Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Join The Original Houdini Seance live on Zoom

Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz will hold their "Original Houdini Seance" from the Houdini Museum in Scranton live on Zoom this Sunday at 12:30pm EST. It will FREE and open for anyone to join. Below is the official press release. 

The Original Houdini Seance Zoomed Free from The Houdini Museum on Halloween 

You’re invited to The Original Houdini Seance being zoomed to you from The Houdini Museum, Scranton, PA. USA on October 31, Halloween, beginning at 12:30pm Eastern. 
The event will be headed up by renowned Magician, Escape Artist and authority on Houdini Dorothy Dietrich. She is a noted Houdini Historian, speaker, and consultant who has appeared on many TV shows including Mysteries At The Museum, Deals From the Dark Side, Tom Snyder, the HBO Special The World’s Greatest Escapes hosted by Tony Curtis and many more. Her talents have taken her all over the world. Dietrich is the Director of The Houdini Museum. Also appearing for the second year on Zoom will be Dick Brookz noted magician, mentalist, comedian, Houdini Historian, and creative consultant. He travels performing and consulting with magic & Houdini projects. Dick is the curator of the Houdini Museum and featured magician. 

It will all begin at 12:30 pm on Zoom with a discussion with The Houdini Family Jeff, Forrest & Debbie Blood. They will share some of their fun stories about what it was like growing up in the Houdini Family. Also John Cox, who writes the popular blog WILD ABOUT HARRY (, will share a few minutes about what happened with Houdini in 2021. John lives in Los Angeles and is currently working on a definitive book about Houdini's life and career.

The seance will begin at 1:26 PM, the time Houdini died on Halloween in 1926. This event has always been FREE. The New York Times early on reported Mrs Houdini wanted "the motivation for the spirit-communication to be free from monetary gain." When Bess Houdini stopped doing the seances after ten years she asked renowned Houdini biographer and creator of “The Shadow” series Walter B. Gibson to carry them on. Dorothy Dietrich attended Walters’ Seances for many years around NYC throughout the late 1970’s at New York's legendary Magic Towne House and at Houdini's NYC brownstone on 113th Street, at Houdini’s first childhood home on 79th Street in NYC and at the Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA, the only building in the world dedicated to Houdini. (
When Walter B Gibson got up in years, he turned the responsibility and honor of carrying on the Original Houdini Seance to Dorothy Dietrich. Last year the seance was about to be cancelled because of COVID, but thanks to the technical expertise of Hank Feinberg, it became the first ever virtual Houdini seance and had a worldwide record attendance of 200 guests. Due to demand this year there will be 500 spots available and is likely to fill up quickly, so arrive early. 
There will be a very special Houdini souvenir for all who attend. 

Each year since his death, a tribute in the form of a seance has been conducted on Halloween, the day Houdini died. This is the only Houdini Seance that dates back directly to Houdini and his wife, Beatrice. You are invited to get a virtual front row seat & close up look at this memorable historic Houdini event. 
Will Houdini give us a sign from the Beyond? Who Knows…

Houdini Seance on Zoom (Oct. 31, 2021 @ 12:30pm EST)
Join Zoom Meeting:
Meeting ID: 879 5567 7401
Passcode: 062926

Houdini vs. Spiritualists in three easy tweets

The Twitter account First Amendment Museum lays out the story of Houdini's 1926 congressional testimony in three efficient tweets. I like how they did this.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

David Copperfield's History of Magic released TODAY

The highly anticipated new book David Copperfield's History of Magic is released TODAY by Simon & Schuster. No need to explain why this one is a must buy!

An illustrated, illuminating history of magic from the world’s most successful magician, capturing its most audacious and inventive practitioners, and showcasing the art form’s most famous artifacts housed at David Copperfield’s secret museum. 

In this personal journey through the history of magic, David Copperfield profiles twenty-eight of the world’s most groundbreaking magicians. From the 16th-century Englishman who wrote the first book on conjuring to the 19th-century man who fooled Houdini, to the woman who levitated, vanished, and caught bullets in her teeth, David Copperfield’s History of Magic takes you on a wild journey through the remarkable feats of the greatest magicians in history.

The magicians he profiles were all outsiders in their own way, many of them determined to use magic to escape the stifles of class and convention. But they all have one thing in common: they were great innovators who influenced popular culture, adapted to social change, revealed profound insights into the human mind, embraced the latest technological and scientific discoveries, and were inventors themselves.

The incredible stories are complimented by over 100 never-before-seen photographs of artifacts from Copperfield’s exclusive Museum of Magic, including a 16th-century manual on sleight of hand, Houdini’s straightjackets, handcuffs, and water torture chamber, Dante’s famous sawing-in-half apparatus, Alexander’s high-tech turban that allowed him to read people’s minds, and even some coins that may have magically passed through the hands of Abraham Lincoln. 
By the end of the book, you’ll be sure to share Copperfield’s passion for the power of magic. 

You can purchase David Copperfield's History of Magic on and

Monday, October 25, 2021

Harry Houdini: La Clef De La Magie

A French graphic novel featuring the exploits of a young Houdini has been released by JUNGLE. This appears to be based on the animated movie released on DVD in 2015. Tesla is involved and this is the first of series.

You can purchase Harry Houdini: La Clef De La Magie at and It's also available for the Kindle at


The Houdini Conspiracy by Christopher G. Owen

It's been a while since we've had some Houdini fiction to sink our teeth into, and this one sounds like quite the meal! Below is the official plot summery for The Houdini Conspiracy: The Crusade Against Spiritualism by Christopher G. Owen.

It is the 1920s and Catholic leaders do not want another wave of spiritualism in America, especially after barely containing the last one. Now as a new organization emerges armed with their own bible, they fear they are about to witness a highly organized attack on the religious hegemony in the New World. One of the leaders of this organization is Cora Richmond, a deep trance medium who has just authored a troubling book.

Erik Weisz, otherwise known as the Great Houdini, is a world-class showman and flamboyant self-promoter who is in the waning days of his career when he receives the commission of a lifetime from his handlers: to lead a worldwide crusade to destroy the spiritualist movement in America so it will never recover to its former level. As established religions of the world, based on a flimsy patchwork of myth and stolen history, find their champion in Houdini, now only time will tell if he can singlehandedly sabotage humanity's age-old quest for spirituality and create a heroic legacy that will endure for generations to come.

In this fascinating tale, the Great Houdini is commissioned to lead a global crusade to destroy a modern spiritualist movement in America.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

The Official Houdini Seance will be held in Chicago

The Official Houdini Seance for 2021 will be held at the Potter & Potter Auction house in Chicago, Illinois. It will be a live (non virtual) seance, but it will not be open to the general public as in years past. Below is the full press release.

Houdini Enthusiasts Meet for Annual Séance
Do the spirits return from the world beyond? 
Oct. 21, 2021--Houdini experts and magic historians will convene in Chicago, Illinois for the Official Houdini Séance® October 31, 2021. The event has been a tradition since Harry Houdini, the world’s greatest magician and escapologist, died at 1:26 p.m. on Halloween in 1926. 

“Houdini made a pact with various magicians that if there was a way to return from the dead, he would do it,” said séance director, William Radner of West Springfield, Mass. Radner’s father, Sidney was a protégé of Houdini’s brother, Hardeen, and attended seances beginning in the 1940s. 

“This annual tradition is very important in the world of magic. As I have come to know the real Houdini story, I am even more intrigued. Houdini was a very determined man, and we owe it to his memory to continue our attempt until he breaks through,” William Radner said. 

The Official Houdini Séance® bears the legacy of Houdini’s brother Hardeen, who said his brother would open the unique séance cuffs after his death. The cuffs have been placed on each Official Houdini Séance Table since 1948 hoping for a positive result. 

The Official Houdini Séance® has taken place at numerous locations throughout America and internationally with prestigious groups of Inner Circle members. This year is no exception. Aside from Radner, he will be assisted by co-séance director, Tom Boldt, who worked closely with the senior Radner for many years. 

Handcuff expert Fred Pittella, Houdini collectors Dr. Bruce Averbook of Ohio, and Robert Somerdin of Florida will be joined by Houdini historians Midge Markey from Washington, and Paul Rosen from Delaware, who will also take part. 

The invitation only Official Houdini Séance® will take place at Potter & Potter Auctions in Chicago, Illinois. 

Coincidently, on October 30, Potter & Potter will host a significant auction of magic collectables from the historic collection of Ken Klosterman. Up for sale are French magician Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin’s light and heavy chest, numerous vintage posters, and important memorabilia from the golden age of magic. Robert-Houdin was the inspiration for Houdini’s stage name. 

“This is a significant collection of magic history,” said auctioneer Gabe Fajuri of Potter & Potter. “The quality of these pieces, especially the Houdini material, is amazing.” 

The Chicago area was important to Houdini’s professional life. He had relationships with the local magicians as president of the Society of American Magicians and often performed his escape and magic act in Chicago while touring on various vaudeville stages. During his last trip to Chicago in 1925, Houdini presented his “3 in 1 Show of magic, escapes, and spiritualist phenomenon.” 

“The success of the séance is often determined by the skills of the medium. We are optimistic our psychic medium will be effective,” said Radner. Well-known Chicago psychic, Nolan Webster, Chicago’s most mysterious person, will lead the participants as they explore the world of the afterlife in search of Houdini. “We are all optimists,” said Radner, “I want to believe Houdini can and will return.” 

Friday, October 22, 2021

FLASHBACK: The beginning of the end

It was 95 years ago today that Houdini was punched in the stomach by J. Gordon Whitehead in the dressing room of the Princess Theater in Montreal. This would lead to his death nine days later on Halloween. To mark the occasion, here's a link back to a post from 2016 that details that fatal dressing room encounter. Click the headline to go.


Thursday, October 21, 2021

Houdini buys a Ford

The saga of Houdini and his cars continues. While later in his life Houdini preferred to be driven (and even developed a slight phobia about driving himself), during the years of his early success he appears to have been a car guy! You might recall this post that showed he purchased a Humber automobile in 1904 and even claimed to have raced it. Now we have evidence of a second Houdini car.

The below ad is from the Providence Journal when Houdini was playing the Keith's Theater on Westminster Street in February 1907. Looks like a test drive is all it took to turn him into a Ford man.

The car Houdini purchased was a Ford Model K 6-cylinder touring car. It sold for a whopping $2800 ($81,488.04 today). By contrast, the 4-cylinder only cost $550. Let's hope he got a price break for doing the ad!

I ran all this past David Charvet, who knows classic cars as well as magic, and it turns out the Model K occupies an interesting place in Ford history. Henry Ford himself did not like the idea of a high end luxury model like the K. His goal was to make an affordable car that everyone could own. So one year later in 1908 he introduced his Model T, and the rest is automotive history. David says 1907 Model Ks are quite rare today and sends over this photo.

Below is a photo of Houdini behind the wheel of a car that does not appear to be the Ford Model K. So I guess the search is now on for car #3!


Wednesday, October 20, 2021

"To be burnt and destroyed upon his death"

No post today as I prepare my presentation of "Houdini Lost and Found" at 7pm EST (4pm PST), part of the 2021 American Museums of Magic Speaker Series. I'll be sharing images and stories about surviving Houdini apparatus that, happily, were not "burnt and destroyed" after Hardeen's death. And I guarantee at least one thing you've never seen before (courtesy our friends at 278). Hope you can join us. It's not too late to resister HERE.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Have a "Houdini-Weenie" in Detroit, October 24

To mark the 95th anniversary of Houdini's final performance on October 24, American Coney Island in Detroit will hold a celebration featuring music, magicians, and a special "Houdini-Weenie." Proceeds will benefit the Autism Alliance of Michigan. American Coney Island sits across the street from the site of the former Garrick Theater where Houdini performed his last show.

My two passions; Houdini and chili dogs!

For more information visit the American Coney Island website.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Houdini's "near perfect mystery"

This piece of surviving Houdini apparatus has always baffled and intrigued me. I've heard it said Houdini called it a "near perfect mystery." Sidney Radner, who acquired it from Hardeen, told me Houdini planned to make this the featured escape in his "3 Shows in One" replacing his Water Torture Cell. But what the heck is it?

For what I understand, this idea here is Houdini would be encased within these four nested wooden boxes. Iron rods were then placed down the length of the four corners, locking the boxes in place. He may have also been restrained in ropes or chains strung though the holes on either side of the boxes.

Recently I uncovered a review of Houdini's act at the New York Hippodrome during the week of February 16, 1925 (this is before the "3 Shows on One"). What's described here is almost certainly this escape and it's the only record of it that I've ever encountered.

Houdini closed the show, offering a test which he claims to be the nearest approach to actual materialization and dematerialization on record. By this, for those who wish enlightenment, he means that he is encased in a stout wooden box, all sides of which are pierced by iron rods and welded so as to make escape ostensibly an impossible thing, but from which after several long minutes he liberates himself.

The "near perfect mystery" was sold in "The Great Houdini Auction" of 2004 and resided in the collection of Arthur Moses for several years (where the above photo was taken). Today it is in another private collection.

If you're interested in learning about more surviving Houdini apparatus, please join me this Wednesday, October 20, for an online ZOOM lecture, "Houdini Lost and Found," part of the 2021 American Museum of Magic Speaker Series. I'll have some exciting and unusual things to share and hope to see you there. Click here for details and tickets.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

LINK: Remember when Harry Houdini escaped the belly of a ‘sea monster’ in Boston?

Here's an excellent article by Steve Annearin about Houdini's famous escape from the carcass of a "sea monster" in 1911. Some new information here. Click here or on the headline to have a read at the Boston Globe.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Watch Posterfix restore Houdini posters

This fascinating video from Posterfix in New York shows their full restoration of a Houdini Master Mystery 1-sheet poster. I might have argued to leave the poster fragment as-is until I saw the final product. Pretty amazing. The video also shows the restoration of a Master Mystery lobby card and three Houdini handbills from 1902.

Posterfix also took on the task of restoring five Houdini window cards from the recent find in Warwick, Rhode Island. One of those restored cards sold last month in a Potter & Potter auction. That video below.

Thanks to Michael Mitnick for the alert.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Three days in Schenectady

It was 95 years ago today that Houdini arrived in Schenectady, New York, for a 3-day engagement at the Van Curler Theater. This would be his first and last appearance in the city. This was a rare split week for Houdini's "3 Shows in One." He had played the first half of the week at the Capitol Theater in Albany, where on October 11 he broke his ankle doing the Water Torture Cell. News of the accident reached Schenectady and the theater ran special ads assuring audiences that Houdini would still appear as planned.

Houdini began his first day in Schenectady with a 10AM lecture to students at Union College. In the afternoon he gave a radio address over station WGY where he was photographed. This is one of the last photos ever taken of Houdini.

Houdini's show that night played to an "overflowing house." A review of the show in the October 15, 1926 Schenectady NY Gazette noted that his injury caused him to "limp slightly" and "because of this he announced that he had to discard one of his best tricks and replace it with five others." (No doubt that best trick was the Water Torture Cell.) Singled out for special attention is a trick that was largely unknown to Houdiniphiles until recently. This review offers the best description yet:

The slicing of a woman, a trick derived from the ancient torture machines of China, is one of the big features of the first act. With the aid of assistants, Houdini places a young woman in a casket. Several knives are suspended above her body. The blades descend at a fast rate and seemingly slice the body of the girl. But when the casket is opened she steps out from the box, bows, and makes her exit none the worse for the experience.

The show this night was divided into two acts instead of three. Before the close of the first act, Houdini announced that he would donate several books on spiritualism to the library at Union College. He then invited a student on stage to receive the books. Are those books still there, I wonder?

The second act featured exposes of fraudulent spirit mediums. According to the review, Houdini introduced a woman (possibly Rose Mackenberg) who revealed she had visited several mediums in Schenectady and spoke to several dead children and dead husbands in heaven. "A chuckle broke over the audience when she further stated that she is single and never had a husband."

Houdini played three evenings and two matinees in Schenectady before the company moved on to Montreal, Canada, where he would have his fateful encounter with J. Gordon Whitehead.

The Van Curler theater was located at 430 Franklin Street at the corner of Franklin and Jay Streets. Opened in 1893, it sat 1600 and was said to be one of the largest and best appointed theatre in the country. In 1910 the Van Curler become one of the first theaters in Schenectady to play movies. The theater closed in 1943 and in 1959 was replaced with a modern office building that still stands today.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Houdini (1953) Italian Blu-ray

It's nice to see physical media hasn't vanished entirely, but I wouldn't wait to buy a much-loved movie on DVD or Blu-ray! So if you're an Italian fan of Houdini (1953), know that a new Blu-ray has just been released by A&R Productions. It includes Italian dub audio as well and the original English with subtitles. The case artwork appears to be an original Italian poster for the film.

The Italian Houdini Blu-ray is available to buy at and

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (Centennial Edition)

Curious Publications has released what they are calling a "Centennial Edition" of Houdini's Miracle Mongers and Their Methods. Official description below:

This book is a republication of the 1920 edition of Houdini's Miracle Mongers and Their Methods, as originally published by E. P. Dutton & Company. In it, Houdini collects notes and stories about various dime museum attractions and circus wonders he met personally while traveling or learned about while studying his profession. These tales includes feats of sword swallowers, fire eaters, poison defiers, human ostriches, and more. Do not try them at home. Or anywhere else. 

This Centennial Edition appears 101 years after the original E. P. Dutton publication. One year escaped us.

Actually, Miracle Mongers and Their Methods was published in early 1921, so this really is a "Centennial Edition." But apart from calling it this, there doesn't appear to be anything added or special about this particular reprint. 

But if you've never picked up a copy of what is probably Houdini's best book, you can buy this one at and

New York Herald, Jan. 30, 1921.

Monday, October 11, 2021

LINK: Houdini's Weird Tales Q&A 2

Joe Notaro at HHCE has more Houdini Q&A from the April 1924 issue of Weird Tales magazine. I'm especially intrigued by Houdini's answer regarding Black Mass:

I have never seen a complete description of the “Black Mass” and the rituals. Some of it, if my memory serves me right, was photographed in Sweden, and was of such a nature that the picture, which cost a fortune, had never been seen by the public. It was called, I believe, Superstition of the Age. I saw this film run, but up to the present it has never been seen outside of a private projection room. It took more that two years to make it. 

I'd love to know the circumstances of when and where Houdini was able to screen this forbidden film.

Click the headline above to check out the full Q&A at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence.

Sunday, October 10, 2021


Today I sent out the 25th issue of my WILD ABOUT HARRY WEEKLY email newsletter. As this is a bit of milestone, I'm offering this issue for anyone to view by clicking here or on the headline link. 

If you like what you see, consider subscribing. As a subscriber you will also receive the occasional WILD ABOUT HARRY EXTRA. It's a great way to stay Wild!

Friday, October 8, 2021

Watch Houdini's historic Australian flight

Here's another excerpt from 'High Lights in the Strenuous Career of Harry Houdini, Edited and Compiled by Houdini's Brother Hardeen'.

Film of Houdini's history making flights in Australia is widely available. But it's nice to have it collected here in sequence instead of just fragments. Also, the final shot is entirely new to me. So even though it's brief, this clip does appear to offer footage of a Houdini flight that has never been seen before. Enjoy.

Notice that the date is shown here as March 16, 1910. The true date of Houdini's first Australian flight was March 18. But Houdini adopted the March 16 date in publicity, and speculation is that he was concerned about a claim from Fred Custance that he had beat Houdini into the air by a day.

Thanks to escape artist Rick Maisel for allowing me to share this rare footage. A playlist of these clips can be found on the WILD ABOUT HARRY YouTube Channel.


Thursday, October 7, 2021

Houdini's 'Magic Hat Mystery' in Indiana, Oct. 16

On October 16, 2021, Mayhem 4 Hire in Logansport, Indiana, will present "The Magic Hat Mystery" described as an interactive whodunnit to find Houdini's Magic Hat! You can buy tickets and get more information HERE.

Below is a teaser trailer. I like how they went for a Houdini sound-alike.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Houdini's last hire

Here's one last Providence related post for this anniversary week. While searching for a review of Houdini's show, I stumbled on this classified ad that appeared in the Providence Journal 95 years ago today.

Providence Journal, Oct. 6, 1926

We now know the man who landed this job was Elliot Sanford. Sanford joined the troupe in Providence and had a ringside seat for all the dramatic events of Houdini's final weeks. He even acted as one of Houdini's pallbearers. He would remain with Bess into early 1927 to help her settle the estate and move to a new home. He then returned to his old job in Providence. 

In 2018 an unpublished manuscript written by Sanford about his days with the Houdinis sold at auction for $48,000.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Which synagogue did Houdini visit in Providence?

My mind is still with Houdini in Providence 95 years ago this week. Today was his second day in the city, and it held special significance. October 5, 1926, was the 34th anniversary of his father's death. Houdini said he always made a point to find a synagogue to say Kaddish on October 5, even if it meant traveling outside of a city to do so. Houdini didn't need to travel on this day. In doing a very cursory search online, I see that Providence has two notable synagogues in 1926, both of which still stand.

The Broad Street Synagogue (later known as Temple Beth-El) is located at 688 Broad Street in Providence. According to Wikipedia, the Jews of Providence who founded Temple Beth-El were predominantly Ashkenazi Jews from German-speaking areas. The majority of the early congregants were immigrants from Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, and Poland. If I had to guess, I would say this is the synagogue where Houdini said his final Kaddish.

The building survives but is currently vacant. In 2020 it was named as one of named one of Providence's "Most Endangered Buildings" by the Providence Preservation Society.

Another candidate is The Sons of Jacob Synagogue located at 24 Douglas Avenue in the Smith Hill neighborhood of Providence. Wikipedia states that the congregation which built it was formed in 1896 by Orthodox Jews who immigrated from Russia. The Rhode Island Jewish Museum is currently running a campaign to restore the building and "into a center that curates the immigrant experience."

Like I said, I didn't do a thorough search for synagogues in Providence in 1926, so it's possible Houdini visited another one entirely. It's also possible he skipped the ritual this year, but I don't think that's very likely. He was devoted to both his parents and he loved a good ritual!

From the review of his opening night show, we know he had instructed an audience member to meet him at the theater at 10AM to be "disillusioned" about the medium Keeler. So I suspect Houdini started his day with his synagogue visit and remembrance of his father.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Houdini arrives in Providence

It was 95 years ago today that Houdini opened his "3 Shows in One" at the Providence Opera House in Providence, Rhode Island. He had originally been booked to appear the week of September 20. But he was extended for a third week in Boston, so that pushed the Providence engagement to the week of October 4, 1926. This would be his tenth and final appearance in the city.

The Providence Journal gave the opening night show an enthusiastic review in the Tuesday, October 5th issue. Below is that review in full.

Click to enlarge.

The show ran nightly with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday. According to Billboard, it played to capacity business all week long.

There were also some notable events that happened off stage this week. Houdini met with H.P. Lovecraft and C.M. Eddy to discuss their collaboration on The Cancer of Superstition. He lectured to students at Brown University. Bess was also stricken with food poisoning near the end of the run, causing Houdini great worry and to stay up nights. This is typically seen as the first on a series of unfortunate incidents that would culminate with Houdini's death on Halloween 1926.

I have a particular fascination with this Providence engagement as earlier this year I acquired an original window card advertising this very week. I first shared the card during a special S.A.M. Houdini birthday celebration on Zoom back in March. Magician Dave Thomen recently shared a clip on Facebook, and I was excited to see this as it provides a look at the card pre-restoration. Not bad for 95 years old!

The Providence Opera House was located at 115 Dorrance Street at Pine Street. It was built in 1871 and could seat over 1400 people. For many years it provided family friendly entertainment and was one of the most prestigious venues in Rhode Island. It closed on March 14, 1931 with a final performance by Providence-born George M. Cohen. It was demolished soon after.

Below is Dorrance Street today. The long featureless black building on the left is where the Providence Opera House and the Narragansett Hotel once stood.

Thanks to Bill Mullins for his research tips. For more on the history of the Providence Opera House check out Rhode Tour.


Sunday, October 3, 2021

Another clip from 'Houdini's Lost Diaries'

HISTORY has posted another clip from last week's Houdini's Lost Diaries episode of History's Greatest Mysteries. The documentary was produced by the BBC and directed by award winning filmmaker Simon George.

You can check out my review and the first preview clip HERE. The full documentary is available to purchase on Amazon Prime.

FLASHBACK: The Prison Cell & Barrel Mystery

It was 117 years ago today that Houdini introduced his Prison Cell & Barrel Mystery at the Regent Theater in Salford. It was his first original invention since Metamorphosis and he featured it for several years. So why is this escape almost completely forgotten today?

I tackled that question back in 2017. So on this anniversary, why not revisit: The Prison Cell & Barrel Mystery...or misfire?

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Opening up 'Houdini's Lost Diaries'

The BBC produced Houdini's Lost Diaries appears to have been very popular with those who caught its debut on History's Greatest Mysteries last Tuesday. (Thanks to everyone who sent me kind words about my own small part.) If you're a cord-cutter like me and missed that initial airing, know you can now stream the episode free for one week at the HISTORY website. You can also buy the episode on Amazon Prime, which is exactly what I did last night.

Even though I'm not a fan of the quick-cut, sound-clipy style of HISTORY shows (and that bombastic music), I thought this documentary was cut above in every other aspect. It really does feel we get something new here. There are several photos I've never seen before. They eschew all the easy mythology and work to get their facts right. I especially liked how they characterize Ehrich Weiss as making a conscious effort to transform into the mythic HOUDINI. It's a well told story.

The line-up of talking head experts is also impressive. But it's Teller who steals the show by not only speaking on-screen for the first time in a Houdini documentary, but tearing up twice. It's also a joy to see the great Patrick Culliton, "Houdini's Ghost", back in front of the camera talking Houdini.

So what about the diaries? While offering no real bombshell revelations, there is still gold. The fact that Houdini paid some challengers isn't new, but I love that he apparently coded these payments in the diaries as "be quick." The diaries are really used more to provide the kind of deep character insight that you don't get in other Houdini documentaries. Many pages are shown on-screen, and you can bet I'll be doing some pausing! Bill Kalush, who also gives a rare on-screen interview, is described as "the custodian of the diaries."

I was a little surprised by the sparse use of film footage. Instead they relied heavily, maybe too heavily, on reenactment photographs. And where the heck is Bess!? They also fall into the familiar narrative trap of jumping from Mama's death to spiritualism, ignoring Houdini's war work and movie career. However, they do not conflate his mother's death with spiritualism and correctly root it in his relationship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Spiritualism comes in for the harshest treatment of any Houdini documentary, with Penn Jillett taking off the gloves and likening it to organized crime. Sounds right.

In the end, they do amp up the sensationalism around Houdini's death and hint at possible murder, which I guess is just de rigeur for anything that airs on HISTORY. But they ultimately come down on the side of reason and discount any conspiracy.

Houdini's Lost Diaries is definitely one to watch. The option to stream free or buy on Amazon Prime appears to only be available to U.S. viewers at the moment. But as this was made by the BBC, I expect it will be getting a UK airing sooner than later. Below is an extended preview.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The silent cinema of Harry Houdini

It's my pleasure to offer up my contribution to the Silent Movie Day Blogathon which is being co-hosted by Silent-ology and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. My topic? Take a guess...

It's probably the least known part of Houdini's storied career that he made several silent movies and even ran his own movie studio for a time. This may be because his foray into the movies is considered one of his few failures. But during the waning days of vaudeville his movies kept his name and exploits before the public and only increased his fame. And the fact that his movies are still screened and enjoyed 100 years later is certainly some form of cinematic success.

So for National Silent Movie Day today, I thought I'd offer a rundown of Houdini's movies; the good, the bad, and how they can be seen today.

The Master Mystery (1918)
While Houdini had made a short film in Paris in 1909 (Les merveilleux exploits de Houdini à Paris), his first real entry into narrative cinema was a 15-part serial called The Master Mystery. Independently produced through Octagon Films, The Master Mystery was shot in and around New York and New Jersey. The first episode debuted in November 1918. The serial was aggressively advertised with Houdini making personal appearances at movie houses. It proved to be a surprising success, although Houdini would later have to sue Octagon for his share of the profits.

The plot of The Master Mystery finds Houdini as Department of Justice agent Quentin Locke infiltrating International Patents who are buying up breakthrough inventions for the sole purpose of repressing them. One of these inventions is a hulking robot called The Automaton, who leads a gang against Locke at every turn. It's wonderful stuff with Houdini/Locke escaping two death traps per episode. The movie co-stars Marguerite Marsh and Ruth Stonehouse and was directed by Burton King. The Automaton is said to be cinema's very first robot. I'll leave that for others to debate.

The Master Mystery was released on VHS in 1998 and then as part of Kino's Houdini The Movie Star DVD set in 2008. That DVD is now out of print and the serial has yet to make it to streamers, but it can be found on YouTube. However, this commercial version is severely truncated, missing many escapes and some episodes entirely. The complete serial does survive in the collection of the Packard Humanities Institute and can be viewed at the UCLA Archives. Here's hoping the full version will be released some day because it is a delight.

The Grim Game (1919)
The success of The Master Mystery got the attention of Hollywood, and in 1919 Houdini headed to the coast to make The Grim Game for Famous Players-Lasky. The movie was shot in and around Los Angeles and Hollywood and became newsworthy when two planes collided in mid-air while filming a stunt. The footage of the plane crash would remain in the movie and featured heavily in advertising, although the fact that it was a stuntman and not Houdini involved in he accident was kept secret. The movie was directed by Irvin Willat and co-stars Ann Forrest and Mae Busch.

The Grim Game is well-tailored to Houdini and easily his best movie. The Hitchcockian plot still holds up today. Houdini plays reporter Harvey Hanford who sets out to prove the folly of circumstantial evidence by framing himself for the "murder" of his fiancée's uncle whom he knows is simply away on business. But when the man turns up dead, Hanford suddenly finds himself accused of the crime and in a master frame of his own creation that takes would take a Houdini to escape.

The Grim Game was considered a lost film until TCM acquired the last known print from collector Larry Weeks and debuted a restored version at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood in 2015. The movie aired on TCM that same year. But it has never repeated and a planned DVD release never materialized. It is currently streaming on the TV Time app. Here's hoping someone will license the home video rights, which are available via Park Circus, and do a proper DVD release of this Houdini's best film.

Terror Island (1920)
Impressed by The Grim Game, Famous Players-Lasky decided to rush a second Houdini movie into production before the end of 1919. Houdini postponed a European tour and returned to Hollywood to begin work on Terror Island. The film was shot at the Lasky Hollywood studio and on location in Riverside and Catalina Island. This time the director was James Cruze and co-starred Lila Lee.

Terror Island finds inventor Harry Harper (Houdini) seeking sunken treasure and the missing father of the heroine on a South Seas island populated by cannibals and criminals out to secure the treasure for themselves. The movie showcases innovative underwater photography, but even at the time the plot was considered old fashioned and more suited to a serial. The movie did not achieve the creative or commercial success of Houdini's previous work, and despite promises of more films to come, Terror Island marked his last Hollywood production.

Terror Island is available on DVD, streaming and YouTube. However, this only surviving print, sourced from the Library of Congress, is missing two reels containing two of the movie's three escapes. So modern viewers must contend with this and the stereotypical portrayal of the natives typical of adventure movies of this era. But it's still Houdini and it does contain some classic early Hollywood thrills.

The Man From Beyond (1922)
Hollywood may have cooled on Houdini as a movie star, but Houdini was still willing to bet on himself. In 1921 he formed the Houdini Picture Corporation and produced two films back to back. The first was The Man From Beyond, shot at the Tilford Cinema Studios in Manhattan and on location in Lake Placid, New Jersey, and Niagara Falls. The Master Mystery director Burton King returned and Houdini's co-star was fellow vaudevillian Jane Connolly in her only movie role. The script was written by Houdini himself and it shows.

The Man From Beyond tells the story of a man frozen in Arctic ice for 100 years. He's discovered by two explores and thawed out in 1920 where he meets the reincarnation of his long lost love. The film is a strange amalgamation of action and melodrama that reflects Houdini's growing interest in spiritualism at this time. While the entire enterprise seems amateurish, especially when compared to Houdini's Hollywood productions, it's still a compelling document of Houdini's psyche and the thrilling climax at Niagara Falls still holds up.

The Man From Beyond has always been the Houdini film most accessible to the public. Prints were sold in 16mm and 8mm as early as the 1960s. It was also released on VHS by Video Yesteryear in the 1980s. Today several versions are available on DVD and there's even a Blu-Ray restoration. It's also available for streaming and on YouTube.

Haldane of the Secret Service (1923)
The second and last movie made by the Houdini Picture Corporation was Haldane of the Secret Service. The movie was shot in and around New York in 1921. Additional footage taken during Houdini's European tour the previous year was incorporated into the film to give it a globetrotting flavor. Burton King returned to direct, although his name does not appear on the surviving credits. Houdini is now generally credited as director, writer and star. Gladys Leslie co-stars. While Houdini distributed The Man From Beyond via state rights, Haldane was released by FBO in 1923.

Haldane of the Secret Service returns to formula action with Houdini playing Department of Justice agent Heath Haldane on the trail of counterfeiters and a mysterious gang boss known as Mr. Yu. The movie isn't as bad as its reputation, and Haldane/Houdini's escape from a giant water wheel is one of his best. However, the movie was poorly received  and even Houdini didn't do much promotion for it. But by 1923 he was on his way to a new career exposing fraudulent mediums and happy to leave movies behind.

Haldane of the Secret Service was unavailable for many years until a complete print was screened at the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles in 2007. This led to a DVD release. Today it can be found on streaming and on YouTube.

I hope you enjoyed this brief retrospective of Harry Houdini's silent film work. Happy National Silent Movie Day!

The Man From Beyond poster image courtesy the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin.