Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Two rare props come home to the Houdini Estate

On Saturday I had the pleasure of attending a charity event benefiting Rescues Rock, a nonprofit animal welfare, education and rescue organization, at the Houdini Estate in Laurel Canyon. The "Hootenanny at Houdini" was an evening of fun and music with performances by Billy Gibbons, Lisa Loeb, as well as magician Kayla Drescher. I also had the pleasure of spending time with owners José Luis Nazar and Kathleen Martínez who shared a new house mystery with me...but I'll get to that.

Whenever I get a chance to enter the estate I'm always excited to see what might be new. Last week I reported on the beautiful new monument that now stands just outside the gates. On this night I was in for another surprise. The main house now has on display the famous Iron Box and a Houdini Milk Can. You might recall these were auctioned in March of last year. Now we know where they went!

The Iron Box is best known for its appearance in the classic biopic Houdini (1953) starring Tony Curtis. The box features in what Houdini expert Patrick Culliton (who was also at the event) calls "the best scene in the movie" when Houdini gets trapped under the ice of a frozen river. The box was supplied by Dunninger who always claimed it had belonged to Houdini himself. 

We've yet to be able to draw any firm conclusions as to its life before the movie. But as a standout feature of Houdini '53 it is a wonderful piece of cinema history and it seems fitting that it is now home in Hollywood.

The Milk Can continues to be an intriguing mystery. This was the can that was on display for many years at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Canada. After the museum fire and closure it took a strange detour and wound up on display--along with the Iron Box--in a coin shop in Santa Monica (where I got a look at it in 2016).

The distinctive ring on the bottom of the can and the rectangular hasp on the collar suggests this could be the can Houdini used in the Double Fold Death Defying Mystery. Unfortunately, the lid is not the original. It was made by John Gaughan for the previous owner. The original lid was said to have been "lost" at the Niagara Falls museum. But I suspect it's still out there and I'm sure José would be interested in uniting the lid with the can. So if you have a lead, please get in touch.

Patrick Culliton and I examine the Milk Can as homeowner José Nazar looks on.

I couldn't be happier that these two gems are now part of the Houdini Estate where they can be enjoyed by guests and further studied. And, yes, that Milk Can poster on the wall is a mockup from the recent Adrian Brody miniseries. That will be replaced with a reproduction of the original in the Harry Ransom Center. The bust on top of the can is a modern creation and a beauty.

Okay, so what about this new mystery? While strolling the gardens, Kathleen and José pointed out to me what appears to be a sealed doorway. This was walled up when José acquired the property and they have no idea what it is, where it could lead, nor what might be inside. So on the spot we hatched the idea to crack it open on Halloween 2022. (We can't do this year as Kathleen with be in Egypt on her own excavation.) 

What might we discover? Houdini secrets? The old elevator to the fabled tunnel under Laurel Canyon? I don't know, but it will surely be another Houdini Hootenanny!

Thanks to José and Kathleen for inviting me to join the fun. And if you are interested in pet adoption or helping in animal rescue, please visit the Rescues Rock website.


Monday, August 30, 2021

LINK: HHCE attends the Magic Collectors Expo 2021

Our great friend Joe Notaro of Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence attended the Magic Collectors Expo in Las Vegas last week. Joe shares all the Houdini details from what sounds like a terrific event. Including a tour of a very special magic museum...

"I found it interesting as to how small the WTC looked on display; I knew it was small, but it looked even smaller in person."

Click here or on the headline to read Joe's full report at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence.


Saturday, August 28, 2021

Watch the COMPLETE Houdini-Kellar rope tie film

Today I have something very exciting to share. We are all familiar with the footage of magician Harry Kellar demonstrating the Kellar Rope Tie (aka the Davenport Rope Tie) for Houdini and Hardeen. Unfortunately, all the surviving clips cut off just as the brothers begin to tie Kellar's wrist. But I recently came across the complete footage showing the full tying as well as Kellar's quick in and out escape. This is a thrill to finally see, so enjoy!

This was filmed in front of Hardeen's house at 394 East 21st Street in Flatbush in November 1917. The Houdinis were living with the Hardeens at this time. Kellar was in town to participate in Houdini's Antilles benefit at the New York Hippodrome on November 11.
This clip comes from a remarkable reel of undated footage edited and complied by Hardeen, possibly for the S.A.M.* It includes some other complete and never-before-seen clips that I will share in the coming weeks.

Thanks to Brad Hansen of Retro Cars Forever for his editing assistance. A playlist of these clips can be found on the WILD ABOUT HARRY YouTube Channel.

* UPDATE: Escape artist Rick Maisel informs me that he owns this original reel of film. According to Rick, the footage from came from the "rarest of the rare" Houdini-Dunninger collection that was sold through Joe Tanner. Rick has kindly granted me permission to continue to share select clips here on WAH, so get ready to see some great Houdini (and Hardeen) film. Thank you Rick!


Friday, August 27, 2021

"Show Mar in chains"

This is a photo I've had in my scrapbooks for decades. It was given to me by my grandfather when I first become interested in Houdini. On the back is written: "Show Mar in chains. London." And that's all I know! So I figured it was time to share this image and see if anyone recognizes this English street escapist?

By the way, notice how no one in this photo is actually looking at him.

UPDATE: Chris Gower over at the GEO (Global Escapology Organisation) Facebook group believes this photo shows long-time Tower Hill street performer Johnny Eagle (shirtless man in background) and his assistant Johnny Kedeno (or Cadenno) as the escapist. Chris says: 

Johnny Eagle was the speaker and would get the audience, he would show his strength by bending a piece of 1.5 inch by 0.25 inch steel bar simply by hitting it on his forearm. He had the ability to take the 30 foot of heavy chain and crack it like a whip. His assistant Johnny Kedeno had huge wrists and standard pair of Hiatt 1960 cuffs would not fit him!

Thanks Chris!

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Deconstructing Houdini '53: Tony Pastor's

Today I continue my scene by scene dissection of Paramount's 1953 biopic Houdini, in which I attempt to make the case that it's much more historically accurate than it is given credit. And anything else that comes to mind. Last time we witnessed a death-defying escape at Coney Island. Today we head to...

Chapter 4: Tony Pastor's

Tony Pastor's is a familiar name to Houdini buffs and an important part of theater history, so seeing its marquee at the start of this sequence is a thrill. However, what we see inside is not the Tony Pastor's of history. Tony Pastor's was New York's first vaudeville house and a typical theater experience. What we see in Houdini '53 is more of a dinner club. Once again the movie is fusing past and present, evoking the nostalgic name of Tony Pastors (sans apostrophe), but showing an entertainment venue that would have been very familiar to audiences of 1950s (less so today).

The real Harry and Bess performed at Tony Pastor's at least twice during their early years (more here). This is well documented in the Harold Kellock book, which is probably why it gets a nod in the movie. But here it is the setting of Harry of Bess's third fateful meeting.

Once again Bess in on a date with the unfortunate Fred (Peter Baldwin). However, an old man keeps leering at her from another table, much to her annoyance. The dinner show begins with a Professor Allegari (Hungarian actor Ernö Verebes) who promises to "rejuvenate" a willing audience member. The leering old man is the volunteer. With the help of a special potion, a circle of showgirls, and some smoke, the old man transforms into the young Houdini! (Notice his suit has also somehow "rejuvenated".) He then proceeds to chase the showgirls off the stage Harpo Marx style. End of show.

While all this might seem like pure Hollywood invention, there is some real Houdini history embedded in this odd performance. During their early years Harry and Bess traveled with the California Concert Company, a medicine show headed by a Dr. Hill. One of Houdini's many jobs was to play the embedded audience stooge who would be first to buy a bottle of the magic elixir being offered by Hill. So here we see the same thing--although a sanitized version--in which Harry is playing the stooge to a medicine show huckster throwback.

Houdini being disguised as an old man is also familiar territory. Houdini would frequently don disguises to challenge rival Handcuff Kings and later to ensnare fraudulent spirit mediums. This is the only Houdini biopic to date that shows his fondness and skills at disguise.

Fred notices this is the same man they saw at Coney Island and suddenly becomes suspicious and accusatory. Bess says she had "no idea he'd be here" and asks to leave. When Harry comes out, he once again finds Bess gone. "They didn't even order anything," says the headwaiter played by character actor Torben Meyer.

As the dejected Houdini turns, he suddenly comes face to face with a radiant Bess. It's a beautiful moment. Bess says she doesn't know why she came back this time. But Houdini says he does and explains, "Everything happens to me in threes. This is the third time we've met."

This idea of things happening in threes is not from Houdini history nor does it ever come back again in the film. But it is an important character-building block, showing Houdini is a man who is aware his life is guided in ways that he doesn't entirely understand but has come to trust. The real Houdini frequently stated that he was a "fatalist," believing he was living a life that was predetermined. Hence, he had little fear. Houdini (1953) is the only biopic that depicts this key philosophy.

Dayton Daily News, Dec. 12, 1916.

Bess has also now experienced this same strange pull of destiny, and she will now trust her instincts. The idea that the Houdinis lives are guided by mysterious forces is something that will come back several times.

That's when Fred comes back to reclaim his date. Bess refuses to leave and Fred is ejected from the club (and the movie) for causing a disturbance. 

"I've only got one more show to do, then where would you like to go?" asks Harry.

"Wherever you go," answers Bess.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

'Houdini’s Throwing Knives: The Search for Provenance' in August MUM

The August issue of MUM (the official magazine of the Society of American Magicians) contains an exhaustive and well-researched article by David R. Adamovich (aka Throwdini) and Colleen Fitzpatrick about a set of what are said to be Houdini's throwing knives. 

While it might seem odd for Houdini to have owned throwing knives, and in the past I've expressed skepticism about these, David and Colleen have now tracked down the origins of these knives, and while they've yet to find the smoking gun evidence that firmly places them in Houdini's hands, what they have discovered gives these provenance that's as good, if not better, as many of Houdini handcuffs out there. So...

Houdini the knife thrower? Maybe! Pick up a copy of the August MUM and decide for yourself.

Thanks to David and Colleen for sharing part of their journey with me.


Sunday, August 22, 2021

New Houdini monument rises in Laurel Canyon

While driving through Laurel Canyon yesterday I was excited to see something new outside the gates of the Houdini Estate. A large Houdini bust atop a tall stone pedestal with commemorative plaque now sits at the intersection of Willow Glen and Laurel Canyon Blvd. It's visible to passing cars and accessible to the public. (The bust had previously been located inside the Houdini property.) What a magnificent public tribute to Houdini!

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Houdini Escape Room at the Winchester Mystery House

The famous Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, now has a Houdini Escape Room.


In October of 1924, Master Magician Harry Houdini visited the Winchester Estate during his nationwide spiritualism tour. His intention for his visit? To debunk the legends and lore that were circulating around Sarah Winchester’s mysterious home. He left with more questions than answers. 

Now, it’s your turn to solve the mystery. In Houdini’s Spirited Escape, you will solve puzzles and search for clues in an immersive themed room. Can you solve the mystery and escape in time? 

This 30 minute escape room experience is great for all ages!

Visit the Winchester Mystery House website for more details and to book a session. And I still say this would be a great location for an Official Houdini Seance!

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Unknown French Master Mystery poster surfaces

I'm very excited to share some fantastic news today! Don Creekmore, who is currently writing a book about Houdini in Kansas, has acquired this hitherto unknown French poster for Houdini's 1918 serial The Master Mystery (Episode 4). The poster measures approximately 42" by 63" and as you can see for yourself, it's a stunner!

Don tells the story of how he came to own this treasure:

The poster was found among hundreds of other silent movie era posters in a movie theater in France. No other Houdini or magic related posters though. The owner discovered my website regarding my book research on Houdini's time in Kansas, www.houdinikansas.com. While the poster is unrelated to my book research, he did notice that my business, www.oldhelmet.com, is buying and selling authentic antique diving helmets.

When he sent me the image of this poster, I couldn't believe my eyes! Not often does an antique make me physically shake on first sight, but this did! After a number of months talking with the owner an agreement was made, bringing it to my collection of magic posters and diving helmets in Wichita, Kansas.

While this poster is completely new to me, a French Episode 8 poster in a similar style sold at a Christies auction in December 2008. I'm also aware of one other French poster in this style for Episode 3 in a private collection.

Congratulations Don!

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Nicola's tribute to Houdini

Here's an interesting interview with The Great Nicola a week after Houdini's death. This comes from the November 9, 1926 Dayton Herald. That Chinese "strangling cage" is a new one to me. Enjoy.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

UK magic bar unveils Houdini artwork

The Houdini's Magic Bars in Canterbury and Broadstairs celebrated their fifth anniversary on Monday by unveiling Houdini artwork by Brighton street artist The Postman. "To mark this special anniversary we wanted the man himself to be here at long last," says owner Sam Watson. "So, after many chats and with the help of The Postman, Harry Houdini will be on the walls of both of our bars. Welcome home Harry!"

The Postman blend pop icons with graffiti culture. They explained: "It was a challenge as all we had to work with was a couple of facial images of the famous illusionist which were more than 100 years old. The remaining pieces of the artwork had to be created from scratch, so we visited a few costume stores to gather material and staged a photo shoot. Bringing Harry Houdini into the 21st century and sharing him with our audience is an honour for us."

Monday, August 16, 2021

Houdini, Rose, and Randi in Skeptical Inquirer

The July/August 2021 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine contains an article by Joe Nickell called "Role-Playing Detectives and the Paranormal" that examines psychic detectives and debunkers. As you might expect, Houdini, Rose Mackenberg, and James Randi all feature.

You can read the article HERE, or pick up a print edition in stores. To subscribe visit the Skeptical Inquirer website.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

The "Houdini Shrine" has been found (kinda)

One of the great lost Houdini artifacts is the so called "Houdini Shrine" that belonged to Bess Houdini and featured as a centerpiece of the Final Houdini Seance of 1936. The shrine can also be seen in the movie Religious Racketeers and several photos of Bess in her later years. But after Bess's death in 1943, the shrine vanished without a trace.

Well, I'm happy to report that the "Houdini Shrine" is now part of my collection! Okay, so it's not the Houdini Shrine. It's a reproduction created by Manny Weltman for the 50th anniversary recreation of the Final Houdini Seance held at the Variety Arts Center in Los Angeles on Halloween 1986. For that occasion Gerrie Larsen played Bess and Stefan Krayk played Edward Saint. (You can read more about that seance HERE.)

How I came across this is a story I will share another time. For now, I just wanted to share this particular "Houdini Shrine" as it was also somewhat lost to time. Gives one hope that maybe one day the original might surface!

The Houdini Shrine on the seance table in 1986.
The 1986 Houdini Shrine today.

Thanks to Joe Fox.

UPDATE: Bill Schulert has shared this photo from the Jon Oliver collection. Is this Bess's original Houdini Shrine?

Thursday, August 12, 2021

"Where he dines daily"

Here's a new Houdini location to visit when in San Fransisco. The Aladdin Studio Tiffin Room, once located at 363 Sutter Street, was a favorite restaurant for show biz types, including a familiar Handcuff King. Check out this advertisement from the March 21, 1923 San Francisco Chronicle.

According to a profile at Restaurant-ing through history:

The Aladdin employed African American women cooks and young women from San Francisco’s Asian community as servers. The decor had a Chinese theme with lanterns and dragons, but the cuisine was strictly American.

The restaurant was run by sisters Hattie and Minnie Mooser, who came to know Houdini well. They even amassed their own collection of Houdini memorabilia. The Aladdin Studio closed in 1929. In 1931 Hattie and Minnie opened a new establishment called the Aladdin Tavern on Van Ness Avenue.

Below is the approximate location of The Aladdin Studio Tiffin Room today. Where Houdini dined daily!

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Lives of the Conjurers: Houdini and Spiritualism

Professor Solomon is back with the fourth volume in his Lives of the Conjurers series. This time the focus is on Houdini and Spiritualism. Here's the description:

Houdini’s crusade against fraudulent mediums brought him into conflict with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and the spokesman for Spiritualism. And it pitted him against a rogues-gallery of rascals. Among them were Pierre Keeler, who produced ghostly messages on slates; George Valiantine and his shenanigans in the dark; the escape artist Nino; and the Reverend Mrs. Josie K. Stewart, pastor of the Independent Church of Truth and a master of sleight-of-hand.

But his prime antagonist was Margery the Medium. “It is your wits against mine,” she told him. Was Margery a fraud? Did she despise Houdini—or admire him for his astuteness and manliness? And was Walter, her late brother, responsible for Houdini’s death

In this compelling history, the full truth about Spiritualism is at last revealed—by none other than Sherlock Holmes himself!

You can purchase Lives of the Conjurers, Houdini and Spiritualism at Amazon.com (U.S.) and Amazon.co.uk (UK). Volume Three, which also highlights Houdini, is still available.


Monday, August 9, 2021

Future of Houdini's Hotel Shelton uncertain

One the great surviving Houdini locations is the former Hotel Shelton in New York City. This where in 1926 Houdini famously remained sealed in an underwater casket in the hotel's pool for 91 minutes. While the pool was filled-in in the early 2000s, the hotel has remained in operation as the New York Marriott East Side.

However, due to Covid, the hotel closed in March of 2020. That "temporary" closure became permanent in October. In February 2021 the hotel was foreclosed on. As of July the property is caught up in legal wrangling and remains shuttered.

It's likely the historic building will survive regardless of the legal outcome, although what it might become is a question mark. But what a shame to see this great Houdini location now inaccessible.

If you're headed to New York and sad to not be able to visit the former Hotel Shelton, you might consider heading over to Herald Square and the site of the former Hotel McAlpin (now the Herald Tower apartments). As far as New York hotels go, the McAlpin seemed to be Houdini's favorite. He held many SAM dinners there, including the famous banquet in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle "fooled" the magicians with film of dinosaurs from The Lost World.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

History's Greatest Mysteries teases Houdini episode

A teaser trailer for the second season of History's Greatest Mysteries includes this blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot that suggests Houdini will be the topic of an upcoming episode.

This might be something I was involved with early this year. I'm not being coy, I really don't know. But if you click to enlarge this pic, you'll seen some intriguing images here. There's even a photo I've never seen before. So this suggests it's something special. And if it's the one of I'm thinking of, then it definitely is!

How's that for a teaser on top of a teaser?

Thanks to Mike Bent for the tip.


Saturday, August 7, 2021

Review: Man Vs History Vs Houdini

Houdini is the subject of the third episode of the new series Man Vs History with Bil Lepp. The show had its first airing last Tuesday on HISTORY and offered up a new and refreshing approach to the Handcuff King.

Instead of a standard biography or rehash of the well-trodden spy and murder conspiracies, this episode tackles two specific claims, both rooted in reality, of how Houdini may have accomplished his feats. This first is Houdini's own claim that he dislocated his shoulders to escape from a straitjacket. The second is the recently uncovered claim by Hardeen that a bullet in his brother's hand allowed him unique dexterity in slipping off handcuffs.

Lepp's investigation brings him to Houdini collector Roger Dreyer and escape artist Matt Johnson. The interview with Roger gives us our first look inside his new Houdini Museum. Lepp also consults with a hand specialist, Dr. Daniel Osei, regarding Houdini's famous bullet injury.

Matt Johnson performs a suspended straitjacket escape at the Garret Mountain Reservation in New Jersey. I'm happy to report that he puts the jacket on as Houdini did and does not cheat it with a straitjacket fail. Good work Matt!

Lepp ultimately concludes that both claims are likely more showmanship than fact. He also quotes Houdini himself as saying, "I can dislocate my shoulders. But I do it the more complicated way without dislocating my shoulders."

Overall, the show was well researched with nice use of photos and film footage. If I had any complaint it would be that the episode wasn't all about Houdini. There is a second segment about Annie Edson Taylor's plunge over Niagara Falls in a barrel. However, this was pretty interesting in itself, and there is a Houdini-Annie connection which you can read about HERE.

No doubt this episode will repeat on HISTORY. But you can also stream it at the Man Vs History website or purchase it at Amazon Prime Video.


Thursday, August 5, 2021

The Shelton pool test at 95

It was 95 years ago today that Houdini remained sealed in an underwater casket for over an hour in the pool of the Hotel Shelton in New York City. This was his last nationally covered outdoor stunt.

CLICK HERE to revisit a post I did on the 90th anniversary with all the details of this amazing feat.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Houdini Air B&B? Can It Be?

Today I'm back on the always enjoyable Transatlantic History Ramblings podcast with Lauren Davies and Brian Young. This time the topic is the fabled Houdini Estate in Laurel Canyon, which is now available for rent via Airbnb. But we also talk about Doug Henning, Lance Burton, the Wonderland Murders, and Yanni! It's always a joy to join Brian and Lauren, so have a listen below. Interview begins at 30:55.

You can listen and subscribe to Transatlantic History Ramblings on Apple, Spotify, Google, Anchor, or your favorite podcatcher. You can also follow them on Twitter @HistoryTA.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Spying on Houdini

Our friend Tom Interval (Interval Magic) sent over this terrific story from the October 1946 Linking Ring about a man who witnessed Houdini escape from a cask of beer from a secret vantage point. It's pretty amusing -- although clearly Houdini didn't find it amusing one bit! I'll let the story speak for itself.

Click to enlarge.

Houdini was challenged by the G-B-S Brewing Co. to escape cask filled with Arrow Beer at the Maryland Theater in Baltimore on April 30, 1915 and again on April 27, 1916. I'm guessing one of these was the escape witnessed by Thomas Worthington? But what I'd really like to know is the identity of the disloyal assistant.

The Baltimore Sun, April 30, 1915.

Thanks Tom!

Sunday, August 1, 2021

The ghost of Edward Saint

Over the years the Houdini Seance at the Magic Castle has had many different spooky effects that have come and gone. One effect from the 1980s was a room camera triggered to snap a photo if it sensed an ectoplasmic presence. Of course, Houdini Seances as the Magic Castle guarantee results, so that camera saw a lot of use!

I had completely forgotten about this effect until my good friend Mark Willoughby sent me this Polaroid, snapped during a seance held on my 21st birthday in 1985. Yes, looks likes the ghost of Edward Saint was in attendance!

The Magic Castle has now completely revamped the "Houdini Seance Experience." Its debut was delayed by the Castle's closure due to Covid. But it is now set to relaunch in late September. Below is the first teaser from the Magic Castle's August newsletter.