of New York's incumbent Mayor John Purroy Mitchell who was facing reelection the following day. This despite the fact that Mitchell's campaign denounced Jews (among others) as enemy sympathizers. Mitchell lost, and Houdini's Antilles benefit, held on November 11, raised $10,000.

Houdini's war efforts took up the remainder of his year. In November he played alongside Irvin Berlin at "Hero Land," where he was un-typically billed as "The Great Houdini." Held at Grand Central Palace, Hero Land was a 60 day grand bazaar of entertainment venues that drew a crowd of over 250,000 and raised over a half-million dollars for war relief charities.

In December Houdini signed a contract to join the Hippodrome revue show "Cheer Up", which was playing its 1917-18 season. Hippodrome producer Charles Dillingham had been impressed with his staging of the Antilles benefit, and asked him to come up with something spectacular. Houdini would command two acts (called "Cheers"). In one he'd do his overboard box in the famous Hippodrome pool. For the other he would create a new illusion worthy of the enormous Hippodrome stage. Having not invented or introduced any new effects in 1917, Houdini's "Cheer Up" debut on January 7, 1918 would make a gigantic impression.

But we'll save that for next year.



    1. Wow! A great recap for 1917 John! The chronological order by month puts it all in clear focus.

      1. I'm telling you, Leo, these posts are always revelatory for me, especially this one as 1917 didn't seem to be a standout year. But as I dove in, I realized it's as fascinating as any! I also realize biographies really only skim years, highlighting the same basic stuff. Kalush intercuts the events of 1917 and 18, so you have no sense of the year or how one thing led to the other.

        Doing deep dives on each year is a genuinely NEW way of telling Houdini's story. I come out of each of these with a totally new understanding and appreciation for that year, and therefore of Houdini's life.

        Eventually I'll do one of these for every year of Houdini's professional life. I'll keep adding every 100th anniversary new year, but I will go back and fill in years as I did last year with 1899 and 1900.

    2. Exactly! The bios don't give us HH's life in perfect chronological order as you have done here. It really is a new way of telling Houdini's story. You're slowly giving us a fleshed out Koval's Diaries.

    3. Way to kick the new year off, John! I also love the newly organized menu pages.

      1. Thanks Joe! I'm still adding menu pages. Did a Leo page today.

    4. And he's back...great detailed start. Thanks. Happy new year to all.

    5. Once again, great work. Your constant new and unique perspective on Houdini's life, combined with excellent research, almost brings Houdini back to life, as if he never really left!

      --Dale from Cleveland

    6. I'm very pleased to see how much traffic has flowed to this post. It's my most viewed "year in the life" post yet. It's encouraging. So I'm now working on 1901. Again, a year I didn't think was all that significant, but as I get into it, I find it's fascinating! My plan is to build forwards and backwards on existing posts until we have them all.

      Thanks everyone.

    7. So these "Year in the Life" posts will meet somewhere in the middle like the Union Pacific Railroad?

    8. I love this site..great job and all the info you provide..regards..fred