Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Exploring Houdini's Austin

Recently I had the pleasure of visiting Austin, Texas, where Houdini appeared twice during his career. It's a great city with some great Houdini history, so let's raise the curtain and get into it!

Houdini made his first tour of Texas on Karl Hoblitzelle's Interstate vaudeville circuit in early 1916. He played Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. His final stop was the state capitol of Austin. Houdini opened at the Majestic Theater ("The Theater Beautiful") on February 7. Interviewed at the Hotel Driskill, Houdini told the Austin Statesman:

"Austin is a beautiful place and I will not be here long. I would like to see the town, to do my acts and to be peaceful. But there is something in the air. I have not opened my mail and will not until tomorrow. There should be a challenge in it. You know, this place surprises me. It looks a lot bigger than they tell me it is. And you have in the Majestic one of the finest theaters in the Southwest. It would be a credit to any city."

Originally booked for only two days, Houdini proved such a draw that he was held over for the full week. Because the rest of the company moved on to Arkansas, Houdini expanded his act to an hour and the remainder of the Majestic's bill was filled out with a Theda Bara film, The Serpent.

Houdini featured his Water Torture Cell, Needles, and accepted challenges from the Walter Tips Co. (roped chair) and E.M. Scarbrough & Sons (packing case). But the most heavily advertised challenge came from five University of Texas students to escape from a packing case made on stage. The escape took place on Friday, February 11, with Houdini breaking free in 12 minutes. He then demolished the box onstage and handed out signed shards as souvenirs.

The Majestic was still a relatively new theater when Houdini appeared there. It opened in October of the previous year and offered everything from vaudeville to traveling stage shows and films. It was renamed the Paramount in 1930.

Happily, the Paramount Theater still stands today. It remains a very popular venue for Austin's thriving music and theatre scene. I might even go as far to say the Paramount is the best preserved of any Houdini theater in the United States. Yes, I realize there's the Palace in New York City, but from the outside that theatre is unrecognizable from Houdini's time. But Houdini would have no problem recognizing his "Theater Beautiful" today.

During my trip I was thrilled to get a private tour of the Paramount alongside Eric Colleary, Cline Curator of the Theatre & Performing Arts collections at the Harry Ransom Center. It was pretty wild to stand on a stage that Houdini stood on, and see backstage which is pretty much as it was in Houdini's time. Even the loading dock door is still the original. Just think, Houdini's Water Torture Cell rolled through this door.

The biggest thrill of our tour was when our guide, Pasquale Del Villaggio, Director of Production and Technical Services, lowered the original asbestos fire curtain. This dates all the way back to the theater's first days and is what audiences would have seen the night of Houdini performances. It's rarely lowered for obvious reasons. Even many of the staff had never seen it. So to have this lowered just for us was huge honor and an exciting moment, captured on video by Eric.

The Paramount is well aware of its Houdini history. A nice collection of historical clippings, given to the theater by the local S.A.M. Assembly 206, hangs in the offices. Their lounge is called the "Houdini Lounge". Even their wifi password has a Houdini connection (but I won't share that!). There's also the famous hole above the stage that is supposed to have been made by Houdini for a trick. But I'll leave that one for others to debate.

To promote his Austin appearance, Houdini performed a suspended straitjacket escape from the Littlefield building at 6th & Congress. Named for George Washington Littlefield, this classical Beaux-Arts building was erected in 1912. Houdini was suspended at the fifth floor from rigging on the roof. Unfortunately, the only photo of the escape that I'm been able to find is of Houdini and his challenger, Chief of Police Morris, so I don't know precisely where he hung.

The Littlefield building still stands as a Texas Historic Landmark and it's a beauty! Like the Paramount, I'd put this among the best preserved Houdini locations in the country.

Austin American Statesman, Feb. 10, 1916.

While in Austin Houdini reportedly turned down a challenge to escape from the Travis County Jail, saying that jail breaking for him was "old stuff." Well!

Houdini returned to Austin in 1923, once again on tour with Karl Hoblitzelle's Interstate vaudeville circuit. He arrived in the city on November 15 and appeared that night at a rally in the Women's Gym at the University of Texas. Papers reported that Houdini "consented to appear at the rally to help the girls in making the thing go off big." Today the Student Union building stands on that spot.

This time Houdini played two days, November 16-17, at the Hancock Opera House on West 6th St. The Hancock was designed by Frederick Ernst Ruffini and dates back to 1896. The theater became Austin's home for Interstate vaudeville when the Majestic began featuring first run movies (this week it was The Spanish Dancer with Pola Negri). Houdini presented his Needles, straitjacket, and also the spirit slates. It's possible the theater couldn't accommodate his Water Torture Cell as there is no mention of the escape in the reviews.

The Hancock became the Capitol Theater in 1935 and operated until 1963. Today a modern office building stands on the site of Houdini's second Austin theater.

To promote his appearance, Houdini reportedly once again did a suspended straitjacket escape from the Littlefield building, making it the only building in which he ever repeated the stunt. [While this escape is noted in Ron Cartlidge's excellent Houdini's Texas Tours, I'm still seeking firm confirmation.] He also accepted a challenge from the Barker Motor Company to escape a packing case. The best part of this challenge might be the fantastic photo it gave us below!

The Austin American, Nov. 17, 1923.

Houdini also spoke this week to the Young Men's Business League at the Driskill Hotel. He warned of the dangers of spiritualism, giving attendees a taste of the Houdini to come. The Driskill is where Houdini stayed during his 1916 engagement and likely in 1923 as well.

Now owned by Hyatt, the Driskill is a jewel of downtown Austin. Walking inside is like stepping into a time capsule, and it's easy to imagine Houdini striding through the lobby. It also sits adjacent to the Littlefield building, which I never knew until my visit. In fact, all these downtown Houdini locations are within blocks of each other.

Houdini graced yet another stage in Austin this week. The Crescent Theater at 920 N. Congress Avenue played Haldane of the Secret Service during the Friday and Saturday Houdini was in town. It was reported that Houdini would make a personal appearance at the theater during the run. So you really couldn't escape Houdini in Austin during these two days!

The Crescent operated until 1931. While no longer a theater space, the building that stands on the site today appears to be the same structure. So here's Houdini's third Austin theater!

The story of Houdini in Austin doesn't end in 1923. Houdini returned in 1958. Yes, 1958! 

Ironically, it was once again Karl Hoblitzelle who brought Houdini back to the city, this time permanently, when he purchased the Messmore Kendall Collection for the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. Kendall had acquired Houdini's theatrical collection and personal papers from Bess in 1927. So the collection that arrived in Austin in June 1958 was loaded with a lifetime of Houdiniana!

Below you can see a photo of that historic day and the same location as it appears today.

Today Houdini lives in Austin at the magnificent Harry Ransom Center, which is where we will be exploring next! Stay tuned.

My thanks to Erin Waelder, Pasquale Del Villaggio, and all the staff of the Paramount Theater for the unforgettable tour. Jim Nicar for the Women's Gym pic. Ray Anderson of Esther's Follies, which is a must see show in Austin (yes, there's a Houdini reference). And Eric Colleary of course!

Want more? You can view and download 30+ newspaper clippings related to Houdini in Austin as a "Scholar" member of my Pateron by clicking the image below. "Handcuff King" patrons and non-patrons can purchase this research file HERE.


  1. “He looks just like anyone else!” Ha! That is the least Harry headline ever! I love it. Wonderful post soaked in history, as per your usual...thank you for being you.

    1. Thank you as always Colleen. I'm glad you enjoyed. I thought this would be my quickie post before I got into the meat of the Harry Ransom Center, but it just grew and grew. So much great Houdini history in Austin. Although whenever I drill down on a city I discover depths of Houdini history there. Endlessly interesting...even if he does look just like anyone else! :)

  2. This was an incredible report! It appears that Austin loved HH as much as Boston did. The movie business didn't pan out for HH but judging from this post, you get the feeling by 1923 he's making the best of things returning to vaudeville. I didn't know Hobliztelle purchased the Kendall Collection, and donated it to the university. I always assumed it was Kendall who made the donation. John's loving dedication to researching all things Houdiniana keeps me a Houdini Newbie. That's thrilling.

    1. Thanks Leo! Yeah, the Hobliztelle connection is really cool, isn't it? I actually didn't make the connection back to the Interstate circuit until this trip. Poetic that it was Hobliztelle who brought HH to Austin on all three occasions.

    2. Yes it is poetic that Hobliztelle brought HH to Austin on all three occasions! He tied the loose ends on the third trip to Austin. I always thought it was a little weird that a university in Texas wound up with an amazing Houdini collection. But now I understand that Texas was a bigger part of Houdini's legacy than I had previously thought. Kendall is still notable for keeping the HH collection together.

    3. Makes me want to travel to some of the other cities on Houdini's Texas tours. Would be interested to explore Houdini's San Antonio.

    4. That would be nice! A Houdini Magical History Tour documentary show. You travel throughout the U.S. visiting HH landmarks. The Hearst Building in L.A. 278. 10 Lime Street...and so on.

    5. Hey, that sounds good to me! :)

    6. Seriously--the time is now for something like this. If you don't do it, you might regret it down the road. You look good on television and with your vast HH knowledge, the perfect narrator and guide. You can assemble a small crew, camera guy and so on, and travel the U.S. After taping is completed, and edited, you can sell it to a cable channel like History Channel.

    7. John, If you maker down to San Antonio please clet me know. I relocated here in 2020 during the pandemic and would love to meet up with you again.

      I lived in Austin during the mid 90s and never know about the Houdini history there. I've seen the Littlefield building more times than I can count and never realized I was under where Harry was. I've seen several shows at the Paramount as well.

    8. Will do! Glad I could let you know about the Littlefield bldg. So many cites has Houdini history that's been somewhat lost. I've actually considered doing a book of surviving Houdini locations like this. That would be book #3! I really gotta get writing. :p