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."

Volume 6, Number 4
Fourth Quarter, 1996
6 pages

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



  1. I suppose there was so much hyperbole and buildup in Houdini's press that some people were bound to feel their expectations weren't met.

    1. It would be interesting to know what performances they saw. His Vaudeville act or full evening show?

      By the 1920s, Houdini was already a kind of living legend. I actually think this is one thing the movie career really helped cement. Not that the movies were big successes, but via their advertising and omnipresence, Houdini became an icon well outside of Vaudeville. He returned to Vaudeville in 22 & 23 out of fincial necessity, and he did his old act (and a lot of talking). It's the one time you do see some negative reviews. He didn't give those tours his all.

      The spiritualism exposes are what gave Houdini new life and fire onstage. In fact, I have a review somewhere that says they wished Houdini would just present the spiritualism and drop the escapes, which seemed to be old hat.

    2. Good points. Audience's tastes for performers and acts of any kind also go through their own unique cycles and people get jaded, especially on the heels of a world war when everything else has changed. Performers sense when it happens but they also need time to adjust and rethink their acts and personas accordingly. Maybe the 3 people Penn talked to had encountered Houdini's show at such a time, as you suggest. The great song and dance man George M. Cohan was also a huge star of the same era; rather late in his career he did a play on Broadway, after which he came offstage, burst into tears, and told a friend, "They don't want me any more." But one of the great things about Houdini choosing to venture into the world of spiritualism is the personal stake he had in his convictions. Audiences always pick up on that kind of a personal connection and what they see resonates more strongly with them.

  2. Jay Marshall attended an HH show as a child and fell asleep. He didn't remember much.