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

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3 comments:

  1. Thank you for another year in the life of HH! I love this series and how it maintains the chronology for that year. Every time you post another year I learn new stuff. It's like reading a chapter in a new HH biography. The whopping $70,000 contract and how much L.A. had changed in seven years since 1899. It was only the beginning for that city. And since Bess skipped out on Chicago by the end of that year we're beginning to see her retirement from show biz.

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    1. Thanks Leo. Chronology for me is key! And fun to do a year that doesn't get much attention in bios as it doesn't have a seminal escape for event to anchor it (like the Mirror anchors 1904 or the Milk Can anchors 1908). But when you drill down you can see it's another fascinating year!

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    2. Chronology is everything to me as well! Silverman devotes a number of pages to 1916 and 18. 1917--not so much.

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