Wednesday, August 30, 2017

When Christopher channeled Houdini

On March 19, 1976, magician and magic historian Milbourne Christopher took to the stage as Houdini himself in Magic vs. The Occult at the Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, New York. The sold out show featured magic, escapes, and a recreation of the third act of Houdini's full eventing show that exposed the tricks of fraudulent mediums.

The program states that the "recreation of Houdini's concert performance of fifty years ago is based on Houdini's own records, now in the Christopher collection." With the 1970s resurgence of interest in the paranormal, one can imagine this actually packing somewhat of the same punch it did in Houdini's time. (Although the audience might have been interested in learning the tricks of Uri Geller than D.D. Home.) The show broke down like so:

From Thin Air
Educated Pasteboards
Invisible Passage
The Egyptian Turban
The East Indian Needle Mystery
First Release
The German Transport Chain
Thumb Screw–Solid Through Solid
Beward of Gypsies
Messages from Beyond

How Fraudulent Mediums Get Information
Argamasillo's X-Ray Eyes"
Palladino's Floating Table
Margery, The Boston Medium
The Truth About D.D. Home
Do Spirits Return?

The program quotes Christopher as saying, "Magic is at a new peak of popularity. Not since the days of Houdini have audiences been so intrigued by the fine art of deception." It also notes that his new book "Houdini An Illustrated Biography" will be released in Fall. (When it was released it was titled Houdini: A Pictorial Life.)

The May 1976 issue of Genii magazine published the following item about the production with tongue firmly in cheek...I think.

Milbourne Christopher died in 1984, and today finding artifacts from his turn as Houdini are harder to find than artifacts from Houdini himself! In 2011 a pair of cufflinks that he wore during the show sold in Martinka's Christopher Collection Magic Auction for $225.

As far as I know, Magic vs. The Occult only played this one performance. If anyone saw it, please feel free to comment below. I would love to hear any memories of this unique evening.


I recently launched a new standalone page devoted to Houdini plays. Check it out under "Media" in the top menu or click HERE.

Lorde rocks "so haunted" Houdini Estate

New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde performed a pop up concert at the Houdini Estate in Laurel Canyon yesterday. You can read full coverage at iHeartRadio, which includes this gem:

Lorde, like the rest of us, was mesmerized by the location. “I also did a lot of googling about the Houdini Estate and it turns out this place is so haunted,” she told the crowd before performing “Writer In the Dark."

Once a ruin, the beautifully restored "Houdini Estate" has become a popular place for events of all kinds. The property has an official website, Facebook and Twitter. You can read my own history of the estate HERE.


Tuesday, August 29, 2017

LINK: Deconstructing Houdini's Grave

Looks like Chuck Romano over at My Magic Uncle has caught our Machpelah Fever. Chuck has a terrific post about the men and materials that made the Weiss family plot and exedra. A highlight is a photo of Oscar Teale standing over Houdini's grave. As Teale died in 1934, this is the earliest/best photo of the full plot that I've ever seen! But you'll have to head on over to My Magic Uncle to see the whole thing, so click the headline and keep digging Houdini's grave.


The Herald finds Houdini in Plymouth

The Herald has a nice spread about Houdini in Plymouth from Derek Tait's new book, The Great Houdini: The British Tours. You can read the full article online here. But there's still something cool about seeing Houdini in good old fashioned newsprint, so thanks to Derek for the image below.

Speaking of The Great Houdini: The British Tours, I just finished reading the book on Sunday. While I'm going to hold back my full review until closer to the U.S. release date (November 2), I will say up front that this is the book of the year and a new Houdini essential! No one who is serious about doing Houdini research can afford to go without it. The book has already opened several new doors for me, one of which I will be taking us through this weekend.

Purchase The Great Houdini: His British Tours now at (UK) or pre-order at (U.S.).


Monday, August 28, 2017

Houdini ghost hunt at the Eastbourne Hippodrome

It looks like seance season is already upon us. First out of gate is Sussux Darkside who will hold a special "Ghost Hunt with a Houdini Inspired Victorian Seance" at The Royal Hippodrome Theatre in Eastbourne (UK) on September 30. Houdini himself appeared at the Eastbourne Hippodrome in late April 1905. Will he come back for a return engagement?

Our Standard ghost hunt, in which groups will investigate all areas of the theatre, using our extensive range of the latest ghost hunting equipment, however this one has a twist; we will literally ‘Set the Stage' for a traditional style Victorian Séance, using the same type of séance tools used by Harry Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Price, to try to contact the spirits of this delightful theatre and possibly, the spirit of Harry Houdini (and other characters) who famously performed in this theatre. Each group will take a turn in a true mix of modern and original ghost hunting methods. 
This one might not be for the faint of heart! 
LOCATION: Royal Hippodrome Theatre, 118-112 Seaside Road, Eastbourne, BN21 3PF
DATE: Saturday 30th September 2017
TIME: 8:00pm to 1:00am

Visit the Sussux Darkside website for more information and to buy tickets.


LINK: Houdini was ready to hang up his handcuffs. Then, San Francisco helped save his career

SFGATE has posted a well-researched article by Katie Dowd about Houdini's performances in San Francisco. Nothing all that new here, especially for those who followed Christine U'Ren's excellent series on the same topic in 2015 (link below). But a very good general article about Houdini in SF with some nice images, including the cool caricature on the right.

Click the headline to have a read at SFGATE.

Thanks to John Hinson and Fred Pittella for the alerts.


Sunday, August 27, 2017

For the birds

This was posted today on the Houdini Museum of New York Facebook page. A sensational image of Harry and Bess taking some time out to feed the pigeons.

Despite what's captioned here, this actually isn't the same photo from Doug Henning's Houdini His Legend and His Magic (page 109). This photo appears to have been taken at the same time, but the angle is very different. This photo is a little better and, as far as I know, unpublished. So a nice Sunday treat for all of us!

The Houdini Museum of New York is located at 421 7th Avenue, 3rd Floor. It houses one of the largest public displays of authentic Houdini memorabilia in the world.


    Saturday, August 26, 2017

    Houdini Speaks to the Living at The Players, Oct. 31

    The Hidden Room is bringing their production of Houdini Speaks to the Living to the legendary Players Club in New York City for a one time only performance on October 31, 2017.

    This special free performance will be followed by a Q&A about Houdini's fascination with Players Club founder Edwin Booth. You can find more details at The Players NYC website.

    Even though this is for members only, The Hidden Room is offering a special giveaway of 2 tickets via their Facebook page. Just leave a comment to be entered.

    Houdini Speaks to the Living is written by Beth Burns and Patrick Terry. It stars Patrick Terry as Houdini and Robert Matney and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It originally played at The Hidden Room Theater in Austin, Texas, in October of last year.


    Friday, August 25, 2017

    'Waiting for Houdini' at the 2000 Official Seance

    The 74th annual Official Houdini Seance was held at the Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Halloween 2000. The event was recorded and released as part of a documentary, Waiting For Houdini. I recently found it on YouTube (misidentified as the 2001 seance), and it's definitely worth watching.

    The seance is fascinating as the medium, Rev. Pamla Ashlay, communicates directly with Houdini for some time (you can be the judge of whether she really made contact). Intercut with the seance are interviews with Sidney Radner and Dr. Morris Young. These are a must watch. Sid shows handcuffs and talks at length about his times with Hardeen, even admitting that he passed on acquiring Houdini's diving suit. Dr. Young tells of meeting Houdini himself in September 1926 when he was only 17. I'm sorry to have never met Dr. Young, who passed away in 2002 at age 93. He seems like a very kind man with genuine love for Houdini, and how I would have loved to have heard more about that meeting!

    Below is the full documentary. Production values are a little homespun, but there is gold here. Enjoy.

    No word yet on the location for this year's Official Houdini Seance, but I've heard a rumor that it may be in the South.


    Thursday, August 24, 2017

    Preview 'The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini'

    Comics blog The Beat has an exclusive preview of Hard Case Crime's upcoming Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini by Cynthia von Buhler. It includes a set of variant covers, including a terrific cover by Cynthia herself (right).


    Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini #1 will be released November 8, 2017.


    Wednesday, August 23, 2017

    Have we been looking at this photo all wrong?

    The above photo belonged to Edward Saint and is now part of the Library of Congress collection. There it is captioned: "Houdini is shown here with his brother William." I've let this image of Houdini and "Bill" enjoying a quiet moment in Machpelah cemetery roll over me all these years without thinking much about it. But recently I went down the rabbit hole with our great friend Colleen Bak from Queens, and realized I've been looking at this photo all wrong!

    For starters, I don't think that is William Weiss. To my eye, that appears to be Oscar Teale, Houdini's private secretary who was tasked by Houdini to create the large marble exedra for the family plot in Machpelah cemetery in 1915-16. Teale appears to be holding something in his hand. What could that be? I'll come back to that.

    So can we prove this is Machpelah? Happily, yes! While there are a several photos of Houdini in Machpelah, this is the only one that shows anything that is today still recognizable. The bench that Houdini and Teale are sitting on appears to be one of the stone benches that are still there today (although the benches today are replacements for the originals destroyed by vandals in 1993). Armed with this photo, Colleen and her husband Frank did a little digging (ha!) and pinpointed exactly where this photo was taken.

    As you can see, this appears be have been taken in the South West corner of the family plot. There are three distinct graves behind both Colleen/Frank and Houdini/Teale that are unmistakable; an urn, angel, and obelisk. Unfortunately, this also reveals more vandalism as only the base and foot remain of the angel in the center of the image.

    Now, the location of the bench in the Houdini photo brings up a few observations. First off, this is Houdini sitting almost on top of his own final resting place. Back then it appears the plot had a gated entrance where Houdini's grave is today. It also appears the bench is not positioned as it is today. Today it sits perpendicular to the plot, directly facing the other bench. (This is why the angle on the Colleen/Frank shot is somewhat different.)

    But in the Houdini/Teale photo, the bench appears to be sitting at an angle. It's actually facing towards the exedra. And that's what makes everything fall into place and why I think we have been looking at this photo all wrong.

    Look at the photo again with its newly understood position of the bench in mind. Houdini is looking in the direction of the exedra with concentrated interest, and Teale is looking at him as if seeking approval. And what are those in Teale's hands? Design plans maybe?

    So far from being a moment of repose with a family member, this appears to be Houdini and Oscar Teale either inspecting the newly installed exedra or possibly planning where the exedra will sit (because we really have no way of knowing whether it's there -- possibly the benches proceeded it?).

    If this was a planning session or first inspection, it seems unlikely this would be the only photo taken that day. So are there more photos out there? Is there one that will finally give us a good look at the exedra as it appeared in Houdini's lifetime (before the S.A.M. mosaic and bust). Just another piece of the Houdini jigsaw puzzle!

    Thank you Colleen and Frank for the great detective work.

    Postscript: After I finished this post, I stumbled on an article that highlights some Houdini diary entries for the year 1916 (the year of the exedra dedication) and noticed this:


    Tuesday, August 22, 2017

    'The Magician and the Spirits' released today

    The Magician and the Spirits by Deborah Noyes is released today by Random House Viking. Packed with photos, the book is aimed at middle school readers and is currently the #1 New Release in Children's Magic Books on Amazon.

    A century ago, the curious idea that spirits not only survive death but can be contacted on the “other side” was widespread. Psychic mediums led countless séances, claiming to connect the grieving with their lost relations through everything from frenzied trance writing to sticky expulsions of ectoplasm.

    The craze caught Harry Houdini’s attention. Well-known by then as most renowned magician and escape artist, he began to investigate these spiritual phenomena. Are ghosts real? Can we communicate with them? Catch them in photographs? Or are all mediums “flim-flammers,” employing tricks and illusions like Houdini himself?

    Peopled with odd and fascinating characters, Houdini’s gripping quest will excite readers’ universal wonderment with life, death, and the possibility of the Beyond.

    The Magician and the Spirits can be purchased at (U.S.) and (UK).

    It's been a healthy summer for new Houdini books. Below area few more recent releases.


    Monday, August 21, 2017

    Video offers glimpse of a rare Houdini poster

    In September 2000, Mike Caveney purchased the "Egyptian Hall" collection of David Price. Now Mike has created a drool-worthy video that shows some the magic props and posters from that collection that he auctioned off. Among the treasures are some familiar Houdini posters -- Buried Alive and King of Cards -- but it's what shows up at 4:25 that made me spit out my coffee!

    This specific poster for Houdini's 3 Shows in One is completely unknown to me. The style, however, is familiar. It's one of a series of posters made for his final tour that eerily used Halloween imagery (witches, bats, and black cats). Of course, that tour ended on Halloween 1926 with Houdini's death. Who owns this poster today, I wonder?

    Below are links that show a few more of these "Halloween style" Houdini posters.

    UPDATE: So it looks like the proud owners of this poster are none other than our friends Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz at the Houdini Museum in Scranton. Just another reason to visit!


    Sunday, August 20, 2017

    Jerry Lewis visits the Houdinis

    Sad news today that the legendary Jerry Lewis has died at age 91. While I couldn't find any real connection between Jerry and Houdini (apart from the fact that he was born in 1926), I did find this image of Lewis visiting the set of the 1953 biopic Houdini with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Jerry was one of Paramount's biggest stars at this time.

    Jerry Lewis would go to make movies with each the Houdini stars Living It Up (1954) with Janet Leigh and Boeing Boeing (1965) with Tony Curtis (one of my top guilty pleasure films). He played a magician himself in the 1958 film The Geisha Boy. In 1962 Random House published The Jerry Lewis Book of Tricks and Magic.

    You can read his full obituary at The New York Times.


    Saturday, August 19, 2017

    Hardeen biography coming in Fall

    Big news! A new book about Houdini's brother, Hardeen: Monarch of Manacles by William V. Rauscher, will be published by David Haversat's 1878 Press in the Fall. Afraid I don't have any more details, but this is exciting as there has never been a book written about Hardeen. Long overdue.

    Author William V. Rauscher was close friends with Hardeen's successor Douglas Geoffrey ("Hardeen Jr."), and carried on performing some of the Hardeen/Houdini effects he inherited from Geoffrey. In 1973 he co-authored the book Arthur Ford: The Man Who Talked With the Dead (he knew Ford well). He also penned the book The Houdini Code Mystery in 2000. In 2015 Bill provided us with an excellent guest blog about the Hippodrome Theater.

    I don't yet have information on how to purchase or pre-order Hardeen: Monarch of Manacles, but I'll update as soon as I do. This is going to be a must buy!

    Thanks to David Haversat.


    Friday, August 18, 2017

    Film fragments show a Houdini pier jump

    Recently I've been rewatching the many Houdini documentaries produced in the 1990s and early 2000s. In some of these you'll find bits of stock film footage not widely seen. One of those fragments is below. This comes from 1995's Houdini Unlocking His Secrets and shows Houdini leaping head first from a pier.

    I don't know when or where this film was captured. It's only the third piece of film I've ever seen of Houdini doing a bridge jump, and the only one showing him diving in head first. In fact, and his landing doesn't look entirely successful.

    Below is another fragment from what appears to be this same jump. This comes from the licensing website Historic Films and shows Houdini being manacled while laying face down. Flanking him are Jim CollinsJames Vickery, and an unidentified assistant, all in their stage uniforms. This amazing footage is followed by a quick shot of the same location above (pre jump).

    If anyone has any ideas where this stunt might have taken place, please share in the Comments below.

    Below are links to a few famous Houdini bridge jumps.


    Thursday, August 17, 2017

    'Letters To West 113th' at the Edmonton Fringe

    Mentalist Jeff Newman will bring his Houdini-themed one-man show Letters To West 113th to the Edmonton Fringe Festival for performances starting this Friday, August 18. Newman was recently interviewed at After the House Lights and had this to say about the play:

    "I use my skills of trickery and deception to tell an incredible tale. Near the end of his career, Harry Houdini spent countless hours investigating (and debunking) psychics, mediums, and spiritualists who claimed incredible supernatural abilities. Letters To West 113th recreates Houdini’s confrontation at the final performance of Thomas Whitford, a magician known for re-emerging into the spotlight after the death of his wife Tessa with an act that stirred rumours of incredible supernatural talent from the audiences that saw the show."

    Showtimes and tickets to Letters to West 113th can be found at the official Edmonton Fringe Festival website. The show last played the festival in 2015.

    Speaking of plays, I recently launched a new reference page devoted to Houdini theater. Check it out under "Media" in the top menu or click HERE.


    Wednesday, August 16, 2017

    Photo shows three lost Houdini lobby stand displays

    While visiting the spectacular Houdini Museum of New York at Fantasma Magic, I spent some time looking closely at this photo of the Princess Theater in Chicago in 1926. What I love is that it shows us three now lost (as far as I know) Houdini lobby stand displays.

    Below is an enlargement that gives a better look at each stand. The first one you can see sitting off to the far left inside a doorway. That stand -- which also appears on page 288 of The Secret Life of Houdini Laid Bare -- has a letter drop box where the public could insert questions for Houdini. In the center is another display with the iconic hand to face image (here it appears to include his second hand). This is only image of that particular stand that I'm aware.

    But the one that really excites me is on the far right. This is of a female and in the past my eye has gone right past this because I assumed it to be another performer. But that's Bess! (You can see her in this costume in Silverman).

    Knowing that there was a lobby stand devoted to Bess is pretty cool. And why not? She was part of the 3 Shows in One, and the idea of having a poster devoted to a magician's spouse was not unheard of. The upcoming Potter & Potter auction has a lithograph of "Mrs. Keller" (lot 490). What ever happened to this Bessie stand I wonder?

    I'm currently aware of four surviving Houdini lobby stands from his 3 Shows in One (pictured below). The portrait stand on the far left belongs to David Copperfield. Chip Romaro owns the $10,000 Challenge. The portrait stand on the far right belongs to Arthur Moses. The "Jail for Medium" stand sold last year for $7000 at Potter and Potter's auction of Houdiniana.

    The Houdini Museum of New York is located at 421 7th Avenue, 3rd Floor, New York, NY, and houses one of the largest public displays of authentic Houdini memorabilia in the world.

    Stay tuned for another Houdini Museum of New York artifact that I think will give us a lot to talk about.

    UPDATE: Here's an even better look at the Harry and Bess stands. You can see Houdini is in handcuffs. Sensational.

    Click to enlarge.

    Monday, August 14, 2017

    Houdini's 278 is off the market (UPDATED)

    Houdini's former home at 278 W 113th Street in New York is now off the market. The house was listed for sale by Douglas Elliman Real Estate for $4.6 million in June. Did the house sell? Did the owner pull it? Afraid I don't have any answers at the moment, but know the doors of 278 are once again closed.

    UPDATE: Word from the realtor is that the house is only temporarily off the market as the owner is traveling. It will be re-listed in September.

    UPDATE 2: 278 is now back on the market for $3,999,000.


    Escape your troubles with a cold Houdini

    If you listened to my recent Magic Word podcast, at 00:45:00 host Scott Wells talks about a short-lived beer that bore Houdini's name. This wasn't something I was entirely familiar with. Now, by shear coincidence, I have a six-pack! This was given to me by my friend and magic historian Diego Domingo who's trying to cut down. His collection, that is.

    The Houdini Draft Lager was brewed by Todd Hanson and the Fox Classic Brewing Co. in Houdini's own Appleton, Wisconsin. I'm not sure how long the beer remained in production. My case was bottled April 9, 1992.

    So who's up for a cold one? Or should I say old one?

    Thanks Diego.


    Sunday, August 13, 2017

    Rare Russian Houdini advert sells on eBay

    A rare advert for Houdini in Moscow during his 1903 tour of Russia sold on eBay today for $560. Artifacts from Houdini's one and only tour of Russia are exceedingly rare. In fact, I don't recall ever seeing anything on eBay before this.

    While the final price was certainly respectable, I did expect it to go for more. Last year some early German adverts each broke $1000. Not as much love for Russia these days, I guess.

    Congrats to the winner of this rarity. And thanks to Kevin Connolly at Conjuring History for the alert.


    The Secret Life of Mrs. London to be revealed in 2018

    Looks like 2018 is going to kick off with a provocative piece of Houdini fiction based on fact. Here's the description and cover art for The Secret Life of Mrs. London by Rebecca Rosenberg.

    San Francisco, 1915. As America teeters on the brink of world war, Charmian and her husband, famed novelist Jack London, wrestle with genius and desire, politics and marital competitiveness. Charmian longs to be viewed as an equal partner who put her own career on hold to support her husband, but Jack doesn’t see it that way…until Charmian is pulled from the audience during a magic show by escape artist Harry Houdini, a man enmeshed in his own complicated marriage. Suddenly, charmed by the attention Houdini pays her and entranced by his sexual magnetism, Charmian’s eyes open to a world of possibilities that could be her escape. 
    As Charmian grapples with her urge to explore the forbidden, Jack’s increasingly reckless behavior threatens her dedication. Now torn between two of history’s most mysterious and charismatic figures, she must find the courage to forge her own path, even as she fears the loss of everything she holds dear.

    Next year marks the 100th anniversary of Houdini and London's alleged affair, which was first uncovered by Ken Silverman in his 1996 book Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss.

    You can pre-order The Secret Life of Mrs. London at (U.S.) and (UK). Release date is January 30, 2018.


    Friday, August 11, 2017

    Unlocking Houdini's secrets in 1995

    On May 24, 1995, NBC aired the one-hour special Houdini: Unlocking His Secrets hosted by Robert Urich. The show featured modern magicians performing Houdini's feats, intercut with biographical information. It's a well-done special with excellent performances and some nice Houdini photos and film footage. And despite the title, no secrets are revealed.

    The stage performances were filmed at Ceasers Palace Circus Maximus on April 30, 1995 (tickets were given out free). Host Robert Urich narrates from the "Magic and Movie Hall of Fame" at O'Sheas Casino in Las Vegas. Here one gets a good look at items from the Dixie Dooley collection. Behind Urich for much of time is the Houdini packing case that Dixie famously retrieved from the basement of 278 in 1985.

    The broadcast kicks off with Charlotte Pendragon leaping chained from a riverboat on Lake Mead. It's a well-staged stunt with some nice tension. This is followed by Lance Burton performing a stage-bound suspended straitjacket escape. Again, a well-staged stunt, and it's great to see Burton in his absolute prime. Also in his prime is Mac King who does a comedic thumb tie with Melinda Saxe. The Pendragons do their well-honed Metamorphosis. David Williamson does a very funny take on Houdini's Needles.

    It what should be a show highlight, Brett Daniels does Houdini's Water Torture Cell. However, the escape is robbed of tension by over production, with backlighting and smoke and various curtains sweeping up and down over the cell. For me, the best presentations of the USD -- Houdini, Henning, Steve Baker -- keep it a serious "test," too dangerous to load up with smoke machines. Raw tension is all the stagecraft required. Likewise, Jonathan Pendragon's "Exploding Coffin of Death" grand finale seems a little overwrought, but it's in line with the "extreme" escapes of the 90s. Apparently cut from the broadcast was Max Maven who demonstrated the tricks of fraudulent mediums. A shame this wasn't included in the home video release.

    Apart from stating that J. Gordon Whitehead was a "college boxing star" and Houdini's final performance took place in "London, Ontario," the biographical segments are good. There are also a few bits of Houdini film that I don't believe I've seen since.

    The film footage is credited as coming from the collection of Manny Weltman "by agreement with Nanette Weltman" (Manny died that year). Another notable name in the credits is Executive Producer Gerald W. Abrams, who would go on to make the Houdini Miniseries with Adrian Brody in 2014. Maybe this is where he first discovered the power of selling Houdini?

    Houdini: Unlocking His Secrets was released on VHS by Goodtimes Video in 1996. Without commercials, the show comes in at only 30 minutes. It can can still be purchased at Amazon. Unfortunately, the show never made it to DVD.

    Below are links to a few other Houdini television specials from the recent past.


    I recently launched a new standalone page devoted to Houdini documentaries and appearances on investigative and reality TV. Check it out under "Media" in the top menu bar or click HERE.

    Thursday, August 10, 2017

    The Magic Word is Wild About Harry

    Today I'm thrilled to link to my appearance on Scott Wells' terrific The Magic Word Podcast. Scott came over the day after I returned from New York after touring Houdini's house, and we spent a full hour discussing that experience and all things Harry. Scott even got me to talk about a few non-Houdini matters -- imagine that!

    It was great fun and real honor to appear on such a prestigious magic podcast. Click the link above to go to The Magic Word website where you'll see a variety of options on how to listen.

    Thanks again Scott.


    LINK: The Grim Game's Disappearing Act

    The Paris Review has a well-researched article by Will Stephenson about the reappearance in 2014 of Houdini's lost silent film The Grim Game. Nothing all that new for those of us who followed the blow by blow that year (some links below), but it's a good overview of the story with fresh quotes from Dick Brookz, Rick Schmidlin, and Jon Oliver. (Click the headline above to read.)

    One thing this piece does not observe is that The Grim Game has not been shown on TCM since its one airing in 2015, nor has it been released on DVD or streaming. In some ways, The Grim Game is once again Houdini's lost film.


      Wednesday, August 9, 2017

      Houdini by Charlotte Montague now shipping

      Even though the publisher shows a September 26 release date, Houdini: The Life and Times of the World's Greatest Magician by Charlotte Montague is now shipping from Amazon in the U.S. (mine arrives tomorrow). Aimed at general readers, the book runs 208 pages and is relased by Chartwell Books.

      Based on contemporary reports and diaries and supported with historic photographs and period posters, Houdini is an intriguing biography of the world’s greatest magician and escape artist. Ninety years after his death, this brings both the man and his magic back to life again for one last performance.

      This biography is an authoritative view from accomplished biographer Charlotte Montague, and belongs on the shelf of any lover of magic, escape artistry, and enigmatic figures.

      Charlotte Montague has penned biographies of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft also released by Chartwell.

      Purchase Houdini: The Life and Times of the World's Greatest Magician from (U.S.) and pre-order from (UK - Sept 28).

      UPDATE: I've just received my copy and flipped through it. The book is beautifully laid out and comprehensive. Almost an encyclopedia in how it sections off people and events. Lots of photos, all familiar. Nice to see that it tracks Houdini beyond death -- into books, movies and television, right up to last year's Houdini & Doyle and this year's Timeless. I've not gotten into the text itself, but it appears to be a nice summation of known facts. I've already spotted some mythology (Bells of the Kremlin) and inaccuracies (Buried Alive), but there's mercifully no section on his "spy work." Oh, and it's a much larger book than I thought it would be. Almost brings me back to the glory days of Houdini coffee table books. I admit I'm a little hurt to not see my site listed in Further Reading (it appears to have been sourced for the later sections at least), but this is one I'm happy to add to my shelf.


      Tuesday, August 8, 2017

      Houdini shows you how to Escape Everything!

      Escape Everything! by Robert Wringham uses Houdini to teach one how to "cut loose the shackles" of modern living. This was actually released last year, but it escaped me!

      We will each spend an average of 87,000 hours at work before we die. We will spend another 5,000 hours getting to and from work and countless more preparing for work. Worrying about work. Recovering from work. The majority of us hate our jobs. But without work, we can't buy all the things we've been told we should want and need, so around we go. Through the pages of New Escapologist magazine, Robert Wringham has been studiously examining the traps of modern life, questioning where our commitment to them stems from and why we are so unable to break free. Taking inspiration from the great Escapologist Harry Houdini—who escaped from jail cells, straitjackets, and even the innards of a dead whale—Wringham applies Houdini's feats as a metaphor for real life, proposing the principle of Escapology as a way to cut loose our shackles. Become a modern-day Escapologist and freedom and happiness might be possible after all.

      You can purchase Escape Everything! at (U.S.) and (UK).

      This is not Houdini's first foray into the motivational arena. Below are links to a few other examples of Harry Self-Help.


      Monday, August 7, 2017

      When 'Dead Famous' went in search of Houdini

      In 2005 Living TV in the UK aired Dead Famous: Houdini, in which skeptic Gail Porter and "sensitive" Chris Fleming went in search of Houdini's ghost. This British series was part of the explosion of dubious "reality" television and part of a sub genre of ghost-hunter shows that aped the style of The Blair Witch Project. Here's a description of the Houdini episode:

      Searching for the ghost of Harry Houdini our duo visit the Eastern State Penitentiary, the blueprint for modern escape-proof prisons, where the man known as The Jailbreak King might still be tampering with the locks, and the Palace Theatre on Broadway where Houdini performed in the vaudeville era. But could the man no jail could hold be captured by the cameras?

      The investigative segments of the episode are tedious and the research embarrassingly bad. Chris Fleming actually calls out to Houdini as "Harold", and Gail Porter states that Houdini "most famously survived going over Niagara Falls in a barrel." And while it's cool to see the inside of Palace Theater, they then go to Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary for no reason other than "it would have appealed to Houdini." (I suspect this segment was actually filmed independently of the Houdini episode and added to help pad out the hour.)

      However, the show redeems itself in the end when the team attends the 2004 Houdini Seance with Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz at the Houdini Museum in Scranton. You get a great look at the museum, and it's an excellent documentation of that year's "Original" seance (not to be confused with the "Official" seance). Jeff Blood, the grand nephew of Harry and Bess, is in attendance and has a moment on camera. Bess's voice from the Final Houdini Seance also gets some nice air play (more than we typically hear).

      So despite being the sort of hokum that Houdini himself would have condemned, the show is still worth checking out. Below is the full episode on YouTube.

      Dead Famous: Houdini originally aired January 18, 2005. Two seasons were released on DVD in the UK.


      Sunday, August 6, 2017

      Remembering Celeste Evans

      Last month pioneering magician and escape artist Celeste Evans died at age 85. Born on New Year's Eve 1931, Evans toured extensively in the Far East as a State Department entertainer. After a 1957 of Africa, she settled in Chicago and toured the Playboy Club circuit. Celeste was possibly the first female magician to perform dove magic, made more difficult by the fact that she only wore gowns, leotards, and jumpsuits in her act. She retired from magic in 2003 to run her husband's management business. She passed away on July 25, 2017.

      Below is Celeste's appearance on the classic CBS game show To Tell The Truth on May 21, 1957. Houdini is mentioned several times. In fact, the answer to a Houdini question is the deciding factor for one of the judges.

      Celeste Evan's obituary appears in the August 2017 Academy of Magical Arts/Magic Castle newsletter.

      Thanks to Dustin Stinett.


      Friday, August 4, 2017

      Houdini's 1983 turn as a serial killer

      In 1983 a play called The Lives and Deaths of the Great Harry Houdini was featured at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts from July 6-14. Steve Skibell played Houdini and Stephanie Shine played Bess. In digging around for information online, I found the following surprising description:

      "The Lives and Deaths of the Great Harry Houdini presents the great escape artist as a serial killer."

      The Lives and Deaths of the Great Harry Houdini was written by David Ives who would later become involved in the aborted Houdini Broadway musical with Hugh Jackman. He also adapted David Copperfield's Broadway show, Dreams and Nightmares, in 1996.

      While this is the first time I've heard of Houdini himself being protrayed as a serial killer (man, nothing surprises me anymore), in the 1999 film, Oxygen, Adrian Brody played a serial killer who goes by the name "Harry Houdini" and leaves clues to his crimes on Houdini's grave

      Photo of Steve Skibell and Stephanie Shine as Harry and Bess from the Williamstown Theater Festival archives.


      Thursday, August 3, 2017

      Houdini and Chaplin share the page

      A new children's biography covering the lives of Houdini and Charlie Chaplin has been published in Indonesian. Charlie Chaplin & Harry Houdini by Sahanjaya Dwi Suputra is available in print and eBook from the website Scoop. Sometimes books like this will have an English language equivalent, but it appears this one is original to the territory.

      Houdini and Charlie Chaplin met in Los Angeles while Houdini was on his 1915 U.S. vaudeville tour. You can see the photo they took that day via the first link below.


      Wednesday, August 2, 2017

      David Saltman's HOUDINI UNBOUND coming in November

      Some great news today. David Saltman's eagerly awaited historical novel HOUDINI UNBOUND will be published in November by Hudson River Books. David has spent 11 years working on the book, which is set during Houdini's tour of Russia in 1903 and finds the magician engaging in espionage on behalf of President Theodore Roosevelt. Other historical characters include Chekhov, Gorky, Diaghilev, Durov the Clown, and Rasputin.

      David has authored several non-fiction works, including Gilda, the acclaimed biography of comedienne Gilda Radner. He also runs the the great blog The Houdini File. HOUDINI UNBOUND is his first novel.

      You may recall the book had previously been scheduled for release in 2014 by Maiden Lane Press under the title The Escape Artist: Harry Houdini in Russia, but the publisher went out of business.

      You can read more about HOUDINI UNBOUND on David's official website. There is yet no listing on Amazon, but I will update as soon as it appears.


      Tuesday, August 1, 2017

      Houdini in 1902

      The year 1902 can be characterized as one of the most combative of Houdini's career. Having  proclaimed himself the "Undisputed King of Handcuffs and World's Champion Jail Breaker," the year would find him defending his title in a variety of arenas. Even in court.

      Houdini vs Madame Robert-Houdin

      Houdini started the new year with Bess and Dash in Paris, where his engagement at the Olympia was extended by two months. It was in Paris that Houdini visited the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, then owned by magician and pioneer filmmaker Geroge Méliès (exciting to think of these two men meeting and Houdini watching Méliès's "magical" movies). There Houdini learned that Robert-Houdin's daughter-in-law (widow of his son Emile) was still living in Blois. Houdini sent her a letter by messenger, asking permission to place a wreath on the grave of Robert-Houdin and thank her in person (the full letter can be read on page 57 of Houdini The Untold Story). Ill and not wishing to be disturbed, she turned the messenger away with no reply.

      Undeterred, Houdini traveled to Blois on January 28. There he met with Robert-Houdin's son-in-law, Henri Lemaitre-Robert-Houdin, who welcomed him into his home and showed him several clocks made by the great magician. Henri also told him there was nothing to stop him from paying his respects at the grave.

      So Houdini traveled to the cemetery with a large floral wreath reading "Honor and Respect to Robert-Houdin from the Magicians of America." He stood before the grave for a half hour "with all the reverence and homage with which I respect his memory." Typically photographed standing beside the graves of famous magicians, the only known photo from that day is one Houdini took of the grave alone (right).

      In the 1959 biography, Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls, author William Lindsey Gresham paints a very different picture of these events. He portrays Houdini returning to his hotel and exploding in a rage about being slighted by Madame Robert-Houdin, and vowing then and there to write a book exposing his boyhood idol. But there is no evidence to support Gresham's colorful account, which is loaded with factual errors. In fact, all evidence suggests Houdini was deeply moved by his experience that day. He even mailed himself a postcard from Blois to remember the date.

      However, Houdini's rebellion was being seeded as he visited many of Robert-Houdin's contemporaries, and from them learned that the great man's inventions might not have all been his own. But in January 1902, Houdini's journey to discover the true "father" of modern magic was only just beginning.

      Houdini vs Werner Graff

      After closing at the Olympia, Houdini traveled to Cologne, Germany for the start of his libel trial against the police officer Werner Graff. Houdini had brought the legal action against Graff a year before for an article he wrote saying Houdini's claim that he could escape from any restraint constituted fraud, and that the American had attempted to bribe him. (In his publicity, Houdini never mentioned the bribery charge, and it remained a generally unknown aspect of the Graff trial until 1996.) This first trial started on February 19 and extended over two days. Over 25 witnesses were called, including Bess. During the trial Houdini escaped from a German Transport Chain in full view of the judge and jury. The verdict was announced on February 29. Graff was ordered to pay a fine and print a retraction, while Houdini was fined for insulting a police officer. But Graff decided to appeal the case to a higher court. The next trial was set for July.

      After playing a month at Ronacher’s Theater in Vienna (an engagement postponed in 1901), Houdini returned home to the United States for the first time in two years. It would be a whirlwind trip. "I was home 10 days and slept one night," said Houdini, "the rest of the time I was out, and slept in my motor car, while my brothers drove me about." Aboard a train he met with his former manager Martin Beck to explore the idea of returning to the U.S. and tourimg Beck's growing Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Beck advised him to remain in Europe and reap the rewards of his popularity and ever increasing salary. America could wait a few more years for the Handcuff King.

      In May, Houdini once again joined the Circus Corty-Althoff, this time in Holland. Inspired by the windmills in the countryside, he arrange to be lashed to a windmill blade and make his escape while it turned. But his weight caused the blade to snap off and crash to the ground. Houdini was unhurt and reaped a windfall of publicity.

      Houdini vs Kleppini

      Engelberto Kleppini
      While traveling with the Circus Corty-Althoff, Houdini learned that an escape artist with the Circus Sidoli named Engelberto Kleppini was advertising that he had beaten Houdini in a handcuff escape contest. Demanding four days off to deal with the interloper, Houdini traveled to Dortmund, Germany and attended Kleppini's performance in disguise. When the escapist made his boast, Houdini "took a flying leap" into the circus ring and dramatically revealed himself. Houdini offered Kleppini 5000 marks if he could escape from his own handcuffs. A contest was arranged for the following day.

      That night, Kleppini's manager visited Houdini at his hotel. Houdini showed him an assortment of freshly oiled handcuffs that he proposed to use in the challenge, including a pair of exotic French Letter Cuffs. Houdini made the manager promise not to reveal to Kleppini that they opened with the letter combination: CLEFS (the French word for keys).

      The day of the challenge, Kleppini unsurprisingly selected the French Letter cuff as the shackles he would beat. He then said his wife would do the same. The cuffed and confident Kleppini disappeared into his cabinet. He never reappeared. Eventually, the cabinet was moved off the stage so the circus could continue.

      After the show, Houdini found the dejected Kleppini in his manager's office, still cuffed with the combination dialed uselessly to CLEFS. Houdini explained that he had changed the combination. He turned the dials and the cuffs snapped open on the word: FRAUD.

      "The German performers are, without a doubt, the greatest brain thieves that ever existed," Houdini complained in his Dramatic Mirror column. It may have been around this same time that Houdini took on another pretender: Hilmar the Uncuffable. This time Houdini was not so playful in his exposé, dragging the cuffed man to the footlights and leaving him sobbing "like a spanked babe" until the audience begged Houdini to free him.

      In July, Houdini returned to the Colosseum Theater in Essen Ruhr, site of his great victory over the Krupps handcuff the year before. This time he was roped by a challenger named Kinsky in a manner that the newspapers described as "simply inhuman -- [he] tied the American as you would tie a piece of cattle." Houdini's escape after seventeen minutes brought "ongoing, never-ending applause and calls of Bravo" which did not cease until Houdini made six curtain calls.

      It was also at the Colosseum on July 31 that Houdini introduced a new type of escape which would become a signature for the remainder of his career: the packing crate challenge.

      Houdini vs Werner Graff (II)

      In July, Houdini was back in court once again facing off with Werner Graff. This time the police officer came better prepared. Not only did he bring new witnesses, but he also came with a lock created by a master mechanic named Kroch, which once locked could never be opened. Houdini opened the lock in four minutes.

      The court upheld the previous verdict, but Graff was still not satisfied and again appealed to a higher court. It's not clear if Houdini was even at the third hearing on September 26. However, he later claimed to have again proven his skill by opening the judge's private safe (which the judge had forgotten to lock).

      After spending August and September with the Circus Carre, Houdini returned to England, where he had not appeared for 21 months. There he signed a contract with the Moss Empire chain to play 20 weeks at £100 a week (that's £11,579 or $15,070 today). Some managers baulked at his weekly salary. For those, Houdini agreed to a percentage of the house receipts. It was a shrewd move. His performances proved so popular that in some theaters his percentage earned him twice his salary.

      Houdini opened at the Palace Theater in Halifax during the week of October 13. Any concern that the English public had either forgotten or grown cold to his act was quickly dispelled as Houdini smashed all house records. Interestingly, during this run one of the challenge cuffs he faced was the Kleppini-beater French Letter cuffs.

      After Halifax, Houdini moved on to the Palace Theater in Blackburn. There he would face the most difficult and torturous challenge of his entire career.

      Houdini vs Hodgson

      On the night of October 24, Houdini was manacled by fitness expert William Hope Hodgson. Hodgson's "scientific" application of his manacles (which Houdini complained had been tampered with) bent Houdini into a painful pretzel. Houdini struggled in his cabinet for over an hour with no progress. A doctor was called on stage to examine him and noted that his arms had turned blue. But Hodgson refused to temporarily loosen the shackles unless Houdini admitted defeat. Worse, the rowdy audience seemed to side with the local boy Hodgson.

      When Houdini finally bounded free after two and a half hours, bloodied and exhausted, Hodgson claimed the shackles had been sawed off. (It's been suggested Hardeen, who was there that night, might have snuck into the cabinet and freed his brother.) But Houdini's struggle had won over the audience, and the newspapers reported that Hodgson had to flee to a police station for protection.

      For the rest of his life Houdini referred to the "dreadful night in Blackburn" and never enjoyed returning to the city. William Hope Hodgson went on to be a popular writer of fantasy literature before his death in the first World War.

      Ironically, the same day as the brutal Hodgson challenge, the German high court finally ruled in favor of Houdini in his ongoing battle with Werner Graff. Houdini was elated and sent word of his victory out on postcard press releases. He also created a colorful lithograph depicting himself shackled in the German courtroom under the headline: "Apology in the Name of The Kaiser!"

      Houdini finished October at the Palace Theater in Bradford, where he beat the house record for paid admissions which he himself had set the year before. He then moved on to Halifax where the manager had to engage the larger Victoria Hall to accommodate the matinee crowds. At the Pavilion Theater in Leicester he opened a lock that was 500 years old and broke all existing house records. While his pitchbook characterized his Leicester engagement as "a great big feather in Houdini's hat", of his next stop in Manchester it records: "Did nothing extraordinary here."

      It was then back to Blackburn where Houdini drew such large crowds that ten policemen had to be called in after the theater sold out. "Thousands were turned away," Houdini marveled, "Not hundreds, but thousands."

      In December, Houdini appeared at City of Varieties in Leeds where on December 4 he escaped nude from the Armley Prison cell which had held the notorious cat burglar Charles Peace while he awaited execution. On December 9, Houdini freed himself from a Burnley jail, opening six cells in less than five minutes. A local paper observed, "his performances are enough to give Sherlock Holmes nervous prostration."

      Houdini then returned to Leeds where he broke all house records and played "extra special" matinees at the larger Coliseum theater. Here he escaped from a straitjacket (still using a cabinet) and a packing case. Leeds was one of the cities where he had arranged a percentage deal. Houdini came away with over £250 (£28,950) for his week's work. An advertisement for his final week noted that it would be his last appearance in the UK.

      The Houdini spent Christmas that year back in London at the popular vaudevillian boarding house at 11 Kepple Street, where the American performers bought a Christmas tree. Among his fellow celebrants was magician Howard Thurston. It had been a year of battles for Houdini, and he had emerged victorious every time. But ahead lay new challenges and a whole new country to conquer: Russia.