Thursday, January 9, 2020

Did Houdini do the Water Torture Cell in full view of the audience?

In recent years it has become fashionable for escape artists to do Houdini's iconic water escapes, such as the Milk Can and Water Torture Cell, in full view of the audience. This would appear to be a bold new innovation. But is it possible Houdini occasionally did his Water Torture Cell without being concealed in his curtain cabinet? There is some evidence that he did!

In January 1924, a seven-year-old Morris Grenzow saw Houdini at the Orpheum Theater in Madison, Wisconsin. Mr. Grenzow's memory remained vivid, and he related what he saw to the Houdini Historical Center in May 2000. The following exchange appeared as part of that interview which ran in the Third Quarter 2000 issue of the Mystifier:

Grenzow: The final act was the water chamber. At that time Mrs. Houdini came out on the stage and there was another man there who had a fire axe that stood by the water chamber in case something were to go wrong and probably make it look good.... They lowered him in there upside down and he was in chains... I could see him wiggling around in that water to get out.
HHC. Was there a curtain in front of the water torture cell?
Grenzow: No. No. No. You could see the whole thing.... you [could] see him wiggling around in there. He came back out through the top.

Is it possible he really saw Houdini do the escape in full view? Let's dig deeper.

Grenzow saw Houdini at the end of a nationwide vaudeville tour that had begun in January 1923. This was a "return" tour after Houdini had spent several years making movies. I looked back at newspaper accounts from this tour and noted a few interesting things. First, even though the Water Torture Cell (a.k.a. USD) was 11 years old, it was being touted as his "new sensation." I also found many mentions of Houdini being shackled inside the cell, which is not typically how we think of him doing the escape, yet it is also what Mr. Grenzow remembers.

But the most exciting thing I found were three separate mentions of Houdini doing the escape "in full view of the audience." These appear while Houdini was playing Winnipeg (Feb. 19-25), Vancouver (Feb. 28-March 4), and the Hillstreet Theater in Los Angeles (April 23-29). Below is the mention from the Los Angeles Times:

Los Angeles Times, April 22, 1923.

I should note the above is clearly from a press release, not an eyewitness account, so it's not something I would normally give much weight to. But in light of Mr. Grenzow's account, this does become more meaningful. I also found a good description of the escape while Houdini was playing San Fransisco in March 1923 that says "a curtain is pulled" over the cell. So if Houdini was indeed doing a full view version of the USD on this tour, it appears he only did so in select theaters.

But how could Houdini do this without exposing the secret? I don't want to expose any secrets myself, but according to Mr. Grenzow, Houdini "came back out through the top." So let's accept that's what he and the audience saw.

My guess is the cell would still have been screened on the back and side, but the front open to the audience (not unlike how a seance medium is screened). Far from revealing anything, Houdini's escape might have appeared perplexing. Exactly HOW he was emerging from the top would not necessarily be clear. He might even appear to be penetrating the top of the solid stocks (and likely playing it up as such). Assistants could then remove the screening and the cell could be examined and all would still be locked tight. So in this presentation, Houdini would be mixing illusion and escape.

This would also explain why he only did it in select theaters. In the same interview, Mr. Grenzow says the Madison Orpheum "wasn't a big theater." So it's possible Houdini only did the full view USD in theaters where audience sight-lines would be agreeable to the effect.

Not long ago we uncovered evidence that Houdini did a caged version of the USD during his 1916 tour. That opened the door to the idea that Houdini would occasionally reinvent how he presented his most famous escape. So was a full view version a reinvention for the 1923 tour, if only as an occasional experiment? I think it may have been, and that's pretty wild!

Feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments below.



  1. Well now that is interesting. The release method would allow him to get out without revealing anything if the audience's viewpoint was lower than the top of the cell. If the theater had seats up above the stage the method would be in full view. This might explain why he could only do this in certain theaters. Another theory, the screen was only lowered to cover the top or lid the Cell, he escapes the chains, turns over and you see him going out of the top, the screen is lifted and there is Houdini on top of the cell that is still locked. Not completely full view but it would seem like it was to the audience. Grenzow may have forgotten a detail like that.

    Great stuff John!


    1. Interestingly that's how they show it in the Tony Curtis movie.

      Houdini would probably not invite a committee on stage as he normally did. And notice Mr. Grenzow did not mention anyone on stage except Bess and the man with the axe. More evidence that he really did see a presentation that was somewhat different.

  2. The USD was perceived as a novelty after having been retired for ten years. In full view describes what audiences saw, HH in the tank in full view before the actual escape. I agree with Jack that Grenzow misremembered the ending of the USD. There is no way that HH would leave the tank in full view. Expose his bread and butter?

    1. Maybe I wrote that poorly. It hadn't been retired for 10 years. HH had been doing it on and off for 11 years. But American audiences hadn't seen it since 1918 (maybe even 1917).

    2. I misinterpreted the USD being 11 years old by 1923 and HH giving it a rest. American audiences hadn't seen it in 5 or 6 years, so it must have been perceived as a novelty. Five or six years is a long time in show business. The public quickly forgets.

  3. I'm so glad you did a special post on this! Really amazing, and I love your theory about Houdini appearing to penetrate the top of the chamber (seen or unseen, I can imagine many in the audiences of the day envisioning just that). If Greznow remembered other specific details, I would certainly think he would remember a curtain being lowered in front of the cell if it had occurred. (My first trip to Disneyland was at age 7, and I can still remember very specific and vivid details of that day because hey, it was Disneyland!) Thanks for another intriguing post!

    1. Thanks Tom! His memory is quite good for details and he does say he saw him come out of the top. We can't deny that would have been exactly what he would have seen and would not have a way to know this otherwise. I'm not willing to say I'm 100% convinced, but there's enough here that I'm open to the possibility. HH changed things up and experimented more than people think. I read accounts of him going into the Milk Can upside down. So when the conditions where right, I could see him trying out a whole new approach to even the USD. So for me it's a big intriguing "maybe"!

  4. Such a great post John! I think this is totally plausible and something HH would do to change up the act. He did have that habit of keeping and revamping what works. I see this much like how his his straitjacket escape act evolved. First they were done in the cabinet, then they were done in full view for additional excitement.

    I'm still struggling with how he would limit the risk of exposing the secret of the USB though...

    Either way, I love this fresh take!

    1. Thanks Sean. A lot of folks seem to have shut this out of their mind as impossible. But I don't think it's impossible that Houdini could have experimented with his presentation from time to time. Just exactly how he would have done it is a mystery.

  5. Ok, here is a thought, just a thought, but Im basing it on things that have occured with my show.
    Is it possible that on the several instances this took place that there were prior to the show problems with the mechanics of the stocks and because he didnt trust it that instead of cancelling, he put in plan "B" that of using the tank as an underwater escape featuring shackles to give a visual presentation and still entertain? I say that becuase we shot a similar thing for ESPN years ago and it went really well....
    Again, just a thought and a great way to still incorporate a great escape even if the important part of the prop isnt working that night.......Ok, back to my room