Friday, July 30, 2021

Man Vs History explores The Real Houdini, Aug. 3

The new series Man Vs History with Bil Lepp will feature Houdini as their subject this Tuesday, August 3, on HISTORY. Below are details.


You can watch a preview of the episode at the Man Vs History page at HISTORY. The series is also available on Amazon Prime Video.

Related:

Thursday, July 29, 2021

The girl who beat Houdini

Houdini was a superstar in American vaudeville and even once held the distinction of being its highest paid performer. But vaudeville had other superstars who drew crowds and salaries that sometimes matched Houdini. One of these performers was Eva Tanguay.

Today Eva Tanguay is largely forgotten. But if you were around in Houdini's time, you would have certainly known who she was. By many accounts, Tanguay could neither sing nor dance. But that didn't dampen her enormous appeal. A profile of her at the New England Historical Society (Eva Tanguay, The Lady Gaga of Vaudeville) says:

Her celebrity was no accident, but a well-planned assault on stuffy Victorian convention. She provoked reaction, singing songs with titles like Go As Far As You Like and wearing bizarre costumes like a dress made out of pennies. The tabloids ate up stories about her love life, which included a romance with the African-American vaudeville star George Walker. You couldn’t escape her from 1904 to the early 1920s.

Like Houdini, Tanguay was a headliner on the big time Keith vaudeville circuit, thus they played many of the same theaters. This invited direct comparison. Such was the case in Boston in January 1911 as you can read below:

Boston Sunday Post, Jan. 15, 1911.

Not only was Eva beating Houdini's attendance records, but she was also surpassing his salary, making as much as $3500 per week. By 1912 Houdini had to put a spin on his claims of being Vaudeville's highest paid performer. Check out the below ad from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in which he now calls himself "the highest salaried male performer in the world."

Courier Sun, Feb. 25, 1912. 

After losing her fortune in the Wall Street crash of 1929, Eva Tanguay retired in 1930 and slipped into obscurity. She died on January 11, 1947 at age 68. In another Houdini parallel, in 1953 a highly fictionalized biopic was made of Eva's life, The I Don't Care Girl, starring Mitzi Gaynor. This was the same year as the Houdini biopic with Tony Curtis.


If you'd like to learn more about Eva Tanguay check out the book Queen of Vaudeville: The Story of Eva Tanguay by Andrew L. Erdman. Below is the only known recording of Eva made in 1922.


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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Grim Game is streaming free at TV Time

Houdini's best and most elusive movie The Grim Game (1919) is now streaming for free via the TV Time app/channel. I'm not sure if TV Time is exclusive to Roku devices. All I know is I found it, hit play, and it played! This is the 2015 restoration with a score by Brane Živkovic which aired only once on TCM.


This could mean the movie will arrive on other streaming platforms soon. Or this could be a fluke. (The restoration credits have been cut off, so this might be less than legit.) But it's high time The Grim Game got out there for all to enjoy. So enjoy!

Related:

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

FLASHBACK: Houdini's madcap Hollywood lunch

During my summer slowdown I thought I'd offer up some relevant "flashback" posts to scratch that Houdini history itch. Today we head to Hollywood.

On July 27, 1919, Houdini visited the set of the movie Back Stage at the Comique Studio in Edendale, CA. Relive his "madcap" encounter with some of the top movie comedians of the day in THIS POST from 2018.

Monday, July 26, 2021

The Sherman Library presents Houdini, July 28

The historic Sherman Library in Sherman, Connecticut, will present a Houdini lecture by Mallory Howard this Wednesday, July 28 at 7:00 PM Eastern Time. CLICK HERE to register for the free Zoom event at the Sherman Library website.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Salem will rename street "Houdini Way"

The City of Salem, Massachusetts, will rename Front Street to "Houdini Way" in honor of Houdini's jailbreak from the Front Street police station on April 16, 1906. Below is the motion from the Office of the City Clerk.


Houdini performed with his own vaudeville touring company in Salem from April 16-18, 1906. This was his only appearance in Salem (as far as I know). The building that stands at the site of Houdini's jail break is the original.

Thanks to Erik Bartlett at TheMagicDetective Group for the alert.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Sling shot

Here's another unpublished (reproduction) photograph I recently acquired. This one shows Houdini with co-star Ann Forrest and director Irvin Willat on the set of The Grim Game in 1919. But what makes this image special is it shows Houdini with his arm in a sling. This is only the second shot I've ever seen that captures Houdini in his sling.



Houdini had broken his wrist while making the movie in late June and wore a cast for a number of weeks. In most photos taken at that time he is careful to remove the sling and cover up his cast. But not this time. Maybe that's why he doesn't look happy. Ann Forrest, on the other hand, looks lovely.

Houdini's accident was reported in the June 27, 1919 Los Angeles Times, which somewhat downplayed the injury.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

FLASHBACK: Houdini's first stunt in Times Square

During my 
summer slowdown I'm offering up some relevant "flashback" posts. Today we head to NYC.

It was 109 yers ago today that Houdini did his first outdoor stunt in New York's Times Square and, no, it wasn't a suspended straitjacket escape. It was something that is now largely forgotten. 

But you can remember it by CLICKING HERE and revisiting my post from 2018.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

William Shatner was (almost maybe) Houdini


The mighty William Shatner has had several close encounters with Houdini. He hosted The Search for Houdini LIVE seance event in 1987. He wrote a work of Houdini fiction in 1992 called Believe. And Houdini was the subject of an episode of his latest series The UnXplained. But here's something I never knew. In 1994 Shatner agreed to play Houdini on stage. Or did he? That seems to be the issue. 

Check this clipping from the September 25, 1994 Bonham Daily Favorite.

Click to enlarge.

I've found additional information that Harry and Arthur would have featured Leonard Nimoy as Conan Doyle! Or maybe that was just wishful thinking.

Below is the front and back covers of William Shatner's 1992 Houdini novel, Believe, on which the play was said to be based.

Click to enlarge.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2021

LINK: The Astonishing Adventures of Houdini’s Favorite Detective

Here's a great article from "Fishwrap" (the official blog of Newspapers.com) about Rose Mackenberg, who really seems to be capturing the popular imagination these days. Click the headline and enjoy.

Monday, July 19, 2021

LINK: Amedeo Vacca - Secret Houdini assistant and much more

Dean Carnegie has a wonderful POST at The Magic Detective about Houdini's little-known assistant and collaborator Amedeo Vacca. I especially love that Dean identified Vacca in the photo of the Shelton Pool test "uncover." Dean has also devoted an episode of his Magic Detective Podcast to Vacca.  

Saturday, July 17, 2021

FLASHBACK: Death in Asbury Park

During my summer slowdown I thought I'd offer up some relevant "flashback" posts to scratch that Houdini history itch. Today we mark a dark anniversary.


On July 17, 1913, Houdini's mother died in Asbury Park, New Jersey. CLICK HERE for a post from 2016 that deep dives into these tragic few days 108 year ago.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Houdini in Hawaii (yes, Hawaii!)

Recently I was able to acquire this unpublished (reproduction) photograph showing Houdini and Bess in "Honolulu 1910." Houdini in Hawaii!? Until I saw this, I would have told you Houdini never visited the Aloha State. But here's proof that he did! Gotta love the leis around their necks. The other two women are unidentified.


This was almost certainly taken aboard the steamship Manuka when Houdini was returning from Australia. The ship ported in Suva, Fiji on May 17, so it likely ported in Honolulu around May 25. The local paper noted Houdini's presence, and even reported there were hopes he might perform in the city.

Honolulu Advertiser, May 26, 1910

Houdini's return from Australia via the Pacific was the final link in a journey that took him around the world. This made him eligible to join the Circumnavigators Club, which he did in 1912.

So, yes, the Houdinis went Hawaiian! If only for a day. Pretty wild.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Posnanski, Houdini, and The Art of Manliness

Our friend Joe Posnanski is interviewed on The Art of Manliness podcast. Always a pleasure to hear Joe talk Houdini.


Tuesday, July 13, 2021

FLASHBACK: When Houdini walked through a brick wall

It was 107 years ago today that Houdini debuted his "Walking Through A Brick Wall" at Hammerstein's Roof Garden and Victoria Theatre in New York City. He would only do the effect for single week, but it remains one of his most famous feats of magic.

CLICK HERE to revisit a post I did on the 100th anniversary of Walking Through A Brick Wall.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Houdini Revealed, Parts 7 & 8

Last year The Houdini Museum of New York moved to New Jersey and owner Roger Dreyer launched a new website called Houdini Revealed. He also created a series of biographical Houdini videos. Below are the concluding episodes seven and eight.


Below are links to more episodes of Houdini Revealed. You can also find these shared to Linked Videos on my Wild About Harry YouTube Channel.

Friday, July 9, 2021

FLASHBACK: The shark stunt

During my summer slowdown I thought I'd offer up some relevant "flashback" posts to scratch that Houdini history itch. Here's the first.


In the summer of 1916, Houdini announced a publicity stunt like no other. He would fight a man eating shark! Did he do it? CLICK HERE to revisit my post from 2017 and find out.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Summer slowdown

Hi everyone. Just a heads up that new posts might become less frequent for the next several weeks. My real-world work has returned to pre-pandemic levels while my team has not. So I'm afraid I'll be forced to put my Houdini research aside and make an honest living. But don't worry, I won't let any breaking Houdini news slip past, and I will also offer up some relevant "Flashback" posts. Thanks for understanding.

Now back to work!

Monday, July 5, 2021

Houdini in Portland

Houdini made his first appearance in Portland, Oregon, during the week beginning Sunday, October 24, 1915. Below is a terrific ad for his opening day from The Oregonian.


Houdini announced his arrival with a suspended straitjacket escape from Portland's Oregonian Building on October 25. This was only his fourth suspended straitjacket escape (by my current count). The Oregonian stood at 135 SW 6th St. (today 537 SW 6th Ave) and was demolished in 1950.

Click to enlarge.

During this 1915 engagement Houdini played the Orpheum Theater on Broadway. Portland had two Orpheums on Broadway and there is conflicting information about which theater would have been active at this time. But the above ad specifies the location as Broadway at Yamhill, which would make it the original Orpheum located at 759 SW Broadway. 


The theater converted to movies in 1915 and the Orpheum shows relocated up the block to the Heilig Theater. It was razed in 1976 and today is the site of Nordstrom.


Houdini returned to Portland in 1923, playing the Heilig Orpheum at 837 SW Broadway the week starting Sunday, March 11. Along with the Water Torture Cell Houdini presented an escape "in which he loosens himself while tied hand and foot and head in a framework." Also on the bill that week was Jack Benny.

Portland Oregonian, March 11, 1923.

Houdini's final appearance in Portland was when he gave his spiritualism lecture at the Portland Public Auditorium at 222 SW Clay Street on November 4, 1924. As this was the night of 1924 Presidential election, the lecture was poorly attended. Nevertheless, the papers reported that, "The audience was frankly delighted and was friendly to Houdini, bursting into frequent and prolonged applause."

The Portland Public Auditorium later became the Keller Auditorium and still stands today. Below is how it looked in Houdini's time and now.



Thanks to Bill Mullins for finding the 1923 advert.

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Sunday, July 4, 2021

LINK: Harry Houdini coloring page

The website Magician Masterclass is offering a free Houdini coloring page PDF "for the kid in your life who loves magic." Click on the headline for more and to download.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Eric Colleary on The Magic Word Podcast

Our great friend Eric Colleary, Cline Curator of Theatre & Performing Arts collections at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin, is the guest on Scott Wells The Magic Word Podcast. In the YouTube version, embedded below, Eric shares some of the treasures from their collection, including Houdini's own copy of The Discovery of Witchcraft and the breakfront bookcase that started it all! This is a great talk so enjoy.


After a fifteen-month closure due to Covid, The Harry Ransom Center will reopen to researchers on July 12. For more information visit their official website

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Dayle Krall inside "The Lost Houdini Water Torture Cell"

Richard Sherry and Dayle Krall have taken the restoration of the mysterious Water Torture Cell they discovery in 2019 to the next level. Richard has created a special plexiglass liner that allows the cell to be filled with water and performed. (!) Below is a video of Dayle inside the water-filled cell. According to Richard, this is being done in connection with a possible television project.


In the video description Richard now expresses his belief that this cell is genuine:

"This Water Torture Cell does not appear to fit into the commonly accepted timeline of the Water Torture Cell's history. However, after much research and help from many prominent people in the escape community, we have come to the conclusion that this is an authentic Houdini Chinese Water Torture Cell." 

Richard has launched a webpage in which he shares details about the cell and its restoration: www.HoudiniWaterTortureCell.com.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Stuart Damon dies at age 84

Actor Stuart Damon has died at age 84. While Damon is best known for his roles on TV's General Hospital and The Champions, we know him as Houdini in the 1966 London stage musical Man of Magic.


You can read more about the life and career of Stuart Damon HERE. Check out the below links for more about Man of Magic.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Jim Steranko shares his early Houdini comic strip

The website The Drawings of Steranko has shared a series of biographical Houdini comic strips that artist, writer, and one time escape artist Jim Steranko created for his high school newspaper in 1955. These are really terrific. Click the link below and enjoy.


Thanks to Genii publisher Richard Kaufman for the alert.

Related:

Monday, June 28, 2021

The auto chassis challenge

Here's a little-known challenge that Houdini accepted at Keith's Theater in Philadelphia on January 18, 1912. This was part of "Challenge Week" at Keith's in which Houdini accepted a different challenge every night. I'll let this clipping tell the tale.

Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 19, 1912.

Thanks to our friend David Charvet (who knows vintage cars as well and he knows magic), here's a look at a Marmon "Thirty-Two" motorcar. Now if could only see a photo from this challenge!



Below are some more Houdini automotive adventures.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Houdini Kitchen Laboratory in Queens is no more

It appears the Houdini Kitchen Laboratory in Ridgwood, Queens, has closed permanently. According to Bushwick Daily, a new pizzeria called Pan will take its place. 

Houdini Kitchen Laboratory opened in 2013 not far from the site of Houdini's grave. Having lunch their before or after a visit to the cemetery made for a nice day in Queens, which is what I did with fellow Houdini nuts Colleen Bak, Fred Pittella, and David Jaher during my visit in 2017.

I'm sad to see it go. However, the second Houdini Pizza Laboratory in still going strong in Fanwood, New Jersey.

Related:

Friday, June 25, 2021

Large '3 Shows in One' poster sells at Potter auction

A large banner poster for Houdini's "3 Shows in One" sold in Potter & Potter's latest magic auction over the weekend for $3,360.00 (including premium). The poster measures 42 ¼ x 108 ¾ and dates to 1925. This is a poster I have seen before. But I'm unsure if this is that same one or a second example. Hey, if you have the space!


The auction had many Houdini ratites all of which sold for high prices. Despite being heavily restored, this untypical playbill for Houdini in Harrisburg beat the $500-$1000 estimate and sold for $5,040.00. I was a surprised to see this fetch more than the 3 Shows in One poster!


Two standouts for me were a 1907 Hardeen Christmas card ($450) and a Houdini luggage label ($1,440), both of which I've not seen before. The auction dated the label as 1920, but the reference to locks makes me wonder if it could be earlier.


As always, congrats to the winners!

Below you can see a few more examples of "3 Shows in One" posters.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

LINK: Hou do you mean?

Okay, this is a non story from tabloid rag The Sun, but...Houdini. And not to be dragged into this, but I think it's fine Ferdinand used Houdini's name instead of Nostradamus. I predict more people will recognize Houdini. Anyway, click below if you dare.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Meet George Hardeen this Friday in Page, Arizona

Houdini's grandnephew George Hardeen will be speaking at the Canyon Club Friday Night Community Social in Page, Arizona, this Friday, June 25 at 6:00 PM. George will share knowledge of his Uncle Harry and grandfather Theo Hardeen. The event will be held at the Courtyard by Marriott at 600 Clubhouse Dr. and is free.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

"Sherlock Holmes Eclipsed"

Here's an advertisement for Houdini at the People's Palace in Halifax (UK) on October 16, 1902. It's a standard basket challenge announcement. But what I find interesting is the tag-line: "Sherlock Holmes Eclipsed."

I'm not sure how to interpret this. Is this saying Houdini is like Sherlock Holmes only better? Or is it saying that Houdini would fool even Sherlock Holmes? Whichever the case, this is nice reflection on the popularity for Sherlock Holmes at this time. Conan Doyle's classic The Hound of the Baskervilles had been released in book form that year and marked a return after an eight year hiatus for the great detective. Holmes was hot. And so was Harry!

Halifax Evening Courier, October 16, 1902.

If you're wondering, Houdini escaped the basket in three minutes. Elementary.

Related:

Monday, June 21, 2021

The last Houdini poster

Today I'm thrilled to reveal my original Houdini window card. This advertises his "3 Shows in One" in Providence for the week of October 4, 1926, just three weeks before his death on Halloween. To the best of my knowledge this is the latest and therefore last known piece of Houdini street advertising. The fact that it uses Halloween imagery has always struck me as eerily prophetic.


This window card is one of several that were discovered inside the walls of a house in Warwick, Rhode Island, late last year. It was restored by Poster Mountain and framed by Allan Jeffries Framing. What a journey!

Related:

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Deconstructing Houdini '53: Buzz Saw

Today I continue my scene by scene dissection of Paramount's 1953 biopic Houdini, in which I'll attempt to make the case that it's much more historically accurate than it is given credit. And anything else that comes to mind. Last time we met Harry and Bess at a New York Dime Museum. We now DISSOLVE TO...

Chapter 3: Buzz Saw

It doesn't take Houdini '53 long to give us an iconic death defying escape. The idea that Houdini would do such an escape this early in his career is inaccurate. But it is true that he performed in Coney Island and this is a highly effective and entertaining scene. In fact, this was probably my favorite scene as a kid. It's also true that Coney Island played a key role in the courtship of Harry and Bess Houdini.

We start with Bess and the unfortunate Fred (Peter Baldwin) strolling the boardwalk of Coney Island. The large fair-like rides in the background are anachronistic to be certain, but we've already seen how Houdini forgoes historical accuracy and instead uses a blend of modern and period that might be more agreeable to a general audience. 


Fred asks Bess why she felt like coming to Coney Island tonight. Bess answers, "Oh, I don't know, I just wanted to come." But she seems distracted, looking around, as if she has a very clear idea why she wanted to come and what she is looking for. And then she spots it: HOUDINI THE GREAT.

I'm not entirely clear on Bess's motivations here. She appears to have had a sudden change of heart and engineered this visit to Coney Island expressly to see the man from the Dime Museum, as if she has been tipped off to his presence. But another way to have played this would have been to have had Bess surprised to see Houdini there. This might have even been the writer's original intention, playing on the idea of fate pulling the two together. But the way it is staged, Bess seems to know exactly what she is after. By the way, how cool is that poster!


This time Bess doesn't see a tuxedoed magician. Instead she sees a shirtless death-defier. It's as if, having been fired from the Dime Museum, Houdini has sunk even lower down the ranks of show-business, now risking his life in a dingy sideshow (or as dingy as this movie allows anything to be).

As for the escape itself; Houdini never did such a buzz saw escape in his career. But he did take a famous photograph roped to a buzz saw table in 1919. This was part of series of staged publicity photos that Houdini took in Hollywood while making his first feature film, The Grim Game. This photo appears in the Harold Kellock book and was certainly the inspiration for the escape we see in Houdini.


"Will Houdini survive? Or will he become a chip off the old block?" The uncredited carnival barker here is Oliver Blake, just one of many wonderful character actors from Hollywood's Golden Age that festoon Houdini '53. After offering a comically brief silent prayer, he throws the switch and Houdini begins to slowly inch towards the spinning blade.

But Houdini has spotted Bess in the crowd and is so bewitched by her presence that he seems to forget all about the escape at hand. This is fantastic stuff. There's also some good humor as the sideshow barker continues with the established script ("Five feet! He's in trouble now!") while under his breath he urges Houdini to hurry up. Among the horrified spectators is Maxine Gates.


Bess finally breaks the spell when she realizes Houdini is in danger. She screams for the saw to be turned off (recalling her protection of the Wild Man). This snaps Harry into action and he frees himself moments before he reaches the spinning blade. Notice how the sound of the buzz saw fully takes over the soundtrack in these final moments, as if we ourselves are inches from the blade. Also notice how the sideshow barker has his eyes covered at this point.


This establishes a pattern that will repeat during their marriage. Houdini both thrills and terrifies Bess. She also seems to be the only person in the audience who know when Houdini is in true danger. This also mirrors the final scene when she screams out during the performance of the Pagoda Torture Cell...too late.

Bess is thrilled by his escape, but Fred quickly pulls her away, and when Harry emerges from the tent, she has once again vanished into the crowd.


Ok, sure, none of this happend. But the real Houdini and Bess met in Coney Island and would return on their anniversary. It was a special place for them. So staging a key scene of their courtship in Coney Island is a great nod to their real love story. And the idea of Houdini facing off with a buzz saw is not a whole cloth invention.

But what about our heroes? Once again they have been separated. Could a third time be the charm?

NOTE: I'm toying with the idea of continuing these as YouTube videos. As I said in my first installment, I've always wanted to do a DVD audio commentary for Houdini '53, and I continue to feel this kind of thing is best done in some kind of audio/video format. Or maybe I'll do both. I don't know. But when the 4th installment (Tony Pastor's) comes around, it may be a different format. Stay tuned!

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