Friday, July 20, 2018

Wild in Houdini's New York (2018)

Last weekend I traveled to New York City to speak at the New-York Historical Society. It was a fantastic trip filled with Houdini sights and discoveries. I'm sensitive about not making this blog "all about me" (people come here for Harry), and I considered not writing up this trip up as I did my visit to NYC last year. But there was just too much cool Houdini stuff to not share! So here we go. All about me. And if you're wondering where the photo to the left was taken, just you wait!

I arrived on Thursday night and met up with my father and sister, Taylor, who would be sharing some of my adventures. (My sister, whom I'm very proud, lives in Manhattan and works for Macy's Fashion Design.) We had dinner at Keens Steakhouse in Herald Square. The restaurant dates back to 1885 and is deeply rooted in the theatrical history of the area. Actress Lillie Langtry famously challenged Keens Men Only policy in 1905. While there were no references to Houdini inside, there's no question that he ate here, so I considered this a Houdini sight in itself.

Friday, July 13th

I had most of the day free before my talk, so I decided to hit a few Houdini locations. The first was the Houdini Museum of New York at Fantasma Magic. This was my first visit to their new location with an expanded space for owner Roger Dryer's spectacular Houdini collection. Roger wasn't able to be there, but he told his staff to let me see anything I wanted, even offering to open any display case and let me handle any object.

I've written about the museum's artifacts in previous posts [be sure and read: Did Hardeen reveal Houdini's most secret secret?], but what stood out to me this time was the grave bust of Houdini that now sits in the entryway. This is the 1976 replacement bust, which was stolen in 1983 and recovered in 2002. It's on loan from the Society of American Magicians. What I love is it still has the police evidence tag on it -- now part of its history! I was also excited to see a very detailed photo of Bess in her stage coat; the very coat I would be seeing on display at the NYHS that night. John Gaughan's full size reproduction of the Automaton from The Master Mystery is a new and popular addition. I also got to see some of the treasures back in Roger's private office. It was a perfect way to begin my day. Thanks to everyone at the museum for making me feel so welcome.


I then crossed town to "Mrs. Loeffler's Boarding House" at 244 East 79th Street. This was the first New York home of the Weiss family, and it would still be recognizable to them today (at least the outside). I stopped in at Sojourn restaurant excited to see the historic plaque that was given to them by the S.A.M. in 2016. I presumed it would be hanging up in the restaurant or somewhere on the building facade. Unfortunately, it was nowhere to be found.

My great friend Colleen Bak, formerly "our girl in Queens" who so lovingly watched over Houdini's grave, joined me for lunch. We had a delightful meal and conversation. Did young Ehrich and Dash play where we were seated? It's possible!

Time was getting tight, but with Colleen's subway assistance, I could squeeze in one more stop. So we shot down to 14th Street where, again, I had been told I would find a historic plaque. This time I was in luck! Near 14th and 3rd is a plaque marking the spot where Tony Pastor's famous vaudeville theater once stood. Interestingly, it was just across the street from where Huber's Dime Museum was located at 106 East 14th Street. So I got two Houdini locations in one. Thanks Colleen!

I then zipped back to Taylor's apartment; napped, showered, put on my suit, and I was off to the New-York Historical Society, housed in a beautiful building off Central Park West. There I met curator Cristian Petru Panaite who showed me around the amazing Summer of Magic: Treasures from the David Copperfield Collection exhibition. It's every bit as impressive as I imagined, and the Houdini area (a round glass enclosure surrounded by large screens showing Houdini doing escapes) was breathtaking. And the Mirror Cuffs!


The exhibition also had a clever "levitation" photo op. Here's Taylor getting a lift from DC.


After a quick sound check inside the museum's impressive Robert H. Smith Auditorium, I was able to meet magicians Adam RealMan and The Great Dubini, who were performing for the assembling crowd and would be featured for the entire "Houdini Weekend." But now it was showtime!

I'm happy to report that my talk on "Houdini in New York" seemed to go over extremely well. I had built this talk just for this event, and I really wanted to deliver for the museum and David Copperfield who had put so much (blind?) faith in me. I shared several uncommon stories, and the ~370 attendees seemed to really enjoy them. I was also able to play up the fact that the day marked the 104th anniversary of Houdini's first performance of his Walking Through A Brick Wall at Hammerstein's Victoria in NYC, a happy coincidence.


We then screened the excellent PBS documentary Houdini (2000). After the screening, I met many friends and blog readers, and even the family of Kenneth Silvermam. I was also thrilled to meet in person the new owners of Houdini's house (278), who were sitting front and center. They told me they were stunned when I showed a photo of Mrs. Loeffler's boarding house and Sojourn restaurant, because that is where they had met! So they met at Houdini's first New York home and then ended up buying his house. Now that is wild!

Saturday, July 14th

This was to be an exciting day, as I had been invited to see 278, which is currently in the process of being restored. Having met my father and sister at my talk, the new owners also invited them along, so this proved to be a nice family adventure for us. At noon we made our way to Harlem and walked up the steps and through those magical doors. Last year when I left the open house, I felt a wave of sadness as I realized I may never be back. But here I was back inside 278!

This time I knew much more about the house. But that doesn't mean there still weren't discoveries to be made. The first was just how much Fred Thomas, the previous owner, had saved it. I'm afraid I've never given him enough credit for this. But now I saw the photos Fred took when he first bought the house in 1991. I'm not sure what the heck was going on inside the house during the '80s, but it looked on the edge of being condemned! I also saw Fred's blueprints for his own renovations and restorations. So while he may not have loved Houdini fans, he clearly loved 278. Thank you Fred!

I was also able to go down into the basement, which I could not do in 2017. At long last I saw the mysterious wheel that has, so far, failed to excite Houdini collectors, maybe because some have suggested it might just be part of the dumbwaiter or some other mechanical part of the house. I wanted to get to the bottom of this, so I rolled it out into the light to get a closer look. I even took a wet paper towel to clean it off.

The first thing I discovered was that it was painted dark green with signs of bright orange paint as well. It reminded me of circus colors, and my mind flashed on this image. Could this have been from a circus wagon? Or, better yet, could it have come from Houdini's vanishing elephant cabinet, which was said to have been painted to look like...a circus wagon!!!


This possibility had me bouncing off the basement walls. However, when I later read up on wagon wheels, it turns out they were commonly painted this shade of dark green to hide dirt. Orange was also a color commonly found on wagons. (Who knew wagons were so colorful?) So the paint was not unusual or especially theatrical. However, it does confirm this is a wagon wheel, not a gear, and Houdini did an escape called "the big wheel release." So I'm pretty convinced this is the last original Houdini prop stored in the basement of 278. (A wine press that dates back to Houdini is also still present.)

The owners then took me on a very thorough tour, showing me where they had uncovered some of the original flooring and features, and even a few mysterious areas that had been sealed off, such as a large space in the basement and a fireplace on the top floor. What could be inside? They intend to find out! I also saw the original doorway to Houdini's library that Fred had stored in the basement. It will be put back in place. The new flooring in Houdini's bathroom will also be taken out. According to the owners, Fred did not remove the original floor, just covered it over. So will they find the much mentioned "H" in the tile underneath? (One concern is Fred might have poured concrete over it.)

We explored and talked for hours (outlasting my dad and Taylor). Then, for the grand finale, we went up on the roof. Yes, I was on the freakin' roof of 278! Here I could see the top of the famous stairway skylight, and also where two other skylights had originally been (or maybe the stairway skylight had been moved?). I was also able to take a flashlight and look into a crawl space just below the roof -- gazing into the very guts of 278. The owners joked (or not?) that it would be fun to project film of Houdini escaping from a straitjacket on the side of the adjacent building so it could be seen from the street below. Um...yes please!

After our explorations, we had a lovely outdoor lunch at Bier International just down the street (I could see 278 from my seat). We enjoyed sausages and beer, and I was struck by how the area still has a German influence, just as it did in Houdini's day. It was a sensational time and I'm so grateful to the new homeowners for the visit. I really got a good idea of what they are planning, and I know the finished house is going to be magnificent. They also invited me back, so I'm excited that I'll be able to continue to share details of the house's revival.

By now it was late afternoon and I was pretty tired, but I decided to go for broke and make the trek out to Queens and visit Houdini himself. After an hour subway and bus ride, I found myself at Machpelah Cemetery. It was closed on Saturday, but I know Houdini's trick of how to walk through walls. The weather was perfect and the light beautiful, and I spent a good two hours there as the sun set. I've never been to the grave alone, and it was nice to spend this time, as Houdini himself once put it, "in silent contemplation." (Okay, I did briefly FaceTime with my cat.)


Sunday, July 16th

My flight home wasn't until the afternoon, so I could still hit a few Houdini spots. For this I was aided by the great Fred Pittella, whose amazing Houdini collection I saw during my 2017 trip. Fred picked me up from Taylor's apartment and we travelled to Union City, New Jersey. There we found the building that once housed Houdini's workshop and his ill-fated Film Developing Corporation. Today it is part of Hudson River Studios, a collective of buildings available as rental space. This building is known as, what else?, "Houdini"! There's even a pic of Harry inside the front door. (And that's where I took the top image.)


The building was closed on Sunday, but I was happy just to see the outside, which still looks almost exactly as it did in Houdini's time. But then a film crew arrived to load some equipment into the building. After a little persuading, the very nice woman in charge allowed us to have a quick look inside. It was immediately clear that the film lab must have been housed in a large open area on the first floor. But what about the workshop?

Until now, my best guess was that it was on the second floor. This is because in the few photos of that space the windows appear to be level with the neighboring rooftops. Unfortunately, we could not get to the second floor as that is where the film shoot was taking place. However, Fred and I could see those same level rooftops from the first floor -- so it's a bit of an optical illusion. That means it's possible the workshop was here somewhere.

That's when I moved toward the back and found another room off to the side. Boom! The brick walls and the windows are a very good match to the famous photos. It also makes logical sense that Houdini's workshop, with its heavy machinery, would be on the first floor. So Fred and I firmly believe we've found the location of Houdini's magic workshop. What an unexpected treat!


By the way, the fact that there hasn't been an Official Houdini Seance in this place is crazy! This needs to happen.

Leaving the lab, Fred and I traveled deeper into New Jersey for what would be the last stop of my trip, and it was a big finish! We arrived at the home of the King himself, Kevin Connolly, who owns one of the world's great Houdini collections.

To describe all I saw just isn't possible. Kevin's study is filled with Houdini posters, pitchbooks, tobacco cards (the largest collection of Houdini cards in existence), and bookcases overflowing. At long last I got to see the fabled Russian pitchbook. Kevin even kindly paged through it for me, allowing me to confirm some important research. He also showed me his Haldane of the Secret Service pressbook, which came from the Christopher Collection and is, as far as I know, the only one in existence. Oh some of the Haldane posters it shows!

If that wasn't enough, we then took a seat at the dining room table and Kevin served up an unending banquet of file folders jam packed with programs, letters, and photos. Truly spectacular Houdiniana at my fingertips. In one folder Kevin had programs from almost every stop of Houdini's 1922 Vaudeville tour (allowing me to confirm and fill in a few spots on my Chronology). I also got to read through the unusual letters Houdini wrote about monkey gland transplants, an operation he might have been considering having himself.

It was also just a delight to talk, joke, and gossip with Kevin and Fred. These guys know where all the bodies are buried! They also remember the "old timers" like Sid Radner, Jay Marshall, and Milbourne Christopher. Hmmm...does that make us the new "old timers"?


We bid our goodbyes to Kevin and his lovely wife Susan, and Fred drove me to the airport. Thus my 2018 Houdini adventure came to an end. Thanks to everyone who made it so special.

Thanks to my dad, Ron Cox, Colleen Bak, and Ray McNally for the event and exhibition pics.

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16 comments:

  1. Fantastic! Definitely glad you wrote this; I enjoyed reading it!

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  2. Wow, you got to see Houdini Museum in New York, 278, and the mighty Kevin Connolly collection; that’s three things I hope to get the chance to do, some day. And you got to hang out with Fred and Kevin. I am so jealous.

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    1. AND the Jersey film lab! That was something I've always wanted to do. Getting inside was an added treat. Fred and I couldn't believe our luck.

      Next trip: Coney Island!

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    2. BTW, now having a chance to compare my photos with the photos of HH in the workshop, I'm more convinced that ever that we found the room. Windows, wall features, and even the views match.

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  3. Fantastic! Is the original Houdini grave bust gone forever?

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    1. It survives only in pieces. You can see it HERE. The owner is unknown.

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  4. Very nice. I need to get back to New York again.

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  5. Wow, simply fantastic. Great pics too.

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  6. Wonderful write-up, John! I'm so glad you had such an exciting trip. Again, it was great to meet you and hear your excellent talk. Re. the wheel in the basement of 278 - didn't Houdini do an escape from a loaded cannon? I wonder if the wheel could be from that cannon? It has 16 spokes, which suggests it would've originally been used to bear an object of considerable weight. Just a thought!

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    1. There is a pic of HH on a canon wheel, but was likely taken in California. Considerable weight...like an elephant? I still love this idea. :)

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  7. Great recap. Wonderful to read about your adventures. Looking forward to maybe new finds in 278. --Dale

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  8. John--do you plan on doing a write up posting your new photos of the Jersey workshop comparing those with the photos of HH working in the shop?

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    1. Not sure. But if you click into this post I've added the new pic there so you can compare.

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  9. Besshoudini76 @charter. netJuly 21, 2018 at 1:27 PM

    All was finding new stuff.

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  10. Who knows? Or perhaps it was used to practice some illusion in a lost sequence for one of his films? Maybe the mystery will reveal itself some day.

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