On Saturday I had the pleasure of attending the opening of Houdini Unchained: The Legacy of Harry Houdini at MUZEO Museum and Cultural Center in Anaheim, California. The exhibition showcases the never-before-displayed collection of Dr. Randall Bell. I was very excited to see this and I'm happy to report it surpassed my expectations. There are some true rarities on view and the entire exhibition is beautifully presented. Houdini never performed in Anaheim, but he's here now!
One of the first things you see on entering the first gallery--which tells the story of Houdini's origins and his magic--is Houdini's original Flower Cone Illusion. It's exciting to see any surviving piece of Houdini apparatus, and to see something this large from the final season of his 3 Shows in One is truly special. In this effect an assistant, possibly Bess, would be turned into a large bouquet of flowers. The bouquet is still inside the cone today.
The Flower Cone was used by Houdini and later Hardeen. The traveling crate also shows the name of (Milbourne) Christopher. The burnt orange color matches other illusions known to be from the 3 Shows in One, such as Slicing a Woman in Eight and Houdini's Blooming Rosebush, which is on display as well! This is one of two tables Houdini used in his show. The Flower Cone and Blooming Rosebush were both made by R.S. Schlosser of New York.
You may recall the last place we saw this flower table was in the workshop museum of master illusion builder John Gaughan. As it turns out, Dr. Bell has purchased many of John's Houdini artifacts which is big news in itself! The original traveling case for the table, bearing Houdini's name, is also on display.
The next gallery showcases escapes, and here we find a Metamorphosis trunk, a vintage-style straitjacket used in the movie The Linguini Incident, and the Water Torture Cell first made by John Gaughan for the movie The Escape Artist. This cell has appeared in many different film and television productions, including Young Harry Houdini. While much larger than Houdini's cell, it's a great representation of his most famous escape and now looks right at home in a museum.
Another big ticket item--possibly the star of the show--is an original Houdini Milk Can. This is the can that reportedly came from the basement of Houdini's New York home in 1980. It's unusual in that it has only four locks and a somewhat different overall shape from other Houdini cans. But it is gaffed in the traditional manner and coming from Houdini's home is pretty good provenance. And it looks great on display! A thrill to see.
The career of the Handcuff King is well represented with original Houdini handcuffs and manacles, including a Bean Giant handcuff with a custom lock and key and an Oregon Boot to boot! There are also authentic Houdini lock picks on display.
All aspects of Houdini's life and career are represented in an assortment of Houdini books, letters, programs, and other ephemera throughout the exhibit. This inscription in A Magician Among the Spirits is one of the best I've ever seen.
The story of Houdini's spiritualism debunking is nicely told in a seance room setting in which we hear the famous recording of Dr. Edward Saint at The Final Houdini Seance. This was popular and the room was always full, so I didn't get a good photo. But what I found most exciting here was an original Houdini prop that I'm unfamiliar with. I will let the museum's placard do the describing:
Houdini's Personal Seance ClockThis clock was used in Houdini's "debunking" seance performances of 1923 to 26 trickery in which he demonstrated how fraudulent mediums used trickery (in this case a wax hand taking the place of the medium's hand while the real hands were busy stopping in the clock!)
The seance room also has an incredible 2-page letter written by Bess in the final months of her life. In it she reveals a fresh new detail about Houdini's death. I will be devoting a standalone post to that treasure soon.
As you leave the main exhibit there is a personal message from Dr. Bell himself. I love that he came to Houdini via the Williams and Epstein book, The Great Houdini. The gateway biography.
The museum has also commissioned original Houdini artwork by artists such as Melissa Chan Stone and John Coulter. The artwork is displayed outside the main exhibition and available as merchandise in the gift shop. Here's Melissa Chan Stone with her Vanishing Elephant Lenticular.
Finally, there's a special photo-booth made just for the exhibition by John Gaughan which produces a mysterious effect as you can see below. This is going to be popular!
I've only just touched on the major displays here. There is much more to be discovered and enjoyed. Congratulations to Randall Bell and everyone at MUZEO for bringing Houdini to life in Anaheim!
Houdini Unchained: The Legacy of Harry Houdini will be on show until January 22, 2023. MUZEO is located at 241 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, CA 92805. Hours are Wednesday through Sunday from 11am to 5pm. Be sure and check out their parking information as that's a bit tricky.
Want more? You can view 26 high res images from the exhibition as a member of my Patreon.
Thank you for the report! The slope shouldered Milk Can is a baffler. It looks like the cans Hardeen used in later years, yet it supposedly came out of 278. Weird. I wonder if somebody parked one of Hardeen's cans in the basement of 278. The key for that Bean Giant looks correct to me. It's a small key.ReplyDelete
I don't think this can has anything to do with Hardeen. For starters, it's way too small for him. (The escape guys at the exhibition measured it, but I didn't write it down.) The key looks like a standard key for Bean Giants, but it's not. These don't open with a standard key. This cuff was likely gaffed by Houdini to ensnare rival Handcuff Kings.Delete
If you look at the rivet positioning shoulder and below vs shoulder to top they don’t appear to match.ReplyDelete
The shoulder is visibly wider than the bottom top of the can very unlike all other milk cans both Houdini and Hardeen varieties.
It’s a very odd looking milk can almost as if the top portion of one can was retrofitted upon the bottom of another.
So does this make four milk cans that we have photographs?
One with Houdini’s head protruding.
Two with an old Hardeen standing inside.
Three used for the double box and can escape.
Four, this can.
Anonymous is right. The top section looks too large for the bottom section, like putting a large lid on a medium sized cup. It looks like sections from two different cans.Delete
The issue from an audience perspective is that the top section of the can gives the appearance that it can be lifted off. (Because it’s not streamlined with the cans bottom). I don’t think the can is “usable” simply for this reason alone.Delete
You guys are right and I thought the same thing. But know it's not as bad as the photo makes it appear. There is a shadow being cast from the display spotlight above. Look at it in the background of the straitjacket pic. It's not as noticeable. And all the Milk Cans have a visible rim there. But not a lip like this.Delete
Yes, if I was HH I would have rejected the design for this. And maybe he did. With the four locks, it could be this is a prototype. Randy Bell calls it "Can #1".
Agreed, what we're looking at appears to be "parts" left behind in 278. Nevertheless Dr. Bell did the right thing rescuing them for posterity.Delete
I'm sure Hardeen went into the basement of 278 after HH died to see what he could use for his show. He must have checked out the Dr. Bell prototype and labeled it unusable. Storage space at his Brooklyn hoys4Delete
Storage space at his Brooklyn house must have been limited. I don't get how the can went by people like Gibson, Christopher, and others who were allowed into 278.Delete
No "parts". This Milk Can is whole as far as I know. Anon just said that it looks like it could come apart. But it doesn't.Delete
The can looks much better in the other photo as John suggested. The difference in rivet pattern strikes me as very odd. The bottom of the can perhaps 1 inch separates the rivets changing to every 1.5 inches at the shoulder.Delete
Wonderful photos! I look forward to seeing this. Great that Dr. Bell's collection is getting the exhibition and praise it deserves.ReplyDelete
I Just talked with Mario Carrandi. He bought a bunch of stuff out of the brown stone in 1980. He said there was absolutely NO MILK CAN in that house. Also, the size of this can is way off and this “remake/fake” only has 4 fasteners, which is also not right… There were always six fasteners. Hardeen had 3 cans. He only used one of them. The one he used also was used in the “double-fold” escape. David Copperfield has the wooden box that made up the double escape, which he purchased in August 2013 for $60,000. Hardeen’s son-in-law (Douglas Geoffrey) sold the three cans. One went to Sydney Radner, The other two went to Martin Sunshine. All three cans are accounted for today and would make for another great discussion another time.ReplyDelete
Oh!? So where did Mario get it? Because he owned it. He sold it to Fred Pittella who says it was stated in the bill of sale that it came from 278. Pat Culliton also says this in Houdini The Key.Delete
Check out Mario's own comment in this post from 2011. He says he bought the can from Rose Bonnano’s nephew after the 1980 auction. If it didn’t come from 278, where did the Bonnanos get it?Delete
Be good to know this as everyone who subsequently bought it was told it had come from 278. If this needs to be corrected, I would like to do that.
Take a look at the last comment from that earlier post of yours.
Ah, thanks for directing me to that. I don't know who made that comment, and the problem with Dunninger being the secret source of the 1980 stash is that Dunninger died in 1975.Delete
I'm telling ya, figuring out Houdini's life is a snap compared to the sussing out the shenanigans of those early collectors. :)
So the Dr. Bell prototype can went from Mario to Fred, to Dr. Bell? DC has the can that once belonged to Radner. Was that can a Hardeen can? I think the can in the American Museum is a Hardeen can.Delete
Mario to Fred to the Swann auction where I believe Randy got it.Delete
I believe Copperfield has a Houdini can. It's the one that most resembles the famous 1908 photo. It might even be that can with the handles removed. I think Sid believed this as well. The American Museum of Magic can and its mate match the photos of Hardeen doing it later in life.
No photo matches for the many other cans out there. But we know HH had several cans. We just have to trust what people tell us.
By the way, at the HRC I found a letter that shows HH was having a very distinctive can made in 1909 that has never surfaced and no one has ever mentioned it. I'll be doing a post on that soon and we can add that to the speculative mix.
According to an August 24, 1967 New York Times article, titled “Collection of Houdini Gear is for sale”: Much of the paraphernalia used by Harry Houdini in 35 years as a stage magician and escape artist lies in dusty trunks and crates in a storage warehouse in New Jersey…It is up for sale…According to the sale catalogue, “The buyer of [the Houdini] collection will unpack thousands of shackles, locks, keys, torture instruments (heavy medieval cat-o’-nine-tails, metal head devices, iron instruments of restraint), straightjackets, an electric chair, all used by Houdini in his incredible stunts.”…The collection includes a “very crude can that was probably the first one Houdini made” for the milk-can trick… “The collection will not be broken up under any circumstances”…”It belongs in a museum or institution.”...The collection is owned by Joseph Dunninger, the magician and mind reader, who estimated that it included “90 per cent of Houdini’s small objects and 40 to 50 per cent of his major devices.” He has used some of the things in his own shows.Delete
My first thought is that very crude can was probably that very small and crudely built can I saw at the Houdini museum in Niagara Falls back in the late 80’s. It had a dummy of Houdini hanging out of its top with its wrists cuffed. From memory it was way to small to fit anyone adult sized.Delete
The can with the dummy in it that I remember was the double fold can. See this post: https://www.wildabouthoudini.com/2014/08/unfolding-double-fold-mysteries.htmlDelete
I believe the “crude can” mentioned in the 1967 article as “probably the first one Houdini made” is the can on display in Anaheim.
I described the wrong can. Yes the one I described was the double fold mystery can. However there was another that looked like crudely put together sheet metal. I’m sure anyone who spent time at the Houdini museum would remember it?Delete
Look at the 23-24 minute mark in this video. It’s the crude looking can sitting below the double fold mystery can.Delete
Mueller got the collection mentioned in the 1967 article, and according to page 36 of Growing up with Houdini, item 5 of the collection is listed as follows: “The First of Houdini Milk Cans --- (Straight sides) used by Houdini…In fine condition.” And this is the milk can pictured in front of the double fold can at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame, mentioned in the double fold post above. So, can’t be the can on display in Anaheim. That said, I believe Dunninger at one time also owned the can on display in Anaheim.Delete
But like John says below, the star of the show is the big flower cone.
There appears to be no locking system on this can and from what I remember it’s size was so small I could not believe Houdini could fit in it.Delete
My point is that this straight sided can is potentially the “crude” can.Delete
Although the milk can on display in Anaheim is very different looking from the rest I don’t know if I would call it very crude.
Is it possible the can in Anaheim was from a magic dealer? Copy cans began to spring up after 1908 and sold thru magic dealers.Delete
That was a thought of mine as well, Leo. It's possible.Delete
Well there you go. That makes me curious about those magic catalogs from Houdini's time period.Delete
My bet is that it is a store bought milk can. It isn’t crudely built just very different from the rest.Delete
I know folks are obsessing on the Milk Can (understandably), but for me the star of the show is the big Flower Cone. The burnt orange color is really interesting. Under the good lights, I was able to see the Flower Table also has highlights in this same color. And recall the Slicing A Girl box was also burnt orange. We also see this color in the "Do Spirits Return?" poster. I think this reveals part of the color scheme of the 3 Shows in One, which is so cool! It's exciting to see Houdini's world in color. This is the kind of thing that obsesses me. :)ReplyDelete
That all glass USD built by Gaughan is very interesting. HH had thought of an all glass USD, and if it had been built it should have been this one.Delete
The entire display is worth viewing, but the sad/tragic undated letter by Bessie in the seance room captured my attention most. While listening to the seance recording of Bessie disclaiming that Houdini had never reached out to her, she writes that she saw him in a vision aka a sleep connection... the irony was hair raising in that darkened room. A very cool experience.ReplyDelete
That letter is amazing. But I think people are misunderstanding what she's saying about seeing Houdini. It's not a vision or a ghost, it's a memory, and it's wild stuff! Standby for a post specifically about this letter next week. (BTW, the frame matting in the display is cutting off the key sentence.)Delete
I went last week when I was back in So Cal for my stepson's wedding. I was in awe of being that close to this collection.ReplyDelete
Enjoyed the exhibit very much. As a long time AMA magician member it was a pleasure to see all the Houdini memorabilia. Don AndersonReplyDelete