Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Rapper who went by "Houdini" killed in Toronto

A Canadian rapper who called himself "Houdini" has been shot and killed in an ambush attack in Toronto. He was 21.


According to a report in the Mirror--which uses the headline "Houdini Dead"--the performer was one of Canada's most streamed independent rappers with 19.2 million plays on Spotify in 2019.

Ironically, Houdini said he would not reveal how he received his name until he became more famous.


Related:

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Watch Strange Inheritance 'Houdini Jewel' on Tubi

The first four seasons of Strange Inheritance with Jamie Colby are available to stream for free on Tubi. This includes the episode "Houdini Jewel" devoted to Bess Houdini's royal crown brooch. Interviewed are David Copperfield, Milt and Arlene Larsen, and me!


There have been developments since the episode first aired on January 22, 2018. David Copperfield is no longer the owner. The brooch now belongs to Randy and Kirsty Pitchford of the Cardini family. I also discovered a 1952 article in which Gerri Larsen says the brooch was given to Bess by the Grand Duke of Russia (Sergei Aeksandrovich), not Czar Nicholas, confirming the theory I express in the show.

However, the most recent twist is a 1902 Christmas card that proves Bess had the brooch before the Houdinis ever went to Russia, so it appears we can forget about Russian royalty altogether! But the brooch has passed through the hands of magic royalty, and that's what continues to make it a true treasure.

This was a fun shoot and I think the episode is well done. And while I don't know this for certain, I think this is how I landed on David Copperfield's radar and why I received the great honor of visiting his incredible museum in 2018 (which you can read about here).

Thanks to Ashley Drew for the alert.

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Monday, May 25, 2020

Talking Houdini with the AMA this Thursday

With the Magic Castle closed due to Covid-19, the Academy of Magical Arts wanted some way to continue to bring members magical experiences. Among those efforts are Facebook Live events called "Behind the Bookcase," which have proven to be very popular. So I'm excited and honored to have been asked to join Mike Caveney and Jonathan Levit for a "Behind the Bookcase" all about (surprise) HOUDINI this Thursday, May 28 at 7:00 PM PST.

Click to enlarge.

"Behind the Bookcase" is available to all AMA Members via the AMA Facebook Group. Episodes are then archived and available on the Magic Castle website. So if you are a member of the AMA, I'll see you Thursday "Behind the Bookcase." (We'll turn Mike Caveney into a "Houdini Nut" yet!)

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Sunday, May 24, 2020

LINK: The escape artist

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a nice article today by performer Dan Kamin about how he and his friends were influenced by the 1953 biopic Houdini.

"Until we’re all set free, you might enjoy watching Tony Curtis’ exhilarating portrayal of a man who could not be confined."

Click the headline to have a read at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (be forewarned you only have a few clicks before a registration wall pops up).

Related:

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Watch ETHER: The Strange Afterlife of Harry Houdini & Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Playwright Susan I. Weinstein has uploaded the first 10 minutes of ETHER: The Strange Afterlife of Harry Houdini & Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to YouTube. The 2-act play made its debut at the iRT Theatre in New York City last December and was in the processes of seeking an Off Broadway Showcase before theaters were shut down due to Covid-19. But now you can enjoy a taste of it at home.


UPDATE: You can now watch the full play via THIS LINK.

Thanks to Susan Weinstein.

Related:

Friday, May 22, 2020

New Italian edition of Gibson's Houdini on Magic

A new edition of the Walter B. Gibson classic Houdini on Magic has been released in Italy. The cover features Houdini's Prison Cell and Barrel Mystery poster art (which was also just used on the large print edition of the Joe Posnanski book).


This isn't the first release of Houdini Il Mago in Italy. The book was previously released by Editoriale Corno in 1977 (below).


Houdini Il Mago can be purchased at LibroCo.it.

Thanks to Arthur Moses for the alert!

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Thursday, May 21, 2020

The 'Houdini House Pen' gets it write

Our friend and woodworking artist Barry Spector has teamed with Master pen maker Mike Duffy to create a very special limited edition Houdini House Pen. This high quality pen has been beautifully crafted from authentic wood from Houdini's New York home (stand not included).


Barry has been creating unique works of art using wood lath from Houdini's 278 (see related links below). But for these Barry and Mike did not use lath. The wood for these pens comes from the window casing of a mystery room located off Houdini's library in the back of the house, possibly once used by his brother Leopold as his "operating room." The window was removed during recent renovations.


I'm excited to have received one of these yesterday (No. 3), and I can attest to the fact that it is a heavy duty quality pen in all regards. In fact, it's so nice, I'm afraid to use it!


Each pen comes with a certificate of authenticity. Two styles of presentation cases can also be purchased at extra cost.


You can purchase the Houdini House Pen at Etsy

Related:

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Houdini's Madison straitjacket escape then and now

Here's a terrific video from the Wisconsin Historical Society on YouTube about Houdini's suspended straitjacket escape in Madison on January 23, 1924. I especially like that they travel to the location today.


The video gives a brief glimpse at the story which ran in the Wisconsin State Journal the day of the escape. Below is a look at the full front page.

Click to enlarge.

It was during this same Madison engagement that an eyewitness claimed Houdini performed his Water Torture Cell in full view of the audience. You can relive that one via the top related link below.

Related:

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Instagram Live event with Katherine Factor

Rediscovered Books in Idaho will be hosting an Instagram Live event with author Katherine Factor this Wednesday, May 20, from 4:00pm to 5:00pm MDT.

Join us for an Instagram Live event with author Katherine Factor, featuring her Choose Your Own Adventure SPIES: Harry Houdini on the Rediscovered Books Caldwell Instagram Page
Choose Your Own Adventure SPIES: Harry Houdini takes YOU to stages around the world—from Paris to Moscow, Coney Island to San Francisco—wowing audiences with your death-defying stunts and magic tricks. But that’s not all that Houdini was up to at the turn of the century...Will YOU agree to a lifetime of spying for the US and British intelligence agencies or is your magic routine life threatening enough? 
Katherine Factor is a freelance editor, book coach, and educator. She has her MFA in Poetry from The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has held positions at Idyllwild Arts Academy and Interlochen Arts Academy. She is a recipient of grants from the Iowa Arts Council, and the Arts Enterprise Laboratory for supporting projects publishing young writers. She is the author of both Choose Your Own Adventure: Mata Hari and Choose Your Own Adventure: Harry Houdini.

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Monday, May 18, 2020

Master Mystery episode 10 poster sells for $24,570

A poster for episode 10 of Houdini's The Master Mystery sold for $24,570.00 (including buyers premium) during this weekend's Haversat & Ewing magic auction. The image is one of the most striking of all The Master Mystery posters.


Another Houdini highlight from the auction was a copy of The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin inscribed to Hatty Fisher, along with an invitation to the 1916 dedication of the Weiss family exedra at Machpelah Cemetery. The book included a leaf pressed between its pages, presumably from the dedication itself. It took $3,276.00.


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Saturday, May 16, 2020

At last! Evidence of Houdini's near fatal buried alive surfaces

The story of Houdini nearly dying during a buried alive stunt in California is one that appears in most biographies. As told by Houdini in a 1925 Collier's article ("When Magic Didn't Work") he was trying the escape at different depths. But when it came to six feet, he found the weight of the earth too much and for the first and only time in his career he panicked and shouted for help. But he could not be heard under the soil. By sheer will he was able to claw his way to the surface and collapsed as his assistants hauled him from what had almost been his real grave. Houdini called it "the narrowest squeak in my life."

Illustration by Noa Kelner.

It's a great story, but there has always been a problem with it. There's no evidence that it actually happened. Exactly where the stunt took place has never been clear. Houdini first said it happened "in Hollywood." But it later became "Santa Ana", which is a good 30 miles from Los Angeles. Nor has a date ever been established. Most biographies, while never explicitly dating it, place it in their chapters covering the years 1915-16. But in Collier’s Houdini wrote that it occurred "six years ago," which would make it 1919. But Houdini was famously bad with dates.

The only thing that has kept me from dismissing this story as Houdini-generated mythology is a handwritten annotation Houdini made on some Buried Alive notes which appears (undated) in Walter B. Gibson's Houdini's Escapes (1930):

"I tried out 'Buried Alive' in Hollywood, and nearly [?] did it. Very dangerous; the weight of the earth is killing." 

So this is where things have stood on the Buried Alive story for decades.

But last Wednesday while doing some unrelated research, I stumbled on the following from the May 16, 1919 Los Angeles Times and nearly fell out of my chair!

Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1919.

So is this THE buried alive? Let's dig deeper.

Houdini had arrived in Los Angeles in late April 1919 to begin work on The Grim Game. By mid May he had already performed with the Lasky players at two Liberty Loan drives in Pershing Square (in which he was tied to a cannon). So this is right in line with his activities at this time. And it looks like Houdini had the year right after all!

The Air Memorial Day circus was a major event featuring over 50 airplanes and staged dogfights. The grand finale was to be the bombing of a German balloon, but it broke loose and drifted off over Hollywood. The crowd was estimated at 100,000.

The location, De Mille Field, sat at Crescent and Melrose Avenue between the cities of Hollywood and Santa Monica, which is likely what Houdini meant when he wrote Santa Ana. If DeMille Field sounds familiar, that's because it's where The Grim Game airplanes were leased and took off on their own fateful flights.

DeMille Field.

But there are some problems. In Houdini's telling it was a private test done on a bet with the magician trying the escape at graduating levels. I was also able to find several accounts of the Air Memorial Day event itself, including a detailed schedule, and there is no mention of Houdini, let alone a near death experience. Not something you'd expect a newspaper to ignore! So it appears Houdini did not do the escape at the event itself. Nevertheless, I still think we've found it.

My thinking is Houdini's close call occurred while he was practicing the escape, likely a day or two before the event. This fits with the graduating levels. He then cancelled the performance when he discovered six feet, as announced, was not feasible and damn dangerous. For it to be announced on the 16th, and then the papers show Houdini removed from the lineup on the 18th, suggests this test happened on the 16th or 17th. It seems logical Houdini would have tried it at DeMille Field itself, although we can't know that for certain. But a test before the event makes sense, and the fact that he didn't do the escape as announced only reinforces the idea that something happened.

So there we have it! Houdini's near fatal buried alive stunt is not the stuff of mythology but appears to have happened in mid May 1919. Maybe even 101 years ago today?


The illustration at the top of this post is by Noa Kelner and used with permission. Bottom illustration is from Patrick Culliton's Houdini The Key.

Related:

Friday, May 15, 2020

10th Anniversary: Those Vanishing Elephant photos

It was ten years ago today that I shared what would turn out to be one of my most popular (and frustrating) posts to that date. It concerned the rumor that color photos of Houdini's Vanishing Elephant illusion ran in a 1918 issue of New York World magazine. You can revisit below:



TEN YEAR UPDATE: I wish I could say that these photos have been found within these past ten years, but I cannot. They remain as elusive as ever, and I'm beginning to wonder if they ever really existed. But, hey, this is the kind of thing that keeps up going!


For those who might be disappointed in the lack of progress on the elephant front, know that I have made another major Houdini find that I will share this weekend. You'll dig it! (And that's a clue.)

Related:

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Mystifier, Spring 2002

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


The Spring 2002 issue of Mystifier begins with a lengthy review by HHC curator Kimberly Louagie of the new book, Final Séance: The Strange Friendship Between Houdini and Conan Doyle by Massimo Polidoro. Louagie compares and contrasts the book to the Bernard Ernst and Heward Carrington's 1932 Houdini and Doyle: The Story of a Strange Friendship, of which it draws much inspiration. While somehwhat critical of Polidoro's work, in the end she recommends the book.

The newsletter continues with a good article about Houdini's Walking Through a Brick Wall by guest contributor Stephen Forrester. Jim Klodzen is a familiar name among the new HHC Members.

Sid Radner begins his "Backstage" column discussing how Houdini's fight against frauds continues with federal and Florida state officials recently cracking down on the Psychic Readers Network. Says Sid, "Strange, isn't it, that these people who claim to predict the future can't seem to avoid the authorities?"

Sid reports that Houdini appeared as a character in Dave Graue's and Jack Bender's comic strip "Alley Oop" from December 3, 2001 through January 9, 2002. He recommends Mickey Hade's New Encyclopedia of Escapes, but points out that the method Hade's gives for Houdini's Water Torture Cell is incorrect. And Sid would know!

Sid finishes with a reminder that the Travel Channel's Houdini documentary will air on April 15, 2002.

Mystifier
Volume 12, Number 1
Spring 2002
6 pages

Contents:
The Strange Friendship Between Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
New Members
Houdini's "Walking Through a Brick Wall" Illusion
Backstage with Sid Radner

PREVIOUS ISSUE | INDEX | NEXT ISSUE

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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Houdini meets DeMille

Here's an item that ran in the Los Angeles Times 101 years ago today. It shows Houdini and famed director Cecil B. DeMille at the Famous Players-Lasky studio where Houdini would soon begin production on The Grim Game. I'm not sure exactly what Houdini is doing to DeMille here. I could not find this in better quality. But this is a great example of how the studio publicity department made it known that the Handcuff King had arrived in Tinseltown!

Los Angeles Times, May 13, 1919.

Another photo of Houdini and DeMille taken at this same time appears in Houdini His Legend and His Magic by Doug Henning (page 118). Years later, Bess Houdini posed for a photo with the director and his daughter on the Paramount lot. You can see that pic via the top related link below.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Days of Thrills and Harry Houdini

While the big boys were slugging it out in last week's Potter & Potter auction, spending thousands on some important Houdini lots (and some that didn't seem that important), I was happy to snap this up on eBay for a $15 Buy It Now. No, it's not rare, and you might not even understand exactly what this is. But I've always wanted one of these "Houdini dangles from a cliff!" lobby cards from Days of Thrills and Laughter because I've long considered this movie an important part of Houdini's amazing afterlife. But I'll get to that.


Released by 20th Century Fox on May 5, 1961, Days of Thrills and Laughter was a feature length documentary made up of extended clips from silent movies. It was the third such film from producer Robert Youngson after The Golden Age of Comedy and When Comedy Was King. The original New York Times review of the movie at the Sixty-eighth Street Playhouse states:

Since he is concerned not only with comedy but also with thrills, Mr. Youngson has included bits by Douglas Fairbanks ("Wild and Woolly") and some mad material from the likes of such serial experts as Pearl White ("The Perils of Pauline," etc), Ruth Roland, Warner Oland, Boris Karloff and, believe it or not, Harry Houdini, rescuing a somewhat foggy damsel from taking the distressing drop over Niagara Falls.

The Houdini segment runs about 5 minutes and shows more than just the Niagara Falls rescue from The Man From Beyond. We also see the entire cliff fight (as shown on the lobby card, although obviously not in color) and the coat rack escape from The Master Mystery. But what will be of most interest to Houdini buffs is rare behind the scenes footage of Houdini and Bess visiting producer Al Christie at Universal Studios in 1915. It's a remarkable piece of film that I don't believe has appeared anywhere else. All the Houdini footage is excellent quality and is credited as coming from the Larry Weeks collection.


I consider Days of Thrills and Laughter important because it was the first such documentary to establish Houdini and his film work as "essential nostalgia" from this era. Along with television clip shows like Fractured Flickers, these went a long way in flagging to a new generation what was worth remembering. They also anticipated the cable biographies of the 1990s and beyond. So it's interesting that Houdini film career, generally considered a failure, affords him a place beside cinema giants like Fairbanks and Chaplin in this early work. Houdini always said he was making his movies for "future generations." So maybe not such a failure after all?

Days of Thrills and Laughter was released on DVD in 2010 and can still purchased at Amazon.com. But it can also be streamed for free via Amazon's Prime Video.

Related:

Monday, May 11, 2020

"Houdini's School Days"

No sooner do I post about "The Amazing Exploits of Houdini" than comes an eBay auction which reveals the existence of yet another series of fictionalized Houdini tales in a UK magazine. This time it's "Houdini's School Days" in Merry and Bright. The auction is for a bound volume of stories from 9/18/1920 to 4/16/1921. I'm not sure if this is the complete run or if these went on until Houdini's demise as did "Amazing Exploits."

The opening price is a whopping $9,900, so I'm not sure who can afford to add this to their collection. (It has cycled once unsold already.) But I'm excited to learn about this series and grateful for the pics.

1920-1921 "Merry and Bright - The Favorite Comic" was published in London and cost three halfpence English coins. Merry & Bright comics, featuring "Houdini's Schooldays", was 8 pages of newsprint published every Thursday. This book contains 30 publications from 9/18/1920 thru 4/16/1921. Harry Houdini signed the first page as he did on most of the books in his collection. These comics include both amusing illustrations and short fictional stories. Being Houdini's grand nephew myself, I feel lucky to have been the caretaker of this book for 50 years. My grandmother (Bess Houdini's sister) gave it to me when I was 18 years old. In 1999 two of Houdini's niece's and his nephew all signed a Certificate of Authenticity (COA) attesting to the authenticity of this book. A well known American magician has 2 of these Merry and Bright books. The outer red covering has some stains as it was often on the coffee table in my grandparents (Houdini's brother-in-law and sister-in-law) apartment.

Before you ask, no, I don't know who this particular grand nephew is. But I know it isn't John Hinson, so I'm guessing this is the Blood side of the family (maybe Jeff Blood?).

Related:

Sunday, May 10, 2020

The Siberian Transport Prison Cell escape

Today marks the 117th anniversary of Houdini's escape from the Siberian Transport Prison Cell in Moscow on May 10, 1903 (in Russia the date was April 27th as they followed a different calendar at this time). It is one of his most famous and celebrated feats. So today I thought I'd link back to these two posts from 2016 in which I covered the escape and enduring mystery of how exactly Houdini did it. Enjoy.



Related:

Saturday, May 9, 2020

R.I.P. Roy Horn

Today the entire magic world is mourning the loss of Roy Horn of the legendary magic duo Siegfried & Roy. Roy succumbed Friday from complications related to Covid-19. He was 75.



Photo from The Academy of Magical Arts on Facebook.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Houdini did not approve this message

Here is an untypical advertisement for Houdini's spirit lecture at the Music Hall in Akron, Ohio, on February 25, 1924. This appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal. But this is an ad Houdini himself would not approve of, as I'll explain below.


This ad appeared during Houdini's first spirit lecture tour during the early months of 1924. When he signed with the Lyceum Circuit for a second tour in the Fall, he annotated his contract by hand with some specific stipulations. Below is a look at the actual document from the Ken Trombly Collection showing one key stipulation:

"In all billing matter I object to the use of the words of Hocum and Fakery. They are too vulgar."

In the Akron ad we see both offending words featured prominently, exactly the kind of "vulgar" advertising Houdini wished to avoid. This could even be the ad that motivated him to add this stipulation, although I have seen the words used elsewhere at this time. You'll also notice the bottom of the ad containing the lecture details is a mismatch with the top of the ad, which is curious. By the day of the lecture, the advertising had been tamed more to Houdini's liking.


So why didn't Houdini like the words hocum (hokum) and fakery? I think it's simply a matter of him wanting his lectures to perceived as serious presentations and not magic or spook show entertainments. Another stipulation for this second tour was that he would not perform his Milk Can escape as he had during his first tour. Of course, this perception didn't aways come across, as was most acutely demonstrated during the Chattanooga debacle.

It's interesting to note that Milbourne Christopher makes reference to this contract stipulation on page 200 of Houdini The Untold Story. However, the book contains a misprint, saying Houdini objected to the use of the words fakery and hocas. This was never corrected in any edition, and I'm sure more than a few folks were puzzled as to why Houdini would object to the word "hocas." This is a good example of why going back to original source material is so important.

Oops.

I for one like the word hokum, and it has gone on to be associated with Houdini. In fact, Hokum was the original proposed name for Penn & Teller's skeptical television series Bullshit. Now there's a word Houdini would have objected to!

Related:

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Choosing Houdini

Last week saw the release of Choose Your Own Adventure SPIES: Harry Houdini by Katherine Factor. This is a spy-themed spinoff of the popular Choose Your Own Adventure series of books, and the first to feature the Handcuff King.

I have mixed feelings about this one as I'm generally put off by anything that furthers the notion that Houdini was a spy (check out my FAQs for my take on this). However, the cover art by Mia Marie Overgaard is fantastic, as are the interior illustrations by Eoin Coveney, and the author is a nice person who has crafted a fun and unique reading experience. So I'm happy to add this to the shelf.

Choose Your Own Adventure SPIES: Harry Houdini by Katherine Factor puts YOU in the shoes of America’s first famous magician, Harry Houdini, also known as “The King of Cuffs.” 9-12 year old readers will enchant audiences across the United States with death-defying stunts, live escapes, and thrilling face-offs with local police. 
Choose Your Own Adventure SPIES: Harry Houdini is an interactive adventure book in which YOU decide what happens next. 
You are a famous magician. You are known to challenge local police to defy your skills by locking you up. Reporters follow this story, and so do jealous rivals. But one follower of your magic act has a serious request: with all of your sleight of hand and intelligence, will you, Harry Houdini, the famous magician, become a spy to learn information abroad and help the United States? 

You can purchase Choose Your Own Adventure SPIES: Harry Houdini at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2020

LINK: The Man From Beyond in Farmington

Joe Notaro has joined Sean Doran in the hunt for filming locations from Houdini's The Man From Beyond. Joe has turned up two remarkable articles that reveal details about the crew filming in Farmington, Connecticut, on May 8, 1921.


Among the finds is that the company stayed at the historic Elm Tree Inn (above) and filmed scenes at the Winchell Smith dam on the Farmington river. This is fantastic stuff (and gold for my 1921 chronology), so click the headline and have a read at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence. You can also check out Sean Doran's recent discoveries below.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Bess Houdini by Medusa Dollmaker

There's no shortage of original Harry Houdini artwork online, but I don't recall ever seeing standalone art of Bess Houdini. Well, now I have, and I like it! This "Bess Houdini - Nouveau original story Art Board Print" is by Medusa Dollmaker and can purchased as everything from a canvas print to a cell phone cover at Redbubble.

"Bess Houdini, based on the real character (wife of Harry Houdini) in a dark twist for an original story of mine."

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Sunday, May 3, 2020

Houdini's Westlake leap


When Houdini toured the United States in 1907, his new outdoor publicity stunt was the manacled bridge jump. Typically this meant jumping from a high bridge into the river of a major city. By September he had performed the stunt successfully in Detroit, Rochester, Pittsburgh, and San Fransisco.

But when Houdini arrived in Los Angeles for what would be his first appearance since 1899, he had a problem. There was no central river or bridge to jump from. Sure, he could jump from a pier into the Pacific Ocean. But in 1907 the coast was so distant from any metropolitan hub that it would have likely gone unnoticed. But Houdini found a solution. He would perform his latest attention getter in Westlake Park.


Westlake Park dates to the 1880s and sits adjacent to downtown Los Angeles. The central lake is fed by natural springs and was originally built as a drinking water reservoir. But when the city adopted a pressurized pipe system, it was converted into a park. The park was named for Henricus Wallace Westlake, a Canadian physician who donated a portion of his property to the city. In the early part of the 20th century, the Westlake neighborhood became known as the Champs-Élysées of Los Angeles. All in all, it was an ideal location for a Houdini feat.

The plan as reported in the Los Angeles Herald called for Houdini to be manacled by police and then leap from the roof of the lake's pavilion. The paper also reported Houdini might make a second jump from the bandstand. While other bridge jumps warned of the danger of the cold water and the "shock" Houdini would experience, in sunny California the emphasis was put of the danger of Houdini becoming trapped in the mud at the bottom of the lake, which would be a mere 14 feet at the jump spot. "This is not attempted suicide," the Herald assured its readers, "because Houdini loves life and does not desire to die, but it is just as near it, and a lot nearer than most men care to go."

The paper also encouraged amateur photographers to attend the event with their cameras, and promised a photo of Houdini's leap would run in the paper as part of an article he would write about his life and career. 


On Saturday, September 28, five thousand people turned out to watch as Houdini's hands were manacled behind his back by three Los Angeles patrolmen. Houdini then made his headlong dive from the southeast corner of the pavilion as "five hundred cameras clicked in unison." The Herald's lively account proves that a close quarter underwater stunt could be every bit as suspenseful as any suspension bridge spectacular.

Five thousand spectators held her breath in symphony with Harry Houdini at Westlake park yesterday afternoon when the handcuff marvel did a Count of Monte Cristo stunt by leaping into the lake heavily manacled.  
"Oh I bet he's drowned," said a small boy in awed and shuddery tones when the man remained what seemed an interminable time beneath the shimmering water of the lake. 
A small line of bubbles came to the surface. Then larger bubbles arose and a little cloud of mud drifted to the top. Five thousand shivers ran down five thousand spines. 
"He's stuck in the mud. Someone has got to rescue him," shouted a wise guy who had seen Houdini jump from a bridge thirty feet high and 300 feet of water or 300 feet high and thirty feet of water. The crowd never got it straight. 
More bubbles. More mud. Then Houdini came slowly to the surface–-feet first!  
"I told you he struck his head into the mud," said the wise guy. Then the feet disappeared. A second later Houdini's head bobbed to the surface. He made it dramatic in shivery enough to satisfy even the small gamin who had half hoped to see a drowning or at least a thrilling rescue scene.

Another nice detail reported by the paper was that one young boy "with a wire bridle on his teeth" who had waited two hours to see the escape "went home with an autograph which read: Harry Handcuff Houdini." And despite the suggestion that Houdini might make a second dive from the bandstand, it appears the pavilion leap was the only dive of the day.

As promised, a photo did appear as the central image in an autobiographical piece by Houdini that appeared in the Herald the following day. The image shows Houdini horizontal in the air moments after in his take off from the roof. This, as far as I know, is the only photo of the Westlake leap.

Click to enlarge.
"Looking out of my hotel window I see a street car passing which bares the announcement 'Houdini will dive from the pavilion roof, heavily handcuffed, in Westlake Park, Saturday at 12:30 noon.' By the time this is printed that will be yesterday, and I have every hope that I shall still be alive. Should I fail to get those cuffs loose before my breath gives out you can imagine where I am while you are reading this." 
-From "Houdini is Reminiscent", Los Angeles Herald, Sept. 29, 1907

So what of the location today?

In the early 1940s Westlake Park was renamed MacArthur Park and later designated City of Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument #100. But by the 1970s it had become known for violence, prostitution, drug dealing, and the occasional drowning (as well as a famous Donna Summer song). In 1990 alone the park saw some 30 murders. MacArthur Park has seen attempts at redevelopment in recent years, but they have not been as successful as other parts of the downtown area.

I've often driven past MacArthur Park and resolved that one day I'd try to discover where Houdini's jump took place. With the Covid-19 shutdown giving me time and a relatively quiet city at my disposal, I decided now was that time. So I reached out to John Bengtson of the fantastic Silent Locations blog. (The park was often used in silent films.) John was able to provide me with several historic images that showed the pavilion as it appeared in Houdini's time, and later when a new boathouse was erected on the same spot.


One thing I've discovered about Houdini location hunting is these areas are, by their nature, located in the oldest parts of cities. This means they can be in pretty rough shape. There are notable exceptions. MacArthur Park is NOT one of those exceptions. Birds and humans have been left alone to do their worst, and if Houdini touched that water today he'd have a lot more to worry about than mud. However, I was happy to see that one of the pillars at the park entrance carries the original name of Westlake.


The footprint of the lake has also changed since Houdini's day. In 1934 Wilshire Boulevard bisected the park and the northern end of the lake was filled in. Happily, the site of the old pavilion was spared as it continued to be the location of subsequent structures.

The last boathouse that stood on the site was torn down in 2014 and has not been replaced. But the concrete foundation remains, and that's enough to show us exactly where Houdini's Westlake leap took place.

MacArthur Park today with leap location identified (click to enlarge).

The Westlake leap is another one of those Houdini stunts that doesn't get mentioned in biographies. I'm not even sure how I knew about it in the first place. But it's certainly a story worth telling, and it's great to know this Houdini location is still around to visit.


When Houdini returned to Los Angeles in 1915, his suspended straitjacket escape had become his new go-to outside stunt. Happily, there was no shortage of tall buildings in Los Angeles. But that is another story.

Thanks to John Bengtson for his help in finding this location. Historical information about MacArthur Park comes from Wikipedia.

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Saturday, May 2, 2020

Houdini (1953) on Talking Pictures TV

This is a late alert, but Houdini (1953) will air on Talking Pictures TV in the UK tonight (May 2) at 7:40 PM. This appears to be the first airing of the classic biopic on the network and they have made it their highlight of the week. It will repeat on Wednesday, May 6 at 10:05pm.


Talking Pictures TV also occasionally airs the seldom seen The Great Houdinis (1976), so it looks like they are becoming the go-to Houdini biopic channel in the UK.

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