Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Transatlantic History Ramblings discovers Rose Mackenberg

Our friends at the Transatlantic History Ramblings podcast have devoted an episode to Houdini's favorite spook spy Rose Mackenberg. Joining Lauren Davies and Brian Young is YouTuber Ash Pryce who recently posted a video about Rose on his channel Spooky History. I also join the gang for the discussion...with oranges! So click here and enjoy the fun.

Related:

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

I'm starting to think Houdini isn't always honest with us


There are many examples of Houdini stretching the truth. Claiming to be born in Appleton, being trapped under the ice of a frozen river, etc. But many of Houdini tall tales are in the service of publicity or myth-building and seem somewhat justifiable. But there's no justifying what Houdini is asking us to swallow below!

Boston Globe, October 8, 1922.

Is it at all possible Houdini really didn't notice that his movie characters all share the initials HH? That seems to stretch all credulity. I also never thought Houdini came up with the names himself. I figured it was the screenwriters who initiated the idea with The Grim Game and carried it over to Terror Island. (The Grim Game script actually just calls the character "Houdini" throughout.) Houdini then continued the tradition with his own movies because it is a great wink to the audience.

His audacity here is kind of amusing, but... Come on, Harry. It's us!

Related:

Monday, January 18, 2021

The outlier

Harry Houdini Boy Magician by Kathryn Kilby Borland and Helen Ross Speicher is a book that seems like an outlier in the world of Houdini juvenile biography. Released in 1969, it offered something both familiar and unique. Stylistically it falls somewhere between Scholastic's popular The Great Houdini by Williams & Epstein and Houdini Master of Escape by Lace Kendall. Clocking in at 200 pages, it's a legitimate biography like Epstein. But with its focus on Houdini's early years and narrative style, it offers a Kendall-like reading experience. On top of this are illustrations by Fred. M. Irvin that are as vivid as those soon to appear in illustrated gems like Harry Houdini Master of Magic.

But this could be just be my own personal perception and I discovered this book relatively late in my Houdini education and I remember having trouble reconciling how there could be be yet another Houdini biography? Ha!

Harry Houdini Boy Magician was first published as a hardcover by the Indianapolis-based Bobbs-Merrill Company in November 1969 as part of their popular Childhood of Famous Americans series. The first edition (above) featured a yellow cover with a selection of Fred M. Irvin's artwork. The front boards mirror this same art. The first paperback edition (below), featured the same artwork, but without the color.

First paperback edition back and front.

Harry Houdini Boy Magician went through multiple printings and several different cover designs over the next few years. Below are several of these, some library bound, with variant cover art. Frustratingly, all their copyright pages show the original 1969 publication date, so one can't tell when they were actually released.


Notice the last book features a new title: Harry Houdini Young Magician. This book appears to be from 1974. Until I discovered this, I would have told you the title change came much later. Ironically, the cover nows features a portrait of the old Houdini.

In 1991 Aladdin Books reprinted the Childhood of Famous Americans series including Harry Houdini Young Magician. The Aladdin paperback retains the Fred Irvin illustrations, but now only in black and white. The Aladdin editions also drop the timeline and study aid found in the back of the original hardcovers.


There have been many Aladdin editions and subtle changes in cover art over the years. But, once again, the copyright pages only show the 1991 first paperback printing date, so exactly when each of these variants appeared isn't clear. Oddly, later editions credit the illustrations to co-author Helen Ross Speicher on the cover while still acknowledging Fred M. Irvin inside.


Eh?

Today Harry Houdini Young Magician can still be found in bookstores while Epstein and Kendell have long ago gone out of print. So what started out as an outlier is today the oldest juvenile Houdini biography still available to young readers. So maybe we should call it The Survivor!

Thanks to Arthur Moses for his help and sharing images from his collection.

Other selections from the WILD ABOUT HARRY bookshelf:

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Houdini House Spirit Sets at Fantasma Magic

Roger Dreyer's Fantasma Magic is offering a "Houdini House Spirit Set" by Hektor and Barry Spector. This is the latest creation made from Barry's stock of 278 wood. The sets come in regular and mini sizes. Supplies are limited.


These look well done, but I'm not sure how Houdini would feel about this. He was not a fan of Ouija boards, saying they were "the first step to the insane asylum." If you buy one, maybe you can ask him!

LINK: Memories of George Goebel

There has been a lot of sad news out of the magic world this month with the passing of Las Vegas magic legend Siegfried Fischbacher and sleight of hand master David Roth. But I was not aware that magician and Houdini collector George Goebel also passed away on January 4th. I never had the pleasure of meeting George, but Joe Notaro did in 2018.

Today Joe shares his memories of George on his site Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence. You get a good taste of George's many Houdini treasures and his generosity.

Click here or on the headline to have a read.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Hidden Houdini in Creed II

Last night I was watching Creed II and was excited to spot a hidden Houdini! It happens when Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) comes to see Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) at his bar. As Drago leaves, he motions to the wall and says, "Is good picture." We then cut to this shot at 00:24:17.


We can assume Drago is talking about the photo of Carl Weathers' Apollo Creed, which is in sharp focus. But right beside Apollo is a photo of Houdini! Even out of focus you can see this is the well-known photo of Houdini being playfully restrained by lightweight champion Benny Leonard while heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey winds back for a punch. (Another photo taken at this time shows Houdini refereeing a "bout" between Leonard and Dempsey.) I'm still not sure what this photo is all about nor when it was taken (I've seen 1920), but it's likely this was some kind of a war benefit as we see armed doughboys watching the antics.


Of course, Houdini was a boxer in his youth, so you might say there are three famous boxers in this photo! Worthy of Rocky's wall of fame.

Click the related links below for more hidden Houdinis.

UPDATE: It appears this photo is related to the 1920 New York City Police Field Day Games held on August 21 & 29. Houdini, Dempsey, and Leonard were all present at the event (Houdini did a suspended straitjacket). I also think the men may have served on the games "Athletic Committee", and that is what we are seeing in the photo below. There is still some discrepancy as to the exact day the photos were taken. It's possible they were taken before the games to help promote the event.
 

Thanks to Joe Fox for helping crack the case!
 

Friday, January 15, 2021

Go inside Houdini's 278 via Facebook Live

Andrew Basso's chat today with 278 homeowner Vincent T. was an enormous treat for Houdini fans! We got a great look inside magic's most famous residence, and I think everyone can see for themselves that Houdini's house is in good hands. You can rewatch the stream via the link below.


Can you believe that Vincent and his wife met at Sojourn, which in 1887 was Mrs. Loeffler's boarding house where the Weiss family first lived when they arrived in New York? From Houdini's first home to his last. Now that's wild!

Houdini and Evatima Tardo

The Wellcome Collection website has a fascinating article by Bess Lovejoy about Evatima Tardo, a dime museum performer who allowed herself to be bitten by venomous snakes and appeared impervious to all pain. Houdini gets a nice mention as he once worked "within twelve feet from her" and wrote in Miracle Mongers and Their Methods that he believed Tardo's secret lay in a strategic consumption of milk!

I did some extra digging and discovered Houdini and Tardo worked together at Middleton's Clark Street dime museum in Chicago during the week of March 14, 1898. In addition to the snakes, her act at that time was to be nailed to a cross!

Her story is pretty interesting, so check out The extraordinary body of Evatima Tardo at the Wellcome Collection.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Andrew Basso and 278 homeowner Vincent T. on Facebook Live tomorrow

Andrew Basso, World Champion Escape Artist and proud new owner of Houdini's tuxedo collar, continues his Facebook Live Houdini odyssey tomorrow, January 15, by chatting with 278 homeowner Vincent T. Their talk starts at 9:30 AM PST and questions are welcome.


Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Finding Houdini's Washington Square...in Brooklyn


Houdini's 1923 movie Haldane of the Secret Service begins with a sequence set in New York's Washington Square. This is identified by a title card that calls it "that mellowed stronghold of aristocracy." It's clearly a location shoot on a real city street, but was it really Washington Square?

Turns out the sequence was actually filmed at the corner of Henry and Remsen streets in Brooklyn Heights. The filmmakers chose the location to take advantage of the stately former home of New York subway magnate Alexander E. Orr (also known as the Thomas Hunt house), which stood on the southeast corner and had become a boarding house. In the film it would stand in as the exterior of the Ormsby home where much of the action at the start of the movie is set.


An excellent article about the shoot appeared in The Standard Union on July 22, 1921. Under the headline, HEIGHTS IS STIRRED BY PICTURE ACTORS, the article begins:

For more than two hours last night the crowd estimated at five thousand had thrills aplenty at Henry and Remsen streets. The crowd cheered itself hoarse. So did the occupants of houses in the neighborhood. A motion picture concern used the Heights section as a scene for some lively incidents in a play featuring Harry Houdini and Gladys Leslie.

The article goes on to explain how the Haldane crew arrived at 8pm and set up large arc lights that illuminated the entire street and attached a large crowd. In some shots you can see the crowd in the background as well as their shadows. Many in the crowd believed Gladys Leslie was Mary Pickford and shouted out to the actress by name. Diners at the nearby Hotel Bossert left their tables and watched the action from the roof.


The article describes the scenes shot, which pretty much matches what we see in the finished film:

Shortly after nine o'clock the arc lights were put to work and the street was alight as if by sunshine. Miss Leslie, attired as a bride and carrying a suitcase dashed out from the rear of the old Orr mansion and ran along Henry Street towards Remsen shrieking for help. Houdini, in a dinner coat, was in her path and she threw her arms around him. At this point an automobile dashed up to the curb and two men leaped out. They tore Houdini from the girl and beat him to the sidewalk.

It's possible another scene may have been shot this night that did not make it into the final film. The below ran in the Dunkirk Evening Observer on September 2, 1921.


I'm somewhat skeptical of the above account. This was two months after the actual shoot and the dramatics sound a little too much like a publicist's embellishments. But it should be noted that Haldane of the Secret Service lacks the traditional hero and heroine coda that we see at the end of Houdini's other movies, so maybe this wedding scene was the original intended ending? I do like the idea of the movie beginning and ending at this same location.

This was also the night a photograph was taken that Houdini would later send to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for examination. (For more on that read: The photo Houdini thought would fool Conan Doyle.) The photo gives us a nice look at the crowds and arc lights as described by the Standard Union.


So what about this location today?

Unfortunately, the Orr mansion is long gone and replaced by a modern condo building. However, the other buildings still stand and are still recognizable. The corner of Henry and Remsem, where Houdini's Heath Haldane discovers a bag full of counterfeit cash, looks very much the same. So one can stand in this same spot and examine your own bag of cash!


Below is an embedded Google maps so you can explore Houdini's "Washington Square" in Brooklyn.



Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Houdini's tuxedo collar on display in 1998

I hope you had the chance to watch today's Facebook Live chat between Andrew Basso and myself about Houdini's tuxedo collar. During the chat I mentioned a photo that I had taken of the collar on display at the Houdini Historical Center in 1998. Below is that photo. As we discussed, it appears the folds in the collar may have been ironed out at some point.


Andrew and I never got around to talking about his plans to have the collar tested for Houdini's DNA, so I believe we are going to do another chat next week!

And if you don't know what the heck I'm talking about, check out the top link below.

Related:

Monday, January 11, 2021

Flint Institute of Arts Houdini lecture, January 13

The Flint Institute of Arts will host a free online Houdini lecture by Dr. Taylor Hagood this Wednesday, January 13 at 6:00 PM EST. Below are details.

Houdini 
January 13 • 6:00p • Online @ flintarts.org 
Guest Lecturer: Dr. Taylor Hagood
Free and open to the public.

The immigrant son of a Hungarian rabbi, Harry Houdini remains the most famous magician and greatest escape artist the world has known. From his fabulous escapes to his mysterious death, Houdini's life is itself a kind of grand magic illusion filled with a multitude of secrets and still-unsolved mysteries. In this live online lecture, Professor Taylor Hagood unravels the twists and turns of Houdini’s career, reflects on Houdini’s place in American entertainment history, and explores the role of magic as Houdini promoted it in everyday life. Hagood will also discuss magic in Michigan, the site of Houdini’s death but also home to one of the greatest magicians to follow in Houdini’s footsteps and one of the top magic manufacturers in the world.

Dr. Taylor Hagood is Professor of American Literature at Florida Atlantic University. He is one of the world’s leading scholars on the writing of William Faulkner. In addition to his scholarship on Faulkner, he has published books and articles on African American women playwrights, Walt Whitman, and various topics in southern United States literature and culture. The child of a magician, Hagood is both a practitioner and historian of magic. 

To view the lecture or participate in the live Q & A with Dr. Hagood via Zoom, click here to register. To watch live via YouTube, click here

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Talking Houdini's DNA with Andrew Basso

On Tuesday at 9:30 AM PST I will be joining World Champion Escape Artist Andrew Basso for a Facebook Live chat about his acquisition of Houdini's tuxedo collar.  I had a hand in this from the start, so we will spill exactly how this "holy relic" of Houdinidom found its way to Andrew. Please join us!


The Man From Beyond pressbook reproduction

Joe Notaro at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence has a post today about The Man From Beyond pressbook reproduction that was made available in the September-October 1977 issue of MEDIASCENE, a large format entertainment magazine published by escape artist Jim Steranko.

I purchased one of these at that time and still use it for research. I never thought about it having much value, but Joe points out these were limited to 100, so maybe they are now rare? It's worth noting that nowhere on the pressbook does it indicate it's a reproduction. So as the years pass and the paper ages, I can see it being mistaken for an original as we've seen happen with some other reproductions from this era.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Andrew Basso now owns Houdini's tuxedo collar


World Champion Escape Artist Andrew Basso from The illusionists is now the owner of a true Houdini holy relic. It's a tuxedo shirt collar worn by Houdini himself (and maybe even the collar he wore during his final show). The collar has a sweat stain and is marked with Houdini's name. This is not a signature, but appears to have been written on the collar as an identifier, possibly for laundry. They collar is stamped: "Irish Linen Company Shirts, Collar Manufacturers" and shows a size of 16 1/2.

The shirt collar belonged to Sidney Radner who presumably aquired it from Hardeen. Recall that Hardeen preserved the pocket from the pajamas his brother wore during his final illness. That leads me to think this might have been the collar Houdini wore during his final show as it explains why Hardeen would have kept it among his mementos. But that's just speculation. Final show or no, it's still Houdini's collar, and that makes it magical!


For several years the collar was displayed at the Houdini Historical Center in Appleton, Wisconsin. Then in 2004, Sidney Radner put the collar up for auction along with the rest of his collection. The buyer was Geno Munari, owner of the Houdini's Magic Shop chain. Geno in turn sold it to magician Troy Milligan. At one point Troy had his close friend, Dorothy Young, Houdini's former assistant, sign the collar. Last year Troy felt it was time to pass the collar to a new owner, and Andrew answered the call! 

Andrew broke the news in an interview with Estrada ("The sexiest magician has the DNA of Houdini"). He says he currently has the collar hanging in his bedroom, but he has plans to send it to Washington D.C. to see if they can extract Houdini's DNA. (I've talked to Andrew and he's serious about this!) He will then have a special case made for it, and is also open to having it displayed in a public museum.

I first became aware of this collar when I saw it on display in Appleton. But once it sold at auction, it seemed to vanish. It's exciting to see it reemerge, and I'm very happy to see it land in the hands of Andrew Basso.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Unpublished photo captures Houdini the lecturer

You never know where a new image of Houdini will appear next. This unpublished photo comes from Pixels.com which sells an assortment of public domain images as wall art, coffee mugs, and even face masks. Not sure this would make a great face mask, but it is an exciting image as shots of Houdini captured during an actual (indoor) performance are rare.


This picture is credited as being 1926 and shows Houdini giving a lecture, likely related to spiritualism. He has what look like Spirit Slates in his hands and is addressing what appears to be an audience volunteer. The men in the photo look too old to be college students, so this is not Houdini's famous final lecture at McGill University. But this image gives us a taste of what that may have looked like.

UPDATE: It appears the original source for this image is the Library of Congress.

Related:

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Houdini's known radio broadcasts

One of my favorite podcasts is The Marx Brothers Council. These guys are Wild about the Brothers! A recent episode (28) interviewed John Tefteller, who has spent a lifetime seeking out rare Marx Brothers radio broadcasts from the 1930s and on. John's stories of how he tracked down several recordings long thought lost are fascinating, and it got me thinking about, you guessed it, Houdini!

Many people don't even know Houdini did radio. But Houdini embraced media of all kinds, and when radio took off in the 1920s, he quickly found his way to a microphone. Most of his broadcasts concerned spiritualism. But he also occasionally gave magic lessons to children. Unfortunately, not one these broadcasts are known to survive. But maybe that's just because no one knew there was anything to look for?

So I decided to make a list of all the Houdini radio broadcasts that I am currently aware. I'm sure there are many more, and I will update this list as I discover them. Most of the radio stations still survive, if in name only. My hope is we have a John Tefteller among us who might know how to track these down. The discovery of any one of these would be a sensation!

Tuesday, November 14, 1922
Houdini debates spiritualism.
8:00 PM
WOR Newark, NJ

Thursday March 29, 1923 
"My Twenty-five Years' Experience With Spiritualism"
KLX Oakland, CA

Monday, August 6, 1923 
"Mystery Mongers and Fraud Mediums" 
8:30 PM
WOR Newark, NJ

Friday, August 11, 1923
"Myself and Spiritualism"
8:15 PM
WJZ New York, NY.

Monday, November 5, 1923 
"The Sane Side of Spiritualism" 
8:00 PM
WEAY Houston, TX. 

Tuesday, November 13, 1923
Houdini on spiritualism
WAOI San Antonio, TX.

Thursday, November 22, 1923
Houdini on spiritualism. 
7:30PM-7:40PM
WBAP Fort Worth, TX. 

Tuesday, November 27, 1923
Houdini on spiritualism. 
7:45 PM
WEAH Wichita, KS. 

Wednesday, July 2, 1924
Houdini on spiritualism
8:30 PM-8:45 PM
WOR Newark, NJ.

Wednesday, July 22, 1925
"Houdini interviewed by scholars"
10:05 PM
WOR Newark, NJ.
 
Tuesday, September 15, 1925 
Houdini talks magic. 
KDKA Pittsburgh, PA. 

Monday, September 21, 1925
"Houdini, appearing Schubert Theater."
7:30 PM
WSAI Cincinnati, OH.

Thursday, October 22, 1925
“How to do Magic Tricks.”  
11:00 PM
WGR–319 Buffalo, NY. 

Tuesday, December 1, 1925
"Lessons in Magic for Children"
7:05 PM 
WTIC Hartford, CT.
(Ad below)

Thursday, December 3, 1925
"Frauds and Spirit Mediums"
7:05 PM 
WTIC Hartford, CT.

Wednesday, March 10, 1926
Houdini guest on Celebrity a Day.
6:30 PM
WGN Chicago, IL.

Thursday, October 14, 1926
Houdini gives talk.
2:20 PM
WGY Schenectady, NY.

Tuesday, October 19, 1926 
Houdini interviewed. 
11:00 PM 
Unknown station in Montreal, Canada.

Click to enlarge.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Houdini's "3 Shows in One"...in 1922?

Check out this ad for The Man From Beyond at the Globe Theater in Boston on October 2, 1922. On this night Houdini appeared in person, followed by the movie, then mentalist Mystic Clayton who was the regular performer for this roadshow unit. The evening was billed as "3 Shows in One."


Of course, "3 Show in One" is what Houdini called his full evening show of 1925-26. Coincidence? Or is this where Houdini got the idea for the name? Or maybe this just lodged it in his subconscious? Whatever the case, it's kinda wild to see this phrase on a Houdini ad three years before it became the name of his actual show, amirite?

Below is what the Globe Theater looks like today.


For more on Houdini's The Man From Beyond roadshows (also known as The Houdini Wonder Show), click the first related link below for an excellent deep dive by Dean Carnegie at The Magic Detective.

Related:

Monday, January 4, 2021

Never too young for Young Houdini

Here's one I missed when it was released back in November 2019. When Harry Houdini Was Young is written by Victoria Holder and Minwoo Song with illustrations by Jeongtaek Oh. Aimed at ages 3 and up, it tells the famous "Shake me I'm magic" story. Arthur Moses alerted me to this and believes this may be the youngest targeted Houdini book ever.

Harry Houdini, one of the most famous magician entertainers of all time spent his early years in poverty. The episode of the book takes place when young Houdini overheard his parents worrying about their rental payment. To raise money for the family rent, Houdini decided to beg money and perform magic shows. This heartwarming story shows the kindness, love and warm connection between family members who care for one another irrespective of circumstances.

You can purchase When Harry Houdini Was Young at Amazon.com.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Houdini musical gets a reading and a name change

Last month a virtual reading was held for the new Houdini stage musical previously titled The Impossible Man. It's now called just Houdini and the reading starred Tony nominees Ramin Karimloo as Houdini and Laura Osnes as Bess. It's unclear if this means Karimloo and Osnes are officially attached to the show, but they look good to me!


According to Playbill, Houdini is set during the magician's final show in 1926 and tells the story of his life through flashbacks. Federico Bellone is attached to direct. The book writer and composer will be announced soon.


Friday, January 1, 2021

Houdini in 1921

Let's kick off 2021 with a look back at what Houdini was up to 100 years ago.


In 1921 the only way to see Houdini was at the cinema. Fortunately, this was not difficult. All three Houdini movies were still playing in theaters across the country with his latest offering, Terror Island, continuing to open in new markets. Then suddenly appeared several "new" Houdini movies with titles such as: The Marked Woman, The Lure of Power, The Doctor’s Vengeance, and The Law Pirates. The culprit was Amber Productions in Philadelphia who used recut footage from Houdini's serial, The Master Mystery, to whip up their own releases. In the January 8th issue of Motion Picture World, producer Octagon Films issued a "Warning to Exhibitors" that the movies were pirated and anyone showing them would be "prosecuted to the full extent of the law." With his own lawsuit against Octagon still pending, Houdini remained quiet on the rogue films.

For Houdini, the first bloom of the new year was the publication of his first new book in eleven years, Miracle Mongers and their Methods: A Complete Exposé of the Modus Operandi of Fire Eaters, Heat Resisters, Poison Eaters, Venomous Reptile Defiers, Sword Swallowers, Human Ostriches, Strong Men, Etc. Favorably reviewed at the time, today it is considered Houdini's best work. Unlike The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, it's an exposure without the vitriol or self aggrandizing by its author. It also offers a nod to a form of entertainment that was quickly becoming the realm of nostalgia for a society rushing headlong into the Roaring Twenties. For Houdini it was a chance to reflect, as evidenced in the inscription he wrote in a copy he gave to Bess on her 45th birthday:

Sweetheart Wife.
as you have fought side by side with me almost Twenty-seven years in the battle for our existence as "wonder workers" – you will know the heart throbs the people living in this book had to go through as Miracle Mongers. Your Devoted Husband,
Harry Houdini

Houdini was now ready to "battle for existence" among a different class of "wonder workers". While Hollywood was skeptical of his continued viability as a movie star, Houdini was willing to bet on himself. On February 19th he signed papers bringing the Houdini Picture Corporation into existence. The company was capitalized at $500,000 and planned to produce four pictures a year. Offices were located on the 18th floor of the Chandler Bldg. in Manhattan. Newspapers heralded the company's arrival with headlines such as, HOUDINI BECOMES MOVIE MAGNET. But exactly how his movies would be distributed was not spelled out in any of the reports.



Meanwhile, Will Goldston published Magical Rope Ties and Escapes in the UK. Houdini had worked with Goldston on the book during his UK tour the previous year. He had rejected Goldston's original choice of cover portrait ("This is, without any question of doubt, the worst portrait of me in existence"), and substituted one of his favorite movie star headshots. He also realized, too late, that he had failed to include a dedication. A sticker was added to all copies dedicating the book to Harry Kellar, "Dean of Magicians and Master of Mystifiers." It's a good book filled with choice images of Houdini in various rope ties and restraints. Miracle Mongers publisher Dutton purchased the American rights, but the book was ultimately never released stateside.

In March Houdini finished the script for his initial Houdini Picture Corporation offering. He had considered adapting one of his favorite books, The Count of Monte Cristo. Instead he crafted an original story tentatively titled The Far North. (A title likely inspired by D.W. Griffith's Way Down East, the blockbuster success of which Houdini hoped to emulate.) Keenly aware that his previous films were sometimes criticized for being mere stunt pictures that lacked romance and proper stories, Houdini cut the escapes down to one and created what would be advertised as "the strangest love story ever told." The script sees Houdini's character, Howard Hillary (continuing the tradition of his main character bearing the initials HH), as a man revived after being frozen in ice for 100 years. Hillary returns to New York society where he meets a woman he believes to be the reincarnation of his long lost love. It was high melodrama mixed with action, and the idea of a revived iceman would become a familiar Hollywood trope, be it Frankenstein's monster or
Austin Powers.

The major theme of the movie was reincarnation. "Houdini went around everywhere talking about reincarnation," claimed Walter B. Gibson, Houdini's colleague and occasional ghostwriter. According to Gibson, Houdini believed he was the reincarnation of Friedrich von der Trenck, a German spy executed in 1794 who had the uncanny ability to escape Prussian jails. As early as 1919, Houdini proselytized his beliefs in an essay entitled "Houdini Believes in Reincarnation", which appeared in The Grim Game pressbook. He may have also seen this as a palatable way to tap the increasingly fashionable and commercial world of the paranormal. At least it wasn't spiritualism! But the quasi-religious aspects of his story reflected Houdini's continued grappling with the question of life after death.

For his leading lady, Houdini hired an old vaudeville friend, Jane Connolly. Connolly had no experience in movies and at age 38 was a far cry from the teenage ingenues typical of the silent screen. But at least she was an age appropriate love interest for her 47-year-old leading man (or 147 as the story goes). Also brought onboard was Nita Naldi, a bonafide movie star who had co-starred with John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and would soon star opposite Rudolph Valentino in Blood and Sand. The "female Valentino", as she was sometimes called, Naldi would play the de rigueur "vamp" of the movie, Marie Le Grande. Inexplicably, the surviving film offers no scenes in which Houdini and Naldi appear onscreen together. This is either a marked failing of Houdini the tyro screenwriter, or a scene was lost when The Man From Beyond was cut down from seven reels to six for general release.

Production began in late March with Houdini traveling to Lake Placid, New York, to shoot the opening scenes set in the Arctic. The weak staging suggests this may have been done before director Burton King came onboard, likely in a race to capture the footage before the end of winter. Camera work was handled by six different operators, including Irvin Ruby and Frank Zucker. Bess did her husband's hair and makeup and was always on set for touch ups.


In May the sixteen person crew arrived in Niagara Falls to shoot the movie's climatic action. Interviewed at the Prospect Hotel, Houdini protested a rumor that he was there to perform a stunt on the falls. Not only had police threatened to arrest him if he went into the rapids himself, but he made it clear to the reporter that he considered himself above such displays. "I am accounted now an artist," said Houdini, his pants muddy and hair standing aloft from the morning's shoot. "I am receiving a salary of $200,000 a year for acting in moving pictures dramas and directing their filming. No more do I slip loose from manacles and chains for the delectation of crowded houses. That is the past."

On May 5 Houdini and the crew strung canoes with dummies out into the rapids above the American falls. Intentionally or not, both canoes with their cargo eventually went over the edge. Ironically, that same day saw the funeral of Annie Edson Taylor, a school teacher who at age 63 became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live to tell about it. This did not go unnoticed by the Niagara Gazette, who pointed out that genuine daredevil Annie was buried using funds from friends while a movie faking stunts with mannequins "will probably make thousands of dollars for its producers." For Houdini the worst part of the article may have been that it failed to mention his name.

Two days later Houdini was in the rapids himself. But it was not Niagara. Instead Houdini shot his scenes at the Winchell Smith dam on the Farmington river in Farmington, Connecticut. While never in danger of being swept over the mighty Niagara, the rapids were still violent and a safety line tethered the former escape king to the shore. During the two day shoot the crew stayed at the historic Elm Tree Inn. It's possible Houdini may have also filmed in the rapids of the Hudson. Like The Grim Game plane crash, the fact that Houdini hadn't actually battled the rapids of the Niagara itself would remain a well-kept secret.

Other location work found Houdini fighting the villainous Dr. Trent atop a bluff called "High Tom's" in New Jersey's Palisades Interstate Park. Looming 400 feet above the Hudson River, the scene was shot using well concealed safety lines. The sprawling 60,000 square foot Pembroke estate in Glen Cove, Long Island, doubled as the mansion of Prof. Crawford Strange. The exterior of the former City Prison of New York, commonly called The Tombs, also makes a brief appearance.

A scene that would have featured Howard Hillary climbing down the side of a warehouse using window shutters to traverse the building was shot using a double. This may have been stunt man Bob Rose, whom IMDb credits as having worked on the film. In a 1934 interview, Rose claimed to have been mentored by Houdini. "Do every stunt scientifically," Houdini instructed the young stunt man. But the footage was never used as safety lines and the stand-in are clearly discernible. The stunt was later re-staged on a stationary wall and shot from a greater distance.

Interior scenes were filmed at the Tilford Cinema Studios on West 44th Street in Manhattan. It's likely here was constructed the impressive Arctic ship wreck set where Hillary is chopped free from the ice. Houdini had long puzzled over how to accomplish an escape from a block of ice on stage. At least now he could capture the visual. He also had a home projection system set up inside 278 where he could review the footage being processed by his New Jersey film lab. In late May he revealed the film's final title, The Man From Beyond.

As all consuming as filming was, Houdini still found time to preside over the 17th Annual Society of American Magicians dinner at the Hotel McAlpin in New York. There he was presented with a silver loving cup by Bernard Ernst and some 300 members. Houdini may have stepped away from performing himself, but the Golden Age of Magic was continuing at a pace. During the dinner Horace Goldin presented his new "Vivisection" illusion, soon to become all the rage as "Sawing a Woman in Half." Harry Blackstone, whom Houdini introduced as a "comer", performed card magic and an escape. Hardeen emceed the show. Ever the collector, Houdini was impressed by Goldin's book of magic patents, and made arrangements to have one compiled for himself.

Houdini was also continuing his correspondence with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, discussing and debating the merits of mediums both past and present. Their friendship was deepening, even if they rarely agreed on the true source of any given phenomena. Always Doyle closed his letters with a plea for his friend to take care when doing his hazardous stunts. Houdini would return his affections by having his Man From Beyond hero reading Doyle's seminal work, The New Revelations, at the end of the movie.

Houdini wrapped production on The Man From Beyond by mid July. The movie had taken seventeen weeks to complete. While it lacked the polish of a Hollywood production, the well-edited climax on Niagara Falls was undeniably thrilling. Houdini immediately reached out to Adolph Zukor, head of Paramount Pictures, offering to screen it for him at his home as he had The Grim Game. Houdini assured him he had "a competitive picture to Way Down East" and "a great, big financial success." It's unclear if the screening ever took place, but Paramount would pass on distribution.

Undeterred, Houdini launched into production on his second feature, Haldane of the Secret Service, that same week. Once again written by Houdini, the story follows Department of Justice agent Heath Haldane (HH) on the trail of counterfeiters and a powerful Chinese gangster named Mr. Yu (an alternate title was The Mysterious Mr. Yu). Houdini would use some of the reported 10,000 feet of film he had shot in Great Britain and France the year before, making Haldane a globe trotting espionage tale showcasing authentic locations. If The Man From Beyond had anticipated Austin Powers, then Haldane feels like a James Bond movie, right down to its omnipresent Chinese supervillain hold up in a mountain monastery. While less personal than his first film, Houdini, ever the good son, worked in a subplot about Haldane avenging the murder of his father, "Silent Sanders".

Shooting began in Brooklyn Heights on the evening of July 21. The scene featured Houdini and his new co-star Gladys Leslie fighting off an attack by villains in the street. Unlike the novice Jane Connolly, the 24-year-old Leslie was an established actress dubbed the "Girl With A Million Dollar Smile." The night shoot required the use of powerful arc lights that drew a large crowd of onlookers, some abandoning their dinners at the nearby Hotel Bossert to watch the action from the roof. There were those in the crowd who believed Leslie was Mary Pickford and called out to the actress by name. Burton King was once again in the directors chair, trying, unsuccessfully, to keep the bystanders from appearing in his setups. [I'll have more about this shoot in a forthcoming post.]


In August Houdini filmed scenes on New York's docks and aboard the United States Mail Steamship SS America. The ship was famous for having warned the Titanic of icebergs on the night of April 14, 1912 (a warning that went ignored). In a stunt that looks genuinely dangerous, Houdini is dragged alongside the moving vessel. The larger Cunard liner RMS Aquitania was used for long shots. In the finished film the ship became the fictional Cavania, possibly because Houdini ran afoul of the U.S. Shipping Board for filming without permission.

Houdini again utilized the Tilford studios in Manhattan to shoot interiors. A frequent visitor to the set was his 4-year-old niece, Marie. Houdini even considered giving his favorite niece a cameo, shooting a scene in which Marie plays with a puppy while he and Gladys Leslie look on fondly. But it never made the final cut. Houdini also used the monastery set to film a standalone "challenge" escape that saw him tied to a table top by monks, some of whom were played by his assistants.

In September Houdini and his crew traveled to Valatie, New York, to shoot the one and only escape in the movie; a spectacular release from a spinning water wheel. The crew constructed the wheel and flume at Beaver Falls, site of a former cotton mill on Kinderhook Creek. Houdini did the escape himself, although a dummy was substituted for the shot in which the spinning wheel breaks free. Today remains of the wheel can still be spotted amid the rushing waters and a historic plaque marks the site of Houdini's visit to Valatie. Houdini wrapped Haldane of the Secret Service after filming additional exterior scenes in nearby Chatham.

That same month Houdini performed a suspended straitjacket escape during the New York Police Department's Field Day at the Gravesend Racetrack in Brooklyn. The exhibition was noted as being "positively his only personal performance before the public in twelve months." That appearance twelve months previous had been at the 1920 NYPD Field Day.

With two features in the can, Houdini turned his attention to what could be his next production. Yar, The Primeval Man is the story of a caveman set in prehistoric times. In Yar Houdini seems to be digging deeper into is own psyche than ever before. While the notion that he's the smartest and strongest of all the cavemen was never far below his surface, the more revealing aspect may be the power struggle between Yar, his elderly mother (named War), and the tribal outsider, Aie. At one point Yar can't decide which woman's kiss he desires more after dressing them both in the same furs. But in the end, Yar sets his mother aside--he literally picks her up and sets her aside--to join Aie in private sexual domesticity. How different from the similar Bahl Yahn the Strong Man, written by Houdini in 1907, which concludes with Bahl blissfully tilling the fields with his mother strapped to his back for the rest of his life. But with its abundance of prehistoric animals and massive climatic cataclysm, Yar The Primeval Man was both too ambitious and too silly to be made into a film. Instead, Houdini printed his 12-page synopsis as a booklet that he gave out to friends.

Meanwhile, Houdini was still financing the never profitable Film Developing Corporation. To cover mounting expenses Houdini created a real estate holding company, The Weehawken Street Corporation, through which he purchased the building housing his film lab and rented it back to himself. Then there were the lawsuits. A former manager, Arnold de Biere, sued the company for $2,600 in unpaid salary. Rival Powers Film Products filed a $3000 lawsuit that claimed the FDC was a foreign owned corporation. The charge was false, but it caused deals to collapse and some customers to withhold payments, one for $8000. Running the business was taking its toll on Hardeen who underwent surgery for ulcers. Houdini revealed the depths of his worries in a letter to Harry Keller on October 10th, confessing: "It will be a Godsend for all of us if we get away from it in a legitimate manner."

Possibly envisioning a less expensive way to meet his four film quota, in October Houdini purchased two cans of films at an auction of unclaimed goods at the U.S. Customs Service's Seizure Room. Inside was an Italian made 1919 movie, Il mistero di Oriris, and the other a 1917 french film, L’ame du bronze. Houdini copyrighted the movies as The Mystery of the Jewell and The Soul of Bronze and formed yet another company, the Mystery Pictures Corporation, to release them with new English intertitles. It's unclear if either movie ever saw release, but today The Soul of Bronze sometimes mistakenly appears on Houdini's own filmography.

What is clear is in the fall of 1921 Houdini was facing the realities of being an independent producer. He had sunk his own money into two films and had yet to secure distribution for either. And while he had confidence in The Man From Beyond, even he must have seen that Haldane of the Secret Service was a weak offering. Miracle Mongers and Their Methods had gone into subsequent printings and Houdini was prepping his second book for Dutton, now tentatively titled Paper Tricks. But books were not going to pay his bills. There was only one sure-fire way he could do that.

On December 9, Variety reported that Houdini had struck a $25,000 deal with Keith's vaudeville for a 10 week tour commencing Christmas week in Boston. Houdini swung back into action, literally, with a suspended straitjacket escape from the Boston Post building on December 21. On stage at Keith's, where he had once escaped from the belly of a sea-monster, he shared the bill with Santa Claus who opened each show by handing out gifts to the children. On his second night "several hundred" members of the Magicians Club of Boston attended the show, cheering Houdini as he escaped from his Water Torture Cell. After the show they gathered for a celebration backstage. Houdini even found time to publish a new short story, "The Magician's Christmas Eve", in The Vaudeville News.

However, when he found himself in a stalled Boston elevated train, Houdini decided to attempt a movie hero style escape and jumped from the train. But there was no stuntman or safety line to help sell this "gag", and on landing he slipped on the ice and injured his hip.

Back to 1920 | All Years | Continue to 1922

I'm indebted to Sean Doran of The Mysteriarch for uncovering High Tom's cliff, Pembroke estate, and The Tombs shooting locations from The Man From Beyond. Likewise to Joe Notaro of Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence who uncovered the true location of Houdini's rapids swim.

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