Monday, February 3, 2020

The Houdinis are Rogers' Orpheum Stars of 1897

During their early years, Harry and Bess Houdini joined an assortment of traveling performance troupes. Their stints with the Welsh Bros. Circus, the California Concert Co, the Marco Co. and the American Gaiety Girls are well documented. But what never gets mentioned is the "Rogers' Orpheum Stars Co." which Harry and Bess toured with in Wisconsin in March and April of 1897.

The Rogers' Orpheum Stars Co. was a self-contained traveling vaudeville show with 14 acts that ran 2 1/2 hours. The "Orpheum" in the name is not the same thing as the big time Orpheum Vaudeville circuit controlled by Martin Beck, but I'm sure the Rogers' Stars were happy for any confusion!

Below is an advertisement for the troupe at Rhode’s Opera House in Kenosha, Wisconsin. You'll note Harry and Bess appear three times on the bill. Once together as "The Houdinis" doing Metamorphosis ("Hindoo box mystery"). "La Petite Bessie" then does her "character vocalist" singing act. Finally we see "Mysterious Harry" doing magic as "the only rival to Hermann the great."

Below is a review of the show at the Belle City Opera House in Racine, Wisconsin. Notice that Houdini seems committed to "Mysterious Harry" being his solo stage name at this time. Yikes.

Here's one last thought. I have seen evidence in Ken Trombly's collection that the famous photo below, frequently misidentified as being Houdini first theatrical photo (far from it), was taken around the time of the Houdinis tour with the Rogers' Orpheum Stars in 1897. In fact, this photo might have been taken expressly for this tour. So should we stop thinking of this image as being "Houdini" and instead consider it a rare pic of "Mysterious Harry"?

Below are more links related to The Houdinis early career.



  1. you say the famous photo frequently misidentified as being Houdinis first theatrical photo far from it Could you list the Houdini photos before this one with possible links? D and D Houdini Museum Scranton PA The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini

    1. I'm sure you know all the ones I'm thinking of. The pics of Harry and Dash with the Metamorphosis trunk and bag are the earliest professional pics that I'm aware of (with HH in his short pants). Then there's the very well known 1894 pics of Harry and Bessie with the trunk and bag, etc. There are also the portrait shots that are used as model artwork for the poster you can see in the background of this shot. Heck, MOST of the early pics of Harry and Bessie pre-date this pic.

  2. Thanks. Was mostly interested in the actual solo photographs. Also excluding poster depictions, unless the solo photos were found.
    Thanks again D and D

    1. Do you have the big Taschen MAGIC book? There's a sensational solo pic of the young Houdini standing with cards spread on his arms.

    2. Yes, we do have that book in the Houdini Museum. I am sure I saw it when we got the book. Will be sure to look it up next time we are in the shop. How exciting. Thanks. Would you guess this was taken about the same time as the Houdini studio shot with all the old style magic prope?

    3. He looks younger to me in the Taschen shot. He really looks like a kid.

  3. I wonder how they came to be with Rogers. The first two weeks of January, they were at the Wonderland in St. Joseph Mo. Then Harry spent a few days, still in St Joseph, exposing spiritualism. By late February, they had moved to the Hopkins chain of theaters (St. Louis).

    On March 7 (Sunday), the St. Joseph paper says that they will be back in town again, still at the Wonderland; but the Alton IL paper for that week says that they will be at the Temple theater in that city.

    On Mar 14, the Detroit paper says that Houdini will be in the Wonderland in that town, and that he had spent the previous week in Rochester. But the Kenosha paper for Mar 15 has them in town, starting their gig with the Rogers Orphem, and they spend a few weeks in Wisconsin with this troupe.

    So -- were they having trouble making bookings, and they thought Rogers would offer a little stability? Or was this one of the times when someone else was using the Houdini name?

    1. That week of March 8-14 is perplexing as they do appear to be in two places at the same time (St. Joseph, MO & Alton, IL). And it doesn't look like a case where it may be Jack Hyman using the name as it's clearly a husband and wife act in both spots. Maybe they did a split week?

      I think the Detroit Wonderland might be Jack or some other "Houdini" (who had just played Rochester). It's very clear Harry and Bess are with the Rogers Stars this week. (I didn't include the Wonderland in my chronology.) You know, could that be why he was "Mysterious Harry" during the Rogers run? So not to be confused with the other Houdini?

  4. Fascinating all around - thanks for this great post, John. Especially love that extraordinary "3 appearances" ad, and Harry's comparison to Hermann! As for the famous pic of young Harry possibly being taken for his "Mysterious Harry" guise, that's a tantalizing theory! (And I don't know that I ever really noticed that extremely faded Metamorphosis poster behind him in that shot!)


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