Thursday, July 9, 2020

Houdini in the mosh pit

Here are two vintage club ads from the Los Angeles and San Fransisco punk rock music scenes of the early 1980s. As you can see, Houdini is a representative image. I'm not sure why, but maybe that's what makes it punk!

The Starwood was a popular nightclub and music venue in West Hollywood from 1973 to 1981. The headline band, The Gears, actually broke up after a performance the Starwood in 1981. Could it have been this very night?

Built in 1839, the "Temple Beautiful" has a long and storied history, including becoming a punk club in 1979 where The Clash performed their first show in San Fransisco. It was a building old enough that maybe Houdini himself once entered that space.

Thanks to our friend Bullet Valmont for these.


Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The Raymund Fitzsimons play

In the early 1990s a Houdini play ran in the UK called Houdini's Death Defying Mystery written by Raymund Fitzsimons. That name should sound familiar. Fitzsimons also wrote the 1981 Houdini biography, Death and the Magician, which has the distinction of being the only new Houdini biography published in the 1980s. For the longest time I knew nothing about this play, other than that it existed because I had found a poster online (right).

But now John Lovick (aka Handsome Jack) has shared with me an article penned by Fitzsimons himself for a 1992 Magic Circular that finally provided some details. It begins:

Last January I was commissioned by Pocket Theater, Cumbria to write a play about Houdini. Pocket Theater is a small professional touring company, with a national reputation for innovative productions. Their interest has been aroused reading my biography of Houdini, Death and the Magician
I had told Karen Gillespie, the artistic director, that I had no wish to dramatize my book. I had in mind an original play, an imaginative interpretation of Houdini's life, in which the natural and supernatural would intermingle. I wanted to write an enchanted play, a magical play about a man of mystery, a man of secrets.
In the play I portray Houdini as the bravest and most conceited man in the world. He is also one of the most ambitious, expecting everyone who loves him – his wife, his mother, his brother – to play their part in helping him become the highest paid entertainer in vaudeville. 
He succeeds in this ambition, and, in doing so, he becomes a legend, a symbol, a myth. Success excites him, but it haunts him too. He is haunted by the fear that his escape techniques could be of supernatural origin.

Houdini was played by Peter Gerald (seen right striking THE pose). Of his lead Fitzsimons says, "I believe Peter was destined to play this role, for an addition to the physical likeness there is a spiritual infinity. In rumpled evening dress or bathing suit, he is the personification of Houdini." Bess was played by Amanda Macdonald.

Pocket Theater was limited to four actors, so some of the performers played multiple roles. Sophy Ackroyd played Houdini's mother and Margery. Fitzsimons says, "The dual personality gives the seduction scene between Margery and Houdini an intriguing psychological twist." David Cole played Margery's spirit guide Walter and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The play was directed by Keiran Gillespie with a score by Scottish composer Glenn Plukett. David De-Val was the escapology consultant.

I don't know how long the production ran. But I do know that it played at the Old Laundry Theatre in Bowness-on-Windermere, Cumbria in October and November 1992. It also played the Rudolf Steiner Theatre in London in February 1993.

Thanks Handsome Jack!


Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Houdini on Mars

While Houdini has battled Martians in fiction before, I don't believe he's ever actually been to the red planet itself. But now Harry Houdini And The Great Worlds' War! by Daniel T. Foster appears to deliver just that.

Mars: A world under siege by an invading force.
Jupiter: A sinister foe bent on domination of the Solar System.
Earth: Torn between helping an ally or making themselves a target.
It would take a magic trick to save the Etherverse. Luckily, we've got just the man to pull it off: Harry Houdini!
War and intrigue on the planet Mars in 1919 come together in "Harry Houdini and the Great Worlds' War," the thrilling fourth chapter of The Etherverse! Features a special bonus story on "The Klank Korps," the Earth's attempt at a mechanical 1917!

A 24 page comic book made in "Dime Novel" style. Written by Daniel T. Foster, and illustrated by Michael J. King

Purchase Harry Houdini And The Great Worlds' War! at Etsy.

Thanks to Arthur Moses for the alert.


Monday, July 6, 2020

Shooting stops for a famous visitor

I mentioned this clip in my recent post about the documentary Days of Thrills and Laughter. But in my attempt to coax Antonia Carlotta of Universally Me to do a video about Houdini and Universal, I've uploaded the full clip to my YouTube channel. I'm a bit unsure about copyright, so have a watch while it's still around!

As I've said in earlier posts, this shows Houdini and Bess visiting the set of an Al Christie comedy at Universal Studios on December 13, 1915. Houdini is "trapped" by the Christie Girls. He's then freed on Bess's command. It's a rarely seen, wonderful piece of film credited as coming from the Larry Weeks collection.

For more on Universal history, I highly recommend Antonia Carlotta's YouTube Channel Universally Me. Her great uncle was Universal's founder, Carl Laemmle. Antonia also appeared in the 1997 Goodspeed Opera House's play, Houdini, which she mentions in her video, Why'd the World Forget Rosabelle Laemmle?


Sunday, July 5, 2020

The Magic Castle conjures The Houdini Box

The Magic Castle in Hollywood is still closed due to Covid-19, but the AMA have been coming up with creative ways to still offer a Magic Castle experience. In addition to their "Behind the Bookcase" virtual events, they've now launched a way to dine.

Individual meals cooked by the Magic Castle chef are available for curbside pickup. Or you can get a box of ingredients and cook your own Castle meals at home. It's called "The Houdini Box", of course!

They are also offering The Blackstone Box for $60. That comes from Houdini's basement.

(Does anyone besides Mike Caveney get that joke?)

The Magic Castle's "Curbside Cuisine" is available to everyone (not just members) via the Magic Castle website.


Saturday, July 4, 2020

Houdini's fabulous 4ths

The Weiss family landed in America on July 3, 1878, passing through the Castle Garden Emigrant Landing Depot in New York City (Ellis Island was not yet built). Yes, this means the first full day in America for the 4-year-old Ehrich Weiss was, appropriately enough, Independence Day.

There's no record of how the family spent the day, although it's likely they initially stayed at the home of Cecelia's sisters, Rose and Sally, who had immigrated to America in 1865-66 and lived in New York City. So there's little doubt young Ehrich got to experience some kind of Fourth of July celebrations on that day in 1878.

Ironically, the first record of how Houdini spent a Fourth of July comes from Russia. In 1903 Houdini and Bess traveled to Moscow where he famously escaped from the Siberian Transport Prison Van among other feats. They happened to be in Russia during the Fourth of July. So how did they celebrate this most American of all holidays in the land of the Czar? Houdini himself told readers in his New York Dramatic Mirror column:

Although yesterday was the Fourth of July in America, it is only June 21 here in Russia, but just the same our American Consul, Smith, invited all the American performers who were in Moscow to a celebration on the grounds of the consulate, over which waved a large American flag, while the Russians looked over the fence and wondered what the "always-in-a-hurry Americans" were up to. Among the guests were the Manhattan Quartette, Smith and Doretto, Weston of loop the hoopology, four of the Florida Girls, Miss Walcott, Mrs. Harry Houdini and myself. There were many speeches, but not a single firecracker or report of a gun was heard, and without these it did not seem at all like the Glorious Fourth to me.

The photo above shows that very celebration, and is the only photo of Houdini in Russia that I'm aware. (He can be seen leaning in smiling mid table on the right.)

A more traditional Independence Day celebration for Houdini was July 4, 1922. Harry and Bess attended a party at the home of Houdini's lawyer Bernard Ernst in Sea Cliff, Long Island. What happened that day Houdini would call "the most remarkable coincidence that ever happened to a mortal man", and he would share the story during his lectures on Spiritualism. In his 1924 book, A Magician Among the Spirits, he related the story in full.

[...] Not only are mediums alert to embrace every advantage offered by auto-suggestion but they also take advantage of every accidental occurrence. For instance, my greatest feat of mystery was performed in 1922 at Seacliffe, L. I., on the Fourth of July, at the home of Mr. B. M. L. Ernest. The children were waiting to set off their display of fireworks when it started to rain. The heavens fairly tore loose. Little Richard in his dismay turned to me and said:
    "Can’t you make the rain stop?"
    "Why certainly," I replied and raising my hands said appealingly, "Rain and Storm, I command you to stop."
     This I repeated three times and, as if by miracle, within the next two minutes the rain stopped and the skies became clear. Toward the end of the display of fireworks the little fellow turned to me and with a peculiar gleam in his eyes said:
     "Why, Mr. Houdini, it would have stopped raining anyway."
     I knew I was risking my whole life's reputation with the youngster but I said:
    "Is that so? I will show you."
Houdini and Ernst in Sea Cliff.
    Walking out in front I raised my hands suppliantly toward the heavens and with all the command and force I had in me called:
    "Listen to my voice, great Commander of the rain, and once more let the water flow to earth and allow the flowers and trees to bloom."
     A chill came over me for as if in response to my command or the prayer of my words another downpour started, but despite the pleading of the children I refused to make it stop again. I was not taking any more chances.

May you have a rain free fabulous Fourth!


Friday, July 3, 2020

Houdini on equality

We are living in a time of a serious re-examination of how historical figures may have helped or hindered the struggle for rights and equality for all, regardless of sex or race. So where did Houdini stand on this?

In Houdini's day the great struggle was that of women seeking equality in society and especially the right to vote. The "Suffrage" movement sparked demonstrations and even violence. When asked if he approved of "women participating in everyday life" (code for equal rights), Houdini's answer was an unequivocal, "Yes."

But he largely led by example–such as inviting Suffragettes onstage to challenge him in 1908–and avoided the mire of politics, stating: "I hope to keep out of politics, for that is a game in which most of us are defeated before we even get into."

But what about racial equality?

Being Jewish and an immigrant, Houdini certainly understood the sting of institutional discrimination. And while he wasn't perfect (his films and fiction trade on racial stereotypes), he had a strong sense of justice and did express a tolerance uncharacteristic for that time. For instance, he was impressed with the racial equality he witnessed in British Music Halls, and wrote about it in his New York Dramatic Mirror column on November 12, 1904.

In this remarkable paragraph, written in England for American readers, one may infer of his own feelings on race equality. And while Houdini's use of the word "colored" is considered offensive today, it was the most respectful language he could have used at that time.

Just a few lines referring to your article appearing Sept. 24, in which you reproduce a cut of a team called Cline and Clark, in which a white woman is doing a sketch with a colored man. That is nothing unusual on this side of the pond, and were I a colored man I would never leave this country. They are all looked upon here just as amicably as if they were white. The color line is unknown here, and many a team I've seen in which the man is colored and his partner white. The colored race over here has made a great big hit, and certainly are making good with their ability. I have been on the bill with several American colored acts that have "made good" without question. I may mention Brown and Navarro, Grant and Grant, La Belle Morcschania, Johnson and Dean, White and Black, the Four Black Troubadours, Eph Thompson, George Jackson, etc., and all have done well.
I trust that these few lines will not open any controversy, as I simply write for general information and nothing else.

Wishing everyone a safe and united Fourth of July weekend.


Thursday, July 2, 2020

Marvyn Roy "Mr. Electric" dies at 95

Marvyn Roy, known as "Mr. Electric," died yesterday in Los Angeles at age 95.

Roy and his late wife Carol toured with a highly original magic act using light bulbs. Roy even did a version of Houdini's Needles with small electric lights. I recall seeing "Mr. Electric" on television during the 1970s and '80s. He was very much part of that dawn of the Second Golden Age of Magic. He was also greatly admired by his peers.

You can read Marvyn Roy's full obituary at The Hollywood Reporter.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the North Hollywood-based Dai Vernon Foundation, which supports magicians in need.


Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The Muller Mirror mystery key

On last Sunday's Magic Collectors' Corner ZOOM conference, Roger Dreyer gave a tour of his amazing Houdini Museum of New York at Fantasma Magic (which is now reopened for business). Among the many Houdini treasures Roger showed was a replica of the famous Mirror Handcuff made by Ian McColl. The cuff hangs in a display case with a key, and I was very surprised when Roger said he bought the key from the late Henry Muller who told him it was "the duplicate key."

I immediately remembered this post from 2013 in which I shared a photo of Mirror handcuffs on display at Henry Muller's Houdini Magical Hall of Fame with two keys. This is significant as the Mirror cuffs are supposed to have only one key. Both keys eventually vanished from the display case.

Roger has been good enough to send over a nice photo of the mystery key, which he purchased from Henry in 2016.

Now, before we get too excited and begin to speculate that this second key might have been used by Houdini to open the cuff during his famous 1904 challenge, Roger reports that David Copperfield tried this key on the original Mirror Handcuff and it did NOT work. So despite being a "reproduction not made by anyone modern", this doesn't appear to be the secret of the Mirror Handcuff escape.

But what is this key and why does it exist? I guess it's yet another Henry Muller Houdini mystery.

If you missed this latest Houdini-themed conference (#11) you can watch it on the Magic Collectors Corner Facebook Group.

Thanks Roger.


Monday, June 29, 2020

Metamorphosis sculpture reappears in Appleton

I just received some wonderful news from our friend Tom Boldt in Appleton, Wisconsin. This morning the City of Appleton re-installed Richard C. Wolter's "Metamorphosis" sculpture after a 9-year absence. The sculpture now sits on a pedestrian trail along the Fox River near the site Houdini claimed to have almost drowned as a child.

"Metamorphosis" was donated to the city in 1985 by Boldt Development Corp. (yes, as in Tom Boldt). It stood in the center of Houdini Plaza until 2010, when it was removed because the base was deteriorating. Houdini Plaza underwent a major renovation in 2013 with a new centerpiece. A Houdini bust was added in 2015.

I've always loved this sculpture and I'm thrilled to know it is once again on view in Houdini's hometown.

Thank you Tom for this tribute, and the great news today!


Saturday, June 27, 2020

Houdini's Fort Worth street feats

Here are some great photos of Houdini's suspended straitjacket escape from the Star-Telegram Building in Fort Worth on January 13, 1916. This was the first stop of his first tour of Texas. The initial images show Houdni testing the scaffolding in front of the newspaper's headquarters at 815 Throckmorton along with his police challengers. The paper asked, "Will Texas prove his Waterloo?"

The successful escape was witnessed by some 4000 Texans who packed the intersection of Throckmorton and 8th Street as seen below.

Click to enlarge.

I'm always excited to find images of Houdini's suspended straitjacket escapes from this era. Most photos and film footage are from 1923-24 when big cities looked more like...big cities. But in 1915-16 many cities still looked like towns with older buildings that give it all a different flavor. (Houdini repeated the stunt in Fort Worth in 1923.)

Today the site of the original Star-Telegram Building is a parking lot. But the paper survives with offices just one block over on 8th Street.

This wasn't the only outdoor stunt Houdini is said to have performed in Fort Worth during this 1916 engagement. An account of a somewhat bizarre second feat appears in the 1973 book, Locklear: The Man Who Walked On Wings by Art Ronnie. This is a biography of Ormer Locklear, a Texas daredevil who would later become a famous wing-walker in Hollywood. Below is an edited excerpt:

One block from the Majestic was the Trav Daniel Sporting Goods store, where James, Ormer's younger brother, was working as a clerk. One day, to the delight of the clerks and customers, the magician came in to buy a pair of white Spaulding track shorts. "They're pretty good for underwear," he explained to James, standing behind the counter in awe of the illusionist. Finally able to talk, James blurted out that he enjoyed Houdini's act at the theater. He had also seen Houdini free himself from a strait-jacket while hanging upside down from the scaffold swung from the top of the Star-Telegram Building. Susceptible to flattery, Houdini talked about his act to his young admirer. During their conversation, James mentioned his brother's trick motorcycle riding. Houdini was amazed. A plan to use Ormer's daring to his advantage was already forming in his inventive mind and he asked to meet the "crazy fellow who would ride a trick motorcycle." Houdini liked the man he met. Satisfied, Houdini made the unusual suggestion that Ormer drag him, fettered, behind his motorcycle down Fort Worth's Main Street. "The publicity will be good for me and my act," Houdini said in his rough way. Only after Houdini's assurance that he would take certain precautions against injury did Ormer agree to go through with the stunt. 
Houdini chose Main Street for his demonstration because it was the first "paved" street in Fort Worth. A series of wooden blocks, or round stumps, has been recessed into the street to protect the hooves of horses from injury. To protect himself, he wore a thick quilted overall. A hood to shield his head gave him the appearance of an Eskimo. Eager volunteers, attracted to the scene by the gathering crowd, tied his hands behind his back. A length of rope from Ormer's motorcycle was then attached to Houdini. The starting signal was given and with one last apprehensive glance behind him, Ormer reluctantly gave the gas to his cycle. Moving ever so slowly at first and then assured that his "passenger" wasn't being hurt by the jouncing about, Ormer gradually increased speed. But before he could attain real momentum, and much to his relief, it was all over. Houdini was free from his bonds and then from the rope attached to the motorcycle. The publicity paid off. The rest of his stand in Fort Worth, Houdini played to a packed house.

It's a great story. I think my favorite part is learning Houdini wore white Spaulding track shorts as underwear. However, I've never been able to corroborate it. I cannot find any photos or a single newspaper account. It does appear in a several Houdini books (Cartlidge, Silverman, Kalush), but their source is the Locklear book, which, as far as I can tell, is the only source for this second Fort Worth street feat.

So did it really happen? Or is it a Texas-sized Houdini myth? Ormer looks like he knows, but he's not talking!

Ormer Locklear - the man who dragged Houdini?


Friday, June 26, 2020

Magic Collectors' Corner goes inside the Houdini Museum of New York

This Sunday, June 28, the Magic Collectors' Corner weekly ZOOM conference (#11) will again be Houdini-themed. The highlight will be a tour of the recently reopened Houdini Museum of New York by owner Roger Dreyer himself.

"I look forward to sharing the Houdini Museum of New York with you all this Sunday. Not just Houdini, but Copperfield, Blackstone, Henning, and even a rubber chicken!" -Roger Dreyer

Magic Collectors' Corner Live Event #11


Meeting ID: 869 8962 9592
Password: Dante

IMPORTANT NOTE: The ZOOM event is limited to the first 100 participants, but a LIVE simulcast can be viewed on the Magic Collectors Corner Facebook Group. Join it now so you'll be assured you can watch the program.


Thursday, June 25, 2020

Locking down Houdini in Kansas

Don Creekmore, a lifelong resident of Kansas with a particular interest in the history of the Wichita area, is writing a book about Houdini in the Sunflower State. Don has launched a very well done website showcasing his research and asking for help in locating Houdini in Kansas. I love specialized work like this, and Don's site has me dazzled, especially all the new info he's uncovered on the California Concert Company. Have a look:

"Like many youngsters, Harry Houdini was almost a mythical figure in magic and history to me. How could someone bigger than life have any notable connection to Kansas? As my interest in his life, feats and mythology grew I stumbled upon a piece of faded fragile paper that would set in motion my desire to learn about Houdini's connection to the state & people of Kansas. As fate would have it, I would get married to my high school sweetheart in the Wichita Orpheum theater where Houdini performed in 1923.

So what was the faded piece of paper that started everything? As they say, you will have to wait for the book....."  -Don Creekmore


Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Houdini in 1907

The year 1907 saw Houdini touring free of his handcuff act and image. Exotic challenges now replaced the cuffs and spectacular bridge jumps supplanted jail breaks as his new headline grabbing stunt. It was a year in which he raised his profile and his price and became an undisputed star of American vaudeville, which in itself was booming under a new monopoly that embraced him.

The year kicked off on January 4th with the entire University of Pennsylvania football team jogging on stage at Keith's New Theater in Philadelphia carrying a giant football. Thrity-five minutes after being sown inside the enormous pigskin with chains and padlocks, Houdini emerged free. The following week Houdini returned to Boston where he had caused a sensation the year before. It was more of the same as he faced off with a coffin made by the National Casket Co., a riveted iron boiler made by Riverside boiler works, and a plate glass box furnished by the Pittsburg Glass Co. (but almost certainly the creation of Houdini himself). He also engaged in a bizarre private challenge at the home of J.S. Fay Jr. in which 13 members of the Somerset club took an hour and forty-five minutes to bind him with cord and fishing line. Houdini escaped in an hour and thirteen minutes and won $500 from the members.

The previous November Houdini had made an impromptu leap into the freezing Detroit River from the Belle Isle Bridge. The cold shocked him, but he had discovered a powerful new publicity stunt. Now he would prepare himself for more. While in Boston, Houdini began taking a series of ice baths. "Gee whiz! Another ice bath. They want to see me earn my money," he recorded in his diary on Jan. 7. After several days of baths in progressively colder water, his diary reports: "Doctor stops ice bath."

After playing two weeks in Rhode Island, Houdini was back in Boston where he introduced a new feat in which he'd be handcuffed and bound "spread eagle" to a wooden door laid across two tables. Despite his packed tour schedule, Houdini still found time to edit and publish his Conjures Monthly Magazine.

March found Houdini at the Maryland Theater in Baltimore. In a single day he beat a Witches Pillory and an Iron-Bound Willow Hamper. It was then onto Toledo where High School boys bound him with tarred ropes. That escape took 45 minutes. At the end of the month Houdini arrived in Washington, D.C.. Advertised as his "Farewell" to the city before his return to Europe, Houdini accepted a whopping 12 challenges in one week.

By April Houdini was back in New York where he celebrated his 33rd birthday. He then played four weeks at three different theaters in Manhattan and Brooklyn (facing a packing case challenge from Bloomingdales at one). But Houdini struggled to win over his hometown. Variety noted: "New York is a big town, and while Houdini is probably outside this city the best drawing card in vaudeville, he does not largely attract here through inability to secure the press work the smaller towns supply."

Indeed, while New York City was not about to allow Houdini to snarl traffic with an outdoor stunt, other cities embraced the spectacles. In Rochester on May 7 Houdini leapt handcuffed from the Weighlock Bridge near Court St. in front of a reported 10,000 spectators. Fearful the bridge might collapse, the police had to work to keep the span spectator free. Houdini had invited his mother to Rochester to witness the feat. "Ma saw me jump!" he enthusiastically recorded in his diary.

Houdini had also hired two cameramen to capture the Rochester jump on film. Working with Eastman Kodak, Houdini had the footage ready to show at Cooks Opera House within 24 hours. Projected cinema was a popular Vaudeville novelty in itself, and its integration in Houdini's act was inspired. It marked his first foray into the still young medium of motion pictures, and from now on movies of his outdoor stunts would become a regular feature of his act.

While playing the Davis' Grand Opera House in Pittsburgh later that month, the Houdinis had a scare when their beloved dog Charlie went missing on the street. Houdini appealed to the local papers for help. Happily, Charlie's escape was only temporary. Houdini then leapt manacled from the Seventh St. bridge into the Allegheny river. Once again the stunt was filmed, but unlike Rochester, the footage has not survived.

In late May Houdini took yet another career turn when he published his first piece of short fiction. "Bahl Yahn the Strong Man, A Good Night Story by Harry Houdini" appeared in the New York Sunday World before being syndicated in newspapers across the country. "Bahl Yahn" tells the story of a circus strong man who wants nothing more in life than to work with his mother strapped to his back. It's filled with autobiographical flourishes and is pure Houdini.

Houdini's salary was also steadily rising. In Pittsburgh he received a raise of $2,500 per week. This was to keep him from accepting a $1,500 offer to play the rival Nixon Theater. Vaudeville was booming and competing circuits and bookers began courting Houdini. He entered into serious talks with William Morris to star on the Klaw & Erlanger circuit. But in June Houdini signed a whopping $70,000 contract for 40 weeks with the United Booking Office (UBO), a shamelessly monopolist business venture formed in 1906 by B.F. Keith, Edward Albee, and Houdini's former manager Martin Beck. This would ensure Houdini remained loyal to the Keith-Orpheum circuit. While UBO was infamous for the restrictions it imposed on artists, Houdini seems to have been given untypical freedom. His new contract even allowed him to sell his own merchandise in theaters.

Believing Houdini had used them as a negotiating tool, William Morris signed a competitor, George Brindamour. The French Canadian escapist began taking out aggressive advertisements in the trade papers, taunting Houdini and even challenging his "manhood." Houdini took his own swipes at Brindamour in his Conjurers Monthly Magazine, noting that this newest "Handcuff King" had been a dance teacher when he first met him in 1896. "He showed me pictures of himself in a ballet costume, and seemed to be proud that he could impersonate the female sex so perfectly," Houdini wrote.

After playing two weeks at the Union Square Theater in New York, Houdini took the summer off. But he did not rest. Among his usual whirlwind of activities he used the time to work on his history of magic, now titled The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin. "Wrote until 2:30 AM on Houdin book," Houdini recorded in his diary on July 19. "This is a labor of love. I shall be happy when it is finished, as it will take a lot of worry off my mind." He finished the book the next day.

In mid August Hardeen returned from Europe where he had carved out a successful career as "The Monarch of Manacles." Newspapers played up the brothers rivalry, reporting that Houdini intended to meet Hardeen's boat and "learn his intentions." Of course, Houdini's intention was to see Hardeen booked as a headliner on the Klaw & Erlanger circuit so they could effectively monopolize big time vaudeville. Working behind the scenes for the brothers was the trailblazing Jenie Jacobs, one of only two female booking agents in the business. Hardeen would not only do the tried and true handcuff act, but he also accepted packing crate challenges and did his own bridge jumps, such as from the 18th Street Bridge in Louisville, Kentucky. (No record of him taking ice baths.)

This did not deter the wrathful William Morris, and when Houdini resumed his tour in San Fransisco (still digging out from the massive earthquake and fire the year before), he found Brindamour playing the theater directly next door advertised as "King of All Handcuff Kings." Variety expected the "fur to fly." But Houdini ignored his rival, signaling that handcuff escapes were beneath him; except for use during his outdoor stunts, such as jumping manacled into San Fransisco Bay as he did on Augusts 28. But Houdini was not about to give Brindamour a pass, and when "the King of All Handcuff Kings" became stuck in a pair of handcuffs in Sacramento several weeks later (likely supplied by a Houdini confederate), Houdini made certain all the papers had the story.

Houdini also began using the newspapers to flesh out his own biography and mythology. Illustrated profiles appeared in major cities, sometimes penned by Houdini himself. Many of the familiar legends begin here, including his youthful adventures picking up needles with his eyelids and freeing a convict from handcuffs while apprenticing to a locksmith. They also contain some observational gems, such as the San Fransisco Call saying that, in person, Houdini speaks "in the fluent, pliable language of Fillmore Street and not in the Parisian English which he uses as stage dialect." Bess's quick wit is also on display. When asked if she knew the secret of her husband's handcuff escapes, she answered: "Oh, yes; I kept after him until he told me. But I'll never tell the secret; if it were known the act wouldn't draw and we'd have to work for our living."

After three weeks in San Francisco, Houdini traveled to Los Angeles, a city he found had "changed almost beyond recognition." Without a bridge to jump from, he promoted his engagement with a leap from the roof of a boat pavilion in Westlake Park. He also accepted a challenge to escape from a government mail bag under the condition that if he could not free himself he would need to be carried to the post office to be unlocked. The escape was billed as "Houdini vs. Uncle Sam."

In an autobiographical piece he provided for the Los Angeles Herald, Houdini wrote: "I came here in 1899, a struggling performer, and now I have returned prosperous and successful. Once again before I retire I hope to visit the city professionally. It would be a pleasure to close my stage career here and settle down among the orange groves for the rest of my life."

Houdini then played hooky from the Orpheum circuit for a 3-day stint at the independently owned Grand Theater in San Diego. UBO refused to cover his travel expenses. Houdini drew attention by diving handcuffed into San Diego bay from Spreckle's Wharf. He then resumed his tour in Denver, another city he last played in 1899.

Near the end of October a bizarre event occurred inside Houdini's New York home. His brother Leopold woke in the night to find an intruder in the house. Leopold tussled with the would-be thief and received slashes from a razor. The men tumbled down a flight of stairs before the intruder fled over the back fence. Papers reported the incident, but did not mention, or likely even know, that the house belonged to Harry Houdini. By now Leopold's medical practice had made him a New Yorker of note himself.

In November Hardeen and Houdini played opposite each other in Kansas City where Houdini escaped shackles in a pool at the Kansas City Athletic Club. He also published a second short story, "Dan Cupid -- Magician." Near the end of the month Houdini played New Orleans for the first time. In heavy rain he dove shackled into the Mississippi River from the gang plank of the Steamer "J.S." at the foot of Canal Street. He also accepted a challenge to escape from slave chains.

December saw Houdini in Chicago where his attempted jump from the Wells Street bridge was stopped by police for lack of a permit. He instead escaped shackles and a sack at the Illinois Athletic Club. During his run he also made an escape from "a galvanized iron can." Performed without water, this appears to have been a precursor to his famous Milk Can escape.

Bess did not accompany him to Chicago, and on December 16th he penned her a playfully forlorn love letter after his matinee ("fair house"). In it he described a meal he had consumed of "spaghetti, roast beef, mashed potatoes, coffee and lady fingers in cream." He signed the letter, "Love and kisses as ever your devoted Husband Ehrich Prach."

Houdini finished the year at the New Grand Theater in Indianapolis. In what must have seemed like a nostalgic return to his Handcuff King days, he escaped from shackles at the U.S. marshal's office on Christmas Eve.

Back to 1906 | All Years | Continue to 1908


Monday, June 22, 2020

HOUDINI on The Jewish Lives Podcast

The Jewish Lives Podcast is a monthly show hosted by Stanford Storytelling Project veteran Alessandra Wollner. Each episode includes an interview with an acclaimed Jewish Lives author, in this case Adam Begley, author of Houdini: The Elusive American.

On August 12th Adam Begley will be in conversation with Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove as part of the Jewish Lives Summer with Park Avenue Synagogue series. You can get more information and register HERE.

You can purchase Houdini: The Elusive American at and


Sunday, June 21, 2020

Mystifier, Fall 2002

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

The Fall 2002 Mystifier celebrates the coming of the U.S. Postal Service's First Class Houdini stamp. This was a personal triumph for the HHC and Sidney Radner who had lobbied long and hard for this recognition. The newsletter contains photos and a report from the HHCs own dedication ceremony on July 5. For the occasion, Wisconsin-based escape artist Mike Schroeder performed a suspended straitjacket escape.

The newsletter continues with news of a second big event; the unveiling of John Gaughan's restored Water Torture Cell. The cell was displayed at the Center for Jewish History in New York from July 3 to August 5. The newsletter includes a photo of John with the USD, which for many was probably their first look at the restoration. It also has a Q&A with John. Below is a sampling:

Mystifier: Did you understand the mechanism in the Water Torture Cell before you began?
JG: I had reworked the Water Torture Cell in 1991. If I had not had that opportunity, it would have been impossible to restore the Water Torture Cell at all. I needed to be familiar with the whole piece since it was so totally destroyed in the fire. There were only fragments remaining of the original piece. 
Mystifier: What was the most difficult part of the project? 
JG: To be faithful to the original design. Not to cut corners but to use exact materials and methods of the original. The restoration used rare Honduras mahogany with a ribbon pattern, just as in the original. I used lap joints in the construction, as in the original to allow for the expansion and contraction that would occur when it was filled with water.

The newsletter continues with the sad news of the death of Ronald J. Hilgert, HHC member and author of Houdini Comes to America (1996). The museum shop announces new items related to the Houdini stamp, such a first day covers and pins. Recent donors are listed along with the staff of the HHC, which we now see is headed by Executive Director Terry Bergen who will prove controversial.

In his regular "Backstage" column, Sid (sporting a new column photo) talks about the HHC stamp event and the restored Water Torture Cell. He expresses disappointment that he was not invited to the official unveiling of the stamp in New York City. That ceremony featured David Copperfield (in a suit matching the one we see Houdini wearing in the stamp image) and Marie Blood. But Sid deems the Appleton ceremony as being the "much more impressive stamp dedication" and points out that it was covered by four TV stations.

Finally, it's worth pointing out that this issue introduces a few stylistic changes. No longer are the Contents listed on the cover. The font size is also increased (actually, the font sizes and styles are wildly inconsistent). This would also prove to be the last Mystifier printed in two colors.

Volume 12, Number 3
Fall 2002
6 pages

U.S, Postal Service Recognizes Houdini!
The Water Torture Cell is Reborn!
R.I.P. Ronald J. Hilgert
Museum Shop News
Backstage with Sid Radner



Saturday, June 20, 2020

Houdini Comes Alive June 25

David London in conjunction with the Jewish museums of Maryland and Milwaukee will present a special Live Stream of his popular Houdini talk and performance on June 25.

JMM Squared - Houdini Comes Alive

On Thursday, June 25th at 7:30 pm EST the Jewish Museum of Maryland in partnership with Jewish Museum Milwaukee presents 'Houdini Comes Alive.' Join us for this magical performance with magician David London as he takes us back in time to truly discover the world's first superstar.

JMMSquared: The Jewish Museum of Maryland and the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee come together to present a unique pairing of programs, only made possible by our current challenging situation. This pair of programs celebrates the ways in which we have been able to successfully work together to bring to both Baltimore and Milwaukee some of our most popular exhibits of recent years including Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini and Stitching History from the Holocaust.

Click here for more information and to register.


Friday, June 19, 2020

Climb aboard the Frisia

Here's a cutaway model of the German steamship SS Frisia that resides in the Smithsonian. What's this have to do with Houdini? Well, it was the Frisia that the Weiss family boarded in Hamburg 142 years ago today bound for America. It was the first ocean voyage for the 4-year-old Ehrich Weiss.

Built in 1872 by Caird & Co. in Scotland, the Frisia (originally launched as the Alsatia) was part of the Hamburg-American Line. It had room for 820 passengers and could make the Atlantic crossing in about 12 days. Frisia was one of the last iron steamships of its era. Following its run as an immigrant ship, Frisia was sold to Italian owners who converted it into a coal carrier. In 1902, the ship, then known as the Arno, was scrapped in Italy.

You can see many more photos of the SS Frisia model at the Smithsonian's American History website.

For more information about the Weiss family immigration check out Houdini Comes To America by Ronald J. Hilgert and Houdini: Escape into Legend, The Early Years: 1862–1900 by Manny Weltman.


Thursday, June 18, 2020

The Houdinis and the Doyles...take an Uber?

On this 98th anniversary of the infamous Atlantic City seance, here's a photo of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Lady Doyle, Bess and Houdini that I've not seen before. This was shared as the October 2015 "Treasure of the Month" at the Conan Doyle Collection website.

Click to enlarge.

I don't really know anything more about this image, other than it looks a little tight in that back seat. Someone can't sit up with the poor driver?

Soon I'll be sharing a "ghostly" Houdini-Doyle curiosity from the Fred Pittella collection. Stay tuned!

UPDATE: I'm going to make a guess that this is Denver, Colorado in May 1923. I believe the sign on the building behind them may read The Mile High Photo Co., which was a Denver business. At this time Houdini was performing at the Orpheum and Doyle was lecturing at the Ogden Theater.


Wednesday, June 17, 2020

LINK: TR vs. Houdini (History Vs. podcast)

This is a very well done telling of the famous story of Houdini fooling President Theodore Roosevelt aboard the Imperator in June 1914. Click the headline to have a listen at the History Vs. podcast at Mental Floss.


Monday, June 15, 2020

Houdini's forgotten agent: Jenie Jacobs

We all know about Martin Beck's involvement in managing Houdini's early career. We also know about Harry Day who booked Houdini on his UK tours. But I recently discovered there was another agent in Houdini's life: Jenie Jacobs.

Jacobs has an interesting story herself. She grew up in a Syracuse orphanage and was "cast adrift" at age 13. She came to New York and worked her way through law school at New York University while learning stenography at night. She then entered the agency business and in time distinguished herself as one of only two female booking agents in the business (the other was in Russia). She lived with her life-long partner Pauline Cook of the vaudeville sharp-shooting team "Cook and Clinton." The two later formed their own agency.

It not clear exactly when Jacobs first entered Houdini's orbit, but to hear her tell it, it was early in his career. In a syndicated 1922 profile ("A Creator of Footlight Careers") she claimed to be responsible for Houdini's high salary. Her story doesn't quite comport with known facts, but you gotta love her last line, as I'm sure Houdini did.

It's more likely Jacobs represented Houdini after his return to the U.S. in 1905. She definitely represented Hardeen when he returned in 1907. Her name is featured prominently on Hardeen's trade advertisements, referring to her as "Miss Jenie Jacobs, The Hustling Agent." She also represented Houdini's boyhood friend and one-time Houdini Brother Joe Hayman. Joe played Vaudeville with Mildred Franklin as "Hayman and Franklin." Another familiar client was Dr. Walford Bodie, "The Famous Bloodless Surgeon and Electric Wizard."

Jacobs relationship with Houdini appears to have soured, and in 1908 she sued the magician for $2,250 in commissions owed.

Variety, Aug. 22, 1908

It may be a testament to her skills of persuasion that she was able to reconcile with Houdini a few years later and once again act as his agent.

Variety, April 13, 1914

It speaks well of Houdini and Hardeen that in this male dominated age they entrusted their careers to a woman (and an apparent gay woman at that). But it's clear Jacobs had no problems asserting herself in a "mans world." She offered this advice to women:

"[This] is the particular warning I would like to hold up to women: not to let their own timidity and men's boldness bluff them into feeling that they are unable to carry on business on their own account. We must bluff a little too and keep awake."

In 1921 Jacobs launched a successful career as a theatrical producer, clocking several hits on Broadway. She also sued the all-powerful United Booking Office (UBO) for "oppression and discrimination." She continued to represent top talent, including Jack Benny, and soon branched into radio. In the 1930s she became closely affiliated with the RKO circuit. It's possible she may have again booked Hardeen at this time.

Jenie Jacobs died of cancer on February 21, 1933 at age 55. She is buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.


Sunday, June 14, 2020

Fantasma Magic presents The Eyes Of Houdini

Here's some Sunday fun from the Fantasma Magic YouTube channel. Prepare to be amazed (if only temporarily).

Fantasma is home to the Houdini Museum of New York. They are currently closed due to Covid-19, but you can have a look inside their Houdini museum via the links below.


Saturday, June 13, 2020

Forty years ago in New Jersey

Today marks 40 years since the contents of 278 were auctioned off at a New Jersey estate sale that was the stuff of dreams for those lucky enough to have attended. Revisit my post from 2011 about...


Friday, June 12, 2020

Houdini returning to business

Yesterday while taking a walk before my "Behind the Bookcase" with Mike Caveney (which went well enough that there's talk of a Part 3!), I noticed that some stores in my neighborhood have reopened after being shut down for Covid-19. I haven't walked into a "non-essential" business for months, so I slipped on my mask and went inside the eclectic Mystic Museum on Magnolia Blvd. in Burbank. Here's the first thing I saw. Perfect.

This original oil painting was done by Robert Heckman for a special exhibition on spiritualism. If interested, visit or contact the good folks at the Mystic Museum. They've open!

Other Houdini related reopenings are the Catalina Island Museum, the History Museum at the Castle in Appleton, and the McCord Museum in Montreal. The House of Houdini in Budapest is also preparing to reopen soon.


Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Heart Is Quicker Than The Eye – the unmade Houdini biopic of 1976

It's not generally known that when Melville Shavelson was preparing his 1976 TV biopic The Great Houdinis for ABC, a rival Houdini movie was in the works at NBC called The Heart Is Quicker Than The Eye. Produced by Paramount and Playboy Productions, the aim was to air the film in October to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Houdini's death. Of course, this was also the proposed air date for the ABC film.

When asked about the coincidence of two Houdini projects, Edward L. Rissien, executive VP of Playboy Productions said, "There are many instances where a personality lends itself to two different treatments. We are proceeding as announced for NBC."

Patrick Culliton, who worked as a technical advisor on the NBC project, says two names producer Bill McCutchen mentioned for the role of Houdini were Robert Blake and Charles Bronson. Bronson was a big movie star so that was probably wishful thinking. But Robert Blake was a real possibility and a good choice. Blake was the star of the hit TV show Baretta at this time. Actress Joan Hackett was mentioned as a possible Bess. While no casting was finalized, production was announced to begin March 15, 1976.

A copy of the screenplay by Jean Holloway resides at the The William H. Larsen Sr. Memorial Library at The Magic Castle. What's most striking is how close this script follows the Harold Kellock book, Houdini His Life Story. It's almost as though Holloway had the book opened in front of her and transcribed it beat for beat. But this means The Heart is Quicker Than The Eye would have been the most accurate of all the Houdini biopics. Hardeen, Martin Beck, Margery, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle all feature in the film. And while Houdini does break his ankle in the Water Torture Cell, he does not die in it. In fact, his death is for the first time depicted accurately.

But somehow all this doesn't make for a better movie. The script is plodding, repetitive, and strangely dull. "I suffered through a treatment and three drafts of Jean Holloway's script as a research man," says Patrick. "I hated them all."

One original aspect Holloway introduces is the suggestion that Bess possesses true powers of extra sensory perception that she does not fully understand. But she is able to foretell events and successfully warn her husband off danger (when he'll listen). This is pretty interesting and I love the irony that Bess is the Houdini with the true powers. But it isn't developed far beyond the first act, and Bess's role in the film is largely to be a worried wife.

A fun detail is when Houdini is examined by a doctor for a burst blood vessel in his kidney (a regular source of pain for him in this script as it was in real life). The doctor's name is Larsen. Is this a nod to the famous Larsen magic family of Magic Castle fame? Could they have even considered having Bill Larsen Jr. play the role? Remember Bill was in Houdini (1953) as the S.A.M. head chopping magician, so this would have been a fun nod to this first Houdini biopic.

So what happened to The Heart Is Quicker Than The Eye? Despite Playboy's assurance that they were moving ahead, it appears the announcement of The Great Houdinis was enough to give the network cold feet. Says Patrick, "At that time, a decision to go with our Houdini movie took NBC a year, the decision for ABC to go with Mel Shavelson's project seemed to have been made in a week. Bill McCutchen was trying to save his project, but, it was over. We'd been scooped."

Patrick went on to work on The Great Houdinis, and even appears in the film as Franz Kukol.

The novelization for The Great Houdinis says it is a co-production with Playboy, so it's possible some kind of agreement was worked out between the networks and production companies. Whatever the case, The Heart Is Quicker Than The Eye was shelved and ABC's The Great Houdinis was the sole Houdini film to take to the airways that anniversary year.


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