Saturday, September 24, 2022

Haldane turns 99

Yesterday marked the 99th anniversary of the release of Houdini's last film, Haldane of the Secret Service. This is Houdini's most maligned movie, but I am not a Haldane hater. I enjoy it every bit as much as The Man From Beyond, maybe more. I always enjoy watching it on its anniversary, and will be doing so this weekend. So here's to Haldane!

The Times Herald, Dec. 14, 1923.

Below are some posts that cover the little-covered production of Haldane of the Secret Service.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

More treasures of the Harry Ransom Center

Last month I spent an incredible six days at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin, which holds the largest public collection of Houdini research material in the world. I shared some of the incredible treasures I saw on my first day in this post. Today I'm back with more.

It's worth repeating that the Harry Ransom Center is open to the public, so "anyone with a photo ID and a sense of curiosity" can see the treasures I'm about to show. Their website has excellent finding aids for the Harry Houdini Papers, the Harry Houdini Collection, and the Magic Collection. And if you are considering selling or donating a Houdini collection or item where it will be well protected and forever available, the Harry Ransom Center should be at the top of your list. So let's get back there!

One of the best things about my visit was the remarkable VIP treatment I received from Eric Colleary, Cline Curator of Theatre & Performing Arts Collections, and my good friend. Eric allowed me to do my research in the stacks where I could pull down boxes of Houdiniana at will. He also had a nice surprise waiting for me there. He had unboxed and placed their famous Houdini Estate bank box on the table right in front of me where it remained the entire time. So this was my view in paradise.


Each morning I also walked past a remarkable piece of furniture. This breakfront belonged to Houdini and stood in the parlor of 278. This actually played a key role in Messmore Kendall acquiring Houdini's collections from Bess in 1927 (as you can read here). The breakfront came to the HRC in 1958 along with the Kendall Collection. But it went on an odyssey adventure and even resided for a time in the Governor's Reception Room of the Texas State Capitol. In 2019 Eric discovered it in storage and brought it back to the Harry Ransom Center where it lives today. Good morning Houdini's breakfront!


My primary goal was to read all the correspondence in the collection and mine dates and data for my upcoming chronology book. Yes, I was there to "work." But there was a lot of correspondence to read! Some files bewitched me more than others. First and foremost was a large file of letters written by Houdini to Bess. As I shared in part one, this was the file I started with and the letters are remarkable. It's also the file that contains the most letters written by Houdini himself. (As these are Houdini's own files, most of the Ransom Center correspondence are written to him.)

Here's another delightful letter from that precious file. A marvelous slice or 278 life:


Another file of interest was a large collection of letters written by Montraville M. Wood, a Chicago inventor and associate of Thomas Edison who worked with Houdini on his Milk Can. The file is packed with letters related to improvements to the apparatus and the construction of new cans. Wood includes many illustrations. But there was one illustration at the end of a letter that tickled me as it must have tickled Houdini.


Another standout file contained correspondence from Birchet "Kit" Clarke, a famous press agent and Harry Kellar's former manager. I loved these letters! I don't know why Clarke isn't mentioned more in Houdini biographies as his letters are loaded with gold (including the mention of a Vanishing Elephant poster). They are also very, very funny. He uses a variety of nicknames for Houdini, his favorite being "Googley." There's even one letter that Clarke taped together as one giant scroll (below). Their friendship was a revelation to me.


Occasionally Eric and I would fall down a side rabbit hole. While chatting about newspapers, Eric pointed out that the Ransom Center has the photo morgue archive of the New York Journal-American. He did a quick search and found there was a Houdini file in that collection. Had anyone ever looked at it? Eric asked if I wanted to take a break and head down to those stacks and see what might be there. Yes please! Once there, Eric pulled a thick file of press photos from a container. The photos were fantastic, but largely familiar. And then this happened!


If you're like me, you just went weak in the knees. Yes, this is a third variation of the famous "my two sweethearts" photograph taken at the F. Gutekunst photo studio in Philadelphia in 1907. This is actually a photograph of a photograph, not an original, but still a great find. The Ransom Center has the originals of the other photos from this famous session, because of course they do!

Occasionally I'd come across something unexpected, such as the below. The Ransom Center allows researchers to insert notes into a file if they have some clarifying information. Slipped into the sleeve of the famous photo of Houdini and the Roosevelt grandchildren (as seen here) I found this exchange between my friends and mentors Manny Weltman and Patrick Culliton. Pretty funny.


I actually added my own note identifying the photo's location and date (Feb. 20, 1925. Home of Mrs. H.A. Alexander, 167 East 74th St., NYC). So I love that Manny, Patrick and I all now share a sleeve in the Harry Ransom Center.

As the days ticked away, I found myself growing apprehensive. It was becoming clear I was not going to be able to read all the correspondence in the collection, and I knew there were other treasures that I would kick myself for not seeing. I began to formulate a new plan how to split my days between correspondence and big ticket items. But many times I just surrendered myself to anything that might be "cool." Eric, as always, was delighted to lay these treasures before me.

I mean, how could I not see this famous Ransom Center rarity? This is the only known copy of Houdini's very first pitchbook. Even Houdini considered this to be rare. It's actually much smaller than I imagined (7 inches), but what a piece of history.


Anything from Houdini's 1903 Russian tour is a mega rarity. Here are two fantastic broadsides advertising his appearance at the Gordon "Aquarium" Garden in Moscow in July 1903. Can you believe the condition?


Here are two large format photos of Houdini and Samri Baldwin. I wonder why Houdini had these made? The Ransom Center also holds a fair amount of correspondence from the famed "White Mahatma." In one letter from 1919 Baldwin writes:
"I was much gratified at receiving your courteous letter; particularly because so many professionals who become rich and famous forget all their old friends. Your letter showed me that I was never wrong in my estimate of you in thinking that money and fame would never make you a bit different from the whole souled boy I knew in Halifax and Kansas years ago."

This is a large and meticulous scrapbook Houdini kept devoted to his movies. Half is filled with fan mail from all over the world, still in their original envelopes. (One love struck young fan from South Africa starts her letter: "Houdini, I hope you like long letters because I've lots to tell you.") The second half contains newspaper clippings devoted to The Man From Beyond. I was expecting it to continue with Haldane of the Secret Service, but it did not. In fact, Houdini seems to have abandoned this scrapbook along with his movie career.


At the moment, the scrapbook is unavailable to view as it is much too brittle. The Ransom Center is working on a way to best preserve the contents. So this was a rare and exciting thing to see. Thank you Eric!

Speaking of movies, I nearly lost it when Eric brought these out. The Ransom Center has several original title cards from The Master Mystery (and one from The Grim Game). They are hand painted and works of art in their own right. These are the only surviving production artifacts from The Master Mystery, so pretty special!


The Ransom Center has some mysteries as well. Below is a custom picture frame with the name "Harry Houdini" across the top. What special image did this frame once hold? I also got to see the famous Ransom Center seed (found among Houdini's papers). What kind of freak seed is this?


My final day was Saturday, August 13. I only had a half day to research as I had to catch a flight in the afternoon. As Eric was off, I spent that morning in the Ransom Center Reading Room, which I'm happy I got to experience as its very well appointed and the staff is very helpful. I spent these last hours photographing everything I still wanted to read, including files of letters written by Hardeen to his "Dear brother Ehrich", and the Chung Ling Soo file, which Eric emphasized as being a must. I even stumbled on a signed photo of Charmian London. The minx.


Believe it or not, as noon rolled around I sat back and realized I had nothing left to see. I had done it! I had, at the very least, laid eyes on everything I knew I wanted to see. In addition, Eric and I had taken an amazing tour of the Paramount Theater and I was able to enjoy Esther's Follies on the invitation of Ray Anderson, which is a must see when in Austin. So in six days I had accomplished my research goals and also achieved a life-long dream...

I had seen the treasures of the Harry Ransom Center!

When I landed back in Burbank that night, I entered the airport to be greeted by this. An omen? I don't know, but I felt like he might be saying, "You ain't seen nothing yet."


Thanks to Eric Colleary and all the wonderful staff of the Harry Ransom Center for giving me this incredible experience and allowing me to share these treasures here on WILD ABOUT HARRY.

Related:

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

"A DAM GOOD TRICK" for International Escapology Day

Today is International Escapology Day. Established by the Global Escapology Organisation (GEO), escape artists from around the world are encouraged to post videos of themselves performing an escape with the hashtag #internationalescapologyday. You can keep up with today's activities on the official Facebook page.

The date of September 21st was chosen in honor of Houdini's debut of the Water Torture Cell in Berlin on September 21, 1912. Last year I presented a short video about Houdini's most famous escape. This year I'm sharing something VERY special from the collection of our friend David Haversat of David Haversat Magic.

These two pages of notes written by Houdini himself mark the genesis of the Water Torture Cell, or as he calls it, "A DAM GOOD TRICK." This extraordinary document has never been published. It does touch on secrets, so this is for patrons only. Click below to go:

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Houdini returns to Winnipeg

The Millennium Library in downtown Winnipeg, Canada, has a display celebrating Houdini's appearances in that city in 1915 and 1923. Bruce Thomson created the display and shared this image on Kevin Connolly's Conjuring History Facebook group. It will be on view until October 20th.


From this display I learned that Houdini did a suspended straitjacket escape in Winnipeg during his first visit. I knew about 1923 escape from the Free Press building, but I didn't know about this 1915 escape from the Telegram Building at 70 Albert Street (still there). Bruce provided a clipping below.



Thank you Bruce!

Monday, September 19, 2022

David Blaine shares his Houdini posters

Here's a YouTube video that's been generating some excitement. This provides a look at David Blaine's magic poster collection. Houdini has always been an inspiration to Blaine, so the Handcuff King is well represented. Enjoy.


David says Houdini never did the Buried Alive, but we now know that he did it at least twice on his final tour. By the way, I made an interesting discovery about the Buried Alive apparatus while at the Harry Ransom Center. I will be sharing that gem in time.

Thanks to Lance Rich at the Magic Collectors Corner for the alert.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Houdini in the bank


I'm working hard on the next installment about my visit to the Harry Ransom Center and planning to share it next week. In the meantime, here's a taste of things to come. I included this as part of my special part 2 preview for patrons, but it drew enough interest that I decided to break it out into its own post.

Among the papers in the Ransom Center are documents related to Houdini's finances. Here is Houdini's––or rather, Ehrich Weiss'––balance sheet for 1911. This shows his total income for that year was $117,851.27. According to the CPI Inflation Calculator, this is equivalent to $3,675,421.35 in 2022. And this is before there was such a thing as income tax. Not too shabby, Ehrich!

Click to enlarge.

I'm curious what kind of "House Maintenance" cost $7,912.13 ($246,667.73 today). I know at some point Houdini added a new heating system to 278. Maybe this is that?

If you're curious about the names at the bottom of the expense column: W.G. Weiss is Houdini's brother, Bill; Mrs. Cecelia Weiss is his mother; Miss Carrie Weiss is his sister; and Mrs. Rahner is Bess's mother.

Friday, September 16, 2022

LINK: 7 Magical Facts About Harry Houdini

This article gave me nice credit and lots of links, so I'm returning the love! It's also well done. Click the headline or image below to have a read at Interesting Facts.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

The Grim Game on stage?


Back in April I did a post called Houdini the playwright? In it, I shared a blurb from a 1924 newspaper saying Houdini was writing a stage play. Today we have another piece of that puzzle. But it's one that makes the picture even more perplexing!

Yesterday Thomas Ewing of Haversat & Ewing Galleries sent me a newspaper clipping from the June 11, 1924 New York Morning Telegraph headlined: "Houdini Breaks into Playwrighting." The impressive half page spread by Merle Sumner is padded out with tales of Houdini's career, but it also provides details about his new play, including a plot summary! Hold on to your handcuffs. Here's an excerpt:

"In my play," said the illusionist, "I am going to see that the conventional newspaper reporter of the stage with the Phoebe Snow traditions is permanently embalmed. There is a reporter in my play, but he will not carry a shiny new notebook nor a sharp pencil. His overcoat may have a few creases as if he had been sitting on it all night playing poker. He will make notes on his cuffs, perhaps, but none on paper."

Circumstantial evidence which sends an innocent man to prison for murder is to be the crux of the Houdini offering. The newspaper man allows himself to be charged with a fake murder. He even helps to plant the bones and the evidence. Then when he is padlocked in a strong cell the news comes that the man he is supposed to have murdered has really been found dead at the bottom of the well. Surprised as well as worried––naturally––the journalist plans his own escape and defense. And succeeds.

Yes, this is the exact plot of Houdini's 1919 film The Grim Game. So are we to believe Houdini intended to adapt the movie as a play? Could he even do this? Unlike his Houdini Picture Corporation productions, Houdini did not own The Grim Game nor did he write the screenplay. The movie was produced by Famous Players Lasky with the story by Arthur B. Reeve & John W. Grey and a script by Walter Woods. 

However, Houdini always claimed that he came up with the stories for all his films, so maybe he felt he had some ownership. And if he really intended to break into the theater, why not do so with an adaption of his best film.

It's also possible all this is publicity seeking malarky. This idea of "Houdini the playwright" certainly drew headlines. This article is a great example. So maybe Houdini was just reaching for a good plot to share with this reporter. But this seems reckless. Certainly someone would notice. Of course, this seems to have slipped past Houdini biographers for some 98 years, so...

Now that we know more about this 1924 mystery play, it's more confusing than ever. But that's what makes all this fun! Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. And if you're perplexed by Houdini's "Phoebe Snow" reference, check this out.


BONUS: You can read and download the full Morning Telegraph article as a Scholar member of my Patreon.


Wednesday, September 14, 2022

More "Hidden Houdinis" from Disney

Disney keeps on feeding us Hidden Houdinis. Here are two new ones from just this week. (Click images to enlarge.)

The first is found in the trailer for Hocus Pocus 2. Looks like the characters visit a magic shop and there's a Houdini poster on the wall. This is a reproduction of his "Do Spirits Return?" poster used during his second 3 Shows in One tour. Prints are widely available online.


The next one shows up in episode 4 of the Marvel series She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. You can see Houdini's 1911 Water Torture Cell poster and a 1926 Buried Alive poster on the wall of the "Mystic Castle" (a thinly disguised Magic Castle). Quite a few golden age posters in general can be glimpsed in this episode.


You know, I continue to hear rumors of some kind of Houdini project active inside Disney. I have no idea what this is. But, hey, I'm right down the street! Just saying...

Thanks to George Lescay for the alert.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Appleton's History Museum announces traveling Houdini exhibition

Appleton's History Museum at the Castle has partnered with Split Rock Studios to present Houdini Unlocked, an interactive traveling exhibition for mid 2023. They've launched an official website where you can preview the exhibition, download the brochure, and enquire about booking. No set dates yet, but I will stay on top of it.


This should not be confused with the upcoming exhibition in Houdini Unchained: The Legacy of Harry Houdini, which opens in Anaheim on October 8, 2022 and will showcase the collection of Randall Bell.

Related:

Monday, September 12, 2022

Houdini penetrates the New York Times Crossword


The New York Times Crossword yesterday (9/11/22) had a clue referencing Houdini's Walking Through A Brick Wall illusion. This caused a surge of traffic to this post from 2014. However, as I didn't reveal the secret, I don't think that post would have been any help.


If you want the answer, you can find it here.

Thanks to Matt Guzman and Diego Domingo for the alert.

Friday, September 9, 2022

Treasures of the Harry Ransom Center

Last month I spent an incredible six days at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin, which holds the largest public collection of Houdini research material in the world. Today I'm excited to share what I saw on my first day.

You might be wondering how such a large Houdini collection wound up in Texas? As I chronicled in a recent post (Exploring Houdini's Austin), in 1927 Messmore Kendall purchased the bulk of Houdini's private papers and his theatrical collection to add to his own massive collection. After Kendall's death, his entire collection was purchased by Karl Hoblitzelle for the Harry Ransom Center in 1958.

The Ransom Center also holds Houdini material from the Albert Davis and the Morris N. Young collections, and they are still making acquisitions. (Such as their famous ball and chain in 2016.) In fact, if you are looking to sell or donate a Houdini item or collection to an institution where it will be well protected and forever accessible, the Harry Ransom Center should be at the top of your list.

It's also good to say up front that anyone "with a photo ID and a sense or curiosity" can see the treasures I'm about to show. I wasn't special. The Harry Ransom Center is open to the public and their website has excellent finding aids for the Harry Houdini Papers, Harry Houdini Collection, and Magic Collection. However, the collection is massive! So massive I could not see it all in six days. But with the help of the amazing Eric Colleary, Cline Curator of Theatre & Performing Arts Collections, I saw a lot. So let's get into it!


My Houdini discoveries happened before I even entered the building on that first morning (which, for the record, was August 8, 2022). Famous signatures and key holdings are etched into the building's decorative glass. Of course, I had to seek out Houdini, and I'm happy to report he is well represented. I was off to a good start.


Inside I met up with the aforementioned Eric Colleary who gave me a private tour of the Center and the stacks. You know, I've always only thought of the Ransom Center just in terms of Houdini. But the Houdini collection, as big as it is, is only a very small part of their massive holdings. The Ransom Center is filled with other treasures! There's even a Gutenberg Bible on display in the lobby. I got a peek at a few unique treasures, such as Charlie Chaplin's bow-tie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's handwritten manuscript for A Scandal in Bohemia.


The first Houdini treasure I saw was his 1910 Aviation trophy. Eric and I had bonded over this back in 2019, so this was a perfect way to start. The plaque is larger than I thought, which was a common theme of everything I saw this day. I was also able to look very closely at the date and can report that it has not been modified as was long claimed by my pal and mentor Manny Weltman. Sorry Manny!


Books were not going to be a focus of my research, but the Ransom Center's got 'em! Below is Eric with Houdini's own copy of The Discoverie of Witchcraft. They also have the original receipt from Maggs Bros. in London, showing Houdini purchased the book on August 4, 1917 for £23 (marked down from £25).


We then passed through the Preservation & Conservation Department. There I met Andrea Knowlton, Senior Book Conservator at the Harry Ransom Center. Among her current projects is Houdini's 1897 Magic Made Easy catalog. This was a treat to see, and it's great to know the Ransom Center is taking steps to ensure this mega rarity will be around forever.


Eric and I spent a good amount of time in their oversized flat items stacks, because it's here one finds their incredible collection of Houdini posters. We started with two posters from his 1920 UK tour that I've never seen. The condition is so flawless it felt like I was time traveling. And there was more...


Much more! How about three 1913 playbills from Cardiff, marking the first appearance of the Water Torture Cell in England. And in case you're wondering, the Ransom Center does not sell or trade their duplicates. The collections they acquire remain intact.


Here's one for you Mirror Handcuff fans. This newsstand poster announces the headlines for March 18, 1904, the day after the famous challenge. This is one Houdini kept himself.


The earliest poster in the Ransom Center (as far as I recall) is this mega rarity advertising Harry and Bess in a "Spiritualistic Entertainment." This was printed in St. Joseph, Missouri, possibly in 1898, and is a treasure indeed.


While the Ransom Center holds some familiar and famous posters, such as Houdini's Milk Can and Circus Busch Water Torture Cell, here's a poster you never see. I never even knew this was a full size (40 inch) poster until Eric laid it before me. This was made by Atelier J. Zier in Leipzig, likely in 1901 (the only time Houdini played that city). This one really grabbed me and I'm considering it for the frontispiece of my book.


The Ransom Center also has a complete collection of posters from Houdini's The Man From Beyond. I've shared some of these elsewhere, but here's one that's too big to share or even see in full. This massive six-sheet would ship in sections and be pieced together on a billboard. Below is just a single panel. But what a panel! The colors and stone lithography are breathtaking.


Below is a poster not found in The Man From Beyond pressbook. This was made by Hegeman Printing Co. of New York and may have been for the film's general release. (The white area is presumably where theater information would be printed or written.) It's more of a bread and butter one-sheet, but that's what makes it so special and rare.


It was now time to get down to "work," and Eric made me an incredible offer. I could do my research in the Ransom Center's comfortable and well appointed Reading Room. Here you put in your requests for materials via the online Finding Aids and their crack staff retrieves them from the stacks for you. This is what it looks like.


Or, if I didn't mind a less glamorous setting, I could work with him up in the stacks themselves. There I could pull down boxes of Houdiniana at will. Eric and I could also chase down leads on the spot and gab. No choice there. Stacks for me! You know, some people go to Hawaii for their vacation. This is me in paradise.


Now, I came to the Harry Ransom Center with the primary goal of building on my chronology and mining as many dates from the collection as I could find. Letters are gold in this regard, so my plan was to read through all their Houdini correspondence, even if that meant sacrificing things like photographs. But instead of starting at Container 1, I decided to plunge into Container 8, which I knew held a file of letters written by Houdini to Bess.


I couldn't have chosen a better way to start. This file could be the greatest treasure in the entire Harry Ransom Center. These letters are filled with warmth and wit, showing Houdini to be playful, loving and very human. The first two postcards so knocked me out that I must have spent 45 mins reading, re-reading, consulting my chronology, reading again, laughing, and then reading to Eric. And then came a 12-page handwritten stream of consciousness love letter from 1924. Incredible!

When I looked up from that one it was 5 PM. Closing time. Hours had passed and I had gotten through only three pieces of correspondence. Suddenly, six days (now five!) felt like a very short amount of time. And did I really have the discipline to limit myself to correspondence with so many other Houdini treasures all around me?

It was only the beginning.

Can't wait for more? Members of my Patreon can view 17 preview images from my next post: More Treasures of the Harry Ransom Center. Click the image below to go.

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