Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Finding Houdini in the 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, 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 Jim Morgan and the unfortunate Mary...once played by Harry and Bess Houdini!


*UPDATE: 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.

7 comments:

  1. That was a great find, John!!! You filled a gap in pre 1899 Martin Beck, Houdini and Bess history! That isn't easy. I love how you followed up a story--a Bess recollection--and authenticated it. It's the only way to be certain given that she wasn't above telling whoppers like the Belle Island Bridge hole in the ice story.

    The Hollywood movie posters are telling. The guy's daughter is a little girl and Bess easily could have looked believable when she played this role. You have also discovered early posters that had been under the radar of Houdini collectors. I would imagine they now have their antennas up at swap meets and flea markets.

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    1. Bill Kalush once told me there's more truth in Kellock than most people think. I'm beginning to discover that for myself.

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    2. I believe that too. But that requires separating the Bess chaff from the wheat. The Belle Island Bridge hole in the ice story doesn't help. In hindsight it made a great scene in the Tony Curtis film.

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  2. "Ten Nights in a Bar Room", was a popular, if not perennial play, especially thru the time the Temperance movements continued for decades. I remember when I first read the Kellock book, and I asked my Grandmother about the play, she began saying words from the play, from seeing it decades earlier.

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  3. Ditto. Nice work.
    At some point in my past I recall reading 10 Nights In A Bar (I appear to have remembered the title wrong) and I was impressed by the concept of telling the story of people's live in such a novel way. It made me want to write something in that same manner.

    Reading this also brought to mind the biography of Cary Grant that I am currently reading. I did not know that he got his start in Vaudeville. The great thing about live performance is the instant feedback from the audience. For Hollywood, bring that kind of audience feedback to the screen was a challenge.

    As you have noted in the past, Houdini was a master showman. I can imagine him doing a little theater, but really his whole schtick was theater.
    Thanks for the mental stimulation...

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