Saturday, October 13, 2018

Randy Pitchford now owns Bess Houdini's brooch


There appears to be a new twist in the saga of Bess Houdini's famous Royal Crown Brooch. The following excerpt is from a profile of video game developer (and Cardini relation) Randy Pitchford at the website VG 24/7 [Clowns, Houdini, and a vanishing teenager – the Borderlands developer isn’t your regular video game studio]:

Pitchford’s great uncle is Richard Valentine Pitchford, a prominent magician in the early 1900s who went by the stage name Cardini. Cardini was so influential that there is an exhibit dedicated to him at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. “All the props on display in the exhibit are artifacts that my wife and I left to the Academy of Magical Arts for the museum display,” Pitchford tells me. Pitchford himself is also a prominent member of the organization. 
Recently, Pitchford and his wife, Kristy, were at a pyjama party with the Magic Castle’s founder, Milt Larsen, in Santa Barbara. Milt Larsen’s wife, Arlene, decides she wants to turn Kristy Pitchford into a queen, so she pops a bejewelled tiara on her head and drapes a brooch around her neck. “After all this goes down, Arlene explains that, ‘that broach that I put around your neck, it once belonged to Bess Houdini’,” Pitchford remembers. 
“The story is, that brooch was given to the Houdinis by the Tsar of Russia, Nicholas the II, when he invited them to Moscow in the hopes to recruit Harry Houdini to be his mystical advisor. Harry Houdini didn’t take the job, the job was taken by Rasputin, and we know how that turns out.” 
A while after the party, the Larsens put the brooch up for auction to raise money for a Magic Castle cabaret in Santa Barbara, but Pitchford can’t make it to the auction. The piece is estimated to reach $30,000, so he puts in a proxy bid for $55,000. The brooch goes for $60,000. The buyer? David Copperfield. 
“So David calls me a few months later, because a magician had posted a story on the Academy of Magical Arts Facebook page linking to an article about Bess Houdini,” Pitchford explains. “In the article she talked about her visit to Moscow, but the dates she mentioned were discrepant with what historians know. So, what if the whole Nicholas the II story, and the Tsar of Russia, was bullshit? These are the Houdinis, great self promoters. What if this was a story invented?” 
Pitchford didn’t care if the story was fabricated, though. He cared that it belonged to the Houdinis and made his wife happy. Copperfield said he could have it for his buying price: $72,000, with fees. “He’s like, can you bring cash?,” Pitchford laughs. “I’m about to get on a flight to Vegas because I’m working with Penn and Teller on a VR project – Penn and Teller’s VR: Frankly Unfair Unkind, Underhanded and Unnecessary. it’s effectively a collection of VR magic tricks. 
“It’s February 11, I’ll pick up the brooch and give it to my wife on Valentine’s Day. I have a briefcase loaded with $72,000, and because of the timing of the day, I don’t have time to drop it off at a safe. I’m going to the P&T theatre, and the security guy needs to see inside the case. Incidentally, there was another magician with me, whose stage name is actually Handsome Jack. His name predates Handsome Jack the video game character. He’s just laughing his arse off because he knows what’s in the briefcase. So I open the case and the security guard reacts like Marcellus Wallace opening his briefcase in Pulp Fiction.”

As the above suggests, the story of the brooch coming from Tsar Nicholas II is questionable (I suspect the Facebook link it talks about was this one). It's much more likely that it came from Grand Duke Sergei Alexsandrovich, whom the Houdinis performed for in Moscow in 1903 and who gave them gifts. Even Gerrie Larsen said as much in 1952. But over time and retellings, the Grand Duke became the Tsar. But who can keep Russian royalty straight anyway?

But it's great to know that the brooch has now landed with the Pitchfords and continues to live among magic royalty.


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19 comments:

  1. I wouldn't be too concerned. The Pitchfords purchased Genii Magazine also, and have plans to keep it going far into the future. So, the brooch is likely in very good hands.

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    1. That's great news Dean. I didn't know they purchased Genii. It's almost like they are assuming the roll of the Larsens in carrying some of the West Coast magic legacy they established, so in that sense the brooch is almost a return. Now I better understand why DC would sell it to Randy. Thanks!

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  2. Maybe DC had buyer's remorse? We can't be certain where Bess got that broach. Harry probably commissioned a jeweler in Europe to make it.

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    1. I never thought the Russia connection was all that important. It's the fact that it was owned by the Houdinis that makes it valuable, IMO. Unless it was Tiffany or something. But I've never heard anything about the quality or make of the jewelry itself.

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    2. Absolutely--and in the end that's all that matters. There are photos of Bess wearing this so that makes it a wonderful historical piece.

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    3. Yep. And I think DC may have just seen that the brooch was better off with the Pitchfords. It's nice to think that it will be worn again.

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  3. How does this mesh with the one stolen in Joplin, MO?

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    1. I currently live in Joplin, and have finall located the original location of the Pavillion Theater. There is not a lot of information regarding it, which is odd in itself. There are a few old newspaper articles referencing it, but little else. I am actually performing in the building on 10/18/18, as it is now a coffee house/performance venue. Galena, KS, another place of significance is less than 10 miles away.

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    2. Fantastic. I love that you'll be performing there. Don't leave your valuables out of sight! :p

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  4. That broach resembles a crown, so I wonder if HH had it specially made, was it originally a gift for Mama? We know he gifted his mother a dress made for Queen Victoria.

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    1. There are several photos of Bess and Mama in which Bess is wearing the brooch. So it appears it was always been hers. And I don't have any problem believing it came from the Grand Duke in 1903.

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    2. Hard to believe the brooch came at the same time as the jeweled ladle (1903), because the pic with Bess surrounded by her treasures only includes the ladle. That argues for a later presentation. Still working on this - the record is murky, to say the least. We know Kukol was in Russia in 1913 with a Houdini show headlined by Mme Houdini aka Wanda Timm - or was it?....

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    3. But that photo with her and the treasures (if I'm thinking of the same one) is from the 1930s.

      You can see the brooch in the photo in this post, which I'd date as 1904 or earlier. The brooch is also visible in the "two sweethearts" pic dated 1907.

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  5. I feel like I have to clarify that I did not write what you see in the indented text above. That is a copy and paste from an interview/profile of Randy at the website VG24/7. I make this clear if the first paragraph, but I think some people are skipping that and only reading the indented text.

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    1. No worries, I knew the indented material is not your writing style.

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  6. John I agree with you cannot believe he sold it and for cost ?? Crazy. Any excitement for the Houdini auction this weekend??
    Your Dear friends collection, though I thought he a alot more pitchbooks, maybe DC got them already sad though dam

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