Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Charlie lost!

One of the things I love about working on my New Houdini Chronology is the discovery of cool bits of untold Houdini history tucked away in old newspapers. These are things that haven't been found, or maybe considered too insignificant to make the pages of major biographies. But I find stuff like this humanizing and therefore very significant.

Here's something I recently found while working on 1907. While playing the Grand Theater in Pittsburgh, the Houdinis beloved dog Charlie went missing. Charlie vanished on the street adjoining the theater on Monday, May 20. The next day The Pittsburgh Daily Post reported the crisis.


This article is interesting as it gives Charlie's origin story, which might be the first time it ever appeared in print. Of course, the paper got Charlie's color wrong. Charlie was white, not black, and this mistake would certainly not help in finding him!

The next day, May 22 (the day Houdini jumped from the 7th Street bridge), Houdini's own ad appeared.


Alarmingly, Charlie was still missing for a third day, May 23. This time Houdini put a dollar amount on the reward. His $25 calculates to $627.80 today.


The papers don't record what ultimately happened, but it appears Charlie was found. The dog shows up in a 1908 article (again in Pittsburgh) and his death in 1909 is recorded in Houdini's diary. But it must have been a scary few days for parents and pup!


The above photo of Charlie can be purchased from House of Roulx & Co.

Related:

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Gil Ozeri is Houdini in Another Period

The identity of the actor playing Houdini in tonight's episode of Another Period has been revealed: Gil Ozeri.


Another Period "Seance" airs tonight on Comedy Central. After the airing you'll be able to stream the episode at the official website.

Related:

The Secret Life of Mrs. London revealed today

Today sees the release of The Secret Life of Mrs. London by Rebecca Rosenberg. This debut novel mixes fact and fiction to tell the story of Houdini's affair with the vivacious Charmian London.

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.

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

You can purchase The Secret Life of Mrs. London at Amazon.com (U.S.) and Amazon.co.uk (UK). For more on the book and upcoming events, check out Rebecca Rosenberg's official website.

Related:

Monday, January 29, 2018

Harry Ransom Center presents Vaudeville!

A new exhibition devoted to Vaudeville! opens today at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Of course, the Ransom Center is home to one of the largest Houdini archives in the world, so you can bet Houdini is part of this show. Below are details.

Vaudeville!
JANUARY 29, 2018–JULY 15, 2018

For more than a century, vaudeville was the most popular form of American entertainment and one of the country's largest cultural exports. Performances on the vaudeville stage included comic sketches, magic, acrobatics, animal tricks, blackface performance, celebrity appearances, early film, and more. Shows featuring immigrant acts, racial stereotypes, and frequent appeals to nationalism defined a complex and often problematic sense of American identity at the turn of the 19th century.

Explore vaudeville's influences from Roman mimes to the saloons of the American frontier. Learn what life on the road was like for the thousands of entertainers who traveled around the country performing in theatres that were part of a vast network of venues, and witness the mid-century revival of vaudeville's relevance in musical theatre, radio, film, television, and the internet. See artifacts related to some of Vaudeville's best-known performers—Harry Houdini, Mae West, W. C. Fields, Bert Williams, George M. Cohan, Burns & Allen, Tony Pastor, the Nicholas Brothers, Barbette, and more.

The exhibition features the Ransom Center's extensive holdings of Harry Houdini, Tony Pastor, and Florenz Ziegfeld, among others, to show the development of vaudeville's highly organized form and its long-lasting impact on contemporary film, television, and comedy.


For more visit the Harry Ransom Center website.

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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Houdini is a Daily Double

Houdini showed up on Jeopardy! last Monday (Jan. 22) as a $1,500 Daily Double under the category Myopic Biopics. An easy one, I think, and it was answered correctly by contestant Adrianne Woodward from Rancho Cucamonga, California.


To see the full board, check out the amazing J! Archive website, where you can also see all mentions of Houdini on the show going back to 1986.

Thanks to Zandor Tordini for the alert and screen capture.

Related:

Joe Posnanski discusses his upcoming Houdini book

Later this year a new book by noted sportswriter Joe Posnanski will be released that promises to be a Houdini book like no other. Now you can hear Joe discusss his book at lenght on the "Just Not Sports" podcast. Joe's interview starts about 20 minutes into the show. Enjoy!


Related:

Friday, January 26, 2018

David Copperfield has Houdini's bookcase and a message for all of us


Yesterday I had the extreme pleasure of talking to David Copperfield on the phone. David was excited to confirm that he now has Houdini's bookcase in his Las Vegas museum. He also wanted to express his sincere gratitude to all of us who helped him on this particular quest. He said not only did my blog help, but so did "all the comments and contributions" from all the Houdini fans involved. He said we are not only helping him, we are also "helping magic history," and therefore he wanted us to be the first to have the full details of this acquisition and where it fits into his plans for an expanded Houdini display.

Some backstory first. The bookcase, one of two from Houdini's library in his New York home (278), had, amazingly, remained inside the residence all these years. This was discovered when the house went up for sale in June 2017. But the bookcase vanished after the first open house, and there were conflicting reports about what happened to it. But now we know David got it, which is kinda what we suspected anyway.

David told me the bookcase was in VERY poor condition when his team examined it, barely held together by old glue and crude fixes. He suspects the other bookcase had fallen apart at some point and was discarded. I suspect this would have been the fate of this bookcase as well. I doubt it would have been able to support a full load of books, and it may have been seen as a hazard and discarded by the new owner. So while at first I was sad to see the bookcase leave the house, I now believe it was rescued by the right person at the right time. (Not unlike how the last known print of The Grim Game was saved from Larry Weeks' apartment before it was too late.)

David's team is now rebuilding and reinforcing the bookcase, preserving it using the highest restoration standards. They are well aware of the missing moulding and other defining features, all of which will remain. His team are also building a replica of the second missing bookcase. The idea is to have the two cases side by side, exactly as Houdini had them in his home, and able to receive books. That's where the real fun begins.

David owns many of the same books that once filled these shelves. Using the famous photo of Houdini by the case, David and his team are looking to return as many of the original books as possible. They will also take pains to place the same photos of Hermann, Kellar, Tom Thumb, etc. inside the case. David is excited by the idea that visitors can then stand in Houdini's shoes and take a picture in front the fully restored case, recreating the famous image below. A blow-up of this photo will hang beside the bookcase.


In interviews, David has often said that if Houdini himself walked into his museum he would feel right at home among all his familiar props. I now think David has brought it to the next level. I think Houdini would be brought to tears at the sight of his beloved library painstakingly brought back to life, and I think many Houdini fans might have that same reaction!

David also confirmed that he bought the bathtub from 278. This was the larger of the two original tubs that had remained on the property, and likely the one from Houdini's bathroom. "If there was any practicing going on, it was in this tub," said David. The tub was also in very poor condition, having been exposed to the elements for decades, and was certainly destined for the dump. So it looks like it was also rescued just in time.

The tub is now being restored by David's team using authentic vintage fixtures. David says he may set up the tub using a lighting effect that will make it appear to be filled with ice. I love this idea, and I have a suspicion the tub might actually steal the show with visitors and press. "Houdini's bathtub" has always held mythic appeal.

And in case you are wondering, David did not get the piano, which he admits "might have been a mistake."

David is currently working on a major expansion of his museum that will take up to a year to complete. The bookcase and tub will be part of a greatly expanded Houdini area, which in itself will be the greatest Houdini museum on earth. I'll be getting a chance to see the work in progress soon. I'll bring you all along for the ride.

So there we have it. We now know David Copperfield has the bookcase and bathtub. We know they will be restored, protected, and celebrated in a most spectacular way. And we have a nice thank you from the great man himself. So a good day!

Related:

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Houdini and Kellar and Thurston, oh my!

Here's a terrific image I've never seen before posted by Ken Trombly on his magic_posters Instagram. Quite the gathering!


It's interesting to note that this was taken just one month before Houdini resigned from the S.A.M. in July 1908, due largely over his feud with Sphinx publisher Dr. A.M. Wilson.

Thanks to Ken for letting me share this image. Visit his website magicposters.com.

Related:

Houdini visits 'Another Period'

Houdini will appear on the Comedy Central series Another Period in the second episode of season 3, "Séance." I don't yet know who is playing Houdini, but all will be revealed this Tuesday, Jan. 30 at 7:30 PM.


For more visit Another Period at Comedy Central. Full episodes are uploaded after the initial airing.

Related:

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Go inside Houdini's Los Angeles Orpheum, Jan. 27

This Saturday, January 27, you'll have an opportunity to go inside the Palace Theater in downtown Los Angeles as part of the annual "Night on Broadway" street festival. Why is that exciting? Because the Palace was originally the Orpheum Theater where Houdini performed in 1915 and 1923, and where he had his famous encounter with Jess Willard. The theater is normally shuttered, so this is a rare chance to see inside. Woot!


Night on Broadway is a free arts and music festival produced in celebration of Councilmember José Huizar’s Bringing Back Broadway economic development initiative. For more information visit the official website.

Related:

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Break-in at Hardeen's house

Last night's "Houdini Jewel" episode of Strange Inheritance concluded with a story that might not be familiar to some Houdini buffs. Host Jamie Colby told of how, in 1927, Hardeen's home was broken into by thieves in search of items he had inherited from his brother. Hardeen later burned the items.

Below is the original New York Times newspaper article about the robbery dated August 16, 1927.

Click to enlarge.

As for the burning, that comes from The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. On page 531 it reads:

Sometime later in the presence of Joe Hyman, Houdini's old friend, Hardeen destroyed all of Houdini's personal files by burning them in the basement furnace of his home. According to Hyman, Hardeen "incidentally almost burnt his residence down doing so."

Kalush suggests that what might have gone up in flames that day were Houdini's investigative files related to specific spiritualist exposures. In fact, the book says Hardeen's life had been threatened earlier that year because "he fell heir to certain Houdini secrets."

Of course, Hardeen's true inheritance, Houdini's magic and escape props, were the items Houdini specified should be "burned and destroyed" upon Hardeen's death. But Hardeen passed the effects to his successor Douglas Geoffrey (Hardeen Jr.) and collectors like Sidney Radner.  Fire finally claimed the Water Torture Cell in 1995.

Strange Inheritance airs on FOX Business Network. The "Houdini Jewel" episode (which dealt with Bessie's royal crown brooch) was well done, and they gave my blog a very nice shout-out. I expect you'll be able to catch the episode in repeats.

Thanks to reader Harry Houdini (real name) for the clipping.

Related:

Happy birthday Bess

Today is Bess Houdini's 142nd birthday. Bess was born Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner on January 23, 1876 in Brooklyn, NY. As you can see below, she marked her start in show business as 1894, the year she played Coney Island as part of The Floral Sisters and married Harry. The rest is history.


Below are a few more Bessie birthday posts to enjoy.

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Monday, January 22, 2018

Preview tonight's Strange Inheritance, Houdini Jewel

Below are a two previews for tonight's "Houdini Jewel" episode of Strange Inheritance with Jamie Colby. I'm not able to embed these, so you'll have to click and view on the FOX Business YouTube channel.



Strange Inheritance "Houdini Jewel" airs tonight, January 22 at 9:30 PM/ET on FOX Business Network.

Related:

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Introducing The New Houdini Chronology


Today I'm excited to launch a MAJOR new site feature that I think will be of interest to Houdini fans and a valuable tool for researchers.

Most of us are familiar with the superb work of the late Frank Koval. In 1992-94, Frank self-published six volumes called The Illustrated Houdini Research Diary in which he tried to pinpoint exactly where Houdini was performing every week of his professional life.

Like everyone, I've kept Koval by my side and have turned to it many times. But I also continued to update it for my own research purposes. Thanks to new books and the emergence of online resources such as newspapers.com, I've been able to fill in many gaps and make corrections. I've also reworked Koval's original dating methodology, adding Sunday to each week, and added select events. I now believe I have a much improved and expanded Houdini chronology, and starting today I would like to share it.

I've now uploaded the first wave of years of what will eventually be the complete chronology online. I've done my best to provide accurate dates and places (trying to find 2 sources for all entries), but I'm sure I've gotten things wrong. I've therefore activated Comments on each year's page so anyone can provide updates and corrections or any feedback whatsoever. An advantage of doing this online is that it can be improved with each new discovery. This will always be a work in progress.

Below is a link to the homepage where you can begin your chronological journey through Houdini's life. I've also added a new drop-down menu where you can leap directly to the year of your choice. I hope you all enjoy...

Friday, January 19, 2018

William Rauscher's Hardeen book released

William V. Rauscher's new book about Houdini's brother, Hardeen: Monarch of Manacles, is now available from David Haversat's 1878 Press Co. The hardcover runs 150 pages and is the first book ever devoted to Dash.

This book is a tribute to one of the world's greatest escape artists. He traveled the world defying police authorities to shackle his body in handcuffs and leg irons, or to lock him in the darkest jail cells, all of which could not hold him. He nightly escaped from a giant padlocked and water-filled milk can. During the day he freed himself from an ironbound wooden crate as it sank to the bottom of murky rivers and swift oceans. Metal "Crazy Cribs" used on the murderously insane could not hold him. The inescapable steel "Tramp Chair" was child's play to "The Monarch of Manacles." 
Beyond escapes he performed on vaudeville stages, appeared in movies, was a Broadway star and experts considered him a wonderful magician. In fact, he was a much better magician than his brother, and well-liked and admired by the conjuring community. 
Now, for the first time, best-selling author, magic historian, and magician William V. Rauscher brings you the revealing story of this wonderful entertainer who, for the first time, justifiably steps out from the shadow of his brother to take his rightful place in the pantheon of prestidigitators. Meet Theodore Hardeen-the sensation of two hemispheres-brother of Houdini!!

Click to purchase at 1878 Press Co.

Related:

LINK: Cooking with the (Silent) Stars: Harry Houdini’s Deviled Eggs

I did a post a while back about Houdini's culinary contribution to The Stag Cookbook (1922). But here's a blogger who had the courage to actually try the recipe! How was it? Click on the headline and have a read at Movies Silently.

Related:

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Strange Inheritance unearths the Houdini Jewel, Monday

The FOX Business Network series Strange Inheritance will air an episode this Monday, January 22, devoted to Bess Houdini's royal crown brooch, or what the show is calling the "Houdini Jewel." Host Jamie Colby interviews new owner David Copperfield, former owners Milt and Arlene Larsen...and me!

FOX BUSINESS NETWORK TO FEATURE ARROWHEADS AND A HOUDINI JEWEL IN ALL NEW EPISODES OF HIT PRIMETIME REALITY SERIES “STRANGE INHERITANCE” MONDAY, JANUARY 22ND 
What: FOX Business Network (FBN) will present new back-to-back episodes of the hit primetime reality program Strange Inheritance on Monday, January 22nd at 9PM/ET. These episodes are part of a series hosted by FBN’s Jamie Colby that chronicles the stories of inheritances from people and places all across the country. The first half-hour episode entitled, “Indian Arrowheads,” explores the tale of a North Carolina man who inherits 250,000 ancient Indian arrowheads. 
In the next half-hour episode entitled “Houdini Jewel” airing at 9:30PM/ET, a magician’s wife inherits a jewel-encrusted pin said to have been bestowed on Harry Houdini by Czar Nicholas II.
When: Monday, January 22nd, 9-10PM/ET
Where: Fox Business Network

Below are links to a few posts about the brooch (including a recent update). I fear I might be the villain of this episode who casts doubt on the jewel having come from Czar Nicholas II. Will Jamie get the bottom of the mystery? Find out Monday!



Images: FOX Business Network.

Related:

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Monday, January 15, 2018

Doug Henning talks Houdini with Bob Lund

The Doug Henning Project has posted video of Doug and Debby Henning guest hosting a Detroit morning show called Kelly & Company in the 1980s. It's a remarkable 58 minutes, but what will be of special interest to Houdini buffs is Doug's interview with Bob Lund of the American Museum of Magic. They discuss Houdini at length, and Bob shows a coin tray that belonged to Houdini (I love it when Debby just wants to touch it). Doug also shows a collection of letters Houdini wrote to an executive of the Ford Motor Co. Unfortunately, they don't explain what those letters were about.


There's a lot here to love, so click on over to The Doug Henning Project and have a watch. The Bob Lund interview starts at 43:35.

UPDATE: Thanks to Chuck Romano, I now know what those letters were about. Houdini was corresponding with Fred Black, the assistant to the president of American Motor Co, who has done some research into the Booth family on behalf of Henry Ford. Houdini was fascinated with the Booths and John Wilkes Booth in particular. Lund penned a three part series about the correspondence called "Afterword on Houdini" for Abracadabra starting in the July 21, 1956 issue.

Related:

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Houdini Magical Hall of Fame site today

Fellow "Houdini Nut" Stacey Zimmerman was recently in Niagara Falls, Canada, where he took this photo of the former site of the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame atop Clifton Hill. Today it is Ripley's Moving Theater 4D.


The Houdini Magical Hall of Fame first opened in May 1968 at 5019 Centre Street. Four years later it moved to this location at 4983 Clifton Hill, where it remained until a suspicious fire on the night of April 30, 1995 destroyed the original Water Torture Cell and closed the museum for good. Below is a photo I took during my one and only visit in 1990.


Thanks Stacey!

Related:

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Johnathon Schaech shares story of sexual abuse

Johnathon Schaech, who played Houdini in the 1998 TNT cable movie Houdini, is latest person to come out with a story of sexual abuse at the hands of a person in power. In a piece written for People.com, Schaech says director Franco Zeffirelli made repeated sexual advances on the then 22-year-old during the making of the movie Sparrow.

Says the actor, "For my son, for the future of all of our kids, we have to stop it. Stop the evil. That’s why I wanted to talk. I want future generations to know they’re not alone."

Zeffirelli's family have denied the accusations, saying their father is currently ill and unable to defend himself.

Houdini, which co-stars Stacy Edwards as Bess and Mark Ruffalo as Hardeen, is available on DVD.

Related:

Friday, January 12, 2018

A new twist in the tale of the "Czar's brooch"


Last year a brooch that belonged to Bess Houdini sold for $72,000 in a Potter & Potter auction. Bess gave the brooch to Geraldine Larsen in the 1940s, and it had remained in Larsen family until the sale last year. The buyer was David Copperfield.

According to the Larsens, Bess said she had received the brooch from the Czar of Russia. Trouble is, there's no record of Houdini ever performing before the Czar. I suggested she more likely received it from Grand Duke Sergei Alexsandrovich during the Houdinis one and only tour of Russia in 1903. But now I've found something that makes me question even that!

Below is an article from the May 23, 1899 Joplin Daily News about a dressing room robbery while the Houdinis were performing at the Pavillion Theater in Joplin, Missouri. Check out what was stolen:


...a diamond brooch, valued at $1000 given her by the Czar of Russia...

So here we have Bess claiming to own a brooch given to her by the Czar four years before the Houdinis even traveled to Russia. In 1899, the Houdinis were still relative unknowns who had only ever travelled as far as Canada. The idea that the young couple had ever performed for royalty was shear vaudevillian hokum.

So now we have evidence that Bess (or Harry) peddled a fiction about owning jewelry gifted from the Czar of Russia. That means if Bess really did later get a brooch in Russia (from the Grand Duke or otherwise), we'd have to accept it as a coincidence that this fiction came true. That's not impossible. But I'm not a fan of coincidence, especially when a more likely scenario is present.

Suddenly it seems a lot more likely that Bess simply made up the story about the later brooch being given to her by the Czar of Russia, just as she had about this earlier brooch that was stolen. Like her husband, she wasn't adverse to pinning false medals to her chest. Either that or Bess and Czar had something pretty serious going on!

But as I said then, the origin of the brooch really isn't all that important, and I don't think it changes the value whatsoever. There's no doubt that Bess owned the brooch, and that's what makes it precious today.

Last year I filmed an interview for the popular FOX Business Network show Strange Inheritance in which I talked about the brooch and its mysterious origin. Too bad I didn't have this detail to share then! The new season starts January 15. The brooch episode will air on Monday, January 22nd at 9:30pm EST.

Related:

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini #2 released

Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini #2 by Cynthia von Buhler has been released by Hard Case Crime and Titan Books. At least I think it has. The second issue in this adult four part series comes in two variant covers, as you can see below.

Unappreciated at her father's detective agency, the fabulous, rabbit-loving Minky Woodcock straps on her gumshoes in order to uncover a magical mystery involving the world-famous escape artist, Harry Houdini. Created by acclaimed artist, author, director, and playwright Cynthia Von Buhler.

You can buy issues at comic book stores or online at Midtown Comics. For more on the series visit minkywoodcock.com. Also check out Bleeding Cool for a collection of photos from a recent launch party.

A collected edition of all four issues will be released in June and can be pre-ordered at Amazon.com.

Related:

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

New development to rise on site of Statler Hotel

The Detroit Free Press reports that a new multi-use development will rise on the site of the former Statler Hotel. The Statler was where Houdini stayed during his final performance in Detroit on October 24, 1926. It was from the Statler that he was taken to Grace Hospital at 3AM at the urging of doctors, including the hotel doctor, Dr. Daniel Cohn.

The 800-room Statler Hotel was built in 1915 and was among the largest and most luxurious places to stay in Detroit. In the 1950s it was sold to Hilton and renamed the Detroit Hilton Hotel. It was demolished in 2005.

The developer plans to hold a ceremonial groundbreaking Thursday for the new apartment and retail complex to be called City Club Apartments CBD Detroit.


Related:

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Newsweek mischaracterizes Houdini's Wild Man as a geek act

Newsweek has released a special issue celebrating P.T. Barnum and "The Circus - 110 Years of the Greatest Show on Earth." In an article titled "The Circus Hall of Fame," Houdini is featured along with a nice two page photo (from The Grim Game). The accompanying paragraph discusses how Houdini once performed as a "Wild Man" at the Welsh Bros. Circus during his struggling days. That part is true.

However, it then goes on to say Houdini's Wild Man was a "geek" act, in which one bites the heads off live animals. That is not true. Nowhere is it said Houdini's Wild Man was a geek. Geeks tended to be mentally impaired men or alcoholics lured into the despicable act with money. Geek shows where largely frowned upon, and the Welsh brothers took pains to present a "wholesome" show, with strict rules of conduct spelled out in performers contracts. There was even a clause protecting female performers from harassment (yes, in 1898).

What little we do know about "Projea, the Wild Man of Mexico" is that Houdini, in face paint with frazzled hair, was fed raw meat by ringmaster Clint Newton (Houdini quit after being hit in the eye with a piece of meat). It's also said Houdini used sleight of hand to make it appear he was consuming cigarettes thrown into his cage by the audience. He would then distribute the cigarettes among his fellow circus performers. Not sure why Newsweek didn't go with these known details, but...


You can buy Newsweek's The Circus Special Edition HERE. Newsweek is owned by IBT Media.

Thanks to Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz for the alert.

Related:

Monday, January 8, 2018

LINK: Houdini and Tony Curtis to thank for Tranent couple’s 60 great years

The East Lothian Courier has a wonderful article today about a couple celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. And what brought them together?

Margaret said: “I was at Haddington Picture House with my two friends and there were these three boys a few rows behind us and we got chatting. I always remember the film, it was Houdini.”

Click the headline to read the full story at East Lothian Courier.

Related:

Sunday, January 7, 2018

100 years ago Houdini vanished an elephant


It was 100 years ago today, January 7, 1918, that Houdini first vanished a live elephant at the enormous Hippodrome Theater in New York. To this day, no one knows exactly how Houdini did it. But that hasn't stopped magicians from speculating.

In the effect, an elephant named "Jennie" was ushered into the rear of a large cabinet decorated as a circus wagon. The cabinet was closed and turned toward the audience, a task requiring a block and tackle and 30 men. On Houdini's command, both the front and back of the cabinet were opened so the audience could see through to the back of the stage. The elephant was gone. "No special background, in full glare of the lights, and it is a weird trick," Houdini proudly proclaimed.

The vanishing elephant was an instant hit, and it led to the longest engagement of Houdini's career (19 weeks). But some magicians thought the presentation was lacking. They complained that because of the semi-circular seating inside the huge Hippodrome auditorium, only people directly in front of the cabinet could see that the elephant had actually vanished. Others had to take Houdini's word for it. But while magicians might have criticized the effect, they could still not explain how Houdini did it.


Houdini's elephant was part of the "Powers Performing Elephants" troop, a regular feature of the Hippodrome show. Houdini claimed she was the daughter of Barnum's famous Jumbo and that she was "gentle as a kitten." He also pointed out, "I never allowed a hook to be used, relying on block sugar to make her go through her stunt, and she certainly is very fond of me." Some descriptions say Jennie wore a large blue ribbon around her neck and a giant wristwatch on her leg (so the audience could see her until the last second). Interestingly, Jennie would outlive Houdini by many years. An article from May 25, 1950 shows her alive and well at age 86.

Of course, with a trick the garnered as much attention as the vanishing elephant, competitors rushed to create their own versions. Always one to aggressively protect his effects, Houdini took out ads in the trades warning competitors of his copyright. This appears to have worked as no other vanishing elephants appeared during Houdini's lifetime (that I'm aware).



Houdini revived the elephant vanish in 1922 at the Times Square Theater in New York to perform after screenings of his film The Man From Beyond. Some say the trick was more effective in the smaller venue, in which Houdini alternated between two smaller elephants borrowed from the Ringling Circus. As little as we know of the Hippodrome vanish, we know even less about the Times Square version, which may or may not have employed the same method.

How did he do it?

No one knows exactly how Houdini vanished his elephant. But that hasn't stopped the publication of explanations. J.C. Cannell (The Secrets of Houdini) wrote that the elephant passed into a second hidden cabinet. Walter B. Gibson and Morris N. Young (Houdini's Fabulous Magic) described a method that employed the use of black art. Modern Mechanic claimed the elephant was hidden behind a false backdrop. Even the infamous "Masked Magician" revealed a method involving mirrors, but his presentation bore no resemblance to how Houdini presented his effect. Interestingly, Houdini must have revealed the secret one night when he invited a committee of engineers, in town for a convention, to enter the cabinet. He then vanished them to the delight of their fellow employees.

The theory that holds the most water was first put forth by Guy Jarrett, who had pitched his own vanishing elephant idea to the Hippodrome management and was turned down. Jarrett's explanation was based on the Disappearing Donkey, an effect Houdini had purchased from Charles Morritt in 1914. While Jarrett's theory was dismissed by many as unworkable at this scale, it was championed by Jim Steinmeyer, who demonstrated the feasibility of it at the 1983 Magic Collectors Convention in Chicago using a toy elephant and a scale replica of the cabinet. Steinmeyer later published his theory in his book Hiding The Elephant (2003). As for its flawed presentation, Steinmeyer wrote, "It might have been a great illusion disguised as a bad illusion."

The great Patrick Culliton, who published his own Notes on the Vanishing Elephant, believes that the Jarrett/Steinmeyer theory is most likely the correct one. In fact, Patrick thinks Jarett, who never actually saw the illusion himself, might have been tipped to the method by Clyde Powers, the stage manager of Cheer Up!, who owned a magic shop where Jarrett worked.

However, the Jarrett/Steinmeyer theory relies on eyewitness accounts of how the trick was presented, specifically that the audience looked through a round opening in the front of the cabinet. But in a 1992 issue of the Mystifier, William M. Doerflinger, who saw the trick as a youth, specifically refutes this, saying:

"Some later commentators suspected that the audience had looked through a circular opening at the front of the cabinet as well as through the back, somewhat as though the cabinet was a huge Phantom Tube. My own visual image agrees with those who say there was no circular opening at the front; it was completely curtained until Houdini drew the curtains aside."

Frustratingly, there are no surviving photos of the cabinet or any of the apparatus Houdini used during his vanishing elephant to help settle the matter of exactly how it appeared to the audience. There's not even a known poster. So in more ways than one, the vanishing elephant remains one of Houdini's great mysteries. As Houdini himself said, "Even the elephant doesn't know how it's done."


The above illustration is from Escape King: The Story of Houdini (1975) by John Ernst.

UPDATE: David Haversat of David Haversat Magic has shared with me the unpublished notes of Milbourne Christopher explaining how he vanished his own elephant. Christopher writes that he believes his method is the same that Houdini used. As a rule, I don't expose secrets on this blog, so even though David has given me permission to share the notes, I'm reluctant to do so. But I will say I think Christopher's method makes sense, and it allows for the front of the cabinet to be fully opened as some eyewitness say that it was. I'm now thinking Milbourne Christopher may be the one who finally got it right.


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Saturday, January 6, 2018

ITV Encore repeating 'Houdini & Doyle' in UK

ITV Encore in the UK is repeating the series Houdini & Doyle. TV Guide UK shows episodes airing on Saturdays at 2:00 am and 3:00 am. Next week is episode 2, A Dish of Adharma.

Houdini & Doyle originally aired on ITV, Fox and Global TV in 2016. The 10 episode series featured Michael Weston as Houdini and ran for one season. It was released on DVD only in the UK. It is currently available for streaming on Amazon Video.

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Friday, January 5, 2018

Houdini's dye job

I mentioned this curious incident in my Houdini in 1918 post, but I thought it was worth sharing the source article from Brooklyn Life dated September 28, 1918. Not only are the details amusing, but it confirms the long held assumption that Houdini dyed his hair expressly for his work in the movies.

Click to enlarge.

Houdini was commuting daily between the Rolfe studios in Yonkers, where he was filming The Master Mystery, and Manhattan, where he was appearing in the Hippodrome revue show, Everything. While it seems somewhat improbable that Houdini at age 44 would be mistaken for a juvenile, his dye job did shave years off his appearance, as you can see below. By the way, "slacker" back then meant a draft dodger.

BEFORE and AFTER.

Houdini continued to dye his hair for the remainder of his life. He never concealed this fact. On his 1919 passport application he wrote for hair color: "dyed black." But having left movies behind, he did again allow his sideburns to go white during his final years touring with his 3 Shows in One.

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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

BONUS: Houdini in 1918 a chronology

Today I'm sharing a special bonus post to go with my look back at Houdini in 1918. Below is a link to a standalone page in which you can view the year laid out chronologically, showing exactly where Houdini was week by week.

Some of you might recognize this as an updated version of what Frank Koval first assembled back in the 1990s, which indeed it is. For several years I have been adding, updating, and in some cases correcting Koval's work for my own research purposes. I've reached a point where I believe I can now offer a much improved and expanded Houdini chronology.

My only entry at the moment is 1918. If this is something people would like to see continued online, then consider this a preview of what's to come. I've also left comments active on the page so anyone can offer updates and feedback. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Houdini's 278 has a buyer

The listing at Douglas Elliman Real Estate for Houdini's former home in Harlem now shows "Contract Signed." This doesn't mean the house has sold. But it does mean there is an agreed upon deal in place between a buyer and the seller. But contingencies still need to met before closing can occur. This typically takes 30-45 days.

Houdini's 278 went on the market in June 2017 for $4.6 million. The price dropped to $3.6 million last month. This is the first time the house has been on the market in 26 years.

I attended the first open house and gave a detailed report on what I saw inside. I also posted a history of the owners and occupants.

UPDATEHOUDINI'S 278 IS SOLD!

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Monday, January 1, 2018

Houdini in 1918

Welcome to another year of WILD ABOUT HARRY. Let's kick off 2018 with a look back at what Houdini himself was up to 100 years ago.

Houdini began 1918 in a big way. Tasked by the manager of the Hippodrome Theatre in New York to create something spectacular for his Cheer Up! revue, Houdini made his debut appearance on-stage trailed by five ton elephant named Jennie. But the elephant wasn't around for long. Before an audience of 5,200, Houdini made Jennie disappear!

It was a big start to what would be a transformational year in the life of Harry Houdini. Almost everything he did was a first; from new magic, to his first movie, to what may have been his first affair. By the end of the year, he had even transformed his appearance.

Houdini first performed his elephant vanish on January 7. The trick proved to be a sensation. Houdini featured in two acts (called "Cheers") of the big Hippodrome show. In the first he vanished Jennie. In the second he performed his overboard box escape in the Hippodrome water tank. Originally booked for six weeks, his engagement was extended into the summer.

Houdini's lengthy Hippodrome engagement meant he would be spending more time home in New York City than he had since his days working as a tie cutter. He made the most of it. With World War I still raging, he set up a private room at the Hippodrome where he taught soldiers heading overseas the secrets of escaping from rope ties and German restraints, and even how to escape from a crippled submarine. He also decided it was time to move back to 278 after having spent four years living with the Hardeens in Flatbush. His move back to Harlem required six moving vans loaded with books and materials he had collected during his Flatbush years. He then transferred legal ownership of the house to Bess.

Charmian London
It was early in his run at the Hippodrome that Houdini learned the recently widowed Charmian London was in New York, renting a flat at 125 Washington Place in Greenwich Village. The Houdinis had come to know the Londons in 1915, and Houdini invited her to his show on January 17. She returned on January 22. Some time after, London recorded in her diary that Houdini called her and made a "declaration" that "rather shakes me up."

Houdini and London appear to have entered into an affair on or around February 13, after she had come to see his show a third time. The only record of what happened comes from London's private diaries (in which she referred to Houdini using the code "278"), so details are scant. But both appeared to have been swept up in the passion of their feelings, with Houdini once saying, "I would have told her–my mother–about you." What's not known is whether Bess was aware of the affair. But around this time Houdini did confide a friend, "Been having a hard time with my private affairs." By March things appeared to be cooling off, or maybe Houdini could no longer stomach his infidelity, with the magician sometimes not showing up for their pre-arranged rendezvous or calling when promised.

Houdini's run at the Hippodrome saw some novelties. He accepted a challenge from the Tank Corp Recruitment Office to escape from a restraint suit after being throw into the Hippodrome tank, possibly his only underwater straitjacket escape. During one performance of his underwater box escape, several Hippodrome water ballerinas dove in to watch. Headlines the next day reported: "Mermaids Threaten Mystery". He also once invited a committee of engineers, in town for a convention, to enter Jennie's cabinet...and promptly vanished them. Perhaps because he was off the national Vaudeville circuit, and thereby leaving it wide open to imitators, Hardeen came out of retirement and toured the country for the entirety of 1918.

In March Houdini began planning a lavish war benefit at the Hippodrome, co-sponsored by the S.A.M. and the Showman's League of America. It was when he was arranging the publicity that he learned his good friend William Robinson, who performed as Chung Ling Soo, had been shot and killed onstage in London while performing his bullet catch routine. Houdini announced that he would attempt the trick himself during the Hippodrome benefit on April 21.

But then Houdini received a letter from magician Harry Kellar with an impassioned plea: "Please, Harry, listen to your old friend Kellar who loves you as his own son and don’t do it." Moved by Kellar's words, Houdini cut the trick and did his Water Torture Cell instead. But this only raised the profile of the Bullet Catch as a trick so dangerous even The Great Houdini wouldn't attempt it.

At the end of April, Charmian London returned to her home in Northern California. This appears to have reignited Houdini's feelings and, according to London, he began to call her everyday, frantically asking if he would ever see her again. While it doesn't appear their affair ever again became physical, they would continue to exchange phone calls and clandestine letters filled with coded affection.

On May 15 Houdini performed a suspended straitjacket escape inside Madison Square Garden for a NYPL War Stamp rally. That same week he concluded his 19 week Cheer Up! engagement (the longest of his entire career) by accepting a challenge to do his submersible box escape using a case built by the American Chicle Co. At the end of the month he presided over an S.A.M. banquet in which he featured his dog Bobby as "The World's Only Handcuff King Dog." To the delight of the assembled magicians, Bobby freed himself from a tiny pair of custom handcuffs.

Houdini appears to have used June to attend to business matters, which had included plans for a Temple of Mystery in New York. But he abandon the idea after magician Charles Carter opened a similar and singularly unsuccessful venue. He also founded the Rabbis' Sons' Benevolent Association, with members that included Al Jolson and Irvin Berlin. Preparing for a return engagement at the Hippodrome in the Fall, Houdini purchased an "eagle" (actually a red tail hawk) from George H. Holden for $200. He named the bird Abraham Lincoln. He also attended to his struggling film lab business in New Jersey, investing in new equipment and going deeper into debt.

After several false starts in previous years, in July Houdini finally closed a deal to star in a movie himself. It would be a 15-part serial for producer B.F. Rolfe and the newly formed Octagon Films, for which he would receive $20,000 plus half the net profits. Cameras started rolling in late July on The Master Mystery in New Rochelle and the Rolfe studios in Yonkers, a 28 mile commute for the magician. Adding a movie to his many commitments, even Houdini had to wonder, "Hope I have not bitten off more than I can chew."


Filming on The Master Mystery would take place in allotments of available time over the next four months, inadvertently creating one of Houdini's most amazing feats in the film -- the transformation of his appearance. Since returning to the U.S. in 1914, Houdini had allowed his always unruly hair to grow long and grey at the temples, giving him a somewhat wizened look that cartoonists of the day characterized. But now with the encouragement of director Burton King, he decided to meet the expectations of a movie matinee idol. Along with jettisoning his Victorian suits, he cut his hair short and dyed it black, shaving years off his appearance. In fact, Brooklyn Life reported that the magician had been detained by Federal authorities as he crossed from New Jersey to New York because they "mistook him for a juvenile."

With his new look, Houdini posed for a new series of publicity photos to be used with his motion picture work. In these shots, Houdini gazes into the camera with the full intensity of his eyes, made all the more dramatic by his chalky movie makeup and eyeliner. These images would become the most iconic photos of Houdini since his 1903 shackled strongman shots.

The first two episodes of The Master Mystery were completed by August 9. Perhaps because of the experience with Charmian London, Bess was leery of her husband working with young actresses, like co-star Marguerite Marsh who, the papers reported, also did Houdini's makeup on the film. Much was made of Houdini's reluctance to play romantic scenes with Bess standing just off camera. In a backstage interview with a young Louella Parsons he confessed, "You see, I am not much of a ladies man."

The greater hazard proved to be the extensive stunt work, all of which Houdini performed himself. The 44-year-old threw himself into his cinematic escapes and fight scenes with an abandon that is evident in the film today. It was during one of these action scenes that Houdini broke his left wrist. It was a bad fracture that needed to be reset twice and would give him problems for the rest of his life.

The new Hippodrome revue show Everything opened on Thursday, August 22. Houdini was once again featured as one of the "Things". This time he developed as spectacular version of the Whirlwind of Colors. From a clear water-filled bowl, Houdini produced a stream of flags of all nations that spanned the giant Hippodrome stage. At the end was an enormous American flag, from which Houdini produced his eagle. The patriotic turn was just what audiences wanted.

For his featured escape, Houdini had planned on performing a Buried Alive escape, which he had been developing for years. Variety reported the details of the escape as follows:

In full view of the audience, lying flat on the floor of the stage itself, he will allow himself to be covered with three tons of sand — dumped on him out of a big automobile truck. Then he will dig himself up through the pile in less than 60 seconds. To make it more difficult Houdini will be put in a strait-jacket before the sand is dumped on him.

However, Houdini's broken wrist prevented him from going forward with the new escape, and he instead performed a suspended straitjacket escape from the Hippodrome proscenium. The New York Tribune reported that "Houdini felt called upon to apologize for the simple nature of his stunt."

Houdini did not command the same attention in Everything that he and Jennie had in Cheer Up! The show was well reviewed, with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle praising the "exceptionally beautiful electrical effects" and John Philip Sousa's rousing music. But the same review only mentioned Houdini among a list of "the usual vaudeville turns always seen at the Hippodrome." Houdini left the show after his 10 week contract expired on November 2.

In November came the end of the war. Houdini had worked tirelessly on behalf of the war effort, selling war bonds and performing countless benefits and hospital shows. He had hopes that his eagle would ride the flagstaff as returning troops marched down Fifth Avenue, but that was not to be. As biographer Milbourne Christopher noted, "Skilled as he was at gaining publicity, this was one event Houdini could not dominate."

On November 7, the first three chapters of The Master Mystery had a special trade screening at the Strand Theater in New York. The Billboard published a glowing review in their November 16 edition. Houdini then travelled to Boston where he and Marguerite Marsh attended the premiere on November 18 at the St. James Theater. It's likely Boston was chosen because it was home to producer B.F. Rolfe.

Episode One, "The Living Death", then rolled out across New England with Houdini appearing in person at theaters. In one day he visited a remarkable 15 different locations. Business boomed. At the St. James, 5000 had to be turned away. Houdini then returned to New York and wrapped photography on the final episode on November 30.

Variety reported that Houdini planned to return to Everything with his Buried Alive escape, depending "on his complete recovery from a recent accident in which he broke his wrist." By December 2, the cast was off, but Houdini's return to the Hippodrome never materialized. In fact, it would be seven years before he would again play the famous venue.

On Sunday, December 15, Houdini's dog Bobby died of heart failure. The Houdinis adored their pets, and Houdini was especially close with his "Handcuff King Dog." Houdini published a heart-breaking eulogy for Bobby in MUM magazine: "Now that Bobby is gone, good faithful Bobby, all I can say to him is "Good Boy, Bobby. Good Boy and Good-Bye."

By Christmas, The Master Mystery had expanded to Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Arkansas, with B.F. Rolfe aggressively selling the serial to other territories, both domestic and international. Into exhibitor trade publications he inserted attractive full color "sell-sheets" that played to the post-war mood:

PEACE MEANS PROFITS
BUSINESS IS GOOD–THE WORLD IS PLEASURE MAD.
THE HOUDINI SERIAL WILL PACK YOUR THEATRE.
ALL REVIEWERS ACCLAIM "THE MASTER MYSTERY" THE PICTURE OF THE YEAR.
BOOK IT.

As the year came to a close, Houdini had reason to feel confident that his future lay on the silver screen, and he would devote the coming year entirely to movies. Meanwhile, back in California, Charmian London expected a New Year's message from her "Magic Lover." When it failed to come, she wrote in her diary: "Cautious soul."

Stay tuned for a special BONUS post that will give extra perspective on 1918 and also provide a preview of a major new addition to WILD ABOUT HARRY.

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