Sunday, March 31, 2019

A special movie at a magical place

Last night I had the great pleasure of seeing Houdini (1953) at the historic Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo (near LAX). While the movie was a joy as always, the real surprise was this incredible venue. How have I not known about this place until now?

The Old Town Music Hall is a genuine silent movie theater built in 1921. Restored in 1968 by musicians Bill Field and Bill Coffman, the theater (a non profit) is a time capsule that offers up an authentic movie going experience from another era. The true star of the show is the massive 1925 Mighty Wurlitzer wind-powered pipe organ. Last night the evening kicked off with musician Edward Torres playing several numbers on this incredible instrument. This was followed by a sing along accompanied by authentic silent era lantern slides. The theater does this before all their movies, and it really conjures a starry dream-like experience worth the price of admission alone. If you want to know what it was like to live in Houdini's time, this is pretty close to finding that magical time machine.

Then came a raucous Laurel and Hardy short, Come Clean (1931), featuring Mae Busch as a suicidal mad woman giving the boys a very bad day. Of course, Mae also appears in Houdini's The Grim Game. Was this clever programing on the part of the theater? Nope. Just a coincidence. But a delightful coincidence, and Mae is terrific in the short.

After a brief intermission it was time for Houdini! What can I say? I never tire of watching this wonderful film, and every time I see it projected with an audience I have a somewhat different experience. This time the sheer star power of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh really jumped off the screen at me. They are electric. I also always find new details within the movie itself. This time I noticed something in the scene at 278 (er, I mean, 273) when Harry says to Otto, "If the press won't come to me I shall go to the press." At that moment, Otto is threading up a movie projector. A nod to the films Houdini made of his outdoor stunts maybe? Also, in the early scenes in Mama's house, there is something on the back of Harry's bedroom door that appears to be in German. Possibly an acknowledgment of the Weiss family's native tongue? (At last year's screening on Catalina Island, I noticed menorahs in the house.)


After the movie, there was an attendee doing some impromptu magic in the lobby for people who had lingered. He mentioned that Houdini himself made silent movies, but couldn't recall the names (and I didn't want to pipe up). This caught the attention of the organist who said he had no idea Houdini made movies. Oh???? I'm hoping this might have planted a seed and we'll see a Houdini movie playing at the Old Town Music Hall one day.

Houdini is showing again today at 2:30pm, and I'm tempted to go back. I know I'm going back for their screening of Animal Crackers next month. Not that there's much connection between The Marx Brothers and Houdini (apart from this). I just want to once again time travel back into that magical twilight world I experienced last night.


For more information on the Old Town Music Hall visit their official website, Twitter, or Facebook.

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Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Grim Game 100th Anniversary Screening on Catalina Island


A special 100th Anniversary Screening of Houdini's The Grim Game will take place at the Catalina Island Museum on Friday, May 17 at 7pm. The film will be screened in the museum's magnificent outdoor amphitheater and will feature live musical accompaniment by acclaimed composer and musician Michael Mortilla (who last year accompanied a screening of Terror Island). I will also be on hand to introduce the film. Below are details.

Friday, May 17, 2019
The Grim Game - 100th Anniversary Screening
Ackerman Family Amphitheater
7:00 pm - 10:00 pm (Program begins at 7:30 pm)
Members $20
Non-Members $25
Children (3-15) $10
All children must be accompanied by an adult.
Only 100 tickets available. 
Celebrate the 100th anniversary of Harry Houdini's 1919 film, The Grim Game during an outdoor screening in our Ackerman Family Amphitheater. The film will feature live musical accompaniment by acclaimed composer and musician Michael Mortilla (who will accompany our annual Silent Film Benefit the following day). Houdini expert John Cox will introduce the film.

The Grim Game is a silent drama that showcases Houdini's talents as an escapologist, stunt performer and aviator. In the film, a gang of men frame Houdini's character for murder and kidnap his fiancée. Houdini is falsely imprisoned by the police for the crime. Shortly afterward, he escapes and pursues the men who framed him. The film unfolds as a series of Houdini's trademark stunts and escapes; his tormentors chain him up and imprison him on numerous occasions, only for Houdini to escape. The film concludes with a climactic mid-air collision following an airplane pursuit. Following the collision, Houdini is reunited with his fiancée.

The film was considered lost until for decades until it was recently discovered. It was restored and first shown again in 2015.

A specialty cocktail, wine, beer, soda and water will be available for purchase.
PURCHASE TICKETS HERE 

As a bonus, you'll be able to see the museum's new Houdini display in their permanent exhibition on Catalina Island history. The display includes unseen footage from Houdini's Terror Island, which was filmed on Catalina in November of 1919.

This is also the weekend of the annual Art Deco Ball and Silent Film Benefit, which this year features a screening of Colleen Moore's Why Be Good? in the famous Avalon Casino Theater. This is always a big weekend on the island and hotels fill up fast, so if you want to attend The Grim Game 100th Anniversary Screening, I would make plans soon.

Hope to see you there!

UPDATEThe Grim Game is a hit on Terror Island.

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Friday, March 29, 2019

Tony's 273

Here's a look at Houdini's house in the classic 1953 biopic Houdini starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. I suspect this was shot on Paramount Studios' New York Street (which still exists). One thing to notice is the address, which can be seen on the press invitation as 273 W. 113th Street.

I'm assuming this is not a mistake and the production intentionally changed 278 to 273. Producer George Pal did visit Rose Bonanno at the house, so maybe this was done to protect her privacy. But I'm happy they kept it close.


Also notice the date of September 3rd. Houdini returned to America in late July 1905 and took a three week rest. If he had set up a press reception as this scene depicts, it would have indeed been in early September (near the start of the vaudeville season). It's also true that Houdini had to work to win his reputation in America upon his return.

This is what makes me love the Curtis movie and the people who made it. Sweating details like this shows respect. On the flip side, the 2014 Houdini miniseries with Adrien Brody located Houdini's house in Brooklyn for reasons I still can't fathom!

Houdini will be showing at the historic Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo, California, tonight at 8:15pm, Saturday at 2:30pm & 8:15pm, and Sunday at 2:30pm.

Related:

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Ken Trombly talks 'Houdini and the Spiritualists' April 6

Houdini collector and historian Ken Trombly will give a talk on "Houdini and the Spiritualists" at the Connie Morella Library in Bethesda on Saturday, April 6 at 1:30 pm. Ken will share his thoughts on Houdini’s relationship with spiritualism and its adherents, and share images from his collection.

Ken Trombly, a lifelong magic enthusiast, has given presentations about the life of Houdini for a variety of groups. In the 1980’s Ken began collecting original letters, photos and other ephemera dealing with Houdini’s amazing career. Pieces from Ken's collection have been displayed at the Jewish Museum in New York City, the Skirball Center in Los Angeles, and, most recently, as part of an exhibit on the life of Houdini at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, in Baltimore. Recently Ken was interviewed on a mini-series aired on the Science Channel entitled “Houdini’s Last Secrets.”

Saturday, April 6, 2019
1:30 pm

Connie Morella Library
7400 Arlington Road
Bethesda, MD

For more information visit the website for National Capital Area Skeptics.

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Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Mystifier, First Quarter 1997

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


The HHC began the new year with a fresh redesign of the Mystifier. The First Quarter 1997 issue then kicks off with an announcement of a major new acquisition:

A recent acquisition by the Houdini Historical Center allows us, in effect, to "hear" Houdini's father for the first time. The acquisition consists of two German-language documents, One is a prayer that Rabbi Weiss delivered on October 28, 1987 to inaugurate Appleton's first Jewish synagogue; the other is a wedding speech he gave in Appleton on March 2, 1879. Both were acquired from a British dealer in rare manuscripts and maps and were translated for the Houdini Historical Center by Michaela Kirchhof of Lawrence University.

A short article about translator Michaela Kirchhof follows. Kirchhof observes that Rabbi Weiss "certainly liked to hear himself talk" and that his German grammar was "highly idiosyncratic and downright wrong at times." Like father like son?

The newsletter continues with an article by David Ben about Houdini's influence on his own performance character, "The Conjurer." A report on a special Houdini medal minted by the Jewish-American Hall of Fame follows. And among the new members we see Dorothy Dietrich and Jon Oliver.

Page 5 includes a real gem. It's a photo of Houdini with a small elephant and Ringing Bros. trainer Walter Allen (right). The photo belongs to Allen's son, Mel, who comes seeking information on his father and Houdini. The article states: "Allen family lore says that Walter may have helped Houdini learn how to work with elephants, or assisted in some way with the Vanishing Elephant act."

Houdini did use two smaller Ringling elephants for his Elephant Vanish at the Times Square Theater in 1922. In fact, he paraded them down Broadway on opening day (April 2). So are we seeing here the only known photo of Houdini with either Fannie or Lucy?

In "Backstage with Sid Radner", Sid reports on the March 30 airing of Houdini People Came to See Him Die on the Discovery Channel. He reports that Ken Silverman's Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss has received great reviews in both the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, and is currently into its fourth printing. Sid also reports the sad news that Marie Blood's husband Forrest passed away on February 11. He then shares that he himself recently suffered a heart attack and underwent bypass surgery. (!) But he's home and recovering.

Sid then announces that the Goodspeed Opera House is readying a new Houdini musical to play September 24 to December 14, 1997. He ends the column with the prophetic: "Maybe all this Houdini activity will help us get a Houdini postage stamp..."

Mystifier
Volume 7, Number 1
First Quarter, 1997
6 pages

Contents:
New Documents Reveal Rabbi Weiss
Houdini and The Conjuror
Member News
Houdini Medal Minted
Backstage with Sid Radner


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Tuesday, March 26, 2019

See Houdini (1953) this weekend in El Segundo, CA


The classic 1953 biopic Houdini starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh will play at the historic Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo, California, March 29-30-31. The theater is a cultural landmark located not far from Los Angeles International Airport and features a 1925 Mighty Wurlitzer wind-powered pipe organ.

SHOWTIMES ARE:
Friday 8:15pm, Saturday 2:30pm and 8:15pm, Sunday 2:30pm

$10 regular admission
$8 seniors (62+)
Tickets are not available on-line. Tickets are on sale at the theater's box office 30-minutes before each show time. Cash or Check Only - No Credit Cards

Every show begins with music played on the pipe organ, an audience sing along, and a comedy short. There is a 15-minute intermission, followed by the feature film.

Old Town Music Hall
140 Richmond Street
El Segundo, CA 90245
(310) 322-2592

For more information visit their official website, Twitter, or Facebook. You can also get details on the Houdini screenings at their Facebook event page.

I'm planning on attending the Saturday, March 30th showing at 8:15pm. Hope to see you there!

Related:

Monday, March 25, 2019

Looking into the future...

Yesterday I retweeted the many Houdini birthday wishes (58) that crossed the various Twitter hashtags. Among them was this standout tweet from Howard Thurston expert and mega collector Rory Feldman who shared a gem from his collection. A great photo and a terrific inscription. Perhaps they are looking at us?


You can check out all the other birthday tweets @HoudiniWild.

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Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Houdini birth year conundrum

Houdini buffs have long discussed the question of Houdini's two birthdays. While Houdini celebrated it on April 6, his birth certificate shows he was actually born March 24 (today!). In a letter to Hardeen, Houdini admitted that he celebrated his birthday on April 6 because that's when their mother would write to him. "As SHE always wrote me on April 6th, that will be my adopted birthdate."

But there's another mystery around Houdini's birth that never seems to get discussed. It's the question of why Houdini for the first half of his life claimed he was born in 1873 instead of 1874. When I first started encountering this 1873 date, I would chalk it up to a misprint or isolated error on Houdini's part. But I now see there is consistency in Houdini both using this date and calculating his age during these years. So it appears Houdini really believed he was born in 1873.

This has some interesting implications. Houdini thought he was a full year older during his formative years. So when he made the decision to leave his tie cutter job and begin a career as a magician, he thought he was 18. But he was 17. When he married Bess in 1894, he believed he was 21. He was 20.

So when did Houdini learn the truth?

On his May 26, 1900 passport application, Houdini records his birth year as 1873. But on his application for renewal filed April 15, 1903, he writes 1874 for what appears to be the first time. So what happened between these dates? One pretty significant thing; he went to Budapest.

I think it's possible Houdini discovered his true birth year from records or from relatives during his weekend visit to Budapest with his mother in 1901. However, in his pitchbook, The Life, History and Handcuff Secrets of Houdini, and in his first book, The Right Way To Do Wrong, both published in 1906, he once again gives his birth year as 1873.

The Right Way To Do Wrong (1906)

But the bigger mystery in all this is why Houdini believed his birth year was 1873 in the first place.

Before I get too deep into the weeds, I need to acknowledge that it could be just an honest mistake. I know it's hard for us to conceive this kind of mistake today, but the Weiss family grew up in a very different world, one without easily accessible records, and dates would be what one recorded yourself or could remember. And when having a child a year, birthdays and even birth years could be confused. Or it could be Houdini, who we know was famously bad at recording dates, was even worse than we think!

But if it was an honest mistake discovered in 1901, why does Houdini continue to use the wrong date in his publicity material? This suggests there might be something more to this.

Now, I do have a theory that gets us into some pretty provocative territory. These are thoughts I've had for a while, but have not shared. This is pure wild speculation on my part, but hear me out.

Houdini's sister Gladys once stated that Houdini/Ehrich was named after an earlier baby who had died. This remarkable claim appears in a letter she wrote to Bess in 1936, reproduced in full in The Houdini Birth Research Committee's Report (1972). She writes:

There was an infant son Ehrich of our household, at that time. This babe through a fall, died and broke the hearts of both our parents. Both of them said, if ever another son were to be their blessing, his name would be Ehrich.

No other evidence of this earlier Ehrich has surfaced, and in the next sentence Gladys says Houdini was born in Appleton. So she might be doing some myth making here. But it seems odd for her to be doing so with Bess, and she also writes, "I'm sure you have heard mother tell you all this before." So this seems like information that was well known among family members.

So if we take Gladys' word for it, could this earlier Ehrich have been born in 1873? Could he have been born on April 6, 1873!? Could Houdini's mother have confused the birth years of the two Ehrichs? Or, and this is where it starts to get strange, could the heartbroken Cecilia have been such a believer in reincarnation (as Houdini later said he was) that she decided her new Ehrich was the old Ehrich and that he was spiritually "born" in 1873 and wanted to honor that.

In the same letter that Houdini admits to April 6 being his "adopted birthday", he writes: "It hurts me to think I can't talk it over with Darling Mother." Could his mother's clinging to the trauma of the earlier Ehrich and her strange transference onto Houdini be what they needed to "talk over"?

This also helps explain the pitchbook and The Right Way To Do Wrong. Having discovered the truth in 1901, Houdini recorded his real birth year in official records. But for the public record, one that his mother might read, it remained 1873 for HER. Tellingly, the 1914 edition of his pitchbook, published after her death, his birth year is updated to 1874.

Is your head swimming yet? Here's one final bit of Freud for you.

If there was an earlier Ehrich who died in an accident, might it explain the extreme attachment Cecilia had for her second Ehrich. Might it also explain Houdini's drive to become a "death defier" -- compulsively acting out his own death and resurrection to delight his mother and heal the grief caused by "his" original failure to escape death. Recall his famous diary entry after his Rochester bridge jump in 1907: "Ma saw me jump!" Might this be the key to Houdini's psyche?

Anyway, on his 145th birthday today (or is it 146?), I just thought I'd share my thoughts on yet another delightfully mysterious aspect in the delightfully mysterious life of the great Harry Houdini.

Happy birthday Harry!

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Friday, March 22, 2019

Houdini in the rapids

Here's a terrific photo of Houdini shooting The Man From Beyond on the rapids of the Niagara River. This comes from the April 15, 1922 Motion Picture News. I've never seen this shot.


What excites me here is the bridge visible in the background with what appears to be people watching the shoot. This is not seen in the film. Indeed, in the movie there are no clear landmarks to tell us exactly where Houdini filmed these scenes. But this bridge is a landmark! Unfortunately, I've not been able to identify it. But if we could, we could potentially zero in on the exact spot where Houdini took his famous rapids ride.

So does anyone recognize "Houdini Bridge"?

Related:

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Textbook turns 50

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Houdini The Untold Story by Milbourne Christopher, or what I like to call "the Textbook." It appeared in stores on March 21, 1969. My appreciation and admiration for this book just continues to grow.

It is a straightforward factual narrative devoid of padding: no "secrets", no unconvincing imaginary conversations, no scene-painting. But packed with solid authentic detail as the book is, Mr. Christopher with his delightfully lucid and objective style of writing contrives to make it compelling and enthralling reading none the less. 
-Baryard Brimsaw (About Magicians)

You can read my 2013 deep dive into the publication history of Houdini The Untold Story HERE.

Related:

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Dover reprints The Right Way To Do Wrong

Today Dover releases a new reprint of Houdini's first book, The Right Way to Do Wrong. Dover has a long tradition of releasing Houdini titles. They've kept The Secrets of Houdini and Houdini on Magic in print for decades, and last year released Houdini's Paper Magic. So it's fun to see them keeping the tradition alive. Nice cover as well!

With this remarkable book, the legendary magician conducts a master class in crime by revealing the trade secrets of crooks. Harry Houdini is known not only as an illusionist and escaper of handcuffs and jail cells, but also as a debunker of phony spiritualists and other charlatans. His interest in exposing fakery led Houdini to interview both police and criminals around the world. The result is this captivating volume, intended to help readers avoid being victimized by pickpockets, con artists, and other thieves. 

Purchase Dover's The Right Way to Do Wrong on Amazon.com (U.S.) and Amazon.co.uk (UK).

UPDATE: I have my copy in hand and just a heads up that this is a mere slip of a book without the original book's frontispiece photo of Houdini or any of the original illustrations, which is disappointing.

Related:

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Spectacle of Illusion by Matthew Tompkins

The Spectacle of Illusion: Deception, Magic and the Paranormal by Matthew Tompkins is a new book to be published in conjunction with the exhibition Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic, which runs April 11 through September 15 at the Wellcome Collection in London.

In The Spectacle of Illusion, professional magician-turned experimental psychologist Dr. Matthew L. Tompkins investigates the arts of deception as practised and popularised by mesmerists, magicians and psychics since the early 18th century. Organised thematically within a broadly chronological trajectory, this compelling book explores how illusions perpetuated by magicians and fraudulent mystics can not only deceive our senses but also teach us about the inner workings of our minds. Indeed, modern scientists are increasingly turning to magic tricks to develop new techniques to examine human perception, memory and belief.

Beginning by discussing mesmerism and spiritualism, the book moves on to consider how professional magicians such as John Nevil Maskelyne and Harry Houdini engaged with these movements – particularly how they set out to challenge and debunk paranormal claims. It also relates the interactions between magicians, mystics and scientists over the past 200 years, and reveals how the researchers who attempted to investigate magical and paranormal phenomena were themselves deceived, and what this can teach us about deception. 
Highly illustrated throughout with entertaining and bizarre drawings, double-exposure spirit photographs and photographs of spoon-bending from hitherto inaccessible and un-mined archives, including the Wellcome Collection, the Harry Price Library, the Society for Physical Research, and last but not least, the Magic Circle’s closely guarded collection, the book also features newly commissioned photography of planchettes, rapping boards, tilting tables, ectoplasm, automata and illusion boxes. Concluding with a modern-day analysis of the science of magic and illusion, analysing surprisingly weird phenomena such as ideomotor action, sleep paralysis, choice blindness and the psychology of misdirection, this unnerving volume highlights how unreliable our minds can be, and how complicit they can be in the perpetuation of illusions.

The Spectacle of Illusion: Deception, Magic and the Paranormal is being published in a U.S. edition (picture above) from D.A.P., and a UK edition from Thames and Hudson. Amazon shows conflicting release dates, so I will leave it to you to purchase or pre-order or both!

For more information on the exhibition, visit the Wellcome Collection website.

Thanks to Rory Feldman for the alert.

Monday, March 18, 2019

HOUDINI FLIES!

At dawn on March 18, 1910, Harry Houdini made the first powered controlled flight of an aircraft on the continent of Australia. The historic flight occurred 109 year ago today in Diggers Rest near Melbourne. Click below to read the details of Houdini's historic flight in a post I wrote back in 2010 commemorating the 100th anniversary.



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Saturday, March 16, 2019

The saga of Houdini's Film Developing Corporation


It doesn't get much attention in biographies, but the Film Developing Corporation, a.k.a. FDC, was a major part of Houdini's (and Hardeen's) life from 1916 to 1925. It also marked Houdini's entrance into the movie business, albeit behind the scenes. While the FDC is today forgotten, the building that housed it remains. But we'll get to that.

Houdini formed the Film Developing Corporation on September 25, 1916. Opening a film lab was, in theory, a good investment. Movies were exploding in popularity, and even threatened to supplant vaudeville. And here at last was a way for Houdini to earn a steady income without having to tour. There was a fair amount of competition. But the FDC promised a faster, cheaper process for developing motion picture film using machinery and chemicals worked out by an aniline dye expert named Gustav Dietz. This was at a time when most film developing was still done by hand.

The executive offices for the FDC were located at 22 West 42nd St. in New York, while the film plant itself was located across the river at 216-222 Weehawken Street in Hoboken, New Jersey. Houdini was President, Hardeen Vice President, and Alfred Davidson Secretary and Treasure. Houdini took his new role seriously enough that on his 1918 draft registration card he listed his profession as: "Actor / Manager, Film Factory."

The December 20, 1920 issue of Motion Picture News gave a nice description of the FDCs laboratory operations:

On the west shore of the Hudson not far from the center of Hoboken the laboratory of the Film Developing Corporation is running full blast. The laboratory under the direction of Messrs. Houdini, Hardeen and Davidson has forged ahead by its production of work of high quality until it occupies a position as one of the leaders in the fine film development.
Although the interior of all laboratories are much the same as far as equipment and procedia are concerned, the Film Development laboratory offers some refinements in these respects. Particularly impressive is the roominess of the separate departments. Instead of having many machines in a close space with little room for expansion, there is plenty of space in every direction.
In the printing room, for instance, there is room for 15 to 20 printing machines, and a like amount of spaciousness is found in the performing department. Three projectors, two Simplexes and a Baird, are used to prove each foot of film before being sent out.
But probably the most interesting parts of the Film Developing plant are the automatic developing machines. There are three of these automatics, a small negative machine and two mammoth positive machines. Through the use of these machines, it is possible to pass films from printing machines through the various developing and drying processes without being touched by the human hands. The drying drums are totally inclosed and fed with perfect conditioned air.
In personnel the laboratory is especially fortunate tin having workers long experienced in handling of film. Superintendent Flosse has been identified with laboratory practice for many years. Mr. Joseph Leighton is an expert negative developer. Miss Madelaine Keough is floor lady, and Miss Sohns is in charge of the printing department.
The Film Developing plant has been laid out for an ultimate capacity of 1,500,000 feet weekly.

Personnel and titles would change during the first few years of the company. Nathan Saland, who had experience running film labs, was brought in as Vice President and Hardeen became Secretary and Treasurer.

Houdini had convinced his brother to leave the stage to help run the business. Hardeen's true feelings about surrendering his successful stage career for a desk job are not known. But a profile of Hardeen in the "Equipment Services" column of Motion Picture News chirpily noted:

Mr. Hardeen's executive ability has had much to do with the success of the firm in which he is interested. His long experience in the stage has given him a personality which aids him in handling employees. And strange as it may seem to view of the fact that his present work is much less exhilarating that the one which made him famous he has become thoroughly absorbed in his laboratory and only on rare occasions such as benefits does he drop his robe of business and take up the secrets of tricks of the magician.

The FDC had some notable clients, including Famous Players Lasky who would later produce Houdini's The Grim Game and Terror Island. The FDC also developed First National's innovative newsreels called "Kinograms". When Houdini formed his own production company, the FDC did all the processing for his two feature films, The Man From Beyond and Haldane of the Secrets Service. According to "Houdini's Ghost" Patrick Culliton, the lab also pioneered the concept of "Film Dailies", turning around shot footage within 24 hours for the film company to review.

With Houdini at the helm, it should comes as no surprise that the FDC aggressively advertised themselves, primarily in trade publications. Below are two such ads from 1919 and 1923.


Unfortunately, the FDC was problematic almost from the start. Dietz's special chemicals proved highly corrosive to the machinery. The war also affected the supply of chemicals needed for the automatic developers, and "rather than chance it with results not quite up to the standard" they shut the machines down. Profits proved elusive. To cover mounting expenses, in 1921 Houdini created a real estate holding company called The Weehawken Street Corporation, naming Bess Vice President. Through it he purchased the building for $35,000 and then rented it back to the FDC for $541 a month. This accomplished little. As Ken Silverman noted in Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, "Houdini was out of his depth in this financial wheeling-dealing."

Then there were the lawsuits. A former manager, Arnold de Biere, sued the company for $2600 in unpaid salary. The case was settled out of court for $2000. The FDC was also hit with an ugly lawsuit by rival Powers Film Products, who claimed, falsely, that the FDC was a foreign owned company. The charge made news causing deals to collapse and some customers to withhold payments, one for $8000. Houdini filed a $25,000 countersuit for damage to the company's reputation.

Among the FDC stockholders was magician Harry Kellar, who had cautioned Houdini early on "not to go too deep into it as you have worked too hard for your money to throw it away." Now Kellar grew concerned that if the FDC went bankrupt, he'd be held libel for its debts. Houdini persuaded him to not sell his 125 shares and granted him the power of attorney. "I'm not worried about losing my money in the FDC," he wrote to Kellar, "but would certainly worry about losing your friendship."


The FDC and Houdini soldiered on, expanding and installing new equipment in 1922. But business didn't improve, and the following year two shareholders filed a suit against Houdini and Hardeen for mismanaging the company.

The stress of the business took its toll on Hardeen who had to have surgery for ulcers. But even with the weight of the FDCs problems, Houdini still found time to tour, make movies, lecture, write books, and launch his campaign against fraudulent spirit mediums. But with Houdini's waining interest in even his own motion picture productions, in 1925 he at last threw in the towel.

In November 1925 Nathan Salad resigned as Vice President and set up his own Saland Film Laboratories. The Weehawken Street Corp. folded that same year, and the FDC appears to have remained in existence in name only. Houdini now used part of the building as his workshop. Two famous photos show Houdini and his assistants at work inside the building, which are the only images of Houdini at the Weehawken site (as far as I'm aware).

In January 1926, G. Bert Ward leased the lab and it became the Ward Cine Laboratory. After Houdini's death, the FDCs equipment was sold to Seiden Camera Exchange. This appears to have been the official end of the Film Developing Corporation.

Film Daily, August 15, 1927.

But it was not the end for the Weehawken Street building. Happily, the building still exists today. The address is now 216 19th Street in Union City, NJ. (I visited it last year.) While modernized, it still retains its familiar structure inside and out, and would be recognizable to Houdini today. It's now a rental space frequently used for film and television work. Aware of the Houdini connection, the owners have dubbed the building "Houdini Studio."



A postscript to all this. One of Houdini's fellow Scientific American spiritualist investigation committee members was Daniel F. Comstock who had founded the Technicolor Film Laboratories also in 1916. One wonders if during their down time the conversation veered from ectoplasm to the shared frustrations of being a "Manager, Film Factory."

Related:

Friday, March 15, 2019

Houdini's London address and phone

Our friend Perry Reed has made an interesting discovery in this Getty Images clip showing an early London BT telephone directory. At the end you can see a listing for "HOUDINI, Harry, Handcuff King" with the phone number "Gerrand 1312" and the address "84 Bedford et mans." This was Houdini's London apartment, but exactly when he occupied it, I'm not sure. Unfortunately, this clip does not reveal the date of the directory.


Thank you Perry!

UPDATE: The good folks at The Manchester Society for Magic & Magicians @OrderOfTheMagi Twitter have shown me that many British telephone directories are available on Ancestry.com, including this one! The year is 1911, which is later than I always assumed for this residence. But it makes sense as Houdini was equally dividing his time between Europe and America right up to 1914.

Related:

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Houdini stamp from 1951

Here's a Houdini memorial stamp issued at the joint SAM-IBM "Mid Century Convention" in New York in 1951.


Today we take Houdini merchandise for granted. There are any number of puzzles, games, and bobble heads for the asking. But in 1951, I expect this was something unique. Of course, Houdini got an official U.S. postage stamp in 2002. In fact, that stamp was first revealed at the SAM Centennial Convention in New York. So this is somewhat of a forerunner to that.

Thanks to Kevin Connolly for reminding me I had this!

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Wednesday, March 13, 2019

A close call in the Water Torture Cell


Houdini breaking his ankle in the Water Torture Cell in 1926 is his only known accident while performing the famous escape. But Houdini did the escape for 14 years, so we can assume there must have been other mishaps or close calls. Now I've found one!

The below occurred while Houdini was performing at the Palace Theatre in New York in January 1917.

The New York Clipper, Jan. 17, 1917.

While this doesn't raise to the level of a true accident, it does shows the dangers of doing any water escape. And unlike modern Water Torture Cells--which are quickly locked by padlocks--Houdini's cell required his upward folding hasps to be perfectly slotted into the locks which then required a full turn of a key. So I can see how this happened. Good thing Houdini could hold his breath for over three minutes!

Below are links to a few other close calls.

UPDATE: Jim Criswell reminds me of this quote from an interview with Dorothy Young:

"And, then the very, very exciting thing was Water Torture Cell. [...] I stood with Mrs. H. often, and she said only once in their life, did he have to give the signal to be taken out."

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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Houdini on the Roadshow

Houdini showed up on Antiques Roadshow in the UK recently. Here's a tweet that shows what landed before the experts.


Thanks to Narinder Chadda.

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Sunday, March 10, 2019

Here's the cover of Joe Posnanski's new Houdini book!

Today I'm thrilled to help reveal cover art for Joe Posnanski's new book, The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, due out October 22, 2019. I love it!


Author Joe Posnanski shares with us his feelings about the cover:

"I cannot tell you how excited I am about this cover. This is my fifth book, and for each of the first four, the cover was a lot of difficult work. You want it to be perfect, of course, and that has meant looking at dozens of different possibilities. I would say, no exaggeration, that for my each of those books, the artists drew up at least 20 different covers. For one of my books, we probably looked at closer to 50 covers. 
And for The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini: This is the basically first cover they sent me. The art designer has done a wonderful job adjusting it, adding some light and flow, but it’s still the first cover.

And that’s just incredible. It’s like everyone at Avid Reader is on exactly the same page about what this book is — you have the shadow of Houdini dominating the cover, and there’s Harry peeking from behind, still very much alive, still impacting the world in countless very real ways. I’ve never had a cover that so perfectly aligns with the words. 
I cannot tell you how rare this is, for a cover to come together as quickly and as beautifully as this one has. It feels like a continuation of the magical ride that this book has been for me as an author. I’m so thrilled for you to share the cover, and I cannot wait to share the book — October cannot come fast enough for me."

You can pre-order The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. This promises to be the Houdini book event of 2019.

Thanks to Joe and the good folks at Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster for the scoop. 

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Saturday, March 9, 2019

A gathering at Famous Players-Lasky

Here's a photo of a gathering at the Famous Players-Lasky studio commissary in Hollywood. This comes from the July 5, 1919 Motion Picture News. Can you spot our boy? Extra points if you can spot his Terror Island co-star and director (even though this was taken while Houdini was shooting The Grim Game).

Click to enlarge.

The Famous Players-Lasky studio stood on Vine Street between Selma and Sunset Blvd. Today it's the site of modern development and a 1968 bank building which once housed "The Society of American Magicians Hall of Fame and Magic Museum."

Below are a few more posts that show Houdini at work at the Lasky studio.

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Friday, March 8, 2019

Houdini's early days online

Today I feel like giving a nostalgic shoutout to two Houdini websites that pioneered Houdini news and information on the net. While no longer updated, both sites are still available online.

First up is Bob King's "Houdini Tribute", which I believe may have been the very first Houdini site on the web. Bob devoted his site to historical Houdini ephemera as well as news and current events. It's still a fun place to explore as there are some hidden gems. The super old school design is also part of its appeal.


The next site is George Ford's Houdiniana.com, launched in 1999. I always found Houdiniana an exciting destination as it was mostly devoted to current Houdini news and events. The site went offline in 2007 and George seems to have fallen out of the Houdini world. But he was a pioneer and a good guy.  Houdiniana can be viewed via the Wayback Machine.


Finally, there was Houdini Connection, launched in 1998. I don't know who ran this site. It stopped updating in 2007, but is still online.


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Thursday, March 7, 2019

Haldane of the Secret Service screening in Portland

There will be a screening of Houdini's Haldane of the Secret Service with live musical accompaniment at the Clinton Street Theater in Portland on Tuesday, March 19 at 7 PM. Below are details.

The master escape artist, Harry Houdini, stars in one of his few screen roles as Heath Haldane, secret service agent extraordinaire, who is hot on the trail of the counterfeiters who killed his father. It has action, adventure, romance and some of Houdini's signature escape tricks and stunts. 
Join us at the next installment of Public Domain Xinema at the Clinton Street Theater with live music by Sonochromatic for Haldane of the Secret Service (1923) starring Harry Houdini and silent film star Gladys Leslie. The musicians of Sonochromatic will be in from Corvallis to accompany this silent classic on the big screen, plus newsreels and cartoons from 1923 to really take you back and a historical introduction from curator Ygal Kaufman. 
This is a donation based show, so you don't have to bring a penny, but the donations are vital to keeping the Clinton Street Theater open and keep our show going, so if you can spare a few bucks we appreciate it. Tuesday, March 19th, 7 p.m. only at the Clinton Street Theater.

Visit the Clinton Street Theater website for more details.

Thanks to Dick Brookz at the Houdini Museum in Scranton for the alert.

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Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Mystifier, Fourth Quarter 1996

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


The Houdini world experienced a peak moment in the Fall of 1996 with the 70th anniversary of Houdini's death and the release of Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss by Kenneth Silverman. The Fourth Quarter 1996 Mystifier captures this time, starting with a rave review of the book by HHC curator Benjamin Filene.

I breathed an "Aaah" of relief after reading only a few pages of Kenneth Silverman's new biography Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss. My job as curator of the Houdini Historical Center had just become immeasurably easier. Finally I had an authoritative, clearly organized, properly indexed source to which to turn when seeking information about Houdini.

This newsletter also contains a report on Penn and Teller's visit to the HHC on October 16. The magic duo were performing in nearby Green Bay, Wisconsin. They also sat down for a quick interview, which includes the following intriguing exchange:

Penn: We've talked to three people who saw Houdini perform, They all came up to us after seeing our show––they were all in their eighties. They mentioned it because Teller does the needles and they mentioned seeing Houdini do the needles. All three said the exact same thing––that they found [Houdini's] shows kind of disappointing. The Vanishing Elephant was supposed to have really stunk. But you know, it was the excitement of going and being part of it. 
Teller: Although I'm convinced very much by [Kenneth] Silvermans's description of the water tank [the Water Torture Cell] that it was a really fine piece of theater, just a killer piece of theater. It was paced completely differently from the way we should see something nowadays, but certainly within the realm of an event in that time. 
Penn: I'm afraid I can't be accused of having any sense of how the performance was in its time. I'm just ruined for that––it's like reading Dickens. So all I have are the accounts of these three people that saw him. Of course, once you've seen something big like this, once you've seen Houdini, you have two choices: either it was the best thing you've ever seen or a disappointment. You don't really have any sort of middle ground.

The newsletter continues with a report on radio interviews conducted by HHC curator Benjamin Filene on Halloween, as well as the Halloween AOL online conference co-hosted by Filene and D.L. Shiloh. It reports that "at any given second as many as 60 to 80 people hand 'logged on' to the conference." The article provides a URL of where a transcript can be retrieved, but the link has long since died. But a new age of online Houdini information had begun!

In his "Backstage" column, Sid Radner offers a ringing endorsement of Gene Gamache's new documentary, Houdini People Came to See Him Die, saying he feels it is "the best one to date." He also offers praise for the Silverman book, saying: "This biography surpasses everything written previously about Houdini, and no magic buff should be without it."

Sid then alerts readers that the first HHC publication, Houdini Comes to America, is now available from the museum shop. He also corrects a statement he made in a previous newsletter that Houdini had no nieces. "My statement was true, but Houdini did acquired nieces through his marriage with Bess, and his niece Marie Blood is well known in the magic profession."

Mystifier
Volume 6, Number 4
Fourth Quarter, 1996
6 pages

Contents:
Houdini!!! Reviewed
Penn & Teller Visit HHC
Museum Shop
Center On Line for Halloween
Center Staff on Radio
Backstage


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Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Mysteries at the Museum murders Houdini

The Travel Channel's Mysteries at the Museum once again featured a segment about Houdini. The episode titled "Scared To Death" aired last Wednesday (Feb. 27). It can be watched on YouTube.


Unfortunately, the series, now in its 24th season, seems to be running out of ideas. They've turned to the old murder/poisoning conspiracy theory, and do a pretty sloppy job with even the basic facts (he performed "for several weeks" after the punch?). But on the upside, we get to see our friend Dorothy Dietrich and the Houdini Museum in Scranton.

By my count this marks Houdini's seventh appearance on the show.

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Monday, March 4, 2019

Hardeen's new job

Today is the birthday of Houdini's brother Theo. Hardeen, born on March 4, 1876 in Budapest, Hungary. For the occasion, I thought I'd share this untypical profile of Hardeen from the February 14, 1920 issue of Motion Picture News. It is not about him as an escape artist, but as Vice President of Houdini's Film Developing Corporation, a role he played from 1917 to 1925. The photo is also one I've not seen before.

Click to enlarge.

Stay tuned for a deep dive into the FDC, including some unique trade advertisements and a description of the working plant itself. In the meantime...

Happy birthday Dash!

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Sunday, March 3, 2019

LINK: Franz and friends

Reader Perry Reed alerts me to a website called Lost Vaudeville that features the postcard collection of costume designer Blanche Townsend. Among the cards is one that shows Houdini's assistant Franz Kukol. It's an image I've never seen. The card is from March 1907 when Houdini was playing two weeks the Valentine Theater in Toledo, Ohio.

Click the headline to see the full Franz and friends at Lost Vaudeville.

Thank you Perry.

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Blogcast #5: Wild About Harry Houdini Since 1975

I'm very excited and honored that the talented Tom Interval has made me the subject of his Blogcast #5. This is from an interview Tom originally shared on his Houdini Museum blog in 2013.


I encourage you to visit Tom's websites at Interval Magic and Houdini Museum and listen to his other Blogcasts (a trailblazing idea). Also check out his Patreon page for special videos and content.

Thanks Tom!

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    Saturday, March 2, 2019

    It's true!


    The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini will be released on October 22 and can be pre-ordered at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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    When Franz kept the faith


    Today marks the anniversary of Houdini's hiring of Franz Kukol on March 2, 1903. So what better day for a Franz-themed post! But this story has a story behind it.

    When I was a young "Houdini Enthusiast" [a moniker I should really start using again], I corresponded with various magicians, and even wrote a column for a small magic magazine called The Magician Again. Recently I discovered some letters from that time, and one from Magician/Mentalist Ron Oliver from New Lowell, Ontario, contained a curious story about Houdini and Franz Kukol that I had completely forgotten about.

    The story concerns a gold watch that Houdini presented to Franz on the stage of the Finsbury Park Empire in London on March 2, 1913, as a gift for 10 years of service. But Ron's story suggests there might have been more to this gift.

     Below is an excerpt from the letter Ron wrote me on December 16, 1980.


    The story of the Kukol watch was told to me by a man whose father worked at the Finsbury theater in London from 1910 to 1915. He was a stage manager for the various acts that came in and, several times, saw Houdini. The full story is like this: 
    "One afternoon, after the matinee performance, Kukol received a telegram from his Mother, saying that she was very ill and wanted to see him. He conferred with Harry, who allowed him to go. Kukol left the theater, headed for the train. No one saw him again for about eight days. 
    When he finally returned, Harry was somewhat incensed at the fact that Franz had been gone so long. They retired to Harry's dressing room and a rather loud quarrel ensued. Apparently, Kukol wouldn't reveal where he had been, but did say that his mother was well. That was a week before the anniversary. The next day, Harry received a telegram from the Austrian army, from some high ranking official, asking for military help. The Austrians had heard that war was in the air, but in the future. They wanted Harry to give some of his secrets so they could be prepared....ie: handcuff slipping, cell escapes, etc. 
    As to whether or not Harry divulged the secrets, no body knows. But Franz and Harry had a long talk behind closed doors and emerged very good friends again. Everyone assumed the argument was over, but the guy I spoke to said that his father always felt that Franz had been asked to reveal the secrets of his boss to his old employers, the Austrian army, and refused. The would explain his being missing for almost a week. It would also explain the inscription, in Austrian, on the back of Kukol's gift watch...roughly translated, it supposedly says "To Franz Kukol...for keeping faith....Houdini." 
    How much of this is true, I really don't know. The guy says that his father used to tell the story whenever someone would bring up the name Houdini. He delivered all the telegrams and kept tabs on who came and went in the theater, so it seems logical that he would know. 
    Franz Kukol was, as you know, an ex-army officer. And the Austrian army was correct in its assumption that a war was coming soon. About 17 months after the little thing with Kukol, Franz was called back into active duty with the army. War had begun.

    Of course, we now believe Kukol never returned to Austria and instead continued to work with Houdini under the name of Frank Williamson, but that is another story.

    Thank you Ron Oliver for this story and memory from the past.

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