Friday, April 30, 2021

Houdini the spoiler


I've read a lot of newspaper reports of Houdini's escapes, but I've never read anything quite like the one below. This is an account of a challenge packing case escape at the Majestic Theater in San Antonio, Texas, on November 15, 1923. Enjoy.

Victoria Advocate, Nov. 16, 1923.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Dai Vernon does the trick that fooled Houdini

There are no shortage of videos on YouTube of magicians demonstrating Dai Vernon's famous "trick that fooled Houdini." One of the best is by Steve Cohen. But here's a video of The Professor doing it himself! I don't know what show this is from and it's too bad we don't have the lead up to the trick, but it's still pretty great as Vernon references Houdini throughout.


Vernon performed this for Houdini during an S.A.M. banquet at the Grand National Hotel in Chicago on February 6, 1922. Vernon did the trick for Houdini three times and, it's my understand, varied his method. While I don't doubt this happened, I've never heard an account from anyone who witnessed it. Vernon's own mementos from that night recently sold at a Potter & Potter auction. 

What I'd love to know is what happened to the signed four of diamonds?

UPDATE: Our good friend Joe Fox has identified this as the Canadian show Celebrity Revue hosted by Carol Taylor and Peter Pit. Also, the guest in the tuxedo who we briefly see applauding near the end is none other than Steve Baker aka Mr. Escape! The below appeared in the December 1976 Genii.


Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Here comes that crazy Houdini guy

It's a slow Houdini news day, so I thought I'd share this little bit of inspiration I had today. 

I live near a fantastic year-round Halloween store called Halloween Town. On my walks I sometimes stop in and browse, and I've always loved that they carry the three Dover Houdini books: The Secrets of Houdini, Houdini on Magic, and Houdini's Paper Magic. They also have a Houdini postcard in their racks. You just never know where Houdini is going to appear!

Now, I have many editions of the Dover books and hardly need another. But I noticed that The Secrets of Houdini recently refreshed with a new spine featuring a thumbnail image of Houdini and a new black back. Still, I don't need it. But it occurred to me today that buying this in a Halloween store made it somewhat special. Their last copy was a little beat up and being sold at a discount, so why not? And I threw in the postcard for good measure.

Here's where the madness comes in. Because this was "as-is," the girl at the register stamped the receipt with a red "no refunds" stamp, which also displayed the name of the store. As soon as I left, it suddenly occurred to me that it would be great to have that stamp inside the book itself, forever showing that it was bought in a Halloween store. So I went back and asked if she could stamp it and she was happy to oblige. Hey, she works in a year-round Halloween store, I'm sure she's seen stranger things!

Anyway, here's how to turn something that really has no collectibility into something that kinda does. At least I think so. But I'm that crazy Houdini guy.


Have you ever done something like this? Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Sailor rope tie challenge revealed at last

One of Houdini's go-to challenges was to be tied with heavy rope by Navy sailors or seamen of some sort. The precise manner in which Houdini would be bound was always spelled out step by step in the challenge handbills, and it always involved him lying on a plank with a broomstick under his legs. No photos exist, and try as I might, I've never been able to envision exactly how Houdini was tied.

That's why I was very excited to discover this illustration from the Boston Post following one these challenges from "T" Wharf fishermen on September 22, 1911. Now that's a rope tie!


Not only did the paper do a great job of illustrating the rope tie, but their description of the challenge itself is pretty terrific. Below are a few excerpts:

Harry Houdini made the escape of his life last night on the stage of Keith's Theatre, when he extricated himself from hundreds of knots and fathoms of rope, tied by four veteran T wharf fishing captains.

On the stage was a large committee of seafaring men. They were men who could appreciate skillful knotting of cordage, for many a time their safety has depended on the trustworthiness of knots in ropes and lines.

There was a sort of grimness to the preparations that did not escape the audience, for the honor of T wharf and Atlantic avenue was at stake. 
Captain Richard McDonald of 336 Summerfield St., East Boston, who has had 40 years' experience, calmly removed his coat and prepared for business after Mr. Houdini had made a short speech.

The article details the process of tying Houdini, then...

For the first few minutes it seemed impossible that he could get slack enough to escape. He struggled, but the cordage would not give. It seemed that the captains had made good. High up in the gallery a roughly clad man gave a cheer.

Houdini worked away, wiggling, pulling and twisting, until he kicked off one shoe. The other then followed, and soon he had slack enough in the ropes binding his legs to permit him to pull out with his teeth one of the knots that held his right hand.

In the audience were hundreds of women, some of whom seemed to grow faint at the sight of the struggling man, but when freedom was assured they cheered him on. 
When Houdini had freed his hands the rest was simple and he stood erect, bowing to the valley of cheers. 
"It was the hardest experience of my life," said Mr. Houdini, as he exhibited cuts and scars made by the ropes and cords. 

Among the first to congratulate Mr. Houdini were the captains.

Below are links to more Houdini rope tie escapes. For those who have subscribed to my WILD ABOUT HARRY WEEKLY newsletter, you can expect and a nice rope-tie related EXTRA this Sunday.

Related:

Monday, April 26, 2021

Audition to be Houdini

Ever wanted to be Houdini? If you live in the Houston area, you have a shot at your dream. The Man From Beyond Escape Room is searching for a new Houdini. Auditions will be held tomorrow. Details below.

Strange Bird Immersive is growing our company of immersive theatre actors: announcing open auditions for the role of Harry Houdini in our world-famous production, The Man From Beyond: Houdini Séance Escape Room (Houston, Texas). 

Age 20s-50s. Must be willing and able to fit in a small space (email for details if needed). Role includes minor stage management/game mastering. 

Auditions are over Zoom by appointment on Tuesday, April 27, 2021, or by custom appointment only. 

Good luck! 

The Man From Beyond: Houdini Séance Escape Room is currently open and Covid compliant. Here's their (pretty freaky) trailer. 

Sunday, April 25, 2021

WILD ABOUT HARRY WEEKLY #1

Today I released the first issue of my new WILD ABOUT HARRY WEEKLY newsletter. Those who have subscribed should have it in your email (along with a surprise EXTRA). For those who haven't, you can still see the premiere issue by CLICKING HERE.

If you've been a subscriber to my daily email updates, those are now deactivated and you will need to resubscribe to receive the weekly. If you miss having a daily update, it is possible for me to recreate them in this new format if enough people want it. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Finally, if you subscribed but never received a confirmation email, try subscribing again or shoot me an email. Also check your spam filters.

Hope you all enjoy this latest way to stay Wild about you know who!


FYI, I'm using MailerLite to create and send these newsletters. You can read up on the safety of MailerLite HERE.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Lupe Nielsen on bidding high for a Houdini poster

The YouTube channel Magical Women with Connie Boyd interviews the great Lupe Nielsen of Nielsen Magic. In this you'll see many of the Houdini posters that were part of Lupe and Norm Nielsen's amazing collection. Lupe also tells the story of how they acquired their Dangerfield Water Torture Cell poster.


Much of Norm and Lupe's collection was sold at auction in 2016 and 2017. The Water Torture Cell poster sold for $114,000, which is now the highest price ever paid for a magic poster at auction. Many of the posters are available as reproductions from Nielsen Magic.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Houdini debuts 3 Shows in One, but not where we thought

Looks like it's time to revise some Houdini history. It has generally been accepted that Houdini debuted his full evening 3 Shows in One at the Maryland Theater in Baltimore on August 31, 1925. Turns out that isn't entirely correct. While Houdini did debut the show at the Maryland on that date, it was the Maryland Theater in Cumberland. Below is the ad for that very first show from The Cumberland Evening Times.


The Cumberland Maryland was located at 37 N. Mechanic Street. It first opened in 1907 and sat 1,800. Houdini appeared here for three days from August 31 to September 2. On his final day he gave a special matinee tailored to children in addition to his evening show. 


The Cumberland Evening Times also printed the entire show program. Nothing revelatory here, but nice to have this record of the earliest incarnation of the 3 Shows in One. You can see that Paligenesia is a standout of the first act. I recently learned Houdini performed the effect using a cockney accent in the style of Dr. Lynn. I bet his cockney was terrible!

Click to enlarge.

This was the only time Houdini played his 3 Shows in One in Cumberland. But Houdini had been to Cumberland at least once before. The Welsh Bros. Circus played the city on September 24, 1898, during The Houdinis second tour with the troupe. It was here Houdini famously recored in his diary, "Rain hard. No dinner."

The Maryland Theater eventually became a movie theater and remained so for decades. It finally closed in October 1963 and was razed in December 1966. Below is the site of the theater today.


Postcard image from Cinema Treasures, an essential resource for information on old theaters.

UPDATE: I embarrassed to say that Dean Carnegie already made this Cumberland discovery using Pat Culliton's Houdini The Key. Dean included it an an excellent post on his Magic Detective blog back in 2017 called A Forgotten Houdini Associate. So all credit goes to them. Sorry Dean and Pat!

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Forgotten Films remembers Houdini '53

This review from the blog Forgotten Films is a few years old, but I still wanted to share as I love the reviewer's personal memories of seeing the film as a kid. He begins:
Growing up in the Chicago area we had a program that aired on Sunday afternoons called Family Classics. The kindly host Frazier Thomas, who also was on Bozo’s Circus, would introduce the films sitting in a big chair in front of a fireplace. I’m pretty sure that I saw a portion of today’s movie on that show when I was a kid…and it terrified me.

This is not the first time I've heard of kids being frightened by Houdini '53, and this has always intrigued me. While the movie didn't scare me, it certainly got under my skin!

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The LAST Houdini window card

If you've been following my blog you will be familiar with the remarkable story of Heather from Warwick, Rhode Island, who discovered a cache of original Houdini window cards in the walls of her home during a bathroom remodel. She offered the cards for sale to collectors and quickly sold out. (No doubt she was able to pay for her remodel!)

However, Heather held one card back that she planned to send to auction. This morning she tells me she has decided to make this one available for sale as well, and here it is! This is the last of the amazing Rhode Island Houdini window card discovery.


For this last card Heather is going to field offers. So if you are interested, she can be contacted HERE.

She also has some of the other non-Houdini cards for sale. These are from the E.F. Albee theater in Providence. Houdini actually played the Albee in September 1924.

 

Good luck!

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Backstage with Mr. Houdini

In the 1920s a New York Daily News columnist pen-named "Sally Joy Brown" would invite groups of children to Broadway shows and other various entertainments. All they had to do was write her a letter explaining a good deed they had done or some other similar instruction. In December 1925, Houdini arrived on Broadway with his 3 Shows in One at the 44th Street Theater. So Sally arranged a trip to see Houdini and even meet him backstage.

The exciting day was December 19, 1925, as you can read her column for that day:


It appears everyone had a great time, with Sally reporting the next day: "[Houdini] was wonderfully nice to the children backstage when we visited him in there before the show and made friends with them immediately."

And the best part of all this, there's a photo!

Click to enlarge.

Notice that Houdini is using his two large brass tubs to "produce" the children. It's commonly believed these tubs were used to fill his Water Torture Cell and/or Milk Can. But I'm now wondering if they were actually used as magic props in the 3 Shows in One? Or maybe this was just for the photo. Either-way, what a fabulous backstage moment to have captured in a pic.

Speaking of Houdini at the 44th Street Theater, here's a little gem that ran a few days later in the Daily News. Too good to not share.


Below are some more special shows (with unseen photos) that Houdini did for children.

Related:

Monday, April 19, 2021

Own a printed copy of Houdini's congressional hearing

If you're like me, you've always wanted a printed copy of the congressional hearings Houdini attended in 1926. In fact, I've never read the entire hearing transcript precisely because I didn't have a hardcopy. But now our good friend Michael Mitnick (proud owner of a Houdini bathtub) is offering four printed copies on eBay. These are the full transcript printed from a Google Books scan in the University of Michigan. It runs 169 pages and is accompanied by three photographs. Nicely done!

CLICK HERE to see more images and purchase as a "Buy It Now" on eBay.

You can read more about Houdini's adventures in Washington below.

Related:

Sunday, April 18, 2021

More Houdini glass negatives materialize on eBay

Three original glass negatives featuring rare images of Houdini sold yesterday on eBay. A photo showing him being bound by two young boys (identified on the slide as Stephen Ligorotis and John Tallitsch) sold for $1,059. A shot of Houdini with trumpet medium Annie Benninghofen holding a giant spirit trumpet brought in $670. A third slide showing Houdini doing cards tricks for Chicago detectives ("Chief Shoemaker & dicks") sold for $847. This last image is the only one that has appeared in print.


The Benninghofen photo is of particular interest as it recalls Houdini's own giant spirit trumpet now in the Fred Pittella collection (seen in this post). This does not appear to be the same trumpet (dang it), but it establishes that giant spirit trumpets were a thing!

These all came from the Chicago Herald Examiner collection and from the same seller who offered several other Houdini negatives last year. I'm holding my breath to see if more might appear!

Related:

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Introducing WILD ABOUT HARRY WEEKLY


Attention everyone who subscribes to my daily WILD ABOUT HARRY email updates. And those who don't! Google/Blogger announced this week that they will be discontinuing the subscribe by email feature in July. So I'm afraid those daily updates are going away.

I've actually never given this feature a whole lot of attention as it's pretty basic and I don't have much control. But I have a fair amount of subscribers, so I went in search of an alternative. What I've come up with is something I think will be pretty cool. I'm calling it WILD ABOUT HARRY WEEKLY.

This will be a weekly (not daily) email designed as a proper newsletter. Each "issue" will be sent on Sunday and will contain links to all the posts from the previous week. I may also send the occasional EXTRA if some breaking news hits. I think this will be a great way to keep up with the blog without having to check-in every day. You can view a preview here.

You can subscribe with your preferred email address below. An email will then be sent to that address and you will need to CONFIRM. Your email will be kept confidential and will never be shared. And if you change your mind, it's easy to unsubscribe.

.

If you currently subscribe to my daily updates you will need to resubscribe to the get the WEEKLY. My plan is to turn off the daily updates and launch issue #1 next Sunday, April 25. But for those of you who subscribe today, you will received a special PREVIEW issue tomorrow so you can check it out early.

I hope you enjoy this new WILD ABOUT HARRY feature. Thanks as always for your support!

-John

Friday, April 16, 2021

Magic Collectors' Corner Reunion, Sunday

One good thing about 2020 was the weekly Magic Collectors' Corner ZOOM meetings hosted by David Sandy and Lance Rich. Now David and Lance are back for a special 1-year reunion show this Sunday. I don't know if there will be anything Houdini related, but I know it will be great as always. Below are details.

We are so "stoked" that we're having this reunion show on Sunday, April 18, 2021 on the ZOOM platform (it will also be "simulcast" on our Magic Collectors Corner Facebook page). It begins at 5pm Pacific, 6pm Mountain, 7pm Central, and 8pm Eastern times. For this anniversary/reunion show, we've put together an unbelievable gathering of speakers who will enlighten and entertain us. We'll tour the collection of one of the leading magic collectors in the world, plus we'll have special presentations and some of your favorite Magic Collectors Corner "regulars", including the adorable and incredible Adele Friel Rhindress (Ask Adele) from the Blackstone Sr. Show, plus our Speed Share segment, Escape From The Mailbag, and more. As usual, we'll have some special fun games and activities (with prizes, of course).
Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 867 5012 2130 
Password: Dante 

Participation on the ZOOM platform is limited to the first 100 people and they almost always fill up. However, you can also watch a live simulcast on the Magic Collector's Corner Facebook Group.

Hope to see you!

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Houdini and the tax man

Today is (normally) tax day in the U.S., although this year it is extended to May 17 due to Covid. But I still thought this was a good day to share this curiosity from the October 25, 1924 Indianapolis Times. You'll notice Houdini is listed among the taxpayers below.


Not sure if Houdini's tax burden of $410 should be considered too low or about right for the times. But it's pretty clear Governor Al Smith and oil magnate Harry F. Sinclair are the true tax escape artists. The more things change...

Related:

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Visiting High Tom's aka Houdini Cliff (video)

Last year Sean Doran of The Mysteriarch identified the location of Houdini's cliff fight in The Man From Beyond as High Tom's peak in Palisades Interstate Park, New Jersey. Now Walls of Time has posted a video of the site on YouTube. Great stuff, but let's not tell them how Houdini did it!


Thanks to Kevin Connolly at Conjuring History for finding this one.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Houdini, Barbara Fritchie, and a return to Frederick


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

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


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


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


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

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

Frederick News, Sept. 14, 1898.

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

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


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

Monday, April 12, 2021

Sally Struthers on WTF with Marc Maron

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

Houdini planning a new film in 1925?

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


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

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

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

Related:

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Deconstructing Houdini '53: Main titles

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

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

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

Chapter 1: Main Titles

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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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

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