Monday, January 31, 2022

The Doug Henning Project visits 278

Our friend Neil McNally of The Doug Henning Project recently visited Houdini's 278 in New York. It's been a while since we've seen inside the house, so these photos are a real treat. Enjoy.


For more 278 check out the links below. And be sure to follow Neil's site for all things Doug!

Related:

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Margery & Houdini: Part Three - Grasping in the Dark

The Snake's Paw has produced a 4-part audio drama about Houdini and Margery written by Matthew Morris and Andrew Farrier with help from Jack Townsend. Houdini is voiced by Harmon Gunston and Margery is voiced by Helen Jaksch. Below is the third installment: Grasping in the Dark.

Based on true events, Margery & Houdini relates how the most mystifying medium of her day and the most famous escape artist of all time came to meet each other - and how each struggled to prove the other wrong.

In Part Three, Houdini and his colleagues converge on the Crandon household, witnessing for the first time the phenomena they're supposed to declare real or false.


I will post Part Four next week. But if you can't wait, know you can listen to all four parts now at The Snake's Paw YouTube channel. They also have the entire series in one 2-hour clip HERE. You can support The Snake's Paw with a donation on Ko-fi.

Thanks to Jonathan Fells in Wales for the tip.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Houdini's Frozen in Ice escape of 1911


Our friend Joe Fox, Assistant Librarian at the Magic Castle, recently made an intriguing discovery in the January 25, 1911 issue of The Magical World, a British weekly publication. In a column by editor Max Sterling is following item:

Harry Houdini, of handcuff and other fame, who has been appearing at the Nottingham Empire with huge success, has been confiding with a correspondent of the "Encore" that he "has another big surprise to spring up on the public." He avers that his tank act will be a "pup" to his new show, and I believe him. Clad in a diving suit––the helmet will contain an air enough to last him 10 minutes––he proposes with the aid of a glass box, to allow himself to be frozen solid. The freezing plant will be on the stage in full view of the audience. The squares of glass, brass fitted and jointed, constitute the box, and when the wily one is thoroughly frozen, the entire outfit is placed in his cabinet, and he does the rest by releasing himself, yet leaving the ice intact. How it is going to be done Houdini himself only knows, but he has tried it and accomplished the seeming impossible, I presume there will be no "frost" as far as he is concerned. The above show he proposes springing upon London in five or six weeks' time.

I always believed Frozen in Ice was a concept Houdini was working on near the end of his career. But here it is in 1911! While Houdini never did "spring" this upon London (as far as I know), this is still an exciting find as it offers the first and most detailed description of any frozen in ice escape that I'm aware of.

The use of a diving suit is entirely new. I also can't help but wonder if the glass box, "brass fitted and jointed", is the Water Torture Cell. The debut of the USD was still a year away (the "tank act" referred to here is the Milk Can), but the cell was likely in construction at this time. Could Houdini have been considering a very different use for the cell? Or could this all be a ruse to conceal the actual escape Houdini had in mind?

Houdini's Escapes by Walter Gibson contains a chapter on a "Frozen in a Block if Ice" escape. But that is a very different concept and Gibson offers no history behind it. The version that finally did make it to the stage was performed by Bess in 1927 but, again, a very different concept.

Gibson illustration (left) and Bess version (right).

Thank you Joe!

UPDATE: Joe Notaro of Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence has found another description in the January 15, 1911 "The Umpire" that provides a few more performance details:

The performer, having dressed for the part, will take his place in the water in a glass tank, the sides of which fit into brass sides, and the freezing process will be effected in sight of the audience by means of a special plant installed on the stage. When the refrigerator has got in its fine work, the glass slides will be removed, and the block of ice, with Houdini inside, will be placed under the canopy. A few seconds later the performer will reveal himself in kind friends in front, and the iceberg will be shown intact.

Fred Pittella of Houdini and Escapes Museum sends over a detailed look at how Bess's 1927 freezing effect operated. This sounds very similar to the "plant" as described in the 1911 clippings. I'm wondering if it was the same apparatuses?

Science and Invention, September, 1928.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Salem's "Houdini Way" mural

Last year came news that the City of Salem, Massachusetts, would rename Front Street "Houdini Way" in honor of Houdini's jailbreak from the Front Street police station on April 16, 1906. As you can see below, the name now appears on a concrete barrier that extends across the passage. This image comes from Mink Creative Studio who created the mural.


UPDATE: The good folks at Mink Studio inform me that this barrier was erected in October just for the busy tourist season. So it's likely no longer there. But let's hope it reappears this year as it was a popular spot for photo ops. Even among Salem's witches!

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

REVIEW: The Zanetti Mystery by Harry Houdini

Last month Joe Notaro of HHCE released Houdini's long forgotten novella, The Zanetti Mystery. The first publication of this work in its complete form is a significant moment in Houdini history. But what about the book itself? Is it any good?

Houdini's fiction tend to be parables or melodramas that are very much products of their time. Even the stories ghostwritten by greats like H.P. Lovecraft are clearly written for a target audience looking for simple action and thrills. They all work well enough. But as with Houdini's movies, you're never in any real danger of becoming lost in a work of Houdini fiction.

Having said that, I actually found myself becoming lost in The Zanetti Mystery! My biggest surprise on reading this novel is that it's actually pretty good. The basic plot, about a medium named Zanetti who lands a whale of client who offers him one million dollars to conjure his dead wife in the flesh, holds up today. (It also bares a striking similarity to William Lindsay Gresham's bestseller, Nightmare Alley. Gresham would go to pen a biography of Houdini. Could The Zanetti Mystery have been his secret inspiration?)

Written at the height of his crusade against fraudulent medium, Houdini's purpose in creating this story was to further educate the public in the practices of such frauds. So a lot of the story is a peek behind the curtain at the mechanics of spiritualistic graft. This is all very entertaining. The characters who work with Zanetti in and outside his seance room have an almost Runyonesque quality. There's even an interesting sidebar about a Broadway casting agent who provides showgirls for questionable jobs and clients. It all feels authentic and offers a real romp through the underworld of 1920s New York.

The protagonist of the story, Wallace Haines, an assistant District Attorney, is a bit insufferable. Happily, Lucile Linton emerges as the true hero and carries the bulk of our sympathies. Zanetti is a largely aloof villain, a Moriarty the seance room, initiating schemes and sending minions to do his bidding. While ghostwritten, Houdini's sensibilities permeate the story. He even slyly works in a reference to himself. But its Houdini's willingness to let his characters (and his ghostwriter) express themselves without constraints that allows The Zanettii Mystery to bloom. There's even room for continued tales, and one wonders if Houdini was considering a Zanetti series. 

The biggest disappointment about The Zanettii Mystery is that it is clearly unfinished. The final chapter, which greatly expands the story and raises the stakes for our heroine, reads more like an outline. It's an abrupt change of narrative form and a rush to the conclusion. I suspect what we are reading is closer to the basic outline Houdini would provide to his ghostwriter to flesh out, and for some reason that didn't happen. So while this provides some insight into how Houdini crafted his tales and will be of interest to students of Houdini, it may be a let down to readers.

The Zanettii Mystery is a must for all Houdini fans as it is now his last published book and belongs on the shelf alongside his other work. And those who decide to actually read the book might find themselves pleasantly surprised that, in the end, Houdini finally produced a work of fiction that has a life of its own.

Purchase The Zanetti Mystery by Houdini at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Broken Wand Ceremony for Ron Cartlidge

A broken wand ceremony will be held for Ron Cartlidge today at 7:00 PM Central Time. Ron passed away on December 12 at age 82. The event will be streamed on YouTube. I've embedded the stream below, but you can also watch live on YouTube itself.

We celebrate the life of Ron Cartlidge with a broken wand ceremony. Ron was a Houdini expert who wrote Houdini’s Texas Tours 1916 & 1923. He was a strong proponent of magic in Texas, lending his energy to the Austin Chapter of the Society of American Magicians and was responsible for reviving the Austin Magic Auction. Ron was a member of the I.B.M., The Magic Circle, and a Life Member of the S.A.M.

If you are in the Austin area and wish to attend in person, they can accommodate about 20 people at the Fantastic Magic Center in Georgetown Texas. You must RSVP by emailing kent@kentcummins.com. If you wish to speak, but cannot attend in person, you can join the event through Zoom. Register HERE

Thanks to Kevin O'Donnell for the alert.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Bess remembers life with Houdini

To celebrate Bess Houdini's 146th birthday today, here are some excerpts from terrific interesting article by Sally MacDougall called "What Magicians' Wives Think of MAGIC". This appeared in The Tacoma Daily Ledger on July 29, 1928.

"My husband thought I was clever, and you don't suppose I was going to disillusionize him," Mrs. Houdini said. "He never told me how to do a trick. He expected me to use my wits and find out for myself. I wouldn't have asked him to explain, not for anything in the world. That would've spoiled something for both of us. In the first sentence I ever spoke to him I told him I thought he was wonderful, and that seemed to surprise him and make him happy. I still think he was wonderful." 

Houdini's celebrated milkcan trick kept his wife puzzle for weeks, although she watched it carefully night after night and really trying to understand it. The contraption looked at her like an ordinary milkcan, and her heart would be clutched with fear every time she saw the thing being filled with water, her husband closed in and the six strong staples on the cover being locked with padlocks. 

"I have been a shame to let him know that it had me mystified," she said. "I watched him, noticed little things he always did. He had a very clever way of covering the trick. I got to know a certain twinkle in his eyes in connection with some secret one mustn't ask about. When he was not around I gave that can a very thorough examination. After that I kept on pretending I had known all the time. It was a simple trick, not easy to detect. The simplest ones are always the best."

Later in the article comes this intriguing nugget:

In the weeks before he died the Houdinis were working on a new and sensational trick for the following season. Mrs. Houdini understood the work and the mechanism up to the point where it is necessary for the performer to escape. Houdini had worked on it for years and he finally solved what he anticipated as the greatest escape of his life. His wife supposed there would be plenty of time to study and learn the escape details. But the secret died with Houdini. In the past year she and some magicians have worked at it day after day, but on the morning she talked with me in her home they saw no glimmer of a solution. 

What might this be? Buried Alive? Frozen in ice? The near perfect mystery?

The article continues with Bess remembering their marriage in Coney Island (the acid on the dress fable). Then comes this delight:

Every year since then if the Houdini's were anywhere near New York they spent June 22 celebrating at Coney Island, going through the old program–looping the loop, doing all the stunts and finally getting their pictures taken. The photographer never failed to be taken in by a certain ritual. 

"We've just been married. Could you take our picture?" an embarrassed man would say. As souvenirs of these anniversaries Mrs. Houdini has an album of bride-and-groom photographs, the last one taken two years ago, the bridegroom standing, his hat poised in one hand, the other hand on his wife's shoulder. 

"We lived in an element of surprise and mystery and we had so much fun," Mrs. Houdini said. "He would talk to craziest nonsense over the telephone, pretend he didn't know me, make a date to meet me. Perhaps we go for dinner to some roadhouse and we'd keep on acting in a manner that would've surprised the other dancers if they had known that we were married before they were born." 

The article circles back to the topic of secrets and concludes with the following:

Mrs. Houdini intimated that one might as well realize that one never knows what the other is hiding, and then perhaps it is as well not to know. She did not know until after her husband's death that several women, one a widow whom she considered a very dear friend, had been writing love letters to Houdini. She found them in a file, with carbon copies of her husband's replies. There was no word in these answers to make any wife less happy. Still, Mrs. Houdini wishes he hadn't kept that secret from her. The letters were, of course, returned to the sender's for safekeeping. But it could have been possible to have sent them back sooner! 

I think we can assume the "widow whom she considered a very dear friend" was Charmian London. While Houdini's brief fling with the widow of Jack London wasn't uncovered until 1996 (by Ken Silverman in Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss), it's interesting that this major clue was dropped by Bess as early as 1928. But enough about that home-wrecker. This is Bessie's day, so...

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Margery & Houdini: Part Two - Phantoms or Frauds?

The Snake's Paw has produced a 4-part audio drama about Houdini and Margery written by Matthew Morris and Andrew Farrier with help from Jack Townsend. Houdini is voiced by Harmon Gunston and Margery is voiced by Helen Jaksch. Below is the second installment: Phantoms or Frauds?

Based on true events, Margery & Houdini relates how the most mystifying medium of her day and the most famous escape artist of all time came to meet each other - and how each struggled to prove the other wrong.

In Part Two, Houdini announces his crusade against the fraudulent mediums of the world and gets pushback from an old friend, who thinks a spiritual reunion with Houdini’s mother might be just the thing to change his mind.


I will post Part Three next week. But if you can't wait, know you can listen to all four parts now at The Snake's Paw YouTube channel. They also have the entire series in one 2-hour clip HERE. You can support The Snake's Paw with a donation on Ko-fi.

Thanks to Jonathan Fells in Wales for the tip.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Over the Moon...Gone: The Vanishing Act of Bess Houdini

With Bess Houdini's birthday on the horizon, what better way to mark her 146th than with a new chapbook of poetry devoted to the magnificent Mrs. Houdini. Below is the description of Over the Moon...Gone: The Vanishing Act of Bess Houdini By Jan Zlotnik Schmidt.

Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, or Bess Houdini, was born on January 23, 1876 in Brooklyn, New York. Bess met Harry Houdini when she was performing as part of a song and dance act, entitled The Floral Sisters, in Coney Island. After a short courtship of several weeks, they married on June 22, 1894 and began performing magic acts, seances, mentalist acts, and their most famous trick—the Metamorphosis--at circuses, dime museums, and vaudeville halls across the country. By 1899, Harry concentrated on his escape acts, and throughout the rest of his career, became famous for breaking out of jails, cells, trunks, and straitjackets among other feats of daring and conjuring. The more famous Houdini became, the more Bess faded into the background. After Houdini’s unexpected death from a burst appendix and peritonitis on Halloween, 1926, for ten years, Bess held seances, hoping to make contact with the spirit of her dead husband. Bess Houdini died on February 11, 1943.

CRITICAL ACCLAIM FOR THE VOLUME: 

"Jan Zlotnik Schmidt has brought her own conjuring trick to readers. This insightful and moving collection reincarnates the spirit of Bess Houdini, bringing forth her emotional life through narrative and fictional auto-biographical poems, placing her husband, “The Great” Harry Houdini in the background. Not only a vibrant poetry collection, this work becomes a feminist document of a woman whose voice must be heard. Bess Houdini lives in these mesmerizing poems!" -Laurence Carr, publisher, Lightwoodpress.com, and author of Paradise Loft


You can purchase Over the Moon...Gone: The Vanishing Act of Bess Houdini By Jan Zlotnik Schmidt at Palooka Press.

Related:

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Pulling Houdini's ear at the Rialto


Here's a gem of an eyewitness account of Houdini at the Rialto theater in Washington, D.C. in August 1922. This engagement also marks a significant moment in Houdini history, but I'll come back that after the story.

Washington Herald, August 27, 1922.

The Rialto was a movie theater and Houdini was there making a personal appearance with The Man From Beyond. But unlike the movie's similar run at the Times Square Theater in New York in which Houdini performed magic, for this Washington engagement he demonstrated spiritualist trickery. These were his first public lectures on the subject and the debut of Houdini the ghostbuster.

This also means the intrepid Betty Whitfied had to sit through two showings of The Man From Beyond to see Houdini a second time. A Houdini nut indeed!

But not all audience members found his demonstrations as entertaining, as can be read below:

Washington Herald, August 29, 1922.

Hey, at least he liked the movie!

Built in 1918, Moore's Rialto was located at 713 Ninth Street NW. In 1925 it was taken over by the Universal Picture chain who operated it until 1927. It was demolished in 1940.

Below is the site of the Rialto today, where Houdini first entertained and inflamed with his spirit busting.


Images: Newspapers.com

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Bess Houdini's 1940 residence

The great Jim Steinmeyer recently alerted me to this house at 963 North Mariposa Ave in East Hollywood where Bess Houdini and Edward Saint lived in 1940. According to the 1940 census, Bess and Ed lived here with Saint's 75-year-old father, Mead Grant Myers, and a 30-year-old cook named C. Edward Tyree. It is the lone surviving house on a block of apartment buildings. Here's a photo I took on New Year's Day.


So we now have two surviving houses in Los Angeles that Bess and Ed occupied, the other being the more well-known house at 1616 N. Curson. Below is my list of currently known addresses for Bess and Ed during their Hollywood years:

  • 2435 Laurel Canyon Blvd. Hollywood CA. (1934/1935)
  • 1616 North Curson Ave. Hollywood, CA. (1936)
  • 1851 North Winona Blvd. Hollywood CA. (1937/1938)
  • 8565 West Knoll Drive, West Hollywood, CA.
  • 963 North Mariposa Ave. Hollywood, CA. (1940)
  • 346 N. Vermont, East Hollywood, CA. (Milt Larsen remembers her here.)
  • San Marcos Hotel, Apt 302 & 301, Beverly Blvd at Western, East Hollywood, CA. (1942)
  • Ceder Lodge Sanitarium, 2030 Griffith Park, Los Angeles, CA. (1943)

Monday, January 17, 2022

Houdini hangs in Memphis (the first time)

Recently I re-upped my newspapers.com subscription and was excited to see they now have the archive of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. Not only did this allow me to finally confirm Houdini's appearance and suspended straitjacket escape in September 1923 (and update this post accordingly), but I also discovered a hitherto unknown Memphis appearance in 1916 in which he also did a suspended straitjacket escape on February 16, 1916. The paper gave it this terrific spread!

The Commercial Appeal, Feb. 17, 1916.

The building where Houdini performed his 1916 and 1923 escapes still stands at 30 N. 2nd Street in Court Square in Memphis. This was the headquarters of The Commercial Appeal until 1933.


Related:

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Margery & Houdini: Part One - An Informal Gathering

The Snake's Paw has produced a 4-part audio drama about Houdini and Margery written by Matthew Morris and Andrew Farrier with help from Jack Townsend. Houdini is voiced by Harmon Gunston and Margery is voiced by Helen Jaksch. Below is the first installment: An Informal Gathering.

In the 1920s, Harry Houdini was on a mission to debunk mediums who claimed to communicate with the dead. This eventually led him to an extraordinary woman named Mina Crandon. Based on true events, Margery & Houdini relates how the most mystifying medium of her day and the most famous escape artist of all time came to meet each other - and how each struggled to prove the other wrong.

In Part One, several people - including one inquisitive stranger - meet at the Crandon household to commune with a long lost relative. 


I will post Part Two next week. But if you can't wait, know you can listen to all four parts now at The Snake's Paw YouTube channel. They also have the entire series in one 2-hour clip HERE. You can support The Snake's Paw with a donation on Ko-fi.

Thanks to Jonathan Fells in Wales for the tip!

Friday, January 14, 2022

Scholastic counts Houdini among the daredevils

Houdini makes the cover of Scholastic's 2019 release, Top 20 Daredevils: Countdown to Danger by Melvin Berger and Gilda Berger with illustrations by Berat Pekmezci. And what number does Houdini come in at? You'll have to get the book to find out!

From swallowing a cup full of needles to tightrope-walking across the Grand Canyon, these top 20 daredevils have attempted some of the most dangerous stunts of all time!
 
Have you ever tried to skydive from thousands of feet in the air, or free climb a 20-story building with nothing but your bare hands? Well, these daredevils have! Read all the elaborate (and gory!) details of the most dangerous stunts of all time carried out by the 20 biggest risk takers to ever exist. Melvin and Gilda Berger deliver a thrilling introduction to each of these daredevils, including a short biography, breakdowns of that person's most death-defying stunts, jokes, and more. Readers will even learn the science behind some of these shocking feats! The countdown to number one includes legends like Harry Houdini and Bessie Coleman, as well as newer or lesser known daredevils, such as Jeb Corlis, Alain Robert, and Mabel Stark. Chockful of unbelievable facts, and a mix of action-packed comic-style illustrations and photographs, this book will keep any kid who loves cool stunts busy for hours!

This book feels like a bit of a throwback. Below are two similar titles from back in the day. Daredevils Do Amazing Things (1978) with magnificent Houdini illustrations by Ivan Powell. The Hayes Book of Daring Deeds (1986) with a terrific Houdini-Grim Game cover.


You can buy Top 20 Daredevils: Countdown to Danger at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

Related:

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Raising the Palace

An effort is currently underway to raise the historic Palace Theatre in New York's Times Square 30 feet above the street. This is to make way for more retail space at ground level. Not sure I'm in love with the idea of changing this iconic theater, but I do love the quote on the construction sign currently hanging in front of the theater.


This certainly isn't the first time Houdini's name has graced the Palace marquee. Built in 1913, the Palace Theatre was the brain child of Martin Beck and became the premier theater for Keith's vaudeville in New York City. Houdini played at the Palace in 1914, 1915, 1916 (2x), 1922, as well as making numerous appearances for special events. On January 5, 1922, he performed a suspended straitjacket escape from the theater's facade.

The logistics of this raising effort, which will take six to eight weeks, makes for an interesting read HERE. As to whether this should or shouldn't be done, Trav S.D. has his own take at his terrific blog Travalanche.

Below is a wonderful pic of the Palace as it appeared in Houdini's day.


Related:

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Houdini's nights in a bar room

In the book Houdini His Life Story by Harold Kellock, there is a tale of The Houdinis early career that I've always loved. It tells of how, in 1898, Harry and Bess joined a theatrical company and performed as actors in the popular temperance play, Ten Nights in a Barroom. But did this really happen? 

Let's start with the story as told in Kellock:

After Dr. Hill's outfit gave up the ghost, early in 1898, they joined a traveling repertoire show which specialized in blood-curdling melodramas. [...] Ever jealous of his professional prestige as a magician, he appeared in the melodramas under an assumed name, and in order that the audiences should not recognize the actor as the Great Houdini, he would play his part with a wad of paper stuffed in each cheek.

In the fine old repertoire standby, "Ten Nights in a Barroom," Houdini played Jim Morgan [likely a typo as the character in the book and play is named Joe Morgan], the paternal bar-fly, and Mrs. Houdini his little daughter Mary who pleaded, "Father, dear father, come home with me now." A rivalry had arisen between Mrs. Houdini and the titular leading lady of the company which did not add to the harmony of life. Mrs. Houdini knew that she was a better actress than the leading lady. The leading lady knew that she outclassed Mrs. Houdini. Their respective husbands had a difficult time.

In the course of devising bits of stage business to steal the leading lady's thunder, Mrs. Houdini secretly decided to adapt a realistic trick to the barroom scene. According to the traditional action, little Mary pleads with her father to go home; in a drunken rage he flings a bottle at her, and she falls comfortably on a fat rug and dies.

Mrs. Houdini filled a small rubber balloon with red ink and hid it under her curls. When Houdini as her father hurled the bottle, she slapped her hand to her brow and broke the rubber, and the red ink spurted over her face. "My God, Bess!" groaned Houdini, springing forward with a cry of terror that was not in the lines, and in his excitement swallowing both wads of paper. His wife had to come to life and explain the trick to him before the show could go on.

I know Kellock is filled with mythology and generally considered an unreliable source, but I've always believed this story. It tracks with their early career, and Bess's rivalry with the leading lady strikes me as a believable detail. Unfortunately, Kellock does not provide any verifiable details, such as the name of the company nor the time and place. But he does provide the clue that it came after The Houdinis stint with Dr. Hill's California Concert Company and before their second tour with the Welsh Bros Circus. That is a fairly narrow window of time. So over the Christmas break, I went in search of Houdini in the bar room!

The California Concert Co. disbanded in Cherryvale, Kansas, on February 5, 1898. Harry and Bess then travelled to St. Joseph, Missouri, where they played Bert Martin's Eden Musee, a dime museum located at 5th and Edmond, through February 20. You can see them in the ad below misspelled as The Houdins.

The St Joseph Herald, Feb. 10, 1898.

The Houdinis (or "Houdins") vanish from the Eden's bill the following week. But look what shows up in their place!

The St. Joseph Herald, Feb. 24, 1898.

This is almost certainly the production that Harry and Bess performed in. This is further supported by the fact that The Houdinis gave a one-night magic and spiritualism performance at the A.O.U.W. Lodge in St. Joseph on February 27, thus proving they are still in the city. I'm also assuming it was Mrs. Lester who was Bess's rival, confirming Kellock's account that the company's leading lady was married. Unfortunately, I've not been able to discover what alias Houdini used.

The below clipping from the St. Joseph Daily News indicates that the play used "attractive advertising". What a great Houdini collectible one of these adverts would be today. You would think Houdini, the great collector of theatrical memorabilia, might have kept one for himself. Might one be tucked away in the Harry Ransom Center?

St. Joseph Daily News, Feb. 21, 1898.

Mr. and Mrs. Lester Franklin's Dramatic Company remained at the Eden for a second week with the play At Temple Valley. Did Harry and Bess remain as well? It's likely they did as I've found no evidence of them performing elsewhere. [*See UPDATE.]

The St. Joseph Herald, Feb. 27, 1898

The theatrical company leaves the Eden the following week and I can find no evidence of it ever again. In fact, I could find no evidence of it before the Eden. So could this troupe have only existed for these two weeks in St. Joseph? The Houdinis would resurface at Middleton's dime museum in Chicago on March 14.

Unfortunately, these proved to be the final weeks for the Eden Musee itself. Despite offering giveaways and free tickets in the local paper, the Eden closed its doors on March 21, 1898. The manager of the nearby Wonderland museum briefly exhibited acts there. But in May it became a furnishing goods store.

Below is the intersection of 5th and Edmond today. I'm not sure exactly where the Eden sat, but could one of these surviving older structures be the building?


While Ten Nights in a Barroom was just a blip in Houdini's career, the play itself had a long life. It was even adapted as a film several times. Below are a two film posters showing Joe Morgan and the unfortunate Mary...once played by Harry and Bess Houdini!


UPDATE 1: Looks like the Houdinis did not spend that second week with the Franklin company. Houdini records in his diary that they took the week off and spent "nearly every night" enjoying plays at The Crawford Theater in St. Joesph. Thanks to Dr. Bruce Averbook for this info.

UPDATE 2: I've just discovered that Houdini also played Joe Morgan ("who has seen better days") in a "One-Act Comedy" called FOILED. This was part of the California Concert Company's program and was likely a comedic take on Ten Nights in a Barroom. Mary Morgan was played by "Little Aelienne".

Monday, January 10, 2022

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Secrets of the new Houdini Seance by Jim Steinmeyer

Today we have a very special GUEST BLOG and a real treat. The great Jim Steinmeyer provides us with an exclusive insider's look at the new Houdini Seance Experience at the Magic Castle, the world-famous clubhouse of the Academy of Magical Arts in Hollywood. The show was written and produced by Jim Steinmeyer with new effects created by Jim and designed and built by John Gaughan and Mike Elizalde of Spectral Motion. The show was directed by Benjamin Schrader. The room was art directed and scenic painted by Jim Piper.

Enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at the new Houdini Seance. Your chair is waiting...

SECRETS OF THE SEANCE
by Jim Steinmeyer

The challenge of the show, of course, was “how” we bring Houdini back, if we successfully reach his spirit, and what, if anything, he has to say. The problem, of course, is that if we fail to reach Houdini’s spirit, the theatrical point of the seance is foiled. And if we manage to get a message from Houdini, we’ve sort of messed up anything that Houdini represented during his lifetime. And… of course, the Magic Castle might be expected to show a little respect for Houdini’s firmly-held beliefs. 

I can’t ruin the surprise, of course, but it’s fair to say that Houdini doesn’t come back from the dead, and Houdini ends up having quite a bit to say to us directly and offers us a gift. At one point, we actually hear Houdini explain that “anyone can be fooled in a dark room,” which turns the entire seance experience upside down and makes us question anything we’ve seen. I actually think that his message about eternity shows an understanding that only someone like Houdini would have been able to express. His insight is more enlightened than the usual ghostly messages or whispers in the dark. 
 
The new seance room is a mix of design and function, history and “new legends” in order to set up their show. For those that are interested in the real history, here are few secrets of the new seance experience. 


THE NEW SEANCE ROOM 

The room was completely rebuilt, right down to the studs, with new electrical wiring, improved air ducting for the air conditioning, and better soundproofing. We concealed a lot of this by designing the room with its own history. For example, the new fireplace is a small, elegant Victorian bedroom fireplace, now bricked up. The wainscoting around the room has been painted over. Although these are new elements, they suggests layers of changes and generations of use. We picked out a rich Victorian teal blue for the walls. It’s actually very close to an original color of the room, from about a dozen years ago, which was dark green. 
 
Disney art director, scenic artist and longtime Castle member Jim Piper added warm wood grained moulding around the ceiling. You’ll find that the theme of the woodwork and stained glass lighting fixtures is “roses.” There’s definitely a reason for that. We get a beautiful misty glow to the room when the rose colors play on the images and the walls. It feels haunted. Our lamps are all Edison bulbs, which flicker and flash at special moments of the seance. 

THE PICTURES ON THE WALLS 

We’ve added a number of interesting Houdini graphics to the walls, including authentic posters from his career, as well as a recent collectable reprint of the poster from his Grand Magic Revue. If you get a chance to look at the images, you may note some interesting nods to the Vanishing Elephant (including an antique Elephant lamp), images of Arthur Conan Doyle, Margery, her spirit guide Walter, and beautiful images of the Final Houdini Seance of 1936. Those 1936 images were kindly provided by Mark Willoughby. One of my favorite images in the room shows the assembled group on the Knickerbocker Hotel rooftop. The camera is pointed towards the Magic Castle (then, of course, the Lane Mansion). The Castle must be in the shot, although, at nighttime, it’s not illuminated. It’s a wonderful combination of “now” and “then." 

There’s also a small picture above the fireplace of an actual spirit medium, circa 1920, in Chicago. That medium is tied to my family history, a friend of my grandparents, and the picture provided a lot of inspiration for me. Let’s just say that, if elements of the seance feel weirdly authentic, it’s because of that particular medium and what he actually did during his Chicago seances. Does that sound mysterious enough? 

THE HOUDINI ROSES 

We’ve added a sweet new Houdini myth, about the dried roses that Mrs. Houdini kept in her house in Los Angeles. The mediums will tell you the story when you experience the seance. Those Houdini Roses gave me a chance to introduce a brand new effect to the room, a sort of spirit photograph experience for the audience. John Gaughan built the effect for our seance room. 


THE GHOSTS 

I don’t want to spoil the seance for those that are about to see it, but don’t be surprised if you now see a few ghosts. Mike Elizalde’s company, Spectral Motion, expertly sculpted the special ghosts for us. They’re ghosts of recognizable people, so the project provided a particular challenge to achieve the perfect mixture of reality and fantasy. Let’s just say that you’ll meet some friends, and some enemies, in the seance room. 

THE WATER TORTURE CELL 

Another newly designed effect is one that strangely, supernaturally, tells the story of Houdini’s famous escape, and gives an account of the accidents that plagued the great magician at the end of his life. The demonstration uses a beautiful little model of Houdini’s Water Torture Cell. The apparatus for this was created by John Gaughan and Freddie Wong. 

SOME CLASSIC EFFECTS 

We had a chance to reprogram the moments of the famous floating table, so now, when the Spirits take control, the table seems to vibrate and shudder before soaring into the air. Similarly, the famous tambourine still opens its case and rattles in the dark, and the Milk Can (the Irby Milk Can which was seen in the 1952 movie) rattles in the dark room. 


OUR MUSIC AND SOUNDS 

Fans of Houdini will get a chance to hear the 1936 Final Houdini Seance, played over Los Angeles radio and played through an antique radio set. They’ll hear Bess sing the actual Paul Dresser song, “Rosabelle,” that inspired the Houdini’s code; they’ll hear Houdini’s patter for The Water Torture Cell, recorded on a wax cylinder; they’ll hear from Arthur Conan Doyle, and his concern for Houdini. They’ll hear a snippet of “Souvenir,” Walter’s favorite song, a bit of “Pomp and Circumstance,” and a weird waltz—that the band played on the Titanic—that appears on the gramophone to welcome Walter into the room. 

OUR CAST OF VOICES 

One of the big secrets of our seance is that we’ve re-recorded every voice. Yes, every single voice! It was the only way to get the particular performances we needed. It means that, when the seance audience hears Houdini’s Water Torture Cell introduction, we are actually setting up the sound of his voice, so that we can control it. We can bring it back, with our own message, and the audience recognizes Houdini. We play tricks with that through the seance. It’s a very sneaky deception, especially because, to many people, the voice on the cylinder and the Final Houdini Seance recording will sound authentic. Here’s the celebrity cast that secretly took part in our production: 

  • John Cox (who occasionally has something to say about Houdini) at the beginning of dinner, the radio plays a number of 1920s songs. John is the announcer who promotes Houdini at the Garrick Theater in Detroit, then introduces the Detroit News Orchestra. 
  • Sara Ballantine (popular actress and AMA Board of Directors member) plays the part of Mrs. Houdini, who now explains the Rosabelle code during the Final Houdini Seance 
  • Neil Patrick Harris (star of stage and television, former AMA President) plays the part of Edward Saint, who serves as the medium imploring Houdini to return during the 1936 seance. 
  • Patrick Culliton (actor and Houdini author) plays the part of Arthur Conan Doyle, who explains that “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” 
  • Teresa Ganzel (comedy actress and voice-over talent) plays the part of Margery the Medium, who briefly returns in the darkened room to complain about Houdini and wrestle control of the seance away from the medium. 
  • Robert Clotworthy (actor and voice-over narrator who hosts Ancient Aliens and The Curse of Oak Island) plays the part of Walter, Margery’s brother and spirit guide, who returns with a wild, demonic laugh to challenge Houdini. 
  • Paul Reubens (the famous comedy star, Pee Wee Herman’s alter ego, and AMA member) plays the part of the radio announcer interviewing Houdini, who asks him about his pact with his wife to return from the grave. 

And the person who plays Houdini… Well, I’m going to keep that a secret. 

PUTTING TOGETHER ALL THE PIECES 

Then we were able to add the considerable talents of our Magic Castle mediums, special lighting effects, sound effects, and a few tales of Houdini’s spectacular career and his mysterious adventures in the seance room, and you have the new Houdini Seance! 

In January, the Magic Castle will begin booking the New Seance, with Rob Zabrecky in the medium’s chair. 

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Houdini at 100

Let's kick off 2022 with a deep dive into what Houdini was up to 100 years ago.


Houdini had a foot in two worlds in 1922. He had returned to vaudeville with his tried-and-true escape act while also preparing to release his first solely produced motion picture. But it was a visitor from England who would set Houdini on the path to a remarkable third act of his life and career.

The new year began with Houdini playing the Palace Theater in New York's Times Square. To herald his return, he performed a suspended straitjacket escape from the theater's facade on January 5. Just like old times, he ran afoul of the New York City police who tried to stop the escape. But Houdini got into the air before the police could push their way through the crowd. On his assent Houdini yelled down to an irritated officer, "Talk to the theatre manager. I'm busy." Before the week was out, Houdini and press agent Walter J. Kingsley found themselves at the West Side courthouse facing a charge of blocking traffic.

The next stop was Washington D.C. where a suspended straitjacket escape from the Albee building at 15th and G Streets drew a massive crowd. Houdini and Bess met President Harding at The White House, and former President Woodrow Wilson saw Houdini escape his Water Torture Cell at Keith's. The Maryland Theater in Baltimore followed. A review in the Evening Sun complained: "Houdini spends about 10 minutes telling of his greatness...performs two tricks that he has been showing for years." But the old tricks seemed to be just what audiences wanted, and Houdini's suspended straitjacket escape from the Munsey Bldg. in downtown Baltimore drew the usual throng.

The tour continued at a pace with Houdini playing the major Keith houses in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh. In almost every city he performed a suspended straitjacket escape and drew sold out houses. Houdini credited the publicity generated by his films as the reason for his continued popularity on stage. He was right. Even though he had been absent from American stages for three years, his name was never out of the newspapers and the Jazz Age had embraced him as a cultural icon. Flappers even adopted his name into their vernacular; "A Houdini" meant to be on time for a date.

The tour also brought Houdini into contact with the local chapters of a thriving S.A.M., and many would host banquets for their Most Illustrious President. While attending one of these "Houdini Nights" at the Great Northern Hotel in Chicago, Houdini was fooled by a young Canadian sleight of hand artist who employed a clever manipulation of the Ambitious Card. The incident didn't warrant further mention from Houdini, but the young magician, Dai Vernon, would for the rest of his life tout himself as "The Man Who Fooled Houdini."

That same week Houdini attended a monkey gland transplant operation on an 80-year-old man. The procedure, pioneered by Dr. Serge Voronoff, involved inserting thin slices of monkey testicles into a man's scrotum where the graff would fuse with human tissue. Voronoff promised his treatment would restore vitality, enhance libido, improve eyesight, and even prolong life. Houdini's interest in the procedure and its surgeon, whom Houdini playfully called "Transplantor," isn't entirely clear. Was he merely investigating a modern "miracle monger", or was he considering having the procedure to restore his own flagging vitality? After the operation Houdini wrote to a friend: "It looks as simple as rolling off a slippery log."

While performing at the Davis Theater in Pittsburgh, Houdini was saddened to learn of the death of Harry Kellar in Los Angeles. Kellar had become a mentor and father figure to Houdini. Unable to attend the funeral, Houdini sent a telegram of condolence to Kellar's niece and arranged to have the funeral filmed. He also wrote a eulogy for the magician on the train back to New York where he would wrap his tour with an engagement in Brooklyn. That month also saw the release of his new book, Houdini's Paper Magic, a collection of magic tricks and puzzles largely compiled by his late secretary, John Sargent, for whom Houdini dedicated the book.

Houdini wasted no time in surging to his next venture. Having failed to entice Paramount into releasing his first Houdini Picture Corporation production, The Man From Beyond (filmed in 1921), Houdini decided to distribute the movie himself. To generate awareness, he booked an exclusive engagement at the Times Square Theatre, which stood across the street from the Houdini Picture Corporation offices. To ensure packed houses, Houdini developed 30 minutes of stage magic that he would perform after each showing. He even revived the vanishing elephant which had so thrilled New Yorkers back in 1918.

The day of the premiere, April 2, Houdini paraded his two Ringling Bros. elephants, Lucy and Fannie, along Broadway. But in an oversight that betrayed his inexperience as a distributor, Houdini was informed that the film still lacked the necessary certificate from the New York Censor Board. The premiere went ahead as planned, but Houdini was unable to charge admission. (The film received its certificate the following day.) The elephants also proved to be harder to handle than the affable Jennie from the Hippodrome. One of the elephants spooked when a loading dock ramp cracked beneath its feet and refused to enter the theater. Faced with an unbudging elephant on 42nd Street, a new door was cut in the theater wall which the elephant found acceptable. While both elephants were smaller, Houdini reportedly still used his gigantic Hippodrome cabinet to do the vanishing.

The Man From Beyond with "Houdini in Person" would run three weeks at the Time Square. Reviews of the movie were mixed. Many questioned how Houdini's 100-year-old man could remain blissfully unaware of the passage of time until he was told, despite riding in an automobile. However, there was wide agreement that the climatic action at Niagara Falls was thrilling and in league with the climax of the D.W. Griffith hit, Way Down East. They were right. For all the film's flaws, Houdini and his editor had created a powerful piece of cinema magic with a skillful combination of footage shot at various locations. Houdini showcased the reviews in a half-page ad in Variety as "The greatest praise ever accorded any screen production."

That same month Sir Arthur Conan Doyle arrived in America for a lecture tour proselytizing Spiritualism. Doyle showcased spirit photographs and spoke of his own personal experiences with the Other Side. Audiences packed his lectures and gasped as his slides flashed across the screen. Houdini attended one of the first lectures at New York's Carnegie Hall. Doyle, in turn, saw The Man From Beyond at the Times Square and gave the film a glowing endorsement. On May 10th Sir Arthur and Lady Doyle visited Houdini at 278 and had lunch. Houdini took great pride is showing Doyle his library. As he saw them off in a cab, Houdini performed his thumb racket trick. For Doyle it was further evidence that his friend possessed supernatural powers. For Houdini it was evidence that his friend could be fooled by anything.

But Doyle had some tricks of his own. Houdini invited him to attend an S.A.M. banquet at the McAlpin Hotel in New York. There Doyle ran test footage from the upcoming movie adaptation of his book, The Lost World, which showed dinosaurs in action via the magic of stop motion photography. Doyle believed he had fooled the magicians into thinking he had somehow captured film of real dinosaurs. "I left them, as I had intended, utterly mystified," Doyle would chortle. This seems unlikely. Special effects photography was pioneered by magicians such as George Méliès, and Houdini had used camera trickery in all his films. But, as always, Houdini indulged his honored guest from England. The evening also saw Harry and Bess performing Metamorphosis using Doyle's mammoth coat.

That same month the Doyles invited the Houdinis to join them for a weekend in Atlantic City. "Why not come down–both of you?" wrote Doyle. "The children would teach you to swim ! and the change would do you good." The Houdinis accepted and joined the Doyles at the Ambassador Hotel on June 17. The couple relaxed on the beach and Houdini taught the Doyle boys to dive in the hotel pool. That evening they attend a swimming contest that dragged on interminably.

The following day came an event that would forever have an impact on their friendship. Lady Doyle, herself a medium who communicated via "automatic writing", offered to give Houdini a private seance to contact his mother. Bess was kept from the proceedings, but she reportedly gave her husband a warning (via their old mind reading code) that Lady Doyle had been peppering her for information about Mama the day before. The three settled into Doyle's Ambassador suite where Lady Doyle quickly contacted Cecelia Weiss and dashed off several pages of communications in English instead of Mama's native German. Houdini did not betray his skepticism and Sir Arthur firmly believed his friend had been convinced and converted. But what Houdini had experienced was just more Doyle dinosaurs.

Besides attending a 4th of July party at the Seacliff home of his lawyer Bernard Ernst--where he inexplicably commanded a rain storm to stop and start (he later called this "the most remarkable coincidence that ever happened to a mortal man")--there is no record of Houdini's activities in July. Did he decide to go under the knife of "Transplantor" and receive his monkey gland enhancement?

Whatever he did, it's likely Houdini had time to reflect. If he compared himself to Doyle, and he most certainly did, Doyle was having the career Houdini coveted. He was a respected author drawing sold out houses with a lecture showcasing his intellect. And on a topic that Houdini felt he knew far more about! Here Houdini was stuck in a cycle of turning out melodramas and books of magic tricks while occasionally having to dip back into the fading world of vaudeville to make ends meet. And despite expanding and installing new equipment at his Film Developing Corporation that year, the business continued to operate at a loss. It's therefore not surprising that when Houdini did reappear after his mid-summer disappearance, he does so with a new identity and ambition.

In August Houdini brought The Man from Beyond to the Rialto Theater in Washington, D.C. Once again the show would feature "Houdini in Person". But he left the elephants and magic behind. Instead when Houdini took the stage on Sunday, August 20, he gave a lecture on spiritualism. It was the inverse of Doyle's lectures, exposing the methods of fraudulent mediums, and offered audiences their first look at a new Houdini. Variety carried the news on its front page ("Houdini on Spiritism in Personal Appearance") and the Washington Times reported: "He doesn't intend to go back to Jail-breaking or other forms of escape until he has won a victory over ignorance and delusion in the world of spiritualism."

The Rialto lectures also prompted his first attacks. In a letter to the Washington Herald, a member of the audience, N.H. Holmes, wrote: "Houdini's picture, The Man From Beyond, is beautiful, thrilling and most wonderful. His exposure of séances and mediums are ridiculous, unscrupulous and preposterous." 

The battle was on. 

The Rialto run grossed an impressive $9000. The next engagement in Detroit brought in $12,000 (aided by a suspended straitjacket escape in Grand Circus Park). Having found the formula for success exhibiting his movie along with a live show, Houdini created several roadshow units called The Houdini Wonder Show. These were headed up by magicians Fredrick Eugene Powell, Mystic Clayton, Virginia Carr, and the escape artist Gemester. Houdini would make special one-day appearances at select theaters. In Hoboken a crowd gathered to greet him at the stage door. When Houdini appeared in a straw hat, some boys shouted that straw hats were out of fashion. Houdini removed his head gear and tossed it into the crowd where it was shredded by souvenir seekers.

Houdini then went about the business of selling The Man From Beyond via the independent State Rights market. This general release version was cut down from seven reels to six. (This is the only version that survives today.) Houdini had long feuded with theater managers whom he felt tried every trick in the book to withhold proper payment from talent. Now he would need to collect from cinema houses where managers were largely unchecked in their reporting on box-office receipts. But having just won his latest lawsuit against Octagon Films for unpaid salary on The Master Mystery totaling $32,795.18, Houdini may have felt confident that he could swim with sharks.

In October newspapers began serializing a new book by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle titled, My American Adventure. In it he spoke openly about the Atlantic City seance. That same month Houdini denounced the danger in psychic phenomena at an S.A.M. dinner in Boston. His statements received national coverage. But he also found himself in hot water with the organization over an exposure he supplied to Popular Radio magazine. The article portrayed The Talking Tea Kettle as a tool of fraudulent mediums and revealed its workings. But The Talking Tea Kettle was the invention of magician David P. Abbott who performed it as a spooky stage illusion. Houdini had once forced an S.A.M. member to resign over exposing his Milk Can escape. Now Abbott's local assembly in Omaha voted for Houdini's resignation as President. The controversy swept the S.A.M.

Houdini claimed Popular Radio had added the exposure to his text without his consent and threatened to sue the magazine for damage to his reputation. To prove his case, he published his correspondence with Popular Radio's editor in MUM. He then went out of his way to patch things up with Abbott personally. Houdini's presidency survived and the S.A.M. formed a committee to decide on a formal code of conduct that would govern the exposure of secrets, devoting a special section to spiritualist trickery. "The Magicians Code" remains in force to this day.

On Halloween Houdini gave a mock séance at the home of Sophie Irene Loeb at Harmon-on-Hudson which included a spirit message from the late Jack London. That
night he wrote in his diary: "I must put on record that it was done wholly by dexterity." He also tried his hand at a new medium by taking part in a debate on spiritualism live on WOR Radio in Newark. When the Scientific American magazine offered $2000 to anyone who could take a spirit photograph under test conditions, Houdini took a series of photos in the parlor of 278 showing him conjuring his own ectoplasmic spirit. The photos were syndicated in an article by Heward Carrington which quoted Houdini as saying, "Spirit pictures—yes—I make them almost every night."

Doyle and Houdini kept up their steady correspondence, but the dinosaur in the room was Atlantic City. Doyle would finally ask Houdini directly how he could continue to express public skepticism of Spiritualism when he had experience the real thing via Lady Doyle?

On December 15th Houdini sat down to confess his doubts about the seance to his friend. He cited his mother's use of English and also that a cross had been drawn at the top of the page, which one would not expect from the wife of a rabbi. He concluded as delicately as he could: "I trust my clearing up the seance from my point of view is satisfactory, and that you do not harbor any ill feeling, because I hold both Lady Doyle and yourself in the highest esteem." A few days later he wrote and had witnessed a document entitled: "THE TRUTH REGARDING SPIRITUALISTIC SEANCE GIVEN TO HOUDINI BY LADY DOYLE."

By entering into the spiritualistic arena Houdini had caught a new and popular wave. The press lauded him as an authority on the subject, which no doubt gave him great pleasure. But it was not going to pay the bills. Not yet at least. So by the end of the year he was once again headed back into vaudeville. Also released in time for Christmas was The Stag Cook Book—A Man’s Cook Book for Men. Inside was a recipe for "Scalloped Mushrooms and Deviled Eggs" by Harry Houdini.

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