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...

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 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. 


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? 


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. 


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. 


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. 


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. 


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. 


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. 


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. 


  1. There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur, or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: There is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to... The Outer Limits.

    1. I'm a Twilight Zone man myself. :p

    2. Fair enough. I love them both. I'm tempted to take time off and visit California just to experience this Disneyfied attraction. You're sitting in that pitch black Victorian era room, you can feel the cool air conditioning, and then Harry's voice...caramba.

      Stenmeyer did indeed have a contradiction to deal with: Bringing Harry back when he made it clear he didn't approve of seance room escapades. When you reconcile it with the fact that it's just good entertainment and not a swindle pretending to contact the dead, it's all good. The Haunted Mansion meets Harry...

    3. This new seance room would make a great episode in an X Files style television series: A sitter in this Magic Castle seance gets a shocking surprise visit afterwards from the real ghost of Harry.