Today marks my 44th Houdini birthday. It was on this day in 1975 that I saw the Tony Curtis Houdini biopic for the first time. That lit a flame of curiosity that has never been extinguished. But the truth is I did not immediately rush out and buy a book about Houdini. My great passion at that time was Universal Monsters, and I was not yet ready to set Frankenstein aside for a life of magic.
But then a few weeks later, I opened the TV Guide, always hoping to find a listing for a Universal Monster movie, and saw this:
This is an ad for Doug Henning's first World of Magic television special, a historical event in itself. But it was not the show I was interested in. I didn't know who this hippie magician was and I didn't care. All I saw was the image behind him. Houdini. The real Houdini. It was my first look at the actual man and this image electrified me!
You can see this ad has small holes in it. That's because I pinned it to my bedroom wall and would stand gazing at it, searching it intently. This somehow made Houdini real and tangible. He also seemed to be looking right at me, inviting me to investigate the mystery of his life. I can still feel that coming off this image. If the Tony Curtis movie was my indoctrination, this was my awakening. And after I watched the Henning special, I was a goner!
If you had an "awakening" moment, please feel free to share in the comments below.
- Houdini's Movies
- Les merveilleux exploits de Houdini à Paris (1909)
- The Master Mystery (1918)
- The Grim Game (1919)
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- Full Bibliography
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- Wild About Harry Bookshelf
- Houdini His Life Story (1928)
- Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls (1959)
- Houdini The Untold Story (1969)
- The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini (1993)
- Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss (1997)
- The Secret Life of Houdini (2006)
- The Metamorphosis: The Apprenticeship of Harry Houdini (2012)
- The Witch of Lime Street (2015)
- The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini (2019)
- The Official Houdini Seance
- Terror Island screening on Catalina (2018)
- Visiting the Copperfield Collection (2018)
- 278 Open House (2017)
- Los Angeles Conference on Magic History (2015)
- Official Houdini Séance, San Francisco (2015)
- Houdini Historical Roast (2015)
- Midwest Magic History Weekend, Marshall (2015)
- The Grim Game premiere in Hollywood (2015)
- Houdini at Hollywood Heritage (2014)
- Official Houdini Seance, Fort Worth (2012)
- Magic Collectors Weekend, Chicago (2011)
- Houdini Art and Magic exhibition (2010-2012)
- Tony Curtis at The Magic Castle (2009)
Saturday, November 16, 2019
My first look at the real Houdini
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My awakening hit sometime in late October 1976 but the precise day is unknown. The catalysts were the Paul Michael Glaser/Sally Struthers movie and that BBC documentary The Truth About Houdini. I always thought Glaser did a bang up job as Harry.ReplyDelete
I have two vivid memories of the documentary:
1. Sid Radner demonstrating the method of escaping the full body straitjacket suit. After he finished he ran his hand thru his hair to comb it back.
2. The photo of Harry's face in that large diving helmet.
Those were bombshells for me too. But I was already well on my way. What a year 1976 was. There was no going back!Delete
The diving suit shot is fantastic. And I've never really seen that image well reproduced. The doc is still the best look at it. Wonder who owns that pic?
Great! I wish my indoctrination/awakening didn't sound so imitative of yours, but they are much the same: the 1953 film, and much later, that same poster, with which I quickly became obsessed. I saw it in a book of magic posters and was mesmerized, but later saw the full-size poster at the Houdini Hall of Fame and couldn't stop looking at it, taking photos and video of it from every angle I could manage, revisiting it, repeat, repeat, repeat. It really was what hooked me in a big way.ReplyDelete
There is real power in that poster! The book you saw it in was most likely 100 Years of Magic Posters. I actually cut that out and it hung in my locker at school. Most guys hung pics of pretty girls in their locker. I had Houdini! I don't remember seeing the original at the Hall of Fame. But I've seen one at John Gaughan's workshop museum.Delete
Yes, John, that's the book! In fact, I cut it out too - I actually bought a second copy of the book so I would still have one complete copy (I'd forgotten about that until today)! I now have a full-size repro. Maybe it's so mesmerizing because it was based on a photo of Houdini and just happened to capture something essential about him. I still stand and stare at it sometimes. (The original in Niagara Falls was just as one enters the main exhibit, but I supposed it may have moved around from time to time, or maybe was added after you visited there.)Delete
I can't recall if I saw the 1975 Henning show first then the Curtis biopic second that same year or the other way around. For me what really lit the fire was the Curtis biopic. My dad taped it for me but he set the stop time too early and cut off the ending right as Houdini was being lowered in the water torture cell. I had my mother calling the local network asking if they could replay the movie so I could find out if Houdini died. This curiosity got me to the library and reading about Houdini. The Great Houdini in 1976 was another thrilling moment for me.ReplyDelete
I love that your mom did that. :)Delete
When it would air on KCOP it would be cut for commercials, so the taped copy I had was missing the rowdy cowboys scene and the broom levitation scene. I never saw those until the commercial VHS release.
My dad took me to my first magic show at the local mall. Later he took me to see Henning(after much pestering) in "The Magic Show," on Broadway. When dad passed, one of the few mainstream movies in his collection, was the Tony Curtis "Houdini." My fish died the night of the Paul Michael Glaser TV movie. I believe in magic and have since I was 8... 56 now.ReplyDelete
Wow, to have seen Henning in The Magic Show must have been wonderful.Delete
Sorry about your fish. :(
My afterschool program went to the public library for a viewing of a Houdini documentary, and I was in love. I soon borrowed Lace Kendall's bio, then Christopher's, and I've been reading on HH and magic history every since.ReplyDelete
If I recall, the film included Doug Henning, walking on a beach...Delete
Hmmm...I wonder which doc that was? What a treat to see a Houdini doc in school. I loved the Kendall bio as a kid.Delete
Believe it or not, 1975 and the Tony Curtis movie is when it all started for me as well. I still have the TV clippings for the Tony Curtis movie and the same Doug Henning’s World of Magic ad with the electrifying image. Besides the TV specials/ads, I was first infatuated with Houdini when I saw and purchased the Dover books (Houdini on Magic and The Secrets of Houdini) at a magic shop.ReplyDelete
I can add that the second image (first photo) I ever saw was the cover of Arnold Furst's Great Magic Shows. It was on the other side of a magic shop counter so I didn't open the book, just saw the cover with HH staring out and I was like, whoa, he looks serious. I actually know the exact date: Jan. 5, 1976.Delete
Circa 1980, I was seeing a (terrible) production of something at Lincoln Center, and was reading the actors' credits. Someone listed that they'd been in productions of "Houdini" and "Macbeth," which I misread as "Houdini and Macbeth" in one production. I was instantly captivated and tried to figure out what that would be about, and (even though I didn't know as much then about HH as I do now) I realized that the common factor was ghosts. I eventually wrote a trilogy of plays about Harry acting as a paranormal investigator and ghost breaker for (public domain) literary characters.ReplyDelete
Houdini and Macbeth. Sounds like a graphic novel! I like the sound of your trilogy. :)Delete
My initiation was seeing the Tony Curtis movie in the 60s but something very special happened after that. After seeing the movie - which then spurred me to read all the available biographies then available and which numbered only a few at that time — I met Walter Gibson. Gibson as you know knew Houdini and the experience of hearing his first-hand tales of the man just knocked me over. I was still in my teens then. A picture of me with Gibson holding his Houdini book was the basis for an article in the local newspaper on Halloween. That changed everything for me in the best way possible.ReplyDelete
Wow, that's quite a story! To met and talk to Gibson must have been incredible. What paper was that in? I'd like to try and find it. And do you remember what he said about Houdini? Any first hand recollections are gold now! If you wanted to write it up a guest blog, I'd be happy to post.Delete
I was already a fan in elementary school reading about Houdini, but it was around summer of 1972 or so when I went to the Houdini Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls. That was a game changer! --Dale from Cleveland.ReplyDelete
That's great. You know, as shoddy as the place was, it did its job of bringing Houdini to the people, and to kids. It's like Houdini's act came full circle. It began and ended in a dime museum.Delete
It was about 1973 and i discovered a children's activity book called Fun Parade. Besides the usual riddles, mazes, etc. it had a couple stories: 'The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser,' and 'Houdini: Greatest Magician of All Time.' Houdini was just two and a half pages long and not even close to historically accurate (example: "In the days when the airplane was still a new and unproven machine, Houdini leaped from one airplane to another, 3000 feet above the ground -while handcuffed!") The hook though, was the illustration: a drawing of Houdini massively chained about the arms and torso and with metal ball and chain shackles weighing him down. He was dropping from a bridge and there were astonished faces of the crowd looking down from above as he fell toward water which seemed impossibly distant beneath him. It was fantastic!ReplyDelete
All i could find to read about him at the time was a half page encyclopedia entry so he remained this mysterious, awesome figure to me for a couple years until i discovered the Epstein and Kendall biographies at the library. i wanted to be like Eric in the Kendall book, and i ran away from home frequently, practiced rope walking, managed to pick up sewing pins with my eyelids (though not while hanging upside down) and even guessed the gist of how the needle trick was done and was able to perform a pretty weak version of it. i was a shy, introverted kid but Houdini made me want to be on stage. He changed the course of my life.
For my first magic show, at age 12, as The Houdinii Brothers, having added an 'i' to the end of Houdini just as Houdini had done to Houdin (Yes. i'm still terribly ashamed we did that.), we had just a few cheap small tricks and really wanted a big illusion for the finisher. Metamorphosis... but we didn't have a sub trunk. i did get hold of a footlocker, though, that we each were able to barely squeeze inside of so i rigged it. i was able to glue on false rivet heads and hold the hasps in place by magnets and a few other fixes. Locked, it had three padlocks in front and two lengths of rope tied around it. i was very proud of it. The substitution footlocker.
First performnce, in the school auditorium, about 50 people watching. i'm handcuffed, squeezed into the box, roped, padlocked. My partner, Kirk stands before the box, holding the curtain (a shower curtain rod with a blanket over it) at about waist level, and speaks to the audience about how they were about to witness a famous Houdini feat of magic. As he speaks i lift the lid of the box as far as the rope slack will let me, just enough to get my hand thru and push the rope over the corner, then the other rope, lift the lid, step out and get in position. Kirk raises the curtain, i grab hold of it as he jumps in the box and pulls the lid shut. i have to keep the curtain up with one hand whilst leaning down and pulling the ropes and magnetic rivets back in place with the other. Then i lowered the curtain to the floor and took my time removing the locks and rope to reveal Kirk inside. It should have appeared that we'd changed places in a couple of seconds but there had been a light shining from behind us and the curtain was way too thin so the whole audience could see my shadow as i'd gotten out. The trick was spoiled and The Houdinii Brothers never performed again. And i'm sure Houdini breathed a sigh of relief from above.
Great stories, Bullet! Thanks for sharing. There was another magician in the 70s who used Houdinii.Delete
My "awakening" happened in the fall of 1998 (I was 13 going on 14), while flipping the channels and happening upon a rather dumb but entertaining episode of The Outer Limits, featuring Houdini as a rather malevolent ghost. (You've talked about this episode before on this blog - I can't remember the episode name).ReplyDelete
So, this sparked my curiosity - who was this Houdini, really? So I went on the Internet and after coming upon some really dubious source that claimed Houdini's first name was "Robert" (must have got confused with Houdini's namesake!), I happily stumbled upon Bob King's HoudiniTribute.com, which got me hooked.
This spurred me to rent out a library book to learn more about him: "The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini" by Ruth Brandon (which, for all the flak it gets, is a decent starter-bio, or was then, anyway). I remember when I first plucked the book from the shelf. That edition featured a devil-framed (from a lithograph) cover photo of that shot of Houdini in 1913 or so, looking with his head tilted slightly leftward and his eyes gazing severely - more like searingly - at the camera while posing gracefully in shackles. I actually *gasped* with fright when I saw that photo and immediately put it back - it felt like he was really there, staring back at me! Then I chided myself for being so silly - it's a *book* for heaven's sake - and carefully slid the book back out again. Now, I wasn't afraid of that gaze, just... entranced, as if I was under a spell.
Well, from there, I was really, personally, certifiably, obsessed. I read more biographies (Kenneth Silverman's "Houdini!" which remains the favourite; Bernard C. Meyer's "Houdini: A Mind in Chains" which was intriguing; bios in the kid's section; anything I could get my unemployed-and-broke teenager hands on). I watched clips on Houdini Tribute, over and over and over again. I won some contest and got a signed photo of Houdini from Marie Blood (alas, I lost it somehow!). I drew sketches of his photographs. One of them even made the school's student magazine (it was the one Brandon labeled "pre-Freudian", of Houdini standing almost totally nude, with his back to the camera, while his ankles are shackled and his wrists are shackled behind his back, with his torso turned slightly rightward and his head slightly more to the right). I think that one turned out best because it's just easier to draw a high-contrast black-and-white photo with all that white (nude) space, which means not having to do much intricate shadowing and high detail. I probably still have that and other sketches, somewhere. I never throw out sketchbooks or journals, but I do misplace them.
My family got wind of all this and teased me about it. Oh well. My aunt obliged my interest and got me "Houdini on Magic" by Walter B. Gibson. I think I nearly wore that poor book out! Thankfully, it didn't completely fall apart on me, I still have it. I was fascinated by the magic history it presented and intrigued by instruction on some of the tricks. However, interest in Houdini has never translated into actually DOING tricks, for me. I don't know why. I guess I'm just not a hands-on, do-it-myself gal, or it seemed like more of a masculine activity - a "guy thing"?
I LOVE your story. It's interesting to learn how someone of a later generation to me came to Houdini. Thank you for sharing, gingertimelady. :)Delete
Commenting almost a year later to say: the episode I was thinking of that started this whole thing was the pilot episode of the rebooted Alfred Hitchcock Presents, from 1988.Delete
Your story reminds me of times, people would see something (like the Houdini poster) and realize/exclaim, "Oh, Houdini was a REAL person?!" That he had transcended mortality, whose life/persona was considered to be only possible in fiction/legend, (like Superman) was, "beyond fame."ReplyDelete