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 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 a 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:


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."


    1. Wow! Great 1918 review John! I had no idea HH was detained by police crossing the river back to NYC. The price of that red tailed hawk in today's money is $3,524.55. Yikes! But it was apparently trained to behave. Didn't know Hardeen toured in 1918, but there will be more about him in the upcoming book.

      1. Thanks Leo! Yes, that "border" crossing story is a new one. I'll be sharing the full article in a standalone post later this month. It was also news to me that Hardeen toured in 1918. That suspended straitjacket escape inside Madison Square Garden and some other bits in here I don't think have ever made it into bios. A lot to discover in this year. I had a blast researching.

      2. I didn't know that Madison Square Garden was already standing in 1918. The next time I see the Led Zeppelin film The Song Remains the Same where they played 3 concerts there in the summer of 73, the Garden won't look the same to me.

      3. It wasn't the same Madison Square Garden we knew today. It was the second MSG that existed from 1890 to 1925. I've linked to its Wikipedia page.

    2. Fantastic work here John!
      Can you send me a scan of the November 16 Billboard review of the November 7 special trade show that mentions the first three chapters of The Master Mystery being shown. The following publication mentions that it was the first five episodes being shown:
      Thanks again.

      1. Hi John! I actually found a copy of the November 16 Billboard review saved on my computer when I was doing research on the MM, so no need to send.

      2. FWIW: Looks like it is 4 episodes and not 3 or 5. The Nov 16 Billboard mentions 4 episodes and both pubs mention escapes that only appeared in episodes 1 to 4. For example, the diving suit appeared in episode 4. Episode 5 had the Water tower which is not mentioned.

      3. Thanks Joe. I believe I initially got 3 from one of the bios, and then I saw 5 in the Brooklyn Life article and meant to change it, but I guess I forgot (I see I changed it to 5 in my chronology). But if you think it was actually 4, we can run with that. I've actually not read the Billboard review. I just knew it existed and it was positive.

    3. BTW, I think we can all stop dating The Master Mystery as 1919 now. Clearly it was out in a fair number of theaters in 1918. But because IMDb dates it as 1919 (saying its U.S. premiere was March 1???), that's the date you see all the time. Drives me batty!

      1. I've submitted a change to IMDb for Eps 1 & 2. We'll see if they accept.

      2. Commenting over a year later, but could the date discrepancies be because the serial was screened part-by-part in 1918, and then perhaps all at once in March 1919? Or, that's just the date the last part of the Master Mystery came out?

      3. Episodes 1, 2, and I think 3 had played in theaters in 1918. Then the rest rolled out in 1919. But it also wasn't so uniform. Some theaters didn't start playing episode 1 until 1919. Heck, The Master Mystery was still being booked and shown well into the 1920s. But its debut was 1918.

        IMDb did accept my change, btw. :)

      4. You're one of the leading authorities on all things Houdini. The people at IMDb would be foolish to ignore you.

      5. Appreciate that Leo! But it had nothing to do with me personally. I was just able to find them a good source for 1918.

      6. The MM was completed in 1918 and early episodes out in various theatres, but most theatres didn’t start rolling out episodes until 1919. That said, the Princess Theatre in Hartford and the Saint James Theatre in Boston reached episode 7 by the end of 1918, according to Newspaper accounts.