It was shortly after my newspaper article appeared that I received a message to visit the office at my Junior High School. I went thinking I was in some kind of trouble. But it turned out that a man had called the school and asked if he could get a message to me. He left his name (written down incorrectly as Wellman) and a phone number. And to prove he was legit, he said his name could be found in the acknowledgments of the recently published Doug Henning book about Houdini.
I brought the message home to my parents. My mother was always leery of strangers, especially after my newfound notoriety, but my dad was always up for an adventure, so we called this mysterious Manny Weltman.
Manny explained that he had seen the article in the newspaper and I reminded him of himself. He said he had large collection of Houdini memorabilia that he showed no one. But if we were interested, he would be willing to show me. He gave us his address in nearby Van Nuys and we made a plan to visit.
The day was June 8, 1980. My memory of that day is spotty, but what I can recall I recall vividly. It was a small house on a large plot of land -- a type of home that had been common in the San Fernando Valley, but even then were beginning to vanish into tightly packed suburbs. As we arrived I immediately noticed a car out front with a license plate that read HUDINI. Good start!
Manny invited us inside and there we met his wife Nanette. I instantly spotted an original Houdini King of Cards poster hanging on the wall of his dining room. It was my first time seeing an original and I was surprised to see the colors were not as vibrant as the Lee Jacobs reproduction handing on my bedroom wall at home. But this one was framed and it was real! My education had begun.
We sat around the dining room table and Manny, who was very friendly, again stressed that he never showed his collection to anyone. He also said the bulk of it was "in storage," but he had a lot there to show us. Even then I was pretty sure his only "storage" was the back bedroom where he would periodically disappear and come out with a fresh box filled with Houdiniana.
Nanette served us lunch and Manny explained that his other great passion was opera. He wrote a newsletter on the subject. He was also very excited to share that he had uncovered proof that Houdini was not the first man to fly in Australia and he would soon publish this information. I privately wondered why Manny would be excited to prove Houdini didn't do something. Ultimately he never did publish the story.
We then settled into the living room where Manny had a projector and screen setup. Manny was a go-to source for Houdini film footage at this time, and this was a big part of his collection. He began running film for us. I wish I could better recall all that I saw that day, but I know I was overwhelmed. I'm pretty sure I saw The Grim Game plane crash (likely this was the "Desperate Chances" short). But what I remember most was the sound footage of Bess Houdini from Religious Racketeers. I had no idea such a thing existed and to hear Bess speak really knocked my socks off!
Now, my dad was (and is) a shrewd businessman, and he sensed there was an ulterior motive here -- that Manny might be interested in selling us some items from his collection. So he asked Manny about this. In my Houdini-fueled brain I didn't believe a collector would ever part with anything. A collection was sacred. But to my astonishment, Manny was open to the idea. However, he said he could never sell any items piecemeal; it would need to be the entire collection as one. Manny and my dad agreed to keep talking.
So began my decades long comradeship with Manny Weltman. He became my first mentor in the Houdini world. He would frequently call to share a new Houdini find. I'll never forget the day he called excited to tell me he had just acquired a recording of Houdini's voice. He played it for me over the telephone and that was the first time I ever heard Houdini's voice. In 1986 Manny helped organize the 50th Anniversary reenactment of the Final Houdini Seance and he made sure I was invited.
As far as buying the collection.... It was an on and off negotiation for years. One problem was we never really knew all that he had. Even as a kid I wondered why I hadn't seen bookcases packed with Houdini books in their original dust jackets, etc. In fact, I never saw any books! But there was no question there was great value in some to the rarities he did have, and at one point my dad offered him $30,000. But Manny felt the collection was worth "millions." My dad confessed he suspected Manny never intended to sell. But he never gave up and Manny would frequently call and ask if there was still interest. We never made that deal. But I still got a lot from my friendship with Manny Weltman.
Leo Weltman passed away last year. (Please visit The Leo Weltman Project website.) And that brings me to why Manny has been much on my mind lately.
Last July I was invited back to that same Van Nuys house to help sort some remaining Houdini items that hadn't sold in the Swann auction. It was quite an experience to return after 31 years. I was amazed that the house hadn't changed. Except now it was my car in the driveway with the HOUDINI license plate.
Inside was the same dining room table where I had paged through Houdini's diary. There were also still the cardboard boxes filled with Houdiniana. For my efforts I was able to buy a few items, including Manny's mockup of the Houdini Shrine used at the 1986 seance and a small cache of photos that I have been sharing over the past few months. (Several high-end rarities discovered that day will appear in an upcoming Potter & Potter auction.)
Before I left I was able to see that phantom back bedroom. There in a box I found a lone flyer for Manny's Houdini lecture (shared at the top of this post). It struck me that this is the same type of lecture I now give. I understand now that Manny was not really a collector of Houdini memorabilia. He was a collector of Houdini information. A seeker of the truth about Houdini. So Manny was right. We really are similar. In that moment I once again felt special and selected. I'll never forget that day nor the generosity of Manny Weltman.