Saturday, March 12, 2022

Houdini's Brighton Beach Memoirs

Recently I came across a terrific 1927 interview with George Robinson, the salty managing director of the New Brighton Theatre in Brighton Beach, Coney Island. It appeared in the Brooklyn Times Union and is headlined, "Where Weather is the Real Headliner," and begins with some magnificent scene setting:
This is the season when Gotham comes to Brighton. Pleasure parks blaze at night like beacon fires along the beaches, while the lights grow dimmer and dimmer on Broadway. This is the season of shore diners, hadball [sic?], hot dogs, one-piece bathing suits, open taxie, ice cream cones, beach chairs and vaudeville – summer vaudeville.

The sea-green walls of the New Brighton Theatre are freshly painted. Plaster mermaids disport in shell pediments over the boxes. Sloops unfurl their delft blue sails on placques above the doors. Actresses in rompers play medicine ball on the campus; tenors and golf enthusiasts are practicing "form"; a soubrette is doing the Charleston.
What does this have to do with Houdini, you ask? Well, Robinson does mention the magician in the course of the interview, and it's pretty amusing. Here's the excerpt:
"Who was the biggest drawing card you ever had?"

"Lillian Russell. She packed the house, but when we brought her back the next season at $3000 a week – although she was just as good – the fickle public weren't interested. Annette Kellerman was a good drawing card because of her figure not her stunts. [...] Stunts don't interest Brighton crowds. Houdini was annoyed because we didn't get excited when he offered to jump off a pier and drown himself. He did jump off but nobody paid any particular attention to him."
So did Houdini really play the New Brighton? Not a single biography mentions this engagement. To the chronology!

Sure enough, Houdini played the New Brighton theatre the week of July 24, 1916. It was his first appearance there and a rare summer engagement for him. (He had played Henderson's in Coney Island the year before.) The Brooklyn Times Union announced his upcoming appearance in their July 22 issue, explaining:
"Because of the exacting nature of his offering, Mr. Houdini has always been averse to making public appearances in the heated term. However, as he recently purchased a home in Flatbush in a location adjacent to the beach, he has agreed to interrupt his vacation for a single week."
(Houdini hadn't actually "purchased" a home in Flatbush. He and Bess had moved in with the Hardeens in 1914.)

As you can see below, Houdini shared top billing that week with Adele Rowland, a popular stage actress and singer who specialized in "story songs". She was also making her first appearance at the New Brighton.

Brooklyn Times Union, July 22, 1916

Houdini did do an outdoor stunt this week. Robinson seems to recall it as a pier jump, but the newspapers described an overboard box escape. And despite what Robinson says about no one paying attention, Houdini drew a good crowd, despite the rain.

The Chat, July 29, 1916.

As far as I know, this was the only time Houdini played the New Brighton and the last time he played Coney Island.

In 1920 the New Brighton began screening movies during the winter months. It was renamed just the Brighton Theatre in 1936 when it became a legitimate house and part of the subway circuit. It was closed and demolished in 1954. Today an apartment complex stands on the site.

UPDATE: Here is a broadside advertising Houdini's overboard box escape in Brighton from the collection of the McCord Museum. Notice the prominent mention of George Robinson. Heck, he seems to be making this all about himself! Funny.


  1. "Hadball" would seem to be handball, which is a long-standing Brighton Beach tradition, at least according to the Times:

    1. Ah ha! Yeah, I suspected they meant handball, which Houdini played, btw. Thanks Dave!

  2. Coney Island must have been on the lower rungs of the vaudeville entertainment ladder. It looked like a place for newcomers to break into show business.

    1. From this article I get a sense that it was a bit of a world apart. If you wanted to see or work vaudeville in the summer months, Coney Island was the place, and these theaters did attract headliners. Two years in a row Houdini played summer vaudeville in Coney Island.

    2. Summer months must have been torture inside theaters. Without air conditioning until the early 1920s, many must have closed during the summer. I wonder if the Coney Island theaters were open air.

    3. Yeah, I believe theaters closed in the summer months (except for roof gardens that were open air and cooler). I don't think the Brighton was an open air theater. Nor was Henderson's. But they were cooler by just being near the ocean.