It's one of the great white whales of Houdinidom. Was there ever a poster for his Vanishing Elephant illusion? This has long been the stuff of dreams and April fools jokes. But while doing research at the Harry Ransom Center last week, I discovered that, yes, there absolutely was a Vanishing Elephant poster!
The proof is found in a letter from Birchet "Kit" Clarke to Houdini dated March 7, 1918. The 85-year-old Clarke was a former press agent, Harry Kellar's manager, and a real character (I'll have more on him in time). His letter begins:
My dear Houdini:-The red poster came along this morning and is now decorating the wall before my easy chair where I can easily gaze upon it and see Jennie vanish into the upper air like "the baseless fabric of a vision."
There can be no doubt about what Clarke is talking about here. A great deal of Clarke's correspondence at this time references the Vanishing Elephant, and the name of Jennie cinches it. Clarke's description of a "red" poster with Jennie vanishing "into the upper air" brought to my mind the prototype Vanishing Elephant posters also held by the Harry Ransom Center (below). I posted about these a few years back and at that time wondered if they ever became real posters. I think we now have our answer!
Unfortunately, we still don't know what this finished poster looked like. But maybe one day one Clarke's copy or another might surface like "the baseless fabric of a vision."
Want more? You can read Kit Clarke's full 3-page letter, which includes an epic takedown of the Williamson Brothers, as a Scholar on my Patreon.
Is it possible all he had was one of the red colored prototypes on his wall? Is it possible there is no finished poster? The prototypes look underwhelming to me. Harry is too small in the images, no longer larger than life, which he always presented himself as. If I was the illustrator, I would have put HH front and center, with an image of the elephant behind him.ReplyDelete
That's possible I guess. Although I'm not sure how it found its way back to Houdini.Delete
More than one copy of each prototype might have been printed? If Clarke had descendents, they might still have that elephant image as a family heirloom.Delete
It's possible Clarke could have had a third prototype. Which really takes the joy out of this. :(Delete
How can we believe there was no poster to advertise this illusion? This is Houdini we are talking about. Of course posters advertising these performances at the Hippodrome were hung all around the outside of the theatre. Had to be.ReplyDelete
I should say the HRC does have a finished promotional poster. It doesn't have an image or even Houdini's name. It's just white on black text that says, "Look Out for The Vanishing Elephant." It's pretty cool.Delete
Maybe not. The Vanishing Elephant only played at the Hippodrome in 1918 for a number of weeks. That's it. Walking thru a Brick Wall was briefly presented, and brushed off to Hardeen. I've never seen a poster for that yet. Houdini wasn't traveling with these two effects to other theaters. Is it possible he passed on making posters for both of these? If he did commission posters, perhaps only a few were made. They were only going to be hung at the theater, and maybe surrounding local areas. Maybe the poster company told him no way they're only going to print a few. Their print runs had to be large and profitable. They weren't going to go thru the hassle of producing a poster just to print maybe only 20 of them.Delete
Well, the two don't really compare. Walking Through A Brick Wall was one week and part of his vaudeville turn. The Vanishing Elephant was 19 weeks and a special feature of a huge review show (Cheer Up). Houdini would not have made these posters himself. The Hippodrome would have, and they did (the black and white ones). To my eye the prototypes would have been lobby displays. They probably matched posters for the other acts. They existed. But, you're right, the number would have been small. I suspect HH had the Hippodrome send Clarke his poster.Delete
Yes--the good historian follows the money. Suppose you're a big time vaudeville magician booked to do a three month 20 city tour. You need to plaster 25 posters in each city to advertise your act. That's 25 posters in 20 cities, so you're going to need 500 posters. If you only stay at the Hippodrome for 5 months, you're not going to need 500 posters. Try walking into the lithograph company with a small order like 20 posters. They would have laughed you out of the office. There couldn't have been a financial incentive to print 500 Vanishing Elephant posters. We admire those beautiful vintage magic posters as works of art, but make no mistake about it, the posters were about money.Delete
I wrote off the top of my head at work without my Silverman/Christopher books. Sorry I was just guessing the weeks HH was booked for both illusions.