Friday, August 31, 2018

A Master Mystery revelation at UCLA

Two weeks ago, Joe Notaro and I met at the beautiful Powell Library on the UCLA campus. We were there for, what else, Houdini! Now, I've long known that the UCLA Film & Television Archive has a copy of The Master Mystery that is (almost) complete. But for whatever insane reason, I've not made the time to go watch it. Joe has made the time and has done some great work identifying the differences in the various available versions. So if you want to get into the details, check out Joe's blog. What I'm going to do here is share what I saw in general, and explain what a revelation it was!

For starters, August 17, 2018, was the first time I ever saw The Master Mystery. Yes, I have the Bill McIlhany VHS and the Kino DVD (both made from a print in the Raymond Rohauer Archive licensed by the Douris Corporation), and I've watched those many, MANY times. But I now realize what I was watching was not The Master Mystery at all. That is a severely truncated version of the serial that dramatically alters the structure, story, and even the spirit of what was shown to audiences in 1918 and 1919. At least that's true of the first 6 episodes, which is what I'm going to focus on here.

To set the scene, Joe arranged for us a private room with a desk and table inside the UCLA Media Lab, which is a great way to watch and study the movie. Research copies are made available on VHS, which the student staff load into a bank of players that feed the individual stations and rooms. Here you have the ability to fast forward, pause, etc., and we did a lot of that!

I already blogged about the incredible newsreel footage from Houdini's 1913 Success challenge, which is what we watched first. But then it was Master Mystery time.

The movie

Episode One is largely the same as what one sees on Kino, apart from a few additional title cards (which Joe has meticulously documented). Episode One is a pleasure to watch with a nice handcuff escape at the midpoint and rousing action that culminates with an unconscious Houdini (as Quentin Locke) being strapped into a straitjacket. That's where the cliffhanger ending occurs.

Episode 2 picks up with the conclusion of the straitjacket escape, and here's where the UCLA version begins to diverge from the commercially available versions. On Kino, Episode 2 ends with Houdini tied to the coat rack. It's an abrupt cliffhanger and a bit of a letdown as it's the first escape in that episode. But maybe that was the nature of these old serials, right? Get you where you want to be and then..."To Be Continued Next Week." This is what I've always thought, and it turns out I've been dead wrong!

In the UCLA version (the real film), the coat rack escape plays out in full in the middle of the episode. It was never a cliffhanger. In fact, this establishes the structure of what is to follow. There are three major escapes or action sequences per episode, which makes for a very different viewing experience and a heck of a lot of fun! Episode 2 continues all the way to the Bakers Dock sequence and cliffhangs (is that a term? -- it is now!) with a bound Houdini and a thug falling into the water. It was at this point I turned to Joe and said, "This is a completely different movie!" Joe's answer, "Just wait."

The next four episodes--and that's more than an hour worth of movie--are entirely new. (Only a few fragments of the Bakers Dock sequence show up in Kino.) And it's not just new escapes. There are whole plot-lines that makes The Master Mystery work story-wise in a way that it just doesn't on Kino. Again, if you want the scene by scene breakdown, check out Joe's blog. But among the things we see right away are both underwater escapes at Bakers Dock play out in full. Seeing Houdini escaping ropes and chains underwater is a beautiful thing to behold.

The Acid Vat escape, a fragment of which is only available as a extra on Kino, plays out at the end of Episode 3 and is wonderfully suspenseful as it intercuts Marguerite Marsh's Eva approaching the cabin and reaching for the doorknob, which we know will dunk Harry into the acid. So much fun. So too is the sequence in which Houdini is tied inside a rooftop water tank with the spigots turned on full. This is the escape I was most looking forward to seeing on this day, and I was not disappointed. It's spectacular! But, surprisingly, it was not the escape that left the deepest impression.

That happens at the midpoint of Episode 3 when Houdini is locked inside a jail cell. There is a magnificent closeup of Houdini at the bars as he turns his intense gaze to the lock. In another closeup, the faceplate on the lock disappears and we are suddenly able to see inside the mechanism as the gears begin to unlock by some invisible force. It's a wonderfully creative way to show the escape, and there isn't anything like it in any other Houdini movie. It knocked me out.

I should stop here to say that the great Patrick Culliton saw the complete Master Mystery projected many years ago at The Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles. Not only does he remember the three escapes per episode, but he also always mentions this jail escape. It has remained vivid in his mind for decades. Now I understand why!

Episode 4 is also a stunner, and it has an important connection to Houdini history. At the midpoint of the episode, Locke and Eva travel out on a lake to test a special diving suit. The Automaton and his collection of thugs pursue them in their own boat. (The idea of the Automaton as the leader of the gang is made much clearer in the complete version.) This is all filmed on an actual body of water, and seeing the Automaton on a skiff is wild stuff. But what's most exciting is we get to see Houdini escape from his diving suit underwater, separating it at the waist using the "quick release" mechanism of his real-world patent. Fantastic.

Characters are also introduced and developed in these episodes in important ways. Ruth Stonehouse is far better developed and is clearly featured. So to is Edna Dixon as Deluxe Dora. A great sequence is when Houdini visits Dora's luxury boudoir apartment. Here he rummages through her roll-top desk until a booby trapped box explodes in his face, blowing him back over a chair. It's a stunt Houdini clearly does himself. (It's depicted on the Episode 5 poster.) And speaking of explosions, Episode 5 into 6 features a fantastic ticking bomb sequence. When the bomb goes off, it flattens Houdini under a doorway and blows the Automaton out into the street. Yes, the Automaton is "killed" as part of the story. But when Locke and Eva later sneak into a dark lab to examine his remains, laying Frankenstein-like on a table... "It's alive!"

Episode 7 is where the UCLA version and Kino join back up. The UCLA print is missing Episodes 8 and 10 (which are available on Kino). Episode 11 is missing from Kino, but available in full at UCLA. Episodes 12-15 are the same in both. I should also note there is very little film damage visible in the original UCLA source.

What aren't so pristine are the Media Lab's current viewing copies. Time is taking its toll on these. In fact, while we were watching, the machine started eating the first tape! As you might imagine, Joe and I freaked out. Were we watching Houdini history being devoured before our eyes? The second tape--the one that contains the new Episode 11--would not play at all (so I didn't get to see that episode). Joe had watched this tape in the past, so it appears it has only recently died.

Fortunately, the original 16mm film is safely stored in the UCLA vaults, and the very helpful staff said they would look into having fresh tapes made from the source. Unfortunately, they are not set up to make digital copies, which is what really needs to be done.

So why haven't we seen this version of The Master Mystery on DVD? Why can't we stitch this and the Rohauer/Douris print together and make the complete serial available for all?

I only spoke briefly with the helpful head of the department, Maya Smukler, so I don't have all the facts, but it's clear that UCLA is not able to license this as they can their other material. Why that is will have to be investigated. But let's hope there is some way to get this out there. Because everyone should see and enjoy The Master Mystery the way Houdini made it. The way I saw it on this memorable day at UCLA.

Thanks again to Joe Notaro for finally getting me to UCLA. Also thanks to Maya Smukler, Susan Tenenbaum, and the student volunteers who helped us out.

UPDATEA Master Mystery UCLA update.


Thursday, August 30, 2018

'Houdini' at the Goodspeed Opera House in 1997

In 1997 a Houdini musical played the famous Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut. The play featured Philip Chaffin as Houdini. David Byron attended one of the early performaces and gave the play a thorough review, which last year he posted to his website Baroque Potion. Here's a taste:

I am pleased and surprised to say that Houdini works. The dramatic hinge of the story is an apparent love triangle between Bess (correctly depicted as a Coney Island showgirl), Theo ("I saw her first, Harry"– also apparently correct), and Harry ("I'm not a clown!") Houdini. This intrigue plays out against the thematic backdrop of their descent into dime-museum poverty in the 1890s and their rise to fame and glory under the guiding hand of impresario Martin Beck, played with pizzazz by a flashy P. J. Benjamin. 

That year Sidney Radner, who was an enthusiastic supporter of the musical, held his Official Houdini Seance on the stage of the Goodspeed.

Despite hopes that Houdini would travel to Broadway, it appears it only played this one engagement.


Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Houdini among "Legends Untold"

Legends Untold: The Adventures of Annie Oakley, Houdini & Paul Bunyan is a self-published work by E. Gubbins that finds Houdini joining forces with a couple of unlikely allies.

World-class sharpshooter Annie Oakley joins forces with… …peerless escape artist Harry Houdini …giant lumberjack of lore Paul Bunyan …and other larger-than-life figures in an action-packed adventure at the dawn of the 20th Century.

Believe it or not, this is not the first fictional teaming of Houdini and Annie Oakley. Annie and Harry ran together in Adam Glass's popular graphic novel series Rough Riders, as well as Real Science Adventures. However, I'm pretty sure this is his first pairing with Paul Bunyan!

Legends Untold is avalible from (U.S.) and (UK).


Challenges are coming!

Currently my New Houdini Chronology project shows listings for where Houdini performed during a given week along with select escapes, such as bridge jumps and jail breaks, and notable events, such as the Margery seances, etc. But I've now decided to "kick it up a notch" and include all the Challenge escapes that Houdini faced during his engagements. Here's a taste from 1906:

Sept, 24-30: Chase's Theater, Washington, D.C.
➤ Tues., Sept. 25: Challenged by Saks & Co. to escape packing case constructed on stage.
➤ Wed., Sept. 26: Challenged with Blackwell's Island Asylum straitjacket with leg bag and ropes.
➤ Thurs., Sept. 27: Houdini escapes "rope imprisonment in a chair."
➤ Fri., Sept. 28: Challenged by Knabe & Co. to escape piano case lined with zinc and screw-fastened.

Happily, Houdini's many challenges are well documented with handbills and newspaper advertisements. Of course, this means going back under the hood (and back into in a major way, but that's the fun!

I hope to have a fair amount of Challenges worked into the chronology when I offer my next batch of sample years.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Houdini's return to burlesque in 1912

During his struggling days, Houdini co-founded and managed a traveling Burlesque show called "The American Gaiety Girls." It was a failure. Many biographers have suggested that Houdini's somewhat prudish sensibilities were ill-suited for the world of Burlesque.

Until now, I would have told you that was Houdini's only experience with Burlesque. But recently I found these remarkable clippings that show Houdini joined with the popular "Bowery Burlesquers" for a one-week engagement at the Gayety Theater in Washington, D.C. in February 1912. I'll let the clippings tell the story themselves.

Papers reported that Houdini was engaged because "the theater manager wanted to give its patrons and unprecedented treat" and cautioned that "the extraordinary drawing powers of Houdini are not to be taken as an indication that the Bowery Burlesque entertainment is impaired. That organization is one of the most popular on the burlesque wheel."

One suspects the company made Houdini an offer he couldn't refuse. In fact, special perks may have been part of the deal, if this ad in the February 13, 1912 Washington Post is any indication.

During this week, Houdini escaped from Spanish Inquisition irons from the Washington D.C. War Museum. Papers reported that, "if the weather permits it is probable that he will dive from one of the bridges of the Potomac river." (He did not.)

After a highly successful week, Houdini returned to the Keith's circuit. As far as I know, he never performed in a burlesque house again. It was clearly not for him. In a telling diary entry made during his Gayety run he wrote, "I did not [let] Ma come to Theatre as I was ashamed to let her see the class of show I was with, especially after having shown her all the big Keith Time houses."

UPDATE: Here's an item from the February 5, 1912 Atlanta Constitution that shed a little more light on why Houdini accepted this engagement.


Monday, August 27, 2018

Houdini mini biography from The History Hour

An 79-page self-published booklet called Harry Houdini: A Brilliant Showman by "The History Hour" has appeared on Amazon.

The book is an oddly written amalgam of good and bad information (it includes the full story story of Houdini doing the bullet catch for the Tsar -- yeah). It does contain an abundance of accurate dates and places, so I'm pretty sure the anonymous author made use of my New Houdini Chronology and blog, although it acknowledges no sources.

There have been several of these self-published mini bios lately. These don't really offer anything new. But if you are a completist, you can purchase Harry Houdini: A Brilliant Showman at (U.S.) and (UK).

UPDATE: This book now has a plethora of 5 star rave reviews on Amazon, all of which sound like they were written by a bot. Weird, and pretty funny.

Click to enlarge.


Sunday, August 26, 2018

Houdini pops up at the ArcLight in Hollywood

An exhibition of pop art by Eric Fleischman is currently on show at the ArcLight Cinema in Hollywood, CA. Among Fleischman's paintings of Snoop Dogg, Sean Connery, and Larry David, you'll find Houdini! I've not seen the exhibition, but I'm guessing Houdini is the earliest celebrity represented.

You can view the painting(s) through September 25, 2018 at ArcLight Cinema located at 6360 Sunset Blvd. For more on the exhibition visit the ArcLight website. You can see more of Eric Fleischman's work on his Facebook and Instagram.

Thanks to Bruce Gold and Mark Willoughby for the alert.


Friday, August 24, 2018

Houdini vs. Captain Smith and the Success

Houdini's escape from the convict ship Success on June 4, 1913 is not one of his more widely known challenge escapes. This could be because no photos from the stunt have survived. Nevertheless, this is one of his great escapes, and it's a story worth telling in detail. And while no photos exist, film footage does! But I'll get to that.

The Success was a former Australian convict ship commanded by Captain David H. Smith. In 1911, it came to the United States to tour as a floating museum and tourist attraction. For fifty cents, visitors could view shackles and torture devices on deck, and go below to see cells containing wax figures of prisoners in restraints. There was also the infamous "Black Hole" in the stern of the ship; two solitary confinement cells two-feet square in which a prisoner "could neither sit down nor stand upright." Captain Smith offered $100 to any woman who could remain confined in the Black Hole for a specified period of time. A student nurse from Somerville won the contest and gained local fame by remaining a remarkable 30 hours.

In the summer of 1913, the Success arrived in New York City and docked at 79th St. and Riverside Drive. It was opened daily 10 A.M. to 10 P.M., and proved to be a popular attraction.

Meanwhile, an ocean away, Houdini was boarding his own ship, the North German-Lloyd liner Kronprinz Wilhelm. He was headed home to New York where he was set to open at Hammerstein's Victoria on June 2. Here he would present the American debut of his latest invention, The Chinese Water Torture Cell.

Always keen for publicity, Captain Smith sent a cable to Hammerstein's proposing a challenge. The cable was relayed to Houdini at sea. This resulted in the following spirited exchange:

79th St. and Riverside Drive.
New York City, Wednesday, May 21, 1913.
         Dear Sir:--Hearing you are bringing Houdini back from Europe for a special two weeks' engagement, I hereby challenge your star to escape from one of the cells on board the historical Convict Ship "Success."
         If you will allow me to manacle him, lock him into one of the cells, I am ready to wager that he will not escape.
(Signed) D.H. SMITH, Captain.
Radio Mid-Ocean
Friday, May 23, 1913
        Accept challenge any time mutually agreed upon to undergo test. Want no favors, but demand fair play.
(Signed) HOUDINI.
New York City, Saturday, May 24, 1913
        Will give you fair play. Come to Convict Ship "Success," 79th St. and Riverside Drive, Wednesday, June 4, one-thirty P.M., prepared to undergo test, which I feel certain will be the most difficulty one you have ever undertaken.

The merging of these two New York summer attractions was inspired, and the challenge was well advertised. On Wednesday, June 4, Houdini arrived at the appointed time, as had a large crowd to witness the contest. The wager between Captain Smith and Houdini was set at $1000. A much later account in the Lewiston Journal claimed Houdini first escaped from shackles and a straitjacket while hanging from the ship's yard arm, but I've found no evidence to support this.

Captain Smith first brought Houdini to the Black Hole. But Houdini refused. "I wouldn't go in your Black Hole for $1000," he said. Instead, Houdini was locked in one of the "refractory" cells on the lower deck. Here the heavy cell doors were made of ancient teakwood and six inches thick. He was also manacled and secured to a ringbolt attached to the hull.

The New York Evening Telegram reported that it took Houdini one hour and forty-five minutes to escape, then:

In some mysterious way he gained his freedom through one of the portholes of the old ship, and the first news of his escape came from the hundreds aboard and ashore when, with a cry of triumph, Houdini, broken chains and fetters still clinging to legs and arms, dived into the waters of the Hudson and swam about until picked up by a boatman.
Captain D.H. Smith, who commands the Success, was as discomfited over the escape of Houdini as the latter was elated.

As I said, there are no photos from this day (that I'm aware), but there is film! Newsreels were on hand to record the event, and this footage, which has never been shown in any documentary or made available on any DVD, is housed at the UCLA Film & Television Archive. I recently had a chance to watch it along with Joe Notaro, who first revealed the existence of this footage on his blog, Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence. Unfortunately, UCLA does not allow photos, so (like Joe), I'll just have to describe what I saw.

The footage runs approximately two and a half minutes and starts off with various shots of the Success itself. We see a reenactment of prisoners being marched up the gangway. We also see a variety of restraints and torture implements on deck, including a Spanish Maiden (check out Houdini Escapes and Magic page 313 for a similar case).

Following a static card explaining the $1000 challenge, we see Houdini and Captain Smith posing with a group of men. Houdini is wearing a dashing hat (which can be seen here), and is grinning broadly--so much so his upper lip seems to fold over his teeth--a true Cheshire Cat grin. He looks sensational and you can really feel his charisma coming off the screen.

Wax figure in a Success cell.
We then see Houdini, having escaped, swimming in the water fully clothed. What's interesting is he's dragging along one of the wax convict figures, as if he broke out his "cell mate" as a joke. I've not found any mention of this wax figure in any newspaper accounts of the stunt. Again, he's smiling broadly the entire time.

Houdini then pulls himself up on a dock, barefoot in sopping wet clothes. Jim Collins stands off to one side with some other unidentified men. Houdini looks powerful and fit as he hitches up his pants and tucks in his shirt. (I'm struck by how he looks very much the same as he does in the 1909 Rochester footage.) Hardeen then briefly steps into frame, waving Houdini forward with a quick jerk of his arm as if saying, "Let's go!"

The final shot shows Houdini posing in an open top car with a large group of men, including Hardeen. Houdini is still wet and grinning broadly. But what's most striking in this shot (and it took Joe and I a few viewings to catch this) is that Houdini's brother Dr. Leopold Weiss is at the wheel of the car! This is the only film footage I've ever seen of Leopold. There the film ends.

This footage offers a remarkable document of this fantastic escape, and of the Success itself. It's also likely the last film footage of Houdini before his mother's death just several weeks later, which was said to have changed him noticeably. So I feel like this escape, and this film, captures Houdini at the zenith of his powers and personal happiness. He feels youthful and exuberant, even standing still he beams. But maybe that's because he just won $1000.

The Success would continue to tour the U.S. for many years. In 1915 it arrived in San Francisco for the Panama–Pacific International Exposition (where Houdini did an overboard box escape). Below is film of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Mable Normand visiting at the ship during the exhibition and being shown around by, presumably, Captain Smith himself.

Years later the Success was branded a hoax -- that it was never truly a convict ship. The ship finally met its end by fire near Port Clinton, Ohio, on July 4, 1946.

Today the site of the Success challenge is the 79th Street Boat Basin, operated by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. It's still home to boats and even the occasional floating museum ship, just like Success.

Hope you enjoyed this look back at the Success challenge and the description of the rare UCLA film footage, which I hope can be made available for all to see one day. (If you're interested, the exact catalog listing is HERE.)

But this was not the only film Joe and I watched that day. Check out: A Master Mystery revelation at UCLA.

Wax figure image is from Richard Norgard's blog The Sailing Ship Success. 79th Street Boat Basin pic courtesy of Tom Frueh.


Thursday, August 23, 2018

All aboard

Tomorrow I'll take a deep dive into one of Houdini's lesser known challenge escapes.

 See you onboard!

'Apology in the Name of the Kaiser' poster variant

Currently there is a signed copy of Houdini's The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin on eBay with a Buy It Now price of $6,750.00 (which is wildly overpriced IMHO). To its credit, the book is inscribed to Ida M. Tarbell, the famous muckraking journalist, and is signed "Harry Handcuff Houdini". Unfortunately, it's not dated.

But what has me most intrigued is what's tipped into the front of the book. The seller doesn't mention it, but does include a picture. It's Houdini's famous "Apology in the Name of the Kaiser" poster from 1902. But if you look closely, it is not the same poster we are all familiar with.

Click to enlarge.

In this version, Houdini is presented looking much closer to middle age. Note the grey temples. In the more familiar poster (which you can see here), he's the youthful 1902 version. In fact, the entire poster appears to be redrawn. The judge on the far right has his hand to his cheek, which he does not in the original. Overall, I think it's a much better illustration, capturing the moment with more drama, and Houdini looks fantastic.

This is not the first time we've seen this variant. It also appears on page 8 of Houdini on Magic by Walter B. Gibson. But this one offers better clarity and is less cropped, allowing confirmation of just how different it really is.

It's hard to say if this image was tipped into the book by Houdini himself. But we do know he tipped photos of himself with Teddy Roosevelt into copies of The Unmasking (I own one of these myself), so possibly he did the same with this image. I'm curious if anyone has ever seen one of these in a copy of Unmasking before? Or anywhere else for that matter?

You can view the 30 day eBay auction HERE.

UPDATE: Looks like my post succeeded in getting the already crazy price bumped up to $6,950.00. Lordy.


Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Sally Struthers on how she created her Bess

Sally Struthers' performance as Bess Houdini is probably my favorite. Perhaps it's just my rampant nostalgia for The Great Houdinis (broadcast during the first year of my Houdinimania), but I've always seen in her performance the real Bess -- her toughness, her showbiz savviness, her wit, her delicate health, and her heartbreak over losing her Harry.

Below is an excerpt from a November 7, 1976 Chicago Tribune interview with Sally on set of All in the Family ("Feeling Stifled"). I'm always struck by how frank actors were in interviews from the '70s, and this one is no exception. But what I like best is Sally talks in detail about how she created her Bess, and in particular how she dealt with the age changes. Okay, she makes a few errors (Houdini's real name was Ehrich, not Nathan), but we'll forgive her. Because she's Bess!

For the full story of the making of The Great Houdinis, check out my post from 2011: Making the great Great Houdinis.


Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini collected hardcover and immersive play

Today sees the release of a collected hardcover edition of Cynthia von Buhler's sexy graphic novel Minky Woodcock, The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini. This edition from Titan and Hard Case Crime contains all four individual issues and sports fresh new cover art.

A brand new 1920's mystery thriller with a sinister twist!

Unappreciated at her father's acclaimed detective agency, the fabulous, rabbit-loving Minky Woodcock straps on her gumshoes in order to uncover a magical mystery involving noted author Arthur Conan Doyle and world-famous escape artist, Harry Houdini.

Created by acclaimed artist, author, director and playwright, Cynthia von Buhler (Speakeasy Dollhouse, Evelyn Evelyn), Minky Woodcock is a lusciously rendered 1920s mystery with a sinister twist.

You can purchase the collected Minky Woodcock, The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini at (U.S.) and (UK). It's also available for the Kindle.

The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini will also be presented as an Immersive Theater Experience by Speakeasy Dollhouse, September 26 through November 10 at Theatre 80 in New York City. The play is written and directed by Cynthia von Buhler and stars Pearls Daily as Minky Woodcock (below), Vincent Cinque as Houdini, and Robyn Adele Anderson as Bess.

For more information and to buy tickets visit the official website (all full priced ticket include a signed copy of the hardcover). The show also has a Kickstarter where you can buy advance tickets with special rewards.


Monday, August 20, 2018

Mystifier, Third Quarter 1994

Continuing my issue by issue look back at the Mystifier, the newsletter of the Houdini Historical Center that ran from 1991-2003.

The Third Quarter 1994 Mystifier features a lengthy review of the biography Barnum by Morris R. Werner, written by Houdini for the May 1923 Literary Digest International Book Review. It's pretty interesting to hear Houdini discuss his great predecessor in self-promotion. He even says that he read Barnum's autobiography as a youth. Here's a taste:

It would pay every one, in an educational way, to read Barnum's "Life" and then pick up Mr. Werner's book and see how hard the latter tries to show us Mr. Barnum as he really was. He does it very ably, but there is one curious oversight: he seems to have forgotten entirely the publicity promoters of Barnum. I was fortunate enough to become acquainted with Kit Clark, one of the original "abusive bill writers." No one man, without lieutenants, I believe, has every projected a publicity campaign to equal that which Clark carried through for Jenny Lind. Outside of the presidential campaigns, in my humble estimation, the Jenny Lind exploitation will rank with the greatest ever seen in this country.

By the way, Houdini's copy of the Werner book, inscribed to Houdini by the author, is today in the Harry Ransom Center collection. [see update below]

The newsletter continues with the news that "Harry Houdini and Family" will be added to the Ellis Island "Wall of Honor" in New York, thanks to the sponsorship of HHC member Paul Rosen. Rosen said he elected to use the name Houdini instead of Ehrich Weiss as Houdini "is how the public knows him." The newsletter says the name is expected to be added to the Wall in 1995. (It's worth noting that the Weiss family likely came through Castle Garden at the Battery, not Ellis Island.)

Benjamin Filene is announced as the new curator of the Houdini Historical Center. Filene says he's "eager to immerse himself in Houdini lore." A fundraising campaign for repairs to Houdini's grave is also announced. The grave site was vandalized on May 25, 1994.

In "Backstage with Sid Radner," Sid welcomes to the HHC Raymond Corbin, a great proponent of the Spook Show genre. "It's too bad the new generation of magicians and the public can't experience the thrilling piece of Americana that was the midnight spook show," says Sid. He also thanks Arthur Moses and the late Manny Weltman for uncovering the Houdini Barnum review.

Sid then reports that he, David Baldwin, and Henry Muller of the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame have acquired the Walter B. Gibson/Great Raymond Collection. He says it took nine people an entire weekend to clear it out of the barn in which it had been stored. Among the treasures is an original Miss Undina poster, said to have been the very poster used by Houdini in his 1912 trial against her. Sid promises more about the collection in a future issue of Mystifier.

Volume 4, Number 3
Third Quarter, 1994
6 pages

Houdini Discusses P.T. Barnum
Houdini Name on Ellis Island Wall
Curator Welcomed at HHC
Funds Needed to Repair Houdini's Gravesite
New Book at Museum Shop
Backstage with Sid Radner

UPDATE: Our friend Eric Colleary of the Harry Ransom Center has tweeted images of the book itself. Dated on Houdini's birthday! Check it out here.


Saturday, August 18, 2018

Houdini's Rochester bridge jump

Houdini's jump from the Weighlock Bridge in Rochester, New York, on May 7, 1907 is best known for being the earliest surviving film footage of Houdini in action. And that's about all it's known for. However, this jump had a lot of very interesting aspects that have gone largely unrecorded in biographies. So let's tell the full story!

Houdini came to Rochester for a one week engagement starting May 6, 1907 at Cook Opera House. According to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, he was there in part to settle a bet with Al C. Buckenberger, manager of the Rochester baseball club. As the story ran, the previous winter Houdini had boasted that he could jump manacled from the Weighlock Bridge and free himself underwater. Buckenberger bet him $1000 he could not. Weather conditions at the time made the test impossible. Now Houdini was there to make good on the wager, despite "still not ideal" conditions. Interestingly, the papers reported that Houdini would not only be handcuffed, but also "sewn into a sack like Monte Cristo."

Houdini had spent a week in preparations for the jump at his home in New York City. The year before he had gotten a cramp when he jumped from the Belle Isle Bridge into the freezing Detroit river. Now he was resolved to prepare his body for the cold. He began taking a series of ice baths, working his way down to a temperature below 40 degrees. ("Gee it's cold," he recorded in his diary.) His baths where overseen by his physician brother, Dr. Leopold Weiss.

"Houdini must be in splendid condition or he would never attempt such a performance," a Rochester doctor told the newspaper. "A sudden jump into this icy bath means a tremendous shock to his nervous system. He'll be shakin', and he'll need a beer when he comes upon the land, unless I am greatly mistaken."

The papers also reported that Houdini's mother was "greatly concerned at the prospect of her son's hazardous performance" and that "she decided to come to Rochester with him, and will be on the scene when he jumps from the bridge." This is a rare mention of Houdini's mother attending an outdoor stunt. But there is a famous photo of Houdini and Mama on a Rochester street, with Houdini kissing her on the cheek. (Houdini later misdated the photo as 1908.)

Cook Opera House did a fine job promoting the stunt, running continuous ads both large and small in the papers. One dramatic ad ran the length of an entire page.

The day before the stunt, Houdini visited the bridge with reporters and did a practice jump without handcuffs. This, he explained, was so he could test the water temperature and depth. "He got plenty of information about the bottom," the papers reported the next day. "When he climbed out he was covered in mud up to his knees." Because of this, Houdini decided to abandon the idea of being sewn into a sack (if he was ever serious about it). "I hardly think I shall be able to use a sack, as the deep mud would make it almost impossible to extricate myself from it," he explained.

This practice test is a curious thing, but it appears to have been a regular feature of Houdini's early bridge jumps. Before jumping into the Allegeg from the Seventh Street bridge a week later, he also did a practice jump.

The day of the jump a reported 10,000 onlookers gathered along the canal. Police kept people from crowding onto the narrow bridge itself, saying it was too dangerous. Houdini arrived at 12:30 and stripped down to a pair of white shorts. He was then manacled by a police officer with two pair of handcuffs. He climbed to the top of the bridge truss, and jumped. Fifteen seconds later he was free and swimming to shore, balancing the handcuffs on top of his head so he could swim with both arms.

For all the hype, the escape itself received a somewhat modest report in the Democrat and Chronicle under the headline "Handcuffed, Leaps into Canal." The paper didn't run any photographs, but on that score, Houdini had made his own arrangements.

Houdini had employed Eastman Kodak to film the escape. The company appears to have used two cameras, one on the bridge with Houdini during his shackling, beautifully capturing Houdini in his prime, and the other from a distance to film the jump. (Or it's possible the cameraman relocated for the jump as there is no other cameraman visible on the bridge in the long shot.) The speedy film developing was a magic trick in itself, and on the night of May 9th, the film was shown to audiences at Cook Opera House.

Incredibly, the film has survived. And here it is:

The exact location of Houdini's jump is a little hard to fathom today. "Weighlock Bridge" was not a formal name, but more of a description -- the bridge over the weighlock. But the weighlocks are still there, and newspapers accounts say the bridge being near Court Street, so the below is a likely candidate.

View on Google Maps.

Houdini finished out his week in Rochester with challenge escapes. He then moved on to Buffalo where, no doubt, he exhibited his escape footage. In fact, Houdini would continue to film his outdoor stunts and show them before his act for the remainder of his career. So Rochester was a true first in that regard.

But for Houdini personally, the Rochester escape was most memorable for one reason. That night he wrote in his diary, "Ma saw me jump!"


Friday, August 17, 2018

Take a leap with Houdini this weekend

Most are familiar with the film footage of Houdini doing a bridge jump in Rochester in 1907. But the story behind this jump and the film is not that well known. I love an untold story, so check out WILD ABOUT HARRY this weekend when I'll take a deep dive into Houdini's daring dive in Rochester.

'American Immigration During Houdini's Day' at the JMM, Sunday

This Sunday, August 19, Dr. Nicholas Fessenden will give a talk on "American Immigration During Houdini's Day, 1878-1924" at The Jewish Museum of Maryland. Below are details.

American Immigration During Houdini’s Day, 1878-1924
August 19 @ 1:00 pm - 2:00 pm
Speaker: Dr. Nicholas Fessenden, Baltimore Immigration Museum

Ehrich Weiss (who would become the great Harry Houdini) landed in New York with his family in 1878 at the tender age of four, part of a wave of mass immigration that would expand to over 24 million new arrivals to the shores of American by 1914.

The beginning of this wave originated largely from Germany, Ireland, Scandinavia, and Britain, but as industrialization spurred prosperity in western Europe in the 1890s, the bulk of immigrants began arriving from Italy and eastern Europe.

Join us as Dr. Nicholas Fessenden explores the impact this wave of immigration had on the United States and its immigration policies – particularly the birth of a restrictionist movement and Congressional quotas that lasted from the 1920s to the 1960s.
Click for more info. and tickets.

The Jewish Museum of Maryland's exhibition Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini runs through January 21, 2019. For more information and a full list of events (including my own talk on Nov. 4), visit their website.


Thursday, August 16, 2018

Houdini's 1915 Coney Island comeback

We all know Houdini played Coney Island in his early days. In fact, Coney Island is where he famously met Bess. But once Houdini became a headliner, Coney Island became a place of leisure for Harry and Bess. It was not the kind of place where you would expect to find a performer of Houdini's stature. Or so I thought!

Turns out Houdini did play a week in Coney Island at the height of his career in 1915. In fact, it was 103 years ago today. (Which is not a coincidence.)

Coming off two weeks at the prestigious Palace Theater on Broadway, Houdini opened at Henderson's Music Hall on August 16, 1915. Located on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues, Henderson's was Coney Island's most popular venue for music, theater and vaudeville. (The Marx Brothers made their first public appearance at Henderson's in 1907.) Here Houdini featured challenge escapes and, presumably, his Water Torture Cell. To promote his appearance he did an Overboard Box escape from Ward's Baths on Tuesday, August 17 at 4:30pm.

Below are newspaper adverts and an account of this rare reappearance of Houdini in Coney Island. As a bonus, I've left the ad for Steeplechase Park attached with its grinning clown, now an iconic symbol of Coney Island's heyday.

Houdini's engagement lasted one week and, as far as I know, he never played Henderson's or Coney Island again. I've never seen a program for this week nor a photo of his Overboard Box escape at Ward's Baths. But now that we know he was here, maybe we could find something? Paging the Coney Island History Project!

Henderson's Music Hall closed in 1926 and became "Lillie Santangelo's World in Wax Musee" until 1984. The building was renovated and restored in 2004. But like so many Coney Island landmarks, it was purchased and unceremoniously demolished by Thor Equities in 2010.

Below is a video tribute to the theater where Houdini made his Coney Island comeback 103 years ago today.


Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Potter & Potter 'Houdiniana' auction October 20

Potter & Potter has announced a special auction of "Houdiniana" on October 20, 2018. The auction will feature the collection of our late friend John Bushey.

Potter & Potter held "Houdiniana" auctions in 2014 and 2016. Their upcoming Summer Magic Auction will be held on August 25.

Thanks to Mark Willoughby for the alert.


Houdini's Silver Dollar Misfits return

The first issue of a new comic book series Houdini's Silver Dollar Misfits is released today by Hocus Pocus Comics. If this title sound familiar, it should! In 2008, a book called Kid Houdini and the Silver Dollar Misfits was released by the same creator/writer, Dwight L. MacPherson.

MacPherson explained the evolution of his idea in an interview at FreakSugar:

"I wrote a book called Kid Houdini and the Silver Dollar Misfits that was published in 2008. It received a lot of Hollywood attention, but it eventually fell apart because it was labeled a “period piece.” In the ensuing years I wondered: how can I bring this story into the 21st century? So I began piecing together the story bone by bone, if you will, until I had written the entire first story. Obviously the characters and premises are quite different from Kid Houdini, but both involve mysteries, magic, and Harry Houdini. In one way or another." 

I can't quite tell if this is going to be a printed comic or online only. But at the moment, I know it can be found at comiXology and


Houdini starts swinging TODAY in Minnesota

Just a reminder that the "outdoor aerial play" Houdini by The Swingset starts today in St. Paul, MN. The weather forecast is 86° and clear, so nothing will stop this Prince of the Air!

HOUDINI performs this week! Only 4 chances to catch us swinging around Wed-Sat. Note: all performances are outdoors so bring a blanket or chair! Check out more info at our website.

You can learn about the behind the scenes process of this unique production here.

UPDATE: Houdini has been extended for one special free performance on Aug. 27. Details here.


Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Houdini looking dapper

Here's an unpublished Houdini photo to make one weak in the knees. It's said that off stage Houdini was a famously sloppy dresser, and there are plenty of photos that bare that out. But here he's looking downright dapper! (Although it appears he still missed a couple buttons.)

According to the auction archival website Worthpoint (where I found this image), this photo was sold by Leland Little Auction & Estates Sale Ltd. in August 2006. The auction listing says it's circa 1915, but I'd put this as circa 1922.

By the way, if you are the owner of this photo and you'd rather it not be spread online, just give a shout and I will zap this post. But I just couldn't resist sharing this uncharacteristically composed photo of Houdini. #notaslob


Monday, August 13, 2018

Official Houdini Séance 2018 to be held in Baltimore

This year's Official Houdini Séance will be held at The Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore on Wednesday, October 31, 2018. The museum is currently home to the exhibition, Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini, so this makes an ideal location for this year's event.

The seance will again be open to the public. Tickets and full details are not yet available, but there is a notification sign-up at the The Jewish Museum of Maryland's event page.

The Official Houdini Séance's are organized each year by Bill Radner and Tom Boldt.

UPDATE: Tickets are now available.


Catalina Island Museum will auction their Houdini Pinball machine

The Catalina Island Museum's Houdini Pinball machine will be offered as part of a silent auction at their 65th Anniversary Celebration on September 8, 2018. The event will also feature magic by Whit "Pop" Haydn. Below are details.

Saturday, September 8, 2018
65th Anniversary Celebration
Ada Blanche Wrigley Schreiner Building
4:00 pm - 7:00 pm
$175/person, Limited tickets are available

2018 marks the 65th anniversary of the museum's founding. To celebrate, we are planning an Anniversary Benefit featuring live music by Pop Nouveau, a live and silent auction, heavy hors d'oeuvres and a signature cocktail.

Live and Silent Auction Items include: Private air travel to Las Vegas including dinner, modern and fine art, Houdini Seance at the Magic Castle, a limited edition Houdini pinball machine, Catalina Island memorabilia, exclusive experiences and more!
Click here for more info and tickets

Also at auction is a 10-person Houdini Seance dinning experience at the Magic Castle. Remember, the traditional Houdini Seance is going away in December, so this would be the time to grab one!

Tickets to the event include access to the museum and their Houdini Terror on the Magic Isle exhibition. The exhibition is devoted to Houdini's 1920 movie Terror Island, which was filmed on Catalina, and runs through October 7.