Sunday, May 26, 2019

Where I met a man who saw Houdini

Today is the last day of business for The Pizza Cookery in Woodland Hills. Happily, their wonderful food will live on as they are just moving to a new location (landlord would not renew their lease). But they've been in this same spot for 44 years, which is pretty unique for Southern California, and this restaurant means a lot to me personally. Not only have I been going to it for all those 44 years, but it's located down the street from my High School, my first job, my first apartment. Every phase of my life I've stopped in for some pizza, salad, and their famous garlic rolls. But I have one memory in particular that will be of interest to WAH readers. This is where I met a man who saw Houdini.

It was April 1980, I was 15, and I had appeared in a local paper called the Chronicle ("Teen is wild about Houdini"). Somehow a gentlemen was able to get my contact details and got in touch. He said he had seen Houdini and could tell me about it. My mother feared this was a ploy to kidnap me, but my father thought this sounded intriguing, so he made arrangements for us to have lunch at The Pizza Cookery.

When we arrived, my father made a big deal of it. I recall him telling the restaurant staff this was "a historic meeting." The elderly gentleman arrived and he was very nice (not a kidnapper). The heart breaker is I didn't take any notes, so I don't know his name, nor the city or year he saw Houdini. But for some reason Cincinnati sticks in my head.

Over lunch, he said he vividly remembered Houdini doing the Water Torture Cell, which was a very exciting thing to hear. Of course, I wanted eyewitness details. I asked him what Houdini's voice sounded like (this was before I had heard it). I also wanted to know what the posters in the lobby looked like. Unfortunately, he said he couldn't remember these things. In fact, the Water Torture Cell was really the only standout memory he had. I recall being utterly perplexed how one could not remember every detail of an experience like this. But I often think of this gentleman now when I try to remember seeing Doug Henning in the 1980s. My memories are frighteningly dim! Heck, I'm struggling just to remember this lunch. Memories fade, kids, always take notes.

Anyway, our lunch continued and my father enjoyed talking to the man about the rest of his life, his memories of World War II, etc., which interested me less at that age. It really wasn't until later in life that I fully appreciated this experience. I've only met one other "witness" (Marie Blood). Now with Houdini dead 93 years, the possibility of meeting anyone with a clear living memory of him is almost nil. So I realize how lucky I was to meet this man, and what a very kind and generous thing it was for him to make the effort to find me and share his memory. He gave me a memory that I will never forget.

As for The Pizza Cookery, their new location will be in Thousand Oaks (follow their Facebook and Twitter). Who knows, maybe one day I will have lunch there with a young Doug Henning enthusiast and I can share with him what it was like to see the great magician. I just hope he doesn't ask me about the posters!



  1. That was a great story John! I also spoke with an elderly gentleman who claimed to have met Houdini. It was back around 1985 or 86, and he was one of my dad's clients. I don't remember how Harry came up in the conversation, but he told me saw HH in the back alley of a theater in Washington D.C. loading or removing his equipment. He said something to HH, who replied to him. It must have been in the 20s, possibly around the time of the 3 in 1 tour. Did HH tour his 3 in 1 DC?

    I also met a children's musician who told me his father saw HH perform. His father told him the actor who comes close to HH's voice was Paul Newman.

    1. Cool stories.

      Paul Newman??? That's interesting.

      HH played the 3 Show in One at the Shubert Belasco Theater in D.C. for one week (Jan. 18-24) in 1926.

  2. Listen to Newman's voice in this interview. It sounds a bit like HH's voice in the USD recording. Although that Edison recording sounds a pitch higher.

    Thanks for that DC 3 in 1 tour date. It could very well have been when that old timer saw HH. He must have about 75 when I saw him around 1985, so he must have been in his late teens when he saw Harry.

  3. Newman sounds a lot more like HH in this clip from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:

  4. John - I applaud your mother's apprehensiveness & concern at the time.

    These days, "stranger danger" is instilled upon our youth; an unheard of concept back in 1980.

    It was wise to have your Dad tag along.

    On a lighter note - Great story! Thanks for sharing.

  5. Thanks for sharing this awesome story! On the subject of memories, I'm sure you know that actors who have studied "The Method" use a recall exercise called sense memory or effective memory to reconstruct memories long in their past (to use in performance as a substitution for emotions, experiences, etc.) A director taught me this technique years ago and guided me through it many times (it's a little like hypnosis). It's amazing how our minds are capable of reconstructing every minute detail of an experience we had years ago. So you might not have needed to take notes anyway!