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.



11 comments:

  1. Oh! My God ! Why didn't I subscribe to your letter before and so had not access to your site? Thanks a million for everything you have been so generously sharing and please accept my best wishes for a happy and healthy new year. From Brittany (Yes, that's The end of the Old World in France) with a bit of salted wind and iodised air...
    Dany Trick (aka Daniel Cudennec)

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    1. Glad to have you, Dany! Also know this site has a Twitter and Facebook where you can keep up with new posts.

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    2. hi again
      Not much about Harry on my site www.danytrick.com but have been piling up quite a lot of his biographies during fifty years. Have only got a dedicated copy of his history of magic,The Unmasking of (Jean Eugène) Robert Houdin. He wrote : Best wishes from the author and signed so i will never know to whom he dedicated it. I don't completely agree with him when he talks about Houdin but except this i think it's a very good history of magic. Haven't got time to peruse your so rich site but hope to find something about his times in Australia not simply only because he flew that plane by Voisin.

      Well, lots of trifles about magic on my site nothing to compare.
      I admire your generosity, in Europe most magicians have adopted the saying: " Celui qui sait ne parle pas, celui qui parle souvent ne sait pas"

      Take extra care...
      All best

      Dany Trick aka Daniel Cudennec

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    3. Looks like I have 52 posts with some relation to Australia. You can see them all via THIS LINK. Enjoy!

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  2. Another great location find! The crowds came out that night but it didn't equate to the box office receipts he had hoped for. The man knew how to give the people a free show.

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    1. I just love the detail that some in the crowd thought Gladys Leslie was Mary Pickford. Can't wait to visit this spot next time I'm in NY.

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    2. She and Fairbanks were the big enchilada in the early twenties. I can see how some in the crowd might have confused those two actresses.

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    3. I'm sure no one mistook Houdini for Valentino. :p

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    4. No--even tho he also died of peritonitis a few months earlier. That's wild.

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  3. Wow, this was worth the wait. Thanks for the new info on Haldane.

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    1. Thanks! I knew you'd be into this. I'll have a post about Haldane's ship(s) next.

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