Thursday, May 13, 2021

Edwin L. Scanlan remembers his neighbor Houdini

On the 50th anniversary of Houdini's death in 1976, the New Jersey Sunday Register ran an article featuring the boyhood recollections of Edwin L. Scanlan who lived next door to Hardeen in Flatbush. This was when Houdini and Bess were living with the Hardeens, and Scanlan came to know both brothers well. I love stuff like this, and Scanlan's memories provide new insight into Houdini's Flatbush years. I've excerpted choice selections below. Enjoy.

I had the rare privilege of knowing this remarkable man for 10 years, starting in 1916. My Dad, relocating his business from Philadelphia, Pa., bought a large house in Flatbush, Brooklyn that year, and it was not until we were settled did we realize that Houdini and his brother, Hardeen, a magician and escapist in his own right, shared a similar house next to ours.

Houdini owned a house in Manhattan too, but the Flatbush property was the general headquarters for the brothers, because it had the advantage of a big barn-like structure at the rear of the plot which housed the wondrous array of magical apparatus and stage illusions used in their performances, ready to be moved out as required by their schedule of engagements.

At first I became acquainted with Houdini's little dog, Bobby, and got to know the brothers through him, doing little chores and errands for the magicians. I was just going on 10 years of age at the time. They took a liking to me, especially Houdini; the Houdinis had no children. The following year (1917) I was given the job of keeping the big storage building neat and tidy – I was then in seventh heaven.

I earned their implicit trust in regards to "keeping mum." In return for my work they, particularly Houdini, taught me the fundamentals of magic when at the GHQ, though they traveled considerably, often worldwide.

I never divulged any of the secrets of the spectacular apparatus, despite the fact that it did not take me long to catch on, due to the amount of time I spent figuring things out. I also watched them perform on stage and elsewhere whenever they were in the New York metropolitan area or even in Atlantic City, one of Houdini's favorite spots. Hardeen had two sons around my age but neither one took any interest in magic.

The topic then turns to aviation. Scanlan notes that after Houdini's historic first flight in Australia ("Long before I knew him") newspapers ran articles about the danger of Australia possibly being invaded by aircraft from Japan. Scanlan continues:

Houdini was deeply impressed by these news stories and recalled them for years thereafter, when I knew him, and long after he had given up flying – "a young man's game," he would say. 

Houdini was the one who later inspired me to take to the 'wild blue yonder' – I was 14 at the time – and he said, "It's fine to build those model airplanes you occasionally turn out but learn to fly the real thing; it's never too early to start learning." Despite the fact that here was a man who was continually risked his own life, sometimes two or three times in a single day (which he took great enjoyment in doing), shackled handcuffed, sealed up in a crate or trunk and dropped off a bridge, for example, and yet he said: "life's greatest thrill is flying – alone."

I'll always be indebted to Houdini for arousing my interest in flying, alone, and even when I moved to an apartment in Greenwich Village – still in my teens – I kept in touch with the two brothers. 

Houdini could escape from anything – except from those minds and hearts of those who saw him, who knew him, who loved and admired him.

In 1976 Scanlan published a book about overcoming alcoholism, The A to Z Systemis which he mentions his friendship with Houdini and Hardeen. He died at age 82 at his home in Red Bank, New Jersey on August 2, 1990.

Hardeen's Flatbush home.

10 comments:

  1. Wow. I never realized there was a big barn like structure behind the house in Flatbush. That makes sense, seems all those performers from that time had some sort of barn they were working out of. Love this.

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    1. Yes, that was news to me as well! And pretty cool.

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    2. Is the Flatbush house still there? This is great stuff! Thanks for posting it! Hardeen kept manacles in the basement, but we know he had more props and inherited Houdini's 3 in 1. Now we know he kept it in his barn.

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    3. It's gone. Now an apt. building. If you click the Flatbush Years link you can see the spot today.

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    4. Thanks, I did revisit the Flatbush Years post and it was enlightening, all over again. If you look closely at Hardee n's house in the block illustration, you can see the barn behind his house! What became of the second house he moved into that was down the street? This was the house where he kept the HH props and the manacles.

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  2. When my friend, Manny Weltman was alive, he had me visit the site to see "what was there?" I found at the Flatbush location off of Church Ave. an apt. building. Manny who owned one of the biggest "Houdini" collections made arrangement with me to visit him in CA. However, the summer I planned to visit was to no avail. He passed away not too long before I was supposed to visit him. However, we had dinner with his wife, Nan at the "Magic Castle." Note, this would be the last time I would meet Harry Blackstone, Jr. again. He spent a lot of time with me at the "Castle" took a photo too. Indeed, I truly miss both of these gentlemanšŸ˜ŖBenjilinišŸŽ©šŸ°

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    1. One day I really need to tell the full story of Manny and I. He was the first Houdini collector I ever met and his the first collection I ever saw. This is back when he still owned the 1916 diary. So I was able to read that when I was 15. We always stayed in touch. I remember the day Manny got ahold of the Houdini voice recording he called and played it for me over the phone.

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  3. The 1916 diary? Weltman sold it off? Nice to see a Houdini diary not owned by the Ernst descendants.

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    1. Yes, the 1916 and his very first diary from the 1890s seem to be the two that got away. Both now owned by our friend Bruce Averbook.

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    2. That's wonderful! The two that got away. Ha, ha! I hope Mr. Averbook lets you page thru them for your Chronology.

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