Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Manny and Me

In the summer of 1980 a local newspaper, The Valley News, ran a story about me headlined, "Teen Obsessed With Houdini." It was pretty exciting to see my picture in the newspaper and I enjoyed my fifteen minutes of fame at age 15. But that article did something more. It led to my meeting Manny Weltman and entering a larger world of Houdini fanatics from which I've never emerged. I've never done a post about my first Manny meeting. But I recently had an experience that brought it all back for me. So I think it's time to tell the story.

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.

His collection was not organized as far as I could tell. Everything was held in cardboard boxes that we dug through. But there were treasures to be found, such as an original invitation to the Final Houdini Seance. At one point Manny gave me a reproduction photograph which I still have today. But the real show stopper was when he brought out Houdini's diary. This was the famous 1916 diary that had somehow escaped the Ernst archive and wound up with Manny. We paged through it and read several passages, including the famous passage in which Houdini reflects on the death of his father. Needless to say, this was an incredible thing to be able to see, and to this day it remains one of the most precious Houdini artifacts I've ever held in my own hands. And at age 15!

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.

I lost touch with Manny in the 1990s when Houdini took a back seat to my first jobs in the entertainment industry. I was saddened to learn of his passing in May 1994. His son, actor Leo Weltman, inherited the collection, and much of it was sold at a Swann auction on Halloween 2002 (the auction catalog cover featured his King of Cards poster). The diary sold to my friend and new mentor, Dr. Bruce Averbook.

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.

7 comments:

  1. A great story! Thanks for sharing that. It all seems like destiny, but it was the local newspaper article about you that got Manny's attention. Houdini never underestimated the power of publicity.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wonderful memories of Manny! Much of what you wrote is similar to my memories of Manny over years as well. You are correct in that he focused on collecting/gathering ACCURATE information, not just memorabilia pertaining to Houdini. Very sorry to learn that Leo passed away last year.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is such a beautiful story of a beautiful connection that you two shared.

    ReplyDelete
  4. John - Very nice remembrances of Manny Weltman.

    Manny trivia:

    * He ran a "magic shop" (actually a "booth") for 2 years at a Los Angeles indoor swap meet...called "The Houdini Shop".

    * He was the first assistant (before Frances Willard) of Los Angeles Mentalist, Glenn Falkenstein.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I remember Manny's "Houdini Shop" well...spent time helping him set it up and helped out when open for business. If you can only imagine Manny pitching Swengali decks and actually doing OK to sell them!

    ReplyDelete

Translate