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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8 comments:

  1. Wonderful!!! I love how these year deep dives puts things in chronological order. What was the name of the newspaper?

    The Maryland Theater in Baltimore followed. A review in the ___________ 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.

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    1. Oh! Whoops. How did that drop out? It was the Evening Sun. Thanks.

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    2. Thanks! What were those two tricks he's been showing for years? Needles and ...?

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    3. Thanks! Until his 3 in 1 show, HH got into a rut for a while there: Straitjacket, Needles, and the USD.

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  2. Thumb racket trick,could that be thumb cuffs?thumb ratchet trick.Great article thanks.

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  3. The "Thumb Racket" trick - refers to the "old trick" of apparently removing one's own thumb...and then putting it back on.

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    1. Thanks Joe. Correct. I should have made that clear.

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