Thursday, February 23, 2017

The first great Houdini documentary

On May 15, 1976, the BBC documentary The Truth About Houdini aired on American television for the first time. The film footage in this well-made documentary was for many (including myself) their first look at the real Houdini in action. Along with the new books, the Doug Henning specials and The Great Houdinis, the airing of this first major Houdini documentary in the U.S. was part in the great "Houdini renaissance" of the 1970s.

Original TV Guide ad for the May 15, 1976 U.S. airing.

The Truth About Houdini was originally produced for the BBC in 1970 by David C. Rea and Patria Pictures Ltd. It first aired on BBC One on Tuesday, November 10, 1970 at 9:20 PM (it was following by Monty Python's Flying Circus). It repeated on December 29, 1970, April 25, 1973 and December 18, 1973.

The very first screening in the U.S. was at Ulster County Community College in Kingston, NY, on November 9, 1975. Curiously, newspaper accounts record the title as "The Great Escape Artist." The screening was attended by Walter B. Gibson and Sidney Radner who introduced the film and participated in a Q&A.

Following its U.S. television premiere on May 15, 1976, which was local to Southern California, The Truth About Houdini aired on local televisions stations across the country. In Tampa, Florida, WTOG-TV aired it back to back with the Tony Curtis biopic Houdini over the Halloween weekend. It remained in circulation until 1979.

Ad for an October 1977 airing on WTCN in Minneapolis.

In addition to the rare film footage (credited as coming from the collection of Larry Weeks), The Truth About Houdini contains interviews with Milbourne Christopher, Walter B. Gibson, James Randi, and Sidney Radner. Radner's demonstration of Houdini's full body punishment suit escape was cut for time in some later airings. Today it's quite horrifying to behold Radner thoroughly abusing this valuable Houdini artifact. (It sold for $11,000 in 2014.)

It's not generally known that the producers of the documentary secured permission to use the Houdini voice recordings discovered in 1970 from the widow of John Mulholland. They even acquired high quality reproductions of both Water Torture Cell speeches. But for whatever reason, Houdini's voice was left out of the final cut.

While now dated, The Truth About Houdini is still a fascinating documentary and must watch for all Houdini buffs. While it has never been commercially released on home video, a bootleg version under the title "The Magic of Houdini" (not to be confused with the Alan Davies doc of the same name) has appeared from time to time. Currently Amazon has it available as a streaming video.

So did The Truth About Houdini play a role in your own coming to Houdini? Share your memories in the comments below.


  1. Absolutely. I saw it in October 1976 when it aired the same week as The Great Houdinis. The version I saw contained Radner's demo of the full body punishment suit and it was great. But I was new to HH and had no idea who Radner and others were at the time.

    It would be great to see it now in hindsight. Too bad this documentary isn't on DVD.

  2. Played a major role. I still have that same ad for the first time it aired in the US in a Houdini scrapbook I made as a kid. The mid-70's is when I got hooked on HH. Last year, I picked up a BBC (1971) VHS copy released by Rohauer Films, Inc via William H. McIIhany.

  3. My father got a very early Sony Beta recorder in the late '70s and he recored this and the Curtis movie for me. I would spend weekends at his beach condo and I would just endlessly watch these. He was always trying to get me to come out on the beach, and sometimes I just had to go for show. But all I wanted to do was get back inside and watch this again.

    The recording I had, and I'm not sure when it was made, did not have the Radner scene. Likewise, my copy of the Curtis movie was missing some scenes (the rowdy cowboy hall for example).

    I eventually got the Bill McIIhany release. That appears to be the one that is now bootlegged as "The Magic of Houdini." Bill's watermark is still on it.

    I still watch this doc and still love it. Just the sound of the music brings me back to those days watching it at my dad's.

  4. Was Sid's straitjacket escape filmed in Sid's basement in Holyoke?

  5. I too saw this when it aired. I think I still have that TV guide clipping.