Thursday, April 25, 2019

Houdini in 1905

For Houdini, the year 1905 was split into two distinct halves. The first half saw him as an established superstar in Europe. But the second half found him back in America, where in some ways he had to prove himself all over again. It was a fascinating transitional year, and one of his most combative.

Part I: Europe

Houdini began the year in the UK at Barnard's Theater in Woolwich. On January 7th, he traveled to the offices of the Weekly Dispatch in London to be present at a magic face-off between Chung Ling Soo and Ching Ling Foo. For the occasion, Houdini had taught his friend Soo (actually American William Robinson) his Needles trick. Foo never appeared, and that night Robinson sent Houdini a telegram reading: "Houdini, God bless you, all I can say. R."

Houdini closed out the month with a two week engagement in Glasgow where crowds broke through the doors of the Palace Theater to see him escape from a locally made hamper. The following month saw him escape from a jail cell at the Rochester Police Station on Castle Hill in Chatham. He then played a week at George's Hall in Bradford where his percentage of the house earned him "$2,150 clear salary", the highest he had ever received.

In March, Houdini returned to France and played the Alhambra Theater in Paris for the entire month. Once again the police refused to allow him to do a jail break. But it was here (according to Milbourne Christopher) that he first presented his straitjacket escape in full view of the audience instead of inside a cabinet. It was actually his brother Hardeen who had discovered this dramatic new presentation while performing at the Swansea Empire in Wales. It proved a sensation, and was forever how Houdini would present the escape. It was then back to the UK and the Alexandra Theater in Sheffield where he celebrated his 31st birthday.

The previous year Houdini had won a legal battle with the Moss and Thornton circuit. In retaliation, they hired Frank Hilbert to tour England with an imitation and exposure of Houdini's Metamorphosis and handcuff act. "In plain English, they are trying to ruin my reputation and future career," said Houdini. Now when he arrived in Cardiff to play the King's Theater, he found Hilbert booked in direct opposition at the Empire. It was time for a showdown.

On April 10, Houdini attended Hilbert's performance disguised as an old man. The Empire's manager had been warned that Houdini might cause trouble, and when Houdini revealed himself and challenged Hilbert, he was set upon by seven men and thrown down a flight of steps into a back alley. When Hardeen found him, Houdini believed his leg was broken. But Bess and sister Gladys had been strategically placed in the audience, and now they leapt to their feet waving their own challenge handcuffs for Hilbert. They too were removed from the theatre "screaming loudly." All the participants wound up in court four days later where Houdini's assault complaint against the theater manager was dismissed.

The following week Houdini and Hilbert were again booked in direct opposition in Newport. When both asked permission to escape from the local jail, Chief Constable Sinclair proposed a jail breaking contest between the rivals (shades of the Soo/Foo challenge). But Hilbert failed to appear at the appointed time, and Houdini performed his escape solo. He then led the curious crowd that had gathered outside the station house to his Lyceum Theater.

Cunning The Jail Breaker
While Houdini was keeping an eye on Hilbert in England, he was also turning his attention to his American imitators. One of the best known was Robert M. Cunningham from Provo, Utah, who performed as "Cunning The Jail Breaker". On May 16, Houdini dispatched his brother Bill with a pair of handcuffs to challenge Cunning at Hurtig and Seamon's Music Hall in Harlem. Cunning only managed to free himself from one hand. When Bill demanded his handcuffs back, Cunning refused and walked off the stage. A Hilbert-like fracas ensued with Bill being arrested and charged with disorderly conduct (later dismissed).

In late May, Houdini "Introduced" his Prison Cell & Barrel Mystery at the Argyle Theatre of Varieties in Birkenhead ("This is an old contract and I could not get out of it very well"). Houdini had first presented the effect in Salford the previous year. But now it became a regular part of his act, effectively replacing Metamorphosis. The following month Houdini performed for the first time in Blackpool ("the Coney Island of England") where he escaped from a jail cell at the South King Street police station. He also accepted a challenge from Boro Saw Mills to escape a packing case made of "One Inch Deal".

While performing at the Hippodrome in Wigan, Houdini learned that his friend Henry Evanion was dying. Houdini quickly traveled to London to see him. Over the past year Houdini had purchased many treasures from the retired magician and collector. Now Evanion presented him with a final treasure trove, a collection of Robert-Houdin's London playbills. Houdini called it "the central jewel in my collection." When Evanion died on June 17, Houdini paid for his funeral. He also supported Evanion's widow until her own death not long after.

When Frank Hilbert opened his exposure show at Moss's Empire in Edinburgh, Houdini, who was playing in nearby Leith, rented out a storefront next door to the Empire and had his assistants Franz Kukol and George (James?) Vickery present their own handcuff exposé show every half hour. The men posed as "the celebrated illusionist of Vienna" and "the magician of London." The poster advertising the show contained a revealing addendum:

"These gentleman confess they do not know how Harry Houdini, who is engaged at the Gaiety Theater, Leith, this week, performs his tricks. If they did they would not travel as exposers."

It was in Leith that Houdini concluded his European tour on July 8. In his closing night speech he announced he would be returning to America. After the show, a crowd greeted him at the stage door and carried him to the train station singing, "And when ye go, will ye nae come back?" The demonstration moved Houdini to tears.

Houdini had come to Europe in May 1900 for what was supposed to have been a tour of a few months. It became five years. But now it was time to go home, and on July 20th, Houdini and Bess boarded the Kronprinz Wilhelm bound for New York.

Part II: America

The U.S. papers announced Houdini's return, reporting that he would rest until October 1st and then tour the Keith-Orpheum circuit at a star salary of $1000 per week. Keith's had originally only offered half that, arguing that, unlike in Europe, he would not be able to secure permission for his outdoor stunts and would therefore not draw the free publicity and extra business to their houses. Houdini held out, saying "I have no desire at all to play America, unless I'm worth that money to the managers." Eventually the circuit met his price.

While he didn't perform during the summer months, he didn't rest. On his Connecticut farm, now dubbed "Weiss Hill", he cut down twenty trees to clear a road and moved several three-hundred pound boulders "unassisted", or so he told reporters. He was also thrilled to be home with his mother, now 65 and comfortably ensconced in 278 with sons Bill, Leopold, and a German servant named Anna Aulbach. Houdini delighted in accompanying his mother to the market "to buy up all the goose grease" and bringing her to the drugstore for hot chocolate.

Houdini prepared for his upcoming America tour by having the Russell-Morgan U.S. Lithograph Co. create a series of colorful posters proclaiming him "Europe's Eclipsing Sensation". But the idea that he would be a similar sensation in America was not guaranteed. The vexing issue remained the other "Handcuff Kings" who has flourished in his absence, some of whom were more familiar to American audiences than Houdini. He decided to take preemptive action.

Houdini vs. Boudini
On September 11, Hardeen caused a "small riot" trying to challenge Cunning at Hyde & Behman's Theater in Brooklyn. Newspapers reported the the audience sided with Cunning against the "foreign looking individual" (the papers offer conflicting reports on whether Houdini was present). Leaving the stage, Hardeen was sucker punched by an audience member and arrested. Houdini tried to post bond for his brother, but it was refused and Hardeen spent the night in jail. He was freed the following day on a suspended sentence, the judge convinced the whole matter had been a publicity stunt.

Nine days later, Houdini challenged another rival, Jacques Boudini, to an underwater handcuff escape contest off Battery Park. Houdini easily escaped his handcuffs while Boudini nearly drowned. But the savvy New York newspaper men sensed the stunt was staged and reported as much in their papers. Houdini's U.S. return was not off to a great start.

Houdini then did a curious thing. Instead of making his debut on the Keith's circuit as announced, he booked himself into the independently run Colonial Theater at Broadway and 62nd St. The theater had developed a reputation for being a rough house, with audiences fond of driving performers off the stage with the rhythmic "Colonial clap." But Houdini's own rough and tumble style went over extremely well with the Colonial crowd, and he was extended for a second week.

Houdini then began his tour with two weeks at the Orpheum in Brooklyn. There he escaped a packing case made by Abraham and Straus. Engagements in Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Cleveland took him into December. He then finished the year with appearances Rochester (where he set a house record), Buffalo, and Baltimore. Proving Keith's wrong, in each city he was able to arrange a jail break and benefit from the free publicity.

On December 23, Houdini took out an ad in the New York Clipper trumpeting his American success:

When it became known that
HOUDINI, The Jail Expert
Was Booked Back in America at a $1000 Weekly Salary, all the Wisenheimers and Society of Know-It-All, explained why he would be a Gold Brick,
It has been Proven Positively that HOUDINI is worth MORE than what he is booked for, and as a Drawing Card he never had an equal.

After filling the ad with praiseful press notices, he decided to end it with...

Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year To All.

Houdini's ad might have been as much about assuring himself as the "Wisenheimers" it appeared to be targeting. While there's no doubt he did good business, his American debut up to this point could not really compare to the sensation he caused during his first few months in Europe.

That would come in the new year.

Frank Hilbert poster comes from the New York Library and is sourced from The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush. Houdini-Boudini photo is from Houdini The Key by Patrick Culliton.


1 comment:

  1. This is a great read; thanks very much. On top of everything else, Houdini could've been a terrific Broadway producer! As I read this (especially the New York Clipper ad), I thought of the legendary producer David Merrick ("Hello Dolly," "42nd Street," etc., etc.) who had a genius for publicity stunts, turned failures into successes, and WOULD NOT take no for an answer. Makes me wonder if Houdini ever suffered from insomnia; he seemed to be thinking ahead 24/7. Just amazing.