Sunday, July 2, 2017

Wild in Houdini's New York, 2017

Unless you've been living in a Milk Can, you'll know the big news of the last month is that Houdini's New York home ("278") is on the market for the first time in 26 years. When I learned there would be a one time only open house on June 18, I jumped on a plane to New York. I covered my remarkable experience in the house HERE; but there was more to my trip than just the house. Here today is my full report.

Saturday, June 17

The last time I visited New York was in 2005. In fact, some of the Houdini sites I visited on that trip -- the Shelton, Houdini's boyhood home -- made up my very first blog posts. This was a long overdue return.

While not technically a Houdini site, while dashing to my connecting flight (which I missed), I had to stop and snap of photo of this biplane hanging in the Denver International Airport. I believe it's a "Jenny" as seen in Houdini's The Grim Game.

I touched down in New York City in the early evening. After a little dinner, I rested up for what I knew would be a big day to come. How right I was.

Sunday, June 18

It was around 11:30am that I hit the subway and zipped into Harlem, landing on Houdini's front door a half hour before the official open house. The entire area had dramatically improved since my 2005 visit, and it was improved even then. I expect that's why a house that could barely be given away in the 1970s is now on the market for a cool $4.6 million.

Again, I covered my adventure inside 278 at length HERE. But in that post I didn't mention all the friends and Houdini luminaries who attended the open house. First and foremost was the great Fred Pittella and his girlfriend Linda, whom I would spend the rest of the day with. Barry Spector shared my early tour of the upper floors. Houdini graphic novelist C.E.L. Welsh arrived for a look. Our own Perry from New Jersey stopped by. Actor Alec Mathieson helped solve a bookcase mystery. It was a thrill to meet the great magician Steve Cohen. Also there for the duration was The Witch of Lime Street author David Jaher. And the very nice Tímea Sánta was there on behalf of her husband who penned a Houdini play. Needless to say, we all took turns posing by the Houdini bookcase! I again have to give a monumental thanks to Beverley Draggon and Detria Davu of Douglas Elliman Real Estate who are handling the sale of the house and allowed us all to run wild!

I lingered until the last possible moment while Fred Pittella waited patiently in his car. I then joined Fred, Linda, and David Jaher as we traveled to the next great place of Houdini pilgrimage, his grave in Queens. Along the way we talked non-stop about our experience in the house and Houdini in general. David was also able to fill us in on the progress with the movie version of The Witch of Lime Street, for which he has just delivered the screenplay.

Despite rain in the forecast, the day turned out to be beautiful, and we arrived at the cemetery around 4:00 pm. There waiting for us was the wonderful Colleen Bak, "our girl in Queens." Finally meeting Colleen in person was a tremendous pleasure; always nice to meet someone as genuinely wild about Harry as I. Colleen knows Machpelah well, and she had warned us that the cemetery might be closed at this hour. When we arrived, the gates were indeed closed, but the lock was hanging mysteriously open. Colleen said this was very strange; she had never seen anything like this before. Thanks Harry!

When I last visited the grave in 2005 it was missing the famous bust. But now the bust has been replaced by our friends Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz of the Houdini Museum in Scranton. On this day there were more than a few lipstick marks on the bust's cheek. Yeah, Harry's still got it.

The exedra was recently power washed by the Society of American Magicians who also did some restoration on the mosaic. Houdini's actual headstone was, as always, covered with rocks and trinkets left behind by visitors. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I love that there is such clear evidence that Houdini is remembered and so many people feel compelled to leave behind a tribute. But I fear some of the items, such as coins and metal objects (there was a Hot Wheels on it today) leave behind rust stains and are doing damage. And playing cards, a favorite, quickly fade and just become garbage.

But even covered with rocks, it's powerful to take a moment at the headstone and think that a mere six feet away lies the mortal remains of Harry Houdini himself. Blows my mind, in fact.

During my last visit, the cemetery's abandoned administration building was still in place. This was finally torn down in 2013. This has created a much different, much more tranquil atmosphere. It's a big improvement. It also hit me how dramatically Houdini's plot stands out from the sea of graves. It's not just the bright white bust, but also the design of the exedra (by Houdini himself) that makes it strikingly unique. If Houdini wanted to be noticed, mission accomplished.

The four of us then walked a short ways into the cemetery and paid our respects to Larry Weeks, whose headstone reads "Houdini's Biggest Fan." It struck me that no visit to Machpelah will be complete without also stopping by Larry's grave, if for no other reason than to see this inscription. Just as he wished, Larry Weeks has joined Houdini in eternity.

Saying our goodbyes to Harry and the family (hey, who is "Grandma" and how is it that she's buried in America?), it was time to eat. We convinced Colleen to join us (okay, we kinda kidnapped her) and off we went to Houdini's Kitchen Laboratory located not far from the cemetery in Ridgewood. The pizza was delicious and we treated ourselves to some cold beers on a nice open patio. The decor wasn't as Houdini-centric as I would have liked. Fred said Houdini used to adorn the menu, but that has changed. But there was a King of Cards poster at the entrance, so that satisfied me. (My new pet peeve are businesses that use Houdini's name without providing any kind of a link back to the man himself. I'm looking at you Houdini Kitchenware.)

We then climbed back into the car and traveled a short distance to Fred's house to have a look at his collection. Fred has the definitive collection of material related to Houdini imitators. His house is filled with colorful posters of escapists like Brindamour, Steens, and Nicola. Fred said he had sold a large part of his Houdini collection a few years ago, but he has since added back a few items. A few?

Fred opened a door to a entire room jam-packed with Houdini treasures; photos, posters, handcuffs and books. Many images of Houdini (and Bessie) I had never seen. Fred then pulled out several huge portfolios packed with Houdini material. There was so much we couldn't even get through it all. One page after another blew my mind. There was one very intriguing photo of Houdini dancing in the street with Gladys Leslie before floodlights and a large crowd. Possibly while filming Haldane of the Secret Service? Or at the premiere maybe? On another page was a letter written by Houdini at the Princess Theater in Montreal on October 22, 1926. Yes, the very day he was punched by Whitehead. Holy smokes.

Fred also owns some truly important pieces of original Houdini apparatus. He showed us Houdini's own pair of Bean Giant Handcuffs, cleverly modified to be "Handcuff King Beaters." He also has the famous pair of mini handcuffs that Houdini made for his dog Bobby (how did I not take a pic of those?). And just when I felt like it couldn't get any more spectacular, Fred pulled out what must be one of the most unusual Houdini props in existence. It's a gigantic spirit trumpet, complete with the custom made box that it traveled in. What could this giant trumpet have been used for? Was it oversized for demonstration purposes? Or maybe it was used for a moment of humor during the 3rd act of the 3 Shows in One. I can recall no mention of a giant spirit trumpet, but there's no doubt that it was part of Houdini's show. Let the search commence!

Just when I thought we has seen it all (what could trump that trumpet?), Fred pulled out the original table and bowl Houdini used in his famous Whirlwind of Colors routine. Yes, this was the effect that Houdini famously couldn't complete during his final show and Jim Collins had to finish it for him. Now here I was with that very bowl in my very own hands! Unfortunately, all the photos I took revealed the secret, so I can't share them here. Magician's Code!

With my head still swimming, Fred returned us all to our respective homes. There have only been a few days in my life that I felt I actually hit Houdini overload. This was one of those rare, and glorious, days.

Monday, June 19

It was another beautiful day in New York, yet I spent the entire morning inside, hunched over the floor plans and photos of 278, trying to puzzle out all I had seen the day before. By 1:00 pm, I felt satisfied with my work, so I fired back out into the city to another exciting Houdini destination that I for many years I've longed to visit, the Houdini Museum of New York at Fantasma Magic.

I thought I was already pretty familiar with the museum's content from Neil McNally's terrific two-part interview with owner Roger Dreyer that he guest blogged for us HERE. But I still found myself blown away. Not only have there been notable additions, but here again were some amazing images of Houdini that I had never seen before. One remarkable shot shows him standing on a platform behind an early film camera. I believe this was taken in 1915 during his visit to Hollywood when he appears to have caught the movie bug. What a image!

Unfortunately, Roger Dreyer was not in town. When I talked to him later, he told me he wished he could have been there because he would have shown me his private office "where all the best stuff is." Well, I can't imagine anything better than what I saw in the display cases out front. In fact, you can expect some deep dives into some of the things I saw at the museum (future headline: "Houdini's secret secret").

The Houdini Museum is not far from Times Square, so I decided to go check out the Times Square Theater where, in April 1922, Houdini played The Man From Beyond and revived his vanishing elephant. It was reported a few years back that the surviving theater would be restored, but I've not heard anything since. Much to my surprise, the theater is still shuttered. But in one way this is good as you can still clearly see the theater as it was in Houdini's day.

I stood and drank in the sight, trying to teleport myself back to 1922. But it suddenly struck me that I wasn't quite as excited about this Houdini landmark as I once would have been. Yesterday I was in his bathroom for crying out loud! Did my 278 experience ruin me to this kind of thing?

Pushing on, I entered Times Square itself, where on November 5, 1917 Houdini performed his first suspended straitjacket escape in the city. Today Times Square is a sea of electronic billboards that cover the facade of every building, so there's really nothing recognizable from Houdini's time. Still, Houdini hung here.

I also went and checked out the Palace Theater, built by Martin Beck and where Houdini played on several occasions. The building is now so completely concealed behind towering advertisements for Sunset Blvd. that a photo seemed pointless. I then took shelter in a bar behind the theater as the city was swept by a sudden cloudburst. Harry crying for his lost New York maybe? Probably not.

Tuesday, June 20

It was time to head home, but I still had the morning free to hit one last Houdini site. It was such a beautiful day, that I decided to head to Battery Park, site of Houdini's 1914 overboard box escape (also the Houdini-Boudini challenge, which may have been his first open air stunt in New York City).

The only real clue I had to the location of the escape -- or at least the spot where the tugboat launched as the escape was actually performed off the Battery -- was the newspaper advertisement that alerted the public to gather "near the aquarium." Well, there's no longer an aquarium, nor was there a good match for the building seen in the photos. But there was an old fort, Castle Clinton, that seemed to be in the right spot. I did some looking around and I discovered that, in 1914, this was the aquarium, but it had been restored back into the original fortress in modern times.

But what was even more revelatory is that this building was used to process newly arriving immigrants form 1855 to 1890. This means it's very likely that the Weiss family was processed here in 1878 instead of Ellis Island as might be assumed. So I went in search of a Houdini historical site and found two!

One wonders if the memory (or awareness) of this spot as his entry point into the U.S. ran through Houdini's mind as he did his escape here in front of 15,000 cheering New Yorkers. Talk about a journey. Walking along the seafront, I noticed the Battery has a nice view of the Statue of Liberty. Too bad that none of the existing photos of the escape capture the monument in the background.

I had some fun showing park rangers at Castle Clinton the photos of Houdini's escape and the mobbed Battery. For whatever reason, this is not one of Houdini's better documented escapes, and no one I spoke to knew about the Houdini connection. But they do now, and my hope is that they might share this tidbit with tourists. If so, my work is done.

Thus ended my New York Houdini adventure for 2017. There was still much I didn't see; Bess's grave in Hawthorne, the site of Tony Pastors Theater, Payson Ave., Leo Weiss's apartment, and Houdini's New Jersey Film Lab. But those adventures I'll save for my next visit.

UPDATEWild in Houdini's New York (2018).



  1. Another great post! Thank you for detailing your adventure, and so very glad you got to come to The City and have it!

    1. Barry Spector sent me a short video clip he was shooting the very moment you walked in the front door. I'll send it to you. :)

  2. What an amazing trip. I am so glad you got to hang out with Fred Pittella and experience his amazing collection. I will never forget my wonderful visit there. Thanks for sharing your NY adventure.

    1. BTW: I did a blog on Houdini’s Whirlwind of Colors that has a photo from Fred Pittella that does not reveal the secret if anyone is interested in seeing what it looks like today:
      Joe M. Notaro

  3. Nice post! For future researchers out there, the immigration station at Castle Clinton was known as "Castle Garden."

  4. Wow! This rounds out three great posts: the tour inside 278, David's trip inside the cellar, and the New York sightseeing trip. I'm also on Houdini overload!

    1. Haha. And there's still more to come. More on 278. Some drill downs on stuff in the museum. Two days in NY takes a month to disseminate!

  5. Wonderful article. Thanks for sharing more of your Houdini Weekend. I can understand how the HOUSE would over shadow other things, but still these are all great moments that you shared!

    1. Thanks Dean. Seeing Fred's collection was as big a Houdini highlight as one gets. He has incredible things. But I wasn't able to give it the attention I would have normally. It was funny, Colleen would take one huge portfolio and I'd take another and we'd alert each other to something special. We tried our best to see it all, but it just kept coming. :)

  6. Great job John! It was great to meet you and to be able to explore 278 that day.
    Also being on Houdini overload, I barely noticed people. I missed a chance to meet some real HH experts.
    I'm surprised there wasn't more jokes about the Houdini Latrini


  7. It was such a thrill getting to finally meet you, John! I don't normally make plans to meet people from the internet in cemeteries, but I am so very happy that I made an exception for you. And it was hands down the absolute best kinda-kidnapping I could have imagined....a day that I will never ever forget, and I am so very thankful you got me to come along and share in the rest of your Sunday adventure! Fred's collection is an indescribable experience, and I can't think of a better companion in desperately trying to rally energy to explore its treasures than you. I think I am still overwhelmed. And, as always, just getting to read all your other adventures and observations has been and continues to be an absolute treat.

    1. Thank you Colleen. You made Sunday extra special for everyone. :)

  8. What a great visit full of fascinating Houdini experiences.

  9. John… Thank you for your kind words and so glad we had the opportunity to share the collection with you, it was Linda’s and my pleasure spending a great day with you Colleen and David

  10. I'm about to keel over! Wow! What a Houdini fest, I would have been there too if I could have, it would have been a dream come true! Thank you for sharing!!!

  11. Great pleasure meeting you John. You certainly got the grand tour not only of the house by many of the Houdini sites in NY. Last time I visited Houdinis grave I had to park in the adjoining cemetary since Machpalah was closed and find my way over through a mass of old overgrown wife was spooked out! Perry from NJ.