Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Pecoraro Files

Here's a news item that was widely syndicated in late December 1925. This occurred during Houdini's 3 Shows in One at the National Theater on 41st Street in New York City. An evening with Houdini was never dull!

The Cincinnati Post, Dec. 30, 1925.

Nino Pecoraro (misspelled Pecoriaro in the above) was an Italian spiritualist who claimed his spirit guide was the deceased medium Eusapia Palladino. Pecoraro's reputation was greatly bolstered when he impressed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle during a seance at the offices of the American Psychical Institute in New York City in 1922. However, Doyle was dismayed when full details of the seance appeared in newspapers the next day "with the copyright mark below it, to show that it had been duly paid for."

The incident at the National wasn't Houdini's first encounter with Pecoraro. In 1923 the famed "boy medium" was tested by the Scientific American committee on which Houdini served. Houdini was on tour and did not attend the first two tests, during which Pecoraro impressed the committee with his ability to manifest ghostly phenomena while securely bound. The head of committee, J. Malcolm Bird, who would later collude with Margery, even wondered if the smell of garlic on the Italian's breath could be "celestial garlic." No joke.

Things looked good for Pecoraro. That is until Houdini arrived for the third test on December 18. He was mortified to see the committeemen securing Pecoraro with a single piece of long rope. Houdini cut the rope into pieces and tied the medium himself. That put an end to Pecoraro's ghost show and his shot at the Scientific American prize. (For an excellent account of all this check out The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher.)

While Houdini biographies all contain the story of the Scientific American tests, none of them mention this follow-up incident at the National. Was it really a "riot"? One thing I find intriguing is the photo below. This shows Houdini and Pecoraro around the time of this confrontation. In fact, Houdini and the young medium took a series of portraits together at a New York photo studio. Why would they do this? Were they planning a public test, as alluded to in the article, that never came to pass? Could the theater incident have been a publicity stunt that got out of hand? There may be an untold story here.


After Houdini's death, Pecoraro gave Bess a private seance at her home on Payson Ave. Joseph Dunninger was also in attendance. Nino went through his regular routine but failed to deliver the all important Houdini Code to Bessie.


In 1928 Pecoraro was at it again. This time the medium offered to produce Houdini's physical spirit at the offices of Science & Invention magazine which offered a $21,000 prize for genuine spirit phenomena. Bess attended the seance and cameramen surrounded Pecoraro's cabinet, ready to snap a photo of the master magician. Nothing happened. "Not Even for $21,000 Would Houdini Show Himself at Seance" read a newspaper headline the next day.

A few days later Joseph Dunninger recreated Pecoraro's seance using trickery for better results. The photo below shows "Houdini" making his reappearance with Bess looking on. Pecoraro's manager, Charles E. Davenport, asserted that Dunninger had mediumistic powers even if he didn't know it.


In 1931 Pecoraro finally confessed to being a fraud. He demonstrated his methods, which included producing a message from Houdini, at a New York press conference. The resulting United Press story is pretty amusing.

The Ogden Standard Examiner, April 9, 1931.

It's unclear if Pecoraro ever did become a cement salesman, but he did continue to paint. In fact, two of his paintings are on exhibit at the Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA.

On April 27, 1973, Pecoraro collapsed while walking with a friend in Naples and died on his way to the hospital. He was 74.

Painting by Nino Pecoraro at the Houdini Museum in Scranton.

Thanks to the Houdini Museum in Scranton for the photo of their Nino painting. Other images come from Houdini: A Pictorial Life by Milbourne Christopher, Houdini's Sprit Exposes by Joseph Dunninger, and Newspapers.com.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

McNulty's Book Corral is wild about Harry (and Gresham)

Here's a fun review of William Lindsay Gresham's 1959 biography Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls by McNulty's Book Corral on YouTube. Mr. McNulty gives WILD ABOUT HARRY a very nice unsolicited shout-out near the end of the video, so I thought I'd return the favor! Enjoy.


Thanks to Diego Domingo for the alert.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Channel 44's Houdini Halloween of 1976

Okay, one last nostalgic post about The Truth About Houdini before we move on to other things. After the documentary first aired on KTLA in Los Angeles on May 15, 1976, it rolled out across the country on other local stations. In Tampa, WTOG Channel 44 had the inspired idea of airing the documentary and the 1953 biopic Houdini back to back on October 29 as a Halloween weekend tribute to Houdini on the 50th anniversary of his death.

The below article by Kathleen O'Brien in the Tampa Tribune is a treat in itself. She speaks eloquently and with real insight about Houdini's legacy, the documentary, the Tony Curtis movie, and even The Great Houdinis which has only recently aired. I think she's one of us! And the photo of Houdini here is an uncommon one. Enjoy.

The Tampa Tribune, Oct. 29, 1976. (Click to enlarge.)

So did anyone live in Tampa in 1976 and remember seeing Channel 44's Houdini Halloween double feature? I wonder how Channel 44, if it's still around, will celebrate the 100th!

Related:

Monday, May 16, 2022

The Truth About Houdini's mysterious missing scene

I'm happy to see how many people enjoyed re-watching (or watching for the first time) the great 1970 BBC documentary The Truth About Houdini, which I've uploaded to my WILD ABOUT HARRY YouTube Channel.

One thing that came up in the comments was the cut scene of Sidney Radner demonstrating a wooden cross escape. The scene was originally in the film at 00:13:06, right before James Randi talks about the safe escape. But it is no longer in any existing print that I've ever seen.


The scene runs just over a minute and a half and after Sid escapes he exposes the method. Could this be why it was cut? I have read that The Magic Circle was upset by exposures in this doc, so perhaps it was cut after the initial UK airing? Or maybe it was cut from the U.S. version for fear that the quasi-religious imagery might offend in some markets?

If anyone knows the story of this missing scene, I'd love to hear it!

By the way, I've yet to find any account of Houdini actually doing a cross escape during his career. So there's that mystery as well!

Related:

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Watch 'The Truth About Houdini' on its anniversary

It was 46 years ago today that The Truth About Houdini first aired on American television. The documentary was co-produced by the BBC and Patria Pictures in 1970 and is highlighted by rare film footage of Houdini in action and interviews with the leading Houdini experts of the day. It's narrated by Don Davis.

When I saw this broadcast on May 15, 1976, it blew my mind every bit as much as the Tony Curtis movie had exactly six months earlier. When it repeated in 1978 I was able to record it (on Beta -- I still have my tape) and watched it continuously. It remains my favorite Houdini documentary and watching it always brings me back to those early days of my Houdini mania. And now seeing the likes of Milbourne Christopher, Walter B. Gibson, James Randi and Sidney Radner talking about Houdini in their prime feels as special as seeing the footage Houdini himself.

The Truth About Houdini was never released commercially. (Bill McIlhany sold a VHS through the Houdini Historical Center in the 1990s.) So on this anniversary, I've decided to upload a full HD version to my WILD ABOUT HARRY YouTube channel. I'm not sure about copyright so I might have to take this down. But for the moment, here is the first great Houdini documentary for all to enjoy.


For fun, here's the Los Angeles Times review of the documentary from May 15, 1976 and my original Beta tape.


Thanks to Brad Hansen of Retro Cars Forever for his help converting this to HD and improving the video quality.

Friday, May 13, 2022

"An Open Letter to Harry Houdini"

Here's a curiosity from the September 11, 1925 Pittsburg Post. I'd love to know if this "Open Letter" was the sole idea of the Aldine Theater manager or something he and Houdini cooked up together as nice bit of cross promotion. Houdini was performing his "3 Shows in One" at the Alvin Theater in Pittsburg this week.

The Pittsburgh Press, Sept. 11, 1925

Did Houdini take Mr. Sidney up on his offer? Afraid I don''t know the answer, but I'm sure the medium-debunking theme of the movie would have met with his approval.


Despite being a work by Dracula and Freaks director Tod Browning, today Wikipedia calls The Mystic "a little-known film with a cast of now-forgotten names." However, the movie survives complete and can be viewed on YouTube.

Image: Newspapers.com

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Taking aim at Houdini's abandoned bullet catch


Most Houdini biographies contain the story of how Houdini announced he would perform the infamous bullet catch trick shortly after the onstage death of magician William Robinson, a.k.a. Chung Ling Soo, in 1918. But magician Harry Kellar wrote Houdini a heartfelt letter talking him out of it and Houdini cancelled the performance. Turns out that scenario isn't strictly accurate. But we will get to that.

Milbourne Christopher in Houdini The Untold Story was the first to identify the event at which Houdini proposed to do the trick as a gala S.A.M. benefit for the Showmen's Hospital Fund at the New York Hippodrome on April 21, 1918. It's said the bullet catch was widely advertised. However, I've never been able to find any advertisement that confirms this. Below is a typical advert for the benefit that mentions "his new death defying sensation." But this could be the Water Torture Cell.

The New York Sun, April 20, 1918.

Likewise, the program for the event itself--an original of which is in the Harry Ransom Center--makes no mention of the bullet catch. It only shows that Houdini would perform his Water Torture Cell that evening.

I began to consider the possibility that famous cancelled bullet catch might have been a back engineered Houdini myth. But while searching for something completely unrelated, I finally found the smoking gun!

New York Tribune, April 21, 1918.

So, yes, it appears Houdini did intend to do the bullet catch at this Hippodrome show. A fantastic new detail here is that Houdini's firing squad would be made up of real doughboys from the 71st Regiment using regulation army rifles. What a terrific modern piece of staging. I'm actually sorry this didn't happen. But why didn't it happen?

Here's where the truth diverges from the familiar telling. While Kellar did indeed write a heartfelt letter of warning to Houdini, he wrote that letter after the benefit (on May 1st). So the reason Houdini dropped the bullet catch wasn't Kellar. He dropped it on the request of the Hippodrome management.

The following is from an account of the benefit that appeared in the April 1918 issue of MUM:

Houdini had been advertised in the leading newspapers through reading notices, as intending to do the Bullet Catching Act. He was dissuaded by management of Hippodrome from taking up this dangerous feat, for he announced his famous Chinese water torture cell, which is probably just as, if not more, dangerous than the bullet catching business, as in either, the slightest error means a tragedy.

(To give credit where it is due, Bill Kalush in The Secret Life of Houdini was the first and so far only biographer to present the correct chronology of the bullet catch and Kellar letter.)

It's been suggested that Houdini never actually intended to perform the bullet catch and that he just announced it for the publicity. Maybe. But Houdini felt strongly about doing what he advertised and not "breaking faith" with his audience (a prime example here). Also, this was a prestigious S.A.M. event for charity that Houdini himself emceed. Doesn't seem like the kind of event in which you would want to be disingenuous in any way. But it is a possibility.

It's also worth pointing out that in the weeks following Chung Ling Soo's death there was gossip in magic circles that the magician may have been murdered. Joe Hayman, who informed Houdini of Robinson's death, offered some dark speculation that Houdini shared with Harry Kellar. Hence Kellar's warning that the same fate could befall Houdini -- "some dog might 'job' you." But an inquest into Soo's death discovered faulty equipment was the culprit.

So there we go. We've confirmed when and where Houdini planned to do the bullet catch. We've learned how he intended to stage it. And we know why he didn't. There's also the possibility that Houdini did the effect early in his career, but that's another story.

Thanks to Joe Fox at the Magic Castle Library for the MUM clipping and Eric Colleary at the Harry Ransom Center for a look at the original program.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Did Houdini do a "bag jump" in Providence?


Yesterday's Providence Journal article about a relation of Bert V. Clark opening a safe for the city of Bristol made me look back on some of the 1950 articles about Houdini's trusted locksmith. Of course, I found something that sent me down a new rabbit hole! Here's the relevant excerpt:

Evening Star, Nov. 29, 1950.

A jump from the Crawford Street Bridge in Providence isn't something I have in my chronology, nor do I have a record of any bridge jump in which Houdini was put inside a bag. But I have seen it mentioned. In Rochester Houdini announced that he would be "sewn into a sack like Monte Cristo" and thrown from the Weighlock Bridge. But when Houdini did the actual escape on May 7, 1907, the bag was left behind.

I do trust Clark's recollections so I'm assuming that this happened. But when? My guess it would be early in Houdini's bridge jump career, so probably around the time of the Rochester leap. Candidates would be the two weeks he played Providence in 1907 (Jan. 28 to Feb. 10) or the week of April 13-19, 1908. In 1911 Houdini jumped handcuffed from the upper deck of the steamer Warwick into the Providence river, but no bag involved.

Here's a photo of the Crawford Street Bridge as it appeared in 1906. Looks like a perfect spot for a "bag jump" to me!


Related:

Sunday, May 8, 2022

LINK: Safecracker with a link to Houdini opens mystery safe for the town of Bristol

Several people have sent me this story from the Providence Journal today. You'll have to click the link to find out if they discovered anything inside the safe, but I can tell you Francesco Therisod's claim that his relative worked with Houdini is legit. Houdini did indeed employe the talents of locksmith "Bert" V. Clark of Providence and the two men became good friends. Bert revealed his connection to Houdini and some choice secrets in 1950, including how Houdini escaped from a riveted boiler in Boston. He died at age 80 in 1955.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Locating Houdini's lion

Below is a photo that I think most people are familiar with as it appears in the book The Secrets of Houdini (although I don't recall it appearing anywhere else). It shows Houdini doing a headstand atop a stone lion. Because why not!?


Of course, when I see something like this I want to know the where, when, and why of it. The Secrets of Houdini identifies this as Houdini "practicing a handstand at the Lasky Studio, Hollywood." But I have a different idea about where this was taken.

Last year I did a post in which I was able to identify (with the help of John Bengtson) the famous photos of Houdini hanging from a large wall as being the retaining wall that fronted the old County Court House in downtown Los Angeles. Here he's dressed the same, he's doing yet another piece of public acrobatics, and that appears to be his Grim Game co-star, Ann Forrest, who is also present in the wall photos. So I had another look at the photo of the old Court House and, sure enough, it had two stone lions out front!


Below is a better photo of one of the court house lions. Sure looks the same to me!


I would say it's almost certain one of these court house statues is "Houdini's lion". I guess we won't know which one unless another photo surfaces. But as the statues and the court house are now long gone, this is a photo op that can only roar in the past.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

"The New Houdini" and an old myth

As far as I know, the myth that Houdini died in his Water Torture Cell began with the 1953 Houdini biopic starring Tony Curtis. But the myth was carried forward by a public who didn't know any better, and by magicians who should. Below is what might be one of the first examples of the latter.

Click to enlarge.

Here we see someone billing themselves as "The New Houdini" performing "The Death Defying Act That Ultimately Took the Life of The Great Houdini". The poster artwork, showing two axe-wielding assistants hacking at the cell's glass, is actually pretty impressive. The performer himself is in the foreground with his feet up in stocks above what I think is the partially water filled tank below.

I don't know anything about this performer and I don't know anything more about this photo. In fact, I'm not even sure where I got it. (If this belongs to you, let me know and I will credit.) I'm also assuming this photo is post 1953. But if this pre-dates the Curtis movie...well, that would be very interesting.

Check out the links below for some other times the myth of Houdini's Water Torture Cell demise was presented as fact.

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Houdini helps a fellow Hungarian from beyond

Recently magician Richard Hatch sent me a collection of original Houdini press clippings from the 1930s and '40s. Some real gems in the batch, including the below. The movie being referenced here, "Vampires of Prague", would ultimately be released as Mark of the Vampire by MGM in 1935.


I don't know what this "net trick" of Houdini's would have been, but I don't think we need to go looking for it. I suspect this entire news item is the invention of the MGM publicity department. I just enjoy the intersection of Houdini and classic horror films, which have always been a side passion.

Mark of the Vampire was directed by Tod Browning, who also directed the Hungarian Lugosi in Dracula. Coincidently, I've just worked up another post with a Houdini-Tod Browning connection. Click here for that.

For more vampiric Houdini adventures, check out the links below.

Thanks Richard.

Related:

Monday, May 2, 2022

'Houdini Lives Again' at Morley's Magic Theater

It's good to see live Houdini events making a comeback. Here's another! Magician Scott Morley and his wife Britni will present Houdini Lives Again at their Morley's Magic Theater in Butler, New Jersey, on May 13, 14 & 15. Below are details.


You can purchase tickets to Houdini Lives Again at Eventbrite. Scott and Britini have also created a free Houdini Unit Study PDF for parents. 

For more information on Morley's Magic Theater check out the official website.

Related:

Sunday, May 1, 2022

LINK: The Marvelous Adventures of Houdini (1917)

Our good friend Joe Notaro at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence kicks off a new series today in which he'll look at the 12 known film treatments written by Houdini. Some became movies (The Man From Beyond) and some did not (Yar, the Primeval Man).

Joe starts with Houdini's first treatment, The Marvelous Adventures of Houdini, The Justly Celebrated Elusive American. This almost became Houdini's first feature film in 1917...but I'll leave it to Joe to tell the tale.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

World Wide Doug Henning Birthday Celebration

Next Saturday, May 7th, S.A.M. President Tom Gentile and the great Chip Romero will host a 6-hour online "World Wide Doug Henning Birthday Celebration". No doubt this was inspired by the success of the World Wide Houdini Birthday Celebration last month. I'm looking forward to six hours of Doug...and Chip!

Check out the Event Page on Facebook for details. I will post the link when available.

Meeting ID: 898 6869 8281 

Friday, April 29, 2022

Searching for Houdini in Bellefontaine

The city of Bellefontaine, Ohio, together with real estate developer Small Nation, are in the process of restoring a historic block of buildings that once housed that city's Grand Opera House. Check out the sign that hangs in the building's widow. I love this kind of stuff!


Unfortunately, I don't currently have a listing in my chronology for Houdini's appearance at the Grand Opera House in Bellefontaine. This doesn't mean he wasn't there. I've just yet to find him.

The Grand Opera House operated from 1880 to 1913. As far as I know, Bellefontaine was not on the Keith or Orpheum vaudeville circuits, so it's most likely Houdini appeared here in his early days (1893-1899). Opera Houses such as the one in Bellefontaine are where the American Gaiety GirlsCalifornia Concert Co., or Roger's Orpheum Stars would play, sometimes only for a single night.

So if can anyone help find Houdini in Bellefontaine, that would be great. That sign is too cool to not be true!

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Houdini surfaces for the last time

This is not the most flattering photo of Houdini, but it does capture an important moment 99 years ago today. This is Houdini after escaping shackles, including a 24-pound ball and chain, in the swimming pool of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on April 28, 1923. Houdini was taking part in a special event marking the opening of the pool for summer. As it stands now, this is his last known outdoor water escape.

The Wichita Daily Eagle, May 27, 1923.

It's not surprising to see Houdini holding the iron ball aloft. Had he let it drop to the bottom, it would have almost certainly damaged the Ambassador pool. In fact, controlling this iron ball might have been the hardest part of the whole escape!

Image: Newspapers.com

Related:

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

The Moosers wild memories of Houdini

Recently I came across an article in the February 17, 1967 Oakland Tribune about Hattie and Minnie Mooser and their memories of their friend, Houdini. I've read other articles about the Mooser sisters and Houdini, but this one contains stories that I have not read before...and they are pretty wild!

The article kicks off with the Moosers familiar claim that their brother, Leon, discovered Houdini in a "tent show" and booked him at the Palace, literally pushing the young magician out onto the stage. "Houdini didn't even have a tuxedo. My brother lent him his own and Houdini almost didn't go on," says Hattie.

None of this comports with any known facts about how and were Houdini got his start, and he certainly had a tuxedo from his earliest days. But I think we can blame the brother for this. The Moosers are just telling a story that has been told it to them. Leon did discover and introduce Ching Ling Foo to the U.S., so it's possible some of the Foo stories might have morphed into Houdini stories over the years?

It's when the Moosers tell of their own first-hand experiences of Houdini that things get really interesting. Following are some choice excerpts:

    Whenever the Houdinis were in the Bay Area they made their headquarters at the Aladdin Studio, a restaurant operated by the Mooser girls.
    And often Hattie would substitute for Bess in Houdini's stage performances.
    But most of the memories are of the man himself, and not the feats he performed.
    Miss Hattie recalls one damp night when Houdini ushered her quickly into a cab and directed the driver to the waterfront:
    "Not many people knew it but Houdini helped the Coast Guard round up a ring of rum runners. They often asked him to assist in an investigation because he was such a good swimmer and he trained himself to withstand cold. He would swim out to a suspected rum runner's boat, look around, and report back to the authorities."

This is certainly fodder for people who enjoy the idea of Houdini as a spy. In fact, this rum runner "mission" is presented as fact in The Secret Life Houdini. But the only source is this article. I'm more intrigued by the suggestion that Hattie would sometimes substitute for Bess onstage. And this:
    Miss Hattie recalled joining Houdini in leading a pack of newspaper man through the Winchester Mystery House one dark night. She said:
    "There were no lights in the house and we carried flashlights. Houdini was interested in the house because of his psychic research."
This is first I've heard of the Moosers being with Houdini on that midnight tour in 1924. But a pack of reporters as well? No newspaper accounts followed, so not sure what to make of this.
    Miss Hattie also remembered the time she was able to get Houdini into the Tower of Jewels at the 1915 Worlds Fair.
    "We went to dinner afterwards and he asked when my sister and I would observe our birthdays," Miss Hattie said. "I asked him why and he reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of jewels. You know nobody took their eyes off him when he was in the tower and I have no idea how he got them."
    The jewels, of course, were glass.
Houdini was indeed in San Fransisco in 1915 and even did an overboard box escape within site of the Worlds Fair. The stories continue from Minnie:
    Miss Minnie recalled that they employed college students at their restaurant and had a difficult time keeping any silverware.
    "One day Houdini came in with a mysterious looking package," Miss Minnie said. "He called us aside and opened it. It was filled with cheap knives and forks from the five and dime. 'If you are going to let them get away with the silverware, make certain it's only the cheap stuff,' he said."
Hattie, who appears to have been the sister who was closer to Houdini, takes over with this:
    Miss Hattie also recalled a day when she sat in a darkened movie theater with Houdini to watch his first movie.
    In it he played a superman who had been frozen in ice for 300 years.
    "It was awful, just awful," she said. "And I asked him how he had ever been talked into investing in such a terrible film.
    "He shook his head sadly. He had poured most of his savings from his career in the theater into the film and lost every cent of it."
I could not find a theater playing The Man From Beyond in San Fransisco in 1923 or 1924. It would have been fun to have put Houdini inside a specific movie theater. 

Finally, there's this gem:
    "He was a brilliant man," Hattie said. "But he was very serious. He never played and he never relaxed. He had unbelievable strength and he could control every muscle in his body. He could put his foot on the floor and break the strings in his shoe without anyone knowing that he had moved his foot."
This has to be one of the best details about Houdini's strength that I've ever read.

Thank you Hattie and Minnie!


Images: Newspapers.com

Monday, April 25, 2022

Houdini fiction thrives in self-publishing

I've generally stopped collecting Houdini fiction. I just don't have the shelf space and I have enough work stripping the fiction from Houdini's real life! But I understand how people enjoying reading and writing Houdini fiction, and the genre is alive and well, especially in the world of self-publishing. Here are two relatively new self-published titles with interesting approaches.

Burning the Red Candle: The Life and Death of Harry Houdini by Carley Eason Evans tells the story of Harry and Bess with a unique approach.

Burning the Red Candle tells the story of The Houdinis: Harry, Bess and their imaginary son, Mayer tell their tale from their early days of medicine shows to their last days during which Harry participates in an ongoing battle with the famous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Harry insists he does not possess supernatural powers while Conan Doyle and other spiritualists claim that he must. Throughout their marriage, Harry's wife, Bess struggles with anxiety and depression. In an effort to cope with everyday life, she creates a son for the childless couple. Knowing Harry seeks to communicate with his dead mother, Bess promises him that when her husband dies, she will burn a red candle and wait for his message from beyond the grave. Imaginary Mayer is both playful child and dutiful companion, continually six years old for his mother, Bess while growing up for his father. Each Houdini speaks about the life and death of the greatest magician of all time, Harry Houdini.

The Houdinis imaginary child, Mayer Samuel, is rooted in fact. Ruth Brandon revealed the existence of "Mayer" in her 1993 biography, The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini.

Another self-published work is Houdini's Return: The Metamorphosis of Ehrich Weiss by J.W Cross. As the title suggests, the book ponders the possibility of Houdini's return from beyond.

A strange occurrence in a small magic shop sets into motion a series of events that leads to the impossible. After all, it’s no easy task to return from the grave—even for Houdini. But with the help of a few hand-selected if unwitting accomplices and the guidance of a secret notebook penned years ago, the impossible could become reality. And when modern science finally catches up to Houdini’s vision, the legendary magician who once escaped from ropes, handcuffs and straightjackets, may finally escape the bonds of death. To help him accomplish this, however, the Great Houdini will have to rely on the person who doubts him the most.

Purchase Houdini's Return: The Metamorphosis of Ehrich Weiss at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Purchase Burning the Red Candle: The Life and Death of Harry Houdini at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Was Houdini about to drop the Water Torture Cell?


Here's an interesting detail from a review of Houdini's "3 Shows in One" at the Shubert Theater in Cincinnati in September 1925.

The Cincinnati Enquirer, Sept. 21, 1925.

It's somehow surprising to hear Houdini make a reference to his advancing age on stage. But what a good way to create in some extra tension. I also think he was sincere and was looking to replace the USD with a new second act escape. Sid Radner claimed it was to be his unnamed nest of boxes escape. But when Houdini embarked on what would be his final "3 Shows in One" tour the following year, he introduced his Buried Alive escape in Boston and Worcester. 

But then the Water Torture Cell returned and was still his go-to escape at the time of his death. So I guess we'll never know if or when Houdini would have finally retired the USD.

Related:

Friday, April 22, 2022

'Houdini: Historia de una muerte' in Valencia, Spain

A new play, Houdini - Historia de una muerte, opens today at the Teatro Flumen in Valencia, Spain. The title translates as "Houdini: Story of a Death". 

Afraid I don't know much more about this. But if you're in Spain and want to see the show, you can buy tickets HERE. You can also find more information and production images on Facebook.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Deconstructing Houdini '53: Eight-thousand, six hundred and forty-three locks

Continuing my scene by scene dissection of Paramount's classic 1953 biopic Houdini. Last time we joined Harry and Bess on the road. Today we find them back at home.

Chapter 7: Eight-thousand, six hundred
and forty-three locks

The following series of scenes in Houdini (1953) are largely setups for the more major scenes to come. But in these scenes are many echos of real Houdini history and do well to illustrate my point that, while this film fictionalizes for entertainment purposes, it still builds those fictions atop a foundation of fundamental facts.

We open with Harry, having given into Bess's plea to give up on show business, working the assembly line of a lock factory. This pulls from a few pieces of real Houdini history. Houdini always claimed he apprenticed to a locksmith when he was a boy, and it was there he acquired his expert knowledge of locks. And as a teenager, Houdini worked an assembly line as a necktie cutter. So here we see these ideas have been nicely combined. It's also said Houdini's brother-in-law, William Bartholmes, offered to get him a job at the Yale lock factory. I've only ever seen this mentioned in Kellock, the book on which this movie is based, so it's likely that's what sparked the idea of a lock factory here.

Of course, the always ambitious Houdini wants to move up the ladder and work on the "big safes" like the surly Mr. Hunter (Frank Orth). He also still has escape on his mind, and asks Hunter if he could one day try to free himself from one of his safes "by working the tumblers from the inside." For this he only gets chastised and sent back to his bench. All this is fantastic stuff. Up until now the movie has only shown us a rope escape. But now Harry is in a world of locks and already seeing their dramatic possibilities. His encounter with Mr. Hunter also shows his predilections to make and take on challenges.


Houdini returns home (his mothers home) where Bess is happily ensconced in domestic life. The picture here feels a little more like 1950s domesticity, but it's Bess's ideal.
Bess: How'd it go today?
Harry: Just great. I opened eight-thousand, six hundred and forty-two locks.
Bess: Well at least we're not dodging tomatoes and you get paid every Saturday night.
This is also rooted in fact. Following their second stint with the Welsh Bros. Circus in 1898, the Houdinis returned to New York and the Weiss family home and appear to have, temporarily, given up show business. Houdini attempted to sell his act and open a school of magic. I've always wondered if he might have picked up a few shifts at the old tie factory? He was still in the union. So a hiatus just before the swell of success is right in sync with the real Houdini story.

Bess notices that Harry is "two dollars short" in his paycheck. She asked if he "stopped off anywhere." I think audiences at that time, and maybe still now, would take this to mean stopping off at a bar. But this is Harry Houdini. He pulls out a pair of handcuffs that he purchased (Hamburg 8s). To prove they are "good ones", he has Bess lock them on his wrists. He then makes an instant escape. 

"That makes eight-thousand, six hundred and forty-three locks that I've opened today," he quips.


This is a magnificent moment that does so much for the characters and the narrative. We see Houdini just can't stop being a performer and can't stop dreaming up new escapes. This also gives a handcuff escape a nice moment in the movie and shows them, correctly, as part of Houdini's evolution. We could also give this a deeper read. Harry has been "handcuffed" to a domestic life by Bess. But he's reminding her nothing can hold Houdini a prisoner.

Bess is clearly threatened by this and doesn't share Houdini's joy in the escape. Instead she brings him back to domestic life and tells him to wash up for dinner. But Houdini deflects by saying he's taking her out to dinner. Bess is predictably thrilled, and even more so when mama, at her sewing table, tells her she has her dress all finished. Again, I can't help but recognize an echo of Houdini history here. A key ingredient in the mythic story of how Harry and Bess met is mama making Bess a new dress.


We end with Harry and Bess arriving at the Hotel Astor. Bess wonders if they can afford such a place. Harry gallantly says, "Nothing but the best for you my dear", and he ushers her inside. But we see he has used misdirection to conceal a revealing sign at the hotel door...

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

The Bandwagon travels with The Houdinis and the Welsh Bros.

The latest issue of The Bandwagon, The Journal of the Circus Historical Society, has a stellar cover article by Greg Parkinson about The Houdinis and the Welsh Bros. Circus. The article is extremely well-researched and thoroughly annotated and offers new information about The Houdinis two tours, as well as Welsh Bros. history in general. Highly recommended!

The Bandwagon is sent quarterly to members of the Circus Historical Society. To join, visit their official website.

Thank you Chris Berry.

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