Sunday, September 30, 2018

Reassessing Haldane of the Secret Service at 95

Today marks the 95th anniversary of the release of Houdini's final feature film, Haldane of the Secret Service. Even though Houdini had shot the movie immediately after The Man From Beyond in 1921 (and location footage in 1920), he held it back as the planned second release for his Houdini Picture Corporation. But instead of self distributing via States Rights, as he had done for Beyond, Houdini turned to FBO (Film Booking Office) to release the movie. They did so on September 30, 1923.

By the time Haldane was released, Houdini was deep into his new role as a debunker of fraudulent spirit mediums, and was touring the country with his spirit lecture. Therefore, his support of the movie was not what it had been for his previous films. He did find time to make a personal appearance at the Crescent Theater in Austin during the movie's run there in November. But by in large, it's clear that Houdini had moved on from movies and was now among the spirits.

For many years, Haldane of the Secret Service was dismissed as Houdini's worst movie; a clumsy mis-mash of plot baked with random footage from his 1920 European tour. But I actually find it on par with The Man From Beyond, and maybe even the superior film. Of course, I don't dislike any of Houdini's movies, but I do find his two HPC productions the weakest of his filmography. The Man From Beyond remains fascinating as it's Houdini's most personal film and offers a glimpse into his mindset at the time, such as his fascination with reincarnation and early endorsement of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But it's a pretty turgid slog until the climax on Niagara Falls, which largely redeems the film.

Haldane, in contrast, is a sprightly detective thriller (once we get past the overlong bag-swapping opening). And far from being a liability, the 1920 location footage is fantastic, capturing those famous city streets at the time, and it's fun to see Houdini set against historic landmarks like Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, and the Statue of Liberty. Houdini being dragged by an ocean liner is wild stuff (the publicity claimed this was all real, and it certainly appears so). It's also cool to see Houdini dressed in a cape and top hat during the London club sequence; the classic image of a magician which he never assumed during his magic career. The lively Gladys Leslie is an experienced silent movie actress and a big improvement over the casting of novice Jane Connolly in Beyond. And the water wheel stunt at the end is as spectacular as any escape in any Houdini movie. One might even argue that Haldane showed Houdini's HPC movies were improving, although maybe too slowly to salvage his movie career.

Sure, the plot is a bit overwrought (with some offensive stereotypes), but not any more so than The Master Mystery, which Haldane reminds me of a great deal. It's almost as if we are seeing the continuing adventures of Quentin Locke. But, come on, we're not watching these movies for the plots. We're watching them to see Houdini in action, and Haldane gives us some great and varied Harry with lots of nice closeups and moments to savor.

Being a James Bond fan, I'm always struck by how Haldane anticipates the basic structure of the spy film genre. After setting up the action in New York, the hero globe trots to various thrilling cities, evading death traps by henchmen who work under the command of a mysterious supervillain (Dr. Yu = Dr. No). And it all ends with a set-piece finale in a monastery that the villain uses as a lair (as does the 1981 Bond film For You Eyes Only). In his pitchbook biography, Houdini His Life and Work in Prose and Picture (left), Hardeen makes a similar claim the Haldane anticipated the popular "G-man" movies of the '30s.

The reason I think Haldane of the Secret Service was so maligned for so long was because so few people had actually seen it. Haldane was as lost to the world as The Grim Game. (My understanding was a collector held what was thought to be the only copy on VHS, and would rent it at an exorbitant fee.) So most biographers simply accepted the verdict of the Variety review at the time (which was not kind) and equated Haldane's box-office failure with creative failure and moved on. But in 2007, a print screened at The Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles, which often ran The Man From Beyond. That print found its way onto DVD and eventually to streaming, so these days a fresh assessment can be made of the movie along with Houdini's filmography as a whole.

As for today's anniversary, I've never been able to find a premiere, or a clear first showing of Haldane. The release date of September 30 comes from the excellent film notes by Bret Wood on the Kino DVD set. IMDb also uses this date. I have found an opening day ad for September 29 at the Unique Theater in El Paso, so it might have slipped out a little early in some territories. But I think it's safe to use September 30, 1923 as the day Haldane was officially released to the world.

So on this 95th anniversary, here's a shoutout to Houdini's last and most under-appreciated movie. "The name's Haldane. Heath Haldane."

UPDATE: Since doing this post I have found sources that put Haldane's release date as September 23, 1923, instead of the September 30th. However, I've yet to find evidence or the movie playing in any theater before the 30th, so I'm not yet sure which date to come down on the side of.


Saturday, September 29, 2018

'After Houdini' launch party at the Houdini Museum of New York, October 4

The Houdini Museum of New York will host a launch party for Jeremy Holt's new graphic novel After Houdini on Thursday, October 4, 2018 from 6-9PM.

Insight Comics is proud to present the debut of AFTER HOUDINI, hosted by The Houdini Museum of NYC!

Written by Jeremy Holt, art by John Lucas, and colors by Adrian Crossa, Holt will be available for a meet-and-greet to sign copies.

The event is from 6-9PM, food and drinks provided! RSVP on Facebook.

The Houdini Museum of New York is located at 213 West 35th Street, Room 401, New York, New York 10001.

After Houdini will be officially released on October 9th and is available to pre-order at (U.S.) and (UK). Next year will see a follow-up volume, Before Houdini.


    Thursday, September 27, 2018


    WILD ABOUT HARRY has now crossed over 6 million pageviews. Houdini lives indeed!

    Thank you all for your support.

    Houdini goes overboard in San Fransisco

    Here's a terrific new photo of Houdini doing his overboard box escape in San Fransisco Bay on November 6, 1915. Houdini performed the escape as part of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition and to promote his appearance at the Orpheum Theater on O'Farrell St. starting the week of November 8.

    There are surprisingly few images of this high profile stunt. The only image I had ever seen belongs to Dr. Bruce Averbook and shows the box being lowered into the water (it appears on page 276 of The Secret Life of Houdini and can be seen here). But now we have this stunner!

    It's interesting to read that the stunt was filmed. Unfortunately, that footage has not survived to my knowledge. In fact, the only surviving film of Houdini doing a public overboard box escape is this footage at an unidentified location.

    By the way, the top of this box is a very nice match for the one that now sits in the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan.

    Wednesday, September 26, 2018

    The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini takes the stage

    An Immersive Theater Experience based on Cynthia von Buhler's graphic novel The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini begins TODAY at Theatre 80 in New York City. It's presented by Speakeasy Dollhouse and runs through November 10, 2018.

    Written and directed by Cynthia von Buhler, the play stars Pearls Daily as Minky Woodcock, Vincent Cinque as Houdini, and Robyn Adele Anderson as Bess. Below is a description of what sounds like quite an experience!

    Audience members will witness Harry Houdini’s final days through an immersive theater experience in which they are assigned a character to follow and then view events through that character’s point of view. They might find themselves attending a séance, helping the magician rehearse backstage, sipping absinthe in a speakeasy, spying on an affair in a hotel room, witnessing an attempted murder, visiting Houdini in his hospital room, or viewing his body in the morgue. All attendees “travel via train” to watch Houdini’s final month of performances, including his iconic Water Torture Chamber act, in Rhode Island, Montreal and Detroit. VIP guests follow Harry Houdini or Minky Woodcock, receive the best seats in the house for the stage portions of the show, and are invited onstage to inspect the Water Torture Chamber. Audience members are encouraged to come back again to follow other key players and see alternate facets of what actually led to Houdini’s fateful death. Evidence is revealed, but the truth is left up to the theatergoer to decide.

    All full price tickets include a signed copy of the collected hardcover edition of The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini. For more information and showtimes visit the official website.

    It's also announced today that Minky will return in a second graphic novel series, Minky Woodcock: They Die Fast on Broadway, in which she will investigate the real-life death of Olive Thomas, whose murder was one of the earliest Hollywood scandals.


    Tuesday, September 25, 2018

    Mystifier, First Quarter 1995

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

    The First Quarter 1995 Mystifier begins with an excerpt from the transcript of Houdini's 1926 Congressional testimony. HHC curator Benjamin Filene credits the transcript having been uncovered by HHC member Paul Rosen at the Library of Congress. It's interesting to see that Houdini cites Sarah Winchester of Winchester Mystery House fame in his list of people he believes were ruined by their devotion to Spiritualism. Houdini states:

    In my 35 years I have never seen one genuine medium. Millions of dollars are stolen every year in America, and the Government have never paid any attention to it, because they look upon it as a religion. Sara Winchester spent $5,000,000; the celebrated judge of New York, Edmonds, spent all his fortune; Professor Hare, of Yale College, heard voices and saw forms, and stated a lead pencil stood upright on the table and wrote messages, and answered questions.

    Wisconsin researcher and writer Larry Widen contributes a very well researched article called "Houdini in Milwaukee: The Forgotten Years." I was impressed that Widen mentions Harry and Bessie's 1897 tour as part of "Rogers Orpheum Stars", which is rarely mentioned in biographies. But most intriguing is his paragraph about the magic show young Ehrich Weiss witnessed in Milwaukee:

    One evening in 1895, an elegantly garbed gentleman was working on stage at a Milwaukee dime museum. Billed as "The Bloodless Vivisectionist" he produced a series of gleaming, wicked-looking knives and proceeded to dismember a living human being before the audience's eyes. With a flourish, the man then replaced his victims limbs and head, apparently none the worse for wear. Eleven-year-old Ehrich Weiss sat spellbound through this performance. He had never seen magic combined with this caliber of showmanship. Houdini later cited the vivisectionist's performance in Milwaukee as a primary inspiration for becoming a magician.

    Notice he does not identify the performer, and that he locates it in a Dime Museum. This is very different from the accepted story of Houdini's father taking him to see the celebrated Dr. Lynn at the local Opera House. In his notes, Widen lists a clipping for "Litt's Mammoth Dime Museum" in the Milwaukee Sentinel for February 22, 1885, which is presumably his source for this performer. This appears to corroborate the recent thinking that it was not Dr. Lynn that young Ehrich Weiss saw that day in Milwaukee.

    The newsletter includes a museum shop update, announcing the availability of Benjilini on Houdini. It also notes that HHC Executive Director Donald Hoke has accepted a new position in Dallas.

    Sid Radner devotes his "Backstage" column to his recent trip to Las Vegas, where he reports that he saw Dixie Dooley and the Harry Blackstone Jr. show (Siegfried & Roy and Lance Burton's were dark during the Christmas season). He also makes a pitch for artifact donations to the HHC.

    Sid finishes with "Houdini in the News" in which he reports that Wisconsin Public Television will feature the HHC and the Harry Houdini Assembly of the Society of Young Magicians on the children's program Get Real. He says that a reproduction Houdini bust and Water Torture Cell poster will appear as props in upcoming episodes of The Bold and the Beautiful set inside Houdini's house.

    Sid also has a clever new sign-off: "Until next time, keep opening those locks."

    Volume 5, Number 1
    First Quarter, 1995
    6 pages

    Houdini Testifies Before Congress
    Limited Edition at Museum Shop
    Houdini's Years in Milwaukee
    HHC Executive Director Moves to Dallas
    Houdini in the News
    Backstage with Sid Radner


    Monday, September 24, 2018

    Jaguar Houdini commercial

    Here's commercial for Jaguar featuring Houdini posted to the rights clearing company website Greenlight. (Just don't tell them Houdini wasn't a car guy.)
    Below are more adventures in Houdini advertising.


    Sunday, September 23, 2018

    A Master Mystery UCLA update

    Today I can offer an update on The Master Mystery print held at UCLA Film & Television Archive. If you recall, Joe Notaro and I recently visited UCLA's Powell Library and viewed the movie in their Media Lab. While the (almost) complete movie is a revelation, the old VHS viewing copies were in bad shape, with the machine eating one tape and the second not playing at all. There was also a question regarding UCLAs ability to license the print for any potential restoration, and the mystery of where the print came from in the first place. Happily, I now have answers

    Last week Joe and I returned to UCLA and viewed brand new DVDs made from the old VHS tapes. Yes, that means these precious images are now preserved as digital files. I was now able to view Episode 11 (missing from Kino), and it proved to be another fantastic installment. Joe and I agreed that this episode had the best fight scenes of the entire movie, with Houdini squaring off in an extended battle with the lead thug who menaces him throughout the movie. I especially like that Houdini is dressed in tuxedo tails during the fisticuffs.

    As to the origin of the print and the question of licensing, an old friend and rare magic book dealer John Cannon of Aladdin Books gave Joe and I the scoop over lunch following the Magic Castle swap meet in Hollywood a few weeks back. (He also sold me Edward Saint's own copy of Houdini's Paper Magic, so it was a good lunch!)

    Turns out the 16mm print was part of the collection of John Hampton, who ran The Silent Movie Theater in West Hollywood for many years. It was here that Patrick Culliton saw the entire serial twice in the late 1950s and early '60s, an experience he never forgot. But Hampton contracted lung cancer from his hours working with the chemicals involved in film restoration, and mounting debt forced him to sell off 3/4 of his collection, including The Master Mystery, to David Packard of the Hewlett-Packard empire. John Hampton died in early 1990 at the age of 83.

    But the movie had landed at an excellent home. David Packard is a passionate champion of film preservation via his Packard Humanities Institute. The Institute works with the UCLA Film & Television Archive, who hold hundreds of films on their behalf. A full list of those films on the Packard website shows The Master Mystery as one of their "works in progress." The film had also arrived not a moment too soon. The original 16mm print was showing signs of vinegar syndrome, so a preservation negative was created, saving the film.

    So there doesn't appear to be any contractual impediment to using this print for the purposes of a full restoration, but one would need to approach the Packard Institute, not UCLA. I've also learned that the library of the Douris Corporation, who own the print used for the McIlhany/Kino restoration (which has two chapters missing from UCLA/Packard), was sold to Cohen Media Group in 2011, so there's a new player in the game.

    However, the overall quality of the UCLA/Packard print is a reality that hit me on this second viewing. While it's true the print is free of significant film damage, it is from a 16mm source, so it is not nearly as sharp as what one sees on Kino, which I suspect came from 35mm. In fact, it could be that Bill McIlhany, who certainly must have known about the UCLA print, decided to use the less complete Douris print precisely because the image quality was so much better. So any combined restoration would require some serious work to improve the image quality of the UCLA print, and that might be a big job. So there would need to be the money, the will, and the expertise to take on this task.

    But the good news is the negative is safe, the movie is available for anyone to watch at UCLA on DVD, and Houdini's complete Master Mystery survives as we approach its 100th anniversary. A happy ending.

    Thanks to Maya Smukler of UCLA, John Cannon of Aladdin Books, Joe Notaro of HHCE, and Joe Fox. Also thanks to the helpful student staff at the UCLA Media Lab.


    Saturday, September 22, 2018

    Daniel Stashower on his Harry Houdini Mysteries

    Today is author Daniel Stashower's birthday. To mark the occasion, Mr. Media has re-tweeted this excellent 2012 interview in which the author discusses his Harry Houdini Mysteries as well as Sherlock Holmes. Enjoy. And Happy Birthday, Daniel!

    As mentioned in the interview, Mr. Media has also interviewed Paul Michael Glaser. You can also search and find interviews with Milt Larsen and Larry "Ratso" Sloman.


    Friday, September 21, 2018

    Let's nominate The Grim Game to the National Film Registry

    Every year the National Film Preservation Board at the Library of Congress selects 25 films to showcase the range and diversity of American film heritage and increase awareness for its preservation. The public can suggest which films they think are worthy by nominating up to 50 films.

    So let's get a Houdini movie in the mix! Heck, with 50 choices, we can nominate all of Houdini's movies. But let's at least be uniform in nominating what most consider his best film, The Grim Game (1919).

    Here's how to do it:

    • Click to visit the 2018 National Film Registry Nomination Form.
    • You will be asked for your email address and how you heard about the site (feel free to say you heard about them from Wild About Harry).
    • You'll then have the opportunity to nominate up to 50 films, listing each by title and year.
    • Please enter The Grim Game as the title and 1919 as the year. 
    • If you'd like to list his other films, they are: The Master Mystery (1918);  Terror Island (1920); The Man From Beyond (1922); Haldane of the Secret Service (1923). I also entered the Tony Curtis biopic Houdini (1953), because there's a lot to recommend that film as choice example of American cinema.

    Thanks for your support and feel free to spread the word! It would be terrifc to see The Grim Game or any Houdini movie make the 2018 list.

    Speaking of The Grim Game, I will be showing the film along with giving a talk about Houdini in cinema at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore on November 4. Click for details.


    Thursday, September 20, 2018

    Houdini vs. Boudini: The forgotten challenge

    This is an encore post from November 16, 2010 (one of my very first posts here on WILD ABOUT HARRY). I thought this was worth a revisit as today marks the 113th anniversary of the Houdini-Boudini challenge.

    Houdini and Boudini.
    From Houdini The Key by Patrick Culliton.
    One of the more curious and obscure episodes in Houdini's early career was his encounter with rival escape artist, Jacques Boudini. Many cast skepticism on this "challenge," suspecting the entire thing was staged, and it very well could have been. Houdini was not above staging such encounters for publicity, and the fact that the newspaper men on the scene didn't entirely buy it could explain why Houdini never retold this story or featured it in pitchbooks, the way he boasted of besting other rivals like Cirnoc and Kleppini.

    It was Milbourne Christopher who brought this episode back to life in his 1969 biography, Houdini The Untold Story. In 2006's The Secret Life of Houdini, authors Kalush and Sloman also relate the event, adding that Boudini was a "pupil" of Houdini's gone rogue. (They also note this is the earliest record of Houdini releasing himself from shackles while underwater.) Patrick Culliton tells me he "nursed a theory for years" that Jacques Boudini was actually Jacob Hyman, Houdini's first partner in the Brothers Houdini. But Pat surrendered this theory when he finally uncovered a photograph of Houdini and Boudini, which is reproduced in his book, Houdini The Key. [Update: He now believes Boudini may have been Leonard Hicks.]

    One of my first forays into independent research (when I was 16) was to use the clues in Christopher to search the microfilm archives at Cal State University Northridge for an account of this event. What I found was this terrific article from the New York Times dated September 21, 1905 (which mistakenly calls him Bondini). I've transcribed it below so we can all relive this forgotten challenge exactly as it happened back in the day. It's Houdini vs. Boudini (or Bondini). Enjoy!

    New York Times
    September 21, 1905

    Contestants Dived 30 Feet with Wrists and Ankles Bound


    A Case of Professional Jealousy Between Houdini and Bondini, the Press Agent Says – Houdini Won.

    Landlubbers with fertile brains encroached upon the field of the marine yarn spinners yesterday with a performance that transcended anything they had ever thought of. The performance was real enough while it lasted, two minutes and forty seconds. In those two minutes and forty seconds it looked as though Jacques Bondini, who had gone down to the bottom of the harbor, (the bottom was thirty feet down,) was likely not only to break the literal shackles which bound him, but the shackles of life as well.

    The performance needs further explanation. Those who witnessed it were still explaining at midnight, with no satisfactory solution in sight. The facts are these:

    Harry Houdini, the "sensational perplexer and mysteriarch," professional shackle and handcuff breaker, had made a wager with Jacques Bondini that he could break manacles from his hands and ankles quicker than he. Houdini has been abroad startling Kings with his performances of handcuff breaking and making them wonder what to do next with their criminals. When recently Houdini returned to this country he found that Bondini, his erstwhile pupil, was usurping his field here. That's the story as the press agent tells it. At all events Houdini challenged Bondini to a shackle-breaking match under water. The victor was to get $500.

    A group of newspaper men and artists went to Atlantic Basin on the tug Fred B. Dalzell to see the performance. The Captain of the tug is John Gannon, and the contestants made him referee.

    In the Basin Capt. Gannon tied fast to a float.

    The two shackle-breaking artists stripped for the contest. Houdini wore tights under his clothing. Bondini did not.

    Both men were shackled in five minutes. Hand and ankle cuffs were fastened about the arms and ankles of both. Then ropes were fastened about their waists and they were lowered into the water.

    There was a silence as thick as a fog aboard the Dalzell. It lasted one minute and thirty seconds, but that seemed an eternity to the watchers. Then a head appeared above the waves. It was that of Houdini. He spat out brine for a second and shouted:

    "Is Bondini up yet?"

    "No!" chorused the crowd on deck.

    Houdini stuck his hands above water to show that he had freed them of the shackles and disappeared again.

    A minute later the head of Bondini appeared above the water. He looked gloomy, and it was obvious that he was not having any luck. He was down again in a minute.

    In another minute and ten seconds the head of Houdini appeared.

    "Is Bondini up yet?" he asked.

    The answer was discouraging, so far as Bondini was concerned, but encouraging for Houdini. Houdini went down a third time, but not until he had stuck one foot above water to show that he had unfastened his ankle bracelets, too.

    Houdini came to the surface again in a minute and motioned to be pulled up on deck. Then the men holding the rope to which Bondini was tied got busy.

    More dead than alive, he was hauled on board. He had to be rolled and rubbed before he came to. He had failed to unfasten either the handcuffs or the ankle bracelets.

    "I swallowed some water," was only explanation.

    The Dalzell then steamed back to the Battery. The principals went to 40 Greenwich Street, where it was said the money would be turned over to Houdini. Nobody saw it, but the press agent said he would surely get the $500.

    The question which the skeptical were asking last night was:

    "Was Bondini merely a dummy intended to show off the skill of Houdini?"

    Nobody answered except the press agent.

    "The real thing," said he.

    UPDATE: Boudini is Back!

    Wednesday, September 19, 2018

    Houdini takes on the truant officer

    Here's an interesting item from the October 21, 1911 Buffalo Courier. It appears Houdini took offense to the idea of truant children being manacled, and this is an effective way to use his fame to call out that cruel policy. Go Harry.

    One wonders if part of Houdini's feelings here are rooted in any experience he had with truant officers during his own runaway years.


    Tuesday, September 18, 2018

    Escaping from Houdini by Kerri Maniscalco

    Escaping from Houdini, the latest YA history mystery thriller by Kerri Maniscalco is released today.

    The #1 New York Times bestselling series that started with Stalking Jack the Ripper and Hunting Prince Dracula continues in this third bloody installment! A luxurious ocean liner becomes a floating prison of madness and horror when passengers are murdered one by one...with nowhere to run from the killer.

    Audrey Rose Wadsworth and her partner-in-crime-investigation, Thomas Cresswell, are en route to New York to help solve another blood-soaked mystery. Embarking on a week-long voyage across the Atlantic on the opulent RMS Etruria, they're delighted to discover a traveling troupe of circus performers, fortune tellers, and a certain charismatic young escape artist entertaining the first-class passengers nightly.

    But then, privileged young women begin to go missing without explanation, and a series of brutal slayings shocks the entire ship. The disturbing influence of the Moonlight Carnival pervades the decks as the murders grow ever more freakish, with nowhere to escape except the unforgiving sea. It's up to Audrey Rose and Thomas to piece together the gruesome investigation as even more passengers die before reaching their destination. But with clues to the next victim pointing to someone she loves, can Audrey Rose unravel the mystery before the killer's horrifying finale?.

    Escaping from Houdini can be purchased on (U.S.) and (UK). Below are a few more fictional shipboard adventures of Houdini.


    Monday, September 17, 2018

    Diggers Rest historians hold fundraiser to buy Houdini rarity

    Australia's Star Weekly reports that Diggers Rest historians are holding a fundraiser to secure a local autograph book containing a rare signed photo of Houdini.

    The autograph book is from 1910 and has been in the family of Toolern Vale resident Wayne Johnson for more than a century. Mr. Johnson says the autograph book had been passed down to his wife, Kay, from her great-grandmother.

    "Kay's great-grandmother used to live in a hotel and she used to collect the signatures of people who came into the hotel," Johnson told the Star. "A lot of the other entries in there are signed, 'a member of the Houdini company', which also helps to verify the authenticity of Houdini himself's signature."

    Houdini spent four months touring Australia in early 1910. During this time he made the first successful airplane flight on the continent on March 18 at Diggers Rest.

    Diggers Rest History Project members put out a call for donations to help buy the autograph book from Mr. Johnson. They've raised about $1500 towards the $2000 goal. Johnson said he was keen to ensure that the book stayed "close to home".

    "You can't put a value on this," he said. "It's been in the family for generations and I'd like it to stay in Diggers Rest."

    The Diggers Rest History Project, which began in 2014, shares its collection of artifacts and historic documents with the community through Houdini's Cafe and the Diggers Rest Medical Centre.

    To donate and for more information CLICK HERE.

    Photo of Wayne Johnson and David O'Conner by Marco De Luca.


    Sunday, September 16, 2018

    New Italian Houdini biography by Massimo Polidoro

    Codice in Italy has released Houdini, Mago dell'impossibile by Massimo Polidoro. This is an updated version of the biography originally published in 2001. This new edition runs 468 pages with dozens of photos and a 16-page insert of color photos as well.

    Says Massimo, "I have tried to strictly adhere to Ken Silverman's scientific historian's approach… even though, here and there, I have also told some of the best "almost true" stories, but always clarifying that they were unproven or downright fabrications. I am very satisfied with the final result and I hope that Houdini buffs will like it and, above all, that it will help reach a new generation of readers that may have never heard of Houdini."

    The book is in Italian, but Massimo says he and his publisher are considering some options for translations.

    Purchase Houdini, Mago dell'impossibile at and


    Another Houdini "instant biography" on Amazon

    Amazon is listing yet another print-on-demand "instant biography" (is that a good name for these?) titled Harry Houdini: A Harry Houdini Biography by Phil Coleman. This one runs 107 pages with no photos.

    I really don't know if I should be buying or even blogging about these books. They are not freshly researched biographies, nor do they appear to be written by people with any real interest in Houdini or even a point of view (I'm convinced the last one was written by a bot). These are whipped up with info found on the net, both good and bad, and seem created just to list on Amazon. This particular author is a self-publishing empire all his own, with many similar books on current events and conspiracies.

    But maybe that's what makes these books worth getting? Are these unique products of this time? Will these become collectible like chapbooks are now, or will they be considered junk of the early days of print-on-demand publishing? I really don't know. But I do know they shouldn't be purchased for the purpose of learning about Houdini. There are many other better books for that.

    Having said all that, you can buy Harry Houdini: A Harry Houdini Biography by Phil Coleman at (U.S.) and (UK).


    Saturday, September 15, 2018

    Europe's Eclipsing Sensation: 1900 to 1905

    Today I'm sharing a new block of preview years from The New Houdini Chronology: 1900 to 1905. These are the years that saw Houdini's breakout fame as the "King of Handcuffs and World Champion Jail Breaker" across England, Germany, France, Holland, and Russia.

    As a bonus, I've also included the massive "A.D." page that tracks the amazing afterlife of Houdini from 1927 to the present.

    I'm no longer offering the entire chronology online as I'm working toward publishing it as a book. But if you ever need any specific information related to a date not currently previewed, feel free to get in touch.

    I hope you enjoy this latest peek inside The New Houdini Chronology.


    Friday, September 14, 2018

    The Rise of Houdini: Haunted Burlesque & Seance

    This Halloween marks the 92nd anniversary of Houdini's death, and the October events are starting to roll in! Here's an event that sounds like fun on October 26 & 27 with the Experience Theatre Project in Beaverton, Oregon. I know this is an early alert, but according to their Facebook page, it is already 50% sold out.

    The RISE of Houdini 
    Un Burlesque Effrayant & Seance
    to Raise The Great Houdini

    led by Necromancer Extraordinare
    Professor DR Schreiber 
    LADIES will perform frightening yet tantilizing burlesque!
    WITNESS the Mesmeric Seance that Calls to Houdini!
    GHOSTS WILL RISE from nowhere! 
    Uncanny! Unearthly! Unbelievable! Extraordinary! 
    Friday and Saturday, October 26-27, 2018
    The Haunted Lodge at 4690 SW Watson Avenue, Beaverton, OR 
    6PM Cocktail Party with Gourmet Hors D'eouvres prepared by Italian Chef Renato Solpietro from Napoli, Italy
    7PM Haunted Burlesque feat. Lacy Knickers and Nina Nightshade. Dessert served.
    8PM SEANCE to raise the dead and The Great Houdini 
    Special appearances by James Luster and Janice Moss, last seen in ETP's immersive production of The Mousetrap as Det. Sgt. Trotter and Mrs. Boyle. 
    Dressing in the Fashion of 1928 Recommended But Not Required 
    An over 21 event. This is a theatrical performance, not an actual demonstration of dark arts.

    You can buy tickets to The RISE of Houdini via Eventbright. For more information visit the official website.


    Thursday, September 13, 2018

    Final days to see 'Summer of Magic' at New-York Historical Society

    The New-York Historical Society's exhibition Summer of Magic: Treasures from the David Copperfield Collection is coming to a close this Sunday, September 16. The exhibition features rare artifacts from the Golden Age of Magic, including Houdini's Milk Can, Metamorphosis trunk, straitjacket, Bess's stage coat, and the Mirror Handcuffs (first time the cuffs have been displayed publicly in 20 years). If you haven't seen it, now's your last chance!

    This final weekened will also feature a reappearance of Houdini himself a.k.a. Duffy Hudson. Below are details.

    Meet Summer of Magic’s Closing Act: Harry Houdini!
    FEATURING: Duffy Hudson
    Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018 | 11:00 am - 4:00 pm
    Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018 | 11:00 am - 4:00 pm
    Free with Museum Admission
    Don’t miss the final weekend of our Summer of Magic, and your last chance to shake hands with Harry Houdini—that is, if his arms aren’t stuck in a straitjacket or handcuffs! Marvel as Houdini, portrayed by Duffy Hudson, shares his incredible life story, performs illusions with playing cards, and manages to swallow—gulp—sharp needles! Click for more info.

    Visit The New-York Historical Society's website for location and hours.


    Wednesday, September 12, 2018

    Houdini in 1904

    The culmination of Houdini's European adventures and his reign as "The Handcuff King" came in 1904. The year would see him perform the greatest challenge handcuff escape of his career. It was also a unique year in that he only performed in a single country; the United Kingdom.

    This post is now retired. 

    But you will still be able to enjoy the story of Houdini in 1904 with the publication of my upcoming book.

    Tuesday, September 11, 2018

    Simon says it wrong

    On the last episode of America's Got Talent, judge Simon Cowell helped spread an age-old Houdini myth. It was after magician Shin Lim's performance when it was announced he would be moving on to the Finals. The audience was reminded that judge Heidi Klum had compared Lim to Houdini and David Copperfield...

    Cowell then quipped, "Don't do what Houdini did. He died on stage."

    Of course, Cowell is thinking of Houdini's death in the Water Torture Cell as first depicted in the classic Tony Curtis biopic Houdini (1953). But this is a pure Hollywood fabrication. Houdini died in Grace Hospital on October 31, 1926 after several days of battling the infection from a ruptured appendix. His death had nothing to do with any of his stage illusions. Although he did do his final show at the Garrick Theater in Detroit with a 104 degree temperature.

    There's been a weird resurgence of this old myth. Recently magician David Blaine also spread the idea in a newspaper interview. Certainly both Simon and Blaine know better. But maybe this is now considered an "alternative fact"?

    Shin Lim, wisely, did not correct him.

    Thanks to Joe Fox for the alert.


    Monday, September 10, 2018

    Terror Island shown on Catalina Island 98 years ago

    It was 98 years ago today that Houdini's Terror Island opened at the Strand Theatre on Catalina Island. What makes this particular engagement notable is that the movie was largely shot on Catalina, a fact that was used in the local advertising (below). This rare ad and more Houdini-Catalina history can be seen in the exhibition Houdini Terror on the Magic Isle which is currently running at the Catalina Island Museum through October 7.

    The building that housed the Strand Theatre still stands today at 122-124 Sumner Ave., although it is no longer a movie theater. It became "The Strand" in May of 1919 when the theater was upgraded with new projectors.

    The Strand Theatre now and yesterday (1920).

    Thanks to the good folks at the Catalina Island Museum for the use of the above images, and to Joe Notaro and Jessica Zumberge for finding the location of the Strand. The clock is ticking on Houdini Terror on the Magic Isle, so if you want to see the first exhibition ever devoted to the movie, get yourself to the island!


    Sunday, September 9, 2018

    Secret Santa: The Secret of the Magic Watch

    Houdini plays a role in this latest time travel adventure by David Tank, Secret Santa: The Secret of the Magic Watch. Here's a description.

    Sam, Abby and Nick return in this time-traveling adventure to the Roaring Twenties. When Abby gets separated and finds herself lost in New York City, Sam and Nick follow her trail, determined to rescue her. In their race to bring her back to the present, they foil a bank robbery, catch a burglar and learn the secret of magician Harry Houdini's greatest trick. The sequel to Secret Santa: The Mystery of the Stereoscope.

    Secret Santa: The Secret of the Magic Watch can be purchased on (U.S.) and (UK).

    Below are some more adventures of Houdini and Time Travel.


    Saturday, September 8, 2018

    Mystifier, Fourth Quarter 1994

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

    New HHC curator Benjamin Filene kicks off the Fourth Quarter 1994 Mystifier with a review of The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini by Ruth Brandon. It's a well-researched and considered assessment of what would prove a controversial biography. Filene does give the author credit for "considering the psychology behind his stunts," but says her "analysis becomes more erratic" when she shifts to "the psychology of the man himself." In the end, Filene concludes:

    The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini does offer a creative and, for the most part, well-argued look at a figure in need of a fresh interpretation. In the tradition of Houdini himself, Brandon should be commended for not being afraid to take a chance and for executing her maneuvers with style. She could, though, stand to learn more from the master about which challenges to accept and which to graciously let pass.

    The newsletter only runs four pages this time. Filling out page 2 is is an update on the Gravesite Repair Funds, noting that $7000 has been raised. But it also says "repairs to the family grave are on hold for the immediate future, according to George Schindler, a trustee of the S.A.M. Parent Assembly #1." This, we now know, was the start of friction between the cemetery and the S.A.M. which, thankfully, is now in the past.

    A report on a live Halloween radio broadcast from the HHC by Rick McNeal and Len Nelson of WAPL in Appleton follows. It says the DJs received their own "message from beyond" about the Green Bay Packers. The museum shop reports that it has in stock the graphic novel Batman/Houdini: The Devils Workshop and Harry Houdini: Legend and Legacy by Roger Wood and Brian Lead. Familiar names listed among the "New Members" are Lee Jacobs and Geno Munari.

    Sid Radner devotes his "Backstage" column to that year's Official Houdini Seance, held at the Soldiers’, Sailors’, Marines’, Coast Guard and Airmen’s Club in New York City. Attendees included Stanley Palm, Maureen Christopher and Kenneth Silverman. Co-organizer Tom Boldt could not attend that year, but his wife Renee and her mother, Suzanne Goral, attended in his place. Houdini, as usual, was a no show.

    Sid then reproduces in full an article about the seance by Barbara C. Bernard from the November 28, 1994 issue of the Union-News in Springfield, Massachusetts.

    Volume 4, Number 4
    Fourth Quarter, 1994
    4 pages

    Book Review: The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini
    Gravesite Repair Fund Grows
    Houdini's Spirit Comes Alive
    Museum Shop
    Backstage with Sid Radner


    Friday, September 7, 2018

    When The Man From Beyond came home

    What was the first Houdini movie released on VHS? One might think it would have been Paramount's Houdini (1953). But that famous biopic did not make it onto Home Video until 1991.

    The first Houdini movie to appear on VHS was Houdini's own 1922 silent thriller The Man From Beyond. It was released in 1983 by a company that cinephiles of a certain age will remember very well; Video Yesteryear.

    Video Yesteryear was located in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, and was the largest catalog retailer of public domain films on VHS, Beta, and 8mm film beginning in 1978. (It started as Radio Yesteryear in 1967.) The company released their silent films at corrected frame rates speeds -- a process they called Video Accu-Speed -- and included original organ scores composed and performed by Rosa Rio, who had been a theatre organist during the silent era. The company was purchased by Audio Book Club in 1998.

    The Man From Beyond was the only available Houdini silent movie until 1996 when Bill McIlhany released Terror Island and later The Master Mystery on VHS. The print used for the Video Yesteryear version appears to be the one that's still used today.

    Happily, I have one of the original Video Yesteryear VHS tapes. I vividly recall not believing my eyes when I saw this on the shelf of Vidéothèque on Sunset Blvd in the 1980s. The catalog price was $52.95. As with all Video Yesteryear releases, it included program notes written by J. David Goldin.

    While this remains the only commercial VHS release of The Man From Beyond, it has been released by several companies on DVD and even on Blu-ray. Today it can be found streaming on Amazon Prime.


    Thursday, September 6, 2018

    Sady and the Graf Zeppelin

    I guess we are wild about Sady this week! Houdini's sister-in-law has always been a somewhat shadowy figure in Houdini history. She's even been referred to as "Dark Sadie." But thanks to Jack Sander's groundbreaking guest blog, turns out Sady was a pretty interesting Weiss!

    The below clippings from October 26, 1928 report that Sady, who was a well-known New York fashion designer, is one of several women who have applied for passage aboard the Graf Zeppelin. The giant airship was the talk of New York at this time as it had just crossed the Atlantic on its maiden voyage. The return to Germany was a hot ticket. But check out the absolutely bonkers article in which a Zeppelin representative weighs the value of a female passenger against...a bag of mail.

    Click to enlarge.

    Turns out Sady did not made the cut. Only two women made the crossing back to Berlin; Mrs. Clara Adams of Tannersville, PA, and Miss Lotta Eckener, daughter of Zeppelin's director, Dr. Hugo Eckener. But one wonders if Sady was even serious about making this trip. Maybe she just saw an opportunity for publicity. A little trick she leaned from her brother-in-law?

    Of course, Hugo Eckener's follow-up to the Graf Zeppelin, the Hindenburg, exploded in Lakehurst New Jersey on May 6, 1937, bringing an end to the era of great airships.


    Wednesday, September 5, 2018

    Sady's mourning dress for Bess

    Following up on Jack Sander's groundbreaking guest blog yesterday about Leopold and Sadie (a.k.a. Sady) Weiss, here's an interesting item from the Shamokin News Dispatch for August 3, 1927.

    As Jack discovered, the Hungarian born Sady was a successful Manhattan fashion designer and executive who ran Bruck-Weiss Millinery off Fifth Avenue. She received a fair amount of press in her day for her fashion philosophy, but the fact that she was Houdini's sister-in-law was rarely mentioned (as it isn't above).


    Tuesday, September 4, 2018

    Guest blog: Leopold and Sady Weiss: Why Houdini Wasn’t Happy

    Today I have a fantastic guest blog by historian and author Jack Sanders about the marriage and divorce of Houdini's brother, Dr. Leopold Weiss, and his wife Sadie (or Sady, as she became). This is groundbreaking research--which Jack has also posted to his blog Old Ridgefield--that adds much fuel to the speculative fires about the Weiss family drama and Houdini's dislike of his sister-in-law. Jack also finally settles the question of who actually owned the famous estate in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Enjoy.

    Leopold and Sady Weiss:
    Why Houdini Wasn’t Happy
    by Jack Sanders 
    For decades stories have circulated about Houdini’s visits to his brother in Ridgefield. Some reports have gone so far as to maintain the world-famous magician practiced his underwater escape tricks in a pool at the grand Sunset Hall estate on Old West Mountain Road. However, there is evidence Houdini wouldn’t have set foot in that house, which belonged not to his brother, but to his hated sister-in-law. 
    "Sady" Weiss in 1927.
    The brother was Dr. Leopold Weiss, a pioneer in the field of medical radiology. The sister-in-law was Leopold’s wife, Sadie — later Sady, a Manhattan fashion executive who owned Sunset Hall for six years. Born in 1877 in Appleton, Wisc., Leopold David Weiss was the youngest of six children of Rabbi Mayer Weisz and his wife, Cecilia, natives of Budapest. One of the five Weisz brothers, Ehrich, went by the name of Harry Houdini. 
    Dr. Weiss, who was called Leo, became what some reports say was the first radiologist in New York City. He started his practice from Houdini’s brownstone in Harlem shortly after the turn of the 20th Century.

    The Weiss family members were close and often gathered together. But in 1917, the family was in turmoil. 
    Sadie Glanz Weiss had divorced her husband, Nathan Weiss — brother of Leopold and brother of Houdini — and 10 days later, she married Leopold. 
    Houdini was heartbroken as well as furious over what he considered scandalous mistreatment of Nathan. 
    “The precise details of the family drama are not entirely known, but Houdini's displeasure took many forms, including cutting Leo’s head out of family portraits and forbidding his burial in the Weiss family plot,” said John Cox, a longtime student of Houdini. 
    Accounts do not specifically mention Leo’s being disinherited, but do say that Houdini’s will specified that none of his estate should “ever directly or indirectly go to Sadie Glantz Weiss, the divorced wife of my brother Joseph Nathan Weiss, and the present wife of my brother, Dr. Leopold Nathan Weiss.” 
    Sadie Weiss, who by 1928 was spelling her name Sady, was a New York City fashion designer and executive. The daughter of Hungarian parents, she was born in New York and married Nathan Weiss in 1899 when she was about 22 years old.  
    In 1912, she and her sister, Anna Bruck, established the Bruck-Weiss Millinery, which by 1918 was “the largest exclusive millinery shop to be found on either side of the Atlantic,” according to a contemporary trade publication. The firm owned a 10-story building just off Fifth Avenue, and occupied most of the floors, selling not only hats, but other articles of clothing for wealthy women. 
    “The interiors are finished in old ivory, after the period of Louis XVI, with reproductions of needlework tapestry, and festooned crystal chandeliers of the same period,” the “Illustrated Milliner” reported. “Rich Chinese rugs ornament the beautiful parquet floors, while the curtains are of extraordinarily fine Belgium laces…” 
    Sady, who was referred to in the press as “Madame Weiss,” believed women should have a clothing philosophy. “Until a woman has a well-established idea in her mind of just what clothes she can wear, she is unsettled, drifting,” she said in a 1928 interview published in newspapers across the country. “A clothes philosophy is almost as important in a woman’s life as a career.” 
    In November 1924, Sady Weiss bought the Ridgefield mansion of James Stokes, a place today called Sunset Hall. A Manhattan banker who was a pillar of the YMCA movement, Stokes had built the huge, 10-bedroom house on Old West Mountain Road in 1912 and died six years later. Sady Weiss purchased the place from a niece who had inherited it. Houdini’s brother Leopold was not mentioned in the deed or in any deeds involving the property. 
    Sady Weiss held on to the house until 1931, when she sold it to Ruth Cutten.

    Meanwhile, the same year Sady bought Sunset Hall, Houdini wrote his will, excluding her from any inheritance. 
    On Oct. 31, 1926, Houdini died of peritonitis from a burst appendix. 
    Thus, there were less than two years when Houdini could have visited Sunset Hall — between December 1924 and his death on Halloween, 1926. 
    For all this period, he is known to have hated Sady Weiss and was reported to be estranged from his brother as well. 
    Why then would he have visited Sunset Hall — Sady’s house?
    Houdini scholar Cox has also found evidence that Leopold may not have thought much of his brother Houdini. An interview with a woman who knew Leopold’s office nurse revealed that Dr. Weiss did not speak well of his brother. She reported Leopold had said Houdini “was an embarrassment to the family because he was a magician.”

    Cox wondered about this. “Possibly Leo felt entertainment was a lowly profession compared to his own,” he wrote. “Or maybe the hard feelings between the brothers went both ways. But it’s fascinating to hear what Leo had to say because, until now, we’ve only heard Houdini’s side of the feud.”

    Compounding the mystery of whether or why Houdini would visit Ridgefield is the account of Richard E. Venus, former Ridgefield town historian. In a Dick’s Dispatch column in The Ridgefield Press in 1987, Venus wrote that Houdini and his wife, Bess, “spent many weekends at his brother’s Ridgefield home. I recall seeing him as he stopped in the local stores on a Saturday morning. On one occasion, I sold Houdini a Ridgefield Press.” 
    Adding still more to the mystery is the fact that Sady and Leopold themselves were not on the best of terms during the 1920s, according to testimony during their 1932 divorce proceedings. 
    The divorce battle was ugly. Leopold, who brought the suit against Sady, charged that she would spend weekends at Sunset Hall and another country home she had in Ossining with either of two boyfriends 20 years younger than her. Sady’s butler told Leopold he often served Sady and her lover breakfast in bed. One boyfriend was named “Locke Lorraine,” according to the suit. 
    Leopold also:
    • Maintained that he gave Sady the money to establish Bruck-Weiss, and that in return she agreed to pay him $8,000 a year for life, but did so for only three years.
    • Claimed he was broke now and wanted not only the promised payments, but also half of the $115,000 she got from selling Sunset Hall. (That selling price equals about $2.1 million in today’s dollars). 
    Sady in response charged that:
    • Leopold “persuaded her to get a divorce” from Nathan Weiss, and then turned around and refused to marry her unless she gave him $100,000 and half her interest in Bruck-Weiss.
    • Soon after they were married, he started abusing her and threatened to ruin her clothing business. “To keep the peace she agreed to give him $8,000 a year for life and did pay him that for three years,” said a newspaper report of the divorce proceedings.
    • Leopold finally walked out on her in 1930, despite the fact that throughout their marriage, she had supported him with her money. 
      After their divorce — whose settlement is unknown — Sady lived on West 59th Street in Manhattan until her death in 1935 at the age of 54. 
      Leopold continued his radiology practice until 1949 when he retired because of increasing blindness — due, it’s been suggested, to his exposure to x-rays. He eventually began running low on money and on Oct. 5, 1962, Dr. Weiss jumped off the roof of his apartment building, killing himself.

      “Leo left all his worldly goods to his long-time, former nurse, Marguerite Elliott,” John Cox reported. “But Marguerite’s husband forbad her from accepting, so all that was left of the last living Weiss sibling was thrown out.” 
      Even though Houdini had supposedly banned him from the family plot in Machpelah Cemetery in Queens 38 years earlier, Leopold was buried there.

      The whereabouts of Sady’s remains are unknown.

      If you have any more information on Sady, Leopold, or Ridgefield history in general, contact Jack via his blog Old Ridgefield or website Ridgefield History. You can also find him on Twitter @jacksanders and on Facebook at Old Ridgefield.

      Thank you Jack!