Friday, August 2, 2019

Houdini's broken wrist and the San Diego connection

I'm always excited when I discover a new date for my ever growing New Houdini Chronology. But it's even more exciting is when that discovery unlocks a new story or solves an old mystery. And this one does all of that!

We all know Houdini re-broke his wrist while filming The Grim Game in 1919 (he had first broken it while making The Master Mystery). But the exact day of the accident was unknown. Houdini wrote to Oscar Teale on June 30, telling him of the accident and saying it would delay completion of the movie by two weeks. So the best we had was that it was sometime around the 30th.

But recently I discovered a news item in the San Diego Union that finally provided the exact date: June 28, 1919 [or not, see UPDATE]. Why was this in a San Diego newspaper? Because Houdini was scheduled to make a personal appearance at the Pickwick Theater in downtown San Diego for the opening of The Master Mystery. But as the paper reports:

The San Diego Union, June 29, 1919
Managing Director H. E. Malaby of the Pickwick theatre was informed late yesterday morning, by wire, that Houdini the king of entertainers and star of The Master Mystery, who was to be this week's feature at the Fourth street playhouse, had met with an accident when he first began work at a Los Angeles studio Saturday morning and would be unable to make his appearance in this city until June [sic] 6. Houdini had wrist broken.
However, Mr. Malaby has provided a musical act to complete the bill and Fred Olsen, violinist, and Richard Malaby, pianist, play during the coming week.

The manager of the Pickwick also published a special notice to patrons explaining why Houdini was unable to appear, which nicely confirms the date.

Click to enlarge.

The Pickwick Theater opened in 1905 as a vaudeville house. It stood at 1029 4th on the East side of Fourth Avenue between Broadway and C Street in downtown San Diego. By 1919 it featured a combination of movies and live performance. In 1922 it switched to movies only. It was demolished in 1926. An office building now stands at the site.

Now let's move on to the mystery that I believe this finally solves.

The Pickwick manager says Houdini would appear on July 6. While I couldn't find confirmation that this happened (but I'd like to think Harry kept his promise), I did remember this photo from Doug Henning's Houdini His Legend and His Magic (right).

Back in 2012 I did a post explaining how this photo had me and San Diego historian Richard Crawford, author of The Way We Were in San Diego, stumped. On it Bess has written: "On our way to San Diego Calif." But Houdini's only recorded appearance in San Diego was in 1907, and this is clearly Harry and Bess at a later time.

I'm now thinking this is Harry and Bess in 1919 when Houdini traveled back to San Diego to make his appearance at the Pickwick. That is clearly his dyed movie hair, and you'll also note his left hand is concealed behind Bess. In many photos taken at this time he conceals that hand because he had a cast on it. In fact, you can see there's some kind of dark cloth draped over his wrist. I think this might be his sling. In the one photo of the sling that I have seen (below), it was dark in color just like the cloth we see here.

Finally, this refutes the idea that Houdini's broken wrist was the reason he couldn't perform The Grim Game airplane stunt. This had been an assumption made Houdini historians, myself included. But the airplane crash occurred on May 31, 1919, a month before Houdini's accident. So his broken wrist didn't keep him out of the sky. It kept him out of the Pickwick!

UPDATE: I recently found an account of the wrist break accident reported in the June 27, 1919 Los Angeles Times suggesting it actually happened on June 26.



  1. Any interest in a picture of modern day 1029 4th?

    I might go a bit out of my way and take one.

    1. Thanks for the offer, Mark, but no need to go out of your way. I looked it up on Google Maps street view and there just isn't anything recognizable anymore.

  2. Love it, while I knew the broken wrist didn’t keep him out of the sky, I had no idea until now that it kept him out of the Pickwick. Glad we have an exact date.

    For any one interested in more info on what affect his broken wrist did have on filming The Grim Game, check out this post:

  3. I'm confused. What does the September 28,1919 date dignify? What day did he fracture his wrist? Wasn't it in June?

    1. Checking the Chronology for 1919, the wrist fracture happened on June 28th. The September 28 date seems to be a mistake.

    2. That should be June 28th, 1919, the exact date he broke his wrist, not September 28th, 1919.

    3. OMG, yes, it's June 28. I have no idea how or why I typed Sept. Thanks for pointing this out. Fixed.

  4. Well done! (I feel a bit sorry for the violinist and pianist who had to go on in Houdini's place!)

    1. Notice the pianist has the same last name as the manager. It was probably his brother!