Saturday, August 31, 2019

August 2019 in review

Here's a rundown of posts by category that appeared on WILD ABOUT HARRY in August.

Most Viewed Post
Uncovering Houdini's 1915 Los Angeles straitjacket escape (at last!)

Houdini History
Houdini's broken wrist and the San Diego connection
Jules Traub remembers Houdini
My Houdini letter and a 100 year mystery
Houdini gold is coming
Dean Gunnarson recreates Houdini's L.A. escape in 1987
Houdini gets the Biographics treatment
Houdini and The Master Mystery at Clune's
The Grim Game turns 100
Hear the full recording of Hardeen on WNYC radio
Houdini returns to the Alexandria

News
Houdini in the Los Angeles Times crossword
Circus Busch Houdini poster for sale at Magic Live
Dave Goulding emulates Houdini's Aberdeen escape
Houdini "Halloween" window card and production tables sell at auction
Houdini Estate sees wedding of owner José Nazar

Art
Arturo Balseiro's Houdini bust is breathtaking

Exhibitions
'Before Houdini' art exhibition in Vermont
Last weekend to see 'Inescapable' in Atlanta
Magic poster exhibition opens at the Harry Ransom Center

Books
Gresham turns 60
HARRY Houdini (First Names) released in the U.S.
New cover art for Charlotte Montague's Houdini
KIRKUS REVIEW's The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini
Christopher Sandford talks Houdini and Conan Doyle

Plays
Minerva reappears at the Edmonton Fringe Festival
New Houdini stage musical announced for 2021
"Your Special Son" from The Impossible Man

Mystifier File
Mystifier, Fourth Quarter 1998
Mystifier, First Quarter 1999

    Friday, August 30, 2019

    Magic poster exhibition opens at the Harry Ransom Center


    The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin has opened an exhibition showcasing rare magic posters from their extensive collections. Among them are several original Houdini posters, including a beautiful one-sheet for The Man From Beyond that I have never seen in color (nor did I know an original even existed). Oh baby! And if that's not enough, they also have on display their two prototype Vanishing Elephant posters.

    According to Theatre & Performing Arts Curator Eric Colleary, several of the 19th century posters in the display were part of the collection sold to Houdini by Henry Evans Evanion. The center acquired these along with Houdini's private papers in 1958.

    The overall exhibit looks at advances in color lithography and how it coincided with the golden age of magic. The exhibit is free and runs through February 2, 2020.

    For more information visit the Harry Ransom Center website.


    Photos courtesy Eric Colleary at Kevin Connolly's Conjuring History Facebook group.

    Related:

    Thursday, August 29, 2019

    Houdini returns to the Alexandria

    We all know Harry and Bess celebrated their Silver Wedding Anniversary at the Hotel Alexandria in Los Angeles in June 1919. But did you know Houdini returned the the hotel a few months later with another woman!?

    Okay, so he returned as a performer at a luncheon for the Advertising Club and the other woman was actress Mabel Julienne Scott who served as his assistant. Below is an account from the Los Angeles Herald with a great photo I've never seen before.

    Los Angeles Herald, September 30, 1919.

    I'd love to know what this double locking "peculiar style of manacle" was. It's not clear from the photo. Any guesses?

    The Hotel Alexandria still stands today. Recently I had a look inside. To see my pics, check out the first related link below.


    Related:

    Wednesday, August 28, 2019

    Hear the full recording of Hardeen on WNYC radio

    The website for the New York Public Radio Archives has posted the July 3, 1939 "The Voice of the Theater" program hosted by Ezra McIntosh in which his guest was Hardeen, "expert in Oriental mysteries and illusions." This interview was conducted when Hardeen was appearing with the comedy team of Olson and Johnson in Hellzapoppin on Broadway.

    This was first posted on NYPR back in 2010. But this time they've included the entire program, and the Hardeen interview contains at least one exchange that appears to have been edited out of the earlier version. This is when Hardeen talks about how his tricks are "just as effective with a comedy angle on them. Perhaps more so."

    The full show is embedded below. The Hardeen interview starts at 4:50. This is currently the only available recording of Hardeen's voice. Enjoy!



    Related:

    Tuesday, August 27, 2019

    Houdini Estate sees wedding of owner José Nazar

    Earlier this month I had the great pleasure of attending the wedding of Kathleen Martinez and José Nazar at the magnificent Houdini Estate in Laurel Canyon. José is the owner of the property and the man responsible for restoring it and giving it new life and fame.

    It was a magical wedding filled with whimsy and creativity around every corner. And a camel! There were also some fascinating and notable guests, including the great Patrick Culliton (who I hear partied until 3am). The bride had just come in from Egypt where she is currently searching for the lost tomb of Cleopatra. I'm not kidding.

    It's always fun to get a peek inside this special place, so here are a few photos to enjoy. And congratulations to José and Kathleen!








    The Houdini Estate is available to rent for all occasions. Visit the official website for details. For more on the history of the property, check out my post from 2012: Inside the Laurel Canyon Houdini Estate.

    Related:

    Monday, August 26, 2019

    "Your Special Son" from The Impossible Man

    The YouTube Channel for the in-development Houdini musical The Impossible Man has shared a complete song from the production. "Your Special Son" is sung by James Hume with music by Simone Manfredini and lyrics by Oliver Lidert. This clip also gives a look at the production design.


    According to last week's press release, The Impossible Man will be workshopped next year with plans a 2021 premiere in Detroit.

    Related:

    Sunday, August 25, 2019

    The Grim Game turns 100

    Today marks the 100th anniversary of the release of The Grim Game at the B.S. Moss' Broadway Theater in New York City. This was an exclusive two-week engagement of the film with Houdini making a personal appearance at each showing. The movie would go into wide release in October.

    So to celebrate The Grim Game, here's a look at Harry Houdini...ACTOR! Also a list of notable Grim Game posts that have appeared here on WILD ABOUT HARRY over the years.


    Houdini sells out in Sierra Madre
    A gathering at Famous Players-Lasky
    Houdini arrives in Los Angeles
    Let's nominate The Grim Game to the National Film Registry
    Grim Game lantern slide sells on eBay
    Houdini learns the title of his movie
    The Grim Game jail break behind the scenes
    Grim Game pressbook sells in auction
    Houdini the Great and toothless?
    John Bengtson finds Houdini's crash site
    The Grim Game house
    Teller on Houdini and The Grim Game
    More Grim Game locations identified by John Bengtson
    Houdini in the Cahuenga alley
    John Bengtson uncovers Grim Game filming locations
    Tonight on TCM: THE GRIM GAME
    The Grim Game Commemorative Set
    TCM's airings of The Grim Game will use alternate scores
    Houdini wins the Oscar for Best Actor
    LINK: Reuel Meditz conducts live score for The Grim Game
    BREAKING: TCM WILL AIR 'THE GRIM GAME' ON OCTOBER 18
    Park Circus distributing TCM's The Grim Game
    Rick Schmidlin (Bonus): Where did Larry Weeks get The Grim Game?
    Rick Schmidlin (Part II): Saving The Grim Game
    Rick Schmidlin (Part I): Finding The Grim Game
    Houdini's leading ladies: Mae Busch
    What caused The Grim Game plane crash?
    Grim Game links from around the web
    L.A. Daily Mirror pinpoints Houdini's plane crash
    Photos from The Grim Game premiere in Hollywood
    Houdini conquers Hollywood (at last) in The Grim Game
    The Grim Game reviewed in 1919
    Tomorrow The Grim Game will be free
    The Grim Game musical ensemble and runtime revealed
    Catch your first glimpse of The Grim Game
    LINK: The mystery of Harry Houdini’s lost film
    LINK: NYU helps recover Houdini film
    TCM ACQUIRES 'THE GRIM GAME', SCREENING IN MARCH
    The Grim Game is sold and safe, says Kevin Connolly
    Playing The Grim Game in Sweden
    HOUDINI 'GRIM GAME' POSTER SETS NEW AUCTION RECORD
    Original 'Grim Game' poster at auction
    Unpublished Houdini: Harry at work
    Seeing double on The Grim Game set
    The Grim Game opens on Broadway
    The Grim Game named best poster of 1919
    Grim Game plane wreck lobby display
    Houdini's leading ladies: Ann Forrest
    Is 2012 the year of The Grim Game?
    Watch 13 seconds of The Grim Game
    Harry Kellar visits The Grim Game set
    I've seen The Grim Game
    Adroit Harry and ancient hokum
    The Grim Game screened in 1974
    Fragments from The Grim Game
    A Grim Game indeed

    "That's enough Grim Game."

    Saturday, August 24, 2019

    Mystifier, First Quarter 1999

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


    The Mystifier kicked off 1999 with a slight makeover of its masthead and a review of the TNT Houdini biopic by new curator Kimberly Louagie. It's less a review than a summary of the movie and a fact check of events. In the end, Louagie concludes:

    The TNT original movie Houdini is well done. Many of the events ring true to life, such as his poverty stricken childhood, death defying escapes, anti-Spiritualist crusade and his untimely death. The depictions of these events seem so accurate that the less tangible things about his life become more real. Not much is known about Houdini's personal life because he left very little record of it. It is in this unknown world that Densham uses creative license and captures our imaginations.

    Following the review is a lengthy article about Kimberly Louagie herself. It's then reported that the new HHC website is going strong with 12,400 hits since its creation on May 24, 1998. A Young Magicians workshop is announced for April. The museum shop announces a clearance sale, including their special Houdini phone cards marked down from $39.95 to just $5.00. New Members include familiar names George Ford, Scott McGraw, and Mark Schwartz.

    Sid Radner begins his "Backstage" column by welcoming the new curator. He then announces that the Houdini musical, which premiered at the Goodspeed Opera House, will be moving to the Marriott Theater in Lincolnshire, Illinois, with a new actor in the role of Houdini. Sid, who had been a great champion of the production, now levels some criticism:

    If you're looking for new facts about Houdini, of course, you won't find any in the production. You will get more of the fiction that each production seems to add to the historical confusion surrounding Houdini. In this musical, Houdini and Hardeen fight over Bess. Later in the production Houdini has an affair with–guess who–Margery.

    Sid then offers a correction to the Marie Blood interview from the last issue, saying Houdini stood 5' 4", not 5' 7". (Actually, a 1926 physical puts his height at exactly 5' 5.276".) Sid notes the new musical Ragtime features Houdini as major character. He again urges members of the HHC to write the Post Office Board to request a Houdini stamp. This would become a personal crusade for Sid, which would ultimately succeed.

    Sid closes with the news that he and Tom Boldt are exploring the idea of doing the Official Houdini Seance in London that year. This would be the first time the seance was held outside the United States. "Think about it," says Sid, "Wouldn't Houdini wish to return in his glory days in London?"

    Mystifier
    Volume 9, Number 1
    First Quarter, 1999
    6 pages

    Contents:
    Houdini Film Captures Imagination
    New Curator Joins HHC Staff
    Young Magicians Workshop Planned
    Museum Shop News
    Backstage with Sid Radner


    Related:

    Thursday, August 22, 2019

    Houdini and The Master Mystery at Clune's

    While Houdini was filming The Grim Game in Hollywood in the summer of 1919, his serial The Master Mystery began playing at Clune's Broadway Theater in downtown Los Angeles. Over the course of five months Clune's showed all 15 episodes paired with a different feature attraction. Here's the ad for opening week.


    On Wednesday, June 25th, Houdini made a personal appearance at Clune's during the 9:30 show, as reported in the Los Angeles Evening Herald.

    Houdini, the famous “Handcuff King” whose thrilling serial of romance, mystery and intrigue, "The Master Mystery,” is at Clune's Broadway, will make a personal appearance at the theater Wednesday evening at the 9:30 show, following immediately at the conclusion of the first thrilling episode in which he makes his screen debut. The Houdini feature augments the regular film attraction at Clune’s Broadway which this week will be Wallace Reid in “You’re Fired.”

    Clune's was located at 528 S. Broadway, just down the street from the Los Angeles Orpheum Theater where Houdini headlined in 1915 and 1923. Clune's opened in 1910 and was state of the art. It became famous for the large electric sign that stood on its roof. It was renamed the Cameo Theatre in 1924. Later operators included Fox West Coast, Pacific, and Metropolitan. It closed as a theater in 1991.

    Today the building still stands and is still recognizable. It's now occupied by retailers. But according to the excellent Los Angeles Theaters blog, the auditorium and screen still survive in the back. Here's hoping one day it might be restored and reopen as a theater.


    Below are all the features that Clune's paired with The Master Mystery during its 1919 run:

    June 22: You're Fired starring Wallace Reid / with Episode 1.
    June 29: True-Heart Susie starring Lillian Gish / with Episode 2.
    July 6: True-Heart Susie starring Lillian Gish / with Episode 3.
    July 13: The Spoilers (extended version) starring Rex Beach / No Houdini serial.
    July 20: The Love Burglar starring Wallace Reid / with Episode 4.
    July 27: Nugget Nell starring Dorothy Gish / with Episode 5.
    Aug. 3: The Peace of Roaring River starring Pauline Frederick / with Episode 6.
    Aug. 10: The Man Who Stayed at Home starring King Baggot / with Episode 7.
    Aug. 17: A Sporting Chance starring Ethel Clayton / with Episode 8.
    Aug. 24: The Gray Horizon starring Sessue Hayakawa / with Episode 9.
    Aug. 31: The Valley of the Giants starring Wallace Reid / with Episode 10.
    Sept. 7: Nobody Home starring Dorothy Gish / with Episode 11.
    Sept 14: Stepping Out starring Enid Bennett / with Episode 12.
    Sept. 21: The Market of Souls starring Dorothy Dalton / with Episode 13
    Sept. 28: The Dragon Painter starring Sessue Hayakawa / with Episode 14.
    Oct. 5: The Other Half starring Zasu Pitts / with Episode 15.

    You can read more about the history of Clune's at Los Angeles Theaters

    Related:

    Wednesday, August 21, 2019

    New Houdini stage musical announced for 2021


    Broadway World reports that a new musical based on the life of Houdini is currently in development with plans for a world premiere in Detroit in 2021. Below is the press release and teaser trailer:

    Producer Karl Sydow and Director Federico Bellone announce the development of a brand new musical, The Impossible Man, based on the true story of illusionist and stunt showman, Harry Houdini.

    Following successful readings and recording sessions in London, the show will see workshops from 2020, with full scale previews planned for Detroit (location of Houdini's last stunt) the year afterwards and sights on Broadway and the West End.

    Bringing together an international creative team, The Impossible Man will feature over twenty big stage illusions, many of which have never been presented before on a stage or screen, and a musical theatre score influenced by the Hungarian folk music of Houdini's birthplace.

    Budapest-born Houdini moved to America as a child where, from a young age, he would marvel audiences; first as a trapeze artist before making a name for himself in the US and on European tours as an escapologist and stunt daredevil. The Impossible Man is set during the last show of the great magician's life in the autumn of 1926 and through a series of flashbacks, we experience his life, loves and rise to fame.



    Obviously, this is one we'll be following!

    Related:

    Tuesday, August 20, 2019

    Dave Goulding emulates Houdini's Aberdeen escape


    Magician and escape artist Dave Goulding freed himself from handcuffs and a padlocked sack on Waterloo Quay in Aberdeen Harbour on Sunday. Dave did the stunt just 200 meters from where Houdini himself leapt handcuffed into the harbor in 1909.

    Modern health and safety rules prevented Goulding from exactly recreating Houdini's feat. "The safety concerns of the lifeboat crew and others meant I could not go in the water," said Goulding, "But it was yucky looking, so I was reasonably pleased about that."

    Even in Houdini's day authorities attempted to halt his stunt due to weather and poor conditions in the harbor. Unwilling to disappoint the large crowd that had gathered, Houdini chartered a tug and performed the escape in the rough seas anyway.

    Goulding performed his stunt as part of the RNLI lifeboat station's open day and to promote the Aberdeen Magical Society show, Harbour Sleights, planned for The Tivoli Theatre on August 30. All money raised will go to support the work of the Aberdeen lifeboat crew.

    Related:

    Monday, August 19, 2019

    KIRKUS REVIEW's The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini

    The widely read Kirkus Review has given a thumbs up to Joe Posnanski's upcoming The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, calling it "a jaunty and infectious biography."

    You can read the full review online. It will also appear in their September 1, 2019 issue.

    Author Joe Posnanski is counting down the days to the October 22 release with a post a week on his special Houdini blog. Topics covered so far: The Joy of Writing Houdini, Worlds Collide, Blurbs, blurbs, blurbs, and Surrounded by Houdini.

    You can pre-order The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. I've read the book (twice!) and I think it's sensational.

    Related:

    Houdini gets the Biographics treatment

    Houdini is the subject of a new video at the popular Biographics YouTube Channel. This compressed biography is hosted by Simon Whistler and written by Arnaldo Teodorani. A few errors creep in, but overall it's well done. And the fact that they debunk the idea that Houdini was a spy gets a thumbs up from me and a share.


    Below are a few more made-for-YouTube Houdini treats.

    Related:

    Sunday, August 18, 2019

    Dean Gunnarson recreates Houdini's L.A. escape in 1987


    On October 29, 1987, escape artist Dean Gunnarson recreated Houdini's 1915 suspended straitjacket escape in Los Angeles to promote the live Halloween television special, The Search for Houdini. Dean was introduced as James Randi's protege, and Randi was on hand to assist in the stunt.

    The show claimed Dean was doing the escape "on the same spot" as Houdini. We now know that's not strictly correct. Houdini did the escape from the Express Tribune building at 719 S. Hill Street. Dean did his from the Garfield Building at 403 W. 8th St. (opened in 1930). But the Express building was long gone by 1987 and the Garfield stands on the same block, so, close enough!

    Below is coverage of the escape from the Los Angeles Times.


    It's ironic that the Times covered Dean's escape, which appears to have drawn only a few dozen onlookers, but chose to ignore Houdini's 1915 stunt, which drew an estimated 25,000-35,000 spectators. But maybe Dean "had a better press agent."

    So along with Steve Baker and Lee Terbosic, we can now number Dean Gunnarson as one of the men who have hung in Houdini's shoes.

    Thanks to Joe Notaro for bringing this to my attention.

    Related:

    Saturday, August 17, 2019

    Houdini "Halloween" window card and production tables sell at auction

    Today's Potter and Potter Online Magic Auction saw the sale of two interesting Houdini lots for reasonable prices. First up was an original window card for Houdini's "3 Shows in One" which went for $2,200 on a $1,500 - $2,500 estimate.

    I've always been intrigued by this particular poster artwork, which was used by Houdini during his final tour in 1926. The style is a dramatic departure from his other posters, and his use of Halloween iconography--witches, bats, owls--is eerily prescient. Of course, this tour would end with his sudden death on Halloween.

    The second lot was a "Production Birdcage and Growth of Flowers Table" said to have belonged to Houdini and later Hardeen (certified by Sid Radner). This was likely used in Houdini's "3 Shows in One", so it makes a nice companion to the poster. The colors even match! It sold for $3000, also on a $1,500 - $2,500 estimate.


    The auction description explains in detail the table's workings, revealing the type of highly mechanical magic Houdini seemed to enjoy. But whenever I see something like this, I can't help but think of the quote by Chicago magician Vic Torsberg: "Houdini's magic was just a bunch of junk. You know, that push-button German crap. That's what he performed."

    Below are links to some more examples of Houdini's eerie "Halloween" style 3 Shows in One poster.

    Related:

    Friday, August 16, 2019

    Last weekend to see 'Inescapable' in Atlanta

    This is the last weekend to see Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini at The Breman Museum in Atlanta. The exhibition closes Sunday, August 18.


    Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini was created by magician David London and the Jewish Museum of Maryland. The exhibition will travel next to the Jewish Museum Milwaukee where it opens September 26, 2019.

    Related:

    Thursday, August 15, 2019

    Christopher Sandford talks Houdini and Conan Doyle

    Here's an excellent interview with author Christopher Sandford about his 2011 book Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle & Harry Houdini. I'm not able to embed the clip, so you'll need to listen on YouTube.


    The interviewer, Dr. Zohara Hieronimus, seems a bit preoccupied by the idea that his book should be a movie. Of course, Houdini and Doyle's friendship has already been the subject of a movie, a TV series, and numerous graphic novels and fiction books. I much prefer a solid work of non-fiction like Sandford's excellent book.

    You can purchase Masters of Mystery at Amazon.com. In the UK the book was released under the title Houdini and Conan Doyle and can be purchased at Amazon.co.uk.

    Related:

    Wednesday, August 14, 2019

    Arturo Balseiro's Houdini bust is breathtaking

    Renowned Spanish makeup artist Arturo Balseiro has revealed his amazing life-like Houdini bust made of silicone. This is quite a work of art. Arturo will produce a limited edition of 10. Pictured here is bust #1 which is available now.


    Details:
    • Silicone bust (last at least 20 years in a good condition showcase).
    • Punched man hair in head, brows and eyelashes.
    • Leather and canvas straitjacket (can be done in synthetic leather in case of vegan collector).
    • Plastic chain and padlock (for lightweight shipping costs), can choose real metal chains and padlock.
    • Acrylic resin eyes.
    • Polychromed Fiberglass base.


    The price is $4,800 plus shipping. If interested, you can message Arturo via his Instagram or his official website. (I can also put you in direct contact.) Please mention that you saw it here on Wild About Harry. If I help Arturo sell a few, it will go toward reducing the price of a bust for myself. Thanks!

    Related:

    Tuesday, August 13, 2019

    New cover art for Charlotte Montague's Houdini

    A new edition of Houdini: The Life and Times of the World's Greatest Magician by Charlotte Montague has been released by Chartwell Books. While the book's content is the same as the 2017 hardcover, it spots a nice new cover design and new end pages. My copy arrived without a dust jacket, so presumably this is a jacket free edition, which is another difference from the 2017 book.

    This reminds me of the Houdini coffee table books of the 1970s. It's heavily illustrated and nicely laid out in an encyclopedia-like style. Some mythology and inaccuracies do creep in (Bells of the Kremlin, "Ralph" Hodgson), but overall it's well researched and a good reference book.

    Purchase the new Houdini: The Life and Times of the World's Greatest Magician from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

    HARRY Houdini (First Names) released in the U.S.

    Today sees the release of the U.S. hardcover edition of HARRY Houdini (First Names Series) by Kjartan Poskitt with illustrations by Geraint Ford. It's very nicely illustrated and well researched. A cut above other Houdini biographies for kids.

    Discover the man behind the magic and see how Houdini pulled off his most daring escapes

    Before Harry Houdini (1874–1926) became the greatest magician in the world, he was just little Ehrich Weisz, a Hungarian-born immigrant who moved to America with his family and performed stage tricks for a little extra cash. He started off with card tricks and then eventually began performing the escape acts that would make him famous. Known for his daring and death-defying illusions, he would do some of the greatest tricks ever: escaping from a milk can, being buried alive, and being locked inside a crate and thrown into a river. He conquered each of these seemingly impossible feats and showed the world the power of a little magic. Fun, fast-paced, and highly illustrated, Harry Houdini tells the story of the curious boy who became the world’s greatest magician and reveals how Houdini did some of his most stunning escapes. It includes a timeline, glossary, and index.

    Purchase HARRY Houdini (First Names Series) at Amazon.com. A UK paperback was released earlier in the year.

    Related:

    Monday, August 12, 2019

    Minerva reappears at the Edmonton Fringe Festival

    Ron Pearson's acclaimed play Minerva – Queen of the Handcuffs will be part of The 38th Annual Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, August 15-24.

    The play tells the true(ish) story of escape artist Minerva Vano, played by Miranda Allen, and her rivalry with Houdini, played by Richard Lee Hsi.

    For more information and to buy tickets visit the Edmonton Fringe website. You can also follow the production on Facebook.

    Related:

    Saturday, August 10, 2019

    Uncovering Houdini's 1915 Los Angeles straitjacket escape (at last!)

    For years I've been trying to uncover details of Houdini's first suspended straitjacket escape in Los Angeles. While his 1923 escape is well represented in photos and newspaper clippings, his 1915 escape has proven strangely elusive. This would have been a major event with a massive crowd and snarled traffic, yet there's no mention of it in either the Los Angeles Times or the Herald. How could that be? If fact, the only clue that it ever happened at all is this short undated film clip:



    This has been especially vexing as L.A. is my home and I've tasked myself with uncovering all the Houdini connections I can. I've actually been entertaining the idea that the above film is misidentified and there never was a 1915 Los Angeles escape. Maybe this is Oakland? We know Houdini did an escape there before coming to L.A.

    But on a recent visit to the Magic Castle, librarian Joe Fox finally helped me crack the case. He showed me a flyer from the 1987 televised séance The Search For Houdini. Joe wondered if I had ever seen it. I told him had. In fact, I own one myself. But I haven't looked at it in years, so I popped it open anyway. There, much to my astonishment, was a paragraph about Houdini in Los Angeles with key details about the 1915 escape. As if to mock me, it referred to it as one of Houdini's "best documented" escapes. Needless to say, I went wild!

    Armed now with information, I did some Internet research, but quickly discovered what I needed was not available online. For this one, I needed to go old school. So I traveled downtown to the Los Angeles Central Library's newspaper microfilm archive, and there I discovered gold!

    Yes, the escape happened, and today I'm excited to share the full story along with some great unseen images.

    Houdini's 1915 Los Angeles engagement began the week of November 29 at the Orpheum Theater on Broadway. It was his first appearance in Los Angeles in eight years. The Saturday before his arrival, the Los Angeles Tribune reported that he had been challenged to escape from the county jail by Sheriff John C. Cline. Houdini accepted the test for Tuesday morning, reportedly wiring: "Just out of Oakland jail; you can't put me in a cell I cannot open."

    If this escape ever happened, I could find no evidence of it. Also, Houdini doing a jail break in 1915 is highly unusual. There's also no record of him doing an Oakland jail break. Instead, Houdini began the week by beating a packing crate built onstage by the shipping department of Hamburger's department store.

    But then came a challenge that would take the form of a major outdoor stunt. The drama began on November 30 when Houdini appeared to take umbrage to a sentence in the Tribune's otherwise glowing review of his act. In discussing his Water Torture Cell, reviewer Monroe Lathrop noted:

    But baffling as the trick is--for it must be such--across the footlights, it still gave the skeptics a chance to say that the wizard's prowess might show up less brilliantly if he were compelled to make his tests in the open, without the use of his specially constructed stage devices.

    Houdini responded with a letter to the editor in the same issue:

    Gentlemen--With all due respect, your review in the Morning Tribune today does me a great injustice. I assure you that every "trick" I do is on the square, and there is no collusion in any way; neither do I make my escapes by means of apparatus.
    However, just to prove this to the satisfaction of your erudite critic, I am willing to perform for you, in public, away from the theater, and at such time as you may set–provided, of course, I have the permission the Orpheum, in whose contract this is provided–some trick that you may invent, select or devise.

    By the end of the day, the paper had its challenge ready:


    Houdini quickly accepted under the condition that firemen with a life net should be on hand in case of emergency. He told the paper, "I may not succeed in this experiment, but I'll make the effort of my life. I must say, the conditions are extreme, but then so will be the victory, provided I succeed." The date of the test was set for that Saturday, December 4th.

    Of course, Houdini had developed the entire idea of the suspended straitjacket escape that same year and had already performed it in Kansas City, Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, and Oakland. So it's obvious to us today what would not have been so obvious to the citizens of Los Angeles in 1915; that this was all a publicity stunt cooked up between Houdini and the Evening Express and Morning Tribune. One now understands why the competing newspapers chose to ignore it entirely.

    But the other papers were not lacking Houdini headlines. Their pages were instead filled with reports about his wholly unplanned encounter with heavyweight champion Jess Willard during his opening night at the Orpheum (read: Houdini vs. the Pottawatomie Giant). Interestingly, no mention of the encounter appears in the Express or Tribune. They instead remained focused on their own Houdini grudge match with daily updates that built the suspense.

    On December 2, the papers introduced two new players into the drama:

    POLICE TO FASTEN WIZARD HOUDINI IN JACKET
    Plans Complete for Actor's Attempted Escape in Front of Express Tribune Office
    Two of the most expert criminal catchers and holders in the police department Detectives M. Thornberg and T.T. Toomey, sat in the Orpheum theater last night and sized up Houdini, the escape marvel. They are detailed by Chief Snively and Lieutenant Heath to put the aforesaid Houdini so securely into a police straitjacket that Houdini cannot get out of it. After seeing Houdini perform, the detectives still believe they can do it.
    Thornberg and Toomey will call on Houdini Saturday forenoon at his hotel and search him. And it will be "some" search! Then they will escort him personally to the Express Tribune building, never letting him out of their sight for an instant.
    When Houdini at the Orpheum was told that the police heads had assigned two special detectives to his "case" he smiled.
    "Well," he declared, "I've had police chiefs try and stop me escaping, without success. I do not say that I'll escape this time, but I'll try, you may gamble on it."
    The two detectives were taken to Houdini's dressing-rooms last night at the Orpheum and introduced to him. That was to give them an opportunity of "sizing him up" that they might know what manner of man they had to deal with; to get a line on his personality, as it were. After they left him they admitted that he looked like a "tough nut to crack." They were not discouraged, but all the more determined.

    Meanwhile, preparations where being made at the Express Tribune building itself, which stood at 719-721 S. Hill Street. This warranted its own story on December 3:

    RIGGING FOR FEAT BY HOUDINI TO GO UP TODAY
    Firemen to Erect Tackle at Express Tribune Building for Test Tomorrow
    Promptly at 10 'oclock this morning the Pioneer Truck company will deliver at the Express Tribune building the rigging, block and tackle that will be erected under the supervision of Chief Eley's specially detailed firemen and from which, tomorrow at noon, Houdini, the Orpheum man of mystery, will be swung.
    The object of putting it up today is twofold–that the public may see it and inspect it and that it may be thoroughly tested by the firemen, that no accident happen at the last minute. So, carefully, each rope, block and fall will be tried out and gone over by Chief Eley, with the permission of the board of fire commissioners. When they and the Pioneer Truck company under fireman's supervision have finished this job no one can doubt the thoroughness of the work. And when, from the end of the ropes Houdini dangles tomorrow, he need have no fear of anything giving way.

    Of course, the more talk of safety precautions just reinforced the idea that danger existed and accidents can happen. Houdini himself arrived late in the day and made his own inspection along with the firemen. This drew a nice front page story and a terrific photo in the Tribune (below).


    All that was left was the escape itself. Despite an overnight downpour, the stunt proceeded as planned on Saturday, December 4. Houdini arrived on the scene around noon. So did an estimated 25,000 to 35,000 spectators who filled Hill Street from Sixth to Ninth Street. Police on horseback halted all traffic into the area. The Express called it "the greatest street throng in the history of Los Angeles."

    Newsreel cameramen were also on hand to record the action. In the surviving footage one can see Hardeen, who was performing at the Los Angeles Pantages this same week, assisting his brother. Maurice W. Clark, "the noted Oklahoma sporting man," acted as the official time keeper for the escape. Bess was also present.

    Standing on a fire truck from the No. 7 company, Houdini was bound in a straitjacket by Thornberg and Toomey. At exactly 12:22 he was hoisted approximately 50 feet up. A photo shows that a large white sheet was hung on the side of the building directly behind Houdini. It's unclear if this was for safety reasons (Houdini had hit his head when he swung into the side of a building in Oakland), or to provide a backdrop so people could better see him doing the escape.

    Houdini freed himself in two minutes and seven seconds. The papers reported this was "a minute less than he ever removed a similar shackle on the sound planking of the stage floor." The first thing he did on reaching the ground was to embrace and kiss Bess. For all the buildup, one can't help but wonder if the escape itself felt like an anticlimax, not unlike a much hyped championship bout that only lasts 30 seconds. But it didn't matter. Houdini had won.

    Interestingly, Houdini would pen a letter that same day to his new friend Jack London in San Fransisco. In it he described his encounter with Jess Willard several days earlier. Hanging in a straitjacket 50 feet above the heads of 25,000 people was, apparently, business as usual and did not warrant a mention.

    The next day both the Tribune and Express featured the escape on their front pages. In their account, the Express downgraded the crowd size to 15,000. The Tribune carried a spectacular five column photo of the escape, which you can see below. (And if you're wondering why there are swastikas on the page, know that in 1915 the symbol did not yet have its infamous association and, according to Wikipedia, was often used for ornamentation.)

    Click to enlarge.


    Houdini performed for another week at the Orpheum. He then moved on to Salt Lake City where film of his Los Angeles escape was shown before his act. He then repeated the feat in front of Salt Lake's Walker Bank Building.

    It's not generally remembered that most of Houdini's outdoor stunts were presented as "challenges" coming either from the local police or newspaper. That's what makes the coverage of this particular escape so informative. It shows how Houdini crafted the story in cooperation with all the players, building suspense over the course of several days. For those who remembered Houdini doing such a stunt in their town, I suspect the memory was partly implanted because of the week long drama they experienced. This is what made Houdini, Houdini.

    Having uncovered all these wonderful clippings in the L.A. Library (I guess it was one of his "best documented" escapes, if you read the right papers!), there was still one last thing left for me to do. I wanted to find the location of the escape today. Happily, my phone showed it was a mere 12 minute walk.

    Today the site of the escape is a parking lot. The Express folded in 1919 and the building was demolished in 1935. None of the surrounding buildings visible in the film footage or newspaper photos appear to be the same. But the parking lot still carries the familiar address of 719 S. Hill Street.

    So even though there's nothing recognizable left to see, one can still stand in this historic spot and imagine what it was like to watch Houdini do his first suspended straitjacket escape in Los Angeles on December 4, 1915. A mystery no more.


    Thanks again to Joe Fox at the William Larsen Sr. Memorial Library. Also thanks to Athena Stamos for discovering The Express archive in the Los Angeles Central Library and introducing me to this amazing resource. Film clip comes from Kino's Houdini The Movie Star DVD.

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    Friday, August 9, 2019

    Houdini gold is coming

    Recently I made a spectacular discovery in the newspaper microfilm archive at the Los Angeles Central Library. At long last I've uncovered a full account and several unseen photos of an escape Houdini did in Los Angeles that has proven frustratingly elusive.

    I'm just putting the finishing touches on a post that I will likely share this weekend. Can't wait to take you all on the journey and show you the gold I found in this gold box. GO NOW.

    'Before Houdini' art exhibition in Vermont

    An exhibition called Before Houdini: The Making of a Graphic Novel beings today in the Jackson Gallery at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury, Vermont. The exhibition examines the work of Jeremy Holt and his new graphic novel, Before Houdini. It runs through September 22, 2019.

    There will be an opening night reception with artist Jeremy Holt tonight from 5pm-7pm. For more information visit the Town Hall Theater website.

    Before Houdini is available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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    Thursday, August 8, 2019

    My Houdini letter and a 100 year mystery

    Here is one of my first and most cherished Houdini collectibles; a letter he wrote exactly 100 years ago today. I got this around 1980 and it has hung framed on my wall(s) all these years. Today seemed like the right day to share it.


    But this letter has also baffled me from the day I received it. Who was Col. Flinn? What was the "shark stunt" that was "on the square." And what does "on the square" even mean? And if "all the newspapers copied the advert", why have I never been able to find any of those ads or any mention of anything to do with Houdini and a shark in 1919?

    In 1916 Houdini announced plans to fight a live shark, and this was picked up by the papers. But the demonstration never happened (thankfully). Could this somehow be referencing that? Might Houdini have been sending Flinn old newspaper clippings about past stunts? One pet theory I have is Flinn was the ghostwriter of his "Nearly Dying for a Living" article that appeared in the December 1919 Hearst’s, and this letter marks the genesis of that project. A theory.

    One thing I do know is the timeline around when this was written. Houdini had just returned from Hollywood after filming The Grim Game. This was written during his first week back in New York. Houdini wrote this on Friday, August 8, and would have met with Flinn on Tuesday, August 12 (unless he was "otherwise phoned"). But apart from this, my chronology for these first three weeks of August are a blank. The next notable event was a private screening of The Grim Game the Famous Players-Lasky offices on August 18. The movie then opened on Broadway on August 25.

    But this may not have had anything to with The Grim Game. Houdini always had a dozen projects going at once, so this could have been anything. The key, I believe, is finding out who Col. Flinn was.

    So does anyone out there that has anything else that mentions Col. Flinn? It would be fun to finally solve this 100 year old mystery.

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