Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Houdini, Barbara Fritchie, and a return to Frederick

On November 25, 1924, Houdini gave his spiritualism lecture at The Armory in Frederick, Maryland. The morning of his arrival, Harry and Bess sat down with a reporter in the main dining of The Francis Scot Key Hotel (above), for which Houdini expressed admiration.

The interview ran the next day in the Frederick News. The reporter is full of praise, stating: "Quiet and unassuming, he was the essence of friendship. He immediately places one at ease and when Houdini starts to talk, all one has to do is listen." Houdini even performed his thumb racket at the table. But what really stood out for me is when Houdini reveals he had been in Frederick once before.

In case you don't know (because I didn't), Barbara Fritchie was an elderly woman who defiantly flew the American flag from her house during the Civil War. She became famous in folklore as the heroine of a 1863 poem by John Greenleaf Whittier in which she tells a Confederate general, "Shoot if you must this old gray head, but spare your country's flag."

A 1927 reconstruction of the Barbara Fritchie house still stands in Frederick today.

At first I was skeptical of Houdini's story. It was my understanding that the Welsh Bros. Circus toured exclusively in Pennsylvania. So I thought Houdini might have whipped up this memory just for the local reporter.

However, I did some digging and discovered that the Welsh Bros. Circus did play Frederick for one day on September 14, 1898. This is indeed when The Houdinis were with the troupe! The circus set up on Burger's lot on East Patrick street. The local paper even mentions the parade:

Frederick News, Sept. 14, 1898.

So it looks like Houdini's memory is legit, and it's a treat to have a new story from his circus days. (I later discovered the Welsh Bros. also played a single day in Cumberland, Maryland. But Houdini in Cumberland is another story.)

The reporter then turns his attention to Bess. The result is this gem:

I have a feeling Bess was probably serious about this. Just as she worried about her husband when he suspended himself in a straitjacket, I'm sure she worried about him now and for good reason. Houdini was courting real danger with his exposures and there were no shortage of frauds and fanatics who could have done him harm. But just like Barbara Fritchie, he flew his flag anyway!

Monday, April 12, 2021

Sally Struthers on WTF with Marc Maron

The legendary Sally Struthers is interviewed today on the WTF with Marc Maron podcast. Sally has had a long and distinguished career in film and television, but we'll always love her as Bess from The Great Houdinis (1976). They don't mention the biopic--which isn't really a surprise--but it's still great to hear Sally tell amazing and candid stories from a lifetime working in the business.

Houdini planning a new film in 1925?

Here's a curiosity I came across this weekend in the May 25, 1925 Frederick Daily News.

As we know, Houdini stepped away from movie making after he completed The Man From Beyond and Haldane of the Secret Service in 1921. So the idea he'd consider a return in 1925 is pretty interesting. It's also interesting to see the name of Arthur B. Reeve, who co-wrote The Master Mystery and Houdini's Hollywood films.

In 1923 Houdini told the L.A. Times he planned to adapt his book Miracle Mongers and Their Methods into an "out-and-out stunt picture" following his Keith's vaudeville tour. This item appeared the Monday after he completed that tour. So could this signal the start of that process?

Unfortunately, I've found no other mention of this in any other paper nor any follow-up. So this could just be wishful thinking on the part of E.S. Manheimer, who appears to have been an independent producer with J.W. Film Corp in New York. Nevertheless, I like finding oddities like this and thought I'd share as you never know when we might find another piece of the puzzle.


Saturday, April 10, 2021

Deconstructing Houdini (1953): Main titles

The 1953 Paramount biopic Houdini with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh is what ignited my interest in Houdini. While beloved by many, the movie is often criticized for being wildly inaccurate. But I feel differently. While the movie does inject Hollywood fabrications to be sure, I'd argue that the overall plot is generally faithful to Houdini's life and every scene contains elements rooted in reality, or at least the "approved mythology" of the book on which it is based.

I've always dreamed of providing a DVD commentary where I could make my case for the greatness and accuracy of this movie. I've even considered recording my own for upload to YouTube (and still may do). But I've not quite figured out the technology. So I've decided instead to launch a new series here on WILD ABOUT HARRY in which I will "deconstruct" the movie scene by scene, showing where and how it is rooted in Houdini history...and anything else that comes to mind.

So with that, let's begin at the very beginning!

Chapter 1: Main Titles

The Main Titles for Houdini are designed to look like a vaudeville playbill on the outside of a theater. This would have been recognizable to audiences of the 1950s, but it may be lost on a modern viewers today. Topping the bill is, of course, the name of HOUDINI. Right off the bat we have an image rooted in fact. Not only would Houdini's name always top a vaudeville bill, but the multi-color letters match a real Houdini playbill from the era (below). Maybe this match is coincidence. But for a Houdini buff, it offers the first thrill of recognition and is an excellent start to the movie.

It's also satisfying to see the Paramount name and logo at the head of the film as it brings to mind Houdini's own movies The Grim Game and Terror Island, which were distributed by the studio. In a way, one can almost think of Houdini (1953) as Houdini's third Paramount picture.

Now begins the clever effect of moving down the playbill to the other players and contributors in this "HOUDINI" headlined show. Stars Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh are the first names we see. It's interesting to note that Janet Leigh was the bigger star at this time. Houdini was actually Curtis' first lead role. Leigh was under contract to MGM and had to be loaned out at the expense of Paramount. But the studio was eager to feature the newly married couple in their nostalgic and romantic biopic, and Leigh's star-power would bring a name to the movie. It certainly worked out!

With a screenplay by Philip Yordan, Houdini was "Based on a book by Harold Kellock." For our purposes, this may be the most important credit on the bill. The book in question is 1928's Houdini His Life Story, a collaboration between author Harold Kellock and Beatrice Houdini. It was the first Houdini biography and is packed with popular mythology, some of which will find its way into Houdini and later movies. In the 1930s, Bess and her partner/manager Edward Saint shopped the film rights, eventually landing a deal at Paramount. For those who fault Houdini for inaccuracies, you should read those earlier scripts!

That first film was never made and the rights to the book drifted around Hollywood for decades. At one point Gone With The Wind producer David O. Selznick wanted to make the movie with Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock. But Paramount reacquired the rights when producer George Pal showed interest. A new script was commissioned and the result is the movie we have today.

A prominent credit for Technicolor was common at this time time as Hollywood was eager to differentiate movies from television and the transition to color was key. But there is also a nice Technicolor connection to the real Houdini. Daniel Comstock, who co-founded Technicolor in 1916, was one of Houdini's allied members on the Scientific American committee during the Margery investigation. In fact, it was Comstock's control device, not Houdini's infamous "Margie Box," that finally prevented the medium from producing her phenomena. Oh, and the color in this movie is gorgeous!

Joseph Dunninger receives a prominent credit as Houdini's Technical Advisor. Dunninger was one of the most famous names in magic at this time and his inclusion in the credits would certainly be noticed by audiences. He was also good friends with Houdini. While Dunninger loaned some props to the production (such as the iron overboard box), the true technical advisor to the film was magician George Boston who taught stars Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh to do magic and oversaw the magic sequences. But Dunninger's name in the credits gave the film its magical gravitas and a nice personal connection to the real Houdini.

Houdini was produced by George Pal, who was one of Paramount's top producers at the time. Like his subject, Pal was Hungarian. He graduated from the Budapest Academy of Arts and made his early movies for Hunnia Films in Budapest. It's interesting to note that Pal was working on his sci-fi classic The War of the Worlds at the same time Houdini was in production. Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, in costume, were even photographed with Pal and one of the famous Martian flyings saucers.

The playbill ends with a final credit for director George Marshal and the title sequence fades out. When the picture fades back up, we've transitioned to...

 ☞ Chapter 2: Dime Museum (coming)

Friday, April 9, 2021

Copperfield acquires Houdini (1953) head chopper

Today is the 90th birthday of Magic Castle co-founder Milt Larsen. For the occasion, the AMA held a star-studded birthday celebration on ZOOM. One those stars was David Copperfield, who told Milt he had just acquired the Lester Lake head chopper that Milt's brother, William Larsen Jr., famously performs in the 1953 biopic Houdini.

I've always wondered if this still existed. Happy to hear that it does and is now part of the Copperfield collection.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Houdini's Melbourne bridge jump (sans corpse)

Houdini's tour of Australia in 1910 is most celebrated for his aviation exploits. But he also wowed audiences with escapes, including a leap from the Queen's Bridge into the Yarra river in Melbourne on Thursday, February 17. What makes this particular stunt so famous is the story of how Houdini's jump dislodged a suicide from the river depths, causing the corpse to float to the surface. The crowd feared the dead man was Houdini himself, until the escapist surfaced beside it. But did that really happen?

Below are a set of photos and an account of the stunt from the Melbourne Weekly Times. As you can see, no corpse involved, but some nice details, including that Houdini wore a blue bathing suit instead of his usual crimson.



MELBOURNE, Thursday.
The announcement that Houdini, who is at present appearing at the Opera House, would dive from Queen's Bridge into the Yarra attracted many thousands of people this afternoon. Every point of vantage on the Bridge was quickly occupied by spectators, as were also the roofs of the sheds lining the north and south banks of the river and the various steamers lying in the stream. On the river itself were craft of all kinds, densely crowded with men women and children, eager to view the sensational spectacle. It was with the greatest difficulty that a large force of mounted and foot police could secure even space enough for a narrow line of vehicular traffic.
    At about 1.30 Houdini drove up on to the center of the bridge in the motor car. Making his way through the crowd he mounted the parapet, where he was manacled with stout chains. After being handcuffed his hands were fixed behind his back. The chains were passed over his neck and round his body, and were fastened with a stout brass padlock in the middle of his back.
    Clad in a blue jersey and blue trunks but with his arms and head bare, he stood unconcernedly in the blazing hot sunshine. When the manacling arrangements have been completed he looked quietly down on to the lower wharf, and asked "Is it already Jim; is the way clear?" Receiving a reply in the affirmative he first took several long breaths, then, without the slightest hesitation, dived into the river. In about sixty-five seconds he came to the surface again free of his chains, which, by the way, weighed about 26 pounds. The chains themselves he brought up in his hand. As he mounted the steps, Houdini was loudly and continuously cheered, the spectators thronging round him as he again made his way to the waiting motor car. From the time he mounted the bridge until he was driven off again in the car only about seven minutes elapsed.

There are some other details that didn't make this report. The temperature that day was a scorching 101 degrees. Several onlookers fell into the river. Following the escape, reporters on the dock asked Houdini how he liked the taste of the water. He replied by grimacing and saying it was "the least toothsome" he had ever sampled. Later news accounts made light at the idea of Houdini "insulting" their river water.

Houdini's Queen's Bridge jump was his first outdoor stunt in Australia. He told reporters he had considered making a leap from the deck of the ship Malwa when it first arrived in Fremantale, but talk of shark infested waters convinced him otherwise. He later made a 31 foot handcuffed jump into the Domain Municipal Baths in Woolloomooloo Bay in Sydney (below). That jump resulted in him hitting the water wrong and blackening both eyes.

So what about the whole floating corpse thing? If this happened, not a single newspaper (that I've been able to find) reported it, which does not seem likely. The story appears to be a Houdini invention. I'm not sure when he first started telling it, but it appears in a 1918 Boston Post interview along with his famous trapped under the ice story. In it Houdini emphasizes his shock at finding himself beside a dead body. "As long as I live I will not forget that incident. It was the worst thing that ever happened to me."

Like reporters in Houdini's day, biographers can't seem to resist this story. The Australian corpse surfaces in Kellock, Gresham, Christopher, and even Kalush. Only Ken Silverman leaves it out of his account of the escape.

With or without the corpse, I still enjoy the story of Houdini's Melbourne bridge jump, especially as the Queen's Bridge is still there today!

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

"Houdini's Not-So-Magical Film Factory" in The Linking Ring

The April 2021 issue of The Linking Ring comntains an article by yours truly about Houdini's Film Developing Corporation, his "not-so-magical film factory." This is an updated version of the deep dive I first posted here.

I'm honored that The Linking Ring's executive editor Sammy Smith has invited me to submit occasional Houdini-related articles from WAH to his magazine. So if you have a favorite post that you'd like to see in print, please let me know!

The Linking Ring is the official magazine of the International Brotherhood of Magicians (IBM). You can join the IBM and receive the magazine via their official website.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Houdini's return to form

Even though Houdini had announced his retirement from vaudeville to make movies, in December 1921 he went back on the vaudeville circuit for a 10-week tour commencing Christmas week at B.F. Keith's in Boston. To publicize his return, Houdini did a suspended straitjacket escape from the Boston Post building on December 22. The temperature that day was a bone chilling 14 degrees with what was described as a "stinging Northwest gale." The escape benefited the "Santa Claus Fund" and marked Houdini's first such outdoor stunt since 1917.

Over the weekend I discovered a treasure trove of photos from this escape in the Boston Post. These beautifully capture Houdini's 1921 return to form.

Oh, and there's also film! 

While this footage from George Eastman House is not dated, it is identified as being Boston and you can see it's clearly cold outside. You can also see a Christmas wreath in a window and Houdini is using the gigantic megaphone as seen in the above photos. So I'm certain this is December 22, 1921.

If you are wondering what Houdini is yelling to the crowd through that megaphone, the Post quotes him as saying:

"I risk my life for Santa Claus' fund, that Boston's poor children may find no stockings empty Christmas morning. Now you risk your dollars! Give to the fund which will help thousands of children to keep their faith in Santa!"

The Boston Post building stood at 259 Washington Street between Water and Devonshire. Here's the site of Houdini's escape today.

Below are some more notable Houdini suspended straitjackets escapes.


Sunday, April 4, 2021

Watch The Magic of Houdini with Alan Davies

Here is the full documentary The Magic of Houdini with Alan Davies. This first aired in the UK on Easter Sunday, 2014. It's well done and features some familiar faces. Enjoy.

Thanks to Greg Edmonds.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Kansas City's last Houdini theater

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of joining the members of IBM Ring 129 for a discussion of Houdini in Kansas City. Turns out Kansas City is a "five star" Houdini destination as it's a city where he performed all his major stunts and still has a surviving Houdini theater. (Which I did not know before I researched this presentation.)

Houdini made his first appearance in Kansas City at the original Orpheum theater located at W 9th and May Streets. Houdini played here in 1899, 1900 and 1907. In 1914 Orpheum built a new theater at 1214 Baltimore Ave. This is where Houdini appeared in 1915 (when he did his first ever suspended straitjacket escape) and twice in 1923. Both those theaters are now long gone.

But Houdini came back to Kansas City one last time for the week of New Year's 1924. This marked his third Kansas City appearance inside of 12 months. This time he didn't appear at the Orpheum, but instead played the Mainstreet theater at 14th and Main Street.

The Mainstreet opened on October 30, 1921. It had a seating capacity of 3000, making it the largest theater in Kansas City. While it was part of the Orpheum Circuit, the Mainstreet was a "Junior Orpheum" that offered more shows a day and featured a movie as the primary attraction. It was the future, but a Junior Orpheum was not typically where a headliner like Houdini appeared. 

However, during his 1923-24 vaudeville tour, Houdini did play Junior Orpheums in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Urbana, and, as it turns out, Kansas City. And we're certainly glad he did! Because the Mainstreet theater still stands today and still looks very much as it did in Houdini's day.

The Mainstreet has seen several owners and renovations during its 100-year history. In 2007 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2012 it became an Alamo Drafthouse. After shutting down due to COVID, last month it was announced that Alamo was filing for Chapter 11 and the theater was closing permanently. So the future is now uncertain. But here's hoping the Mainstreet finds new tenants. Not only is it a beautiful old theater, but it's a Houdini Theatre!

A postscript. When Houdini played the Mainstreet you had quite a choice of other entertainment that same week. You could see Alexander "The Man Who Knows" at the Pantages. Or you could see the 4 Marx Brothers at the Missouri in their first Broadway hit, I'll Say She Is. What a week in KC!

Thanks again to Lance Rich and all the members of IBM Ring 129. Be sure and check out Lance's From the President's Desk column this month where he shares a High School essay he wrote about Houdini. It's great stuff.


Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Houdini, orphans, and the egg bag

This has sure been an exciting month of Houdini discoveries. So let's end it with one more! On September 16, 1925, Houdini performed a special show for 850 orphans at Saint Paul's orphanage in Pittsburgh. Our friend Bill Mullins has uncovered a charming account of this show from The Pittsburgh Catholic with a terrific image of Houdini in action. The full article is below.


Famous Mystifier Entertains 850 Inmates of Saint Paul's Orphanage. Keeps Them in Laughter–Opens His Whole Bag of Tricks

        Eight hundred and fifty little hearts beat as one, bewildered and amazed, as Houdini, the world-famous mystifier, dumped his bag of tricks at Saint Paul's orphanage yesterday afternoon in a special entertainment arranged for the kiddies under the auspices of The Pittsburgh Chronicle Telegraph. It was an entertainment the kiddies will not soon forget and the afternoon likewise will linger long in the memory of Houdini.
        The standing room only sign was hung out on the door of the auditorium long before Houdini made his appearance. Practically every orphan at Saint Paul's was in the auditorium, and all anxiously awaiting the coming of the mystifier, who is appearing this week at the Alvin Theater in an entertainment featured by the exposing of methods employed by mediums in spiritualistic séances. Houdini is at home with an audience of children and for their entertainment he has a special brand tricks, mystery and illusions.
Children Cheer Houdini
        When Houdini in the auditorium yesterday, the children rose and cheered him. He was introduced to his youthful audience by father H.J. Gilbert, superintendent of the orphanage. The mystifier made a short address on magic, pointing out to the youngsters at no matter what is done, it is accomplished by trickery–and that alone.
        Calling for two assistants from among the audience for his egg trick, two tiny tots, hardly reaching to Houdini's waistline, came forward. While they held an apparently empty bag, Houdini drew forth an egg. A moment later he put the egg back in the bag and asked his startled assistants to draw it out. But the egg was no longer in the bag. They searched every nook and corner but no sign of it. Then some youngster in the audience yelled that the egg was not a real one but one that "folds up." The others voiced their approval of this suggestion. Houdini was amused. Into the bag went his hand, out came the egg and in full view of the audience he crushed it. The youngsters were too bewildered to move. 
Tots Get Treat
        After running through his bag of tricks. Houdini came to his very best one, the stunt where a large receptacle is shown to the audience empty and then, after making a few magic passes it is showed again, this time filled with candy. At the conclusion of the trick Houdini passed the candy out the youngsters, who loudly proclaimed the performance and invited Houdini to be sure and come back again next time he appears in Pittsburgh.

It's pretty wild to see Houdini doing the Egg Bag. This is a basic store bought piece of magic that even I did as a kid (badly). However, the Egg Bag seems to have been one of Houdini's go-to tricks. He did it at the first annual Magicians' Club banquet in London in 1914. It was even sometimes featured in his "3 Show in One" advertising as one of the show's highlights. I guess in the hands of a master...

Below are some more accounts of special shows Houdini did for children.

Thanks Bill!

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Roger Dreyer launches "Houdini Revealed"

Last year The Houdini Museum of New York moved to a "top secret" location in New Jersey. Now owner Roger Dreyer has launched a new webpage called Houdini Revealed. Here Roger shares museum artifacts and memorabilia. He's also posted the first in a series of biographical Houdini videos below (I'll add more as they become available). Enjoy.


Monday, March 29, 2021

Houdini stops off in Lowell

On November 18, 1918 Houdini made a quick personal appearance at the Merrimack Square movie theater in Lowell, Massachusetts. He was on his way to Boston for the premiere of The Master Mystery that very night. Here's a terrific account of his appearance from The Lowell Sun that also serves up a couple Lowell-related mysteries.

The Lowell Sun, November 19, 1918.

Note that Houdini says he had made three previous visits to Lowell. I can identify two of those. The first was in 1896 when Houdini played with the American Gaiety Girls in Lowell for three days in late March (23-25). The second is when Houdini played the Lowell Opera House for the week of February 12, 1906 (my sourcing on this is a little loose so this isn't a lock).

The article also mentions a jailbreak from the Market street police station "five or six years ago." I don't have any record of this. Possibly it happened during that third yet undiscovered appearance? But a jailbreak would also fit with his 1906 appearance as that was his standard publicity stunt at that time. Hardeen also played Lowell on occasion.

It's surprising the Sun article doesn't mention The Master Mystery as Houdini was there expressly to promote it playing at the Merrimack. And what a day at the Merrimack that was! Not only could you see the first episode of The Master Mystery and Houdini in person, but you also got Charlie Chaplin and William S. Hart movies!

The Merrimack Square Theater was located at 146 Paige Street from 1909 to 1953. You can see a photo of the theater as it appeared in 1950 HERE. Today the site is a parking lot.


Saturday, March 27, 2021

"We all know Houdini has faults..."

Our friend and leading Thurston expert Rory Feldman tweeted this out for Houdini's birthday. An intriguing mention of Houdini and his "faults" here. And what about this oil painting of his mother? First I've heard of that. This was written in July 1924.

Thanks Rory!

Friday, March 26, 2021

Houdini shares his stage in Boston

There's a joke you'll sometimes hear that is supposed to be from Houdini's time. It goes:

-What kind of magicians did Houdini like?
-Dead ones.

This is in part a reference to Houdini's well-known practice of visiting the graves of dead magicians. But it also plays into a belief that Houdini "hated all other magicians" and could never bear to share the spotlight with anyone. This has always rubbed me the wrong way. While Houdini certainly hated his imitators (many with good reason), he was close friends with most of the major magicians of his day, including his chief competitor Howard Thurston. It's also doubtful Houdini would work so hard to build up the Society of American Magicians as its 'Most Illustrious' president if he "hated magicians."

But as to the charge that Houdini couldn't share the spotlight, here's something even I found surprising. On September 14, 1926, Houdini turned the entire first act of his "3 Shows in One" over to local magicians. An account of exactly who those magicians were and the tricks they performed can been read below:

Boston Globe, Sept. 14, 1926.

This wasn't the first time Houdini did this. On February 18, 1926 he invited local magicians in Philadelphia to perform as a special feature during his run at the Chestnut Opera House.

So maybe we need to rethink the old joke. How about...

-What kind of magicians did Houdini like?
-S.A.M. magicians.

Okay, not as funny. But at least it's true.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Blackstone produces a Houdini birthplace puzzle

Our friend Diego Domingo shares this curiosity from his collection to mark Houdini's 147th birthday yesterday. This is a label marked on the front "Blackstone Show 1956." Written on the back in Harry Blackstone Sr.'s handwriting is the following:

For starters, this was written before it was generally known that Houdini wasn't born in the United States. Also, that doesn't say Budapest! To my eye, that says Beregszasz, which until 1919 was part of Hungary and today is known as Berehove and is part of Ukraine. The city was home to a large Jewish community which you can read more about HERE.

So was Blackstone misinformed? Or does he know something we don't? If you have any ideas, feel free to share in the comments.

Thanks Diego (and Harry Sr.).


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