Friday, September 13, 2019

What do Houdini, surfing, and Robert Kennedy have in common?

The above photo of Houdini has appeared in many books, but the details of this escape have for years been a mystery. The photo has been alternately misdated as 1922 and misidentified as San Fransisco. While I was able to identify the location a few years ago, I've now finally nailed down the exact date and full details behind this famous image. So here we go!

This is Houdini on Saturday, April 28, 1923, at the swimming pool at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Houdini was taking part in a special event marking the opening of the pool (or "plunge", as pools where often called then) for the summer season. Houdini had performed at the hotel as part of an "impromptu three-ring circus" Fundraiser for the National Vaudeville Association the previous Tuesday (April 24). Perhaps that's when the idea for Houdini to take part in this event was born? For further context, this took place the day after he gave his lecture on spiritualism--one of his very first--at the Hillstreet Theater.

On the program with Houdini were an assortment of swimmers and divers, as well as "comedy diving" by actor and comedian Sammy Cohen. Another celebrity of note was Duke Kahanamoku, a famous Hawaiian swimming champion who today is celebrated as the man who introduced surfing to the U.S. and especially Southern California (there's a well known restaurant in Malibu called Dukes). Who knew we'd find a connection to Houdini and surfing?

Below are two articles from the Los Angeles Examiner and Evening Express. One announces Houdini's involvement and the other the participation of Duke. Each provides nice details of the day's planned events. Curiously, the Duke article omits Houdini from the program, which is a shame as it would have shown us exactly when he did his escape.

Click to enlarge.

The event came off as planned, as reported later that same day in the Express.

Below is an original photo I purchased on eBay a few years ago that was taken at this April 28th event. Unfortunately, it does not include Houdini (Kevin Connolly got that one), but I think I see Jim Collins back there.

Several press photos of Houdini where taken that day and syndicated via World Wide Photo. One is the famous shot of him at the top of this post. Another showed him going head first into the pool (below). There's also a rarely seen shot of Houdini surfacing holding the ball and chain (see Patrick Culliton's Houdini The Key page 135). It's worth noting that this was probably the last outdoor stunt Houdini ever performed in Los Angeles. It's also the last public outdoor underwater escape that I'm aware of.

The location of this escape is a famous one. The Ambassador Hotel open January 1, 1921, and was located at 3400 Wilshire Boulevard. The hotel was the sight of six Academy Award ceremonies and also housed the famous Coconut Grove nightclub, which was the hot spot during the Golden Age of Hollywood. The Ambassador was also where on June 5, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated after winning the California presidential primary and giving a speech in the ballroom.

Below is a postcard from 1956 showing the pool and diving board, which appears to be much the same as it was in Houdini's day.

With the decline of the hotel and surrounding area, the Ambassador was closed in 1986. It stood empty for many years as the city, preservationists, and private developers fought over the property. At one time Donald Trump wanted to build the worlds tallest building on the site. Eventually the city won out and the hotel was demolished in 2006. Today the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools stands on the location of Houdini's 1923 pool escape.


  1. Great stuff here! The postcard gives us a 360 view of the pool and the hotel. Now I can see exactly Houdini's view when he was on the diving board. I wonder what Kahanamoku performed at the pool.

    This is some great library research! Kudos to John for connecting the dots on this...deep dive.

    1. I was thinking that exact some thing, Leo. That was Houdini's view.

      I'm having a blast digging this stuff out of mircofilm archives downtown. And this is also me being the first lucky historian to use my Houdini chronology. It allows one to laser target a time and place. I was able to zero in the only week that this made sense and, boom, there it was.

  2. Great detective work John. Which man in your photo do you think is Collins?

  3. Great post and excellent sleuthing, John. And your photo and the postcard add a lot to complete the whole scene and the feeling of the place. Though if you can find Collins in that pic, your eyes are far better than mine! (I love that Harry also got to share the bill with the 100-yard national junior breast stroke championship race for girls. I hope the girls were impressed!)

  4. Re Collins. In the diving head first pic you can see Vickery in a bowler hat and Collins in a cloth cap standing at the diving board watching HH carefully. (You don't see them in the more famous shot). In my photo, what appears to be the same man with the cloth cap is standing on the right holding a camera. Maybe Collins. But hard to tell for sure.

  5. Oh yes I see him. Yes hard to tell for sure.

    1. I have super high res scans of both images and it's a little easier to see him, but I can't guarantee it's Collins.

  6. BTW, attention Houdini fiction writers. How about a Houdini-Duke Kahanamoku mashup? The young Hawaiian and the aging Hungarian, but both wonders in the water. It writes itself! :p

    1. Ha! I think Harry might have enjoyed such a mashup (with him the winner, of course).


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