Saturday, January 11, 2020

The A&E Houdini Biography

For some reason I'm feeling nostalgic for the documentary Houdini: The Great Escape, which first appeared as part of the popular A&E Biography series in 1994. But this doc, which was once so ubiquitous, is now among the hardest to see (unless you held onto your VHS machine).

Launched in 1987, A&E's "Biography" series offered up hour long profiles of famous figures in history. The series was hosted by Peter Graves and later Jack Perkins. It took them a while to get to Harry, but they finally did so with Houdini: The Great Escape, first airing on June 20, 1994.

The documentary is well written by Alan Goldberg and is narrated by Jack Perkins. It includes interviews with Patrick Culliton, Harry Blackstone, Jr., James Randi, John Bohannon, Charles Reynolds, Penn & Teller, Mark Edward, Dorothy Young, and Marie Blood. It's especially nice to see Marie as she did not do many onscreen interviews. There's plenty of Houdini footage and photos to enjoy. It's also interesting to see Ken Silverman in the credits as this was well before the release of his book. The documentary was dedicated to Manny Weltman, "In memoriam for his extraordinary archive and love for Houdini." Manny had passed away a month before the first airing.

A&E released select episodes of Biography on home video in the 1990s, and Houdini was among the first. I always felt the photo they used on the box (above) was an odd choice--certainly they could have found something more iconic? But I was also happy for this odd choice as it was a pic I had never seen. And if there's anyone out there who collects VHS, know there was an earlier release with a plain purple box with just Houdini's name on the cover.


With many repeats on cable and the home video always in stock in big bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders, Houdini: The Great Escape was inescapable. I suspect for many it was their introduction to Houdini's (non-fictional) story. It was later revamped with new narration for the Biography Channel's "Bio 4 Kids" series.

But the doc did not make the jump to DVD, and as far as I know, it has yet to appear on any streaming platform. And while some of the Biography episodes can be found on YouTube, Houdini is not among them. So now seeing this classic documentary is a magic trick in itself.

Here's a bit of related trivia. In a May 1998 interview in Movieline magazine, actor Jim Carrey was asked, "If you could dine with any group of people who have been featured on A&E's Biography, who would you choose?"

Carrey's answer: "Harry Houdini. Benjamin Franklin. Gandhi, I suppose. Jesus."

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16 comments:

  1. Thanks for the reminder. I haven't seen it in years so I think I'll pull it out and watch it. I agree about the pic on the cover of the box - can't imagine why they picked that one. (That said, one gets tired of seeing the more obvious choices used over and over again.)

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  2. I also bought this tape when it first came out. The cover photo looked odd to me as well but as John pointed out, it's a rare and possibly unpublished photo. My VHS is comfortably retired with no plans on connecting it back to the TV, but I might get this tape transferred to DVD at some point. Videotape machines are a thing of the past. I had to find this one on eBay when my old one died.

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    1. The reason I still have a machine is that I bought a VHS-DVD burner combo unit so I could copy some of my old tapes to DVD. Hopefully, I can do the same with this one.

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    2. Smart purchase! I'd like to get one of those.

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    3. Yes, I've gotten so much use out of it - it's terrific!

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  3. Your description reminded me about this video but not the cover picture. I was sure that I had a version and so spent an hour searching in my loft. Sure enough I have a copy but the cover picture is totally different, a white background with title HOUDINI down one side and BIOGRAPHY under a differnt photograph of Houdini. The full title, HOUDINI The Great Escape, is on the back cover. The small text does say it's produced by A&E Network and it runs for 45 minutes. I will send you a photograph of the cover shortly. I still have two VHS machines so will try to play it later. It must be in a PAL format (for Britain) otherwise I would not have it. I doubt if I will be able to make a dvd from it as most commercial tapes could not be copied to another tape player and so the security also prevents it copied onto dvd but will try. Before anyone shouts copyright infringement, it is legal to make a archive backup so long as they have the original and keep the copy with it and ofcourse not sell the copy.

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    1. Indeed, sounds like you have the UK version. Interesting that it's 5 minutes shorter than the U.S. My guess is it doesn't have the Jack Perkins intro at the head.

      You'll never hear a copyright complaint from me. These things need to be preserved.

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  4. PBS eventually upgraded their American Masters Houdini documentary to DVD. I got it when it was first released on videotape and jumped again when the DVD came out. The History Channel also produced an HH documentary they sell as a DVD.

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    1. Yep, those made the jump along with some others. I had actually assumed this one had as well. It was, after all, the most commercially available of all the VHSs. I went to pluck it off my DVD shelf the other night and I was like...what? I certainly still have the VHS, but my player long ago died. Luckily, I was able to find a DVD copy that I must have made a while back.

      BTW, I continued my nostalgic journey last night by re-watching Houdini Never Died (1979). It's funny, as a kid, I didn't like this one as it had too little Houdini and too much "contemporary" magician footage. Now I LOVE it for that! And Walter Gibson explaining the USD while standing right beside it. Gold.

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  5. Never heard of Houdini Never Died. Is it commercially available? You can still find VHS players on eBay for about $30 to $50 bucks. They're still good when you need to watch a videotape containing rare material like HH film footage.

    What appealed to us as children can turn around as we age. I used hate the dialogue scenes in The Magnificent Seven and loved the shootouts. Now I love the dialogue scenes more than the gunfights whenever I watch this film.

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  6. I remember seeing that on on A&E back in the day. But I remember PBS's "American Experience" on Houdini better because I recorded that on VHS (and watched it many times). I still have it around, somewhere.

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    1. Yes, also a good one. And that one made it to VHS and DVD.

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  7. I believe this is the video where Silverman says Houdini did not expose spiritualists because he tried to contact his mother in seances. Said his other died in 1913, and exposures were areound the 1920's, or something to that effect.

    Dick Brookz
    The Houdini Museum, Scranton, PA
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini

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    1. Silverman actually doesn't do a on-screen interview in this one. But he is thanked in the credits.

      You're probably thinking about the American Experience PBS doc of 2000? But Silverman shows up in several docs.

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