Wednesday, August 3, 2022

The Norfolk kerfuffle

Here's a terrific illustration of Houdini and his fellow performers at the Colonial Theater in Norfolk, Virginia, during the week of March 4, 1912. This engagement is notable in that it featured a standout challenge and a bizarrely ignominious end.

Houdini's upcoming appearance at the 1,100 seat Colonial Theater was heavily promoted. This was his first appearance in Norfolk and a rare appearance for him in Virginia (his last being Richmond in 1900). The Virginian Pilot and the Norfolk Landmark ran a full-page illustrated profile headlined, "Houdini: The Man with the Charmed Life." The manager of the Colonial, H.B. Hearns, even refused an offer of $500 from the Orpheum in Harrisburg to retain Houdini for another week.

Houdini would receive $1,200 plus a percentage of the box office. This was the second highest salary ever paid to a performer at the Colonial (the first being Gus Edwards and his The Song Revue). But Wilmer & Vincent, the company behind the theater, felt the Handcuff King was worth it:

In view of Mr. Houdini's drawing powers, and the excellent support theater-goers of Norfork and vicinity have given the Colonial this season, they are taking a chance and confidently expect this really marvelous man to break every record the house has ever had. And at regular scale of prices.

Houdini did not disappoint when he opened on March 4, playing two shows to standing room only. He featured his Double Fold Death Defying Mystery and also accepted a string of challenge escapes for the week. The Schlitz Brewing Co. challenged him to escape his Milk Can filled with beer. The Norfolk Automobile Trade Association proposed a challenge in which Houdini would be chained within two Goodyear tires and nailed to the stage. He was also challenged to escape from the Norfolk County jail. While the newspapers ran the challenge, I couldn't find any account of the escape itself. In fact, it doesn't appear he did any outdoor stunts to promote his appearance, possibly because a snow storm had arrived that week.

The most notable challenge was saved for last. It was announced from the Colonial stage following Houdini's successful escape from the Goodyear tires. The newspapers described the scene:

Perhaps the most interesting feature of his appearance here was the reading of a challenge received from the committee of the submarine station of the Navy Yard, challenging him to allow himself to be fastened in a regulation navy deep-sea diving suit, and he to escape without injuring the suit. The specifications were so severe as to cause the audience to laugh, and when Houdini excepted the challenge, setting Friday night for the test, there was prolonged cheering.

The day before the challenge Houdini travelled to the Navy station to examine the diving suit. He stated that if he could figure out a way to escape, he would give the secret to the Navy as a way to help seamen who might find themselves trapped. For this Houdini said he would ask nothing in return, "except the credit for the invention."

There was nothing inherently dangerous about the diving suit challenge. But this didn't stop Houdini from playing up the drama. A terrific account of the escape was carried in the next day's paper.

Virginian Pilot and the Norfolk Landmark, March 9, 1912

However, the diving suit escape wasn't the only drama audiences witnessed that night. The seeds of what happened next are hinted at in the above which alludes to some "trouble between Houdini and the manager" that delayed the start of the escape. That trouble only escalated after his performance, as was reported by the Virginian Pilot and the Norfolk Landmark the following day:

As the last act of the bill went on the audience became conscious of a disturbance behind the scenes. Houdini was crying out that he was being cheated and wanted the balance of his salary. Just as the closing act went off and the sheet was dropped for the moving pictures, Houdini rushed out before the footlights clad in a bathrobe.

"I am Houdini–Harry Houdini!" He exclaimed. "I want my money. These people won't give me my salary." With other expressions of a like nature, he rushed about the stage, blocking the pictures. Fearing that a panic would result and that the audience would become excited, the stage manager dragged him behind the scenes by force, Houdini resisting and clinging to every possible foothold and handhold.

The police were called and Houdini was arrested. A large crowd gathered in front of the theater to see the magician taken away in a police car, but he was "quietly taken through a rear entrance and spirited away to the station house." There Houdini was charged with creating a disturbance. Edwards Stevens, a fellow performer at the Colonial (who can also be seen in the top illustration), posted his $50 bail.

On his release Houdini told reporters, "This action was taken merely because the manager of the theater and myself had a misunderstanding. I will admit that I became excited, but who wouldn't cry for $400–even make a bigger fuss than I did?"

This wasn't the first time Houdini had hijacked a stage to protest the actions of a theater manager. In 1910 Houdini took to the stage of the Holburn Empire in London when a manager asked him to not appear at a matinee. Despite the police being called, Houdini won the audience over by insisting they remain in their seats until he was allowed to perform for them as advertised.

Houdini considered staying in Norfolk to fight the case. But he decided to move on to his next engagement in Trenton, vowing in time to "get my desserts." Variety later offered some insight into what led up to the fracas:

Variety, March 16, 1912

In April Houdini filed suit to recover his $400. It's unclear if he ever got his money. But he did make good on his promise to give the secret of his diving suit escape to the U.S. Navy, and received a patent for his invention in 1921. He never returned to Norfolk.

According to the always helpful Cinema Treasures, the Colonial Theater stood at 116 W. Tazewell Street. With the decline of vaudeville in the 1930s it became a full time movie theater. By the 1960s it had fallen into disrepair and was being used to show adult films. It ceased operation sometime in the 1970s and the building was later demolished.

Below is the only image of the Colonial I could find in it's later days. Today a modern development, Harbor Heights, stands on the site of Houdini's first diving suit challenge and his Norfolk kerfuffle.

Want more? You can see and download 19 newspaper clippings that I used as research for this post as a "Scholar" member of my new Patreon. Just click the image below to go:


  1. I'm still not clear on what happened? The manager withheld $400 from HH, but why?

    1. Well, it gets complicated. The $400 was fine for speaking ill of the theater manager onstage. Houdini had also done this in 1910, and both incidents stemmed from the same reason; the manager asked Houdini to skip a show.

      Why would he ask this? I threw this question out to the folks on the Vaudeville FB page and no one could give me a knowledgable answer. But I suspect this is some kind of money making ploy. Either the manager doesn't have to pay the headliner for that appearance (or maybe just the percentage), or it's a way to make the audience come back to another show. Say the headliner is sick. I'm not sure, but I feel like it's a manager dirty trick that Houdini recognized and he HATED crooked managers.

      But I don't have an answer, and after hearing people on FB cast doubt on my speculation, I cut it.