Saturday, May 26, 2018

Houdini's first outdoor stunt in Times Square


Houdini and New York's Times Square share some interesting history. I've already blogged about how police prevented him from doing a suspended straitjacket there in 1916. And how he finally pulled it off in 1917. But Houdini's first outdoor stunt in Times Square on July 23, 1912 is rarely mentioned in biographies. I'll let this newspaper account from the New York Times tell the story.


Built in 1910 on the former site of the Metropole Hotel on Broadway and 42nd Street, the Heidelberg Building was a seven story Gothic style office building topped with an 11 stories high tower of scaffolding intended for advertising. This was a bold new idea at the time. But advertisers feared a sign that high could not be seen from the street, so signs rarely appeared on the tower. It was on this tower that Houdini did his escape.

According to the Times article, the stunt was filmed. While this footage has never surfaced, photos do exist. On page 10 of Houdini: A Pictorial Life by Milbourne Christopher are four photos that, while not credited as such, are almost certainly the Heidelberg escape.


This escape is interesting in that you can see in it the genesis of Houdini's suspended straitjacket escape, which would become his main outdoor stunt starting in 1915. I also like that Houdini could see the value of Times Square advertising scaffolding even when advertisers could not. Always ahead of his time!

The Heidelberg Building stood until 1984 when it was demolished to make way for new development. The site is now occupied by the 49-floor Times Square Tower. Try as I might, I could not find a photo of it.

Houdini's last outdoor stunt in Time Square was a suspended straitjacket escape from the Palace Theater in 1922. This is another feat that doesn't get much attention in biographies. That escape and the zany newspaper coverage I'll share next time I circle back to Houdini in Times Square.

Speaking of Houdini in New York, on July 13th I will be at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library speaking on...Houdini in New York! You can find more details HERE.

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9 comments:

  1. Gresham noted this escape in The Man Who Walked Thru Walls and I wondered about it until I saw the photos in Pictorial Life years later. Not sure if the specs below could really see anything that high up.

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    1. But Gresham mistakenly says it was construction site. That's what I always thought before I found this newspaper clipping and researched the Heidelberg.

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    2. Yep--I thought the same thing as well until you posted this clarification. The two photos make it seem as if HH did this in the framework of a building still under construction.

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  2. Found a couple of (useless) shots of the Heidelberg. This one (https://goo.gl/cimM32) shows the first couple of floors. This one is a sketch from long distance (https://goo.gl/pEH4qX)

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  3. John Hate to change the subject, but do you know why so many of the Houdini items have a corner clipped of??
    Doesn't matter if its a letter a picture anything and everything is clipped........Thanks--puzzling??

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    1. I've never noticed that. Now I'll have to look!

      Maybe because so many were in scrapbooks and had to be clipped free?

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  4. I did a double-take when I saw the term "mix-up" in the headline. I assume that was a common colloquialism at the time for a disruptive event. (And "Houdini escapes ropes atop Times Square Building" or something equally descriptive would've required two lines instead of one in that narrow column.)

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    1. Yeah, that is unusual. But I believe you're right that it was a probably a common colloquialism -- maybe for a "difficult situation". Or maybe a "mix-up" of ropes and chains? Hard to know for sure.

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