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.


  1. Thanks for this. All Rose is good Rose… love this aspect of HHs career.

    1. Could have been a different agent. But I'm betting it was Rose. She could perform.

  2. The slicing illusion, the one where Dunninger did a sloppy job constructing it?

  3. Thanks so much John for including this timely October photo of Houdini before the microphone at WGY Radio. I had only seen the cropped version until this post, having missed it earlier in your post of 2019.

    The photo of him staring at the microphone has always been the most poignant photo I’d seen of Houdini especially if it was his last. His eyes seem to have a look of a passing era in magic as he is about to send his voice through the air for hundreds of miles. A magician looking at true magic -- “Radiola Believe.”