Friday, June 24, 2022

Check into Grace Hospital at Historic Detroit

The website Historic Detroit has a page devoted to Grace Hospital. It gives a brief history of the hospital and its most famous patient. It also includes a link to a page of photos, most of which I've never seen. Some terrific images, including the below. Houdini's last stop.

Grace Hospital's final day of operation was December 3, 1976 (which happened to be my 12th birthday). But the building remained standing and even saw seances inside room 401 where Houdini died. It was finally demolished in 1979 to make way for a new hospital on the site. Unfortunately, I've never been able to find the exact day or even the month of its demolition. Can anyone help?

Speaking of Grace and room 401, in 2007 a series aired on MTV called Room 401. While the series didn't have anything to do with Houdini specifically, the title is a reference to the room in which he died. How did I not know about this until now?

You can see photos of the real room 401 and read a personal recollection of Grace Hospital by Bob Franke, Jr. at the Houdini Museum of Scranton's website HERE.


Thursday, June 23, 2022

Houdini and the U.S. Congress

I'm back on the always enjoyable Transatlantic History Ramblings podcast with Lauren Davies and Brian Young. This time the topic is Houdini and his 1926 Congressional hearings. If you've been following the January 6th Hearings, come hear how Houdini did it! Click the image below to listen on Spotify.

You can listen and subscribe to Transatlantic History Ramblings on Apple, Spotify, Google, Anchor, or your favorite podcatcher. You can also follow them on Twitter @HistoryTA.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Anniversary gift

To mark Harry and Bess's 128th wedding anniversary today, here's a rarity from the McCord Museum. As I've noted in a few posts, the McCord is celebrating their own 100th anniversary by offering images from their collection free of use.

The below is from their Houdini holdings and might seem innocuous at first. I don't even think this is Houdini's handwriting. But the date tells us this is something very special.

McCord Museum

This appears to be a tag that accompanied flowers or some other gift from Houdini to Bess on their Silver Anniversary on June 22, 1919. The Houdinis celebrated the day with a gala dinner at the Hotel Alexandra in Los Angeles. The hotel and ballroom still exist. I had a visit in 2019.

Here's wishing Harry and Bess a happy 128th. I'm not sure what metal that would be, but it would need to be a rare one!


Monday, June 20, 2022

Houdini catches Belle Baker's "clacque"

Last week I posted the story of Houdini and Don the Talking Dog. Today I have a new tale of Houdini and a rascally fellow vaudevillian. This time its singer Belle Baker who shared the bill with Houdini at the Maryland Theater in Baltimore during the week of February 5, 1912.

Baker was known to employe the practice of "clacque." This means hiring audience members to provide an inordinate amount of enthusiasm and applause during your act. During her run at Hammerstein's in 1911, Variety called this out, writing: "Miss Baker did nothing with her voice, expression or gestures to merit this kind of applause. She became exceedingly painful in her labored efforts during the Italian selection. Miss Baker was one of the first in New York vaudeville to use a "clacque", and she soared for a while until vaudeville "got on.""

Here Variety is once again calling her out for the practice, but this time the situation ensnared Houdini.

Variety, Feb. 10, 1912

This was certainly embarrassing for all, but it does sound like Houdini took it in stride. I do love the idea of him standing "still for two minutes until the noise subsided." And despite her sneaky ways (or maybe because of them), Baker would go on to have a long and successful stage, film, and radio career. She died in 1957 at age 63.

Here's another fun detail about this engagement. Notice that "Mr. and Mrs. Erwin Connelly" are also on the bill this week. This is actually Jane Connelly, Houdini's future co-star in The Man From Beyond, and her husband Erwin who also appeared in the film. Do you think when they were on set they reminisced about the time Belle Baker gave Harry the clacque?

Saturday, June 18, 2022

'Please Don't Follow Me Home' podcast scares up Houdini

The spooky Please Don't Follow Me Home podcast dives into the world of Houdini in three episodes linked below. The plan is for me to join them for Part 4, which I'm looking forward to. As you'll hear, Jimi and Joei are a lot of fun.

You can also listen to "Please Don't Follow Me Home" on Spotify and Apple. Follow them (just not home) at Twitter and Facebook.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Finding Houdini's 278 at Paramount

Recently my buddy and former co-worker Sterling Silva altered me to the possibility that the exterior of Houdini's house from the 1953 Houdini biopic starring Tony Curtis still stands on the Paramount backlot. Yesterday I joined him for lunch and a little studio exploration and, sure enough, the block of homes as seen in the movie is still there!

Known as Washington Square, the block consists of five "upscale Georgian style facades". There have been cosmetic changes over the past 70 years, but it's all still very recognizable. Three of the facades match the film. Try as we might, we couldn't establish conclusively which of the three was the house. But the one I'm standing in above pic seemed to line up in our camera lens the best. And if you're wondering what the inside looks like, here you go. A little less square footage than the real thing, but that's movie magic for you!

In the movie the filmmakers elected to renumber the house as 273 W. 113th Street (as opposed to the real 278). This can be spotted on an invitation that immediately precedes this shot. The house interiors were shot on a Paramount soundstage along with the rest of the film. One day I hope to identify exactly which stages were used in the production. Paramount now lists on the outside of their stages which famous movies were made within, so it would be great to see Houdini (1953) added to one of those historic markers.

Our exploration also turned up a couple other Houdini connections. Adolph Zukor and Jesse Laksy both have buildings names after them. A large bust of Zukor sits in the lobby of his building. These men worked with the real Houdini to produce his two Paramount movies, The Grim Game (1919) and Terror Island (1920). Although Zukor may have ghosted Houdini when it came to the possibility of a third.

Unfortunately, the real Houdini never walked on the existing Paramount lot. His two films were shot at the now long gone Famous Players-Lasky studio in Hollywood. But Bess did! I didn't snap any pics of that spot on this visit, but I thought of her as we walked that same path.

Believe it or not, this is now the second standing 278 in Hollywood. The brownstone facade used in The Great Houdinis also still stands on the Fox Studio Lot in Century City.

What a joy to discover this piece of Houdini (1953) history is still around and is still in use. Paramount does offer studio tours, so you can always check it out for yourself.

Thank you Sterling!

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Houdini and Don the Talking Dog

It’s sometimes easy to forget that for most of his career Houdini was always part of a larger vaudeville show featuring a dozen other performers on the same bill. Most of those performers are now long forgotten. But looking below Houdini's name on a playbill can sometimes turn up some surprises, which is what I have today.

In July 1912 Houdini played a record seven weeks at Hammerstein's popular Roof Garden in New York City (pictured above). During this run that he featured his Double Fold Death Defying Mystery, did his first overboard box escape, and his first outdoor stunt in Times Square. This is also when asked for one week to be paid in gold coins so he could pour them into his mother's lap. Times were good!

But here's something about that famous engagement that doesn't get a mention in any biography. For five of those seven weeks Houdini shared the bill with a performer who rivaled him in popularity. A New York sensation, in fact. It was "Don the Talking Dog".

Below is a preview of Hammerstein's bill for the week of July 22, 1912. Notice who gets mentioned first.

New York Tribune, July 21, 1912.

This Hammerstein's engagement marked Don's debut in America. The dog had just come over on the SS Kronprinz Wilhelm, a ship Houdini also traveled on, and just like Houdini, he was seasick for most of his journey. Despite what the article says this was not Don's last week. Both he and Houdini were held over multiple times and both clocked a total of seven weeks on the Roof.

There's a surprising amount of information online about Don the Talking Dog, and it looks like I'm not the first to have noticed his time with Houdini. The below is from Mysterious Universe and tells the rest of Don's amazing tale.

Don became a huge success in America, at one point even sharing billing with the megastar escape artist Harry Houdini and the comedian Sophie Tucker, as well as other top acts at the time, and he went on to become a celebrity endorser for Milk-Bone dog biscuits in the process. Don the Talking Dog was starting to become a household name, and even though he only spoke German, Americans totally loved him. He was soon being called “the canine phenomenon of the century,” and adding to his allure and popularity were news headlines in August of 1913 that told of Don saving a man from drowning at Brighton Beach. Don allegedly shouted the word “Help,” before swimming out to save the man, ensuring that now he was not only an entertainment star and scientific marvel, but also a bonafide hero.

Don would spend several more years performing in America, touring around to places including Boston, San Francisco, and other cities, amazing audiences and allegedly puzzling scientists and animal experts. After this, he returned to Germany to retire until his death in 1915, his last words apparently being "Say goodbye to my old pal Loney Haskell."

Below is some artwork of Hammerstein's two headliners during their second shared week. The illustration of Houdini I've never seen and it's interesting that he appears to be being tied with strips of cloth. As for Don, well, he speaks for himself!

Below are links to a few other tales of Houdini and his fellow (human) vaudevillians. And stay tuned for a story about Houdini and the rascally Belle Baker.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Joe Notaro cracks 'The Mystery of the Jewel'

Our friend Joe Notaro at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence recently shared documents from his trip to the Harry Ransom Center related to Houdini's (ill-fated?) film acquisition, Il Mistero de Osiris aka The Mystery of the Jewel aka Ashes of Passion aka Reincarnation aka Ashes of Passion (again).

The story goes that Houdini acquired the negative of a 1919 Italian film, Il Mistero de Osiris, in a U.S. Customs auction of unclaimed goods in 1921. Just like his recently completed The Man From Beyond, the movie was a riff on the theme of reincarnation. Under the guise of a new company, Mystery Pictures, Houdini copyrighted the movie as The Mystery of the Jewel (Talisman) and printed an English translation of the plot synopsis, just as he had for his (bonkers) Yar The Primeval Man film treatment. And that's about all most books have to say about The Mystery of the Jewel, if they say anything at all.

But these documents reveal Houdini's plan to spruce up the film for release in the U.S. by creating new English inter-titles and inserting new footage. One sequence involved stock animal footage that Houdini provided specific instructions on how to assemble and where to insert into the movie. It's also possible Houdini planned to shoot new footage in Egypt, although that's not clear. Along the way the film's title changed to Ashes of Passion and in March 1922 Houdini attempted to interest the Vitagraph Co. in the still unfinished project.

Eventually, Mystery Pictures entered into an agreement to sell the movie, now titled Reincarnation, to Bernard Levey and Basic Enterprises for $5,250.00. A contact was drawn up on September 25, 1922 that shows Basic and Levey would hire a director to complete the film and share a percentage of the profits of any release with Mystery Pictures.

I was excited to see this contact as it appeared to finally explain what happened to the movie and I was set to search for a film called Reincarnation. However, Joe found another document dated April 24, 1923 in which Mystery Pictures entered into a new agreement with someone named Sheik Tahar. The movie was now back to being called Ashes of Passion and Tahar was granted a $1 option on the film against a $6000 purchase price. So it appears the Levey-Basic Enterprises deal didn't work out.

That's the last document, so it's unclear what became of Ashes of Passion. But I think it's likely Tahar never found a buyer and the film never saw a release. It became just another one of Houdini's unrealized and unprofitable film ventures.

You'll want to check out the original documents at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence where you can also read a synopsis of the movie's plot. And be sure to follow Joe's current series looking at Houdini's various film treatments. His next installment will be on The Great Tontine.

Monday, June 13, 2022

'A Rose from Houdini' by James Hilton

On March 2, 1952, a short piece of writing by famed English novelist James Hilton, author of Lost Horizon and Goodbye Mr. Chips, was syndicated in several newspapers. I've come across this in my research travels, but I've never seen it in color until magician Richard Hatch sent me an original in a batch of Houdini clippings. So I thought this was nice one to share. I love the illustration and the story is sweet.

Click to enlarge.

Here's a thought. This story appeared right on the heels of Paramount's announcement that they planned to make a biopic of Houdini's life. So maybe Paramount's publicity department had something to do with this? Was this a way to plant Houdini's name back into the public consciousness and begin to cultivate of his memory (like a rose)? James Hilton was living in California and did work with the studios. Just saying.

The Times, Feb. 15, 1952.

Speaking of the blooming rosebush, check out this presentation by our friend Lance Rich at the recent Magic Collectors Expo in Austin, which includes a nice Bess surprise.

Thanks Richard.


Saturday, June 11, 2022

The talk of Chicago

Here's one last post about Houdini at the Shubert Princess Theatre in Chicago in 1926. This 8-week run was longest single theater engagement for the 3 Shows in One and would prove to be Houdini's last appearance in the Windy City. Today I thought I'd share a collection of newspaper ads from the Chicago Tribune that pitched Houdini's show over the course of that record run.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Weird Tales Presents: The Strange World of Harry Houdini

LibriVox is offering audio recordings of all the Houdini Weird Tales stories as well as his "Ask Houdini" columns. Read by Ben Tucker, the recordings can be played or downloaded for free. There's even downloadable CD cover art.

In 1924, the odd and wonderful Weird Tales Magazine published a series of stories written (or ghost-written in at least one instance) by noted illusionist and skeptic Harry Houdini. In addition to these supposed exploits by the famous escape artist, the magazine hosted a series of "Ask Houdini" sections soliciting readers to ask questions of the great Houdini which he would respond to in turn in a future issue. These Ask Houdini segments are included here in addition to the Houdini stories to create a comprehensive collection of writings by and about Harry Houdini in Weird Tales! - Summary by Ben Tucker.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

The mystery of "Scotch May"

In the 1969 biography Houdini The Untold Story, author Milbourne Christopher relates a curious story from the Houdinis home life. He writes:

    The star of The Master Mystery was confronted by a minor mys­tery in his own home. When Houdini was in Scotland, Bess had hired a maid, Bethel May Dove, and brought her back with them to New York. Bethel May was a conscientious worker and seemed to enjoy her work in the Houdini household. She was twenty-one and almost a part of the family. One night Bess went to Bethel May’s room to give the girl her instructions for the next day. Ten minutes later Bess passed the door again and noticed that it was open. She walked back, looked in. Miss Dove was gone; so were her clothes and her wardrobe trunk. Harry told the police he thought she might have run away to marry a soldier. He knew exactly how his elephant disappeared, but the vanishing Dove baffled him.

I don't know Christopher's source for this [see UPDATE], but Houdini confirmed the maid's existence in a letter he wrote in June 1919 to a Mr. DeVega in Glasgow. The letter is in the collection of Edwin A. Dawes and in it Houdini writes:

    Our Glasgow maid ran away with a soldier, and hope she has been lucky in her choice.
    You know we took a scotch girl along to America. Such is life.

The missing maid doesn't get much of a mention in any other biography and she has pretty much slipped into obscurity. "Such is life" indeed. But now the case may be reopened as we might have finally found the missing maid...and more!

The current issue of Marco Pusterla's Ye Olde Magic Mag contains a fascinating article about a Scottish woman named Evelyn Kaye who claimed the Houdinis were her guardians for seven and a half years. The source is an undated article from a Glasgow newspaper (Marco speculates it was probably from around 1950). The article makes quite a few mistakes, such as saying Houdini died in 1934, but Evelyn's tale is intriguing. Here's an excerpt:

    Mrs. Kaye comes of a theatrical family. Her mother, known as Jessie Crawford, was an actress in old-time melodramas at the Princess's Theater in the days of Richard Walden.  
    When Houdini first came to Glasgow to perform at the Coliseum music hall in 1912, he and his wife and secretary lodged with the family in Abbotsford Place.
    They became great friends. Two years later when the Houdinis were going to America it was agreed that they should take Jessie Crawford's delicate 12-year-old daughter with them for her health's sake.
    A year later her mother died and the child was left under the guardianship of Houdini who later made her his dresser and co-assistant with Mrs. Houdini in a number of his illusions. They always called her "Scotch May."

The article goes on to say that the one-time "Scotch May" knew the methods of Houdini's Vanishing Elephant and Walking Through a Brick Wall, but that she would never reveal Houdini's secrets. It also says she married a Glasgow optician, but was now widowed. Interestingly, she had reached out to magician Robert Harbin, who was performing at Glasgow's Pavilion Theater, and knowing Houdini had a magician brother named Hardeen, asked Harbin if he was also related to Houdini. Harbin introduced her to a newspaper reporter and that is how this article came to be.

It was our friend and long time reader Leo Hevia who made the connection to the story in Christopher. So could Evelyn Kaye be the missing maid?

There are some discrepancies. Houdini was not in Scotland in 1912. But he was there in 1913. The two women have different names, but "May" is common between them and Kaye is likely a married name. We see in the DeVega letter that she came from Glasgow, but the letter can also be read as if Houdini is talking about two different women. And the math doesn't quite work as Christopher says the maid was 21, but the newspaper account would make her closer to 18-19 at the time of her vanishing act. But none of this is fatal to the case and more fits together than not, so I think it's very likely Bethel May, Evelyn Kaye and "Scotch May" are the same person.

This opens the door to a few possibilities. On occasion, Bess would talk about having a daughter. I've always thought that was bizarre, but perhaps Bess is talking about May who is, essentially, an adopted daughter. It also may be time to re-check post 1914 photos and see if we can catch a glimpse of Scotch May herself.

Finally, if we've discovered a new member of Houdini's household, is she able to provide any fresh insight? Well, she does, and it's a bit of a bombshell! Regarding Houdini as a person, the original article reads.

    He didn't drink or smoke, Mrs. Kaye tells me, and he worked indefatigably, often taking two years to perfect a single illusion. He taught himself 12 languages, and towards the end of his life was going blind, like his mother, his sister and his brother, an X-ray research doctor.

So here we have yet another mention of Houdini's faulty eyesight. But going blind? And his mother blind??? This is first time I've ever heard that. But the mention of his sister and brother's blindness is correct. Also, this article ran while Leopold was still alive, so knowledge of his blindness, which came on later in his life, just bolsters Evelyn's insider credentials. 

So maybe she revealed a Houdini secret after-all?

Houdini going blind?

A big thank you to Leo Hevia for his research. To Marco Pusterla of Ye Olde Magic Mag for permission to quote the original article. And to Edwin A. Dawes for showing me the original Houdini maid letter.

UPDATE: Our friend Marco Pusterla has discovered that Milbourne Christopher's source for the maid story was the November 15, 1918 issue of The Sphinx. This puts the disappearance around that time. The article also confirms that Bethel May came with the Houdinis from Scotland "six years ago", which also generally matches Evelyn's account. So just more evidence that Evelyn and Bethel are one in the same. Thanks Marco!

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

This may be last call for a 278 wood-made collectible

Yesterday I received a magnificent gift from Louis Grande at Houdini's 278 Project. These are cufflinks made of wood from Houdini's New York home (278). I can't wait to flash these at the Magic Castle!

For those who might be wondering how this can be, it all started back in 2019 when I put up this post alerting Houdini buffs that the new owners of 278 were about to throw out a large quality of wood stripped from the house during renovations. Several artists and entrepreneurs stepped forward and the result has been some remarkable collectibles made from that precious wood, such as: magic wands, pens, pendants, Ouija boards, and, yes, these awesome cufflinks!

But the house renovations are finished, the wood is long gone, and many of these rarities were limited and now sold out. Even artist Barry Spector tells me his stock of quality wood is low and he has retired his magic wand series. So as far as I know, the last best place to get a new 278 wood collectible is Houdini's 278 Project. And now seeing their cufflinks in the flesh, I can attest to the excellent quality of their work.

But I would strike soon. There will come a time when all this will be part of Houdini 278 history.

Monday, June 6, 2022

Barry Spector recreates Houdini's Russian Manacle

Our friend and master woodworker Barry Spector has produced another amazing work of Houdini art. This time he has crafted a working replica of the famous Russian Manacle, one of Houdini's more elusive "super cuffs." The cuffs are made from mahogany and the key is made from the 278 wood Barry acquired back in 2019. I actually never realized until I saw this recreation that a panel slid down over the keyhole. Check out the images provided by Barry below.

The real Russian Manacle survives and is currently housed in the collection of The Society of American Magicians Hall of Fame and Museum. That collection was last displayed at the Whittier Historical Society & Museum, but has been out of view since 2014.

Barry also recently made a small-scale replica of Houdini's famous Double Fold Death Defying Mystery box. He even built into it what he believes is the secret (but we can't show you that). The real Double Fold box is owned by David Copperfield.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Houdini comes alive at the 2022 Chautauqua festival

Houdini is one of the historical figures who will "come alive" at Greenville Chautauqua's History Comes Alive festival which runs June 9-19, 2022. Long time Houdini performer Larry Bounds will portray the Master Mystifier several times across the different venues. 

CLICK HERE for a full list of "Houdini's" appearances.

For more information on the festival check out their official website and Facebook. To get an idea of the festival, here's a video narrated by Larry Bounds (as himself).

The real Houdini appeared in Greenville giving his spiritualism lecture at Textile Hall on March 6, 1924. So this marks a welcome return!

Friday, June 3, 2022

Cabinet photo fever

Original Houdini cabinet photos appear to be doing especially well at auction these days. This beautiful cabinet photo just sold together with a 1909 English broadside for a healthy $13,440 (including the 28% buyers premium). I've never seen this image and I love it!

The auction listing dates this as 1901 as that is written on the back. However, to my eye, this looks like it was taken at the same time as the famous "my two sweethearts" photo at the Frederick Gutekunst studio in Philadelphia on January 3, 1907. (The Houdinis weren't even in the U.S. in 1901.)

Congrats to the winner of this beauty.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

The Benninghofen confession

Let's return to the front of the Princess Theater in Chicago with another terrific image from the collection of the McCord Museum. This captures a sidewalk stand advertising a very special week during Houdini's record 8-week run at the Princess in 1926.

Photo: McCord Museum

The confession of acclaimed trumpet medium Annie M. Benninghofen was a major coup for Houdini and a real blow against spiritualism. On April 15, 1926, Houdini held a press conference at the Hotel Sherman in Chicago with Benninghofen who admitted that she had practiced fraud for 30 years. Houdini and the medium then gave a demonstration seance for the gathered reporters exposing her techniques.

"My father was a spiritualist. He was devout in his belief," explained Mrs. Benninghofen. "He was an educated man, but he was duped just like all the others. Although I now admit the work I did was a fraud, I must say that at the time I was sincere. I really believed I was helping the spirits. But I never fooled my mother. And on her deathbed, she asked me to give it up. I refused, but I got to thinking about it, and finally I quit."

Houdini added, "They are all just alike. I have yet to meet a real medium. Mrs. Benninghofen is the greatest of all of them I have met, and she admits that her work was a fraud."

Mrs. Benninghofen appeared with Houdini onstage during his 3 Shows in One on the evening of April 16. Houdini then featured her as part of his show for the entire following week (April 19-25). That's the week we see advertised above. I love that it promotes it as "The Greatest Sensation Since the Confession of the Fox Sisters!" Also notice the mention of Cecil Cook. Houdini had busted her a year earlier.

Houdini and Mrs. Benninghofen took a series of photos together at the Butler studio in Chicago. You can see several of those photos affixed to the sidewalk stand. Below is another less common photo from the McCord collection.

Photo: McCord Museum

When Mrs. Benninghofen completed her week with Houdini at the Princess, she gave him her spirit trumpet along with sworn statement that it was used for fraud. Today there are several Houdini owned spirit trumpets in private collections, but I'm not sure which is the famous Benninghofen trumpet. If anyone has any info on that, I'd love to hear it.

Thanks to the McCord Museum for helping unlock these stories with their magnificent images.

UPDATE: Brandon Hodge of The Mysterious Planchette has come forward with what he believes to be the Benninghofen trumpet, and I think he's right! Brandon writes:
I know lots of folks make big claims about Houdini items, but I have long suspected I own the Benninghofen trumpet. I have two trumpets acquired from the Dunninger estate (which had many Houdini-associated items), and one is not only the same configuration as the Benninghofen trumpet (the fully rolled bell-edge is a rare feature on historical trumpets), but has the same slightly darker/mis-matched pieces.