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.)

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



  1. The money must have been too good for Harry to ignore. Reminds me of the Hollywood film stars who accept huge sums of money to appear in Japanese television commercials. They don't want the general public to catch a whiff of that.

    1. Yes, I'm sure the money was good, but it appears the Bowery Burlesquers were also pretty popular. Didn't hurt Houdini to appear. Like Nixon going on Laugh In!

  2. This is really interesting stuff! It almost sounds like a carry-over of the tradition of Victorian Burlesque, racy parodies that were a hit with British and American audiences in the 1800s. And for Houdini to be billed in this ad below "Madam X-cuse Me" --well, that must've been an interesting engagement! Thanks for sharing this gem.

    1. I like "Handcuff Hypnotizer." That's a new one.

    2. A little alliteration is always a good thing!

  3. It was probably this kind of booking and 2nd billing (at lower than headline price???) that led Houdini to introduce the Chinese Water Torture Cell shortly thereafter. A master at timing his career.
    Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz
    The Houdini Museum
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini

    1. Oh, I dont think this was any kind of a step down for Houdini, and I doubt he did this for a lower price. This was side gig off the Keith Circuit. I expect he might have been paid double his salary with perks (hence the manager looking for a private car for HH). And I feel like the billing is pretty equal. It's a co-show.

      Like my recent post about his Coney Island engagement, I think HH was open to side gigs if the price was right. What's amazing is the Keith-Albee-Orpheum circuit let him. It's interesting that HH seemed to be free of all the famous restrictions and constraints that the circuit put on performers.

    2. Absolutely John! HH fought his way out of those constraints on other performers. He stayed put for a while in Europe when Keith's refused to meet his salary demand early on when he made it big overseas.


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